Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Choosing a small travel camera: Sony, Leica, Panasonic

Choosing a small travel camera: Sony, Leica, Panasonic

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Back in 2018, I was wrestling with the problem of choosing a one-inch-sensor travel camera — something I could keep with me at all times and a camera that could replace the Ricoh GR that I’d always treated as my standby. I looked at the one-inch sensor because of its versatility, permitting the incorporation of a fast zoom lens in a pocket-sized body.

In these days of enforced idleness and nil travel prospects, the idea of buying a travel camera is perhaps on the back burner. But it shouldn’t be. Now is the time to look again at the market and decide what would suit you for your future vacations. At the time in 2018, the two stand-out cameras came from Sony and Panasonic (with a copy-cat Leica as a strong draw for existing Leica fans). The choices remain the same, so let’s have a reprise of the 2018 Macfilos verdict.

The two contenders, the Sony RX100 VI and the Panasonic Lumix TZ200/Leica C-Lux were both reviewed on Macfilos (links at the foot of this article) earlier in 2018. Both have their considerable merits, and the remarkable 24-360mm zoom of the Leica is impressive in anyone’s book.

But it isn’t so clear-cut. The Pana-Leica is little different in size to the Leica D-Lux. Although the D-Lux has a limited zoom, it does offer a four-thirds sensor (albeit cropped by 10% to give a conversion factor of 2.2 instead of 2) with undoubtedly higher image quality. You can’t ignore the laws of physics.

When size is important

Size in a one-inch superzoom camera is essential. Ideally, the camera should take full advantage of the small sensor to achieve a body that can fit in a pocket. The Sony achieves this. Even the Leica C-Lux will fill your pocket at a pinch, but even Mae West wouldn’t notice the RX100.

Concerning fitness for purpose, then, Sony is spot on. If your primary consideration is compact dimensions, then the RX100 in any of its guises is the obvious choice. It is a well-made, jewel-like little camera which doesn’t disappoint in any significant area. The Mk.VI has the slightly better and more consistent image quality and sharpness across the range of focal lengths, but there isn’t that much in it, to be frank.

  The difference in size between these two cameras is pronounced. The Sony is the true pocket camera while the C-Lux packs in more controls and near-twice-the-reach zoom lens. The difference in height is largely explained by making room for the viewfinder. On the Leica it is ready for action while the Sony relies on a pop-up affair, thus enabling a lower profile. However, the Sony is much more expensive. You pays your money and you takes your choice
The difference in size between these two cameras is pronounced. The Sony is the true pocket camera while the C-Lux packs in more controls and near-twice-the-reach zoom lens. The difference in height is largely explained by making room for the viewfinder. On the Leica it is ready for action while the Sony relies on a pop-up affair, thus enabling a lower profile. However, the Sony is much more expensive. You pays your money and you takes your choice

The C-Lux (aka Panasonic TZ200), on the other hand, is more the photographer’s camera. With its slightly larger body and small grip, it feels better in the hands — more stable and more satisfying to use. It also takes advantage of the additional real-estate in placing a useful adjustment dial on the top plate, as well as a control wheel which the Sony lacks (control is via the wheel encircling the four-way pad and is by no means as intuitive). That top dial on the Leica makes all the difference in handling.

  The Leica’s top-plate controls are more sensible, with a proper on/off switch instead of a push-push button and a large control dial. The Sony’s control dial is on the back, around the four-way pad and is much less easy to operate. The difference in the size of the lens housing is also notable, with the Leica’s long zoom needing more space
The Leica’s top-plate controls are more sensible, with a proper on/off switch instead of a push-push button and a large control dial. The Sony’s control dial is on the back, around the four-way pad and is much less easy to operate. The difference in the size of the lens housing is also notable, with the Leica’s long zoom needing more space

No deal breaker

Although the Leica’s lens is half a stop slower at the wide end and over a full stop adrift at 200mm (to compare directly with the Sony), I do not see this as a deal-breaker. At the most used views, between 24 and 50mm, the difference is not worth bothering about. And, with current ISO performance (even from a one-inch sensor) it’s something you can live with. From 70mm there is a greater divergence. See the comparison panel on the left.

