Advanced Compact Shootout: G15 vs. LX7 vs. P7700 vs. RX100

I took the liberty of grabbing a few demo cameras from work last weekend and took them on an outing for a good ol' fashion shootout. I know most people don't have this kind of access to gear, so I thought I'd put together a little comparison for any interested parties who might be thinking of picking up an advanced compact camera for the upcoming holidays (or for any reason at all, really). The cameras I compared were all recent releases: the Canon PowerShot G15, the Panasonic Lumix LX7, the Nikon Coolpix P7700, and the Sony Cyber-shot RX100. Notably absent is the Canon S110, but its specifications are so similar to the G15, I decided to leave it out. I only have so many hands, after all.

The Lowdown:

This is a "real world" test. It was not done in a lab. I am not testing the cameras’ resolving power, bit depths, etc. I am simply looking at ease of use and the ability to capture subjectively pleasing photos in normal conditions. All photos were taken in the same two hour period and feature real people (family members of mine). I shot all four cameras in Program mode with auto ISO, recording RAW+JPEG.* This is not how I normally shoot, but I was trying to imitate how most people would be using these cameras in everyday life. There are no direct side-by-side shots as this was an uncontrolled event, but I did try to capture a variety of photos with each camera, from portraits to landscape to close-up, to illustrate the full range of each machine's capabilities. I did not test the video modes at all. I should say, all of these cameras produce sufficiently good image quality for most users. Ergonomics, features, and size may play a greater role in determining the one best suited to your needs, and I always recommend getting some hands-on time with a camera before purchasing one.

The Cameras and Images:

Canon Powershot G15

The G series has long been a popular choice for enthusiasts and professionals looking for a compact travel camera. Featuring the same 1/1.7" sensor size as the G12 but with a faster f/1.8-2.8 lens, the G15 continues the trend of improving low light shooting. It did take a step backward from the G12 in one respect, however: it lacks the articulating monitor. I did not find this to be a huge issue. The camera maintains the small optical viewfinder that many users still demand, although I found no need to use it, myself. The LCD screen proved to be bright and clear enough, even in direct sunlight, to frame my shots accurately. I can not imagine the optical viewfinder, which is uncomfortably small and not frame accurate, to be of much use except in extremely bright situations or when you want to conserve battery power by turning the LCD off. The ergonomics of the G15 are well thought-out, and placement of controls make it very easy to make adjustments on the fly. My only complaint is that I was often inadvertently turning the exposure compensation wheel when taking the camera out of my bag. I imagine this would not have been as much of a problem if I hadn’t been juggling four cameras at the same time. The image quality was very good, with rich colors and fairly decent subject isolation at the telephoto end of the lens. (This latter observation was a welcome surprise among all tested models, but don’t expect anything close to the type of depth of field control you can get on an SLR or other large sensor camera.)

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Panasonic Lumix LX7

I have been a big fan of Panasonic’s LX line for a while now. The LX7 is smaller and sleeker than the Canon G15 and Nikon P7700, and features a faster lens with a maximum f/1.4 aperture (at the wide end). While the sensor is technically a bit smaller than those found in the Canon and Nikon, it is still classified as 1/1.7" and remains larger than those found in lower-end point-and-shoots. I loved the on-lens aperture and aspect ratio controls, and the fact that the LCD’s dimensions are in a 3:2 aspect ratio as opposed to the 4:3 ratio more common to this class of camera. I always shoot 3:2 because I’m accustomed to shooting full-frame SLRs, and it was nice not having to look at a letterboxed frame on the LX7. Overall, the image quality was good, but I do find Panasonic’s auto white balance to be too cool. The white balance presets (tungsten, daylight, etc.) seem to be much more accurate. And of course, if you’re shooting RAW you can correct white balance in post. As far as colors go, I found oranges and violets to look particularly good, which is perhaps somewhat strange, but was great in a pumpkin patch! The large front element of the f/1.4 lens is prone to flare and with no way to put a hood on it, this could be a problem. With bright light sources in the frame, colors tend to wash out because of this. However, this is the only camera compared here with a 24mm (full-frame equivalent) wide angle, which I noticed made a big difference for landscapes. I really, really liked having the ability to pull back to 24mm and found myself feeling constrained by the other cameras, which only shoot as wide 28mm.

