Photography / Buying Guide

Compact Cameras


Compact cameras, often referred to as point-and-shoots, are the most prevalent type of digital camera available, with an expansive list of options available in regard to form factor, imaging capabilities, manual versus automated functions, and a host of technologies that work to facilitate, as their name implies, truly point-and-shoot imaging possibilities. The point-and-shoot is a versatile type of camera by design and is well-matched to photographers of all levels; from a true hobbyist’s sole camera, used for photographing family moments, to a casual enthusiast wanting greater imaging capabilities than his or her smartphone, to the professional looking for an apt, more compact companion to a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Point-and-shoot cameras encompass a few distinct styles, each of which offers certain benefits, depending on one’s intended usage. A minuscule, pocketable camera is the ultimate everyday companion due to its small profile; a bridge-style camera links some of the benefits of interchangeable-lens cameras along with the intuitivene operation of a point-and-shoot; rugged cameras provide highly durable body construction that can endure use in some of the harshest climates; Wi-Fi enabled cameras provide the greatest amount of ease in quickly showcasing photography online; and large-sensor compact cameras are capable of creating imagery with similar quality to that of a DSLR, including manual control options, in a package that is a fraction of the size of larger imaging devices. With so much room and technology available in the current imaging sphere, many of these capabilities are further blended together to provide an even more efficient method for meeting several requirements of a camera in a single device.

Different Types of Point-and-Shoots

Pocket-Sized Compact Cameras

The most common and easily associable type of point-and-shoot is the pocket-sized variant. This style of camera most often meets many photographers' requirements, and does so in a consistently smaller and smaller package. The main asset of these cameras, aside from their slender design, is that they tend to be the most affordable cameras available and possess a wealth of imaging features that have continued to grow at a steady rate over time.

The main competition for these small cameras currently is the huge influx of smartphones and the simple fact that most people seem to be in possession of a camera at any given moment. As smartphones' imaging capabilities continue to grow, dedicated point-and-shoot cameras' imaging prowess, quality, and functionality have also expanded to provide an even richer means for day-to-day photographing. When compared to a smartphone, a point-and-shoot camera typically differentiates itself in several ways to serve as a complementary device to a smartphone, rather than just another device to have to carry.

Beginning with sensor size, a dedicated point-and-shoot of any size will usually have a larger sensor than any smartphone. This alone makes these pocketable compacts capable of producing smoother-looking imagery with substantially better low-light quality and sensitivity. Even if the resolution, in megapixels, of a camera phone and a point-and-shoot are the same, the point-and-shoot's larger sensor means that each individual pixel is also larger. This allows for better reception of light when taking photos or videos, which subsequently leads to higher image quality in all lighting conditions.

The second main benefit of a dedicated camera is the inclusion of an optical zoom lens, versus a smartphone’s fixed focal length lens and implementation of digital zoom in order to change the apparent field of view. An optical zoom lens will maintain its optical clarity throughout the range, with the ability to deliver sharp, high-resolution photos at wide-angle to telephoto perspectives. A camera that only employs digital zoom as a means for altering the magnification will always be subject to detrimental image quality, since it is relying on interpolating information digitally in order to present a full-resolution image.

Third, some other points to consider in a point-and-shoot’s edge over a camera phone include the common capability of recording RAW imagery for more refined post-production control, the inclusion of some physical controls to allow for a more intuitive means of interacting with the camera, and the incorporation of a significantly richer set of imaging functions for more in-camera control over how recorded images look.

While pocket-sized cameras seem like a well-defined realm within the larger point-and-shoot context, there is still a range of options available in these tiny cameras. Cameras such as the Canon PowerShot ELPH series feature some of smallest designs available, while still delivering the ability to record full HD 1080p video and, additionally, some even feature touchscreen LCD monitors and wireless connectivity to further enhance their ease of use. Among some of the most uniquely designed point-and-shoots is the PowerShot N, which has a tilting LCD touchscreen monitor to support working from both high and low angles with less hassle, and is also geared for instant wireless sharing of imagery directly from the camera.

