Sony RX100 VI pocketsize 8x zoom beats 10x Panasonic ZS100

The best and brightest pocketable 8x-zoom camera is now Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI / RX100M6 (2018, 11 oz, 24–200mm f/2.8-4.5). But for less than half the price, image quality is nearly as good with Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9). Read my ZS100 review. Even cheaper is the smartphone-beating ZS70.

At a premium price, Sony RX100M6 buys us the following (versus Panasonic ZS100):

  • Sharper images. While both camera lenses tend to be sharp in the center, RX100M6 is notably sharper towards the edges of every frame, especially at 200mm equivalent. In dim light, ZS100 shots examined at 100% pixel magnification look smudgier and lower in contrast.
  • Superior viewfinder: 2.36 million dots (vs 1.66M), larger magnification 0.59x (vs 0.46x), with better OLED (vs LCD) blows away ZS100’s sketchy EVF. This one-touch viewfinder elegantly beats the inconvenient pop-and-pull action in previous RX100 versions.
  • Tilting TFT LCD display screen: 1.23M dots (vs fixed 1.04M dots).
  • Superior autofocus: Eye AF, new phase detection with 315 focus points (vs 49 points contrast-detection-only).
  • Smaller body, with lighter-weight batteries.

The 11-ounce RX100M6 beats ZS100 as my new multi-night backpacking camera (for when my 37-ounce main camera RX10M4 seems too heavy, totaling 4 pounds including chest-mounted-bag, batteries & accessories).

In its favor, Panasonic ZS100 costs 55% less, captures superior edge-to-edge macro (5 cm close focus magnification best at 45mm equivalent, versus 8 cm on RX100M6), has longer battery life (CIPA-rated 300 shots vs 240 shots), and has stronger flash (8.0 meters vs 5.9 m at Auto ISO). In historical perspective, this 2016 feat of miniaturization allows image quality from the 20-megapixel ZS100 to rival all of my cameras used over 34 years until 2012 (beating my cameras up to 4 times heavier, up to 11x zoom range, up to 12 megapixels, at base ISO 100). Yearly advances have now optimized zoom quality in portable travel cameras having a 1-inch Type sensor size (explained here).

Review of Sony RX100M6 / RX100 VI camera versus Panasonic ZS100.

Sony RX100M6 / RX100 VI is noticeably smaller than Panasonic ZS100, yet captures sharper images with a brighter lens as it zooms to telephoto (f/2.8-4.5 versus f/2.8-5.9). Enlarging RX100M6 at 200mm telephoto can equal the quality of 250mm on ZS100.

Accessories for Sony RX100 VI / RX100M6

Best rivals: cheaper pocketsize travel cameras

If Sony RX100M6 seems too pricey, consider the following cheaper options which beat rivals at their given price points:

  1. Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9) far exceeds smartphone resolution. Read my ZS100 review.
  2. Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (2018, 12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 15x zoom, but sibling ZS100 is sharper and brighter through 10x.
  3. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 versions IV, III, II, or I, within its limited 3x zoom, is sharper and brighter than that sub-range of Panasonic’s 10x-zoom ZS100. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 III review.
  4. Best value pocketable superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 20mp, EVF) beats smartphone image quality. Or save on older ZS60.

Eye AF: superb autofocus tracks human eyes

For reliably sharper people photography, action and portraits, be sure to use Eye AF to override your chosen AF area, by holding down the CENTER key. Eye AF works great for sports photography at telephoto. This new AF paradigm beats most other camera brands. To change the default button assignments, I reassigned Eye AF to the C key (garbage can icon), and reassigned CENTER key to AEL toggle (Autoexposure Lock):

  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#9 > Custom Key for still photos > C Button > Eye AF
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#9 > Custom Key for still photos > Center Button > AEL toggle.

RX100M6 improves focus acquisition speed to 0.3s versus 0.5s on the previous RX100 version 5. Eye AF is twice as fast. It is the first RX100 camera to include Sony’s High-density Tracking AF technology, where more points are concentrated around the subject to improve AF accuracy for moving subjects.

Recommended settings for Sony RX100 VI / RX100M6

  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#1 > File Format > RAW: is for advanced photographers using a raw file editor workflow system, such as Adobe Lightroom CC Classic. In my workflow, I don’t like “RAW+JPEG“, which creates unneeded extra files. “JPEG‘ has insufficient editing leeway for me; but if you choose to keep it as the default, select JPEG Quality = Extra Fine.
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#4 > Focus Mode > [AF-S or AF-A or AF-C or DMF or MF]  but I usually prefer DMF:
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#4 > Focus Mode > DMF (Direct Manual Focus): is like AF-S except after shutter button half-presses to lock AF, turning the lens ring then magnifies the subject to confirm what’s in focus. On List#11, set Focus magnif. Time = 2 or 5 Seconds.
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#6 > Face Prty in Mlti Mtr = ON: measures brightness based on detected faces when [Metering Mode] is set to [Multi].
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#11 > MF Assist > On: in MF (Manual Focus) mode, turning lens ring magnifies subject to confirm what’s in focus (as in DMF). Set Focus magnif. Time = 2 or 5 Seconds.
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#11 > Peaking Setting > Peaking Display On [with defaults Mid & White]: flashes edges where focus is sharpest in the frame.
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#5 > Release w/o Card > Disable: because we don’t want shooting effort wasted; we want to be prompted to put in a recordable memory card if not present.
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#7 > Zebra Setting > On, Level 100+ for RAW; 70 for JPEG: indicates overexposed areas with zebra stripes.
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#7 > Grid Line > Rule of 3rds Grid
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#9 > Function Menu Set:  Lets you set the two rows of quick-access settings assigned to the Fn (Function) button. I like Fn = Drive Mode, Focus Mode, Focus Area, Touch Operation, ISO, Metering Mode, Flash Mode, Flash Comp, White Balance, Peaking Display, Zebra Display, ISO AUTO Min. SS
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#10 > Audio signals = Off: to quiet the annoying beeps, better for non-intimidating people photos.
  • MENU > Tab 5 > List#5 > Date/Time Setup: always check if camera is set to the local time of day, especially if in your editing process you mix shots from two or more cameras.
  • MENU > Tab 5 > List#5 > Area Setting: if the minutes are set correctly in Date/Time, change the Area Setting each time you shoot in a new time zone, as a quicker way to set the hour.
  • MENU > Tab 5 > List#5 > Format: erases memory card; only format card after several backups have been made.

Sony RX100M6 at 200mm beats Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm & 200mm

The following test shows that a Sony RX100M6 image shot at 200mm equivalent telephoto beats Panasonic ZS100’s quality at 250mm or 200mm. RX100M6’s sharper 200mm shots can simply be digitally enlarged to beat ZS100’s 250mm equivalent zoom.

Telephoto comparison test of two cameras: Sony RX100M6/VI and Panasonic ZS100

Telephoto comparison test of Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm versus Panasonic ZS100 at 200mm and 250mm.

Compared to a 37-ounce Sony RX10M4 camera, the pocketable 11-ounce Sony RX100M6 has the same sensor and nearly equal image quality up to 200mm equivalent. Or a pocketable Panasonic ZS100 costs half as much as RX100M6 and is nearly as sharp at center (but not at edges). In this duck example, compare 200mm and 250mm from two pocket cameras versus 600mm from RX10M4:

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm.

Panasonic ZS100 captures macro shots superior to RX100M6

Although Sony RX100M6/VI can focus sharply beyond 12-24+ inches from the lens, it captures poor macro quality around the edges of the frame at 3.15-inch (8 cm) closest focus. It enlarges biggest at 50mm equivalent zoom. Closely-focused subjects will be sharp at the center of the frame, but can be very blurred around the edges, which can actually help to isolate the center subject, popping it away from the background. But copy work of small flat subjects such as printed text will have unacceptably fuzzy edges. See magnification test images below.

As a workaround for better macro, try:

  • A good smartphone with 2x tele second back camera, as in Samsung Galaxy S9+ or my Note9 (Amazon).
  • Earlier Sony sibling cameras RX100M5, RX100M4 or RX100M3.
  • Larger Sony RX10M4 or RX10M3 cameras with superior macro at 400-600mm f/5.6 and also fun results at 24-90mm. Read my RX10M4 review.
  • Excellent Panasonic ZS100 macro at 45mm equivalent. Fitting handily into a shirt pocket, Panasonic ZS100 enlarges best at 45mm equivalent. This optimum setting is very sharp and rectilinear from edge-to-edge, although the subject must be very close to the front of the lens, sometimes overshadowed. At 25mm, f/5.9 is sharper than f/3.5, but edges are still much too soft. For optimal close focus, zoom to 45mm equivalent and don’t forget to press the Flower Button (Macro, Left Arrow).
Macro magnification test of 5 cameras: Sony RX10M4, Panasonic ZS100, Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone, Sony A6300 + SEL1670Z lens, Sony RX100M6

100% pixel magnification test from five cameras: Sony RX10M4 is best at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Panasonic ZS100 best at 45mm; Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone best at 2x tele 52mm. Significantly poorer quality comes from the macro for SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300 at its best 105mm enlargement. Inferior quality is captured by Sony RX100M6/VI at its best macro enlargement at 50mm equivalent.

50mm lens test in dim indoor light

Below, five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lenses in dim indoor light are compared at 100% pixel magnification. All were shot in raw format and optimized similarly in Lightroom.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Results: Best image quality at 50mm equivalent in dim light is captured in the following order:

  1. The 4x zoom SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300 does best.
  2. The 25x zoom Sony RX10M4 looks almost as good.
  3. The 8x zoom Sony RX100M6/VI has only slightly more noise than RX10M4, which could be fixed by shooting at ISO 800 instead of 2000. Impressive results from a camera weighing one third as much!
  4. The 10x zoom Panasonic ZS100, cheapest of the four, places last. Despite its noisier, lower-contrast results, ZS100 still captures decent quality, for less than half the price of any of the other three cameras.

Evocative images can be created with any camera. For travel, I recommend any of these good-quality zooms having at least 8x range for greater compositional flexibility.

Review: Sony RX10 IV / RX10M4 upgrades the ultimate travel camera

In 2018, Sony RX10 version IV (RX10M4) reigns as the world’s best midsize travel camera, with bright 25x zoom f/2.4-4 lens, remarkably sharp from edge-to-edge from 24-600mm equivalent. This all-in-one marvel is also my top pick for portable wildlife telephoto. Unprecedented versatility with publishable image quality have made Sony RX10M4 & RX10M3 my main travel cameras since 2016.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 version IV (Amazon) happily upgrades my version III camera with improved autofocus, menu reorganization, and touchscreen autofocus. This article reviews the RX10M4, reveals hidden settings, suggests accessories and compares with rivals. See our recent trips to southwest USA and Canada shot on RX10M4.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV (RX10M4) with 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 stabilized zoom lens.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV / RX10M4 with 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 stabilized zoom lens. 20MP 1″-type stacked CMOS sensor. Phase detection 315-point autofocus. Touchscreen AF.

Detailed Review of Sony RX10M4

Telephoto quality

Let’s talk tele first — the main reason to have this substantial 37-ounce camera. The duck and flamingo examples below show how wonderfully sharp is RX10M4’s 600mm telephoto for wildlife, hand-held with SteadyShot ON. If a 37-ounce RX10M4 seems too big, consider the pocketable 11-ounce Sony RX100M6 which has the same sensor and nearly equal image quality up to 200mm equivalent. Or a pocketable Panasonic ZS100 costs half as much as RX100M6, is nearly as sharp, and reaches to 250mm. In this duck example, compare 200mm and 250mm from two pocket cameras versus 600mm from RX10M4 to see how much detail is sacrificed:

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm

Three extracts from this Chilean Flamingo image show the crisp 600mm-equivalent telephoto reach of Sony RX10M3 (same lens as RX10M4):

Chilean Flamingo, Woodland Park Zoo

Even at maximum telephoto 220mm (600mm equivalent), extracts from edges and center are crisp (enlarged at 100% pixel view in the above photo, shot at optimal aperture f/5.6, for 1/1600th second to freeze movement, at ISO 100 to minimize noise). Sony RX10 III is sharp across the frame at all zoom settings: optimally crisp at f/4 from 24-400mm equivalent and at f/5.6 from 500-600mm).  Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington. (In Adobe Lightroom, raw file exposure was adjusted +1.86 EV, Highlights -84, plus Sharpening.)

Telephoto tips for RX10M4
  • For sharper hand-held shots at 600mm maximum telephoto, use 1/100th second shutter speed or faster, with Image Stabilization ON.
  • Zoom Assist: The big button on the base of the lens is Focus Hold by default. In order to more easily locate birds or small subjects at 500-600mm telephoto, to see outside of that narrow angle of view, reassign the Focus Hold button (or another button) to Zoom Assist as follows: press MENU > Camera Settings Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > page 2 > Focus Hold Button > [Zoom Assist]. While held down, Zoom Assist quickly widens the angle of view to allow re-centering upon a bird, so you can pan to follow the bird’s motion, then release Zoom Assist to restore your original narrow angle of view.
  • You can increase zoom racking speed from 24 to 600mm in just 2 seconds, by setting Zoom Speed = “Fast in MENU > Settings Tab 2 > List #6. I mostly use the default 4-second “Normal” for finer framing control, except where fleeting wildlife or sports require Fast. The Zoom Speeds of Fast and Normal apply to still shots; but Movie recording mode thankfully automatically invokes a slower, virtually silent zoom to avoid jarring video viewers. RX10’s power zoom being locked on track at all settings avoids the annoying zoom creep (slippage when pointed up or down) behavior of most 11x-19x manual (non-power) zooms made by Sony, Nikon, Tamron and others for APS-C cameras. The short 2 or 4 seconds to rack through RX10M4’s incredible 25x zoom beats the longer inconvenience of changing lenses on interchangeable lens systems such as APS-C or full frame, which I formerly used 1978-2015.

