Compact cameras have long been the traveling enthusiast’s lightweight companion. They typically use larger 1/1.7” sensors that, while nowhere close to a DSLR’s 4/3 or APS-C sized sensor, offer better image quality than ultra-compacts and still have a relatively useful zoom range. And for those of you still doubting the truth of the megapixel myth, note that even on these larger sensors, manufacturers have smartly limited these high-end cameras to 10 or 12 megapixels. You wont see any 18 megapixel behemoths (we’re looking at you, Sony) released in this market soon. Advanced compacts also tend to offer more external controls than a typical compact, allowing you to change settings without diving into the menus.
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, offer the versatility of a DSLR in what manufacturers try to tell you is as small a form factor. The newest models from Nikon,Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus have impressively quick autofocus and a bevy of shooting modes that take advantage of high-speed CMOS sensors. Larger sensors result in better dynamic range and noise performance, too, making them the ideal choice for someone who wants the utmost in image quality. While models like the Nikon J1 have very small kit lenses that match the camera’s small form and sensor, mirrorless cameras with larger sensors are held back by the resulting oversized lenses. For example, Sony’s NEX and Samsung’s NX lines have very good image quality, yet both mount lenses that, in our opinion, negate the portability that makes mirrorless so attractive.
The question really comes down to what you’re looking for. DSLR owners looking for a portable second camera will most likely still gravitate toward the advanced compacts. Cameras like Panasonic’s LX5, Olympus’ XZ-1, and Fujifilm’s X10 all sport 4x zoom ranges that manage to be faster than f2.8 throughout the range. They wont offer the creamy bokeh, or out-of-focus effect, of larger sensors, but they do a great job as walk-around cameras. If you want to go even smaller, the Canon S100 is a very popularoption but loses the wide aperture on the long end of its 5x zoom. The brick-like Canon G12 and Nikon P7100 sit apart with slower but longer zooms and a plethora of external controls. Canon has also released the G1 X, a larger-sensored compact that mimics the G12’s form but with better image quality, yet at $800 is way overpriced.
In contrast to the advanced compacts listed, the lower-end mirrorless cameras are feature-full but not really built for photography enthusiasts. The Nikon J1, Sony NEX-C3, Panasonic GF3, and Olympus E-PM1 are all pretty barebones models built for the point-and-shoot crowd. There’s little in the way of external controls so you have to fiddle withon-screen controls to change even the basic settings. The mirrorless cameras built for the discerning photographer, like Sony’s NEX-7 or Olympus’ OM-D E-M5, are much more expensive. The kit lenses on these cameras, too, are generally about 3x zoom and slower than f2.8 even at the wide end. Faster speed either means purchasing a prime lens or finding an adapter to mount even-larger DSLR zoom lenses, simply because the lens lineups don’t exist yet (other than Micro 4/3, which has a very good selection).
For those who don’t have a DSLR and are looking for better image quality and more control, the cheaper mirrorless cameras offer a great opportunity. They can be used just like a point-and-shoot, via the back LCD screen, and have removable lenses for more versatility. They have some of the fastest operation and autofocus out there, too, which is an instant-sell for those used to the lethargic operation of some compacts. Advanced compact cameras, on the other hand, remain unmatched for their ratio of compact size to image quality. You can’t switch lenses, of course, but there’s something enticing about shooting with a zoom lens at f1.8. Photographers who already own a high-end camera will still gravitate toward the advanced compact when they don’t need the bulk or low-light performance of their DSLR. In the end, it comes down to different target markets at a similar price. Check out the models listed above and choose wisely!