They say the best camera in the world is the one you have on you, which make perfect sense given that the camera you forgot to bring with you is as useful as a chocolate fireguard.
However, you may find your current smartphone or compact camera lets you down with washed out, blurry and lacklustre images ─ even if you have something as well-equipped as the Nokia Lumia 1020 or Sony Xperia Z1.
Fortunately for the photographers among us, technology has given manufacturers the ability to somehow fit the internals of a hefty digital SLR into a much smaller body, saving you from needing clown pockets and superhuman strength to carry your camera around with you.
With that in mind, we decided to round up some of the very best options out there for the budding enthusiast or professional who wants fantastic image quality in a small package.
Sony may not be a company you associate with photography genius but in recent years it has started to turn the photography world on its head. Sony’s NEX range of cameras attempt to mate the image quality of a digital SLR camera with a body you can slot into your pocket ─ depending on the lens, of course.
The NEX-3N is the budget offering from the range, but the image quality really isn’t far behind that of its pricier NEX 5, NEX 6 and NEX 7 cousins. A combination of the 16.1-megapixel sensor and the APS-C sized Exmor HD CMOS sensor provides you with plenty of detail, accurate colours and the addictive blurring effect you get behind a subject known as ‘bokeh’.
Because of its MILC nature, you can attach a number of different lenses from Sony’s E-mount range, or fit an adapter and use a lens from another brand, making it suitable for all types of photography. Factor in a screen you can tilt for high or low down photos, or even flip around 180-degrees for ‘selfies’, and you have a camera worthy of your money.
Olympus OM-D E-M1
The bizarrely named Olympus OM-D E-M1 is yet another micro four-thirds camera, only this costs four times as much as the Sony NEX-3. Why? For a number of reasons, chief of which is the electronic viewfinder (EVF), a weather-sealed body, multiple dials for adjusting settings, a touch panel you can tilt and far superior build quality.
In fact, the OM-D EM1 will be one of the most advanced MILCs on the market when it goes on sale, which is why very few cameras this portable come close to the image quality it can dish out.
Key features include the ability to take up to 10 shots per second, keep them blur-free with 5-axis image stabilisation, pack in lots of detail with the 16.3-megapixel sensor, capture what you want with a sophisticated phase-detect auto-focus system and send them to your computer over WiFi, the last feature is especially handy if you are prone to losing USB cables like we are.
Sony Alpha A7
The recently revealed Alpha A7 and A7R can lay claim to being the smallest and lightest full-frame mirrorless cameras in the world. We’re not sure how Sony squeezed the sort of camera technology you would normally find in a bulky SLR into something you can easily hold with one hand, but somehow it did.
What this means is the image quality from the 24.3-megapixel Alpha A7 is staggering and the feature list reads las long as a monthly shopping list. Highlights include a 2.4-million dot electronic viewfinder (the thing you look through), 3-inch tilting LCD display, weatherproof body and downloadable apps to mention but a few.
Unlike the pricier Alpha A7R model, the Alpha A7 has Fast Hybrid autofocus with 117 phase detection points. This allows it to focus on a subject faster than just about any camera of comparable size and continue to focus while shooting at five frames per second. This makes it more forgiving and therefore newbie friendly.
Both cameras benefit from near-field communication and WiFi for transferring images, which can be done via the use of the Sony PlayMemories Mobile Android and iOS app.
The Alpha A7 and A7R also happen to be talented in the video department, thanks to full 1080p video recording at either 60 or 24 frames per second. Microphone, headphone and HDMI-out connections sweeten the deal. Not bad for a camera that weighs less than 500g, hey?
For those who love cameras that look retro and crave the days of rangefinders, the Fujifilm X100S is a fine choice. Not only does it look fantastic, it can provide extraordinary image quality yet it will easily fit into a pocket.
Unlike the cameras above, the Fujifilm X100S (successor to the X100) comes with a fixed 23mm F2 lens, which means you can’t change it. The downside is that you lack the same versatility of an interchangeable alternative, but the upside is even more svelte dimensions – think the size of a compact digital camera.
While some enthusiasts may shun the idea of sticking with one lens, the simple point and shoot nature of the X100S will help you put more thought into your shots. Because of the lack of zoom, you will also learn the valuable lesson that zooming (where possible) should be done with your feet, not the lens.
Let’s not confuse simple with unsophisticated. The 16.3-megapixel Fujifilm X100S boasts full 1080p video, on-sensor phase detection, an APS-C sensor, 2.8-inch LCD display, 2.35 million dot hybrid optical viewfinder and EXR Processor II that is designed to improve image quality at the smallest apertures and keep pesky issues like diffraction at bay.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R
Picking the last camera in our list was especially difficult because of the sheer number of awesome options out there. But rather than suggest you refinance your car to buy a Leica (arguably some of the finest cameras in existence) and then refinance your home to buy a lens (arguably some of the finest lenses in existence), we decided to go for something a little more realistic.
The RX1 can rival just about any camera for image quality, yet it’s just as portable as the Fujifilm X100S. This is made possible by using a fixed 35mm F2.0 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T lens, a full-frame 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and dials that make manual adjustments relatively easy.
A few critics have claimed the Sony RX1R can actually take on a Leica in certain situations, which makes it a tempting prospect. Whether you agree or not, this is a camera that lets you take shots as they appear to you with such prowess that your skill will often be the limiting factor.
Image credit: Flickr