How to Choose the Right Camera
You Don’t Need an SLR to Upgrade from a Smartphone
Ask a photographer what type of camera will give you the best photos and they’ll likely suggest an SLR or mirrorless model—but for many casual shooters, they’re just too bulky and complicated for day-to-day use. Most folks reach for their smartphone to snap images, and if you’ve got a modern flagship model you’ll be very happy with what it delivers, especially if your phone offers a portrait mode effect.
But what if you want picture quality that’s better than a smartphone? Or the versatility of a long optical zoom lens? Or if you simply like the feel of a camera in your hands? You can still get a cheap compact camera, but we’ve been underwhelmed by models in the sub-$200 price range. They tend to use CCD image sensors, which don’t do well in low light and have limited video capabilities. (If you’re set on an inexpensive compact, the Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS is a good low-cost option, as long as you understand its limitations.)
Our recommendation is to prepare to spend a bit more on a compact camera, around a few hundred dollars if you simply want a model that offers a strong optical zoom range, and more if you’re after a large sensor that delivers significant advantages in image quality. If you want both—a bigger sensor and a long zoom lens—prepare to spend well over $1,000.
All of the cameras featured here include Wi-Fi, so you’ll be able to share photos while on the move. It’s not quite as convenient as a smartphone—you’ll need to wirelessly transfer any photos you wish to post to Instagram—but you’ll still be able to let the world know you’re relaxing on a beach without having to offload photos to a computer first.
Types of Compact Cameras
It’s pretty clear that manufacturers aren’t sinking a lot of research and development money into budget models. As we mentioned above, our Editors’ Choice priced under $200, the Canon Elph 190 IS, has a zoom lens, but aside from its 10x range and the ergonomic advantages that come with a dedicated device, there aren’t many advantages over smartphones.
Models with long zooms and CMOS sensors are more expensive. Expect to spend a few hundred dollars for a model with a small sensor and big zoom power, like the 30x The Panasonic ZS50 or Sony HX99.
If you can live without those, and with a slightly chunkier camera, we recommend the Canon SX530 HS as an affordable long-zoom option. For slightly larger cameras with big zoom power and fixed lenses, check out our list of top bridge cameras, which includes some with more than 50x zoom power.
Tough cameras are still a thing too. Even though latest iPhones are waterproof, you don’t want to risk the safety of your expensive iPhone 11 Pro when diving or rock climbing. Our favorite rugged camera, the Olympus TG-6, has a rather short zoom, but makes up for it in other ways. It’s not literally bulletproof, but it’s close. It’s rated to survive drops, go deep underwater, and has a killer macro function and 4K video too.
You Get What You Pay For
It’s in the premium price range—greater than $500—that we’ve seen quite a bit of growth in recent years, as the lower end of the market disappears. Manufacturers have moved to 1-inch class image sensors, about four times the size of a typical point-and-shoot or smartphone camera. The larger sensor size, often paired with a bright lens with a modest zoom range, delivers images that pop thanks to a blurred background, without sacrificing a pocketable form factor. It’s also a big plus for low-light shooting.
See How We Test Cameras
We have a few recommendations for 1-inch models at various price points. The Canon G9 X Mark II is the best you’ll find under $500. The Sony RX100 III and Canon G7 X Mark III are good mid-range luxury options. At the top of the heap, you’ll find the $900 Canon G5 X Mark II and the $1,300 Sony RX100 VII. If you’ve settled in on a premium compact, we have a guide to help suss out the various options.
Even Bigger Sensors
And there are options with larger than 1-inch sensors. The Panasonic LX100 II and Canon G1 X Mark III both feature fixed zoom lenses and bigger sensors. The Panasonic has a Micro Four Thirds chip, the same size used in its interchangeable lens cameras, but doesn’t use the entire surface area of the sensor. Canon has used an APS-C sensor for the G1 X Mark III, the same type used in its consumer SLR line.
