Premium compact cameras – A buyers guide


by Bellamy /

9 min read

Premium compact cameras – A buyers guide
One of the big questions I get is “which compact camera is best for me….?” Now this is a question that is very hard for me to answer, as each person has their own shooting style,  and requirements from a camera. I have written guides in the past for a few different cameras, most notably the Ricoh GR series and the Contax T2, but I thought it about time that I put all of the information in one place. I hope you enjoy it.

So, here it is, the premium compact camera buyers guide. I say premium, because I am referring to the compacts that were considered the finest of their age, the cream as it were. Why not all compacts? Well, there are far too many and I couldn’t possibly go through all of them, so I decided to concentrate on the ones that I have the most experience with. Without further ado, on to the cameras:

Contax compact cameras were actually manufactured by Kyocera in Japan until 2005 when they ceased production. Shame really as they produced probably the finest compact cameras of all. Many of the cameras can still be serviced by Kyocera in Japan (until 2015 I believe).

Contax TVS
The Contax TVS is a camera that is often overlooked as a compact camera, and definitely shouldn’t be. I class it as a primum compact camera as the build quality is that of its fancier siblings, even if the price is lower. The TVS and later models the TVSII and III come with a zoom lens, the Vario Sonnar 30-60mm lens. As this is not a fixed lens it is a bit slower, but this is a very sharp lens. I have always found the design to be endearing too, with the pop-out zoom on the TVS and the flip down door on the TVSIII. If you are looking for a premium compact zoom then look no further.
These cameras are well built, but as always listen to the sound of the camera, it will tell you a lot about the health of the camera.
These cameras are inexpensive because people overlook them, so you can often get a bargain. These cameras can no longer be serviced.

Contax T
The Contax T is a camera that I was unsure if I was going to put in the list. It is a premium compact camera, but it is also a rangefinder. This beautiful Porsche designed camera was aimed at the rich traveller. It is not an AF camera though, and all of the others on this list are. It has the same stunningly sharp 38mm f/2.8 lens as found in the T2. This is a very simple camera, you even have to wind on the film yourself. But it is a beautifully made camera.
If you get one make sure that the meter is working, and make sure you get it with the flash unit, as you may want a flash and finding the unit on its own is almost impossible. Prices remain high on this camera, mainly for the rarity value.
Downsides are the small viewfinder, slow functionality and lack of service, you cannot have this camera repaired by Kyocera.

Contax T2
I cannot pretend to hide that the T2 is my favourite compact camera. For all of its imperfections, there are many things that this camera does superbly. The camera is not the fastest, and it lacks the features that you would find on other premium compacts. But, this camera is simple, and most importantly has an outstanding lens. The 38mm f/2.8 is extremely sharp and a very suitable lens for street photography. The flash unit is robust and the body is very tough, as it is Titanium. These cameras last a good long time and if you treat them well will last for a long time yet.
Downsides are the small finder, and lack of service, Kyocera will not longer repair this camera.

Contax T3
The T3 is the flagship of the Contax Range, and many consider it to be the best of the compacts. This is really up to the user, but it is a very fine camera. It has a stunning 35mm Sonnar f/2.8 lens, which is one of the sharpest lenses I have seen on a compact. It is a true compact too, with a nice small size. Ming Thein wrote an excellent review on this camera here.
This is a street shooters camera, and I know many people who keep one as a dedicated backup camera. The prices are high for these, and they are going up. The Black version is more expensive, and is becoming hard to find.
Downsides are the fiddly controls, rising prices, and the small finder. On a plus point, you can still have this camera serviced by Kyocera. *Contax cease repairs in March 2015*

I barely try to hide my distain for Fujifilm and their attitude towards their customers (film and digital), but despite this they have produced some very good cameras. Notably they are one of the few companies that are still manufacturing film cameras. Recently the discontinued the Natura Classica, but the Klasse is still in production (for now). I have left the classica out of the list as I feel it is not really a premium compact, despite the ridiculous prices being asked for them now.

Fuji Klasse S/W
The Klasse S and the Klasse W cameras were released in 2007, in what looks to be the last of an age of film cameras from Fujifilm. But they really did a good job in putting these together. The Klasse S comes with a 38mm f/2.8 EBC lens, which is very similar in properties to the Contax T2, there is a good review here. The Klasse W is the wider version, with a multicoated 28mm F/2.8 lens, which is comparable to the Ricoh GR cameras. I would consider both of these cameras to be viable alternatives to the T2 or the GR1. But, I feel that they are not as good as either. I find the images to be sharp, but a bit flat when compared to the other cameras in the range.
These cameras are very well put together and easy to use with simple controls and a wide range of functions. Drawbacks are the lack of English support for the cameras, and the prices are rising, as Fuji tries to phase them out.

