If you need a new compact camera there's a good chance you'll be confused by all the options available. Our compact camera buying guide should help you find the best compact for your specific needs.
The past few years have seen a number of changes significantly reshape the compact camera category. Manufacturers have shifted their focus towards the higher end of the market as smartphones have eaten into the other extreme, while touchscreens, wireless connectivity and the advent of high-definition video recording have upped expectations for even more basic models.
Indeed, with a raft of sophisticated features now central to so many compacts, photographers are regarding them as worthy of increasingly challenging tasks. Manufacturers have increased the size of sensors in premium models for better light capture, while the inclusion of sharp, fast lenses and advanced processors have also helped to bridge the divide between interchangeable lens cameras. Models at the cheaper end of their ranges, meanwhile, now boast expansive focal ranges and light-hungry backlit sensors as standard, while water and shockproof cameras are also on offer from most manufacturers.
So which camera is best for your needs? In this guide we look at all the main features common to compact cameras, some fairly established and others relatively new, so that you can decide what kind of model is best for your needs.
What is a compact?
The word "compact" is typically used to describe a digital camera with a fixed (non-removable) lens. This in itself covers a vast range of different models, from sub-£100 cameras ideal for kids and novices, through to waterproof, enthusiast and fashionable lifestyle cameras, as well as superzoom models which resemble DSLRs on account of their SLR-like form and long lenses.
Compacts have traditionally been popular thanks to their small size, affordable price and ease of use. For many they've been a first camera used for learning, although affordable DSLRs and Compact System Cameras (CSCs) today provide an alternative for those keen to take things a little more seriously. Nevertheless, compacts continue to be popular as both first-time cameras and backup models for DSLRs and CSCs.
If you're thinking about buying a compact you may be confused by some of the technology or terminology used to describe them. Here are all the main things you should be paying attention to when comparing different models:
The sensors inside compact cameras vary between 1/2.3in (roughly the size of your smallest fingernail) to full frame (roughly the same size as a frame of 35mm film). Generally speaking, the cheaper the compact the smaller the sensor, as these cost less to produce. The trade off is with image quality; small sensors saturated with pixels typically produce images with more noise and a narrower dynamic range than larger ones where the individual photosites are given more room (which explains why enthusiast cameras around the £250-450 mark offer reasonably modest pixel counts of around 10-12MP). It's also much more difficult to produce shallow depth-of-field with a smaller sensor than it is with a larger one. If you want a compact camera that’s a step-up from the norm, look out for those with 1/1.7in sensors or larger (you should be able to find this in the product's spec sheet).
The past few years have seen manufacturers make APS-C and full-frame compacts a reality. Sigma was the first to enter the ring with its APS-C-sensor-equipped DP line of cameras, although the time it took for these to come to market and the arrival of similarly sized Compact System Cameras meant they didn’t quite make the impression expected. Today, a number of other manufacturers such as Nikon and Ricoh have joined the party, with pocketable compact cameras sporting APS-C sensors.
Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to improve the standard of images from small-sensor compacts over the last few years. Perhaps the most significant change has come through backlit (or 'back-illuminated') sensors. With conventional, front-illuminated sensors, the wiring and transistors sit on the surface of the sensor, where they pose an obstruction to incoming light. Backlit sensors move these to behind the silicon substrate, so that the sensor can gather light more effectively, thus improving noise levels (the sensor is essentially being ‘lit’ from the reverse side, hence the name). The majority of compact cameras available today employ sensors built around this architecture, which should underline just how effective it is.
Compact cameras can have either prime (i.e a single focal length) or zoom lenses, although the former is usually reserved for pricier enthusiast compacts. The focal ranges offered by zoom lenses on compact cameras varies significantly; whereas once it was standard to have a 3x optical zoom, today’s compacts typically offer a 5x optical zoom as a minimum. Many cameras go further than this, with even cheaper compacts offering 10 or 12x optical zooms, and once you get to DSLR-style superzoom cameras it’s common to find 42 or even 50x optical zooms on hand.
All lenses are accompanied by an available aperture range, which determines how much light can be admitted at different focal lengths. For prime lenses only one figure is stated, although for zoom lenses the convention is to state the maximum figure at either end of the lens, (such as f/1.8-3.5, with the former figure relating to its wideangle end and the latter to its telephoto setting). A zoom lens with only one figure – such as 24-70mm f/2.8 – denotes that the camera has a constant aperture throughout its focal range, which is often desirable (and usually the mark of a better quality optic too).
The reason for this is due to the construction of a typical lens, which makes it harder to maintain a wide aperture at the telephoto end. Smaller apertures allow a camera to gather enough light in darker conditions without the sensitivity needing to be raised, while also being useful for creative purposes (depth-of-field control). Generally speaking, the smaller the spread between the two apertures the better, although this becomes more difficult as the focal range widens.
