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Smartphones are great for casual picture-taking, but they're at their absolute worst in poor lighting, or when using flash. One of the reasons smartphones are so popular is that they're small, but better images don't require enormous cameras, and increasingly, good-quality compacts are shipping with social-friendly options including built-in wireless connectivity. For this list we've selected five of our top recommendations for cameras that you should take to those special occasions.

Prices given are representative of street pricing, and our recommendations are arranged from most to least expensive.

Recommendations are subject to change and are current as of November 2013

Samsung Galaxy Camera 2

$350 / £220 | 17MP | 23-483mm lens | 4.8in, 1.04m-dot LCD| 1080 / 30p video

Click here for full specifications, sample images, user reviews and more

The second generation of Samsung’s Galaxy Camera comes with upgrades to the operating system and more power, but otherwise maintains much the same specification and concept as the original – a long zoom compact camera that acts like a smartphone. While the original featured 3G/4G services the new model dispenses with network connections for Wi-Fi with NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS. 

This is a 16-million-pixel compact sensor camera that features a 21x 23-483mm f/2.8-5.9 zoom lens. Running on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, it is designed to allow pictures to be taken, edited and shared with ease from a single device. This latest model uses a 1.6GHz quad-core processor, offers better battery life, 2GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage and an excellent and massive 4.3-inch rear screen. The ISO range of 100-3200 lets us know that high ISO settings are a little noisy, and Samsung’s heavy noise-reduction program tends to remove the finest details even from mid-range ISO settings – though that is unlikely to bother anyone only shooting for the web. 

While image quality may not be the best available, it is the convenience of the Galaxy Camera 2 that is its selling point, and the speed with which an image can be recorded and published to social media, emailed or posted on a blog. It’s a clever device and apart from some long winded handling issues it works rather well. 

Also consider...

Canon PowerShot N2: The square-shaped PowerShot N2 is equipped with a 16.1MP CMOS sensor and Wi-Fi with NFC, and wireless sharing is facilitated by Mobile Device Connect button. Underscoring its selfie-friendly design, the shutter button exists as a ring around the lens to better facilitate self-portrait taking from any angle, and the camera's 2.8-inch touch LCD tilts upward by 180 degrees.

Canon PowerShot N100

$350 / £250 | 12MP | 24-120mm lens | 2in, 922k-dot LCD| 1080 / 30p video

Click here for full specifications, sample images, user reviews and more

Canon’s PowerShot N100 claims to solve the age old of problem of the photographer never featuring in the family album. There always has to be someone to take the picture after all, which means they can’t be in it. The previous solution to this problem involved asking a complete stranger to take the picture for you – risking poor composition and a camera you might never see again. Canon’s solution is to include two cameras in one, so that the photographer is photographed by a rear-facing camera at the same time the rest of the family is shot with the forward camera, and the two images are neatly combined with the shooter in the corner of the frame. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there is no denying it is a solution. The picture-in-a-picture mode applies to both stills and when shooting full HDS 1080/60p video. 

The camera uses a 24-110mm f/1.8-5.7 and a 12.1-million-pixel sensor that is similar to that used in the PowerShot S120. The rear touchscreen is 3-inch across and features a 922k-dot resolution and a hinge that allows it to tilt upwards for low angled shooting. 

Slightly short on opportunities for manual intervention, the N100 offers a host of automatic shooting modes and effects, and a good range of AF and exposure metering modes.  

A Story Highlights mode puts together still and moving content either automatically, based on date, recognised faces or events, or handpicked by the photographer, to form a short show-reel movie designed for loading to social media or direct sharing. The N100 has a Mobile Device Connect Button that aims to make connecting with Smartphones and PCs by Wi-Fi easy once initial pairing has taken place once. 

Also consider...

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III: One of our favorite high-end compact cameras, the RX100 III is probably overkill for the casual social snapper, but its excellent low-light image quality and built-in connectivity features make it a perfect companion for anyone who appreciates the difference between a shot that's 'good enough' and an image that's worth printing out and putting in a photo album. 

Sony Cyber-shot QX30

$350 / £250 | 20MP | 24-720mm lens | 10fps max framerate | 1080 / 60p video

Click here for full specifications, sample images, user reviews and more

The Cyber-shot DSC-QX30 is Sony’s third lens/sensor attachment for smartphones which aims to deliver better image quality – and an optical zoom – to users of camera phones. The device is a 25-750mm lens with a 20-million-pixel sensor, combined in a body that has no screen and very few buttons. The idea is that it is connected via Wi-Fi to a smartphone or tablet, which then controls the camera functions and allows live view monitoring and playback of captured images. The images are saved on a memory card in the QX30, but full or low resolution versions can be copied over as they are shot. 

