The Best Point-And-Shoot Digital Camera

Click to enlarge
Testing the field of cameras at Donner Summit, CA.
Credit: Tommy Penick
Which point and shoot camera is the best? With technology constantly changing digital cameras into complicated little devices, it's nearly impossible to keep up. So we took the top nine point and shoot digital cameras worthy of your adventures and put them through real-time testing, finding out which cameras excelled in image quality, low light performance, ease of use, video quality, and flash performance.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Digital Cameras Displaying 1 - 5 of 9 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Sony RX100 II
Sony RX100 II
Read the Review
Video video review
Fuji X100s
Fuji X100s
Read the Review
Video video review
Canon G16
Canon G16
Read the Review
Video video review
Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR
Read the Review
Panasonic Lumix FZ200
Panasonic Lumix FZ200
Read the Review
Video video review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award  Best Buy Award    Top Pick Award 
Street Price $648
Compare at 1 sellers
$850
Compare at 1 sellers
$449
Compare at 1 sellers
$598
Compare at 1 sellers
$448
Compare at 1 sellers
Overall Score 
100
0
89
100
0
86
100
0
81
100
0
79
100
0
68
Editors' Rating
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Small size, great image quality, good video options.Great low-light performance, great build quality.Durable, good handling, well designed features.Simple layout, good image quality, well thought out design.Good video features, good lens, fast.
Cons Expensive, slow lens.Expensive, bad autofocus, difficult for beginners.Lens sharpness, image quality.Fixed lens.Chunky images in low light, hard to fit in a pocket.
Best Uses All-around adventures, low-light photography.Supplemental camera to a DSLR kit, street photography, travel.Adventures, situations with harsh conditions.Street photography, travel,Video, sports.
Date Reviewed Dec 28, 2013Dec 19, 2013Dec 17, 2013Jan 06, 2014Jan 29, 2014
Weighted Scores Sony RX100 II Fuji X100s Canon G16 Ricoh GR Panasonic Lumix FZ200
Image Quality - 35%
10
0
9
10
0
10
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
7
Low Light Performance - 20%
10
0
10
10
0
10
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
6
Ease Of Use - 20%
10
0
8
10
0
5
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
6
Video Quality - 15%
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
6
10
0
9
Flash Performance - 10%
10
0
9
10
0
9
10
0
9
10
0
6
10
0
6
Product Specs Sony RX100 II Fuji X100s Canon G16 Ricoh GR Panasonic Lumix FZ200
Size (width x height x depth in inches) 4 x 2.3 x 1.5 5 x 2.9 x 2.1 4.3 x 3 x 1.6 4.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 4.9 x 3.4 x 4.3
Weight in ounces (with battery and card) 7.8 oz 15.7 oz 12.6 oz 8.6 oz 20.7 oz
Effective Megapixels 20.2 megapixels 16.3 megapixels 12.1 megapixels 16.2 megapixels 12.1 megapixels
Lens Zoom Range (35mm equivalent) 28-100mm 35mm fixed 28-140mm 28mm fixed 25-600mm
Lens Aperture Range f/1.8 - 11 (variable to f/4.9 through zoom) f/2.0 - 16 f/1.8 - 8 (variable to f/2.8 through zoom) f/2.8 - 16 f/2.8 - 8
Lens Type Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens with 3.6x zoom Fujinon Single focal length lens Canon 5.0x optical zoom Ricoh GR lens, 7 elements, 5 groups (2 aspheric elements), 9 diaphragm blades LEICA DC VARIO-ELMARIT (Nano Surface Coating) / 14 elements in 11 groups / (5 Aspherical Lenses / 9 Aspherical surfaces / 3 ED Lenses / 1 Nano Surface Coating Lens)
Screen 3.0-in (7.5cm), TFT LCD / Tiltable (up approx. 84 deg., down approx. 45 deg.) (1,229 dots) 2.8-inch (7.1 cm), TFT color LCD monitor (460K-dot) 3-in. (7.5 cm), TFT Color LCD with wide viewing angle, (922k dots) 3.0-in (7.5cm) transparent LCD, w/ protective cover (1,230k dots) 3.0-in (7.5cm) Free-Angle TFT Screen LCD Display (460K dots)
Battery Life (Estimated shots based on CIPA standards) 350 330 360 290 540
Sensor Size Category 1" APS-C 1/1.7" APS-C 1/2.3
Sensor Size (mm) 13.2 X 8.8mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 7.60 x 5.70 mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 6.17 x 4.55 mm
Continuous Drive Speed (in frames per second) 10 fps 6 fps 12.2 fps (decreases to 9.3 after 6 shots) 4 fps 12 fps
Buffer Size in Full resolution 13 frames 31 frames 6 shots at 12.2 fps, no buffer at 9.3 fps 12 frames 12 frames
Aspect Ratio 3:2 3:2 Adjustable from 16:9 to 1:1 3:2 3:2
ISO Range ISO 160 - 12800 ISO 200 - 25600 ISO 80 - 12800 ISO 100 - 25600 ISO 100 - 6400
Video Capabilities 1080@60p AVCHD 1080@60p 1080@60p MOV 1080@30p MPEG4 AVC/H.264 1080@60p AVCHD, 720@120p MP4, 640x480@240p MP4
Video Audio Recording Built-in Stereo Microphone/No external input Built-in Stereo Microphone/No external input Built-in Stereo Microphone/No external input Built-in monaural microphone/No external input Built-in Stereo Microphone/No external input
Image Stabilization Yes (optical) No Yes (optical) No Yes (optical)
Storage Type SD SD SD SD SD

