Best compact camera: which compact camera should you buy?

26th Aug 2014 | 18:00

Best compact camera: which compact camera should you buy?

Get the best compact digital camera for your needs

Types of compact camera

Compacts have come a long way in recent years, and as well as basic snappers, there are some cameras suitable for professionals. To help you choose your perfect model, we've put together this straightforward buying guide.

Compact cameras are so-called because of their size, but this is a bit misleading as some higher-end models are quite sturdy and bulky.

They differ from compact system, or mirrorless, cameras, and SLRs in that you can't change their lenses. Again, though, some more sophisticated compacts share features with interchangeable lens cameras, such as powerful image processors and larger sensors.

Compact cameras, particularly cheaper ones, are facing stiff competition from smartphones. So if you are only looking for a simple point and click device, you might be better off upgrading your phone, as there is now a vast array of apps for enhancing and sharing your images.

If you want to keep your phone and camera separate, though, or want a more powerful camera with a better lens and wider range of shooting options, read on!

What types of compact camera are there?

There are three types of compact camera that we are going to talk about here. The first is the straightforward point and shoot device, which is designed to be as simple to use and as unobtrusive as possible. They don't tend to have a lot of dials or buttons and there's usually no control over aperture, shutter speed. However, you can usually adjust exposure via exposure compensation and set key parameters such as white balance. It also usually possible to record HD video.

Many of these cameras now include useful extras, such a touchscreen for easy operation and built-in Wi-Fi for simple image sharing.

Fuji F900EXR

This brings us to the next category, the superzoom. As the name suggests, these are cameras with versatile built-in lenses with both wide-angle and telephoto capabilities, such as the Fujifilm F900EXR with its 20x optical zoom. Some go to 50x zoom, and while this saves you from lugging around a bag of lenses, the downsides are usually extra bulk and increased risk of camera shake when zoomed right out.

Superzooms include 'bridge' cameras, so called because they traditionally bridged the gap between compact and SLR models.

Finally, there are power compacts, some of which are designed to rival SLRs. The emphasis here is on larger, sophisticated sensors, quality lenses and lots of manual shooting options.

For more information about buying specific compact cameras, click the links below to see our dedicated buyers' guides:

What compacts are there for different types of user?

The Canon Ixus 150 is a good example of a modern point and shoot camera, aimed at people who want to take nice photographs without carrying around a bulky device or delving into menus. So, it's stylish and dainty, with a versatile lens that enables you to shoot wide at 28mm or get closer with 8x optical zoom. A sensor size of 2/3-inch is typical, which is small compared to the APS-C or full-frame sensors in more sophisticated compacts, but still fine for simple cropping and larger prints. 'Smart Auto' and 'Intelligent IS' try to make taking a photo as painless as possible.

A good example of a superzoom is the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX300, which comes with a whopping 50x integrated lens (24-1200mm 35mm equivalent focal length), an impressive 20.4 megapixel resolution and 10 frames per second burst rate.

More sophisticated SLR back-ups or alternatives, such as the Canon G16 include larger 1/1.7 inch sensors and higher continuous shooting rates, manual controls and raw capture. They also usually have better quality lenses with wide maximum apertures for better low-light shooting.

Canon G16

Five things you need to know

Sensor size/resolution: Don't be dazzled by the megapixel count, as the size of the sensor has a bigger influence on the quality of the images. It's a simple equation; bigger sensors mean that the pixels can be bigger, which usually means better images. The biggest type of compact sensor are APS-C or full frame – click here for a full explanation. Other factors, such as the quality of the lens, also have a strong influence on the final image, so don't get distracted by the megapixel numbers game.

Backlighting: More megapixels can also result in more digital image interference, or noise, when shooting at higher ISO light-sensitivity settings. Try to get a camera with a backlit, or backside-illuminated, sensor, to minimise this.

Viewfinder: Think about how you like to take the picture, too. Composing images via the rear screen is now the norm on lower end compacts, so be aware of this if you prefer a more traditional viewfinder. Ensure the screen is large and bright, with at least 460k dots; being able to flip it out and around is a real aid to composition.

Lenses: You only get one lens with a compact camera, so make sure it suits your needs. We've discussed superzooms, which obviously come in handy for shooting sports and wildlife, and save space when you are travelling. Just make sure there is some kind of image stabilisation built into the lens or camera to reduce the risk of shake when you are zoomed out. Longer lenses also make it easier to blur out the background on portraits while keeping the subject sharp, as do lenses that offer a wider maximum aperture (eg f/2.8). A compact with a 'wide angle' lens, equivalent to 24-28mm, comes in handy for indoor shots and capturing sweeping vistas.

Scene modes vs advanced controls: Many compacts have a plethora of time-saving exposure presets and scene modes, and these are fine for point-and-shoot photographers. If you want to take creative control of your camera and try more advanced photographic effects, it's best to get a device that lets you select and adjust PASM – Program mode, Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority (or Tv) mode and Manual shooting mode. For the highest possible image quality, get a compact that shoots in the uncompressed raw (as well as JPEG) format, but be prepared to work on raw images in photo-editing software to get the best results.

Touchscreens and other extras: With compacts facing stiff competition from smartphones and interchangeable lens cameras, many now feature touchscreens and built-in Wi-Fi, even GPS functions. HD video recording should also come as standard, so don't get shortchanged in these areas.

How much will I need to spend?

A basic point and click compact such as the Nikon Coolpix S2800 costs £80/US$249, while a quality superzoom like the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX300 costs £325/US$430. A power compact to rival an SLR, such as the Canon G16, can be found for £420/US$500. At the far end of the scale, the full-frame Sony RX-1 costs £1,600/US$2,800,

Camera jargon explained

ISO: a measurement of the camera's light sensitivity. Higher ISOs mean better low-light shots (and higher shutter speeds) but also increased risk of image interference, or noise

White balance: adjusting white balance lets you remove unwanted or inaccurate colour casts from your images

JPEG and raw: by default, digital cameras will save images in the compressed JPEG format, which saves space, but can lose detail. If you shoot raw you are saving a 'raw' image with minimal processing.

For more information about buying specific compact cameras, click the links below to see our dedicated buyers' guides:

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