Upping the functionality a bit more, and maintaining a discreet size, is the Sony Cyber-shot HX50V, which integrates an expansive 30x optical zoom lens into its design as well as built-in Wi-Fi, GPS, a pop-up flash, and a Multi Interface shoe for attaching external flashes or triggers. These added incentives do add some bulk to the camera but also extend its usefulness well past its simply being a snapshot-only point-and-shoot.

Advanced Compact Cameras

Slightly larger than the pocket-sized point-and-shoots, a new breed of point-and-shoots has recently emerged that combines even larger sensor sizes with additional manual and physical controls as well as faster, brighter lenses and extended functionality by way of viewfinders, accessory shoes, and other control capabilities more often seen on DSLR cameras. These advanced compact cameras are perfectly suitable as a professional photographer’s everyday, walk-around camera, an enthusiast's travel camera, or simply a perfect tool for anyone wishing to hone their craft a bit more than a fully automated point-and-shoot will allow. As previously mentioned in regard to sensor size, these cameras have even larger sensor sizes than traditional point-and-shoots, ranging from the recently popularized 1-inch sensor all the way up to APS-C and full-frame sensors that were previously only available in DSLRs. The increased sensor size promotes higher image quality that is suitable for printing and is adept at maintaining consistent performance when working in difficult lighting conditions.

One of the other most notable additions to some of these cameras, compared to their more compact counterparts, is the inclusion of a viewfinder, whether it is optical or electronic. Cameras such as the Canon PowerShot G16 and the Fujifilm X20 both feature zoom-type optical finders that provide a bright framing aid that helps when composing imagery in bright conditions and when tracking moving subjects.

On the other hand, the Nikon COOLPIX P7800 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 incorporate electronic viewfinders into their design to display eye-level live view imagery that can provide real-time previewing of different exposure settings and camera effects. Regardless of either, the inclusion of a viewfinder on a point-and-shoot is often considered a must-have for photographers who work in bright, sunlit conditions or for those who prefer the added stability of holding the camera up to one’s eye.

Cameras with the largest sensor sizes, APS-C and full frame, may feature a prime (fixed focal length) lens with a bright maximum aperture, as opposed to lengthy zoom lenses with variable maximum apertures. While the use of prime lenses isn’t always for everybody, it does afford greater control over exactly how the lens functions with the specific camera and helps to ensure consistency while shooting. The full-frame Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 and its anti-aliasing filterless twin, the RX1R, as well as the Nikon COOLPIX A, Ricoh GR, and Sigma DP Merrill cameras all feature prime lenses with maximum apertures of at least f/2.8 to help in dim lighting conditions and for greater control over the plane of focus for shallow-depth-of-field imaging.

In comparison to the first-mentioned style of point-and-shoots, these more advanced compact cameras separate themselves because they are designed to allow significantly more control over how a photograph is made, compared to relying almost entirely on how the camera best deems an exposure to look. This added sense of control, coupled with the very compact size, makes these cameras especially notable for working photographers and those already using a DSLR, but who are looking for a second camera to carry with them at all times or while traveling. Additionally, while configurable, each of these cameras also supports their point-and-shoot namesake sense of functionality for those instances in which spontaneity is necessary, but the highest image quality is still desired.

Bridge Cameras

Also taking a page from interchangeable-lens-type cameras, bridge-style cameras mimic some of the most adored benefits of these larger cameras; however, they do so with a DSLR’s ergonomics and handling capabilities. The DSLR profile is prone to added stability while shooting, and because of this, bridge cameras' other main asset is a traditionally very long telephoto zoom lens. It is not unheard of for a bridge camera to feature a 50x or 60x optical zoom lens, such as the Fujifilm FinePix SL1000 or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70, respectively, the latter of which covers a 35mm equivalent focal-length range of 20 to 1200mm. The robust grip structure, eye-level viewfinder, and lens barrel all work together to support working with such great focal lengths and also enable a more comfortable and familiar ergonomic experience for many people. Another added benefit of many of these cameras is the inclusion of image stabilization, either optical or sensor-shift type, which helps to minimize the appearance of camera shake when working with such great zoom magnifications or in low light.