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Sony RX100 II
$699
100
0
89
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Canon G16
$499
100
0
81
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Fuji X100s
$1299
100
0
86
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Ricoh GR
$799
100
0
79
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Fuji X20
$499
100
0
67
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Canon SX50 HS
$430
100
0
54
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
$449
100
0
56
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Nikon Coolpix L820
$199
100
0
60
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

How do you choose the best digital camera to take on your adventures? With the techy nature of camera equipment, in combination with new technologies continually changing the game, choosing a digital camera is a massive task. We took the nine best digital cameras in the game and put them through everything we could think of to give you a real-time comparison.

Click to enlarge
Like all batteries, the RX100 II faded quickly on us in the cold, but a quick warm up in our glove and we were back to shooting images like this in the Sierra backcountry.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Digital cameras started to be seen in professional markets in the mid to late 90s, but few of us made the leap from the film days over to the then lesser quality images produced by early digital sensors. But despite the naysayers, modern digital cameras produce fantastic images that actually beat film cameras in a lot of ways.

At OutdoorGearLab, we aim to not only lead you through the buying process, but also educate you about the industry terminology and how that affects your purchase.

Why Get a Digital Camera?
There are tons of options in price range, portability, size, and features of a digital camera. Where do you start? For many people, an iPhone camera gets the job done and in fact we have a Budget Outdoor Video Camera Showdown: iPhone, Camcorder or DSLR?. But if you're feeling trapped by the lack of features, crunchy images from compression, and lack of optical zoom, then it's time to solve your problems with a digital camera. In choosing the digital cameras to test we omitted cheaper, small digital cameras because high-quality camera phones are largely eliminating that market. We wanted to test the next step in digital camera addiction; advanced point-and-shoots.

The Resolution War
Camera manufactures realize that consumers harp in on certain specifications that they think determine an item's quality. The old adage of "you can blow a film photo up really big" transferred to digital, and resolution became the foremost deciding factor for most consumers. However, we're here to tell you that it doesn't really matter. In 2001, Canon produced the first professional-grade digital camera in their 1 series—the Canon 1D, which boasted a 4.1 megapixel sensor, an absolute beast at the time. The images looked great and many of them still do. I've won a number of shows, even recently, that were shot on my trusty 1D, even at print sizes up to 30 inches wide.

Click to enlarge
Credit: Tommy Penick

The takeaway? Resolution doesn't matter unless you're going to be cropping tons off the image or printing them huge. Modern digital cameras have between 10 and 20 megapixels. This is plenty; only in rare situations will you notice the resolution difference between two digital cameras. Unless a camera's pixel count is way under the competition, it's not a factor.

What made images off that old camera so nice? Good lenses, high dynamic range, a large sensor, and good ISO performance, which is a derivative of other internal functions of the camera.

Lenses

Image Quality based off Lens
With all of the digital distractions with camera design these days, we often forget about lenses. Some of the sharpest lenses with great color reproduction and contrast of all time were made in the 40s by Leica. Similarly companies like Zeiss have been making cinema lenses for decades that many rental houses haven't bothered to update. Lenses are still king. A camera with a great sensor, processor, egronomic design, quick function, instantaneous auto-focus, and ten billion frames per second would be worthless if it had terrible glass. With this category of cameras, some models ask a lot out of their lenses. For example, the Canon SX50HS has a 24-1200mm (35mm equivalent, see below) lens. If lenses with this large a range functioned as well as lenses dedicated to a smaller range, don't you think professional photographers would have much smaller bags? While the mega-zoom lenses featured on the Panasonic Lumix FZ200, Canon SX50HS, and Nikon L820 digital cameras cover a lot of ground in a pretty small package, there are drawbacks that are covered in their individual reviews.

One of the easiest flaws to pick out in a lens is ghosting, seen below.

(ghosting/no ghosting)
Click to enlarge
Focus on the detail of the trees in the foreground and in the reflection around the lake. The "fuzziness" seen in the image on the left shows ghosting, while the one on the right does not. As you may be picking up on, the mega-zoom cameras we tested had worse optics--which should be expected considering making prime lenses like on the Ricoh GR or the X100s is much easier.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Sharpness of a lens and sharpness of a photo are not the same, but if you eliminate enough factors you can figure out if it's the lens. Here's an example:

Click to enlarge
Lens sharpness is shown by comparing two large crops of the Nikon L820 (left) and the Sony RX100 II (right). As you can see, the pine trees at the top of Donner Summit aren't even visible in the image on the left. While this might be "pixel peeping" at its finest, lens sharpness plays a larger role into overall image quality than you'd think.
Credit: Tommy Penick

For this test we eliminated focus issues, shake issues, and motion blur by shooting a stationary object using a tripod.

