Conventional wisdom says that compact cameras are dead. For the most part, they are. In an age of 20-megapixel cameraphones, it is very difficult to see much room for basic €149 snappers.
In this context, camera makers have focused their attention on niche, high-end models. Such cameras invoke the spirit – and frequently the styling – of much older cameras.
They are generally aimed at those who already know something about photography and are comfortable with using manual settings. They also employ high-end materials, lenses, and are very sturdily built.
Their sensors are bigger than smaller compact models, often matching mid-range DSLR cameras (the bigger, bulkier models made by Canon and Nikon). Most importantly, they take very high-quality photos, particularly for those who know what they're doing.
So why would you spend €1,000 (and upwards) on such a machine?
For the photo enthusiast, the answer lies partially in serendipity. Put simply, you can't wander around with a big, bulky, black DSLR camera and look like an ordinary punter.
The situation is even worse when trying to take opportunistic portraits: people clam up when they see a big, black barrel pointed their way. These cameras are supposed to be the answer to this problem.
Here are four high-end compact models available in Irish shops today.
If there is one single camera that is responsible for reigniting the current high-end compact camera trend, it is probably Fuji's X100 series.
The device daringly took on retro styling to make it look like something out of the Fifties. It has blossomed into a machine that many serious amateurs now covet as a 'second camera' to have about their person when they cannot for whatever reason bring their full kit with them.
The 16-megapixel X100S has a fixed 23mm lens that hits F2 at its widest and an APS-C sensor, broadly similar to those used in mid-range Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras. Overall, it takes high-quality photos, with a few exceptions.
If it has an Achilles heel, it is speed and autofocusing. This is not the fastest camera to use between shots. The auto-focusing, which is very fast, also sometimes doesn't get it right, leading to the odd blurred shot.
A year ago, the camera's predecessor, the X100, was a compelling purchase. It has more quality competition now, so doesn't stand out as much.
Nikon Coolpix A
In Ireland, Nikon has just released its answer to the enthusiast's fixed-lens handheld camera.
The poorly named 'Coolpix A' model is a luxury: a high-end metal machine housing a large, high-quality, 16-megapixel sensor. The latter feature matches the sensor size of much larger, bulkier Nikon cameras and results in very sharp, detailed, impressive photos. The 28mm (equivalent) lens goes to F2.8, which is fast enough to capture quite a lot of low-light scenarios without a flash, while also giving reasonable depth of field.
Other than the image quality, the most impressive feature of this camera is its speed: I zipped through photos, while starting it up takes under a second. This is crucial, given what the camera is supposed to be for.
A bonus feature is its on/off mechanism: because it uses a small lever (as opposed to a button) to turn on and off, it never accidentally switched itself on in my pocket, where I often carried it.
Thought you needed a second mortgage to buy a Leica? Think again. The original high-end handheld camera manufacturer has an impressive fixed-lens model that isn't as terrifyingly priced as one might have feared.
The X2 doesn't have the range of digital options (such as video recording) that lesser-priced rivals from Nikon and Fuji have. But its trump card lies in its superb 24mm lens, the quality of which is still the benchmark for most rivals.
Even snapping on 'automatic' mode, the quality of shots from this camera is at the top end of what you can expect from a camera with an APS-C sized sensor.
The camera's controls are refreshing, too: it offers very few 'modes', preferring shutter speeds as a guide instead. Finally, the device's metallic body reeks of quality construction. Although rather expensive, this is a real treat.
Picture this: a camera manufacturer decides to make a compact camera and charge €3,000 for it. Said camera flies out of shops, which can't keep up with demand. Leica? Hasselblad? Nope. Sony.
The Japanese manufacturer decided to go for it with its original RX1 snapper. To this end, it somehow stuffed a full-frame 24-megapixel sensor – of the size normally associated with professional cameras like Canon's 5D series – into a compact body. So that everything would work flawlessly, it fixed a 35mm lens on to the body.
The result is a true professional's delight: a camera that takes the brightest pictures possible but that is also pocketable. In the best semi-pro traditions, it allows quick access to manual features, such as focusing, on its 35mm F2 Zeiss lens. For those who really want the best-lit photos, this is probably the ultimate compact camera.