The viewfinder of the C-Lux is easier to use, doesn’t need extending and is more natural for anyone familiar with the rangefinder-style M or similar digital cameras. Unfortunately, though, the image in the viewfinder is less vibrant, less involving than that of the Sony.

If the Panasonic/Leica viewfinder had the bright, contrasty screen of the Sony, then it would be a no contest. I would prefer the C-Lux viewfinder. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that the diopter adjustment on the C-Lux has a more adjustment range — hence more precision in setting — and it stays where it is put. Such accuracy and reliability is not the case with the short-travel lever atop the Sony’s EVF. It is difficult to set precisely and is easily knocked out of kilter when the housing is pushed back into the camera body. I find myself constantly adjusting it.

But the obvious divergence between these two cameras is in the range of focal lengths. The Sony stops short at 200mm (probably for pragmatic reasons) while the Leica shoots forward to nearly twice that length — a rather staggering 360mm. Only you can tell if you need this additional reach and whether or not you will use it.

  Above, the magnificent duo in repose at 24mm. Below, on the job at full chat
Above, the magnificent duo in repose at 24mm. Below, on the job at full chat

I found that it was indeed interesting use this massive zoom merely because it’s there and it is fun to experiment. But, for my style of photography, the uses for 360mm were limited. If you are into wildlife or sports then maybe three-sixty cuts the mustard, for me it is more of a nice-to-have-but-not-essential feature, especially when it means compromising in other directions. There is no doubt, though, that an optical image at 360mm will beat a 100% crop from the Sony any day.

I’ve mentioned image quality and suggested that the Sony has the edge. I think that one of the problems with the C-Lux could be that rather ambitious 360mm reach in so tiny an optic. It will have been challenging to engineer, and I suspect that Sony’s consistency over the 24-200mm range is mostly down to the company having decided to be prudent in maximum magnification. You could argue it is quality over quantity. All this said if I wanted that 360mm zoom I would choose the Leica without hesitation. It’s an excellent camera to use, handles better and, to be honest, the image differences are not that great.

  The C-Lux is capable of producing excellent results although the Sony has a narrow lead in image quality. I could live with both these cameras and it is not image quality but size that was the deciding factor for me
The C-Lux is capable of producing excellent results although the Sony has a narrow lead in image quality. I could live with both these cameras and it is not image quality but size that was the deciding factor for me

Price factor

Both these cameras are a good choice, and the final decision comes down to your requirements. Do you prefer a slightly larger camera that fits your hands better? Do you want a more traditional control layout? Do you want a camera to fit unobtrusively in a pocket? Do you need such a long zoom?

We must never forget, however, that the Sony RX100 VI is a costly little trinket in anyone’s book. At a current UK price of £1,150, it is £275 more expensive than the even the Leica C-Lux and all of £470 more than the Panasonic Lumix TZ200. Those are big figures and big percentages. Of the three, it is the Leica that will depreciate least in percentage terms but, again, it is nearly £200 more than the almost identical TZ200. Without a doubt, you will lose a packet on the Sony when you come to sell.

Update, April 2020: Current street price for the Sony RX100 VI is £849. The Leica C-Lux is £800 and the corresponding Panasonic TZ200 is £549 – a bargain price that could tip the balance of choice.

My requirement for a one-inch sensor camera is predicated on pocket-ability. I have other cameras to use, but I need one camera, with a flexible all-round zoom capability, that I can slip in a pocket without thinking. I found the Sony to be ideal in this respect during my stay in Hong Kong. It was the perfect camera for evenings, taking to restaurants and capturing street scenes.

Final choice

  For most purposed, I find that 200mm (as here) is a useful all-round maximum zoom. The C-Lux could get in much closer, but how often would you use it?
For most purposed, I find that 200mm (as here) is a useful all-round maximum zoom. The C-Lux could get in much closer, but how often would you use it?

