As smartphone cameras get better and better, point-and-shoot compact cameras are becoming a tougher sell, but there's still a few good reasons to pick one up. A decent compact camera is a great way to introduce your kids to photography. Not only will it help them learn the fundamentals, but provide them with an optical zoom lens, a better flash, and better image stabilization than you'll get on a smartphone. Plus, most point-and-shoots are fairly inexpensive, making it less of an investment—and worry—should they drop it.
Our favorite compact camera is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX500, which has a wide focal range, flip-up LCD, and a bevy of other features, such as Wi-Fi and image stabilization. Our favorite budget model is the Sony DSC-W800, which costs less than $100, yet also takes reasonably good pictures for the price.
If you're looking for a rugged-and-waterproof camera, consider the Olympus Tough TG-5, which is waterproof to 50 feet and has lots of options for capturing great low-light shots.
Instant cameras offer some retro fun too: Our favorite is the Polaroid Snap ($99), which not only prints out a physical photo, but saves a digital version of your shot on a memory card. But there are some other instant models to consider as well. We tested 11 instant cameras, and ranked them from best to worst.
Three Ways Compact Cameras Produce Better Low-light Shots Than Smartphones
There's no doubt that smartphones continue to improve, and are often the camera of choice for most consumers, since it's the camera they always have with them. But in some situations, like low light, you'll find that many point-and-shoots produce better quality photos than you can take on a smartphone. Here are three ways compact cameras achieve this.
1. Better quality and more versatile built-in flash. Most phones have a weak LED light, that literally pales in comparison to the more powerful built-in flash available on point-and-shoots. What's more is that some compacts offer other flash settings, such as slow or rear sync mode (which fires off the flash at different points in time, but leave the shutter open for capturing the ambient light) or the ability to increase or decrease the flash output.
2. An optical-zoom lens. Because most smartphones still don't have an optical zoom lens, and most compacts do, you're more likely to produce a better quality photo. That’s because if you zoom in with a smartphone, in many cases you'll be using digital zoom, which will introduce noise or grain and degrade image quality. When you use an optical zoom lens, this is less likely to occur.
3. Better image stabilization. Although these days you'll find that more smartphones include image stabilization, it's often an electronically stabilized image, which isn't as robust as optical or mechanical (sensor-shift) IS. If your compact camera comes with optical or mechanical IS, you'll get sharper shots in low light.
Things to Remember Not to Do When Using a Compact Point-and-shoot Digital Camera
It’s easy to want to jump right in and start shooting photos or video when you’re at an event, or you’re with family and friends. But before you get started, here are a few things not to do when using your digital point-and-shoot:
Don’t Lower Image Resolution: When you’re shooting photos, be sure to set your camera to capture the best quality images (without interpolating them). Avoid down-sizing them in order to save space. Memory cards are pretty inexpensive, so either buy a new card, or clear the images and videos you have on your existing card.
Don’t Use Digital Zoom: Most digital cameras include two types of zoom, optical and digital. In most cases, though, it’s best to go into the camera settings and disable the digital zoom, since this type degrades image quality on photos and video.
Don’t Compress Your Photos: Some cameras still allow you to create smaller-sized images by increasing the photo compression. But this will often introduce artifacts and aberrations into the image. So, try and use the least amount of impression.
Don’t Use a very high ISO: In most cases, it’s best to avoid the highest ISO settings (typically, anything higher than ISO 3200) on a point-and-shoot, since it will generally create grainy, noisy images or video clips. But if you do happen to use a very high ISO setting during a photo shoot, don’t forget to set your camera to a lower ISO setting or Auto ISO after the shoot or before the next one.
What Features Are You Paying for in a Compact Point-and-shoot?
While many consumers choose to shoot most of their photos and videos on smartphones, some still like the convenience and quality you can get with a stand-alone point-and-shoot digital camera. But with so many changes taking place in the camera market, what features are you getting in the models that are available?
Not surprisingly, the better features—like longer optical-zoom lenses or in-camera image stabilization--are found in the pricier models, but competition is still keeping prices lower than in years past. In fact, a point-and-shoot that costs more than $300 will most likely be classified as a bridge camera or a rugged-and-waterproof model.
Use the following list as a guide of what features you’ll begin to see at particular price points. Note that almost all point-and-shoots at this time have between 16 and 20 megapixel sensors:
- $50 or less: No optical zoom (fixed-focal length); 4x digital zoom; built-in flash; 1.8-inch LCD; runs on AA or AAA batteries; 720p HD video
- $75: 3x-5x optical zoom; 2.7-inch LCD; 28mm wide-angle lens; small selection of scene modes, such as panorama, beach, and sunset modes;
- $120: 8x optical zoom; 24mm wide-angle lens; smart auto mode (automatically determines the proper mode for the scene); digital or electronic image stabilization; larger selection of scene modes; includes help features or in-camera tips.
- $160: 10x optical zoom; built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity; optical image stabilization; improved low-light performance.
- $200: 12x optical zoom; stylish camera-body designs; 1080p full HD video; 3200 ISO; burst mode at 7 frames-per-second.
- $250: 25x optical zoom; RAW still-photos.
- $300: 30x optical zoom; Touchscreen and/or swiveling LCD; very good performance in low light; manual settings; burst mode of 10 frames per second; Top ISO of 12,800 ISO.
How We Test Compact Cameras
We test the cameras under similar conditions for each model to get a comparative overview of their capabilities. For some of the testing, we left the cameras on their default settings. Then, to get a sense of exposure accuracy, we shot the cameras on Auto or Program Auto and, when possible, one of the semi-manual modes (aperture-priority and/or shutter-priority modes) using various ISO settings depending on the conditions. At the same time, we took note of the cameras' speed and overall performance.
Most of our test shots were outdoors, which also gave us the opportunity to see how well LCDs performed under bright sunlight. In addition to shooting some quick video clips, we tried to check out at least one of each camera's special creative options.
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