Close-focus enlargement / macro

is another compelling reason to own the Sony RX10M4. Examine how the flower looks at 24mm and lizard at 600mm equivalent:

Desert rock nettle flower, Death Valley National Park, California.

At 24mm equivalent, Sony RX10M4 can focus very closely to the lens, sharpest near the center. The flower’s stamens are captured crisply, as shown enlarged in the inset at 100% pixel magnification. A desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens / desert stingbush) shrub blooms with creamy yellow flowers in Fall Canyon, a wilderness area in Death Valley National Park, California. (Shot at f/5.6, 1/500th second, ISO 100.)

Zebra-tailed lizard / Callisaurus draconoides. Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California, USA.

This small reptile was photographed several feet away by my Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 camera at 600mm equivalent cropped by 2x, shot at f/5.6, 1/1000th second, ISO 100. The inset lizard head shows impressively sharp details at 100% pixel magnification. Zebra-tailed lizard / Callisaurus draconoides. Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.

Below, I test the close focus (macro) capability of five top travel cameras, to report their biggest magnification of a letter “e” printed on paper:

Macro magnification test of 5 cameras: Sony RX10M4, Panasonic ZS100, Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone, Sony A6300 + SEL1670Z lens, Sony RX100M6

100% pixel magnification test from five top travel cameras.

Three top travel cameras with excellent macro
  1. Best of the bunch, Sony RX10M4 / RX10M3 captures superb insect and flower macro at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6, with sharp rectilinear results, zero distortion, and tightest magnification of subjects down to 2.7 inches wide. At 600mm, RX10M4’s 28-inch closest working distance from the front of the lens avoids shadowing the focused subject and helpfully leaves undisturbed such flighty subjects as butterflies or lizards.
    • RX10M4 can capture excellent macro at 400-600mm f/5.6, though subject magnification declines to 3.2″ wide at 550mm, 3.8″ wide at 450mm, and 4.2″ wide at 400mm.
    • RX10M4’s macro can be fun and useful at 24mm, sharp in center but may be heavily shadowed at closest focus 1.2″ from the front of the lens, heavily warped with barrel distortion, and fuzzy at edges. Despite technical lens imperfections at 24mm, my intimate close focus shot of the desert rock nettle photo above looks fine, no problem. Emotional impact is more important than perfection.
    • Much more rectilinear than 24mm is 65-90mm macro of subjects as tight as 3 to 4+ inches wide, at f/4 — sharp at center but with soft edges and some barrel distortion. But Panasonic ZS100 at 45mm equivalent enlarges much more sharply and rectilinearly than RX10M4 at 70mm or 24mm.
    • Surprise: at middle focal lengths 110-380mm equivalent, minimum working distance from the front of RX10M4’s lens jumps — to 55″ at 250mm, which drastically widens the tightest magnification of subjects to 10+ inches wide.
  2. Fitting handily into a shirt pocket, Panasonic ZS100 enlarges best at 45mm equivalent. This optimum setting is very sharp and rectilinear from edge-to-edge, although the subject must be very close to the front of the lens, sometimes overshadowed. At 25mm, f/5.9 is sharper than f/3.5, but edges are still much too soft. For optimal close focus, zoom to 45mm equivalent and don’t forget to press the Flower Button (Macro, Left Arrow).
  3.  Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone enlarges surprisingly well at “2x tele” f/2.4 with deep depth of focus, using a second dedicated back camera with 52mm equivalent lens. Or use S9+ tele.
Two cameras with poor macro
  1. Significantly worse quality comes at close focus using a pricey SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300, even at its best 105mm enlargement at f/5.6. As with most APS-C camera lenses, it focuses better on subjects from 2+ feet to infinity. Due to the physics of their larger sensors, APS-C cameras require specialty lenses for decent macro. But that macro lens money would be better spent on a good Panasonic ZS100 pocket camera, or paid towards the superb Sony RX10M4.
  2. Although it can focus quite sharply at subject distances further than 12 inches from the lens (sharper than ZS100), Sony RX100M6/VI captures very poor quality at macro, such as its tightest enlargement at 50mm equivalent zoom. As a workaround to achieve superior macro, try earlier Sony sibling cameras RX100M5, RX100M4 or RX100M3; or Panasonic ZS100 at 45mm close focus; or Sony RX10M4 or RX10M3; or a good smartphone with 2x tele second back camera, as in Samsung Galaxy Note9.

Editing raw profoundly beats JPEG

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is baked into Sony’s every raw-format image file, with plenty of leeway to brighten shadows in the following Grand Canyon image shot at wide angle:

Sunset seen through gnarly pine trees at Mather Point Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. Starting at least 5 to 17 million years ago, erosion by the Colorado River has exposed a column of distinctive rock layers, which date back nearly two billion years at the base of Grand Canyon. While the Colorado Plateau was uplifted by tectonic forces, the Colorado River and tributaries carved Grand Canyon over a mile deep (6000 feet), 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sony RX10M4 is my do-everything camera, capturing this dynamic sunset view from Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Shot in raw format with 24mm equivalent lens at f/4, 1/160th sec, ISO 100 and optimized in Adobe Lightroom. © Tom Dempsey

I strongly prefer shooting raw format, because JPEG format severely limits tonal editing. The foreground branches in the above image would have been irrecoverably dull if shot JPEG-only. Raw images can be best rendered back to my original perception using Adobe Lightroom CC Classic software on a PC.

Tip: To optimize signal-to-noise ratio at shooting time, I shoot near base ISO 100 or 200 and expose highlights of the Histogram curve to the far right (to the bright side), while avoiding truncation or Highlight Warning (or Zebra). If underexposure occurs unintentionally, thankfully  RX10M4’s base ISO (100 or 200) raw images can be brightened in Lightroom to have almost the same amount of noise as if shot at higher ISO 1600. This advantage is called ISO invariance, found in raw files of RX10M4, RX10M3, RX100M6 and RX100M5.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) software can now combine multiple RAW shots, for Night Photos

HDR techniques combine multiple shots to increase detail, improve dynamic range, and lower noise levels, as done in the latest top smartphones (to compensate for their tiny cameras).

New in 2018, we can now combine multiple RAW files with the free Kandao Raw+ tool, as described in dpreview.com. This is a great leap forward for night photography! No tripod is necessary. Simply stand in one place and capture a fast burst of 8 to 16 overlapped raw frames. Expose the Histogram curve to the right as usual. Don’t worry about exposure bracketing or subjects in motion. As a master reference, pick one frame, then import up to 16 overlapped frames into the program to create a single DNG file, which can be further edited in Lightroom. The software magically recreates the scene with improved dynamic range like your eyes see. The technique can theoretically recovery brightness detail of up to four Exposure Values greater than would be contained in a single raw file.

TIP: Bright Monitoring is a welcome new feature for night photographers, when subjects are otherwise too dark to see in the viewfinder/monitor. In PASM modes only, a Bright Monitoring toggle brightens the viewfinder/monitor to better see the composition, without affecting exposure compensation. I assigned it to Custom Button 2 (C2 on top of the camera):

  • MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > Custom Button 2 > [Bright Monitoring]
  • It only works with Manual Focus (MF on focus mode dial), and not with MF Assist or Focus Magnifier. It may slow shutter speed response.
  • Bright Monitoring continues after shooting, until you toggle its button or turn off the camera.

JPEG-only option: multi-shot HDR (High Dynamic Range)

Instead of shooting raw, most people like to shoot the default JPEG file format, which conveniently requires no editing step. Out-of-camera JPEGs are looking better than ever, especially from top smartphones, which have greater processing power than larger cameras. But JPEGs can still benefit from artistic editing to appear more like your eyes see. To brighten shadows with less noise, try shooting HDR:

If you shoot JPEG-only (Quality Extra fine, Fine or Standard), for high-contrast subjects, try the High Dynamic Range (HDR) “Exposure Diff. Auto” feature, where the camera makes three exposures which are merged in-camera into a single JPEG file:

  • MENU > Tab 1 > List #10 >DRO/Auto HDR > [Auto HDR: Exposure Diff. Auto]  or else [1.0EV – 6.0EV] lets you pick HDR strength as a fixed Exposure Value difference.
  • Choosing Auto is more practical than picking a fixed EV difference 1.0EV – 6.0EV.
  • Use only when the subject is motionless and lighting is constant.
  • It just works for picture Quality=JPEG-only. (“HDR AUTO” menu is grayed-out and unavailable if Quality=”RAW+JPG” or “RAW”).

Shooting JPEG automatically uses DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer)

If you shoot JPEG files, Sony thankfully invokes automatic Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) by default. This brightens shadow details while preserving highlights, somewhat like your eyes see. More details:

  • MENU > Tab 1 > List #10 >DRO/Auto HDR > [D-Range Optimizer Auto] is a great default, or else manually pick [Lev1 to strongest Lev5].
  • These DRO settings create tags which affect raw file appearance in Sony raw conversion software, but are ignored in Adobe Lightroom (which is fine, as I prefer my own raw shadow-editing choices).
  • D-Range Optimizer Auto works if picture Quality is set to RAW+JPEG or JPEG-only (Extra fine, Fine or Standard).
  • If shadows still appear overly dark, try editing the JPEG, shooting HDR (several shots combined), or editing raw.

Dim light photography using SteadyShot and Hand-held Twilight mode

Impressively, Sony claims SteadyShot image stabilization of up to 4.5 stops of benefit for slower shutter speed hand-held, especially at telephoto angles of view. Sony SteadyShot sharpens my hand-held shots so well that I rarely use a tripod anymore. Unleashing your camera from a tripod releases inner creativity.

For dim light, Hand-held Twilight mode works great in caves, indoors, or night scenes. Introduced in 2010 Cyber-shot cameras, this innovative JPEG-only Scene/SCN mode combines a burst of shots to reduce subject blur, camera-shake, and noise. Hand-held Twilight mode has served well in my Sony NEX-7, RX100M3, RX10M3, and current RX100M6 and RX10M4 cameras.

Also melding a burst of shots, Anti Motion Blur uses a higher shutter speed (via noisier higher ISO) to help freeze subject motion indoors. Set with: MODE DIAL > SCN > Control Dial (adjacent to MOVIE button) > [Anti Motion Blur] or [Hand-held Twilight mode]

In Munot Castle's lower chamber, explore a spectacular, cool vaulted casemate built in the Renaissance, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, Europe. The Munot, Schaffhausen's iconic circular fortress, was built by forced labor in 1564-1589 after the religious wars of the Reformation. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Shot with Sony’s Hand-held Twilight mode (combining several shots of 1/8th second, f/2.4, ISO 1000, 24mm equivalent, combined into one JPEG file, on Sony RX10M3). In Munot Castle’s lower chamber, explore a cool vaulted casemate built in the Renaissance, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. This iconic circular fortress was built by forced labor in 1564-1589 after the religious wars of the Reformation. (© Tom Dempsey)

50mm lens test in dim indoor light

Below, five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lenses in dim indoor light are compared at 100% pixel magnification. All were shot in raw format and optimized similarly in Lightroom.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Results: Best image quality at 50mm equivalent in dim light is captured in the following order:

  1. The 4x zoom SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300 does best.
  2. The 25x zoom Sony RX10M4 looks almost as good.
  3. The 8x zoom Sony RX100M6/VI has only slightly more noise than RX10M4, which could be fixed by shooting at ISO 800 instead of 2000.
  4. The 10x zoom Panasonic ZS100, cheapest of the four, places last. Despite its noisier, lower-contrast results, ZS100 still captures decent quality, for less than half the price of the other three cameras.

Evocative images can be created with any camera. For travel, I recommend any of these good-quality zooms having at least 8x range for greater compositional flexibility.

