Compact, or ‘point and shoot’, cameras were once the most popular type of digital snapper – but with the rising popularity and affordability of interchangeable lens cameras and the huge performance improvements to smartphone cameras in recent years, the compact camera seems in danger of becoming irrelevant.
However, take a closer look and it’s clear these cameras can still fulfill a valuable role – and, just like with smartphone cameras, they perform a lot more capably than they used to. So before you settle on buying a DSLR or CSC, take a look at our guide. A compact might suit your needs better than you imagine.
What advantages does a compact camera offer?
There’s a big clue in the category’s name: their portability. Compacts range in size from those that’ll easily slip into a jeans pocket to those that require a bag (or strong neck), but in the main they’re smaller and lighter than DSLR and compact system cameras (CSCs). If you’re travelling light, or need to shoot without drawing too much attention to yourself, a compact is the obvious choice.
Their diminutive size brings with it some performance and flexibility disadvantages compared to other, larger types of cameras, but it’s still possible to take beautiful, highly detailed images and video clips with a compact camera.
What’s the picture quality like?
Most (but not all) compacts have digital image sensors that are physically smaller than those found in CSCs and DSLRs. Generally, larger sensor size means more detail, faster shutter speeds and sharper photos, especially in low-light situations.
Compacts also have fixed lenses, so their focal length and aperture are fixed at whatever their built-in lens allows; DSLRs and CSCs allow the user to swap lenses, increasing flexibility and allowing the cameras to be equipped for specific jobs like portraiture, landscape or ultra close-up macro shooting.
Compared to smartphone cameras, however, compacts in general represent a significant step up in image quality. Most compacts have far better sensors and lenses than their smartphone counterparts.
Is a compact camera right for me?
It really depends what your priorities and goals are. If you’re not fastidious about image quality (or the ability to zoom in on a subject), but want a camera you can carry around with you at all times, your smartphone will likely suffice. If you’re looking for a camera that’s flexible, allows for deep levels of tweaking and offers the highest image quality possible, then a CSC or DSLR is probably more your speed.
If, however, you’re looking for something that sits somewhere in the middle – a small, lightweight camera that offers better image quality and greater versatility than a phone’s camera – then a compact fits the bill.
Compacts can also serve a useful role as a back-up or secondary camera for owners of DSLRs and CSCs.
The best budget compact cameras
Nikon Coolpix S7000
A skinny sliver of a camera that manages to pack in a 20x optical zoom lens with image stabilisation, the S7000 is a great affordable and portable choice.
Panasonic Lumix TZ57
Another compact shooter with a big 20x zoom, the TZ57 also touts a flip-up screen that makes it a smart option for selfie fans.
Polaroid Snap Touch
A blend of old and new, the Snap Touch can instantly print out 3 x 2-inch snaps. It’s a gimmick, sure – but a fun one.
The best mid-range compact cameras
Canon PowerShot G9 X
With a 1-inch sensor and handy touchscreen, the G9 X produces high quality images while remaining pocket-friendly.
Panasonic Lumix LX100
Moving further into the premium end of things, the LX100 is a hugely capable compact bristling with controls and blessed with fantastic performance – including 4K video recording.
With its large APS-C sensor (as big as a DSLR’s), wide f/2.8 aperture and flip-up touchscreen, the X70 is as powerful as it is small.
The best high-end cameras
Sony RX100 V
Sony’s flagship compact is insanely powerful for its size, able to shoot stills and video at incredibly high speeds, as well as 4K video. The perfect blend of portability and performance.
Panasonic Lumix FZ2000
Larger than most compacts, this bridge camera benefits from a large 1-inch sensor, big 20x optical zoom and stunning OLED viewfinder. If you can deal with its heftier design, it’s a glorious all-rounder.
Leica Q (Typ 116)
One of only a handful of compacts to sport a full-frame sensor, the Leica Q something of a luxury oddity. If you can stomach the frankly frightening asking price, its big sensor/fast lens combo easily serves up pro-quality shots.
All prices are correct at time of writing, but may go up or down.