It's also difficult for optical performance to be maintained across a wide focal range, which explains why prime lenses remains so popular today. Vignetting, whereby the corners of the frame darken, can be an issue at telephoto settings, while chromatic aberrations, which manifest as coloured lines over the edges of details, are also common in lenses that have both very wideangle and telephoto settings. At longer focal lengths it also becomes tricky to maintain sharpness as the shutter speed needs to be raised to counter the effects of camera shake; this is where image stabilisation becomes important.
Image stabilisation is an umbrella term for technologies used to help keep images sharp in a range of conditions. Most cameras today offer this in one or more ways, usually through the movement of either the elements inside a lens or the camera’s sensor. Some manufacturers also refer to the automatic shifting of a camera’s sensitivity (ISO) as image stabilisation, although this degrades image quality to a far greater extent.
When written on the lens this generally indicates lens-based stabilisation, although some may use sensor-based stabilisation or ISO-based stabilisation either in conjunction with this or in its place. Look out for lens- and sensor-based IS systems, which provide better image quality than sensitivity-based IS systems.
Most lens- and sensor-based image stabilisation systems promise a compensatory effect of up to 3EV or 4EV, which means you can drop the shutter speed by this amount from that usually required to give sharp images and still end up with a good result. So, in theory, and image which would ordinarily require a shutter speed of around 1/100sec. may still be captured sharply at around 1/10sec. This is, however, dependent on many things, such as the subject and whether it’s moving, the setting you have the system set to, the distance between the camera and subject and also your own technique.
Both lens- and sensor-based systems are known to be effective, so you shouldn’t chose one camera over another simply because it does or does not have a particular system. On compact cameras both systems have the benefit or stabilising the feed from the sensor, making it easier to compose the image, whereas on DSLRs, lens-based systems are more attractive as sensor-based options cannot stabilise the view through an optical viewfinder.
Cameras with a wide ISO range will generally be able to capture images in a broader range of lighting conditions than those with narrower ones, although they may still produce lots of noise at particularly high settings. Manufacturers do, however, reserve particularly lofty ISO settings (such as ISO 51,200 and 102,400) for their DSLRs rather than their compact cameras, as they know the better quality sensors inside these will be able to tolerate low light better and produce images with less noise.
On compact cameras it's common to find sensitivity settings in a standard range, such as ISO 100-6400, and then additional settings that manufacturers claim are equivalent to higher options such as ISO 12,800. These latter settings are achieved in a slightly different way than normal, and you may find that these can only be captured in JPEG format or at a lower pixel count than standard. As such, they are best left until absolutely required (you may be able to restrict the camera's automatic range so that it doesn't choose these automatically).
High Definition (HD) video
High Definition (HD) video is now a standard feature among compacts, CSC and DSLRs, and it’s fairly unusual for even basic cameras to omit HD video recording from their spec sheets (although it does happen). There are two HD options available: standard HD and full HD. Standard HD records at a resolution of 1280 x 720 while full HD records at 1920 x 1080. Quite whether you need full HD or not depends on how large a display you wish to use to view your creations, although for computer displays and moderately-sized televisions, standard HD should suffice.
A cameras spec sheet should also point out the frame rates available to you, such as 24 or 30fps. Sometimes these are written as 24p or 50i; what these letters signify is the way in which each frame is scanned. ‘p’ stands for progressive while ‘i’ stands for interlaced, with the former scanning each line down one at a time, and the latter alternating between odd and even lines. Cameras that record video all offer on-board microphones, although some can be used with external alternatives to improve their audio quality.
Raw shooting has always been a desirable option on premium compact cameras, although the feature has proliferated to superzoom and other cheaper compact cameras. This feature allows images to be processed in a program of the user's choosing, as an alternative to the camera processing these images at the time of capture. Many cameras also allow Raw processing in-camera, should you want to save JPEG versions of any captured Raw images with your own adjustments, without needing a computer. If you want the best image quality, and you're prepared to put in time and effort into processing, look out for cameras with a Raw option.
Scene modes and manual exposure control
Compacts that cost around £150 and under typically offer limited control over exposure. You may be able to manually adjust the aperture and exposure compensation, but that will be about it. As you move further up the scale, compacts begin to offer the kind of control that was once only available on DSLRs, such as semi-manual modes like aperture- and shutter-priority, and usually a fully manual option too. These are often written as A or Av for aperture priority, S or Tv for shutter priority and M for manual.
Some recent models also offer options which can have very specific settings assigned to them for quick recall, such as a particular combination of ISO, colour mode, aperture and so on. These are often titled with a U or C on the mode dial, and there will often be more than one of these available.