Recommended accessories for Sony RX10 IV or III

Focus and exposure tips for RX10M4 / RX10 IV

  • Sony’s RX10M4 online Help Guide helps explain every feature.
  • I prefer half-pressing the shutter button to lock the exposure, except when the AEL button toggle locks exposure first, in which case the shutter button is freed to half-press-lock just the autofocus:
    • MENU > Camera Settings Tab 1 > List #8 > AEL w/ shutter > [On]
  • Set the AEL button (Auto Exposure Lock) to behave as AEL Toggle. Otherwise locking the exposure will require our thumb to be awkwardly stuck holding down the AEL button until the shutter button is fully pressed. An asterisk * on the LCD or EVF indicates when AE is locked.
    • MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > page 2 > AEL Button > [AEL toggle]
  • For static landscapes, I prefer Focus Mode dial = DMF or S. My typical shooting habit is:
    1. First press AEL button as Toggle to grab a test exposure of the subject’s midtone, or on an edge halfway between dark and bright.
    2. Then half press and hold to lock focus on a high-contrast edge grabbed from the subject.
    3. Keep holding the half press and recompose to your desired framing. Then fully click the shutter release to capture the image.
    4. Correct the exposure with AEL on a brighter or darker area on subsequent shots as needed. Delete unneeded extras in the field.
  • For subjects in motion, you can dial the Focus Mode (online guide) to A (Automatic AF, new in RX10M4) or C (Continuous AF).
    • Setting A invokes Single or Continuous according to the movement of the subject: when the shutter button is pressed halfway down, focus locks if the subject is motionless, or continues to focus if the subject is moving.
    • If Drive Mode is set to Continuous Shooting, then Continuous AF is used from the second shot onward.
    • The constant hunting of C (Continuous Auto Focus) can be problematic on any camera, so I almost always use DMF or S.
  • Know that the default Focus Area = Wide, using automatic AF points over the maximum area.
  • For landscapes and non-action subjects, I prefer the reliable accuracy of Focus Area =Expand Flexible Spot. If focus is locked onto a moving subject, take the shot as soon as possible, or half press again to refocus (or use Focus Mode C or A).
  • Sony names their touchscreen usage as “Touch Panel” on LCD and “Touch Pad” when using viewfinder.
    • You can override the default Focus Area = Wide with a specific AF point pressed with your right thumb on the “Touch Pad” (when eye is to viewfinder) or “Touch Panel“. To cancel a touched AF point, press the CENTER button, to return to automatic Wide. Only when you half press and hold down the shutter button will focus be attempted and locked. I suggest these touch settings:
    • MENU > Tab 5 > List#2 > Touch Operation > [Touch Panel+Pad].
    • Or if inadvertent touches get annoying, disable it with [Off] or restrict to [Touch Panel Only] or [Touch Pad Only].
    • MENU > Tab 5 > List#3 > Touch Pad Settings > [Operation in V Orientation=ON, Touch Pos. Mode=Relative Position, Operation Area = Right 1/2]
  • In Playback mode, to examine picture sharpness (magnified by 5.3 times), flip the zoom tele lever once, then back out slowly with wide zoom lever, or fully back with CENTER button. Or double tap on Touch Panel to zoom in or out.

Secret settings for Sony RX10M4 / RX10 IV

  • Yay, the MENUs are reorganized in RX10 IV, still deep but easier to use than version III.
  • Sharpest apertures: Through most of its 25x zoom range, RX10 III is sharpest when shot at f/4 aperture; but f/5.6 is sharpest at 500-600mm equivalent. These optimal f-stops give you the best balance between diffraction (through smallest apertures) versus chromatic aberrations (possible in all cameras at brightest openings; luckily hardly noticeable in RX10 III and IV due to automatic in-camera corrections before writing JPEG and raw files to the memory card).

Sun starburst (at f/16 using Sony RX10 III camera) shines on lichen growing on twisted old tree wood at Glacier Pass. Backback to Mirror Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa–Whitman National Forest, Wallowa Mountains, Columbia Plateau, northeastern Oregon, USA. Hike 7.3 miles from Two Pan Trailhead (5600 ft) up East Lostine River to camp at popular Mirror Lake (7606 ft). Day hike to Glacier Lake via Glacier Pass (6 miles round trip, 1200 ft gain). Backpack out 8.7 miles via Carper Pass, Minam Lake and West Fork Lostine. From September 11-13, 2016 Carol and I walked 22 miles in 3 days. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sony RX10M4 & M3 can create a special soft-focus starburst effect at aperture f/16. Photo: Eagle Cap Wilderness (read Tom’s article), Oregon.

  • Starburst: Stopping down to f/16 aperture, RX10III creates a wonderful starburst effect emanating from intense pinpoints of light such as the sun or light bulbs. But as on most cameras, f/16 SERIOUSLY SOFTENS FOCUS (seen at 100% pixel view). Diffraction through the tiny f/16 hole cuts resolution in half compared to f/5.6 or brighter apertures. At all apertures brighter than f/16, down to f/2.4-4, rounded blades smooth the opening for more attractive bokeh (the appearance of the out-of-focus areas), and the starburst is NOT created. Using Adobe Lightroom CC, I like to stitch multi-image panoramas where the sun shot(s) have an f/16 starburst, and the remaining shots use sharper f/4 to f/5.6 settings. Alternative: For sharper starburst images at f/4 to f/5.6, you may want to use a starburst filter (screw-on or hand-held square glass) instead of suffering the detrimental effects of f/16, unless your artistic intent is soft-focus.
  • Fill flash synchronization down to 1/2000th of a second works exceptionally well for back-lit portraits in harsh sunshine. Most other cameras only synchronize as fast as 1/200th second.
  • Assign the following to the Fn button for quick access: ISO Auto Min SS = minimum shutter speed at a given ISO = STD (standard), SLOW, SLOWER, FAST, FASTER. I like the SLOW setting to hand-hold shots which can blur moving water in relatively dim light.
  • Turn on Face Detection and assign Eye AF to a button, for instant focus on human faces and eyes throughout the zoom range, great for portraitsaction & sports.
    • MENU > Tab 1 > List #14 > Smile/Face Detec. = [ON]
    • MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > Custom Button 3 (Trash Can icon) > [Eye AF].
    • Hold down the assigned Eye AF button, and a detection frame displays over the eyes when they’re focused. If the focus mode is set to Single-shot AF, the frame will disappear after a second. Continue holding down the Eye AF button while fully pressing the shutter release button. Not supported for focus mode = Manual.
  • Turn OFF the Pre-AF option, for more reliable half-press focus-locking and quicker autofocus in the telephoto range, especially 400-600mm equivalent.
  • Instead of hunting through menus, put favorite settings on the Fn button as follows: MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > [Function Menu Set].
    • I inserted: Drive Mode, Flash Mode, Flash Compensation, Focus Area, ISO, Metering Mode, Smile/Face Detection, SteadyShot for video, HFR Frame Rate, Peaking Level, ISO AUTO minimum Shutter Speed, Zebra.
    • In shooting mode, set PEAK = MID (handily indicates area of sharpest focus).
    • Set Zebra = 100+ for raw files (highlight overexposure alert). [For shooting JPEG files, for Caucasian skin tones, consider Zebra =70.]
  • Use the quick Memory Recall (MR on mode dial, initially set within a confusing menu) to quickly set a whole palette of settings.
  • Affix painters’ tape to the following set-and-forget switches or dials, per personal preference. Otherwise, if you frequently take the camera in and out of a carrying bag (such as my Lowe chest-mounted for hiking), dials frequently get bumped to unexpected settings, causing confusion. Painters’ tape removes cleanly with no residue and protects the camera’s finish.
    • Exposure Compensation dial taped at zero. I prefer AEL Toggle button, which handily resets when camera is turned off; whereas the Compensation dial stays set, easily forgotten yet biasing every future exposure.
    • Viewfinder diopter-adjustment dial taped for your vision.
    • Focus Mode dial taped at DMF setting lets the front lens ring make fine manual focus adjustments with a magnified view after locking AF with half press of shutter release button (crucial for macro and telephoto).
      • DMF is like S (Single-shot AF) plus magnification.
      • If half-press AF lock is difficult to achieve (such as for a low-contrast telephoto subject), painters’ tape can be lifted and Focus Mode dial reset to MF (Manual Focus).
      • For subjects in motion, use C (Continuous AF).
      • Or more handily, A (Automatic AF, new in RX10M4) invokes S or C according to the movement of the subject: when the shutter button is pressed halfway down, focus locks if the subject is motionless, or Continues to focus if the subject is in motion.
      • If Drive Mode = Continuous Shooting, then Continuous AF is used from the second shot onward.
    • Focus Range Limiter switch taped at “FULL” allows shooting macro close focus at telephoto. (The other setting “∞-3m” is for reducing “focus hunting” time if shooting action subjects further than 3 meters away when zoomed between 150-600mm.)
    • The much-used and inadvertently-bump-able MODE DIAL should not be taped. Instead, turning ON the Mode Dial Guide helpfully reminds me of the current setting (AUTO, PASM, MR, MOVIE, HFR, PANORAMA or SCN).
      • MENU > Settings Tab 5 > List #2 / Setup2 > [Mode Dial Guide=ON].
  • Know that every time you half-press the shutter button, a harmless “FULL” message in a white box briefly displays on LCD or viewfinder, to indicate Focus Range Limiter status (or if set at “∞-3m”, then“LIMIT” displays if zoomed between 150-600mm, or “FULL” displays between 24-149mm equivalent).

Video tips for Sony RX10M4 / RX10 IV:

  • The MOVIE button marked with a red dot can record with the current video settings no matter where the Mode Dial is set.
  • Some video Settings can only be changed when the top Mode Dial is set to Movie mode (icon shaped like a film frame with spindle perforations).
  • Some videos can be less distracting with a constant manual exposure as you pan across subjects of varying brightness. You can set the following secret P, A, S and M exposure modes, when Top Mode Dial = Movie mode:
    • use MENU > Tab 2 > List #1 > “Exposure Mode” > press Center button, then scroll through PASM video options. To find it quicker, add movie “Exposure Mode” to My Menu1 (the sixth menu tab, marked with * asterisk symbol).
    • To get a constant exposure during a video, use video M (Manual) mode: set ISO 100 (or as desired to a constant ISO number, but not AUTO ISO), set Aperture with ring on lens, and set Shutter Speed with either of the back two dials.
    • To control subject-motion blur, set slow S (Shutter Speed) for more blur (as slow as the inverse of the frame rate in frames per second, fps).
    • A Shutter Speed about twice as fast as the frame rate makes video look “normal”.
    • Set a faster Shutter Speed (more than twice the frame rate) for a choppier, more jittery video, like in the film “Gladiator”.
  • Play with the amazing High Frame Rate (HFR) video mode, shot in XAVC S 1080p HD format. For example, slow down action by 8 times at 480p (shooting frame rate) at 60p50M (frame rate of movie playback). I like setting Shoot Time Priority; and REC Timing=End Trigger, which records the 4 seconds BEFORE you pressed the Record Button! Limitations: only 4 seconds of real time are recorded (with 10-20 second delay writing to card); minimum ISO is 800; you must lock focus and exposure before recording; and HFR requires fast SD Memory Card Speed Class 10 or UHS Speed Class 1. (Previous RX10M3 records only 2 seconds of real time.)
  • Assign a dedicated button to Focus Magnifier for use in Videos (else none is available). Tips: Focus is faster at brightest apertures (lowest f-number).
  • For high contrast scenes, to better preserve details in shadows and highlights simultaneously, as for later tonal editing of wildlife videos, set Picture Profile (in MENU > Tab 1 > List #10).
    • PP3 standard for HD television, not intended for tonal editing. Its natural color tone uses the [ITU709] gamma.
    • PP5 for Cine1 gamma for later tonal editing, or
    • PP6 for Cine2 gamma to preserve even more highlights for later tonal editing, or
    • PP7 for S-Log2 gamma (which requires even more editing than PP6 to compensate for the flat, dull appearance).
    • PP8 for S-Log3 gamma and the S-Gamut3.Cine under Color Mode. New in RX10M4.
    • PP9 for S-Log3 gamma and the S-Gamut3 under Color Mode. New in RX10M4.
    • Warning: the above Picture Profile that you set for video is remembered when the camera is turned off, and will also affect both JPEG and raw still images (but any custom settings for black level, black gamma, knee and color depth won’t affect raw).
    • Picture Profile, Gamma Display Assistant, Peaking Level, and other items buried in the menus can be assigned to “Custom Key (Shoot.)” and/or to the quick Fn button (using MENU > Tab 2 > item 9 > “Function Menu Set“).
  • Tip: only buy a Sony camera in a country having your native NTSC or PAL video format, or else every time you turn on the camera, you’ll forever be dismissing an annoying video notification message: Running on NTSC (on my PAL-native RX10M3 camera bought in the UK when set to nonnative NTSC).
  • RX10M4 lacks an electronic ND filter (Neutral Density), which is especially important for video in bright light, at bright apertures for shallower depth of field. Workaround: simply attach a glass ND filter to the 72mm threads on the front of the lens when needed, the old-fashioned way. Or try Panasonic FZ2500 with built-in ND filter.

RX10M4 negatives:

  • Touch Panel/Pad doesn’t support menus, Playback, or Text.
  • Cannot zoom while shooting a burst of frames in Drive Mode=Continuous.
  • In M/Manual mode, you must turn off Auto ISO every time, set ISO manually, then set back to Auto ISO when switching back to P, A or S mode. I prefer Manual mode to always default to manual ISO. It forces Manual mode’s ISO to that of the other PAS settings, and vice versa.
  • Avoid rain splatters: Despite Sony’s claim of “dust and moisture-resistant” body, DON’T EXPOSE YOUR RX10M4 or RX10M3 CAMERA TO RAIN (even if immediately wiped off), as wind-driven droplets killed my RX10 III. Yes, its weather sealing successfully kept dust and condensation out of the lens throughout my 16 months of use. But then one fateful rainstorm disabled the camera by shorting-out the focus and LCD, sadly outside of its 1-year Sony Warranty. Still, the lens interior remained pristinely clean and moisture-free. But rather than risking an estimated $656 repair, whose 90-day guarantee is voided by “liquid damage”, I recycled the camera. Buying a new RX10 III allowed completion of my UK photo shoot. Back in the USA, I sold the UK camera and I upgraded to a US-model RX10 IV.