Wireless Connectivity

Another growing trend featured in many point-and-shoot cameras is the inclusion of wireless transferring and camera-control possibilities. In keeping with the ever-growing desire to instantly share images online via email or social networking sites, many cameras are able to link directly with mobile devices to send images and movies recorded with these cameras to the smartphone or tablet for direct sharing. Another feature supported by many cameras and their proprietary apps is remote control of the camera and even receiving a live view image on the mobile device. You can place the camera at a distance and take photos without needing to physically press the shutter-release button, which is ideal for shooting from difficult angles, or for self-portraits or group photos that include the photographer. Taking this theme even further are the unique Samsung Galaxy Digital Cameras, which integrate full Wi-Fi connectivity as well as mobile 3G or LTE connectivity in the cameras themselves. This allows sharing of images from the camera online without the added step of having to transfer images to a linked mobile device.

Rugged Cameras

Finally, one other distinct group of point-and-shoot cameras are the ruggedly designed outdoor cameras that feature water-, freeze-, dust-, and often crush-proof designs for worry-free use in some of the most inclement conditions. These cameras, such as the Olympus Tough TG-2 HIS or the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30, are ideal companions to bring on hikes, swims, or ski trips and feature all of the same imaging capabilities as other compact point-and-shoots, but in a tougher, more robust frame. Certain rugged cameras, like the Nikon COOLPIX AW110, also integrate Wi-Fi, GPS, and other connectivity-oriented assets to suit more adventurous individuals who enjoy geotagging and including other location-based data when sharing their imagery.

How to Select a Point-and-Shoot

When selecting the ideal point-and-shoot, one’s personal needs should be carefully examined. Ask yourself the important questions: do I need a simple camera for recording day-to-day shots? Do I want something that will allow me to share my images, on the go? Do I need a back-up camera to complement my full-frame DSLR? Or do I want to use a point-and-shoot as my sole camera and require it to record images of the highest quality?

Depending on one’s answers to these questions, a camera can be selected to suit the most important needs and also touch on some of the other, more ancillary needs as desired. Most cameras do not fit directly into one of the aforementioned categories, and straddle two or more of the categories. Numerous bridge cameras feature Wi-Fi connectivity, rugged cameras can integrate a viewfinder, and large-sensor point-and-shoots can feature a versatile zoom lens.

It is advisable to first narrow the initial selection by the most important feature of a camera, based on the organized types. Look at some of the other main features of each camera: would it be nice to have a tilting LCD monitor? Or would the versatility in using AA batteries as a power source be more valuable when traveling? Do I need wireless connectivity or am I planning on just uploading and printing my photographs from my computer at home? Or am I tired of carrying a DSLR with me all the time but still need the large sensor and optically refined lens design? Or do I simply want the most compact, pocketable design with fully automated shooting capabilities for spontaneous everyday snapshots?

Isolating the main goals and creating a hierarchy are central to the idea of selecting a point-and-shoot, since it is one of the most broadly organized genres of digital cameras available today. One of the most important criteria, however, is to choose a camera that is comfortable to use and that will complement the desired type of shooting and situations in which it will be used.


great article!

Which of your compact cameras have the capability of attaching to a still photo a five second or so voice memo for identifying travel photos like::

"Anne Frank's house, Amsterdam January 2015" ?

Thank you!

I really appreciated a certain feature in my 2 previous P&S: The ability to record voice memos with every single still picture I take. It seems to be difficult to find that feature anymore. Could you recommend a recent one preferably highend but still compact.

I think that when looking for a point a shoot, choosing a good sensor is important for better image quality. Cameras with CMOS sensors are much better performers than cameras with CCD sensors and produce better still images and video .The price difference is not a lot running about 40$ more for a camera with a CMOS sensor than one with CCD sensor for the lower priced models.
I'm also like the sharpness and colors of the Sony sensors and Zeiss lenses in their point and shoots.

You're writing a overview of compacts without even mentioning probably the best compact on the market today, the SONY RX-100 II? Sony rules!