This was one of the most difficult lists I’ve ever had to make. You see, the point-and-shoot market is not only vast, but it’s ever expanding and it morphs like a shape shifter. Point-and-shoot models that were advanced a few years ago are now in the middle tier while newer models like the Fujifilm X10 barrel onto the scene. But I didn’t include the X10 because of its high price tag, and the fact that it’s considered a semi-pro camera. In my opinion, a point-and-shoot should not exceed $500 and should still retain user-friendly modes. After that, your money is best spent on a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses or a DSLR.
Update: Check out our top 5 point-and-shoot digital cameras list for Spring 2012!
The models I picked below represent a handful of cameras that have performed well for me in multiple tests and reviews. They’re also a blast to shoot with. An honorable mention should go to the Olympus X-Z1. Although it’s a great still image performer, I found its video mode to be lacking and I’m awaiting its follow-up model to fix a few bugs. One last thing—if you’re looking for entry-level compact point-and-shoots, I will be writing a Top 5 Compact Point-and-Shoot countdown soon, so hold your horses. Otherwise, let’s get snapping.
#5 – Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 ($314.99 MSRP)
While the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 is plagued by a never-ending model name and somewhat bland external design, it’s what’s on the inside of the camera that counts. I’m talking about a 16x optical zoom LEICA lens with 24mm wide-angle capability, 1/2.3-inch 14.1-megapixel MOS sensor, and 1920×1080 60i AVCHD video recording at 17Mbps. Translation: This badboy can zoom like a beast, cram lots into the shot, capture great images and kicks out one of the best video modes on a point-and-shoot. If that’s not enough, the ZS10 has stellar manual controls featuring a 60-second shutter speed ISO up to 6400 and various artistic Scene modes to play with. Let’s not forget the ZS10’s Power O.I.S., which is one of the best image stabilization systems on the market. There’s also GPS logging and 3D capability. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 is the Clark Kent of point-and-shoots.
#4 – Nikon Coolpix P7100 ($499.95 MSRP)
When I reviewed the Nikon Coolpix P7000 last year, I was left in quite the pickle. Its competitors were almost evenly matched, save a few features here and there, but the P7000 had a few bugs that held it back in Photography school. For 2011, Nikon hired exterminators to kill those bugs, and we’re left with the rock solid Nikon Coolpix P7100. One thing you’ll notice about the P7100 is that, like the P7000, the camera is riddled with external controls. There’s an exposure compensation dial, Function Dial, two Control dials in back, and two Function buttons located on the front and top. The Nikon P7100 also gains a 921,000-pixel fold-out LCD and retains its 10-megapixel 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor for some fantastic image quality. The 720p HD videos feature stereo sound and digital image effects can be applied in-camera. For the external control junkie who wants a friend for their D7000, the P7100 might be the ticket.
#3 – Canon PowerShot G12 ($499.99 MSRP)
The Canon PowerShot G12 is one of those magical cameras that I’ll never forget. Although it’s relative in external build to the G11 and G10, the G12 pumped out the same image quality as its compact counterpart, the Canon PowerShot S95, courtesy of the 1/1.7-inch 10-megapixel CCD sensor. Even though the G12 has a slower base aperture than the S95, it’s the camera’s wild exterior that made it one of the most memorable shooters I’ve ever tested. The G12 is complete with an ISO dial layered in with the mode dial, Exposure compensation dial, front and rear Control dials, Function button, and fold-out vari-angle LCD. The camera’s image and video quality was fantastic, and the G12 featured one of the best internal and external shooting interfaces on the market. I can’t wait for the G13 to come out, and the fact that Canon has delayed its release might mean that even more magic is in store for the company’s next flagship point-and-shoot.
#2 – Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 ($499.99 MSRP)
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 is another flagship point-and-shoot that has not received an upgrade this year. From what I’ve seen, Panasonic releases a new LX model every two years, but that’s okay. The LX5 is good enough to endure a two-year cycle of new competition. Boasting 1/1.63-inch 10-megapixel CCD sensor, my review of the LX5 last year turned into the battle of the CCDs when compared to the Nikon P7000 and Canon G12. However, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 proved to be the most versatile model of the lot, thanks to its stellar 720p AVCHD recording capability that offered the most manual controls out of the three. The LX5’s still image quality was nothing to sneeze at either, giving the G12 and P7000 bonefide runs for their money. The only thing missing from the LX5 is a fold-out vari-angle LCD and lots of external dials and wheels characteristic of its Canon and Nikon competitors. But as an all around still image/video machine, the LX5 gets my vote over the P7100 and G12.
#1 – Canon PowerShot S100 ($429.99 MSRP)
Without a doubt, the Canon PowerShot S100 is the current Holy Grail of point-and-shoots. Canon’s improvements this year did not just consist of a few extra features. We have an all-new EOS-inspired 1/1.7-inch 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor with new Canon Digic 5 processing that boosts the max ISO to 6400. The lens has been upgraded to a 5x optical zoom with 24mm wide-angle capability, and the camera is now capable of 1080p 24fps HD video recording. Add in GPS, 8fps burst shooting at full resolution, and a sexy matte black finish, and the Canon PowerShot S100 is unlike any other point-and-shoot out there. But the camera’s lovable controls like the customizable lens ring and rear Control dial make the S100 stand out from the pack. Not to mention the treasure trove of fantastic camera controls like a built-in Neutral Density filter, several manual White Balance grid modes, Exposure Bracketing, Flexi-zone AF, Shadow Correct, live histogram, and dial-controlled Manual Focus to name a few. Check out my full review of the Canon PowerShot S100 for the complete 411. All I can say is that if the G13 receives the S100’s internals, I’m going to have to rearrange my next list.