Compact digital cameras used to be simple, slow, and expensive. Things have changed a lot. Here's what to look for in a modern compact digital camera.
Compact digital cameras used to be simple, slow, and expensive. Today's compact digital cameras offer a dizzying array of choices, from simple, inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras that cost around $100 to sophisticated tools geared towards experienced photographers that can cost in the high hundreds. What's the best compact digital camera? That depends on what you need.
Compact digital cameras at a glance:
Best suited for:
- Travel and vacation snapshots
- Informal group portraits
- Party pictures
Not ideal for:
- Sports/action photography
- Formal portraits, Weddings and other pro applications
- Wildlife and bird photography
Compact digital camera advantages:
- Easy to share images
- Light and small
- Easy to use (but many have options for photographers who want exposure control)
- HD Video
Compact digital camera disadvantages:
- Lack of optical viewfinder
- May be hard for large-handed users to hold
- Poor low-light performance without flash
- Shutter lag (delay when pressing the shutter release) is common
- Can't zoom while shooting a video
Whether you're buying your first digital camera or replacing an older model, there are more options than ever, and while this gives you more choices, it can also make the simple task of choosing a digital camera confusing. In this exclusive Adorama Learning Center buying guide, we'll try to break down the choices and help you zero in on the compact digital camera that best meets YOUR needs. When you've narrowed down your decision and are ready to buy, be sure to visit the Adorama Compact Digital Camera department.
1: Resolution Doesn't Matter Any More
Every compact camera on the market today is capable of producing poster-sized pictures under ideal conditions. Since you probably won't be making poster-sized prints, you needn't worry about how many megapixels your camera has. If you are a typical casual photographer, you'll probably make 4x6-inch prints, maybe an occasional 5x7 or 8x10-inch enlargement—when you make prints. Even more often, you'll find yourself sharing your images on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, MySpace or whatever the social networking flavor of the month happens to be. None of these print sizes or screen displays require the 14-16MP that is available on a typical modern compact digital camera. (In fact, 8MP would be fine, if they still made 8MP cameras!)
So, don't worry about resolution!
Tip: If you want the best image quality, shoot at your camera's lowest ISO even if the company brags that you can shoot at ISO 1600 or higher. The higher the ISO, the worse the image quality. How do you set the ISO? Consult your camera's manual. In the default setting, it may automatically choose a high ISO that will produce noisy images.
2: Understand the Zoom Range
If you want to get closer to your subject without moving, you need an optical zoom lens—something those dinky cameras on smart phones generally lack. A 3-8x zoom is typical. (Many cameras offer digital zoom in addition to optical, but beware: while it may sound impressive, digital zoom merely "crops" a reduced-size portion of the image and presents it at lower resolution.)
When presented with a zoom range, it will be expressed as 4X (for example) and/or as 35-140mm (35mm equivalent). "4X" means the longest focal length is 4 times that of the shortest focal length. "35-140mm (35mm equivalent)" means the lens covers the same angle of view as a 35-140mm lens on a camera with a 35mm-sized imaging sensor. Since compact digital cameras' imaging sensors are much smaller and as a result the lens's actual focal length is much shorter (5-25mm, for example, as in the photo above), and since the actual focal length numbers may confuse people, it is common for camera makers to include the more familiar 35mm equivalent in the camera's specs.
It is good also to know the focal range as well as the zoom amount: 4X zooms are not created equal. A camera with a zoom equivalent of 28-115mm is more versatile than one with a lens that goes from 35-140mm--even though both are 4X--because the one that starts at 28mm gives you a more useful wide angle view.
A popular trend today is the mega-zoom-type camera in the 10X to 40X optical zoom range. They are becoming more affordable. The cameras tend to be somewhat larger and not pocketable.
Read The Most Important Superzoom Cameras Right Now
3: Look for Shutter Responsiveness Claims
For many years, the biggest knock against compact cameras was Shutter Lag—the time from when you press the shutter release until the moment the camera actually takes the picture. While some lower-cost compacts still suffer from this malady, camera companies are improving their compact cameras' performance, and some even claim near-instant response time. That's great when you're trying to photograph fast-moving kids, pets, or your Junior Varsity superstar in the making.
Shutter response time includes two features: Focus acquisition and actual press to click time. Sometimes both are rolled into one specification. Look for a press to click time of less than 0.2 seconds. Manufacturers who have gone to the extra effort of improving shutter responsiveness will put claims in the camera's specs.
4: Beware the Flash's Limitations
A built-in flash is standard on a compact camera, but don't expect much from it. A typical compact camera flash can reach between 6 and 10 feet, so it's really just for people pictures from fairly close. Do not expect to get anything if you use your flash from your seat at a concert in a big concert hall: All you'll illuminate is the backs of the heads of the people in front of you.
5: Some Trendy Features Are Actually Pretty Useful
The current crop of compact digital cameras offers a dizzying choice of features, which you can play with when you are ready to stretch your creative muscles, or ignore if you simply want to take a picture and move on.