World’s top travel cameras ranked by Tom

RX10M4 is first in my ranking of top travel cameras (shown with Amazon pricing snapshot from September 14, 2018):

  1. $1700, 37 oz: $1700, 37 oz: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV / RX10M4 camera (Nov 2017, 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4) is the best of the bunch. This all-in-one tool overpowers all rival superzoom cameras with 1″-Type sensors. The 20-megapixel RX10M4 and previous RX10M3 both beat 10x to 19x lenses on rival 24-megapixel APS-C DSLR cameras. I no longer need to carry a pocket camera for improving close-focus shots, as RX10 already has a 1”-Type sensor. With deeper depth of field than APS-C or larger-sensor cameras for a given f-stop, it enhances details from close flower shots to distant bird feathers at 600mm equivalent telephoto. Both versions IV and III weigh 37 ounces (including battery & card), plus adding 5 oz for strap, lens filter, cap & hood makes 42 oz.
    • $1400, 37 oz: Sony RX10 III (May 2016, 37 oz, 25x zoom 24-600mm f/2.4-4, no touchscreen): autofocus of version III significantly lags compared to IV, especially at 400-600mm .
  2. $1000, 33 ozPanasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm equivalent f/2.8–4.5): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), autofocuses faster, has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K), in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  3. $1200, 11 oz: PocketableSony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI (2018, 11 oz, 8x zoom 24–200mm equivalent f/2.8-4.5, RX100M6): rivals the image quality of RX10M4 through 200mm equivalent, and at 30% of the weight. Avoid dropping its slippery body by adding Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Fit into Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag with extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries. Avoid LCD scratches with QIBOX Premium GLASS Protector to preserve resale. Exceptionally high quality from a miniature body ranks it above the following three-times-heavier DSLR:
  4. $600, 29 ozPanasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz, 16x zoom 25-400mm f/2.8-4.0): best price-value for a midsize camera. Adds fully-articulated LCD, and autofocus for action & sports is a bit faster than RX10 III.
  5. $550, 11 ozPocketablePanasonic ZS100 (price at Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 10x zoom 25-250mm equivalent f/2.8-5.9): Read my ZS100 review. ZS100 introduced the first pocketable 10x zoom on a 1-inch-Type sensor, capturing close macro at more zoom settings and enormously extending optical telephoto reach beyond my 3x-zoom Sony RX100 (read my 2012-15 review). Anywhere from 3x-10x on Panasonic ZS100 beats digital cropping of rival Sony RX100 (which stops at 70mm equivalent in versions III and IV).
  6. $1130, 32 oz with 19x zoom: Good value DSLR with optical viewfinder (if you like that kind of thing) using a legacy mirror box:
    • Nikon D3500 (2018, 13 oz body, ~$500, 24mp APS-C sensor/DX format, CIPA battery life 1550 shots) with travel lens:
    • Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (2014, 19 oz, ~$630, 19x zoom 24-450mm equivalent, 3 x 3.9″) equals Nikon’s kit-lens quality (but Sony RX10 IV and III are sharper, especially at ≥90mm equivalent).
    • Upgrade: Nikon D5600 (2016, 16.4 oz body, 24mp) adds fully articulated (flip out) LCD touchscreen.
  7. $400, 11.4 oz: Pocketable and inexpensive: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 30x zoom 24–720mm equivalent f/3.3–6.4, 20mp, EVF).
    • or ~$260 for older ZS60. These nice little cameras have a rare viewfinder and small 1/2.3″ sensor that still beats smartphone quality.

See my latest camera ratings on PhotoSeek BUY CAMERAS page.

Sony RX10M4 and RX10M3 beat the following midsize rivals for versatile lightweight travel:

  • APS-C flagship Sony A6500 (2016, 16 oz body, $1200) or earlier Sony Alpha A6300 (2016, 14 oz body, $900), plus mounting a SEL18200 11x zoom lens (27-300mm equivalent f/3.5-6.3, 19 oz, $900), totals 35 oz or 33 oz respectively.
    • A6500/A6300’s interchangeable-lens capability is made redundant by RX10’s sharp and bright 25x zoom (which more than doubles my former zoom range while improving image quality).
    • You must inconveniently interchange a much heavier, pricier set of lenses on APS-C cameras to rival the quality of RX10 III’s sharp 25x F4 zoom.
    • This APS-C flagship is at best 5% sharper than RX10M4 when using the wider end of a premium 4x zoom lens, but no better in dim light. I would rather have an all-in-one 25x zoom which astoundingly extends sharp f/4 telephoto reach to 600mm equivalent.
    • To my delight, RX10’s faster, larger-diameter lens (72mm filter size) plus backside illumination (BSI) sensor technology together magically compensate for the sensor size difference.
    • The professionally-sharp, bright 25x zoom of RX10 III resoundingly beats the resolution of my previous favorite Sony 11x zoom lens SEL18200 on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 anywhere above 90mm+ equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. At wider angles, 27-80mm equivalent, both capture similar quality in bright outdoor light. Advantageously, RX10 stretches to a wide view of 24mm equivalent. In dim/indoor light, A6300’s larger sensor can sometimes resolve more detail than RX10III, but not consistently in my real world comparisons using SEL18200 and SEL1670Z lenses.
  • Canon PowerShot G3 X camera (2015, 26 oz, $850, 25x zoom, 20mp) has 24-600mm equivalent f/2.8-5.6 lens (which is neither as bright nor as sharp as Sony RX10 III). The G3 X buys you lighter travel weight, but you must separately add a pricey $240 viewfinder. Also its older, poorer 1″ sensor is a stop or two worse at ISO 800+ in terms of noise compared to FZ1000 or RX10. Panasonic FZ1000 is a better value than G3X.

How does RX10M4 compare to full-frame cameras?

In historical perspective, the Sony RX10M4 makes prints far bigger and sharper than my full-frame 35mm film cameras used 1978-2004. Compared to modern full-frame digital sensors, RX10M4’s 1-inch-Type sensor has a crop factor measuring 2.727 times smaller diagonally.

For a significant jump up in quality, night photographers and big-print professionals can consider using fast lenses on Sony a7R II (price at Amazon) (2015, 22 oz body), a big 42-megapixel full-frame mirrorless camera, featuring the world’s first 35mm-size BSI CMOS sensor, plus a 5-axis image stabilization built into the body, hybrid autofocus, and 4K video, good for capturing the northern lights or indoor action.

But for me, full-frame systems are too bulky and expensive for travel, especially in terms of zoom range. If money is no object, using Sony’s 10x zoom FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (28 oz) on A7 IIR’s 42mp sensor (50 oz total camera+lens) should buy superior quality at wide angles, beating RX10M4’s smaller 20mp sensor (37 oz). But RX10M4’s f/4 quality should beat cropping down the 42mp to reach the 500-600mm equivalent necessary for wildlife and bird photos. Realistically, A7 IIR’s incredible sensor so greatly exceeds the quality of the FE 24-240mm lens that only sharper, faster lenses should be considered. In comparison, RX10M4 is much more portable (37 oz versus 50+ oz), and its 20 megapixels are plenty for my professional publishing needs.

Tom Dempsey

Panasonic ZS100 pocket 10x zoom bests Sony RX100 I,II,III,IV for travel

In 2016, the most portable 10x zoom on a 1-inch-Type sensor is Panasonic LUMIX ZS100 camera (Amazon) (11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent). ZS100 is now my favorite camera which can fit a large shirt pocket. In this impressive 2016 feat of miniaturization, daylight image quality from the 20-megapixel ZS100 can rival all of my cameras used over 34 years until 2012 (beating my cameras up to 4 times heavier, up to 11x zoom range, up to 12 megapixels, at base ISO 100).

UPDATE: As of August 2018, Sony introduced the superior RX100 version VI (RX100M6, Amazon) (24-200mm equivalent 8x zoom with relatively fast f/2.8-4.5 lens), which is pricey but clearly beats the lens sharpness and brightness of Panasonic ZS100. If price is no object, RX100 version VI is now the world’s best pocketable travel camera, and Panasonic ZS100 is second best. In April 2018, Panasonic extended its ZS100 with the new 15x zoom Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (buy at Amazon) (12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4). The ZS200 viewfinder increases magnification by 15% and resolution by 35% (2.3M dots vs 1.7M for ZS100). CIPA battery life lengthens to 370 minutes (formerly 300). ZS200’s 50% longer zoom reach for wildlife costs a half-stop loss in lens brightness and compromises sharpness. Personally, I’m upgrading to the sharper Sony RX100M6, where I’ll simply crop to extend telephoto beyond 200mm equivalent.

Although rival Sony RX100 (of 2015, read my review) is admittedly sharper throughout 3x zoom, Panasonic ZS100 focuses closer at more zoom settings and enormously extends optical telephoto reach. Anywhere from 3x to 10x zoom (70-250mm equivalent), the ZS100 easily beats digital cropping of Sony RX100’s furthest reach of 70mm in versions III & IV. ZS100’s good telephoto remarkably expands your capture of wildlife and distant small subjects, more sharply than pocketable rivals or smartphones (see heron photo further below). Portrait photographers should note that ZS100’s lens is a bit dimmer, f/2.8-5.9 at widest aperture as you zoom (versus f/1.8-2.8 for RX100 III).

Panasonic ZS100 vs Sony RX100 III size

Compare lens and size of Sony DSC-RX100 III with Panasonic ZS100 digital camera. The ZS100 is fatter but can still squeak into a large shirt pocket.

Compare body sizes:

  • 102 x 58 x 41 mm (4.02 x 2.28 x 1.61) Sony RX100 versions III and IV
  • 111 x 65 x 44 mm (4.37 x 2.56 x 1.73″) Panasonic ZS100

Related reading: why larger sensors can improve image quality.

Panasonic ZS100 beats macro focus of Sony RX100

ZS100 captures best macro (close focus) when zoomed by 2x, near 44mm equivalent, to minimize excessive corner softness seen at wider angles of view. You must first press the Macro (Flower symbol/left toggle) button to focus closest. In contrast, Sony RX100 III focuses closest only at 24mm equivalent (widest angle of view), lacks a dedicated macro mode, and cannot enlarge subjects as much. Panasonic ZS100 can enlarge small subjects more sharply than Sony RX100.

Because macro was one of my main reasons for carrying an RX100 (to supplement a larger-sensor APS-C system with 11x zoom which captured poor macro), a ZS100 now serves better as our backup travel camera for my wife to carry.

Surprisingly good telephoto sharpness

Carrying a pocket camera with 10x zoom around town lets me capture unexpected moments like this at a distance:

Panasonic ZS100 shot at 250mm

Above: A Great Blue Heron on a boat spears a fish along the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop in Seattle, Washington. At 250mm equivalent zoom in sunny conditions, the Panasonic Lumix ZS100 camera captures surprisingly good detail in the heron’s head and feathers (portions shown at 100% pixel view). Even the shadowy “Yamaha” letters look reasonably sharp at the edge of the frame. Photographed at ISO 125, f/5.9, 1/1000th sec.

The above overall image (originally 20 megapixels, 5472 x 3648) can be cropped to isolate the heron at 1764 x 1348 pixels, which is enough to print sharply about 7″ high (at 250dpi). Much better than a smartphone camera, Panasonic ZS100 gives you lots of leeway to share digitally cropped telephoto shots on the internet, as in the example below shrunk to 600 pixels high:

Great Blue Heron spears fish

A Great Blue Heron spears a fish. Photographed along the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Compare digital camera sensor sizes: 1″-Type, 4/3, APS-C, full frame 35mm

Since 2016, a “1-inch Typesensor size now optimizes the portability of serious travel cameras (recommended here). In comparison, cameras using larger APS-C sensors require heftier 11x to 19x travel zoom lenses which struggle to sharpen the edges of the frame. Cameras using bigger full-frame sensors restrict zoom ranges and overburden most travelers. Sensors smaller than “1-inch” size can support super zoom ranges, but at the cost of poor image quality, especially in dim light. Smartphones compensate for tiny cameras via computational power and instantly-shareable images, but zoom poorly and fumble in dim light.

The archaic inch-sizing of camera light sensors is clarified in the illustration and table below, with relative sizes and millimeters. Legacy sizing labels such as 1/2.5″ Type harken back to antiquated 1950s-1980s Vidicon video camera tubes!

For a given year of technological advance, a camera with physically bigger sensor area tends to capture better image quality by gathering more light, but at the cost of larger-diameter, bulkier lenses. Recent digital sensor advances have shrunk cameras and increased optical zoom ranges while preserving image quality. An evocative image can clearly be created with any decent camera in the hands of a skilled or lucky photographer. Top smartphone cameras can potentially make good 18-inch prints and share publishable pictures. But I recommend a bigger camera for superior optical zoom, better performance in dim light, and sharper prints.