Fuji Natura S
The Natura S can proudly claim to have the fastest lens of any film compact, coming in at an amazing 24mm f/1.9! And that is a Fujinon EBC lens. The camera itself is a bit unusual. It has a whopping great big LCD screen on the back, and the buttons are only in Japanese. The Piano black version of this camera is especially sought after by collectors. This camera holds a high price. But, it is not a fast camera to shoot, and the LCD is very easy to break. Fujifilm apparently no longer repair this camera, despite discontinuing it only a couple of years ago.

Konica made some great cameras and lenses over the years, including the Big Mini, which is one of the best cheap compacts out there. They also made the Hexar series of cameras, the RF and its more convenient cousin, the AF. Konica got out of the film camera business in 2006 after merging with Minolta. They now concentrate on copiers, but they are still servicing cameras.

Konica Hexar AF
The Hexar AF is a bit of a funny one. It is not really a compact camera, as it is far from compact. But it is a fully automatic camera that was aimed at the compact camera market. It is more of a point and shoot. The lens on this camera is outstanding, as you would expect from Konica, and it has the famous ‘silent’ features, making this one of the quietest cameras available. There are details about how to switch on the silent mode here.
The camera is very capable, but it is let down by a few problems, most notable being the 1/250th and f/16 settings, making this not the most versatile of cameras. The AF is also slow and cameras often fall to the shutter button failure problem.
The camera was released in a number of different versions, but black is the most common and the cheapest. The black cameras were the only ones that officially had the silent mode, but some silver cameras were upgraded to have the silent mode.
*Konica have now ceased repairs*

Leica are very good at making cameras, we all know that. But they are not so great at making compact cameras. It was just never their forte. The Minilux cameras were their first real stab at the compact market, and it was too little too late. Leica do not service compact cameras any longer.

Leica Minilux
The Minilux should be an amazing camera on paper, but in reality it is a difficult and finicky camera to use. It is slow and rather clumsy. But, for its faults it has an absolutely outstanding Summarit 40mm lens, which is way too good to be on a compact camera. The main issue with this camera though is the error problem. If the camera ‘bricks’ then you have a paperweight, as there is nobody that will repair it. But all is not lost, you can have the lens converted to M-mount.

Minolta, who later became Konica-Minolta, made a ton of different compact cameras and were a big player in the market. The real selling point for their cameras is the lenses, which were outstanding. Minolta still service some cameras through Konica.

Minolta TC-1
The Minolta TC-1 was the flagship of the compact camera range from Minolta. This camera was built without compromise on the price. The camera itself is made from Titanium and the lens is very special. It sports a 28mm f/3.5 Rokkor lens, with a very special aperture selection system. This selects a perfectly circular aperture to get some beautiful bokeh results. This is not a speedy camera through, it is fiddly, the viewfinder is tiny and the camera is pretty small too. If you like to take your time and make arty photos then this is your camera.
Prices remain high on this camera. A bonus point is that it can still be serviced.

Nikon were also a big player in the compact camera market, they still are. But they no longer make film compacts. Their swansong cameras were the 28Ti and the 35Ti. It seems like all the makers tried to outdo each other by using exactly the same material, titanium.

Nikon 28ti/35ti
The 28ti and 35ti are both basically the same camera. fantastic lenses, as with all of the cameras in this field, Nikon put the best they could into it.The retro style dials on the top plate are very cool. The cameras have a panoramic mode, which is just a couple of buffers that come down and narrow the film on the top and bottom. Not really panoramic.
The dials are a problem and the break easily. The cameras themselves are slow and fiddly to use, definitely not a street camera. But they give great results. Nikon don’t officially repair these any longer.

And finally we get to Ricoh. And I guess you all know about these cameras. The GR range are so popular that I have trouble finding them now. Prices are rising as fewer and fewer stay on the market. Ricoh still repair them, but only until 2014. And only while they have parts. *Ricoh have now ceased repairs*

Ricoh GR1/GR1s/GR1v/GR21
I could go into all of the details about all of these cameras, or I could be sensible and just get you to click here and read my dedicated GR guide. What I can tell you is that these are pretty much the ultimate street compact. They are light, small, have a great lens and are very easy to use. What you should know is that the LCD’s have a problem sometimes, which can be repaired. These things are generally built very well and even if the LCD is out, you can still shoot them. By far the most popular of the compacts and for very good reason.

