Looking for a small, practical camera that’s superior to a smartphone to take on your travels or pull from your pocket? Then look no further. Our roundup will help you buy the best compact camera for you.
In the past few years, the compact camera market has changed hugely with the proliferation of camera phones. While cheap and cheerful point-and-shoot compacts are still available, there aren’t nearly as many as there once were.
Instead, manufacturers have been forced to up their game and focus on producing compacts that deliver impressive optical zoom ranges, more useful shooting features, and demonstrably better image quality than their smartphone rivals.
This change in the landscape has resulted in the emergence of a number of compact camera sub-genres, from ruggedised waterproof compacts that you can take swimming, to premium compacts with APS-C or even full-frame sensors.
Related: Best cameras
Best Compact Camera Buying Guide – The different types available
Ruggedised compacts are essentially armour-plated compacts designed to be used underwater or on a sandy beach – or, indeed, anywhere that would be out-of-bounds to regular cameras or smartphones. As well as being water-resistant, most will survive a drop onto a solid floor from arms length without resulting in any damage.
Strictly speaking, bridge compacts aren’t really “compact” at all; they’re often about the same size as a mid-level DSLR. Their big selling point is that they come with a large fixed zoom that provides anywhere from 24-200mm to 24-600mm and beyond. They’re versatile and flexible, just so long as you don’t mind a camera with a bit of bulk and one that isn’t designed to fit your pocket.
Travel compacts are much like bridge compacts, only smaller. They’re equipped with smaller optical zooms than bridge cameras, although most still come in around 24-200mm or thereabouts. Since they’re usually small enough to slip inside a coat pocket, they’re ideal for taking away on holiday.
Premium compacts are perhaps the most exciting sub-genre of the compact market at present, since this is where manufacturers tend to showcase their most technologically advanced and refined models. These almost always come with a 1-inch sensor, although some even use APS-C and even full-frame sensors.
Compact camera jargon explained
1-inch sensor: One of the chief ways that manufacturers have improved their compacts is by increasing the size of the sensor. Whereas small 1/2.3-inch sensors are still used in many cheaper compacts (and, indeed, some smartphones), more advanced models often come with a 1-inch sensor that features around four times the surface area. You can expect a 1-inch sensor compact to offer better low-light performance and a higher dynamic range.
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Wi-Fi: All of the cameras in this roundup offer built-in Wi-Fi as standard. This means you can connect them to your smartphone, transfer images from camera to phone, and then use your phone’s mobile data functionality to upload your images to social media or email them soon after they’ve been taken. Some apps will even allow you to control the camera remotely.
Image stabilisation: If you’re shooting at slower shutter speeds or extended telephoto lengths, then the natural shake in your hands can result in blurred images. This is where image stabilisation (IS) comes to the rescue. Each manufacturer has its own name for the technology, but in essence there are two types: sensor-shift IS, where the camera’s sensor moves to correct handshake, and lens-based IS, where the lens makes minute adjustments to compensate instead. Either way, with IS engaged you should be able to achieve pin-sharp shots at much slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible.
4K video: While virtually all modern compacts can record at least 720p HD and usually 1080p Full HD, 4K video isn’t quite so universal yet. As such, not all of the cameras in this roundup provide it. Of course, you’ll get the full benefit of 4K video footage only if you have a 4K monitor or TV to view it on.
Aperture: Aperture refers to the size of the hole that allows light to pass through to the sensor. This hole is created by a set of interlocked blades at the base of a lens that contract and expand as you change aperture settings. It’s measured in f-stops – the higher the f-stop, the smaller the hole; the lower the f-stop, the wider it is. Lenses with especially low apertures – typically f/1.4 to f/2.8 – are much sought-after by enthusiasts for two reasons. First, because they let in more light, thereby allowing you to use faster shutter speeds in low light. Second, because they increase the depth of field effect, blurring the background behind an in-focus subject to make them stand out more.