Below, compare sensor sizes for digital cameras:

Sensor size comparisons for digital cameras - PhotoSeek.com

This illustration compares digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm (which is actually 36mm wide), APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger-diameter, bulkier lenses. As of 2018, 1-inch Type sensors optimize the size of a serious travel camera. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0 In comparison, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

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1″-Type sensor size is now optimal for travel camera portability

I upgrade my digital camera every 2-4 years because the latest devices keep beating older models. Since 2016, 1″-Type sensors optimize the bulk of serious travel cameras, as in the following which capture excellent dynamic range (bright to dark) with exceptionally fast autofocus:

  • The best & brightest pocketable zoom camera is Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI (at Amazon) (2018, 11 oz, 8x zoom 24–200mm f/2.8-4.5) — my new backpacking camera. Read my RX100M6 review.
  • Cheaper alternative: Panasonic LUMIX ZS100 camera (Amazon) (2016, 11oz, 10x zoom, 25-250mm equivalent, 20mp). The pocketable ZS100 (read my review) is not as sharp as the 3x-zoom Sony RX100 V, IV or III cameras, but captures close macro at more zoom settings and enormously extends optical telephoto reach 70-250mm, which clearly beats digitally cropping those 3x-zoom rivals.
  • Capturing 20 high-quality megapixels, both the Panasonic ZS100 and superior Sony RX100 version VI rival the daylight image quality of all my camera systems used over 34 years until 2012 (beating my cameras up to 4 times heavier, up to 11x zoom range, up to 12 megapixels, shot at base ISO 100).
  • My main camera: Sony RX10 IV (price at Amazon) (2018, 37 oz, 25x zoom) is the world’s most versatile midsize camera for on-the-go photographers (read my RX10 IV review).

APS-C size sensor and larger

Although I prefer the above portable all-in-one solutions for travel convenience, the following top APS-C-sensor camera lets you interchange lenses and capture less noise in dim light at ISO 3200+:

Traditionalists wanting an optical viewfinder, more lens choices, and night photography may pick a bulkier DSLR-style camera with APS-C sensor:

The next step up to full-frame-sensor cameras costs extra, adds bulk, and is only needed if you regularly shoot in dim light higher than ISO 6400 (such as for indoor action), or often print images larger than 2 or 3 feet in size (to be viewed closer than their longest dimension by critically sharp eyes), or specialize in night photography.

But there’s no need to go overboard. Let’s put this in perspective: huge effective billboards can be printed from small 3-megapixel cameras (read my article).

How to compare cameras

  • My CAMERAS article updates Light Travel camera recommendations several times per year.
  • If possible, compare cameras shot side-by-side under a variety of actual field conditions (which I do just before selling a former camera to confirm the quality of the new replacement camera). I like to “pixel-peep” a side-by-side comparison of two different cameras capturing the same subject under same lighting conditions in the field. Be sure to mentally or digitally normalize any two given shots to compare their fine detail as if printed with equal overall image size.
  • I judge image quality and resolution not by megapixel (MP) count but instead by comparing standardized studio test views at 100% pixel enlargement.
  • Check resolvable lines per picture height (LPH) at the authoritative dpreview.com (owned by Amazon since 2007) and handy Comparometer at imaging-resource.com.
  • Check other review sites analyzing a camera’s telephoto in addition to standard lens.

Yearly advances of 2014-16 put the sweet spot for serious travel cameras between 1”-Type and APS-C size sensors. Then from 2016-2018, camera designs using 1”-Type sensors surpassed the portability of APS-C offerings.

Most cheaper compact cameras have smaller but noisier sensors such as 1/2.3″ Type (6.17 x 4.56 mm) — tiny enough to miniaturize a superzoom lens, but poor for capturing dim light or for enlarging prints much beyond 12-18 inches.

Smartphones can have even tinier sensors, such as 1/3.0″ Type (4.8 mm x 3.6 mm) in Apple iPhone versions 5S through 8. Remarkably, top smartphone cameras have improved miniature sensors to the point where citizen journalists can capture newsworthy photos with image quality good enough for fast sharing and quick international publication. The best cameras are in the latest Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy, and Apple iPhones. My former Samsung Note5 smartphone (same camera as in S6 & S7 with 1/2.6″ sensor) captures sunny 16-megapixel images sufficient to make a sharp 18-inch print, virtually indistinguishable from that taken by a larger camera.

Smartphone tips: To isolate subjects, avoid the digital zoom on smartphones, which records extra pixels without adding quality. Instead move closer before shooting, or crop at editing time. Use your phone’s 2x telephoto camera (~50mm equivalent lens), if any. Tiny subjects can be enlarged best at close focus using the 2x tele lens, as on Samsung Galaxy S9+ or my Note9.

Read this pointed perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. Historically, evocative images can clearly be captured regardless of camera size or modernity. But for a given year of technological advance, tiny-sensor cameras can have severe limitations compared to physically larger cameras in terms of print enlargement, autofocus speed, blurred performance in dim/indoor light, and so forth. The “best” travel camera is the one that you are willing to carry.

More details:

The non-standardized fractional-inch sensor sizing labels such as 1/2.5-inch Type and 1/1.7″ Type confusingly refer to antiquated 1950s-1980s Vidicon video camera tubes. When you see those archaic “inch” size labels, instead look up the actual length and width in millimeters reported in the specifications for each camera:

Table of camera sensor size, area, and diagonal crop factor relative to 35mm full-frame

Sensor Type Diagonal (mm) Width (mm) Height (mm) Sensor Area (in square millimeters) Full frame sensor area is x times bigger Diagonal crop factor* versus full frame
1/3.2″ (Apple iPhone 5 smartphone 2012) 5.68 4.54 3.42 15.50 55 7.6
1/3.0″ (Apple iPhone 8, 7, 6, 5S smartphone) 6.00 4.80 3.60 17.30 50 7.2
1/2.6″ Type (Samsung Galaxy S9, Note9, S8, S7, S6, Note5) 6.86 5.5 4.1 22.55 38 6.3
1/2.5″ Type 7.18 5.76 4.29 24.70 35 6.0
1/2.3″ Type (Canon PowerShot SX280HS, Olympus Tough TG-2) 7.66 6.17 4.56 28.07 31 5.6
1/1.7″ (Canon PowerShot S95, S100, S110, S120) 9.30 7.44 5.58 41.51 21 4.7
1/1.7″ (Pentax Q7) 9.50 7.60 5.70 43.30 20 4.6
2/3″ (Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone with 41 MP camera; Fujifilm X-S1, X20, XF1) 11.00 8.80 6.60 58.10 15 3.9
Standard 16mm Film Frame 12.7 10.26 7.49 76.85 11 3.4
1” Type (Sony RX100 & RX10, Nikon CX, Panasonic ZS100, ZS200, FZ1000) 15.86 13.20 8.80 116 7.4 2.7
Micro Four Thirds, 4/3 21.60 17.30 13 225 3.8 2.0
APS-C: Canon EF-S 26.70 22.20 14.80 329 2.6 1.6
APS-C: Nikon DX, Sony NEX/Alpha DT, Pentax K 28.2 – 28.4 23.6 – 23.7 15.60 368 – 370 2.3 1.52 – 1.54
35mm full-frame (Nikon FX, Sony Alpha/Alpha FE, Canon EF) 43.2 – 43.3 36 23.9 – 24.3 860 – 864 1.0 1.0
Kodak KAF 39000 CCD Medium Format 61.30 49 36.80 1803 0.48 0.71
Hasselblad H5D-60 Medium Format 67.08 53.7 40.2 2159 0.40 0.65
Phase One P 65+, IQ160, IQ180 67.40 53.90 40.40 2178 0.39 0.64
IMAX Film Frame 87.91 70.41 52.63 3706 0.23 0.49

* Crop Factor: Note that a “full frame 35mm” sensor/film size (about 36 x 24 mm) is a common standard for comparison, having a diagonal field of view crop factor of 1.0. The debatable term crop factor comes from an attempt by 35mm-film users to understand how much the angle of view of their existing full-frame lenses would narrow (increase in telephoto power) when mounted on digital SLR (DSLR) cameras which had sensor sizes (such as APS-C) which are smaller than 35mm.

With early DSLR cameras, many photographers were concerned about the loss of image quality or resolution by using a digital sensor with a light-gathering area smaller than 35mm film. However, for my publishing needs, APS-C-size sensor improvements easily surpassed my scanning of 35mm film by 2009.

An interesting number for comparing cameras is “Full frame sensor area is x times bigger” in the above table.

  • In comparison to full a frame sensor, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5-inch Type sensor crops the light gathering surface 6.0 times smaller diagonally, or 35 times smaller in area.
  • An APS-C size sensor gathers about 15 times more light (area) than a 1/2.5” Type sensor and 2.4 times less than full frame.
    • APS-C sensors in Nikon DX, Pentax, and Sony E have 1.5x diagonal field of view crop factor.
    • APS-C sensors in Canon EF-S DSLRs have 1.6x diagonal field of view crop factor.
  • 1 stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of gathered light. Doubling a sensor’s area theoretically gathers one stop more light.

Lens quality & diameter also affect image quality

For improving image quality, the quality and diameter of the lens can rival the importance of having a physically larger sensor area. Prime (non-zoom) lenses usually are sharpest for larger prints, but zoom lenses are more versatile and recommended for travelers.

A small sensor can beat larger with newer design (BSI) plus faster optics:

In my side-by-side field tests, the sharp, bright 25x zoom of Sony RX10 III (read my version IV review)resoundingly beats the resolution of 11x SEL18200 lens on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 at 90+ mm equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. (Wider angle zoom settings show little quality difference.) Apparently RX10’s faster f/2.4-4 lens plus backside illumination (BSI) technology magically compensate for the sensor size difference, 1″-Type versus APS-C. Like most APS-C-sensor cameras in 2016, A6300 lacks BSI. Surprisingly little noise affects RX10’s image quality at high ISO 6400 in dim light. Its larger lens diameter gathering more light also helps in this comparison (72mm filter size of RX10 III versus 67mm SEL18200 on A6300).

Larger lens diameter can help dim light photography:

In my field tests, the linear sharpness of Sony’s high-quality SEL1670Z 3x zoom f/4 lens on flagship A6300 is only about 5% better than Sony RX10 III f/2.4-4 in bright light in the wider half of its 24-105mm equivalent range, but no better in dim light. I expect that RX10’s catch-up in quality under dim light is due to superior light sensitivity of BSI sensor plus larger lens diameter gathering more light, 72mm versus 55mm.

Using sweet spot of full-frame lenses on APS-C may not improve quality:

In principle, you might expect a slightly sharper image on an APS-C sensor when using the sweet spot of a lens designed for a full frame (which has a larger imaging circle), but results actually vary, especially when using older film-optimized lenses. In fact, a lens which is designed and optimized specially “for digital, for APS-C” can equal or exceed the quality of an equivalent full-frame lens on the same sensor, while also reducing bulk and weight (as in the Sony E-mount example further below).

Theoretically, new full-frame lenses “designed for digital” (using image-space telecentric design) may perform better on a digital sensor than would older lenses designed for film:

  • Unlike film, digital sensors receive light best when struck squarely rather than at a grazing angle.
  • Digital cameras perform best with lenses optimized specially “for digital”, using image-space telecentric designs, in which all the rays land squarely on the sensor (as opposed to having incoming rays emerge at the same angle as they entered, as in a pinhole camera). The light buckets (sensels) on digital sensors require light rays to be more parallel than with film (to enter at close to a 90 degree angle to the sensor).
  • Film can record light at more grazing angles than a digital sensor. Because older film-optimized lenses bend light to hit the sensor at more of a glancing angle, they reduce light-gathering efficiency and cause more vignetting around the edges (which is somewhat mitigated by the image circle being cropped by the APS-C sensor, which uses just the center part of the full-frame lens).
Side-by-side testing works better than theory to distinguish lenses:

Compare the following two Sony E-mount zoom lenses, full-frame versus APS-C:

  1. 2015 full-frame “Sony E-mount FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS” lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equivalent).
  2. 2010 APS-C “Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (silver SEL-18200)” lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv).

Both lenses are optimized for digital, yet the APS-C lens is much lighter weight and performs equal to or better than the full-frame lens. Side-by-side comparisons and also DxOMark tests on a Sony A6000 camera show that while they are about equally sharp, the Sony 24-240 has more distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration than the 18-200mm.

Raw format and advantages of large sensors over small

For a given angle of view, cameras with larger sensors can achieve a shallower depth of field than smaller sensors, a feature which movie makers and portrait photographers like to use for blurring the background (at brightest aperture setting, smallest F number value) to draw more attention to the focused subject. Conversely, smaller-sensor cameras like the Sony RX10 III and RX100 III tend to be much better at capturing close-focus (macro) shots with great depth of field (especially at wide angle), at ISO up to 800. But the macro advantages of small-sensor cameras can diminish in dim light or when shooting at ISO higher than 800.

Landscape photographers often prefer to capture a deep depth of field, which can be achieved with both small and large sensor cameras. Optimal edge-to-edge sharpness usually occurs when stopping down the aperture once or twice from brightest opening, such as between f/4 to f/5.6 on 1-inch Type sensor, or between f/5.6 to f/8 on APS-C (which also helps diminish chromatic aberrations). Stopping down further with f/numbers larger than this increases depth of field, but worsens diffraction through the smaller pupil opening (such as at f/11-f/16 on 1″ sensor or f/22 on APS-C), noticeably softening detail.

