Compact Camera Buyer’s Guide

Kaleidoscope
Kaleidoscope
Kaleidoscope

If you’re looking to buy a compact camera, you’ve come to the right place. Let me preface this little buyer’s guide with a little disclaimer, however. This isn’t going to be a typical guide, with reviews of individual cameras. There are a number of reasons for this. First, most compacts have the average lifecycle of a fruit fly. Second, if you pick nearly any manufacturer, you’re going to find some cameras that are awful, some that are acceptable, and some that are really good. Finally, and most importantly, my criteria for a camera — for everything from its controls to its image quality — may not be the same as yours, so there’s no substitute for actually picking them up and trying them.  With that in mind, here are some suggestions as to what you should look for, ignore, or avoid from one camera to the next.

What’s It Cost? Start here, since quite a bit else will stem from what you’re able and willing to spend. You can get a competent compact for under $100.00, but venturing beyond that price point adds more features (some more useful than others) that you may find helpful, or even essential, for your purposes.

How will you use it? Think about your typical subject matter, and what kind of shots you need, or expect, to get with the camera. When I bring my Fuji X10, I know I’m not going to get distance shots. The upshot – pardon the pun – is that I can always have a camera with me, and I can bring that camera with me places that I can’t get away with (or don’t want to take) my SLR. I’ve also used the compact for close-up shooting and put a zoom lens on the SLR for distance work. But again, that’s up to you, and what you want/need from it.

How Are The Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.

Let’s consider some of the most commonly discussed specs, and what they mean for practical purposes.

How Many Megapixels? The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to tell you that you want something with lots of megapixels. Don’t believe him.  Especially on a compact, more isn’t necessarily better. A point and shoot sensor’s about the size of your thumbnail, which means 16mp is the photographic equivalent of stuffing ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. They’re not making the sensor bigger; they’re making the pixels smaller, which means that at some point image quality starts to fall off. A 10-12MP sensor will give you good quality, the ability to do some cropping, and better high ISO performance, all else being equal.

Optical or Digital Zoom? I’ve covered this in another post (Optical vs. Digital Zoom: What it Is, Why it Matters), so I’ll give you the short version here: they’re not the same thing, and if you have to choose one or the other, optical always beats digital.

What’s the Zoom Range? I don’t suggest going too “long.” Here’s why: first, the greater the range on a zoom, the more complicated the optics. A lens that gives you 30x magnification sounds good in theory, but doesn’t look great on (photo) paper. There’s another issue with any long lens: high magnification doesn’t just magnify your subject, it also magnifies camera shake. If you’re shooting at 600mm equivalent in low light, you’ll notice (because of the slower shutter speed) that the camera’s picking up every last shake. This is true of long SLR lenses, too, but the added size and weight of SLRs make them easier to stabilize. You could put your compact on a tripod, but the added bulk and weight rather defeats the purpose of traveling light in the first place. At any rate, most of the better cameras max out between 105-120mm equivalent zoom.

How Are the Controls? Maybe the camera only shoots in full auto, with a handful of scene modes (portrait, sports, fireworks, etc.) thrown in for good measure, and maybe that’s all you need. On the other hand, maybe you’re starting to get serious about photography (or you’re already serious, and already used to an SLR or interchangeable-lens camera), and would like a higher degree of control. After all, more control means more options. Well, more manual means more money, but it can also mean less time spent spelunking in the menus, and fewer headaches, especially if there’s an assignable soft key among all the other knobs and buttons. I’d also suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. Yes, you can look at the manual (and you should), but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.

How’s the Build Quality? See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. See if the lens has a cap or those little doors, and whether the lens is threaded for filters. Look for a hot shoe or accessory shoe, and if the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.

Does it Have a Viewfinder? Most compacts don’t come with viewfinders. They’re mostly useful for shooting in bright light or at longer shutter speeds (it’s easier to stabilize the camera closer to your face than it is when you’re holding it out in front of you), but strictly speaking, they’re not 100% necessary. Viewfinders come in two types, Optical or Electronic (OVF or EVF). OVF is nearly useless for macro shooting on a compact (because of parallax issues), and an optical finder usually also has less than 100% coverage, meaning you have to second guess what’s going on outside the frame. An EVF, while it generally provides 100% magnification, doesn’t have the same resolution, drains the battery a bit faster, and also, in many cases, shows a bit of a jelly effect when you’re trying to pan.

