Sometimes a DSLR or a mirrorless camera is too much. So what if you want a camera that gives you DSLR quality but still fits in your jacket pocket? What if you need a camera that the whole family can use, or one that can survive snorkelling and snowdrifts? What if you just want the biggest possible zoom range for the smallest possible money?
UPDATE: Smartphone camera technology has moved on a long way, but there are still A LOT of things that cameras can do that smartphones can’t, and big sensor quality and zoom lenses is just a part of it. So we’ve updated our buying guide to reflect the all latest compact camera designs, models and technologies.
Compact cameras actually come in all shapes and sizes, so here’s our guide to what to look for, what the differences are and our favourite compact cameras right now. We start off with the best premium quality compact cameras for serious photographers, both with zoom lenses and with fixed focal length prime lenses.
We also pick out our favourite big-zoom bridge cameras, and pocket-sized superzoom travel cameras for those once-in-a-lifetime trips when you need to travel light. And on the theme of travel we choose our top tough/underwater camera right now AND our favourite cheap point-and-shoot camera that the whole family can use.
1. Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III
This top-quality compact really is like a DSLR in your pocket
Type: Compact | Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens: 24-72mm f/2.8-5.6 (equiv.) | LCD: 3in vari-angle touchscreen, 1.04 million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 7fps | Max video resolution: Full HD | User level: Enthusiast/expert
Canon really has done an amazing job with the G1 X Mark III. Yes, it is pretty pricey for a compact camera, but it houses pretty much the same 24-megapixel APS-C sensor in its slimline body as you'll find in Canon's EOS 80D DSLR and its EOS M mirrorless cameras. This is matched up to a zoom lens that's even more amazing, because it covers a 24-72 equivalent focal range and can still retract into the camera body when you're not taking pictures. It's true that the maximum aperture does drop off considerably as you zoom in, from f/2.8 right down to f/5.6, but you get this with compact DSLR and mirrorless kit lenses anyway. The G1 X Mark is pretty pricey, but right now it's pretty much in a class of its own for a premium compact camera with zoom.
Read more: Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III review
2. Panasonic Lumix LX100 II
If you can't afford the Canon G1 X III, the LX100 II would be our top tip
Type: Compact | Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Megapixels: 17MP | Lens: 24-75mm, f/1.7-2.8 (equiv.) | LCD: 3in fixed, 1,24 million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Continuous shooting: 11fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Enthusiast/expert
The trouble with big sensors is that you need big lenses to go with them, so there goes any kind of pocketability. Usually. But Panasonic has really hit the sweet spot with the Panasonic LX100 II. It combines a Micro Four Thirds sensor that's not much smaller than the ASP-C sensors in mode DSLRs, with a miniaturised lens assembly that powers down into a camera body slim enough to carry around anywhere. The LX100 II is a brand new version of the original LX100, which was, admittedly, starting to show its age. The new model has a 16-megapixel ‘multi-aspect’ sensor, which means you can use its native 4:3 aspect ratio, the 3:2 ratio used by most DSLRs and mirrorless models, or a 16:9 ‘wide’ format without cropping the image and losing pixels. With an external shutter speed dial, lens aperture ring and aspect ratio switch, the LX100 II is a dream compact camera for enthusiasts and experts.
3. Canon PowerShot G5 X
The G5 X has a smaller 1-inch sensor but brings value and a fast zoom
Type: Compact | Sensor size: 1-inch | Megapixels: 20.2MP | Lens: 24-100mm, f/1.8-2.8 (equiv.) | LCD: 3in vari-angle, 1.04 million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Continuous shooting: 5.9fps | Max video resolution: Full HD | User level: Enthusiast
Very often you find some of a camera maker's best bargains right in the middle of the range, and that's because they hit a 'sweet spot' of performance, features and value for money that you won't find anywhere else. So although the Canon PowerShot G5 X uses a smaller 1-inch sensor than the class-leading PowerShot G1 X Mark III (above), the sensor size is still way larger than a smartphone's or a point-and-shoot compact's, so you still get image quality more than half way towards a DSLRs. The smaller sensor means smaller lenses too, so this time Canon has managed to pack in a 4x 24-100mm equivalent zoom with a very good maximum f/1.8-2.8 aperture across the zoom range.