Size is the main reason I have chosen to buy the Sony. It was a close call, as you can tell from the two reviews, and no one can accuse me of making a hasty decision. Even now I have my doubts and wonder if I’ve made the right choice. I used both cameras extensively, but it is the Sony that fits my bill more than the Leica. It also fits my pocket; it’s a cute little beast and no mistake. When I look at it I feel inclined to agree with myself.

You may have other requirements, and I would support you if you chose the Leica or the Panasonic. Neither will disappoint, I think, and you will undoubtedly enjoy the handling more. You might even come to rely on the extraordinary (for such a small camera) 360mm reach. But for my part, if I am willing to put up with that extra size, I could be tempted more to a D-Lux (or the newer LX100 II) with the larger sensor, much faster zoom and overall better image quality — that Vario-Summilux is a cracker — and forego the long-reach zoom.

So there you have it. I chose the Sony, but this doesn’t mean you should. Try both, see how they handle, then consult your wallet. The C-Lux or TZ200 is probably the most sensible buy, not the Sony. It’s a case of heart over head — head says Panaleica, heart loves that cute and cuddlesome little Sony.

What this exercise proves more than anything is that we are all different and have varied expectations and tolerances. There is no definitive answer except to say that “I chose”.

For a much more in-depth assessment of these two cameras with hundreds of images see our in-depth reviews:

Sony RX100 Mark VI

Leica C-Lux


13 COMMENTS

  1. Mike, you say – above the picture of the two cameras back-to-back – that the C-Lux / Panny TZ200 has “..a useful adjustment dial on the top plate, as well as a control wheel which the Sony lacks (control is via the wheel encircling the four-way pad and is by no means as intuitive). That top dial on the Leica makes all the difference in handling”.

    But both of them have another adjustment dial – around the lens! This can be programmed to adjust, for example, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO ..pretty much whatever you want.

    So the Sony does have one extra adjustment dial ..though still one less than the Panny/Leica. However, pressing the Sony’s Fn (Function) button gives instant access to another twelve items along the bottom of the screen ..and those can all be easily adjusted using the rear dial ..much more easily than the (similar) ‘Quick Menu’ options of the Panny/Leica.

    Just thought I’d speak up an extra bit on behalf of the Sony(s)!

    • Ah! As you know, I reviewed these cameras in 2018 so I’ve forgotten the nitty gritty. I bow to your better judgement. But, as you see, I did choose the Sony.

  2. A lot of the selection process is going to be based on individual preferences. I still happen to like my DL-109 because it preserves a lot of the physical camera controls but in a small package that fits in a Barbour jacket pocket. I don’t feel lacking with with the 24- 70mm equivalent zoom.

    My wife argues that all you really need is an iPhone 11 and it does everything you need without the hassle of another object to carry and without looking like a photographer. Ouch!

  3. I know everyone has different needs but here’s my take: I like to make quality prints (8.5×11 or more) from some of my travel pictures and want a sensor much larger than 1″. In the last 5 years or so of traveling I’ve taken a Ricoh GRv with a Fuji XT2 or, currently, a Leica CL. With the Fuji and the Leica I take a bare minimum of lenses which try to cover my most used focal lengths for that type of trip. With the exception of the Ricoh these cameras do not fit in a pocket, but need a very small shoulder bag like a Domke F-5 xb and that works very well for me.

    • I make prints of 33x28cm (that’s 13×11 inches) ..we-ell, no; I don’t actually make them: Blurb Books makes the high quality prints for me.. and the 1″ sensor of the RX100 series is more than enough for creating really stunning prints – especially because the lens on the camera is so great!

      The RX100MkVI – as an example – has a 20 megapixel sensor, with a 3×2 ‘aspect ratio’ ..so those 20 megapixels consist of about 5.5 kilopixels across the frame, and about 3.6 kilopixels down the frame.

      As the actual dimensions of the so-called 1″ sensor are 0.52″ x 0.35″, each pixel, or picture dot, would be about 0.095″ ..call it 0.1″. (The actual ‘pixel pitch is 2.41 microns, with the necessary gaps between them, but let’s consider them as 0.1″ each.) Printing those at 300 dots per inch, means that I could print those photos 30″ wide! ..But as I’m having them printed only 13″ wide, you can imagine how very sharp and vivid they are at that (reduced) size!