Raw: All of of the cameras in this roundup enable you to record still images as lossless Raw files. These are different from JPEGs because when you capture a JPEG image, the camera will process the image for you in-camera before discarding some of the data to make the resulting image file smaller. However, when recording images as Raw files the camera doesn’t process the image internally, but rather retains all of the data captured by the sensor. This gives you much more scope to process the image yourself using specialist applications such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
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Best waterproof compact camera:
- 12MP sensor
- 4x optical zoom (25-100mm equivalent), f/2-4.9
- ISO 100-12,800
- Waterproof to 15m
- 4K movie recording
Announced earlier this year the TG-5 is the latest in a long line of ruggedised compacts from Olympus that’s built to withstand the kind of environments that would all but destroy regular compacts. As such the TG-5 is waterproof to a depth of 15m, shockproof to drops of up to 2.1m, crushproof to a weight of 100kg and freezeproof down to -15°C. For those that want to use the camera at even deeper depths, Olympus offers an optional PT-058 housing unit (£279) that increases the camera’s waterproof rating to 45m.
Underneath its tank-like body, the TG-5 is built around a 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that produces 12MP of effective resolution. While this actually represents a drop in resolution from the 16MP TG-4 that preceded it, the trade-off according to Olympus is better low-light performance and enhanced dynamic range – both of which are likely to appeal to diving enthusiasts shooting in less than optimal light.
The sensor is paired with the same TruePic VIII image processor found inside the flagship OM-D E-M1 Mk II to offer a native sensitivity range of ISO 100-12,800. In addition to its fully automatic exposure modes, the TG-5 also offers full manual control along with Raw support. The TG-5 is also the first Olympus Tough model to support 4K movie recording at 30fps, along with 120fps high-speed capture at 1080p Full HD. On the front, the TG-5 is fitted with the same 4x optical zoom as its predecessor, but does benefit from the addition of anti-fog dual-pane glass to prevent the lens from misting when the camera is subjected to extreme temperature shifts.
At time of review the Olympus TG-5 was available for £399
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Best fixed focal length camera:
- 24.2MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS sensor
- Fujifilm X-Processor Pro image processor
- Fixed 23mm f/2 lens
- Hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder
- ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to ISO 51,200)
The X100F is the fourth and latest model in Fujifilm’s line of highly regarded fixed focal length premium compacts, succeeding 2014’s X100T model with a generous range of enhancements. This includes the same 24.2MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS sensor and X-Processor Pro image processor employed by the company’s flagship X-Pro 2 and X-T2 interchangeable lens models. Needless to say, image quality from the X100F is exceptional.
Compared to the 16.3MP sensor employed by its predecessor, the X100F’s 24.2MP sensor also offers significantly more resolution, which benefits both image cropping and printing. Sensitivity, meanwhile, ranges from ISO 100-12,800 with extended settings up to ISO 51,200. While primarily targeted at stills enthusiasts, the X100F does offer Full HD video capture at a maximum 60fps. Unlike other cameras in this round-up there’s no 4K support though.
As with previous X100 models, the X100F gets the same innovative hybrid viewfinder that can be set to provide either an optical view overlaid with framing guides, or a 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder with 100% coverage.
While the fixed 23mm, f/2 lens has long been a distinctive and desirable feature of the X100 line for many users others may be slightly put off by it. To this end Fujifilm offers a couple of optional lens converters in the shape of the TCL-X100 II and WCL-X100 II. Once attached these convert the X100F’s focal length to 50mm and 28mm respectively. Better still the camera knows when they have been attached, automatically correcting any optical aberrations such as fringing in-camera.
In terms of design and handling the X100F shares the same retro-rangefinder design of its predecessors, with the trademark knurled aluminium dials on the top-plate providing the same pleasingly tactile user experience that has become a hallmark of so many Fujifilm X-series cameras.
At time of review the Fujifilm X100F was available for £1,249