4. Leica Q
If you can live without a zoom (and much of your money), get this
Type: Compact | Sensor size: Full frame | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens: 28mm, f/1.7 | LCD: 3in fixed touchscreen, 1.04 million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Continuous shooting: 10fps | Max video resolution: Full HD | User level: Enthusiast/Expert
Leica cameras tend to divide opinions quite strongly. They are fearsomely expensive, built to traditional designs and standards that many consider dated or irrelevant, and rarely match modern rivals for features and technologies. But there's more to cameras than numbers on a spreadsheet, and everything about the Leica Q is superb, from its full frame image quality through to its Leica-made Summilux lens and its stripped, down minimalist design. Using a Leica isn't just about the images, it's about the experience too – so you just need to decide if the experience is worth all this money!
5. Fujifilm X100F
The X100F is a lot cheaper than the Leica Q and almost as desirable
Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 24.3MP | Lens: 23mm f/2 | Monitor: 3in fixed, 1,040,000 dots | Viewfinder: Hybrid optical/EVF | Continuous shooting: 8fps | Max video resolution: 1080p | User level: Expert
A retro design, unique hybrid viewfinder and large (for a compact) APS-C sensor made the original Fujifilm FinePix X100 one of the most desirable fixed-lens digital cameras at the time of its 2011 release. The first ‘X’ camera was superseded by the X100S and the X100T, each of which fine-tuned the formula – but it’s the fourth iteration, the Fujifilm X100F, where everything has come together beautifully. A new control layout, a third-generation 24.3MP X-Trans CMOS III sensor (with no low-pass filter), an expanded sensitivity range and improved AF might appear more evolution than revolution, but it’s the combination of these refinements that delivers a step-change in performance. The aforementioned sensor, fixed 35mm-equivalent f/2 lens, X-Processor Pro engine and Film Simulation modes combine to deliver super images – and taking them brings just as much pleasure. Make no mistake, it’s not cheap, but the X100F is a magnificent compact camera for photography enthusiasts.
Read more: Fujifilm X100F review
6. Fujifilm XF10
You lose the viewfinder of the X100F but you save A LOT of money
Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens: 28mm f/2.8 (equiv) | Monitor: 3in fixed, 1,040,000 dots | Viewfinder: No | Continuous shooting: 6fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Enthusiast
The Fujifilm XF10 is less than half the price of the X100F above, but it's definitely more than half the camera. You don't get Fujifilm's fancy hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder here, so all your shots have to be composed on the fixed rear screen, but you do get a top-quality 24.2-megapixel sensor, a very good 28mm f/2.8 fixed focal length lens and a very attractively-designed little camera. In fact, this camera is so slim you can easily slide it into a jacket pocket and it's this, as well as the relatively low price, that makes it so appealing for quality conscious photographers who don't want to speed a lot of money.
7. Panasonic Lumix FZ2500 / FZ2000
If it's zoom range you need not sensor size, you need a bridge camera
Type: Superzoom compact | Sensor: 1in | Megapixels: 20.1MP | Lens: 24-480mm f/2.8-4.5 (equiv.) | Viewfinder: EVF | Screen type: 3in vari-angle touchscreen, 1.04million dots | Max burst speed: 12fps (30fps at reduced resolution) | Max video quality: 4K | User level: Enthusiast
Panasonic knows how to build great-value hybrid cameras that offer an extensive suite of video features in addition to catering for first-class stills photography. The Panasonic Lumix FZ2000 is a fitting example, able to record both 4K DCI and 4K UHD footage at 30p and 24p, as well as Full HD at 60p, and it's stuffed with useful features such as focus peaking, zebra stripes, SMPTE Time Code and colour bars. It also has two built-in ND filters to help with exposure of videos, another feature normally associated high-end camcorders. Styled like a miniature DSLR, the FZ2000 is a superzoom camera that ticks all the essentials for stills too, offering excellent image quality courtesy of its 20.1MP 1in sensor, together with a very fast AF system and highly effective image stabilisation technology – essential when you’re packing a whopping 24-480mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom.
Read more: The best bridge cameras
8. Nikon Coolpix P900
Cheaper than the Lumix FZ2000, the P900 has a huuuuge zoom
Type: Superzoom compact | Sensor: 1/2.3in | Megapixels: 16MP | Lens: 24-2000mm (equiv.) f/2.8-6.5 | LCD: 3in articulating, 921k dots | Viewfinder: EVF, 921k dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 7fps | Movies: Full HD (1080p) | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
With its 24-2000mm (equiv) zoom lens, the Coolpix P900 is certainly an ambitious camera. It doesn't match the zoom range of the newer Coolpix P1000, but it's a lot cheaper. With this kind of focal length you zoom so much further than with the average DSLR/lens kit, which explains why it's been such a smash among amateur astrophotographers. The lens is equipped with Nikon's five-stop Vibration Reduction system and you get plenty of manual control over exposure settings too, in addition to Wi-Fi, NFC and even a GPS system. Naturally, it won't be for everyone; there's no raw shooting, the screen isn't touch-sensitive and the 1/2.3-inch sensor is the same size as snapshot cameras. Nevertheless, the P900 makes the cut because it offers something genuinely unique at this level.