To maximize raw dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark, use base ISO (around ISO 100 or 200 in most digital still cameras), rather than higher ISO settings which amplify noise (blotchiness at the pixel level, most-visibly in shadows). However, using the latest full-frame sensors at high ISO values 6400+ can capture unprecedentedly low noise and open new possibilities for dim-light action photography at hand-held shutter speeds, indoors or at night.

Without the help of a flash, night and dim indoor photography is best with a full-frame sensor to gather more light with less noise. Low-noise night photography is usually best shot on a tripod at slow shutter speeds in raw format between ISO 100 and 800 (or as high as 1600-3200 on the latest large sensors).

For a given year of technological advance, cameras with larger sensors typically capture a wider dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark per image than smaller sensors, with less noise. In 2016, Sony’s 1″-Type backside illumination (BSI) sensors capture sufficient dynamic range for my needs.

Camera raw format allows editing recovery of several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost (truncated) in JPEG file format (if overexposed or underexposed). Alternatively, PC software or camera firmware using HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging lets any size of sensor greatly increase an image’s dynamic range by combining multiple exposures. But for me, the great dynamic range of a single raw file (from 1″-Type BSI or APS-C sensor) usually makes shooting extra images for HDR unnecessary.

Despite advanced circuitry, cameras are not smart enough to know which subjects are supposed to be white, black, or midtone in brightness. By default, all cameras underexpose scenes where white tones (such as snow) predominate, and overexpose highlights in scenes where black tones predominate. IMPORTANT TIP: To correctly expose for all tones, you need to lock exposure upon a perceived midtone (such as a gray card; or on a line halfway between light and shadow) in the same light as your framed subject.

For greatest editing flexibility, rather than shooting JPEG format, serious photographers should record and edit images in raw format, which is supported in advanced cameras (but often not in small-sensor devices). Editing raw format fully recovers badly-exposed images − allowing you to “point and shoot” more freely than with JPEG. Even so, I carefully shoot to expose each histogram to the far right while avoiding truncation of highlights, in order to capture the highest signal-to-noise ratio in each scene. Try to stay close to base ISO 100 or 200. I typically first shoot a test shot on automatic Aperture-preferred priority, inspect the histogram, check any blinking highlight warnings, then compensate subsequent shots using Manual Exposure (or temporary Exposure Lock grabbed from the scene). Tonal editing of JPEGs can quickly truncate color channels or accumulate round-off errors, often making the image appear pasty, pixelated, or posterized. White Balance (Color Balance) is easily adjustable after shooting raw files, but tonal editing often skews colors oddly in JPEG. 12-bit Raw format has 16 times the tonal editing headroom and color accuracy compared to JPEG (which has only 8 bits per pixel per red, green, or blue color channel). In their favor, automatic point-and-shoot JPEG camera exposure modes get smarter every year, making advanced larger cameras less necessary for many people.

Detailed full-frame comparison of low-light Sony A7S 12 MP versus A7R 36 MP

How can we distinguish the image quality captured by different cameras? Images are best compared at a normalized pixel level (with fine detail examined on a monitor as if printed with equal overall image size) after shooting side-by-side in the field with comparable lens and shutter speed settings. Consider two sibling full-frame-sensor cameras:

  1. Sony Alpha A7S (12 MP of large-bucket photosites optimized for high ISO, low light, and videography plus stills, new in 2015) versus
  2. Sony Alpha A7R (36 megapixels of smaller-bucket photosites optimized for high resolution, new in 2014)

Despite its tinier but denser photosite buckets (also called sensels or pixel wells for catching light photons), the 36 MP Sony Alpha A7R beats the dynamic range of 12 MP Sony Alpha A7S in a normalized comparison of raw files (see dpreview article). While both cameras spread their photosites across the same surface area of a full-frame sensor, the 36 MP A7R trumps the 12 MP A7S for exposure latitude flexibility in raw post-processing at ISO 100 through 6400. Overall image quality of the 12 MP A7S doesn’t beat the A7R until ISO 12,800 and higher (but only in the shadows through midtones under low-light conditions). Sony A7S is better for low-light videographers, whereas A7R is better for low-light landscape photographers who value high resolution and dynamic range.

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Digital versus film for travel photography

Tom began using 35mm film (135 film cartridge) in 1978 and switched to digital cameras after 2004. This article explains why:

Digital versus Film for Travel Photography 2009” PDF document
compares and reviews digital cameras versus film through 2009.

See my latest camera model recommendations.

Read the book “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” for the story of how a photographer’s switch from film to digital cameras inspired new creativity. Get more out of your digital camera using Tom Dempsey’s helpful tips.


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BEST 2018 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

Top recommended travel cameras (smartphone, pocketsize, midsize, DSLR, full frame) as of September 2018.

Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable camera gear for on-the-go photographers:

  1. Smartphones (Part A) compensate for tiny cameras via computation, but zoom poorly and can struggle in dim light. Top phones include Samsung Galaxy S9+, Google Pixel 2 and Apple iPhone.
  2. Sharper prints can be made from the top pocketsize camera (Part B; read my RX100M6 review): 8x zoom Sony RX100 VI (Amazon) with 1-inch Type sensor. Or save 55% using Panasonic ZS100. Cheaper still is a smaller-sensor Panasonic ZS70.
  3. For publishing, I prefer this midsize camera (Part C)Sony RX10 IV (Amazon) with versatile 25x zoom lens which outshines rival APS-C sensor systems. Read my RX10M4 review. Much cheaper, a crisp 16x-zoom Panasonic FZ1000 (29 oz) beats the bulk & cost of DSLR systems.
  4. Traditionalists wanting an optical viewfinder, more lens choices, and night photography may pick a bulkier DSLR-style camera with APS-C sensor (Part D). A good-value 32-ounce DSLR travel system is Nikon D3500 mounted with Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC lens.
  5. Much pricier and heavier full-frame sensor cameras (Part E) may attract elite photographers seeking indoor or night images at high ISO 6400+. With its digital sensor size matching legacy 35mm film, Sony Alpha A7 II is a good value.

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Sony RX10 III camera

The world’s most versatile midsize camera: Sony RX10 IV or III has a dust-sealed 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent, bright f/2.4-4 lens.

TOP TRAVEL CAMERAS in more detail

Part A. Top smartphone cameras

zoom poorly but compensate for tiny cameras via vast computational power, with superior AUTO HDR, good close focus, and incredible ease-of-use with instant photo sharing. I recommend these:

Unlocked” lets you pick a lower-priced wireless service provider. Outside your home country, eliminate roaming charges via your phone’s “WiFi Calling” feature; or buy a cheap SIM with generous data.

To save money on your US wireless carrier, try my favorite: Consumer Cellular (external link), which uses the full AT&T network more cheaply, with top customer service. (Tell CC that Thomas Dempsey #102558526 referred you.) If cell reception is poor where WiFi is strong, turn on your phone’s “WiFi Calling”, which also works in most countries outside of USA when calling US phone numbers.

Part B. World’s best pocketsize travel cameras:

Although expensive, the best & brightest pocketable 8x-zoom camera is now the

Since Sony RX100M6 is very expensive, consider the following cheaper options (best travel zooms shown first):

  1. Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9). Read my ZS100 review.
  2. Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (2018, 12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 15x zoom, but sibling ZS100 is sharper and brighter through 10x.
  3. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 versions IV, III, II, or I: within its limited 3x zoom is sharper and brighter than that sub-range of Panasonic’s 10x-zoom ZS100. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 III review.
  4. Best value pocketable superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 20mp, EVF). Or save on older ZS60.
  5. Cheapest: Canon PowerShot ELPH 170 IS (2015, 5 oz, 25-300mm equiv lens, 1/2.3″ sensor).
  6. Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-5 (2018, 9 oz, 25-100mm, f/2.0-4.9 lens) compromises image quality but makes nice underwater movies. Or, a cheap CaliCase Universal Waterproof Case takes your smartphone snorkeling underwater, but beware that 2 out of 4 copies I received softened camera resolution with a milky stain. For hiking in the rain, try a waterproof Samsung Galaxy Note9 or S9 Plus.

TIP: As a workaround for sluggish autofocus (AF) in cheaper compact cameras: prefocus (lock) on a contrasty edge of the subject by half pressing and holding the shutter button, then the subsequent full press will be instant, ≤ 0.15 second. But half-press autofocus lock doesn’t work in continuous focus or action modes. Don’t let an inferior camera frustrate your capture of action, people, pets, or sports. For surer action shots, consider a newer model with hybrid AF such as pocketsize Panasonic ZS100, Sony RX100, or midsize RX10 or Panasonic FZ1000 or interchangeable-lens camera. 

Part C. World’s best midsize travel camera:

But if you mostly photograph indoor action (such as kids & pets) or events (weddings) or need advanced autofocus in dim light, consider a larger APS-C sensor:

Other good midsize cameras include:

  1. Panasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm f/2.8–4.5, 20mp): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), and has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K) in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  2. Best midsize camera for the money: Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with fast-focusing 16x zoom lens 25-400mm equiv, bright f/2.8-4, 20mp, 1″-Type BSI sensor) rivals the zoom quality of APS-C-sensor and DSLR systems of this weight, for a cheaper price.

A smaller, noisier 1/2.3″-Type sensor extends zoom range in the following midsize cameras (but images from one of the above cameras should be crisper, even when cropped to achieve equivalent telephoto):

  1. Panasonic Lumix FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, weather sealed).
  2. Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 32 oz, 16mp, 24–2000mm equivalent 83X zoom lens).

TIP: Upgrade your camera every 2 or 3 years as I do to get better real resolution, lower noise at higher ISO speeds ( ≥ 800), and quicker autofocus. Since 2009, most cameras take sharper hand-held shots using optical image stabilization (branded as Nikon VR, Canon IS, Panasonic OIS, Sigma OS, Tamron VC, Sony OSS). Today’s cameras capture much better highlight and shadow detail, by using better sensors plus automatic HDR (high dynamic range) imaging and other optimizations for JPEG files. On advanced models, I always edit raw format images to recover several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost with JPEG.

What makes an ideal travel camera?

The “best” travel camera is the one you want to carry everywhere. The best Light Travel cameras (as chosen above) should minimize bulk and weight while maximizing sensor dimensions (read article), zoom range, lens diameter, battery life ( ≥ 350 shots), and ISO “sensitivity” (for lower noise in dim light). An optimally sharp zoom lens should change the angle of view by 8x to 25x to rapidly frame divergent subjects, without the extra bulk or annoyance of swapping lenses. Lenses should autofocus fast (with hybrid AF minimizing shutter lag ≤ 0.3 sec), optically stabilize images, and focus closely (for macro). Travel cameras should pop up a built-in flash and also flip out (articulate/hinge/swivel) a high-resolution display screen to jump-start your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting at arm’s length. OLED displays usually outshine LCD. Sunny-day reflections often obscure display-screen visibility − but to save bulk, most pocket cameras sadly lack a viewfinder. A camera with a brilliant electronic viewfinder (preferably an EVF with ≥ 1 million dots) gives better feedback on the final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder

Related camera history: Tom Dempsey’s travel cameras adopted from 1978 to now.

Part D. Best-value DSLR-style travel camera

features an optical viewfinder using a legacy mirror box, for good price value:

Best wide angle lenses for Nikon DX format (APS-C sensor):

  1. Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens for Nikon (2013, 19 oz) is sharper than f/3.5-f/4 rivals.
  2. Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (2012, 19 oz) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics.
  3. Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM lens (2013, 28.5 oz, 3.1 x 4.8″, 27-52.5mm equivalent) is the world’s first zoom having a constant f/1.8 brightest aperture and is the sharpest wide-angle lens (including primes) as of 2014! Shoot this “Art” series lens sharpest at around f/2.8 throughout the zoom. Sigma DC lenses are optimized for cameras with APS-C size sensors.
  4. See related article: “BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for DSLR.”

The following telephoto lenses seriously magnify wildlife, birds, and sports with optical stabilization and also full-frame coverage, for Nikon bodies:

  1. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Nikon (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2 inches, best telephoto reach for the money).
  2. Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM for Nikon (2012, 120 ounces, 4.8 x 11.5″) unbeatable sharpness, bright f/2.8 zoom.
  3. See related article: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+

Recommended close focus/macro lenses for DSLR cameras (for macro enlargement of insects and plants, copy work, and extra-sharp general photography):

  • Nikon AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED Macro Autofocus lens (15 oz) with fast SWM (Silent Wave Motor) and IF (Internal Focusing), captures true macro 1:1 reproduction ratio.
  • Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens for APS-C sensors (12 oz) captures true 1:1 reproduction ratio; for a Canon body.
  • Compared to the above 60mm lenses, longer macro lenses such as 100mm and 105mm give you a few more inches of comfortable working distance from the front of the lens (to avoid startling insects) and can have a different bokeh (character of out-of-focus areas), but at the cost of larger size, weight, and expense.
  • Instead of carrying one of the above prime macro lenses for a DSLR camera, consider carrying a pocket camera or smartphone which can focus very closely at wide angle with deep depth of field, and can serve as a backup for your larger/main camera. Better yet, don’t get a DSLR — instead, do everything well with 25x zoom Sony RX10 III or IV (Tom’s review; with best macro at 600mm f/5.6). Or a cheaper Panasonic ZS100 captures good close focus shots at 45mm equivalent after Macro/Flower symbol button is pressed.

