If you believed the hype, you’d think compact cameras were dead, killed off by smartphone cameras and ever-cheaper DSLRs. In fact, they’re alive and well, and there are plenty of reasons to choose one. They’re smaller than mirrorless or DSLR cameras, yet offer far better image quality than most smartphones. Many of them also pack powerful zoom lenses – something you won’t find on your mobile.
Compact cameras often also have a greater range of optional accessories, and they’re even increasingly coming with built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Plus, of course, you can shoot as much as you like without running down your smartphone’s battery.
So forget everything you’ve heard about the death of the compact camera – there’s plenty of awesome gear out there.
Buying guide: How to buy the best compact camera for you
So you’ve reached the limit of what you can do with your phone’s camera? Good for you! Now that it’s time to move on up, let us help you out: compact cameras do an enormous amount these days, and knowing exactly what to look for can be tricky. Here are technical terms untangled, movie modes demystified, and manual modes un-muddled.
Megapixels matter… or do they?
It’s tempting to think that more megapixels means better pictures. But if the sensor is too densely packed with pixels, you can end up with noisy, grainy images. A slightly lower-resolution sensor may well take cleaner, brighter photos – and they’ll still be more than big enough to share or print. So don’t pick a camera just because it promises super-high-resolution images. Check out real-world images – like ours, let’s say – and look at the overall quality.
Zoom, zoom, zoom
Your smartphone almost definitely doesn’t have a zoom lens, so this is a major advantage of compact cameras. Zoom ratios are often expressed in multiples, so a 10x zoom lens magnifies your view by up to ten times. Zoom lenses might also be measured in millimetres: to compare these, look for the “35mm equivalent” length. Anything beyond 100mm is considered telephoto, and anything beyond 300mm should be good for long-range subjects such as wildlife or sports.
Another thing to look out for is the maximum aperture of a lens. Measured in f-stops, an aperture of f/2.8 indicates a lens that should perform fairly well in low light. Higher numbers mean that less light gets through, so low-light performance will be worse.
Part of the joy of a point-and-shoot camera is you don’t have to worry about the technical process: just point it at something pretty, press the button and enjoy the results. But if you’ve got ambitions beyond pointing and shooting, look out for a manual mode that lets you set the camera’s shutter speed or aperture yourself – the best way to ensure completely sharp shots of challenging subjects, or to get creative with your visual effects.
Cheaper cameras still hook up to your computer via a cable, but spend a little more and you can get a camera with built-in Wi-Fi. Most cameras can use this to upload pictures to services such as Facebook, but smarter cameras can also use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone. This means you can control your camera with your phone, and use it to easily transfer and upload images. Also look out for GPS; this allows you to automatically geotag your images, so you can always pinpoint where they were taken.
READ NEXT: Casting the net wider? If you don’t want to limit your search to compact cameras, check out our guide to the best compact, CSC and DSLR cameras of 2017.
The best point-and-shoot cameras to buy in 2017 from £329
1. Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II: A perfectly portable camera
Price when reviewed: £390
The PowerShot G9 X Mark II has a spectacularly slim design, which makes it properly pocket-sized. It also offers a full-on manual mode, plus shutter and aperture priority modes, making this a great compact for those with some photographic experience – or wanting to gain it. It’s all controlled via the touchscreen on the back, though; experienced shooters might find that fiddly, compared to the dials they’re used to.
Elsewhere there’s plenty to like. The G9 X Mark II can be controlled via either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth; the latter is slightly kinder to the camera’s 1,250mAh battery. And the million-pixel, 3in touchscreen monitor looks great and is easy to use.
Performance is good, particularly for the price. You can shoot a little over eight frames per second in both JPEG and RAW; if you want the autofocus to re-evaluate after each shot the speed drops to just over five frames per second. Video is only 1080p, rather than 4K, but quality is excellent, and you can film at 50fps for slow-motion footage. In all, it’s a great camera for those who want top-notch stills and the ultimate in portability.
Key specs – 20.1 1.0-type sensor; 28-84mm, f/2-4.9 lens; ISO range: 125-12800; Still image format: JPEG, RAW; Movie modes: 1080, 50p, 25p; 720, 25p; Exposure modes: Auto, PASM; 3in, 1,040,000-pixel screen; Connectivity: Micro USB, Wi-Fi, NFC; Claimed battery life: 235 stills (355 eco mode); Dimensions: 98 x 58 x 31mm (WDH); Weight: 206g
2. Canon PowerShot SX730 HS: A huge zoom at a great price
Price when reviewed: £329
Like the Nikon A900 (see below), the SX730 HS is all about reach. Its 40x lens is equivalent to a 24-960mm DSLR lens. That’s an immense range, more than enough to cover virtually all wildlife or sporting events.
The trade-off is a relatively small sensor: the 20.3-megapixel, 2/3in CMOS sensor is unlikely to capture clean detail in low light. The SX730 HS doesn’t offer a RAW mode either, so it’s not ideal for those who want to perfect their images in post-production.
Still, if shooting at night isn’t a priority, you’ll find the SX730 HS a flexible little beast. Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth all rock out, while the 3in screen can be angled to face forward for selfie duties. It isn’t a touchscreen, but the jog-wheel on the right hand side provides plenty of quick control, and manual, shutter and aperture priority modes are available from the menu.
Like the PowerShot G9 X Mark II the SX730 HS only shoots video at up to 1080p, but still, there’s much to like here. You get enough manual modes to help knowledgeable photographers, plus enough lens to keep the most ardent wildlife fans happy, all in a dinky package which barely tips the scales at 300g.