Almost all compacts complement these with Auto, Program and Scene options. The Auto option is the most basic, and leaves virtually all the decision making to the camera. Manufacturers have recently taken to renaming these 'Smart' or 'Intelligent' Auto modes, which is their way of letting you know that the camera will adjust much more than simply the aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity (ISO). Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode, for example, is said to also analyse the scene in order to choose the right scene mode for capture, and adjust brighter and darker areas for a more natural looking result. The system also promises to activate AF tracking when any moving subjects are spotted, and also to call upon its image stabilisation technologies where it sees fit, while also kicking face recognition into play when it senses any people in the scene.
ND filters have traditionally been used with SLR-type cameras, with the filter either screwed into the lens's thread or slotted into a filter holder, and in the last few years manufacturers have include these in the lenses of compact cameras too. These have exactly the same exposure-lengthening effect as separate ND filters, although they have the further benefit of being integrated into the camera. This means you don't have to worry about mounting, cleaning or potentially damaging them, you can simply bring them into play at the press of a button. These generally have the effect of reducing exposure by around two-three EV stops, although it's not possible to adjust their intensity in any way (in the way that you might by using stronger and weaker ND filters in front of a lens).
While many look to DSLRs for the highest standard of image quality, compacts still have many advantages in other areas. One of these is burst shooting; with no physical mirror-box assembly, and thanks to a different shuttering mechanism, compacts can usually offer burst speeds far higher than even more expensive DSLRs.
Many compacts offer a fixed maximum burst rate which cannot be exceeded, although recently manufacturer's have been giving photographers the further choice of capturing images at an even higher frame rates, but at the expense of pixel resolution. For instance, a 12MP camera may capture images at a maximum 5fps in its standard mode, and at a choice of 8fps and 10fps at 8MP and 6MP respectively. So, if you know you won't be needing images past certain dimensions, you can trade this in for a little extra speed.
To see if the camera you're interested in offers this, have a look at its spec sheet for its burst or continuous shooting option. If there is this option to extend the standard range, you should see a number of different 'fps' options with varying MP counts or file sizes after them.
Up until a couple of years ago, viewfinders were becoming increasingly difficult to find on compact cameras. There are a number of reasons why this has been the case, although the most significant has been the general shift in focus on making rear displays larger. Another reason is that as viewfinders on compact cameras do not take their view through the camera’s lens (as on a DSLR), they cannot be used as an accurate means of composing images, although the extent to which this is the case varies with subject distance. Images of subjects captured particularly close up are subject to parallax error too, given the difference in position between the lens and the viewfinder.
Their inclusion on many budget compacts also meant that they were optically never particularly impressive either. Nevertheless, there is still a great demand for viewfinders on compact cameras and manufacturers have responded to this over the past couple of years by releasing models with either electronic or optical finders. To date, Fujifilm’s efforts have perhaps been the most impressive; its recent X20 model combines a standard optical viewfinder with a Digital Trans Panel overlaying digital information, the first of its kind on such a camera.
The most basic compacts sport rear displays measuring 2.7 inches in size, although most cameras increase this to 3 inches. Some have even gone further to 3.5 inches and beyond. The fact that this measurement is taken from the diagonal of the display explains why the actual dimensions of different displays varies, with some manufacturers choosing an aspect ratio of 16:9 (ideal for HD video recording) and some choosing a 3:2 or 4:3 format to match the aspect ratio of the camera’s sensor.
Display resolution varies between models, from 230k dots to over a million. Currently, the standard for cheaper compacts is around 460k dots and 921k dots for enthusiast compacts, so look out for these. Generally speaking, the higher the figure more clearly the image will appear, although the dimensions of the screen will also determine how saturated it is with dots.
As displays have slowly grown in size, manufacturers have cleverly made good use of space by equipping them with touch functionality. With this, the user can typically select menu and shooting options by pressing virtual buttons, and also focus on a specific elements in a scene by simply pressing them on the display. This functionality is also particularly useful for flicking through captured images, as well as zooming into them to check whether subjects are in focus. Some compacts, particularly superzoom types, now also sport articulated displays which allow you to compose images and videos from awkward angles.
While most compacts feature liquid crystal displays (LCD), some offer alternatives based on organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology. OLED displays are often touted as having a number of advantages over LCD screens, such as wider viewing angles, better contrast and lower power consumption, and many models equipped with them validate these claims. Nevertheless, LCD is an older and more established technology, and most manufacturers continue to use these instead of OLED panels for their cameras (although as more research is done into the stability and longevity of OLED displays, this situation may well change).
Hotshoes have traditionally allowed users to mount external flashguns for a little extra illumination, and while this continues to be the case, their flexibility today is greater than ever. Not only are there more manufacturers producing enthusiast compacts than before, but the range of devices designed to be used with these has also broadened, from viewfinders and stereo microphones to GPS units for geotagging images. Before you buy a camera, look at the range of compatible accessories to get an idea of what you could potentially add on in the future.