Historical DSLR comparison: Nikon D3300 offers more for your money (at a lighter travel weight) than Canon EOS Rebel cameras of 2014 and earlier. Also, the earlier Nikon D3200 beats Canon Rebel DSLR cameras of 2012. The best mirrorless designs can pack more quality into a smaller box, but DSLR cameras offer more specialty lenses, with a design legacy inherited from the 35mm film era, where an optical viewfinder’s mirror box adds bulk.

Part E. Best full-frame-sensor travel camera:

Full-frame-sensor cameras excel at indoor, night, and very-large-print photography, but require bulkier lenses, often with limited zoom ranges. Full-frame sensors can resolve more detail with less noise in dim light at high ISO 3200+ when compared to APS-C and smaller sensors of a given year. The lightest-weight, best-price-value, full frame-sensor camera is Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless camera (17 oz body, 24mp, 2013), or Sony Alpha A7 II (2014, 21 oz), or newer Sony A7R II. The A7 series requires Sony FE (full frame) E-mount lenses.

The A7R (2014, 16.4 oz) captures 36mp. In contrast, A7S (2015, 17 oz) has 12mp optimized with large photosites and more sensitive autofocus great for low-light videographers, but its stills require ISO 12,800+ to beat A7R’s 36mp image quality. Instead of having an optical viewfinder like a DSLR, the A7, A7II, A7R, and A7S have a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 2.4 million dots (XGA). The 3-inch tilting LCD has 1.23 million dots (except 921,000 on A7S). New Hybrid AF builds phase-detection autofocus into the sensor, capturing 5 fps with continuous autofocus. With contrast-detection autofocus only, A7S shoots 5 fps and A7R shoots 4 fps. Weatherproof bodies.

As an alternative, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1 full frame compact camera (17 oz with 35mm f/2 fixed-lens, non-interchangeable, 24mp, 2012) fits in a coat pocket; but the optical viewfinder/rangefinder is a costly add-on. Shooting as high as ISO 25,000 still captures usable pictures.

Nikon D750 DSLR camera (26.5 oz body, 24mp, 2014) is excellent. 6.5 fps continuous shooting. Tilting 3.2″ RGBW LCD screen has 1.23 million dots. Long 1230 shots CIPA battery life. Uses Full frame Nikon F Mount/FX Format lenses.

Nikon D810 DSLR camera (big 35 oz body, 36mp, 2014) camera demands highest quality full frame Nikon F Mount/FX format lenses and excites professional studio and landscape photographers with its very high resolution (3200 lph raw for D800 and better in D810) rivaling the quality of medium format film for making big fine-art prints. In dim light at dusk, dawn, or indoors, capture low-noise images at high ISOs 6400 to 12,800 — even ISO 25,600 can look good in small prints. Capture unprecedented dynamic range in raw files from bright to dark. Unfortunately it has very slow autofocus using LCD Live View (fixed by using mirrorless Sony A7). Frames per second at full res FX mode has increased to 5 fps for sports (versus 4 fps in D800, or 6 fps if DX frame size).

Nikon D610 DSLR camera (30 oz body, 24 mp, 2013) costs less than D800. Captures less noise than Sony NEX-7 by 2-3 stops of ISO when set at ≥3200. Raw resolution up to 2800 lph.

Tom recommends these accessories:

  1. Buy extra Wasabi Power brand batteries (from Blue Nook / Amazon.com).
  2. Portable Charger Battery Pack: Mi Premium Power Bank Pro 10000mAh, 18W Fast Charging Slim. Great for travelling away from electrical outlets! It efficiently powers a phone 40% longer than rival Anker PowerCore 10000, says PCMag. It thankfully supports pass-through charging of itself AND your device at the same time. Fits most phones; includes USB-C adapter cable.
  3. SanDisk Extreme PRO 128GB UHS-I/U3 SDXC Flash Memory Card (buy at Amazon) fits weeks of shooting, great for 4K video. Or cheaper: SanDisk 16GB Extreme SDHC Memory Card.
  4. A clear glass filter protects precious lenses from scratches & catastrophic drops. I speak from experience! Get a clear glass filter, NOT a UV filter, which modern multi-coated lenses have made redundant. Example: high quality B+W 72mm XS-Pro Clear MRC-Nano 007M Filter fits my Sony RX10 III (read article).
  5. Mount a circular polarizing filter (B+W brand at Amazon) only to remove reflections or haze, or to contrast clouds with polarized sky. Don’t forget to immediately take it off for all other conditions, as it can block 1-1.5 stops of light.
  6. 2x Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver Duo triggers your flash or camera wirelessly at distances up to 328 feet.
  7. Critical editing & organizing software: Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom Classic CC 7.x and Photoshop CC) speeds modification (non-destructively), editing, sorting, and labeling of images. Lightroom version 6 added Photo Merge to Panorama and HDR. In 2016, Lightroom CC subscription added Boundary Warp essential for stitching panoramas quicker, and Dehaze to remove haze in skies & glass, as a leap beyond Clarity. (Adobe Photoshop software lets advanced users manipulate complex Layers such as for printing, or CMYK color space for publishing.) If your Lightroom CC subscription expires, you can still view, organize and export (but not Develop) images.
  8. Free editor for stitching panoramas from multiple overlapping images: Image Composite Editor (ICE) (from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group) was faster and sharper than my old Photoshop CS5.
  9. Canon Pixma Pro-100 photo printer (new in 2013, with 8 color dye cartridges) makes economical, vibrant high-quality prints up to 13 x 19 inches, lasting about 30 years behind glass before fading. But the following pigment inkjet printers make longer-lasting prints: Canon Pixma Pro-10 printer (2013, with 10 color pigment cartridges) and Epson SureColor P600 printer (2015, with 9 color Ultrachrome HD pigment cartridges, makes superior black & white prints, prints on thicker paper up to 1.3mm thick, supports roll paper, but costs $250 more plus 20% more per print).
  10. Tamrac digital camera bag protects your precious device on the road.
  11. Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” Tripod has a built-in quick-change plate, good for small cameras.
  12. Datacolor Spyder4Express Color Calibration System: Calibrate your PC monitor and laptop before printing photo files so editing efforts match color standards without color shifts. The pricier Datacolor Spyder4Elite Display Calibration System accounts for ambient light and calibrates projectors. Better yet, get a factory precalibrated monitor like mine: ASUS PA328Q 32″ 16:9 4K/UHD IPS Monitor
  13. Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE scanner (2014) reincarnates your slides & film digitally, with important infrared/ICE removal of dust & scratches.

TIPS for travel in adverse conditions

  1. Weather & dust protection: Prudent bagging can avoid the extra expense of a weather-sealed body & lens – keep a camera handy, safely in a front pouch on your chest or hip (where it can be retrieved more quickly than from a pack on your back). Adverse fluctuations of temperature & humidity, or dusty conditions, or sea spray all require cameras to be double-protected in a zip-lock plastic bag inside the padded pouch. Use a soft, absorbent silk cloth to wipe away moisture or dust from lens & body before bagging.
  2. Cold batteries: Using camera batteries below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 Celsius) loses their charge quicker, causing camera shut down or lock. Revive and extend battery life in cold or below-freezing weather by warming an extra battery or two in an interior pocket near your skin and swapping with the camera’s battery after every 5-10 minutes of cold exposure.
  3. Satellite communication: Stay in touch everywhere in the world via Iridium satellite with DeLorme inReach Explorer (7 oz; buy at Amazon): send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates (accurate to five meters) to cell numbers or email addresses worldwide and post updates to social media. This new, affordable technology connects campers, hikers, hunters, backpackers, alpinists, and backcountry skiers who often venture outside of cell phone networks. The portable 7-ounce device includes a color-coded map with waypoints, elevation readings, current speed, average moving speed, and compass. Also, you can trigger an SOS, receive delivery confirmation, and communicate with DeLorme’s 24/7 search-and-rescue monitoring center.

Terminology and metric conversions

  • oz = ounces. Above camera weights in ounces (oz) include battery and memory card.
  • g = grams. Multiple ounces by 28.35 to get grams.
  • sec = second.
  • mm = millimeters. A centimeter (cm) equals 10 millimeters. Multiply centimeters (cm) by 0.3937 to get inches.
  • ILC = Interchangeable Lens Compact = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
  • DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex = a traditional camera where an optical viewfinder uses a mirror to see through the interchangeable lens.
  • EVF = Electronic Viewfinder.
  • LCD = Liquid Crystal Display.
    • OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) beats an LCD in dynamic range from darkest to brightest and consumes less power.
  • LPH or LPPH = resolvable lines per picture height = the best empirical measure of real resolution of a camera’s sensor for a given lens (independent of pixel pitch or megapixel count). A camera with higher LPH can make sharper large prints. Look up cameras on dpreview.com to find absolute vertical LPH judged by photographing a PIMA/ISO 12233 camera resolution test chart under standardized lighting conditions. Note which lens, settings, and camera body was used in each test, and compare with others within the same web site.
  • equivalent lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equiv or equivalent lens refers to what would be the lens focal length (measured in mm or millimeters) that would give the same angle of view on a “full frame35mm-size sensor (or 35mm film camera, using 135 film cartridge).
    • Compared lenses are “equivalent” only in terms of angle of view. (To determine sharpness or quality, read lens reviews which analyze at 100% pixel views.)
    • Crop factor” = how many times smaller is the diagonal measurement of a small sensor than a “full frame” 35-mm size sensor. For example, the 1.5x crop factor for Nikon DX format (APS-C size sensor) makes a lens labeled 18-200mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 27-300mm focal length lens used on a 35mm film camera. The 2x crop factor for Micro Four Thirds sensors makes a lens labeled 14-140mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 28-280mm lens used on a 35mm film camera.
  • Superzoom lenses
    • In 2013, “superzoom” referred to lenses of about 15x zoom range or larger. Steady quality improvements in the resolving power of sensors has made possible superzoom cameras in ever smaller sizes. As superzoom range increases, laws of physics require lenses to focus upon smaller sensors (light detectors) or else to increase lens size. For a given level (most recent year) of technological advancement, a camera with physically larger sensor (bigger light detecting area) should capture better quality for a given zoom lens range.
    • 10x zoom” = zoom lens telephoto divided by wide angle focal length. For example, a 14-140mm focal length zoom has a 10x zoom range (140 divided by 14). An 18-200mm zoom has an 11x zoom range (200 divided by 18).
  • equivalent” F-stop = refers to the F-stop (F-number) on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the F-stop of the camera lens being compared. The concept of “equivalent” F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of field on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.

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Sensor size comparisons for digital cameras - PhotoSeek.com

In this illustration, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger diameter, bulkier lenses. To optimize the size of a serious travel camera, consider 1-inch Type sensor or up to APS-C sensor size. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor / film size (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0 In comparison, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

Join me and get inspired by what Bill Gates calls his new “favorite book of all time”: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), by Steven Pinker.

2008: Panasonic FZ8 vs FZ7, Canon G7, G9, SD700

Tom compares Panasonic FZ8, FZ7, Canon G6, G7, G9, SD700 IS (2008 cameras), and JPEG versus raw.