Key specs – 20.3 1/2.3 type sensor; 24-960mm, f/3.3-6.9 lens; ISO range: 80-3200; Still image format: JPEG; Movie modes: 1080, 60, 30p; 720, 30p; Exposure modes: Auto, PASM; 3in, 922,000-pixel screen; Connectivity: micro-USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC; Claimed battery life: 250 stills (355 eco mode); Dimensions: 110 x 40 x 54mm (WDH); Weight: 300g
3. Nikon Coolpix A900: Best for 4K video with a huge zoom
Price when reviewed: £340
Start zooming in on the Coolpix A900 and you’ll soon see why this camera deserves a place here. From its widest setting it whirrs up right up to an amazing 35-mm equivalent 840mm – substantially longer than the giant lenses you see nestled around the edges of a Premier League football match on a Saturday afternoon. That makes the A900 more than competent for wildlife and sports photography, and there’s a decent manual mode, including shutter and aperture priority, for knowledgeable photographers to choose if they wish.
Unlike the Canon G9 X Mark II, the Nikon offers both a 3in display and a jog-wheel on the back, with another dial at the top right-hand corner – so it’s quick and tactile to control.
The tick-list of features is well stacked too: you can record 4K video at 25fps, and connect to your phone by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The 3in monitor makes up for its lack of touch-ability by offering plenty of flexibility – it can fold down, to help shoot over the top of things, or rotate all the way round to face the front for selfies.
The compromise is the sensor. Where other cameras here offer 1in or even Micro 4/3” sensors, the A900 has a standard issue 2/3in sensor with 20.3 tightly-packed megapixels sitting on it. So once the sun goes down, you should expect to see some drop-off in image quality. If you can stick to good light, though, this little miracle packs a hefty wallop in a satisfyingly tiny package.
Key specs – 20.3 1/2.3 type sensor; 24-840mm, f/3.4-6.9 lens; ISO range: 80-3200; Still image format: JPEG; Movie modes: 4K, 35p, 1080, 50p, 25p; 720, 25p; Exposure modes: Auto, PASM; 3in, 921,000-pixel screen; Connectivity: micro-USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth; Claimed battery life: 270 stills, 50 minutes movie at 1080, 30p; Dimensions: 113 x 40 x 67mm (WDH); Weight: 298g
4. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100: Best for manual photography
Price when reviewed: £499
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 is a veteran by compact camera standards – it’s soon to blow out the candles on its third birthday cake. But its combination of top-notch image quality, manual features and neat design remains tough to beat.
We love how the LX100 handles. Leave it in automatic mode and it does everything for you; but if you want to manually set things up, it’s very easy to do. The ring around the lens sets aperture, for example, while another dial on top fixes shutter speed. Another ring on the lens sets zoom by default, but can be re-assigned to set ISO. If you like setting up your own manual exposures, it’s a joy.
It produces top-notch shots as well: its Micro 4/3in sensor is huge compared to most compact cameras. We weren’t surprised to see excellent image quality in our tests, albeit with a little softness towards the edges of the frame.
The LX100’s Wi-Fi isn’t limited to simple image transfer; donk the relevant app onto your smartphone and you get full remote control. Our only complaint is that the Panasonic DMC-LX100 is a pretty bulky machine: you might get it into an anorak pocket, but unlike the far smaller Sony RX100 V (see below) the lens doesn’t retract fully into the body when the camera’s off, so it’s a shade less portable.
Key specs – 12.8 4/3-type sensor; 24-75mm, f/1.7-2.8 lens; ISO range: 100-25600; Still image format: JPEG, RAW; Movie modes: 4K, 25p; 1080, 50p, 25p; 720, 25p; Exposure modes: Auto, PASM; 3in, 921,000-pixel screen; Connectivity: USB, Wi-Fi, NFC; Claimed battery life: 350 stills; Dimensions: 115 x 55 x 66mm (WDH); Weight: 393g
5. Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 V: Best for performance junkies
Price when reviewed: £900
A compact camera can be a compromise, but the RX100 V offers genuinely SLR-quality images in a pocket-sized package. That’s thanks to its big 1in sensor and wide f/1.8 – f/2.8 aperture – the perfect combination for taking bright, clean images even in difficult lighting conditions. You also get NFC and Wi-Fi.
Performance is out of this world, and puts even the meatiest of DSLRs to shame. Continuous shooting? Sure, at a literally cinema-speed 24fps. Just as impressively, the autofocus runs continuously while the camera is shooting, which means even fast-moving subjects should stay sharp.
Our only complaint is the zoom. The RX100 V’s high-speed operation would make it perfect for sports or wildlife, but the lens maxes out at a relatively short 70mm (in 35mm terms), which is better for for portraits, landscapes and general travel photography. Still, with image quality like this your money – all £900 of it – is well spent. If you want the gold-plated image quality of a DSLR, without the bulk and complexity, this is the camera you need.
Key specs – 20.1 1.0-type sensor; 24-70mm, f/1.8-2.8 lens; ISO range: 125-12800; Still image format: JPEG, RAW; Movie modes: 4K, 25p; 1080, 50, 25p; 720, 25p; Exposure modes: Auto, PASM; 3in, 1,228,800-pixel screen; Connectivity: Micro-USB, Wi-Fi, NFC; Claimed battery life: 220 stills, 35 minutes movie; Dimensions: 102 x 41 x 58mm (WDH); Weight: 299g