These go by different names depending on the manufacturer, but the principle of them all is the same: to instantly provide images with effects. True, they're probably not for everyone and some people may find their novelty wears off eventually - nevertheless, those that find a particular effect they like may consider this to be a great timesaver if it negates post-processing them into a particular style.
Common options include Pinhole and Soft Focus, as well as High Contrast Black and White and pseudo-tilt-shift ‘miniature’ styles. These can typically be previewed as you compose the scene, so you can see whether a particular filter works before you capture the image, although unless you can shoot these alongside a Raw file, you won't be left with an original, unadultered version if you change your mind about them later. Such filters can often be used during video capture too, although the extra demands placed on the camera’s processor can drop the maximum frame rate. The manufacturer will usually state what effect these have here (if any) in the camera’s manual.
A compact's connectivity options depend in part on the camera's target market, although most of today's models incorporate some kind of mini USB and HDMI ports. Enthusiast compacts may also include a further port for attaching microphones, which allows users to improve on the audio quality of their camera's microphone when recording video. Some may even include a port for a cable release, which is useful for those frequently capturing long exposures and group shots.
Almost every major camera manufacturer has made some sort of contribution to the waterproof camera category. Typically these cameras are not simply waterproof: many are also shock and freezeproof, and some even incorporate crush-proofing should they be accidentally sat on, run over or similar. Some recent models are also equipped with compasses, and even altimeters and barometers in case you wish to use them in more extreme situations.
While some earlier models were somewhat awkwardly designed, newer models have a style that's much more consistent with more conventional compacts. As such, they can be good candidates for everyday use rather than simply for that annual beach holiday. This also makes them ideal for families with small children, particularly those curious enough to grab, bite or bash such items. On some, however, you may find that pressing buttons is a little more difficult than usual (on account of the extra seals and general protection in place) while the lenses on such cameras are also typically restricted to a shorter range than other camera's around the same price point.
Wi-Fi, GPS and more
Today's cameras typically contain many additional extras which you may or may not want on top. Wi-Fi has been the most popular feature to be rolled out across cameras at all price points, something which has been more recently followed by Near Field Communication (NFC) technology and now even 3G/4G connectivity. GPS systems, which allow you to assign landmarks to your images and map them post capture, are also now commonly found in cameras above £200, while intervalometers have also found popularity among those wanting to produce high-quality time-lapse footage without more expensive equipment.
Which compact is best for you?
Still confused? Thinking about your main priority, or about the type of user you think you are, may help you find the best compact camera for your needs. Here are a few examples:
Best camera for travelling
If you’re off to new places and want to keep a record of where you’ve been, consider a camera with a strong zoom range and a GPS system that will tag the locations of your images. Together you’ll be able to capture a range of images from wideangle cityscapes to telephoto shots of distant details, and be able to view the locations of each image on a map.
Best camera for connectivity
If sharing your images and connecting to the internet on the move is a must, have a look at a camera which has built-in Wi-Fi and possibly even 3G/4G. These will allow you to post images to social networks and typically also give you the option of controlling your camera remotely through a smartphone or tablet. Compacts are also starting to run on the same operating systems as smartphones, which will allow you to augment your cameras functionality with new apps and features.
Best camera for DSLR-like images
For the best image quality possible, look out for cameras with a large sensor (either full frame or APS-C) and a fixed lens. The former will help to preserve a wide dynamic range and keep noise to a minimum, while the latter should help to produce images with fewer aberrations and excellent detail. Naturally you pay for this, but now that a few manufacturers have introduced APS-C-sensor compacts, their prices have started to fall.
Best camera for supporting various accessories
Enthusiast cameras with hotshoes typically accept flashguns from that manufacturer's line, and may even accept GPS units and stereo microphones among other things. Some can also have a lens adapter attached in order to facilitate wideangle shooting or similar. Check before you buy to see what accessories are compatible with a particular model.
Best camera for kids
There are plenty of child-friendly cameras on the market, replete with automated shooting options and various effects modes for instant creative styles. Look out for cameras with a simple design and large buttons. You may even chose to go for a rugged, waterproof compact that will be able to withstand general knocks, scrapes and the odd accident.
Best camera for use in and around water
Most manufacturers carry one or models within their compact ranges which are can be safely used underwater, as well as in dusty and freezing conditions. Many are shockproof too, which means they should continue working if accidentally dropped. These are excellent for beach and adventure holidays but check the specs carefully as there will be limits as to how much abuse they can tolerate.
Best camera for novice users
Novice users who just want to get to grips with the basics of photography needn't spend much. A camera in a manufacturer's entry-level line of compacts should still provide a good zoom range and HD video recording, with features such as Wi-Fi fast becoming standard too. Look out for models with back-illuminated sensors, as these generally capture light more effectively.
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