Here's a partial list of the kinds of special features you might find in a current compact digital camera
- HDR: The camera automatically shoots 2-3 images in quick succession, then combines them to get the best range of detail in both shadows and highlights—areas of an image a typical compact camera has difficulty handling.
- Miniature: Adds blur to the top and bottom of the screen, making a scene look like it was shot on a tabletop.
- Pinhole: The corners of the image are darkened to give the shot an old-fashioned look.
- Black and White: No color!
- Pastel: Gentle colors are applied, giving an image an overall hazy look (conversely, you may also be able to choose an intense color setting for a more exaggerated hyper color look).
6: Size and Weight
A compact, lightweight camera is very convenient--and less likely to be left at home. If you have your camera with you more often, you'll take more pictures. Nearly every manufacturer has at least one model that is about the size of a fat deck of cards. A standard deck of playing cards is about 2 1/4x3 3/4x3/4 inches. Keep these dimensions in mind when you read camera specifications and you'll be able to make an easy comparison.
Conventional logic would suggest that portability comes at a price, but that's not necessarily true. Ultra compact cameras may shave a few features off the menu but for the most part you'll find everything you could ask for. The only drawback (and this is a drawback only for some people) is that the small size can make the camera difficult to hold, especially if you have large hands.
A growing number of compact digital cameras, besides size and weight, are now to a greater or lesser extent, ruggedized and protected against heat, cold, water and shock from accidental drops. If you are klutzy or adventurous (or both!) you may want to seriously consider this subset of compact camera. Read the Best Underwater Compact Digital Cameras Right Now.
7: Look at the Back of the Camera
If you are used to smart phones that are operated via touch screens, you'll be happy to know that every camera maker now offers at least one or two compact cameras that are operated via a similar kind of touch screen (see sample at right). These screens can range from about 3 to 4.5 inches, and are likely the only thing you'll find on the back of the camera.
More common, however, are cameras with 2.5- to 3-inch LCD displays, as well as an array of chicklet-sized buttons and small dials to navigate menu items. Look for monitors that bright and easy to see at all times (including in direct sunlight). Check the specs: The more dots per inch (dpi) in a monitor, the sharper and more detailed the displayed image will be. 230,000 dots is typical but will look a bit rough. Many models have 400,000 dots or higher. The best models have around 920,000 dots, and have screens that get brighter in bright light. However even with that, you'll probably need to shield the monitor with your hand when shooting in bright sunlight to read the screen. Or, you can visit Adorama's LCD Protection and Shades dept and buy an inexpensive LCD pop-up shade such as this one .
Big LCDs make to more fun to share images with others. Call it "shoot and show." Some cameras include a charging cradle that positions the camera so that the LCD can be used to view images--it's like having a miniature digital picture frame on your desk.
8: Internet Connectivity
A small but growing selection of compact digital cameras offer some flavor of wireless Internet connectivity, so if you plan on sharing images on Facebook, Flickr and so forth, look for this feature. Some cameras will automatically sniff out a hot spot while others work as Bluetooth devices and will transfer images to your smart phone, from which you can upload as much as your data plan allows.
But even if you end up with a camera that doesn't have built-in wireless connectivity, you can buy an Eye Fi card (right), an SD card with a built-in wireless transmitter, and set it up so you can transfer directly from your camera to the Internet via a hot spot.
9: Seek exposure and settings that fit your comfort level
All point-and-shoot cameras make exposure settings automatically. Some allow you to make them manually as well. If the manual option is important to you, check the specifications carefully. Many cameras include an assortment of preset "scenes" that the shooter can dial in to match the circumstances. These are given different names on different cameras, but usually they include standards like Landscape, Portrait, and Close-up and Sports. By selecting the appropriate scene you can get results like a pro.
Some models also now have "Smart Auto" or "Intelligent Auto" or some variation, in which the camera anylizes the scene before it and chooses the most appropriate scene mode and sets everything itself. That's pretty cool, and scarily accurate.
Learn more! What's a "Portrait" mode? What do we mean when we say a camera has a "Beach/Snow" or "Action" setting? Go to our Canonical List of Digital Camera Scene Settings and find out!
The Sports setting, for example, will make the camera shoot at the fastest permissible shutter speed so as to freeze action. Portrait will blur the background to make your subject stand out more. It's like having a professional photographer inside your camera, calling the shots.
10: Do you really need HD Video?
A new generation of compact digital cameras has arrived that is capable of shooting high-definition videos, which means either 1080x720 pixel (720p) or 1920x1080 pixels (1080p). These videos will look nice and sharp on a high-definition TV monitor, although you should check your camera's specs to make sure it captures frames at 30 frames per second. While 1080p, which indicates you are shooting at 6 complete frames per second, is ideal, most compact cameras shoot at 1080i (interlaced), or 30 frames per second. That's fine—slower than that may look jumpy. As with still images, the lowest ISO setting will give you the best video image quality.
