Buyers' Guide: Compact Digital Cameras

If you're looking for a compact digital camera, you have a lot of choices. Although the past couple of years has seen a serious erosion of the entry-level, sub-$100 class thanks to the emergence of powerful smartphones, improvements in technology have meant that if you've got a couple of hundred dollars or more to spend, you can get yourself a very capable camera. 

We're not pointing you towards specific models in this article - that will be the subject of future reviews and roundups. This article is intended as a guide to this class of products, to help you make an informed buying decision.  

So where to start? Well, removing price from the equation for now, there are probably two questions you'll need to answer:


What sort of photographs do you want to take?

If you're looking for something to carry on nights out or for casual family snaps, then you probably don't need a huge lens, or fancy video specifications, and you might not need your camera to be particularly rugged. On the other hand, if you're looking for a camera to take traveling, a long zoom might be exactly what you want. If you're into extreme sports or underwater photography, it probably makes sense to sacrifice some things, like lens zoom range, for ruggedness. And now for the second question:


What kind of camera are you prepared to carry around?

Are you looking for something small and simple to throw into a handbag or pocket, or are you happy to have a larger, heavier camera with you? Do you want to add accessories in future? Most compacts don't have that capacity, but some higher-end models have accessory ports for additional flashes and other gadgets, as well as adapters to expand their lens ranges. But with the additional versatility comes added bulk (and cost).


Once you've answered these two questions, the individual model you end up choosing will come down to a number of factors - not the least price. In this article we've grouped digital compact cameras loosely into the five major categories - 'ultra-compact', 'travel zoom', 'super zoom' 'rugged' and 'enthusiast', and examined their major selling points to help inform your purchase decision. The table below lists these types of camera alongside the traits typical of each class, and you can click on the blue links to go straight to the relevant section of this guide. 

Ultra-compact

  • Small and light
  • Limited zoom range
  • Touch-sensitive screens
  • Built-in sharing options

Travel zoom

  • Pocketable in size
  • Long zoom range
  • Built-in GPS and/or Wi-Fi
  • Some manual exposure control

Rugged

  • Waterproof, shockproof and cold-proof
  • Relatively limited zoom range
  • Smaller-than-average LCDs
  • Built-in GPS
  • Large buttons and 'industrial' design

Super zoom

  • Very long zoom range
  • 'DSLR-style' design
  • Large rear LCDs - often articulated
  • Electronic viewfinder (often)
  • Full manual exposure control

Enthusiast

  • Fast, good-quality zoom lens
  • Full manual exposure control
  • Large rear displays - often articulated
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and/or GPS
  • Accessory ports for extra flashes etc.
  • High-quality construction
  • RAW mode