There you have it, my little buyers guide for premium compact cameras. I hope this helps you when you are trying to figure out what is available. If you would like to get a camera then I can certainly help you, all you need to do is click here. Please note, it has become very hard to locate many of these cameras now, demand outstrips supply. I will do my best, but sometimes I just cannot find things.


38 comments on “Premium compact cameras – A buyers guide”

    Bee's knees May 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm / Reply

    You forgot the Leica CM.

      Bellamy May 13, 2013 at 8:35 pm /

      I didn’t forget it, I didn’t include it. I have never used one and I almost never see them. It is the ghost of the compact camera world.

      Philipp Ulrich May 14, 2013 at 2:19 am /

      The CM is just a slightly changed Minilux. They added a flash shoe, refined the body and took the production off Panasonic’s hands and to Germany. They tend to be very expensive now, but shooting one feels pretty much exactly like with the Minilux (which you can get for a steal these days).

      Paulo Moreira January 28, 2014 at 8:42 pm /

      I am sory, I cannot agree with you. The Minilux is nasty little thing with a great lens. The CM is much different, better looking, better finished, finally with plenty viewfinder info (but that horrific viewfinder is the same). The CM oozes class, the Minilux shows money.

      ZDP-189 May 14, 2013 at 7:59 pm /

      I own a CM. I wouldn’t exactly say it’s like the minilux. Aside from the lens and build quality, they are different to me. I would recommend the Minilux over the CM if you plan to pocket carry as the control knob of the CM is easily jogged. Yes they are very rare and yes they are very expensive.

      Chad February 2, 2015 at 1:05 pm /

      Agreed. I gave up on the CM due to the aperture dial that spun easier than the Wheel of Fortune. The cheap plastic buttons and LCD on the back were also an odd contribution to the otherwise nice design. In the end, I think the Minilux is a more honest design if you can live with the flash settings and risk of an impending 02 error.

    Michael Penn May 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm / Reply

    Good job. Now you should to an article on affordable compact cameras.
    Yashica T3/4
    Olympus MJU/Stylus Epic
    Olympus Olympus XA
    Konica BM-301
    Pentax Espio Mini/UC-1

      Stan Troitsky May 14, 2013 at 12:16 am /

      LOL @ Michael Penn, I feel you!

      I wish I would of came across this article when I just started shooting film.

      I was put on to the Stylus Epic by a friend and had two of them break on me in less than 6 months. Also had a 35TI break on me for no apparent reason (it was mint too). Thats the gamble with these cameras. They might run you up to 600$ and other than the T3 or the Klasse, if it breaks, you are left with a non-functioning, good looking camera…

      The other day, I was at a thrift shop and decided to check out their little P&S counter.. 99% of the time, its just a bunch of bulky plastic tanks but this time I was lucky and got a GR1 in good condition for $3.50!

      Got to give props people like JCH who take the time to break down the knowledge.


      JS May 14, 2013 at 4:34 am /

      I could be wrong, but I think all of the cameras listed at least have aperture priority. As much as I love cameras like the MJU (had one stolen from my car a few years ago), I think any “premium” compact has to offer this modicum of control.
      Just a thought.

      Michael Penn May 14, 2013 at 9:02 am /

      That’s why I said “affordable compact cameras”

      JS May 14, 2013 at 11:44 am /

      Duh. That will teach me to read. And I agree with you.

      ZDP-189 May 14, 2013 at 8:02 pm /

      Bellamy, if you decide you need such an article, reach out to me if you’re too busy or sleep deprived. I have spent years accumulating these cameras, some of them are from you.

      Bellamy May 14, 2013 at 10:27 pm /

      Yes please. How about one on your extensive knowledge of budget rangefinders?

    Mike May 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm / Reply

    No Rollei 35 S? Lovely build quality, and it’s as compact as you get*! Or is it not premium enough?

    * OK, the Minox 35 is a _little_ more compact

    David May 14, 2013 at 12:59 am / Reply

    Best guide ever! For someone who is starting out in film and looking for “best” cameras to add to his collection, your articles are a godsend. Thanks for taking the time to educate us.

