2011's Best... compact cameras
Xmas Gift Guide 2011 was the year when compact system cameras (CSC) really began to hit their stride. Late to this year’s party were the Nikon 1 J1  and V1  models, but we’re still waiting to on Canon to show its hand in this arena. More to the point, Canon has yet to deliver a successor to its revered PowerShot G12  which is showing its age now. A PowerShot Gx is rumoured, but we’ll not be seeing it this year, for sure.
Lens swapping has its appeal, but so does fast access to functions from dedicated controls. Indeed, 2011‘s batch of affordable system cameras sacrificed buttons for reasons of cost, while pricier dedicated compacts kept the tweaks within easy reach, but had fixed lenses. When it comes to respectable pocket shooters, 2011’s models gave photographers something to think about when on a spending spree: point and shoot with accessories galore or a touch of class with customisation at your fingertips?
Nikon 1 J1
With its new 1 models, Nikon introduced its CX sensor. At 10.1Mp and a mere 13.2 x 8.8mm, this CMOS offering notches up a 2.7x crop factor. While the build quality of both the J1 and V1 is admirable, not everyone was convinced that the CX sensor would satisfy, particularly that larger MFT and even APS-C offerings are available for a similar price with a kit lens zoom.
With a paucity of controls – par for the course at this end of the CSC scale – the Nikon 1 J1 has point and shoot at its heart and here it performs extremely well. Its multipoint autofocus is very swift and accurate and its metering is well judged too. The CX sensor worries turn to be largely unfounded too, so long as you don’t crop into microscopic detail as the Nikon 1 J1  delivers respectable images that should satisfy users keen to concentrate on composition and let the camera do the thinking. Just keep in mind that unlike the Nikon 1 V1 , this model has no additional accessory ports for external flash options and the like.
Price £489 (10-30mm lens), £499 (10mm pancake lens), £639 (10-30mm and 30-110mm lens)
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Packing a 12.2Mp APS-C sensor, the Leica X1  takes a no-nonsense approach to compact shooting with its fixed 28mm f2.8 fixed lens, equivalent to a moderate 36mm wide-angle lens on a 35mm camera. 2011 prompted a firmware update for this model to improve focusing performance and JPEG image quality but that wasn’t going to make a difference to the X1’s Achilles heel; its 2.7in screen with a mere 230k-dots. Still, Leica also makes an optional clip on optical viewfinder if you prefer old-school shooting.
Just about everything else on this camera is top notch, with easy access to customisation functions and excellent build quality. As far as image quality goes, the X1 is best in show, but it has a price tag to match which, like the Fujifilm Finepix X100, does impact on it's overall rating here. However, the cost is offset slightly by the inclusion of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3  with the Leica X1, that’s worth around £235.
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Fujifilm Finepix X100
You might be forgiven for thinking that Fujifilm took one look at the Leica X1 and thought it could go one better. Here we have a 12.3Mp APS-C shooter with a fixed 23mm f2 lens – equivalent to a 35mm wide-angle on a 35mm camera. Not much of a difference between the two there, although the Finepix X100  goes for truly retro styling with its built-in hybrid optical viewfinder, but in many respects the layout is similar too. However, its 2.8in screen has 460k-dots which is an obvious improvement but not in the same league as the latest DSLR panels that have double that count and then some.
The image quality is excellent and there are even film emulations on-board of Fujifilm classic emulsions to add to that retro touch. Kitted out with full manual controls, the Finepix X100 is very much the antedote to point and shoot, as this easy access to customisation urges the user to consider more creative options. There are auto modes if you need them, but those tempted by this breed of compact are likely to be too busy twirling the dials to notice. Incidentally, if the recent arrival of the Finepix X10  has caught your eye, bear in mind that this 4x zoom model has a much smaller 2/3in sensor.
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Olympus PEN E-PM1
If you’re keen on the idea of a compact system camera but want to build the system slowly, then the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1  won’t disappoint. It shares the same lens mount as Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds models, but cheaper than its Lumix DMC-GF3 rival. Admittedly, the 12.3Mp MFT sensor on both these models has been eclipsed by the 16Mp offerings on more expensive siblings, but the PEN Mini PM1 images are respectable and noise only really becomes noticeable at the higher end of the ISO range.
Being an entry-level model, the dedicated controls are minimal with a menu driven approach delivering the majority of tweakable functions. It can be a fiddle but no more than others in this space and its 3in 460k-dot screen has ample space to aid navigation. And it’s worth nosing around these menus too, as the small but well chosen offering of art effects are very striking and worth experimenting with. There’s a clip-on flash provided plus support for external guns and all the optional accessories too.
Price £450 (14-42mm lens kit), £570 (14-42mm and 40-150mm lens kit)
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At £500 with a 18-55mm standard zoom lens, this 16Mp APS-C shooter is hard to beat. However, Sony has chosen to cut corners with its entry level model, limiting the NEX-C3 to its own F20S clip-on flash , which, unfortunately, isn’t the brightest. Unlike the PEN Mini PM1, there’s no conventional hotshoe/sync option for alternative guns which might stymie more ambitious users and it only shoots HD video at 720p. OK, so that’s the bad news out of the way, the rest is pretty rosy, especially the articulating 922k-dot 3in LCD which is crisp and bright providing a reassuring view of what you’re shooting. As with all NEX models, it takes on Sony’s new E-mount lenses but with an adapter for Alpha A-mount and Minolta lenses can be fitted too.
While the autofocus isn’t as surefooted as some other compacts here, when it comes to image quality, this new NEX baby doesn’t disappoint and you can dig into the menus for manual control or opt for some picture effects, if the fancy takes you. Overall, the Sony NEX-C3 is tempting for the price but you’ll need to decide what’s more important – can you live without external flash choices and full HD video or does the big sensor and flip hi-res screen win the day? ®
Price £499 (18-55mm lens kit), £589 (16mm pancake and 18-55mm lens kit)
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