While the G1 X Mark III manages some zoom, its lens isn’t very bright. Look at the Fujifilm X100V, which sports an APS-C sensor but with a bright, wide-angle prime lens instead of a zoom. The X100V also has a hybrid viewfinder that offers both electronic and optical views of the world.
Beyond the Confines of Your Pocket
For a look at every camera we’ve reviewed, and not just those that are easy to slip into your pocket, feel free to peruse all of our camera review. If you’re looking for something a bit more capable than a pocket camera, you can check out our overall favorites from across all categories, or you can narrow in on a waterproof, premium, or bridge-style compact for more targeted recommendations.
Pros: Improved lens
Dust and splash protection
Hybrid optical-electronic viewfinder
In-camera film looks and Raw processing
Retro looks in black or silver
Cons: Omits optical and in-body stabilization
Lens filter required for weather protection
Limited to UHS-I transfer speeds
Autofocus not always immediate
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X100V is the camera to get if you like the idea of a Leica rangefinder, but also want modern amenities like autofocus and video.
Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II
Pros: Larger image sensor than phones.
5x zoom lens.
Built-in EVF and flash.
Selfie LCD with touch support.
In-lens ND filter.
Cons: No mic input.
Autofocus not as advanced as some competitors.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II is a pocket camera that will make enthusiasts happy, with a solid zoom range, a 1-inch sensor, and an electronic viewfinder.
Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II
Pros: Crisp lens.
1-inch image sensor.
8.1fps image capture.
Built-in ND filter.
In-camera art filters.
Narrow aperture when zoomed.
No 60fps video option.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II camera is more responsive than its predecessor, and squeezes a big 1-inch sensor into a compact frame.
Olympus Tough TG-6
Pros: Tough, waterproof build.
Add-on lenses and macro lights available.
Sharp rear LCD.
Wide aperture lens.
Cons: Not a touch screen.
LCD can pick up scuffs and scratches.
Video feature lag behind action cameras.
Wi-Fi app pushes spammy notifications.
Bottom Line: The Olympus Tough TG-6 is a modest update to our favorite underwater point-and-shoot camera thanks to its tough design, bright lens, and excellent macro capabilities.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VII
Pros: Sharp 8x zoom lens. Electronic viewfinder. 1-inch sensor design. 20fps capture with subject tracking. Eye detection for people and pets. Tilting touch screen. 4K video with external microphone port.
Cons: Expensive. Can’t start video while images are writing to card. Limited touch functions.
Bottom Line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VII point-and-shoot is a modest update to the RX100 VI, offering better autofocus and video stabilization for a bit more money.
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III
Pros: Pocket-friendly design.
Bright zoom lens.
Tilting touch LCD.
Fast focus and burst rate.
4K with mic input and live streaming.
Cons: 4K video not available in all modes.
Face detection doesn’t work with burst shooting.
Lens not as crisp as some others.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III is a good pocket camera with a big 1-inch sensor, a bright zoom lens, and 4K video, but it faces strong competition from smartphones and cameras alike.
Canon PowerShot SX530 HS
Pros: 50x zoom ratio.
Solid control layout.
Framing assist function.
Canon Creative Shot mode.
Integrated Wi-Fi with NFC.
Cons: Can be slow to lock focus when zoomed.
HD video limited to 1080p30.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot SX530 HS is a fairly compact superzoom camera with a 50x zoom lens, but it can be slow to focus when zoomed in all the way.
Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200
Pros: 15x zoom power.
20MP 1-inch image sensor.
Cons: Narrow aperture.
LCD doesn’t tilt.
Bottom Line: Panasonic ups the zoom range on its premium ZS100 pocket zoom with the ZS200, extending the reach from 250mm to 360mm.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VA
Pros: Larger sensor than smartphones. Wide aperture lens. Speedy autofocus and burst shooting. In-lens neutral density filter. 4K video.
Cons: Restricted functionality after long bursts and slow-motion video capture. Not a touch screen. Expensive.
Bottom Line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VA sports the same bright lens and image sensor as the RX100 V, with improvements limited to its menu system and JPG engine.
More Inside PCMag.com
About the Author