Lenses also affect color and contrast, but with fixed lens digital cameras like the ones we tested, it's difficult to tell if color biases come from the camera or the lens.

Range and distortion
We tested a huge range of lenses on these digital cameras — from the prime 24mm (aka fixed) lens on the Fuji X100s to the mega-zoom of the Canon SX50HS. For many people, fixed lenses like those on the Ricoh GR and the Fuji X100s are a huge disadvantage, although others may not be bothered by it.

Lens distortion is when the image appears to be bent — straight lines, like on the greenhouse below, come out bent.
Click to enlarge
The Panasonic LX-7 had big issues with wide-lens barrel distortion, as well as sharp vignetting, or dark corners, as seen in this photograph.
Credit: Tommy Penick

This is typically an undesired feature, though extremes have been creatively used in the past, such as every 90s skate film with copious amounts of fisheye barrel distortion, as demonstrated by the photo below:

Click to enlarge
This image was shot with a 15mm fisheye on a 1D Mark III which has a 1.3x crop factor, making the lens act more like a 19.5mm lens. However, the construction of a fisheye lens embraces the barrel distortion which can be used creatively. Notice how the surface of the water bends. But if you're going to have one lens stuck to your camera for life, you don't want distortion.
Credit: Tommy Penick


Sensor Size
Sensor size is the secret ace-in-the-hole for image quality. Why are images shot by professional photographers so sharp and clear? Sensor size is the most commonly overlooked statistic to affect image quality. One of the big things that sets photographs apart is the background separation. For example, this image of the X100s, shot with a 5D Mark II and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

Click to enlarge
The Fuji x100s.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Traditionally, depth of field is controlled by: 1.) aperture (lens opening), 2.) distance from camera to the subject, and 3.) distance from the subject to the background. But this was in the days where everyone was speaking the same language — 35mm film. While other formats absolutely exist, the norm was 35mm W x 24mm H. While we no longer shoot film, digital sensors now represent the film plane, and the physics are almost identical. However, the high cost of building a large sensor and a camera to house it has plagued digital cameras since their advent. Cameras we tested ranged from 1/1.8" up to the popular DSLR "APS-C" size. Look at this side-by-side comparison of sensors to put it in perspective.


A lens focuses beams of light into a cone of light, which gets projected onto a plane. The sensor then captures it as RGB components, and then the processor turns it into an image we can see. When using a small sensor, you're only capturing part of that cone of light, much like moving a projector closer or further from a wall. The takeway: bigger is better when it comes to sensors.

Camera manufacturers are starting to listen. Full frame (sensors the same size as 35mm film) sensors have been introduced into more DSLRs for less money, and point-and-shoot digital cameras are starting to use larger sensors as well. It's no surprise that the Ricoh GR and the Fuji X100s exhibit the best image quality of all the digital cameras we tested.

Dynamic Range
Another unspoken hero of digital cameras is dynamic range — the camera's ability to capture bright and dark areas of a given situation. For example, if you took a photo of a white car in bright sunlight, the wheel wells would be incredibly dark, while the top of the car would be exploding with light. A camera that has more dynamic range can capture this more efficiently than a camera with less dynamic range. This statistic is rarely published for still cameras, but it's incredibly important. When you finally summit Mt. Whitney while ski mountaineering, you don't want blown-out snow, shadowy faces, and a mediocre backdrop. That photo better be awesome! A camera boasting more dynamic range will allow your faces to be seen, the landscape to be stunning, and hopefully a little detail in the snow, too.

ISO Performance
You can hear the sales pitch, "You don't even need flash any more." Camera sensors have become very sensitive and can have high ISO's, which is a simple standardized way to list a sensor's sensitivity to light. In the film days, this was known as ASA or film speed. In addition to shutter speed and aperture (lens opening), ISO is a basic control for exposure, and you can set this on the camera (typically listed as 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and so on). The higher the number, the more sensitive to light the camera becomes.

But here's the caveat: since the film days, and still in the digital era, higher ISO's produce digital noise—the nasty, grainy, specs of color that ruin pictures. A camera's ability to silence this digital noise is crucial to overall image quality, especially when shooting in low light situations. If you have a camera only to shoot summit pictures on bluebird days, ISO performance won't be as critical.


A Word About Color and Contrast
With the current ease and simplicity of editing software, almost any image can be edited in color and contrast. Cameras use profiles, which help the camera's processor decide how to process and reproduce colors, inherently making photographs look different straight out of the camera, depending on the profile designer's taste and the manufacturer's desires. Don't let these differences influence your decision. Color profiles in cameras can be altered, and you can fine tune color tone, saturation, contrast, and sharpening in any post-processing, even in freeware programs. For most situations, we did not edit the images in order to let you see the image straight out of camera.

