Camera phones have annihilated the conventional compact camera market, so for a standalone compact to really stand out these days, it needs to deliver clearly superior image quality. The best way to achieve this is to fit a big image sensor, and there's a decent selection of cameras packing large APS-C-sized sensors that can outgun even the best camera phone for image quality. With an APS-C compact, you're essentially getting DSLR image quality from a camera that can fit in a jacket pocket.
APS-C compact cameras are almost the perfect blend of performance and practicality - only a full-frame compact camera can produce better image quality. However, there are a couple of potential drawbacks to consider before you buy. A bigger sensor traditionally requires a larger lens, so to minimize bulk, most APS-C compacts have a fixed focal length lens, although Canon has managed to equip its APS-C G1 X Mark III with a 3x zoom lens.
Assuming you can live without much/any optical zoom, the only other consideration with an APS-C compact is battery life. APS-C sensors are relatively thirsty, which isn't a problem when they're powered by a beefy DSLR battery, but a compact camera only has space for a compact battery, resulting in a short battery life of around 200-250 shots.
The best APS-C compact cameras
The X100V is the fifth version of Fujfilm's beloved APS-C fixed lens compact camera. It uses Fujifilm’s latest 26.1-megapixel X-Trans processor, and features a superior lens to the previous X100F, as well as a new tilting touchscreen. There are some ergonomic enhancements too, but fundamentally this is the same design that has developed a cult following among enthusiast and pro photographers. Improved autofocus and 4K video capabilities further bring this classic camera design right up to date.
The new 23mm f/2 lens is visibly sharper at close range and wide open than its predecessor, while the new 117-area hybrid phase/contrast autofocus system is faster than before. Image quality is also first class, with excellent color rendition, and great high ISO performance when shooting in low light.
If you like the look of the X100V but want to save a few bucks, then the older X100F (below) is still on sale and some deals are out there for the taking.
Read more: Fujifilm X100V review
The G1 X Mark III packs a 24.2MP APS-C sensor, but unlike the fixed focal length Fuji and Ricoh APS-C cameras on this list, Canon’s top-line compact stands out by sporting a 3x 24-72mm-equivalent zoom lens. The f/2.8 max aperture is also impressive, but that’s only at 24mm - by 72mm it’s shrunk to a more modest f/5.6. The lens is remarkably compact though, with minimal lens protrusion. There’s just room for a zoom ring around the lens, although this does operate electronically and with an annoying lag.
Otherwise the camera handles well and build quality is solid. There’s a generous sculpted grip on the front and rear, while both the 2,360k-dot OLED EVF and 3-inch, 1,040k-dot vari-angle screen are a pleasure to use, with the latter being touch-sensitive.
Canon’s excellent 49-point Dual Pixel AF is DSLR-fast and accurate, and the speed continues with up to 9fps burst shooting. As you’d expect for an APS-C sensor, image quality is high, with great detail reproduction and dynamic range in good light. Low light shots are just as impressive due to well-controlled noise, while the lens is sharp and distortion-free.
Read more: Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III review
This is the predecessor of the Fujifilm X100V (above) and is now getting hard to find, but it’s still easy to fall for the X100F thanks to its sexy retro styling, abundance of manual controls and stellar build quality. Then there’s the superb hybrid viewfinder that can be switched between an optical finder and a 2,360k-dot EVF, giving you the best of both worlds.
Fujifilm’s 24.3MP APS-C X-trans III sensor puts in a good performance, producing impressively clean ISO 6400 shots while maintaining similar detail levels to the other APS-C cameras on test. Fujifilm’s dynamic range expansion modes are effective too, especially for retaining delicate highlight detail.
The X100F’s 325-point AF speed has been criticized, but it's snappy enough in 91-point mode. More annoying is the 35mm-equivalent fixed focal length lens which, while sharp and fast, gives a frustratingly narrow field of view, although a 28mm converter is an option.
This is also a surprisingly bulky camera given its fixed focal length lens, especially next to a camera like the Ricoh GR III, which packs the same sized sensor. Even so, few other cameras give such a rewarding shooting experience.
Read more: Fujifilm X100F review
Despite its fairly large APS-C sensor, the GR III is impressively compact at only 109.4 x 61.9 x 33.2mm, and it’s also amazingly light at just 257g. The sculpted front grip makes it feel secure in the hand, and there’s a full complement of rear panel buttons, as well as multi-function front and rear control wheels.
The GR III’s 24.2MP sensor is a healthy upgrade on the 16.2MP resolution offered by the old GR II. The new sensor even manages to generate slightly cleaner images with less image noise when compared to the GR II throughout the sensitivity scale. Dynamic range is also very respectable right up to ISO 12,800 and is marginally superior to both the GR II and Canon's G1 X Mark III.
The 18.3mm (28mm-equivalent) f/2.8 lens now boasts three-axis image stabilisation with four-stop effectiveness, and low-light performance is further enhanced by the high ISO 102,400 max sensitivity - two stops more than the GR II could manage.
It’s a pity there’s no built-in viewfinder or flash though, and the all-plastic body, though very solid and in-keeping with the long-established GR aesthetic, lacks a premium feel.
Read more: Ricoh GR III review
There are not many Leica cameras you’d feel confident about stepping into the deep blue and briny with – so full marks to this waterproof version of the X-E compact camera that doesn’t slouch when it comes to core specs. The X-U has an APS-C format sensor and a wide angle 23mm equivalent bright/fast f/1.7 Summilux prime lens for delivering those shallow (water) depth of field images. The price is a lot to pay for a toughened camera, yet this compact is also shock resistant, dust sealed and shatterproof. For those thinking of taking it for a dip, the body is fully waterproofed down to a depth of 15 metres and also features an underwater protection filter. However, the sensor is an old design that only captures 16 megapixel images and full HD rather than 4K video. This is a waterproof adventure camera at an eye-watering price – but one that very much stands out from the crowd.