9. Panasonic TZ200 / SZ200
For when you need a big zoom range but in a small camera for travel
Type: Compact | Sensor: 1in | Megapixels: 20.1MP | Lens: 24-360mm f/3.3-6.4 (equiv.) | LCD: 3in fixed touchscreen, 1.24 million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 10fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
If you’re going travelling, the last thing you want is to be weighed down with kit. But you do want a camera that can capture any kind of subject, and is as close as possible to the quality of a ‘proper’ camera. That's what the best travel cameras get right, and the Panasonic TZ200/SZ200 is right at the top of the tree. It replaces the older TZ100/SZ100, which is still on sale and one of our past favourites. The TZ200/SZ200 keeps the same 1-inch 20-megapixel sensor – but adds in an even longer-range 15x zoom lens. This covers a 24mm wide-angle view, right up to a long-range 360mm equivalent telephoto setting. It’s not the longest zoom range of any travel camera, but it’s the longest you’ll get in a pocket camera with a sensor this big. The TZ200/SZ200 produces excellent JPEGs images straight from the camera, just like its predecessor, and has the option of raw shooting and and 4K video. A macro mode lets you focus on subjects just 3cm away, and Panasonic’s 4K photo mode can generate 8K images from burst sequences shot at 30 frames per second. With the 4K Photo mode you can even choose your focus point after you’ve taken the picture. The Panasonic TZ200/SZ200 is easily one of the best compact cameras you can buy right now.
10. Canon PowerShot SX620 HS
TZ200 too pricey? The SX620 HS offers a big zoom on a small budget
Type: Compact | Sensor: 1/2.3in | Megapixels: 20.2MP | Lens: 25-625mm f/3.2-6.6 (equiv.) | LCD: 3in, 922k dots | Viewfinder: No | Continuous shooting: 2.5fps | Max video resolution: Full HD | User level: Beginner
Superzoom travel cameras don't have to be expensive. With its huge 25-625mm equivalent zoom, the Canon SX620 HS probably gives you more zoom for your buck than any other camera. Its small 1/2.3-inch sensor will put a cap on the kind of image quality you can get and its point-and-shoot operation won't impress experts, but as a low-cost family-friendly snapshotter with enormous telephoto reach, the SX620 HS is brilliant.
11. Olympus Tough TG-5
If you like your holidays adventurous, this is the camera to take
Type: Compact | Sensor: 1/2.3in | Megapixels: 12MP | Lens: 25-100mm (equiv.) f/2.0-4.9 | LCD: 3in, 460k dots | Waterproof: 15m/50ft | Shockproof: 2.1m/7ft | Freezeproof: -10ºC/14°F | Max video resolution: 4K
The Olympus TG series has a sterling reputation among the tough camera market, not only for being sufficiently specced to handle tough conditions, but also equipped with impressive imaging and video tech. The Raw-shooting-enabled TG-5, which arrived on the scene nearly two years after the TG-4, brings significant improvements, most notably 4K video at 30fps and the option to shoot Full HD video at 120fps for super slow-motion output. A chunky handgrip allows for a secure hold on the camera, while the internal zoom mechanism means the lens never protrudes from the body, protecting it from knocks and bumps. Straightforward but sophisticated, the TG-5 is a winning digital waterproof camera for photographers of all levels.
12. Canon Ixus 185 HS
Last but not least, the Ixus 185 offers cheap point and shoot simplicity
Type: Compact | Sensor: 1/2.3in | Megapixels: 20.0MP | Lens: 28-224mm f/3.2-6.9 (equiv.) | LCD: 2.7in, 230k dots | Viewfinder: No | Continuous shooting: 0.8fps | Max video resolution: HD | User level: Beginner
Not everyone lusts after a Leica Q or needs the technological complexity of a Canon G1 X Mark III. Sometimes, all you need is a simple, easy, pocket-sized point and shoot camera that the whole family can use, and which wouldn't be a catastrophe if it got scratched, sat on or left behind somewhere. The little Canon Ixus 185 fits the bill perfectly. Its small sensor won't produce art gallery image quality and its controls are super-simple, but it's the cheapest camera in this list (probably just about ANY list) and it comes with an 8x zoom that smartphones can only dream of.