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Nikon Coolpix P7700

Nikon has been playing catch-up to Canon’s G series for a few years now, but has finally began to move away from imitation and toward innovation. The P7700 has been updated from the P7100 in, interestingly, the opposite way of the Canon G15 over the G12. Nikon tossed out the optical viewfinder and added a fully articulating screen. Now if you’ve caught on to my opinions on these features at all yet, you can probably anticipate how I feel about this decision: ho hum. I did find the articulating LCD to be useful for self-portraits, so, you know, if you’re looking for a new Facebook profile picture, this might be the camera for you. Despite losing the optical viewfinder, the camera appears quite a bit larger than the G15, mainly thanks to a robust grip on the right side. For me, this made the camera much easier to hold, but other photographers may not appreciate the added bulk. I also like the multi-function control dial on the left shoulder of the camera, which allows quick access to ISO, white balance, and other functions. The lens features an f/2.0-4.0 aperture, making it a bit slower than the Canon and Panasonic, but offers a longer zoom range than any other camera in this group (roughly 7x compared to the G15’s 5x). That extra 2x of zoom power can be nice, but I didn’t need it too often. Shooting in "neutral" color settings, the camera produces very, well, neutral results. These may initially appear "flat" to most people, but they more accurately represent the look of the RAW files. If you’re going to shoot JPEGs only, you may want to try a different color profile.

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(Yeah flip-out-screen-self-portrait! Woo!)

Sony Cyber-shot RX100

The RX100 took the compact camera world by storm when it was released this summer. (This Verge review inspired me to convince my purchaser to bring it in to my store, and it has sold quite well.) It has some very interesting specifications: a 20MP 1" sensor, making it both the largest and highest resolution sensor in this grouping by fairly wide margins. I don’t know who actually needs 20MP in their compact camera, but I can’t deny the quality of images it produces: very sharp, with rich colors and good dynamic range. While the lens slows down by several stops when you zoom out, it is good enough to show off what the sensor can do. The JPEGs out of the Sony were very contrasty with vibrant colors. This worked for some scenes, but hindered others.* I can safely say the RX100 produced the best photos of the day (objectively speaking), but, then again, at $650 this fact should surprise nobody. It is $150 more than the other cameras reviewed here. Physically, the RX100 is actually the smallest camera of the four tested, despite having the largest sensor. This is good and bad. I found the size great for carrying around, but kind of awkward for actual shooting as the body is quite slick and lacks any kind of rubberized grip. Even so, after taking my first few shots with this camera, it became difficult to put away: the images are just that good. Sony has a real winner here, and I expect it won’t be long before other manufacturers follow suit with similar models. Still, $650 can buy you an entry-level DSLR, so this is not a purchase decision to be made lightly.

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The Final Word:

I feel pretty positive about all of these cameras. Each has its own benefits and its own quirks. While the Sony RX100 certainly takes the prize for best image quality, I can’t immediately recommend everyone go out and buy it. The design of the camera will appeal to point-and-shoot users, but the specifications and price are geared more toward advanced enthusiasts. Landscape photographers may lean toward the Panasonic LX7 for its 24mm wide-angle, but may find the lens difficult to work with on sunny days. Canon and Nikon DSLR owners will likely want to stick with their respective brands, as both the G15 and P7700 feature hot shoes compatible with each company’s proprietary flash system. They are, however, both rather bulky and may not appeal to those looking for a "pocket" camera. The G15 is the only choice for those still demanding an optical viewfinder. I recommend getting hands-on with any of these cameras to figure out which one fits best in your hand, because ultimately that may be the most important differentiator.

I hope that this was helpful to anyone thinking about buying a new compact camera. If you enjoyed reading this, please let me know. If this is something the community finds useful, then I will continue to do comparison write-ups like this. It's not like I mind playing with new gear, and I'm lucky enough to have access to a lot of it.

*This review is based solely on the JPEG images, as I am still waiting on third party RAW support for these cameras. A comparison of RAW images would be fairer, since it would erase variables of different color profiles that may have accounted for the higher contrast/vibrancy I saw on the RX100, etc.