Throughout the review you can see with side-by-side photos how we judged these cameras. Click on the photos and see them at full size to get a feel for the differences in each camera. You can also see all of the side-by-side comparison photos here on our photo comparison page, also accessible by the tab at the top.


Night Time Photo


Sony RX100 IIPanasonic Lumix DMC-LX7

We don't want to flood you with useless bits of information, like the proprietary name of Camera X's processor. And we're not going to copy and paste stats from a manufacturer's website. Instead, we aim to guide you to the best digital camera for your own needs from our actual use in the field.

Selecting the Right Camera
Click to enlarge
Testing the field of cameras at Donner Summit, CA.
Credit: Tommy Penick

Types of Cameras
We all know that there are tons of cameras out there. At OutdoorGearLab we believe that the best category of cameras for outdoor adventures and travel generally are compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, mainly due to their smaller size than that of DSLR's, better image quality than cell phones, durability, and overall ease of use.

There are sub-categories within point-and-shoot digital cameras, which we've broken down into compacts, super zooms, and prime lensed bodies.

Super Zoom Point-and-Shoots
Click to enlarge
Credit: Tommy Penick
These cameras, such as the Canon SX50 HS boast massive zoom ranges, which is great in some ways and not in others. Typically, the more specialized a lens, the better optical quality it will produce. Professional photographers and cinematographers use primes (lenses that don't zoom) as much as possible because they offer stunning results in terms of sharpness, color, contrast, and maximum aperture openings. Super zooms forgo insane sharpness and trade it for insane zoom ranges, which can be a huge advantage when looking for a digital camera that's going to be a "one-camera quiver."

Most of the super zoom cameras we tested zoom from 24mm to 1200mm (35mm equivalent). For reference, those massive lenses you see on TV next to the football field? Those are 400mm lenses. For the pros to go bigger, here is a 1200mm lens for a Canon DSLR, and it costs $120,000. That's the price of a decent house.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/newsLetter/Canon-EF-1200mm.jsp

Yet, super zoom cameras can accomplish this equivalent in one lens that also shoots very wide. This leads to optics that are of lesser quality, but great versatility. While the lenses don't come up to your waist like the Canon above, they do add some bulk and weight to the camera compared to other point- and-shoot cameras. These are our heaviest and largest cameras, but you can still fit them in a big ski jacket pocket. If you're going to be shooting wildlife or other distant objects, these zoom ranges can help you out, but in most situations offer little advantage to cameras that fall into the standard compact point and shoot category. Otherwise, stick to the old photography proverb: zoom with your feet.

Compact Point-and-Shoots
Click to enlarge
The pockets on our ski touring pants are small at best, but the RX100 still fit just fine, which let us get some quick shots on the fly that we otherwise would have missed.
Credit: Tommy Penick
Most of the digital cameras tested fall into this category that could be called "standard point-and-shoot." This category gives you the best of both worlds — decent zoom ranges that rival any professional photographer's camera bag, good optics, great image quality, and you get to toss them in your shirt pocket when you're done shooting. An old adage says "the best camera is the one that you have with you, which matches with more old sayings like "f/8 and be there"….etc. The point is you're not going to take a photo of something cool that happens randomly if you don't have your camera, and the chances of not having your camera skyrocket when you're not motivated to carry a big, clunky body.

Point-and-shoots are the solution to this problem. And with the advent of new technologies, point-and-shoot digital cameras are better than ever.

Prime Lensed Point-and-Shoots
Click to enlarge
The Fuji x100s.
Credit: Tommy Penick
As already mentioned, professionals frequently pass on the convenience of zoom lenses and opt for prime lenses due to their awesome quality. Camera companies have been listening. Two of our tested cameras, the Fuji X100s and the Ricoh GR, both have prime lenses. While it would not seem like a big enough difference to categorize them differently, it totally affects how you need to shoot the cameras, and what skills you need to bring to the table. As a professional photographer, I love shooting primes. I don't mind being stuck at 24mm all of the time, and "zooming with my feet," But it significantly limits creative abilities when you're stuck at 24mm and can't changes lenses, ever. Even portraits become a bit difficult. However, some people really love shooting with prime lenses, and they absolutely have their advantages. Decide how important zoom is to you before deciding which camera you want to buy; a prime lens camera with the best image quality may not satisfy your needs.

Ask an Expert: Lincoln Else
Lincoln Else is a professional photographer, cinematographer, and director based in the San Francisco Bay area. He's worked on documentaries for National Geographic, PBS, and the Discovery Channel, and his client list also includes Red Bull and Apple. Lincoln got his start in the outdoor adventure film world by first working as a climbing ranger in Yosemite National Park for six years. In fact, when this interviewer first met Lincoln a decade ago on an El Cap rescue, she noted that he was more concerned with taking photos than minding the safety line! Much of the work that he does now draws on the skill set he developed while working and climbing in Yosemite, as can be seen in the amazing footage he shot during David Lama's free ascent of Cerro Torre. Lincoln shared his advice on what features and techniques might help you better capture your next adventure.