How’s the Video? You’ll want to check the quality (whether it shoots in HD, for instance), and what that quality looks like to the naked eye. Also check the camera’s noise damping, and whether there’s a mic input and/or HDMI output (if you plan on using either). Video performance is usually competent, but — same as SLR video — the sound quality is a crap shoot, partly because of the mics used (condenser mics, which don’t pick up sound with great fidelity, and which pick up noises you didn’t even know your camera was making).

How Does the LCD Look? It doesn’t have to have the same kind of resolution that, say, a MacBook with a Retina display does. However, resolution does matter. If your opportunities for getting the shot are limited for one reason or another and you need to know if you got it right the first time, it doesn’t help if there’s terrible glare, or if the quality on the display looks like a bad VHS transfer of a 1920’s silent movie.

How Big is It? Compact cameras range in size from comparatively tiny, to “bridge” cameras which have the same kind of fixed lens that a compact has, but a body that’s closer in shape to an SLR. What you choose depends on how much the form factor matters, and how vital it is to you that the camera is truly compact. Added bulk means it’s not something you can stick in a purse or a jacket pocket (unless they’re big).

Is It Ready for Its Close-Up? Now, test shoot. Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result.

In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How ‘bout with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing?

Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the white balance? How reliable is the metering? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? How well does the lens handle distortion? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? Do you notice flare, color fringing, or vignetting? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor.

Eyes Front
Eyes Front

By definition, small cameras are about compromise. You’re giving something up — oftentimes lots of somethings — for the sake of portability. The other thing to consider is that compacts typically have a much shorter life cycle than SLR’s. It’s expected that an SLR will be on the market for at least two years (longer, in some cases) and be used even longer still. Therefore, there’s a lot more attention paid to the feature set, build quality, et cetera. Most compacts aren’t designed or built like that, ’cause in another year they’re going to be replaced anyway (there’s a lot of market pressure to turn compacts out quickly ’cause for a lot of manufacturers, the volume of sales of the cheap stuff helps keep the more expensive stuff afloat). What you need to decide is what things you absolutely can’t live without, and adjust accordingly.

But let’s assume you’ve narrowed it down to your final choice. You’ve picked your camera. Congratulations! You’re not done yet! You should also give thought to each of the following:

  • Spare Batteries OEM if it’s proprietary; if the camera takes AA batteries, invest in rechargeables.
  • Memory Cards One for the camera, plus one spare; Class 6 if you plan on doing a lot of video or burst shooting, otherwise it probably doesn’t matter unless it’s a higher-end compact.
  • Cleaning Equipment At the very least, pick up a microfiber cloth or two and keep them with your camera. They double to keep your specs clean, too.
  • Case Something water-resistant, preferably. Your camera might well fit in the pocket on your shirt, jacket, or cargo pants. But things can, and do, fall out of pockets. A case gives you some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place.

That probably sounds like a lot of stuff to consider. And, now that I read over all of it, I suppose it is. Here’s the thing, though: camera gear doesn’t come cheap (unless you’re buying a $40.00 Vivitar off the rack at your local drugstore). If you’re going to be plunking down a decent amount of money for any kind of gear – and lets’ face it, even $100.00 isn’t chump change – you want to make sure that the money’s well spent. A piece of gear that isn’t doing what you need it to, or that doesn’t work as expected, is frustrating, so spare yourself the frustration by doing your homework first, and then making your purchase.

I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but if you think I’ve missed something or would like to chime in, sound off in the comment section below.

*In case you’re wondering why I don’t do something like this for camera phones, there are far too many options, for one thing. For another, I don’t know anyone for whom the camera on their phone is a primary consideration. I’ve found CNet to be a reliable judge of camera quality on mobile phones, and would suggest that you start there.

**I should point out that I’m using “compact camera” to cover a slew of non-interchangeable/fixed lens options. I’m aware that there are some great options for compact interchangeable lens cameras (the Olympus PEN series, Sony’s NEX cameras, the Fuji X-01, the Nikon V and J series, among many others), but we’ll be taking those up another time.

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