Compact cameras are the most common type of camera and there are literally hundreds to choose from. As with all types of camera you very much get what you pay for though, and so your budget will clearly limit what kind of compact you can buy. If you're happy to buy last year's model then you may well find that you'll be able to get a bit more for your money, so it's worth keeping an eye out when new models are released.
As a general rule of thumb you can expect budget compacts (£70-£150) to be very much of the point-and-shoot variety with few features beyond basic still image and video capture. Moving up the price scale a bit, £150-250 begins to buy cameras with richer feature sets as well as individual specialisations – from extensive 16x zoom ranges, to waterproofed cameras that you can take snorkelling. At the top of the tree, spending over £250 puts you in advanced compact and superzoom/bridge camera territory where you can expect DSLR like controls or far-reaching 36x zooms.
One of the first and most important things to bear in mind is that resolution is not everything. In other words, a 16-megapixel camera is not automatically better than a 12-megapixel one. Indeed in our experience it’s often the other way round. The physical size of a sensor is actually far more relevant to overall image quality.
Cheaper compacts almost universally use 1/2.3inch sensors which are among the very smallest (barring smartphones) and trying to cram on as many pixels as possible onto a sensor this size more often than not results in a dramatic loss of quality elsewhere.
That’s not to say that all 16-megapixel compacts should be avoided. We’ve tested several mid-range and advanced compacts that deliver great image quality, however if you’re shopping at the cheaper end of the market, you’re generally better off going for something with a less cluttered sensor.
These are the very cheapest and usually the smallest cameras in any camera shop. The main advantage of budget compacts is that they’re small enough to be taken just about anywhere – from a social gathering to a day out.
While cheaper compacts are almost universally full automatic, some may offer a Program mode that allows you some basic control over shooting settings. Another distinguishing factor is the range of the optical zoom, with the average range being around 4x. One last thing to look out for is build quality. Obviously, at the cheaper end of the price spectrum most compacts will be primarily plastic, although a few may also have some metal plates or detailing.
Don’t expect a budget compact to offer the highest image quality, especially at higher ISO settings where in-camera noise reduction can often lead to smearing of fine detail. They also tend to be quite slow, taking longer to start-up as well as longer to process individual images in between shots. On the plus side though, choose one with a half decent lens and you’ll instantly notice a step up in quality from a typical smartphone.
Spend a bit more that £150 and you’ll begin to find that compact cameras offer richer feature sets, longer zooms and other specialist features. You will also find build quality goes up a notch too, with some cameras fully sealed against water and dust as well as being shock-proofed against minor drops. These are generally referred to as ‘ruggedised’ cameras and they’re a particularly good bet if you’re looking for a camera that can cope with an active lifestyle.
On the other hand if you’re off travelling and want to pack a small, light camera with plenty of zoom power so that you can bring far-away objects closer then it’s worth checking out the latest crop of ‘travel zooms’. On average these pack a 16x optical zoom into a body little bigger than a regular compact. Small wonder then, that they are one of the most popular choices going.
One thing that’s hugely important when comparing the focal range between various compacts is only to compare them on the size of their optical zoom, and to totally disregard any digital zoom capabilities they might boast. The difference between the two is that the optical zoom refers purely to the magnification level produced by the glass elements inside the lens. A digital zoom, on the other hand, is really just a magnified crop of the optical zoom. Digital zooms might sound impressive, but in reality image quality tends to be pretty terrible.
If you already own a DSLR and want something smaller and more portable, or if you just want one of the best compacts money can buy then an advanced compact may well fit the bill. Advanced compacts tend to cost upwards of £250, for which you can expect to find the regular quartet of DSLR shooting modes offered (Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual) along with a greater range of features, and more often than not, the ability to record images as lossless Raw files for greater post-poduction flexibility in a digital darkroom.
Many advanced compacts also use slightly larger sensors than regular compacts, with 1/1.6inch sensors (as opposed to 1/2.3inch) quite common. You will also find that many advanced compacts keep overall resolution pegged at a far more sensible level than regular compacts (usually 10MP to 12MP). Given these two factors, advanced compacts are able to employ larger individual light-capturing diodes. This means they are generally able to perform better in low-light situations.
Sometimes referred to as ‘bridge cameras’ from the old days of film when this type of camera was considered a stepping-stone or ‘bridge’ between compacts and SLRs, the new breed tend to focus far more on offering huge telephoto capabilities right up to 36x. You will also find that many offer DSLR style controls too, along with specialist features unique to each manufacturer.
The flexibility offered by superzooms does come with a number of compromises though. And although many superzooms may look like DSLRs on the outside, on the inside they tend to use the same small 1/2.3inch sensors used by ultracompacts. This means that you can expect exactly the same kind of image quality issues. On top of which cramming a 36x zoom into such a small lens often means that the lenses aren’t the sharpest either.