Is there a particular brand or style that you prefer?
To be honest, these days I find myself tending towards the two ends of the equipment spectrum – either shooting with a big professional DSLR, or my iPhone. It's cliché to say, but the best camera is the one you've got in your hands and for me that tends to be one of the two extremes.

Professionally, I primarily use Canon gear for still photography, with some Nikon equipment mixed in at times. For video work I use a wide range of brands: Sony, Canon, Red, Arri, GoPro, etc.

//Do you use and/or prefer prime lenses?//
In terms of image quality, absolutely, prime lenses win. But, for outdoor and adventure work where speed and flexibility are key, I usually use a model with zoom lenses. Shooting in challenging environments is always a balancing act – weighing technical image specs against the need to actually get the shot in the time you've got available. That often means leaving the set of primes in the studio. When working with a DSLR, where changing lenses is a central part of the photo making process, it's often possible to have my cake while eating it and I will carry a mix of zooms and primes.

What are the top features that you look for?
For outdoor adventure shooting, hands down it's ergonomics and ease of use. Ideally you want to be able to shoot with as little thinking as possible, without wondering where that certain function was in the menu, or exactly which button does what. It's possible to pull this off with lots of different cameras, but some inevitably give you a leg up when it comes to getting the shot as quickly as possible.

After ergonomics and ease of use, I'd say glass trumps most everything else. The quality of the lens will inevitably set the bar for how great your image can (technically) be, so putting your money into the best glass possible is always a good bet.

What's one feature that you think people should pay more attention to when selecting a model for the outdoors?
Again I'd say "ease of use." If it has fourteen thousand different radical settings and interchangeable finger grips with a customizable eye cup, that all doesn't mean much if you aren't going to change 99% of those settings most of the time. If you truly are going to primarily "point and shoot," then features like start-up time, shutter delay, and ergonomics matter way more than deep menu items.

Also, think through your actual work flow for what you are going to do with the shot "after" you take it. I live in a totally RAW world for professional work, but when it comes to personal snaps, I don't want to deal with processing images – I want to insta-tweet-book that to my bro's asap. Hence shooting JPG's or iPhone snaps is best.

There are huge ranges in price when it comes to digi cams – what are you comfortable spending on the model that you personally use for non-work related outdoor adventures?
That's a tough one. For me, since my professional life revolves entirely around cameras, I tend to spend way more on camera equipment than most people, whether it's for personal or professional use. The real questions to answer are how much you'll actually use the camera, and how much time you are HONESTLY going to spend at a computer editing, tweaking, and looking at the images you shoot. If you love playing with photos on your computer, then it's worth paying for a camera that will get you better images to manipulate. If you aren't going to spend time on a computer evaluating which of the 12 different autofocus options worked best on that last shoot, then paying for 12 autofocus options is a waste of money.

//How do you maintain/clean your cameras?//
For point-and-shoot models, beyond keeping them protected and dry, the main thing to clean is the lens. Using lens tissue and lens cleaning liquid is best, though any outdoor photographer who denies having cleaned their lenses with a dirty t-shirt at some point is a liar, or a way more organized photographer than me.

For DSLR's, cleaning your sensor can be a key part of your camera maintenance. It's not a hard thing to do and can be hugely important, though it requires some (relatively inexpensive) equipment and some how-to knowledge.

//How many different bodies/lenses do you take with you on an expedition?//
It totally depends on the shoot. Sometimes I'll have a massive pile of pelicans and painful headaches at the airport with customs; while other times everything I need fits in a shoulder bag. When shooting David Lama for Red Bull, weight was the central factor. I had to carry everything I was going to shoot with on my back up the West Face of Cerro Torre, so light and fast trumped most other technical questions. On that trip, I shot video and stills with just one Canon 5D and two lenses, with a Canon 7D body as a backup.

Do you usually end up shooting much video on your DSLRs or do you use a dedicated video recorder?
While I've shot tons of DSLR video footage, these days I shoot the vast majority of my professional video footage on larger cameras (Sony F55, Canon C300, Red Epic, Arri Amira).
That being said, today we live in a world of total format anarchy, where Go-Pro and iPhone footage is cut with Red Epic footage. The bottom line, as always, is that story trumps all. It's not the camera; it's what in front of it that matters.

What are your thoughts on the "auto" setting? Do you use it much or always prefer to manually adjust your shots?
I usually live in a hybrid world, using aperture priority for quick exposure control, and then switching to manual if the setting/time allows. Same for focus. The main thing is knowing your gear: how the auto functions work, how they react and how you can use them effectively. Same thing is true for an iPhone. Once you understand how any camera reacts to different light, you can trick it to do what you want.