    Rogério Salgado-Martins May 14, 2013 at 1:30 am / Reply

    Great article! I wish one day I bump into one of those great compacts :) for now I’ll use my compact Olympus mju-I as my backup camera. Gotta say I like it quite a lot.

    martin May 14, 2013 at 3:40 am / Reply

    Bel ami, about the Minilux: I had one working out for a month -I bought it from a german seller used…-the camera works just for 5 rolls. The quality images this beauty deserves is outstanding, but is not difficult, as I red on internet -everywhere- to have the 02ERR… I had it of course… But… I found a guy in Switzerland who can repair the mistake and is not expensive (76 U$S + shipping) ; I didn’t try yet with my “brick”… If you know something about him, please let know.

    Fernando Moreno May 14, 2013 at 3:05 pm / Reply

    I agree with Mike. The Rollei 35 and the Minox 35 series deserve a place in the list.
    I have used both of them, (still use the Rollei 35S).
    OK, maybe the Minox is not so “premium”, but what about the Rollei 35 platinum and the like? It doesn’t get much better than this.

    Frederik May 15, 2013 at 4:37 am / Reply

    Another great article which gives a good overview to all people who are thinking about getting a premium compact film camera! I already made up my mind and received a nice Contax T2 from you today :-) Thanks again for your great service Bellamy – I have already “armed” my new baby with battery and some b&w film and I will take it out tomorrow for the first time! Cheers, Frederik

    dave May 21, 2013 at 10:26 pm / Reply

    The Hexar is definitely my favorite of this list :) That shutter problem can be fixed diy and…i dunno if we have different hexars, but the af on mine is really fast and ALWAYS accurate :) i had the T2 and Klasse S for a while but the AF was a bit finicky on both of them. My Ricoh GR1 succumbed to the LCD problems that all the GR series seems to suffer from. The 35ti is a great camera but like you said, it is a bit slow to use.

    M June 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm / Reply

    I’m surprised you say the T2 has a “small finder”. The finder is one of the things I really like about the T2.
    What other P’n’S (that’s not a toy camera) has a bigger finder?
    I find they are usually far smaller. Now if you it compare to a good SLR finder, that’s a whole different story.

    jsissonphoto June 29, 2013 at 10:53 pm / Reply

    What about the original Rollei AFM 35/Fuji Klasse? Certainly a premium camera with the great f/2.6 38mm S-Apogon lens. A great pocket camera and a step up from the newer version of the Klasse.

    Simon Buckton August 4, 2013 at 7:59 am / Reply

    The Hexar AF stops down to f22, not f16. But the 1/250th is still a big problem for me though.

    Greg September 8, 2013 at 4:54 am / Reply

    Great review. I was wondering if there are ant premium film compacts with a 50mm (or close to it) focal length lens. It would be ideal and my style if shooting. Thanks.

    Dan September 8, 2013 at 6:58 pm / Reply

    How about olympus mju ii?

    Mike Padua December 4, 2013 at 6:07 am / Reply

    I’ve been shooting with a Klasse S since August. the 38mm lens is not *quite* wide enough for me, so I put it on Ebay just now. I’m probably going to get a Klasse W.

    Colin Barey January 6, 2014 at 4:40 pm / Reply

    An important caveat regarding the Konica Hexar AF: they can no longer be repaired by anyone, anywhere. Kanto Camera lacks the parts; they contacted Kenko-Tokina, who has succeeded to Konica’s service center apparently, and they also lack the parts. Kanto spent over a month trying to find someone in Japan who could service the camera, ultimately in vain. I then sent the same camera to Greg Weber in the US, the Konica guru over there, and he too lacks the necessary components at this point to overhaul them. Given the premium they command, it would probably be wiser to invest in a cheaper P&S or another model which can actually be repaired.

      Bellamy January 6, 2014 at 9:42 pm /

      Well, that is not necessarily the case. I have only had one camera turned away from Kenko-Tokina because of lack of parts, and that was because it needed a complete shutter unit.
      I have had many cameras repaired without fault and I had 3 done last month. So as far as I know, they are still repairing this camera

      Colin Barey January 7, 2014 at 10:24 am /

      Not what I was told by Suzuki-san at Kanto CS in November 2013:

      “Kenko Tokina is the company which offers repair sesrvice of Konica and Minolta products presently. I contacted them to ask if they still offer service of Konica Hexar AF, but they didn’t because spare parts were no longer available.”