      Even if they were printed at 150 dots per inch, I could have them printed 15″ wide, and they’d look absolutely stunning.

      So why, I wonder, do you “..want a sensor much larger than 1″? ..It’s the number of (mega)pixels in your photos which dictate how large you can print them and have them look sharp and not ‘pixellated’ ..it’s not the size of the sensor.

      A physically larger 20mpxl sensor – let’s say a 1½”x1″ sensor (that’s a standard “full-frame” sensor) – would have the same number of pixels as a smaller 1″ 20mpxl sensor, but each of the pixels of the larger sensor would be physically larger, and therefore able to catch more light in the same period (say 1/250th second) that your shutter’s open, thus giving, for example, better low-light performance ..and usually a better ‘sensitivity range’ between darkest shadows and brightest highlights. But you’d see that (theoretical) difference only if you had both results – the results from both sensors – right in front of you, to compare one with the other. ..That means seeing them printed on paper, as even a hi-quality ‘4k’ computer monitor shows only about 2,560 x 1,600 pixels ..that’s only 2.5 kilopixels across the screen.

      Let’s compare the 1″ 20mpxl sensor of the RX100MkVI with the 1½”x1″ 24mpxl (similar pixel count) sensor of the “full-frame” Leica M10. The Leica’s sensor is 7.44 times larger than the Sony’s 1″ sensor, and each of the Leica’s individual pixels is 525% larger (see digicamdb.com) than the Sony’s! ..But I’d be astonished if you can actually see the difference in quality between their photos, as the results from one size of sensor can look just like the results from another – depending on the firmware that’s inside each camera, and how each is exposed, and any processing you may apply to the the photos afterwards.

      So I still wonder why you “..want a sensor much larger than 1″, as just about any current camera – that’s not a simple ‘point-&-shoot’ – will provide great prints at 8.5×11”.

      • David, this is an article in itself and not just a comment. Perhaps we should turn it into a follow-up article with some of your pictures as examples. How about it?

        • Er, I’m busy collecting together photos for that upcoming “History of Photography in Ten Cameras” feature ..but I’ll work on it, if you like, ‘in the background’, so to speak..

  4. Great read Mike and all very interesting. However, I’m with B R Bennett and like to be able to produce large prints from any of my images. I’m therefore happy with the CL, or even the M10 when out and about. My wife has the C-Lux and is very happy with it. (She bought it so she didn’t feel left out when we attend the various Leica forum challenges and meetings.) I must admit it produces some really good images but I haven’t tried printing anything from it and don’t intend to try.
    Keep safe and well everyone.

  5. I have the C-Lux and as a small portable camera with a very useful zoom I have not been disappointed. I do think it is set up for displaying images on phones/ tablets and sharing via social media rather than printing. I guess, given the way that most of us interact these days, that makes sense — I’m much more likely to transfer an image to my phone and text it to a friend than to fire up the printer, grab some photo paper and take an 8×10 print round (even before Covid-19)!

    The image quality is also, perhaps obviously, improved when using one of the PASM settings. If left in auto saving RAW is disabled, electronic image stabilisation is always on and there is a tendency for the software to choose high ISOs in order to allow the shutter speeds that give the best chance of a sharp image. That all makes sense but it can do more with some judicious manual control.

    As someone once said, the best camera is the one you have in your hand; this is a very easy camera to have in the hand.

  6. Hello
    Some really thought provoking comments.
    For me whose eyes are starting to get rather dim the real game changer between the two cameras is the brightness of the Sony viewfinder (rear screen) which is vastly superior to the Panasonic / Leica.
    Also I find the Sony very good when taking low light shots with its clever multiple exposure system.
    Best Wishes to Everyone please stay safe.

  7. I think if I wanted a long zoom, I’d go with the Panasonic. Otherwise I’d probably choose one of the earlier Rx100’s, likely the Mkiii for it’s built in EVF but cheaper price.

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