Any tips on getting great action shots in the outdoors?
Planning and working hard. Sure, once in a while you'll be in just the right place when the light's perfect and your friend lands that jump just right. But most of the time good shots take planning and effort. By that I don't mean orchestrating a complicated staged photo (though sure, that's one way to get a killer shot). I mean always thinking as a photographer with at least part of your brain. For outdoor sports action that means having a camera at the ready, and maybe running ahead of the group at the next bend to get a good shot looking back. Shooting people getting up means getting up before them. Good shots take work, and when you put that work in and it pays off with the image you were hoping for, it's always worth it.


History of Digi Cams
Digital cameras are the product of many inventions originally intended for other purposes. The technology is the process of electronically storing information encoded in a series of 1's and 0's. The first device capable of making a scan of a photograph and encoding it digitally was constructed by Russell Kirsch in 1957 at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. The technology was used in spy satellites and by NASA in space exploration photography using something called a camera tube; the digital information was stored on devices such as cassette tapes.

In 1973, Fairchild Semiconductor released a new technology called the CCD image sensor chip, which is still integral to digital cameras today. CCD stands for "charge-coupled device," and works by capturing light on a sensor and converting it into voltage, which can then be converted to digital information to be stored on a hard drive, memory card, or flash drive. Shortly afterward, in 1975, Bryce Bayer developed what is known as the Bayer mosaic filter for Kodak which allowed CCD sensors to capture RGB color images, an improvement over the original gray scale. Around the same time Steve Sasson, also working for Kodak, developed the first digital camera using a CCD sensor, but it could only capture 0.01 megapixels (100 x 100 pixels) of information, took 23 seconds to capture an image, and was designed simply as a technical exercise.

It wasn't until 1986 that Kodak developed the first 1.0 megapixel CCD, allowing for printing of a 5x7 inch photograph. 1988 saw the standardization of the JPEG and MPEG methods for compressing large amounts of information. These new developments led to production of consumer models of digital cameras, with the first U.S. release around 1990. Over time digital cameras became so popular that they caused the phasing out of the old film technology. In 2008 Polaroid stopped making instant cameras and in 2009 Kodak halted production of its Kodachrome 35mm film.

Today, even more ubiquitous than the digital camera is the camera-phone. Between 1993 and 1995 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a part of NASA run by Caltech) developed CMOS image sensors, also known as active pixel sensors. CMOS sensors, in many ways comparable to CCD sensors, are cheaper and easier to manufacture, paving the way for the installation of cheap cameras within phones. The first recorded public sharing of a photo taken with a phone occurred in 1997, and the first commercially available phone that included a camera hit the market in 2000. Who can imagine what our hyper-connected society driven by social media would look like without these technological progressions?

Criteria for Evaluation
We tested these digital cameras aggressively through field observations. We picked the five areas that are most important: image quality, low light performance, ease of use, video quality, and flash performance.

Image Quality
Image quality obviously is a massive determinant for how your photos are going to look at the end of the day, but it encompasses many things that people don't often think about. Image quality comes from a number of physical elements of a digital camera, from the lens quality to the sensor, the processor to the wiring. It's intensely complicated and we'll leave the full understanding to electrical engineers and instead focus on the actual performance.


Sunset Photo


Fuji X100sCanon G16

Image quality is best seen through the image on a computer, viewed at the same resolution, and comparing the pixel structure, sharpness, dynamic range, color gamut, and other aspects. We disregard color saturation and contrast, because this is drastically affected by the digital cameras' built-in color profiles, which are proprietary, and can be adjusted to personal preference.


Close Up Photo


Fuji X100sCanon SX50 HS

We were blown away with the Fuji X100s for image quality. This camera made us rethink our DSLR camera decisions with its smooth, sharp, and colorful images. Additionally, the built-in high dynamic range setting worked very well and provided smooth sky gradations even when we had dark subjects, without seeming too manufactured or artificial. Fuji's proprietary prime lens provided great sharpness and contrast to match the bomber sensor and processor.

Low Light Performance
Click to enlarge
The Fuji X100s blew us away with low-light performance and dynamic range. After we packed away the rest of the cameras, the X100s became our walk-around camera this night. This image is unprocessed. 1/30th, ISO 1600, f/2.8.
Credit: Tommy Penick
Low light performance has been a hot-topic over the past few years. Before the advent of digital cameras, we were restricted to using one film speed per roll. Additionally, high-speed films look absolutely terrible. Since digital cameras have incredibly sensitive sensors allowing for high ISOs, we are blessed as photographers with nearly unlimited creative abilities. Cameras are almost approaching the same sensitivity as the human eye. But it comes at a cost — poorly made electronics, packing too many pixels into a small sensor, bad processors, too much heat, and so many other factors that can lead to noisy images. Noise is that pesky colored (or not) grainy appearance to digital photographs, which some people mistake as "pixilation." Unless you're only going to shoot summit photos at high noon, low light performance is very important; it ends up playing a part in more aspects of your photography than you might think.