“Hi Tom …I was very keen to buy Canon G6 , but as now out of production & very difficult to get hold of , even second hand . The G7’s reviews are mixed especially the absence of RAW [file support]. Do you think this is a big disadvantage , is it something an amature would have much use for ? What are your views of the G7 ? Your photos on your website look great , do you use a Polariser filter to get the colour contrasts ? Particularly enjoy your trekking photos in Switzerland.”  — Regards, from Tony Lord February 6, 2007
[ Information here dates from 2008 for people interested in older cameras. Click BUY > CAMERAS to see the latest recommended gear. ]
Tom Dempsey replied as follows including new information as of February 2008:
  • If like Tony you are attracted to a camera such as the Canon G6, I suggest upgrading to the class-leading image quality of the Canon G9, with 3-inch LCD, raw file support, and 12 megapixels; introduced 10/2007.
  • To save money, try ebay.com or craigslist.org for finding a Canon G6.
  • From compacts to SLRs, today’s digital cameras are much better than cameras of only 2 years previous. Performance of pocket cameras today can sometimes exceed older 35mm film SLRs.
  • Note that your photography skills are much more important than the camera you use. One of the best cameras to have is a small one which you can carry everywhere, such as the shirt-pocket sized Canon SD700 IS, with which I captured these images:

    Powdery snow islands dot Commonwealth Creek in Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

    Powdery snow islands dot Commonwealth Creek in Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Image on right: Snow & ice saucers formed on rocks in Commonwealth Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Washington. Commonwealth Basin makes one of the best snowshoeing trips in the Snoqualmie Pass area along Interstate 90.
A tiny camera such as the Canon SD700 IS ELPH is easy to keep warm in your pocket to capture winter snapshots while snowshoeing or skiing. The Canon SD700IS also lets us record movies of our tango dance instructor (with permission) to remember the steps. It handily records pictures of different flooring, cabinet, and lighting designs as we comparison shop for our kitchen remodel. My wife Carol likes to keep this tiny Canon ELPH (about the size of a pack of playing cards) handy in her purse or daypack for capturing images that inspire her quilting designs.
A yellow flower of a Glacier Lily grows on Scorpion Mountain, a hike (9 miles round trip, 2500 feet total gain) near Skykomish, US Highway 2, Washington, USA. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)
Above left: A glacier Lily on Johnson Ridge in late June, on the hike to Scorpion Mountain (9 miles, 2900 feet round trip), a hike in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, accessible from US Highway 2 near Skykomish, Washington. Digital cameras like the tiny Canon SD700 IS have great macro abilities.
  • If a camera is too big, then you might decide not to carry it everywhere, thus missing many great shots.
  • The Canon G7 is a better camera than the smaller Canon SD700IS. You could be very happy with a G7 which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket. The G7 has 10 megapixels, image stabilized 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, great 0.4″ macro close focus (about 1 cm ) at 35mm, sophisticated DIGIC III processing, bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. [Upgrade to Canon G9for 3-inch LCD, raw and 12 megapixels; introduced 10/2007.]
    • Unfortunately the G7 has no flip-out-and-twist LCD which was a great feature of the Canon G5. [See the excellent Fujifilm FinePix S9100 for a tilting LCD.]
    • The G7 has no raw mode (and battery life is shorter than the G5). [The excellent Canon G9 offers raw.] Also, I prefer a camera which starts zooming with a wider angle such as 28mm equivalent for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together).
    • If you want to print images bigger than about 18 inches, you would need a camera with a lens diameter larger than the G7, to capture more light.
  • Also consider the Panasonic FZ8 as an inexpensive and versatile travel camera for standard sized prints. [FZ8 is cheaper than G7 or G9, but image quality suffers in comparison due to smaller sensor.] FZ8 features: 36-432mm (35mm equiv) 12x zoom lens with stabilization, now includes raw mode, 7.1 megapixels, weighs only 310 g (11 ounces). My brother who is a very discriminating photographer bought a Panasonic FZ7 (which has no raw mode) as a travel & backpacking camera for convenience such as when traveling with children — he likes the FZ7 (versus his older bigger & heavier film system Olympus OM-1). [He later upgraded to the FZ8.] The FZ8 improves upon the FZ7, and probably can make bigger prints.
  • Raw vs JPEG: Most consumers (not professional photographers) are usually happy with JPEGs and not using raw, since raw requires an extra conversion step, which takes a few extra seconds per image (or minutes if you adjust the image). The extra step in using raw adds a lot of extra time when processing dozens or thousands of images like I do — but for me raw is very much worthwhile due to the extra 1 to 2 stops exposure & white balance latitude and editing headroom, which translates into larger print capability, such as 20×30 inches from my Canon Powershot Pro1 (when print is viewed at 30 inches). Sometimes the extra information in raw gives you enough exposure & editing headroom to let you print up to twice as big versus JPEG. The raw conversion step need not take much extra time since you can automate raw conversion to make the defaults look much like the JPEG would have. Raw is much more forgiving than JPEG and lets you adjust white balance, exposure, tone, contrast, saturation, sharpness and so forth after shooting. With JPEG you need to be careful to shoot with the right exposure & white balance, at the risk of irretrievably losing highlight or shadow information (or both).
  • Be cautious when using a polarizer with digital, since may oddly affect white balance, and can make skies look unnaturally dark. But sometimes a polarizer is very important in removing reflections on water & green plants or increasing contrast in the sky, so I keep a polarizer in my kit.
Good luck with your photography.
Bright yellow algae grows in a tarn (mountain pond) which reflects peaks of Dents des Veisivi (left) and Aiguilles de la Tsa (right) above Arolla Valley, part of Val d'Hérens, in Valais (Wallis) Canton, Switzerland, Europe. Hike the High Route (Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route) for classic mountain scenery. Panorama stitched from 2 images. Published in Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures "Inn to Inn Alpine Hiking Adventures" Catalog 2006-2009, 2011. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: Striking yellow algae in a tarn reflecting Les Dents des Veisivi, above the Arolla Valley, Switzerland. On this day we hiked about 8 miles (2900 feet up, 3300 feet down) from Arolla to La Gouille, then we bused to our hotel in Les Haudères. Published in Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures 2006 & 2007 “Inn to Inn Alpine Hiking Adventures” Catalog. Photographed with a Canon Powershot Pro1 camera.

Clint Janson wrote Feb 7, 2007:
“I just discovered your website and viewed all of your Alp hike pages. I have to go back!!! My wife and I stayed in Gimmelwald a few years ago and did some hiking, but it was in march and in the snow and low clouds. Thank you for posting your wonderful pictures of one of the greatest and most beautiful areas in the world. I sent the linkto my Wife (who grew up in Europe and spent many holidays in the Alps) and I know she will be home sick. (which means a trip soon!) Thanks again, you are a very talented Photographer.”

2007: compare Nikon D40X SLR, Canon Pro1, G7, Panasonic FZ8

In 2007, I upgraded from a Canon Powershot Pro1 (2004) to Nikon D40X SLR (2007), mounted with the flexible Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent).

[ I have upgraded cameras since this article was posted. Click here for Tom’s latest camera recommendationsClick here for my personal photo gear history. ]

Cicada insect, Queen Charlotte Track, South Island, New Zealand. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Cicada insect, Queen Charlotte Track, South Island, New Zealand. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Compact versus DSLR cameras

  • Compact cameras can focus very closely with good depth of field, and their live LCD view (like a high definition video camera, capturing stills, movies & sound) makes framing shots easy at arms length over your head or on the ground.
    • To photograph this 1-inch cicada insect (above), I flipped out the LCD at a good viewing angle, I knelt comfortably, and slowly stretched my arms fully towards the insect. In the low forest light, I stabilized the camera against the ground for a sharper image at a slow 1/10th second exposure at f/6.3 aperture. I easily framed the insect by looking down on the live LCD, though accurate focus took several tries.
    • An SLR would have required me to put my head on the ground with my eye to the viewfinder, in a very uncomfortable & dirt-stained position. Also, my tripod would have taken too long to set up before the insect flew away.
    • The Super Macro feature (not found in SLRs) gives extra magnification (at 5 megapixels for the Canon Powershot Pro1, capturing better resolution than digitally cropping the Pro1’s normal 8-megapixel Macro Mode). The Pro1 can focus as close as 1 inch / 2.5 cm using 5 megapixel Super Macro Mode ,which can be impressively “fast”: f/3.0 at 90 mm equivalent.
    • The all-in-one lens in many other modern compact digital cameras can focus as close as 0.5 inches or 1 centimeter, great for macro shots, much closer than most standard SLR lenses.
    • All-in-one lenses and live LCDs on compact cameras let you more spontaneously and creatively capture fleeting moments. You can switch very quickly from macro close focus, to wide view distant focus, to telephoto. Even the smallest compact cameras can make decent prints to 16 inches or A4 size.
  • Disadvantages of SLR-style cameras: Heft and bulk may discourage you from carrying the SLR camera when you need it. Since a good shirt-pocket sized camera can make good prints to 16 inches, an SLR is overkill for most people. A bigger camera won’t make you a better photographer – you can get great shots with most any camera (click here for examples). Since most SLRs don’t have a live view on the LCD (due to their viewfinder mirror blocking the sensor), you must look through their viewfinder to frame shots, which is difficult for low-to-the-ground macro photographs, or for shots held overhead. SLRs may require the inconvenience of switching to separate (expensive) lenses such as for macro. Switching lenses gathers dust on the sensor, which can be hard to clean.
  • Advantages of SLRs over compact cameras:SLRs make bigger prints. SLRs capture less noise at higher ISO settings, giving much better light sensitivity. SLRs shoot with faster shutter response (with little shutter lag) to capture fleeting moments. SLRs capture images with less distortion using higher quality sharper lenses.
    • Of my images in New Zealand this year, I could have improved the print quality of about 50% of the photographs if I had taken them with the D40X SLR with 18-200mm VR lens, which has a longer telephoto and at least 6 f/stops greater light sensitivity.
    • Only 10% of my images (in the form of macro images; movies & sound recordings) would have required my compact Canon Powershot Pro1.

The following question from Chris De Schepper May 16, 2007 motivated this article:

I noticed that you bought a Nikon D40x [described on Tom’s Equipment page]. I am still in doubt about the Canon G7 and I can buy a Nikon D40 with kit lens for nearly the same money. Maybe it would be smarter to get the DSLR and buy eventually later on a cheaper compact. Is there an obvious difference in quality between the pictures taken with your Nikon D40x and your Pro 1 ? I have always used an analogue slr camera and assume that the big advantage in use would be the optical viewfinder in bright sunlight. I would use it a lot for hiking. Disadvantage being the weight of course, but the Nikon is not so heavy. If I buy the G7 I would also buy the adapter for a polaroid filter. kind greetings –  Chris

Tom Dempsey responds:

Nikon D40X SLR, versus compact Canon Pro1, G7, or Panasonic FZ8

In May 2007, I started using a great new lightweight travel camera, the Nikon D40X SLR, mounted with a 27-300mm equivalent zoom with 4 f/stops VR image stabilization. The D40X is Nikon’s answer to the similar lightweight Canon EOS 400D Digital Rebel XTi camera (2 ounces heavier).

I compared the same images shot side by side with my favorite compact camera, the Canon Powershot Pro1, (released 2004) versus the Nikon D40X (new in 2007) mounted with the powerful Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent), which has four f/stops faster hand-held shooting using Vibration Reduction (VR).

Results: The D40X SLR (10-megapixels) captures the same or better quality images in bright daylight, but significantly better quality in low light than the Pro1.

The Canon Powershot Pro1 (8 megapixels) still stands up surprisingly well to the SLR: even though its sensor area is 6 times smaller, the Pro1’s great Canon “L” 28-200mm f/2.4-3.5 lens has excellent light gathering power & sharpness. The Pro1 (25 ounces with battery) compares remarkably well despite being older, much smaller and lighter than the D40X with 18-200mm VR lens (38 ounces with battery). Where there is enough light, such as for outdoor landscapes in the sun, the Pro1 seems equally sharp as the Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens on the D40X.

Putting a better lens on the D40X might more clearly exceed the Pro1’s quality, but that would require multiple separate zooms (extra weight and inconvenience). I prefer an all-in-one zoom lens solution for travel photography, such as this Nikkor VR 27-300mm equivalent. (Note that 8 versus 10 megapixels are not a significant difference when choosing between cameras.)

A compact camera with flip-out-and-twist LCD (such as the Canon Pro1) is more fun to use and great for macro (see cicada insect image above), but the Nikon D40x will capture better images when using the Nikkor 18-200mm VR 11x zoom lens in a greater variety of hand-held dim lighting conditions. Other users report that the D40X captures quality equal to the excellent Nikon D200, which weighs 13 ounces heavier.

Upgrading to the Nikon D40X improves the printing quality of over 50% of my shots, versus using compact cameras such as the Canon Powershot Pro1. As a supplement to the D40X, I will continue using a pocket camera such as the Canon Powershot SD700IS which is great for movies, sound recording, and certain spontaneous shots when I’m not carrying the bulkier SLR. For me, using an image stabilizing (VR) lens is very important to make the SLR more clearly superior in overall performance & quality to justify its size and weight, versus a compact camera.

Compact cameras still offer an all-in-one photography solution at a great price value when compared to SLRs. If you choose a compact camera as an alternative to an SLR, I highly recommend optical image stabilization, and raw file support to compensate for the noisier small sensor.

Click BUY menu at left to see the latest Best Travel Cameras.

Compare the Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8:

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ8: 36-432mm f/2.8-3.1; 12x image stabilized zoom lens; 7.2 megapixels; only 12 ounces with battery; slightly less bulky than the Canon Pro1 but half the weight. 5 cm closest macro focus. Sharp 2.5-inch LCD (which unfortunately doesn’t flip out). Raw support. A great price value. 1/2.5″ sensor size. Truly powerful and fun to use, this camera is very small & lightweight, making good prints up to A4 size (around 18 inches). Image quality is good at ISO 100 to 200 (but noisy at ISO 400 or higher). The raw file support can compensate for noise reduction problems (Venus III processor). Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (just)” at this external link: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/panasonicfz8/
  • Canon G7: If you don’t need raw mode, you could also be very happy with the excellent Canon G7, which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket (one inch flatter than the FZ8), and can make good prints up to 20 inches. [Better yet, upgrade to the Canon G9 supporting raw files.] The G7 has an 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, 6x image stabilized zoom, 10 megapixels; only 13 ounces with battery. Great 1 cm / 0.4″ macro close focus at 35mm. Bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. 1/1.8″ sensor size (bigger than the FZ8). Image quality is good to ISO 400 (one stop better than the FZ8). Sophisticated Canon DIGIC III processing. Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (only just)”: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/canong7/
  • Disadvantages of Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8: These compact cameras only zoom as wide as 35 or 36mm equivalent; but I prefer a camera which zooms at least as wide as 28mm for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together). In comparison, SLRs can shoot good images at ISO 800-1600 and can make bigger, higher quality prints. These cameras all lack a flip-out-and-twist LCD (which is a great feature of the earlier Canon G5 and Pro1).

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