How important is it for you to have high quality video in a still camera? If you already have a dedicated camcorder, that device may do a better job at video capture since that's what it's built for. However, if you only plan on shooting video occasionally, and you don't mind that the audio will only be average, a compact digital camera may be the only video capture device you'll need.
If you plan on shooting lots of video, be sure to get an SD card that can handle it. A class 8 or class 10 card will allow you to record smoother videos; make sure to get at least 8GB—more if you plan on shooting a lot of video. Remember, memory cards are relatively inexpensive these days, so get more than you think you'll need.
A few more features to consider when buying a compact digital camera:
There was a time when short battery life was the number one complaint against digital cameras. This problem is rapidly disappearing. Three types of batteries predominate: Lithium Ion, nickel metal hydride, and alkaline. Lithium Ion batteries seem to last forever, and recharge quickly, too. If you buy a camera that uses Lithium Ion you should never have a problem.
Most cameras that use AA-size cells are supplied with NiMH (nickel metal hydride). If your new camera comes with non-rechargeable AA-size (penlight) alkaline flashlight batteries, buy a set of NiMH right away. And above all else, regardless what kind of battery technology is employed, buy a spare battery and keep it charged--that way you'll never miss a photo opportunity.
A newcomer, Oxyrides, are claimed to offer more power than the more expensive lithium ion or nickel metal hydrides for approximately the cost of an Alkaline. Stay tuned!
Digital cameras use light to focus. When it's too dark, they can run into trouble. As a countermeasure, camera manufacturers incorporate a small, built-in lamp that automatically illuminates the subject for focusing when the light's too low. If you think you'll be doing much shooting in dim light, be certain that the camera you buy has a Focus Assist system. Parties in subdued light, for instance, are a classic example of where a Focus Assist light is needed.
All consumer-grade compact digital cameras have built-in flash units, and sometimes these double as the focus assist lamp. Either way, you'll get sharper pictures, even when the lights go down. Be warned, however, that if it's dark enough to warrant use of a Focus Assist lamp then it's too dark to shoot without flash. Unless your camera has Image Stabilization, use the flash or a tripod.
You want your pictures to look good but you want your camera to look good, too, right? There are some ugly or plain-looking cameras that can take great pictures, but they're just not as much fun to take out in public. Remember that the perfect style for Dad may not be ideal for Mom--everyone has his or her own taste. Just make sure the camera has the features you want. Most fashion cameras have a full range of features, so you don't have to sacrifice substance for style.
Image Quality factors
(This is more for geeks; you can skim past this if you're just looking for a good camera for casual snaps)
- Noise: Typically found at higher light sensitivity settings (ISO). In order to make compact cameras so small, they are equipped with tiny sensors, around the size of a thumb nail. Each sensor is packed with microscopic-sized pixels, which record light. Without getting into an optical dissertation, suffice to say that larger pixels will produce better quality images. When you squeeze 10, 12, or 14 million pixels on a tiny sensor, the pixels will be really small, and this can cause digital artifacts commonly referred to as noise or digital grain, especially in low light. When you boost the sensitivity to light, this can make the visual distortion worse. Some cameras claim built-in noise reduction, and that's worth paying a bit more for. The best way to reduce grain is to shoot at your camera's lowest ISO setting.
- Color accuracy: Most digital cameras have this problem more or less solved, but if skin tones appear too blue, you may need to manually adjust the white balance.
- Contrast: Again, this can be adjustable, but some cameras may come out of the factory set for too much contrast, or too little. Most compact cameras have contrast control, as well as a way to make colors stronger or weaker, called saturation adjustment, and shadow detail boosters.
All compact digital cameras have sensors that are larger than the cameras on smart phones, which means they will deliver better quality images. However, compared to DSLRs and Mirrorless compacts, compact digital camera sensors are, with a few exceptions, rather puny—typically 1/2.3 inches measured diagonally. If you are quality conscious, look for cameras with larger sensors—1/1.7 inches, 2/3 inches or larger. A handful of compact cameras now use the same sized sensors found in DSLRs, but expect to pay a premium price for them.
Everyone has a different budget. Decide what price range agrees with your pocketbook before you start studying the specifications. One piece of advice: always try to buy your last camera; that is, a camera that has enough features to keep you happy for a long time.
How much should I spend?
Good news for consumers is that compact digital camera prices have plummeted in the past couple of years. A bare-bones basic camera now costs around $100 or even less, although these models typically have smaller LCD screens, longer lag time and may be less sturdy than pricier versions. Most compacts fall in the $150-350 range, with a few posh models costing $500 or higher.
Read The Best Budget-Priced Digital Cameras Right Now and The Best System Compacts Right Now.
And finally...put all of this information to good use! When you're ready to buy a camera, be sure to get it at the Adorama Compact Digital Camera department.
Editor's note: This article originally was posted on the Adorama Learning Center in 2006. A lot has changed since then. This update, posted in October 2012, should offer the best up-to-date buying advice.