Night Time Photo


Fuji X100sCanon G16

Larger sensors handle noise better and it came as no surprise that the Fuji X100s took the top spot in for low light performance. The APS-C sized sensor provided beautiful images even as the falling sun turned to darkness. Even though the X100s is not equipped with optical image stabilization, this digital camera was easy to handhold and could achieve shutter speeds as slow as 1/15th routinely, further making the X100s a low-light powerhouse.

Ease of Use
Click to enlarge
Credit: Tommy Penick
Cameras are complicated, without a doubt. Add features like Wi-Fi, creative modes, and proprietary names for features you'll probably not use, and a camera seems like you're operating a space shuttle. Taking your gloves off in the cold to bumble around for the right dial to change something on a camera dramatically reduces your overall enjoyment of life, especially when those cold hands never warm up and you're miserable. Bumbling over dials also wastes tons of time, and how many times have we heard "Oh I missed it…" from dream-crushed photographers?

We not only tested the cameras to see how easily they functioned in more traditional modes (Manual, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority), but we also tested the efficiency of their auto modes. Some digital cameras, such as the Sony RX100 II have impressive intelligent-auto modes that have scene detection that helps the camera make decisions based on what you are shooting.


Frame Rate


Panasonic Lumix FZ200Canon G16

Camera manufacturers have realized that we're tired of complicated cameras. The need for a simple camera is amplified when you're standing on a tiny rock ledge, or a 45-degree slope on your skis. The simpler a camera, the more likely we'll be to pull it out when the going gets rough. Out of the field, the Sony RX100 II and the Canon G16 were the easiest to use due to many different modes, fast frame rates, easy autofocusing, and the basic layout of menus and buttons.

Video Quality
Gone are the days of separate video cameras from still cameras, especially in the consumer market. Instead, these little point-and-shoots offer impressive video quality. All of them shoot 1080p and most shoot up to 60 fps for slow motion. However, with the advent of video-capable still cameras, manufactures have managed to make it possible by slamming high-compression "codecs" on these cameras, which downgrade the quality. If someone thinks a $300 point-and-shoot camera shooting 1080p is going to offer the same quality as a $60,000 RED Epic, they are out of their mind. Similar to mega-pixels in still cameras, video resolution isn't all of the equation for image quality. Additionally, some point-and-shoot cameras don't have all of the control you need for shooting super-high quality videos, such as manual controls.

While categories like Ease of Use make a pretty small split in the pack, Video Quality was huge. At the top of the pack the Panasonic FZ200 impressed us with its versatility, multiple frame rates, and control. Combined with a smooth zoom and a pivoting LCD screen, the FZ200 was a clear winner for video performance. We even started carrying this camera around to mix in with our DSLR shoots based on its frame rate options. Though it still doesn't have an input for a microphone (this plagues DSLRs, too), the on-board audio was ample to at least get a sync track or basic ambient sound. Take a look at the FZ200's versatility in this video:



Also see our article, The Best Mobile Video Studio for under $60.

Flash Performance
Flash can be a bit nasty sometimes, but if it comes down to 1. Get the shot or 2. Don't get the shot, we prefer the first option, which makes flash necessary from time to time. We not only wanted to see how well the flash worked, but whether the cameras were smart enough to deploy pre-fires for focusing, and if the camera would decide to force fill flash in action. Additionally we wanted to make sure we could disable the flash.

Click to enlarge
The X100s had the best fill-flash capabilities, which produced reasonably soft and well balanced light to subjects.
Credit: Tommy Penick

A few digital cameras, such as the Canon G16, sport hot shoes that give the ability to use external flashes. In addition to external flashes, these hot-shoes also support equipment for using off-camera flash. With off-camera external lighting, the possibilities are endless. We even took our full-powered studio strobes and ran them with our Pocketwizards on the G16 for some interesting results.

While most of the cameras offered the more or less same performance in flash, the Fuji X100s was again the clear winner, with surprisingly soft fill flash and the ability to manually dial in the flash power. Additionally, the X100s has a hot shoe and Fuji offers a line of hot shoe mount flashes.

Editor's Choice Award: Sony RX100 II
Click to enlarge
Like all batteries, the RX100 II faded quickly on us in the cold, but a quick warm up in our glove and we were back to shooting images like this in the Sierra backcountry.
Credit: Tommy Penick
Sony went all out on this little digital camera. Don't let its small size and sleek design fool you; this camera packs a punch, sporting spectacular image quality and a really nice Car Zeiss lens that offers low distortion and great sharpness. The camera feels like a quality piece of equipment from the moment you pick it up. The RX100 is really intuitive. Even in the menu for selecting modes more information for the beginner user is provided. The only complaint we could find was that it lacked grip. Unlike some of the competition such as the Canon G16, the RX100 II is mostly polished metal, which might be tough to grip in gnarly situations.

