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? 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 way to go, 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 will be able to share photos while on the move. It’s not quite as convenient as a smartphone—you’ll need to wireless transfer any photos you wish to post to Instagram to your phone—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 pick priced under $200, the Canon Elph 190 IS, has a zoom lens, but aside from its 10x range and the ergonomic advantages which come with a dedicated device, there aren’t many advantages over smartphones.
Models with long zooms and CMOS sensors are more expensive. The Sony HX90V is a good choice if you want a camera with tons of zoom power. You may be put off by its $450 price, but you’re paying a bit for the build, which incorporates GPS and a pop-up electronic viewfinder. If you can live without those, and with a slightly chunkier camera, we recommend the Canon SX530 HS as an affordable long-zoom option.
Tough cameras are still a thing. Even though latest iPhones are waterproof, you don’t want to risk the safety of your top-end $1,500 XS Max when diving or rock climbing. Our favorite rugged camera, the Olympus TG-5, 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 as 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.
Our favorite 1-inch camera is still the Sony RX100 III, an older model which still delivers excellent image quality. Its 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 zoom lens excels in dim conditions and can be found for as little as $650 (about $100 below its retail price) if you catch it on sale. But it doesn’t support 4K or offer a touch screen. Consider the RX100 VA (priced around $1,000) if those are important.
Sony’s most expensive RX100, the VI, is a new addition to our top ten. It uses the same image sensor and processor as the VA, but has a very different lens. It’s the best pocket-friendly, long-zoom camera we’ve seen, with a 24-200mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom which is quite sharp.
Even Bigger Sensors
And there are options with larger than 1-inch sensors. The Panasonic LX100 II (we haven’t had a chance to test it yet, so it’s not eligible to be included in this list) 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 X100F, which sports an APS-C sensor but with a bright, wide-angle prime lens instead of a zoom. The X100F 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, check out our Digital Cameras Product Guide. If you’re looking for something a bit more capable than a pocket camera, but don’t want to deal with an interchangeable lens model, our top Bridge Camera picks will likely be of interest.
Pros: Crisp wide-angle lens. Bright f/2 aperture. In-lens ND filter. Fast autofocus. Hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. Focus select joystick. 1/4,000-second leaf shutter. Physical control dials. Film Simulation modes. Wi-Fi.
Cons: Lens lacks stabilization. Video limited to 1080p. Sometimes struggles with tracking subjects.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X100F is everything a premium compact camera should be, capturing SLR-quality images in a form factor that slides into your jacket pocket.
Pros: Pocket-friendly design. APS-C image sensor. Superb controls. 28mm wide-angle lens. Snap focus capability. Raw capture. 21mm wide-angle adapter available. Excellent Wi-Fi remote control.
Cons: Wi-Fi implementation can use some improvement. No EVF option. Doesn’t include external charger.
Bottom Line: The Ricoh GR II is a modest update to many a photographer’s favorite pocket camera, adding Wi-Fi and a few firmware tweaks.
Pros: Excellent high ISO performance. Big 1-inch image sensor. Sharp, wide aperture lens. 10fps burst shooting. Customizable controls. Large, titling LCD. Pop-up OLED EVF. Quick focus. Raw support. Wi-Fi with NFC.
Cons: Very expensive. Short zoom range. Lacks hot shoe. External charger not included.
Bottom Line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III compact camera earns Editors’ Choice accolades because of its image quality and excellent EVF, even despite its high price.
Pros: Inexpensive. 10x zoom lens. Optical stabilization. Wi-Fi with NFC. Pocketable form factor. Three color options.
Cons: Video limited to 720p. Middling high ISO performance. Slow continuous shooting. Low-resolution rear LCD.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS doesn’t offer as much as more expensive cameras, but it’s the best choice if you’re looking for an inexpensive point-and-shoot.
Pros: Tough, waterproof build. Wide aperture lens. Quick focus. Excellent macro capability. 20fps burst shooting. Raw support. 4K video capture. GPS and Wi-Fi.
Cons: Expensive. Rear screen can pick up scratches. 460k-dot LCD. 4K footage is cropped. Omits full manual mode.
Bottom Line: The Olympus Tough TG-5 is a go-anywhere camera with a fast lens, speedy response, and 4K video, but it’s more expensive than previous iterations.
Pros: 8x zoom lens. Large 1-inch image sensor. 20MP resolution. Up to 24fps Raw image capture. Tilting LCD. Large pop-up EVF. 4K video with HDR support. Ultra slow-motion at 1080p.
Cons: Expensive. Can’t start video while images are writing to card. Limited touch functions. Dense menu system.
Bottom Line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI delivers premium image quality, fit and finish, and features in a pocketable form factor, but demands a hefty price.
Pros: Wide aperture zoom lens. 1-inch image sensor. Tilting touch-screen display. Quick autofocus. Raw image capture support. Wi-Fi with NFC.
Cons: No hot shoe or EVF. Edge softness at wide angle. Occasional autofocus misses. Doesn’t support 4K video capture. Omits microphone input.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II is a pricey pocket camera with image quality that goes toe-to-toe with much larger models.
Pros: Crisp lens. 1-inch image sensor. 8.1fps image capture. Touch LCD. Built-in ND filter. In-camera art filters. Wi-Fi. Quite compact.
Cons: Pricey. Short zoom. 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.
Pros: 50x zoom ratio. Solid control layout. Responsive performance. Fairly compact. Framing assist function. Canon Creative Shot mode. Integrated Wi-Fi with NFC.
Cons: Can be slow to lock focus when zoomed. No EVF. HD video limited to 1080p30. Pricey.
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.
Pros: 15x zoom power. 20MP 1-inch image sensor. 9.4fps burst capture. Raw image support. Touch LCD. Sharp 4K video. Wi-Fi.
Cons: Narrow aperture. EVF on the small side. LCD doesn’t tilt. Crop limits wide-angle 4K video capture.
Bottom Line: The Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 marries a long zoom lens to a premium 1-inch image sensor. It’s a very good pocket camera, but we wish the screen offered tilt.