      I have no reason to suspect that she’s lying. Perhaps the cameras you had repaired were not in need of parts replacement.

    jojonas January 10, 2014 at 6:03 pm / Reply

    I keep coming back to this great article and sum up of some really nice cameras~
    I’ve got my sights on a Fuji Klasse S/W since a good while now. How frequently do you see them as second hand gear? I’m planning a trip to Tokyo and Osaka later this spring.

      jojonas January 20, 2014 at 8:26 pm /

      sorry if I went out of line here. didn’t mean to exploit you or anything…
      just really eager to find a nice souvenir while over there :)

      jojonas April 8, 2014 at 3:28 pm /

      I am now one with my very own fuji-sama<3

    Joe May 1, 2014 at 9:00 pm / Reply

    I think you should think about adding a Rollei 35 to the list.
    I love ist really much, it is extremely compact, but not cheap (everything is mechanical, only the light meter does need a battery.)
    Mine has got a great tessar lens (40mm,f3,5), but it is also available with a cheaper triotar, or (some say better for colour) hft coated sonnar (f2,8) lens.
    And… it really fits in your pocket…. (mine goes with me everywhere I go) and the quality is superp :)

    Miguel August 14, 2014 at 7:29 am / Reply

    Not trying to be a dick, but for the sake of precision you say the Fuji Natura has the fastest lens as if it is the only f1.9 p&s, but at least the canon af35ml has the same maximum aperture (only one of the autoboy series though, the af35m and af35m II both have f2.8 lenses, if I’m not mistaken).
    Wouldn’t go i this list obviously and I hear it is a camera with quite a few flaws, but thought it might interest people here…

    Eric November 3, 2014 at 8:09 pm / Reply

    The best : Nikon 28 TI !
    Why ?
    1. Hyper sharp lens, more than you can imagine !
    2. Hyper great matrix Nikon meter !
    3. Hyper strong body and mechanics
    4. Hyper beautiful !
    5. Hyper afordable now !
    I love it.
    I use with : Ektar 100, Velvia 50, Tmax 100 or 400, or Tri-X
    I m agree with about one more time his recommendations, like the NIKON 28 or 35 TI.
    I use also a FUJI X-E1, 2 Rollei 35 RF, with Voigtlander 15 asph 4,5 II, Zeiss BIOGON C 21 4,5, ROKKOR M 40 2, FUJI 35 1,4, LEICA Tele-Elmarit 90 2,8.
    NIKON 28 TI is a fabulous camera !!!
    Eric, European in China

    Sacha January 19, 2015 at 3:02 am / Reply

    What about the Ricoh GR10? Has anybody ever used it? Is it any good?

    Peter Boorman February 4, 2017 at 11:40 pm / Reply

    A bit of a late reply(!) but I chanced upon this question and thought, in case anyone else was wondering, I’d throw in my experience.

    I got a GR10 back in the ’90s as a backup to my much used GR1v, so I can compare the two directly. The GR10 feels very nearly as well made (if looking very slightly more blingy) and certainly inspires confidence: the metal is pressed magnesium alloy sheet rather than castings, but the difference feels less than you might expect. The grip isn’t quite as grippy as the GR1 series, but it’s still a better camera to keep hold of than a lot of others of its size, with the circular ‘thumb-pad’ on the back helping the handling a lot. That confidence is well earned: the superb lens is just the same as the GR1s/v and so is the excellent metering. The viewfinder is bright and slightly higher magnification than the GR1.

    The flash is actually a tiny bit more powerful, and because the GR10 takes a bigger battery (CR123 versus CR2) you get more flashes too. There is also a good suite of flash modes, including the slow synchro flash from the GR1s/v and a separate night flash mode. I’m not a big flash user, but have always had rather good results from the flash on the GR10 when I did use it.

    The downsides, of course, are no control over aperture – the GR10 is programme mode only – and no exposure compensation. Both of those make it a much less versatile camera than the GR1 series, and you probably wouldn’t want to shoot slide film in it with no exposure compensation available. However, I usually used it with Portra or TMax and the metered exposure almost never fell outside the (admittedly considerable) latitude of the film. There’s also less information displayed in the viewfinder, though with less control anyway, arguably more information wouldn’t be especially useful.

    I don’t know about durability, maybe being a little simpler than the GR1 would be in its favour, but a lot of the electronic issues are probably the same. The LCD is rumoured to last longer without trouble than that on the GR1 series, but still not to last forever.

    I liked mine a lot, loved the lens, and still enjoy using it on occasion.

    Dan Platon July 7, 2017 at 2:25 pm / Reply

    Why not Canon EOS 300 series?
    Much, much cheaper, but an exchangeable lens camera.
    So grab a prime (Canon EF 40mm) or a zoom and you have an exceptional compact performer.

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