Best Buy Award: Canon G16
Click to enlarge
The G16's portability and durability proved to be king. While it wasn't the smallest camera tested, we felt confident throwing it in a backpack and taking it along with us. In this photo, we used a tiny collapsable tripod for a self-portrait.
Credit: Tommy Penick
Canon has forever been known for creating great cameras, and the G series hasn't broken the spell. The G16, the most recent iteration of their point-and-shoot line introduced in 2000, has stuck with the traditional shape and handling of the series with newly introduced features. It offered the most features, highest image quality, and overall beefiness.

Top Pick Award for Advanced Users: Fuji X100s
Click to enlarge
The Fuji X100s blew us away with low-light performance and dynamic range. After we packed away the rest of the cameras, the X100s became our walk-around camera this night. This image is unprocessed. 1/30th, ISO 1600, f/2.8.
Credit: Tommy Penick
The X100s instantly brought back the magic of photography when we pulled it out of the box. The sleek design, solid materials, sharp lens, and high quality viewfinder took us back to simpler times of film: working quietly and smoothly and spending evenings in darkrooms. Fuji designed the X100s (and the rest of the line, including the Fuji X20) like an old school 35mm rangefinder. While Fuji isn't the first company to do so, they've also managed to do it for about $4,000 less than the originators. The X100s has great image quality and stunning low-light performance.

The prime lens is quite sharp (other than at f/2), but the lack of zoom could turn off many users. The viewfinder doesn't reveal what the image will look like, nor will it even show the framing correctly, but with some practice you can get the feel for it. The killer image quality and overall handling outweighed these negatives for us, but it may not fit everyone's needs. This is the perfect digital camera to supplement a DLSR setup that you've grown weary of carrying everywhere, and is great for capturing moments on travels.

Best for For Video
Click to enlarge
The Panasonic Lumix FZ200.
Credit: Tommy Penick
The Panasonic Lumix FZ200 is an impressive camera for video. Not only does it boast more features that give you control back, but it also has a great codec and high speed features up to 240 frames per second, although sacrificed in resolution. The pivoting screen is a fantastic feature for any video shooter and moves fluidly with lots of options for position. The interface for video is quick and easy.

How we Test
With cameras we can perfectly replicate scenarios to compare them side by side. For image quality the cameras were all put through the same tests, at the same time, with the same light. External factors such as camera shake and focus issues were eliminated. For image quality we used a few different scenarios, which also overlapped with low-light performance:

Large Landscape
Landscape photos will most likely be a big part of what OutdoorGearLab readers will be shooting. A daytime landscape test eliminated the need for high ISO, and also let us stop the lenses down to f/8 (highest across all cameras) to try to eliminate lens issues. After shooting each scenario, we did not process the images at all to make sure we were comparing unaltered photographs, and viewed them at similar resolutions on a computer.

We studied the photographs at 100 percent through detail areas, looked at the dynamic range in harsh shadows and highlights, and examined wide lens distortion and vignetting. We also looked at lens quality through fringing, chromatic aberrations, and overall sharpness.

Sunset Over Lake
We've got a crush on Donner Lake so we went down to the shores and shot into the sunset as it fell over Donner Summit. We compared the images mainly for dynamic range, which is the camera's ability to capture highlight and shadow detail at the same time. We shot this as well on manual settings. While we looked at color reproduction, as previously mentioned, overly saturated and contrasty images didn't gain any points since this is all software oriented. We studied the images for fringing extensively towards the horizon line, and we also checked the noise in the shadow areas.

Indoor Portrait
We took a model and then destroyed the scene for any resemblance of good light. There was some nice window light coming in from both sides, so we decided to really make the cameras go through a whirlwind, and closed the side lights, and opened a blind behind the model to totally screw up the cameras. We wanted to see if these cameras would be able to pick apart the situation. Ideally, the camera would know to expose for the model, not the background. Additionally, this would be prime time for a bit of fill flash, so we tried to force the cameras into flashing some fill through their auto modes.

Moving Subject
A lot of people want a fast "burst" mode on their digital camera, which will enable them to shoot many frames of a moving subject and later pick the moment. This is useful in anything moving fast, whether it's a football player, skier, mountain biker, etc.

Building at Night
We found a cool plant conservatory with odd little mushroom sculpture lights out in front of it. Not only were cameras confronted with a sinking sun and low light requiring a high ISO, but there were also bright highlights from the interior lights. Cameras that were worse would blow out the highlights and block out the shadows, while better digital cameras would show the scene more like we were seeing it — with detail in the lights and in the sky.

Video Tests
The scope of video performance on these digital cameras was drastic. Some cameras had video immediately usable via a button, while others had scores of menus required just to find the option. Many didn't allow for manual control, which is an immediate turn off.

Tommy Penick
Get More OutdoorGearLab
Follow us on Twitter, be a fan on Facebook!
Subscribe to our Newsletter
Recent Editor's Award Winners