Sony’s idea is that you don’t then have to take a whole camera out with you when going to a party – you just take the lens and sensor of the QX30 and use the excellent screen on your phone to do the rest. As most phones now have much bigger and better screens than many cameras the thinking makes good sense.  

The QX30 comes with a clamp so it can actually attach to your phone, and if your phone has NFC connection is pretty simple and quick. The wireless range is great enough that you can keep your phone in your pocket and use the QX30 remotely with no live view. In fact, the QX30 can be used completely separately from a smartphone, and it has its own zoom rocker and shutter release for those who don’t mind guessing what will be in the picture. 

Also consider...

Samsung NX mini: The NX mini is truly tiny, offering a 20MP 1" sensor inside a highly compact body which features a 180-degree tilting LCD and extensive connectivity features. The mini's touch-sensitive display is the camera's primary interface for changing shooting settings, and while it might frustrate a more experienced photographer, beginners and smartphone users should feel right at home. 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM5 (w/12-32mm lens)

$900 / £600 | 16MP | 1.2m-dot viewfinder | 3in, 921k-dot LCD| 1080/60p video

Click here for full specifications, sample images, user reviews and more

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM5 is one of the smallest compact system cameras available, and surprisingly it is a good deal smaller than many non-interchangeable-lens compact cameras. Part of the micro four thirds system, this model is compatible with all of Panasonic’s Lumix G lenses, as well as those from Olympus, Sigma, Tamron and others – a collection of lenses to almost rival Canon’s, in number if not variety. 

Although not officially a replacement for the earlier GM1, the GM5 comes will all the same features but crucially adds better handling for menu controls and feature navigation via a new four way button cluster. The other principle difference is the addition of an electronic viewfinder with 1,166K-dot resolution – quite something on a camera so small. While the GM1 has a tiny built-in flash unit the GM5 has a hotshoe instead, that houses the appropriately-small bundled flash unit as well, of course, as other larger guns in the range. 

Although small the camera is not just for beginners, as it features the same sensor and processor as the mid-range Lumix DMC-GX7, and a full complement of advanced shooting modes. A top ISO setting of 25,600 and a fastest shutter speed of 1/16,000sec lend the camera plenty of flexibility for both low and bright light conditions, while the responsive 3-inch screen offers all of Panasonic’s excellent touch functions, such as touch AF, touch shutter and swift menu navigation. 

Also consider...

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1: The 16MP Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1 is the direct predecessor of the GM5. The major difference between the two models is that the GM1 doesn't have an electronic viewfinder. If this doesn't bother you, the small, stylish GM1 should definitely be on your shopping list. 

Sony a5100 (w/16-50mm lens)

$600 / £450 | 24MP | 179-point hybrid AF system | 3" tilting LCD | 1080/60p video

Click here for full specifications, sample images, user reviews and more

The Sony a5100 is a small and well-specified camera that borrows more than a little from the top of the range a6000. If you can live without a viewfinder you can have almost all the a6000 features in this lower cost model, and benefit from the a5100’s touch-screen capability – a feature missing from the a6000. 

This is a 24.3-million-pixel camera that uses the larger APS-C sized sensor often found in DSLR bodies, and it is a camera that is packed with features that will allow the beginner to grow. Although good point-and-shoot modes are available, users can also take advantage of the type of extensive manual controls offered by high-end enthusiast models. 

The a5100 can shoot at up to 6 frames per second and allows low light shooting with an ISO range of 100-25,600, it has an advanced autofocus system that is capable of tracking moving subjects and which features 179 phase detect sensors across 92% of the frame. 

Video fans get to shoot 60p HD and standard resolution footage simultaneously, and can enjoy the camera’s XAVC S codec that allows a bit rate of 50Mbps. The camera features a low-powered but built-in flash unit, and the high resolution 3" touchscreen flips out from the body for low/high angled shooting. 

Also consider...

Nikon 1 J4: With a 3" touch screen, built-in Wi-Fi, an ISO range of 160-12,800 and a new improved autofocus system that uses 105 phase detection points across the frame, the Nikon 1 J4 is a very capable and flexible little camera.