Compact cameras – by which we mean cameras with a fixed lens – have been hit hard by smartphones, with many parts of the market pretty much collapsing.
Why would you need to lug around a separate camera when you have a neat and stylish smartphone in your pocket that takes perfectly decent photos?
Compact cameras do survive, however, and with good reason. The best compacts usually have very high-quality lenses that deliver consistently sharp shots; the choice of lens apertures also makes it easier to blur out the background on portraits too.
While you can recreate this ‘bokeh’ effect in phone software, it doesn’t always look convincing. Decent compacts offer a full range of manual features, such as exposure compensation, or the ability to shoot in raw for maximum resolution (you get the full resolution image recorded by the camera’s sensor, without any JPEG compression). While this is also possible on phones, it can be a bit of a faff.
So, if you are looking for a more ‘serious’ and authentic photographic experience than you get with a smartphone, without the cost of buying a mirrorless camera or SLR with interchangeable lenses, here are some suggestions.
Olympus Tough TG-6
Typical price: £370
Let’s start with a specialist compact – and a very tough one, at a reasonable price. Even if we can’t get abroad this summer, hopefully we can enjoy summer holidays in the UK (or your home country).
If so, the TG-6 is the ideal travel companion, particularly if you are the adventurous type or are keen to encourage energetic kids to use the camera, too.
This camera is a beast, without being big and heavy: it can be submerged in 15 metres of water, dropped from a height of two metres, and survive -10°C temperatures.
You can crush the camera up to 100kg, too, so it’s no problem if your pets sits on it, so long as said pet is not a woolly mammoth. The Olympus is also sand-proof.
The 12Mp sensor delivers images that you can happily print up to A4 and you can also record HD and 4k video. Super Macro and Microscope modes are also great for taking photos in rockpools, for instance, or underwater: the closest focusing distance is 1cm.
The lens has a maximum aperture of f/2 so it’s good in low light too and you can shoot up to 20 frames per second in raw to record the holiday fun.
Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II
Typical price: £900
If you are looking for more a general all-rounder, the Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II is a great choice. The lens is way more versatile than your phone, with an effective focal length range of 24-120mm. The lens also opens as wide as f/1.8, so it lets in lots of light and can generate attractive background blur.
Furthermore, the screen can be flipped through 180° which is very useful for shooting from awkward angles or taking selfies.
Meanwhile, the 20.1-million-pixel CMOS sensor will be more than enough for high-resolution images that you can also get attractive prints from.
This is another powerful low-light camera with an ISO range that goes up to 12800 (extendable to ISO 25600). At 340g with battery and memory card you’ll notice it more than your phone, but the still pictures and video you’ll get will be worth it.
Panasonic Lumix LX100 II
Typical price: £729
This is another good compact all-rounder, with an aperture ring on the lens giving you a more traditional – some would say more pure – photographic experience than just snapping away with your phone. It is also a great camera for creative effects.
The sensor has a multi aspect-ratio design, so can select 1:1 square format, for example, or 16:9 ‘letterbox’ with the minimum of fuss. Square black and white images can look particularly pleasing and atmospheric (see Michael Kenna’s wonderful photography).
There are also a lot of lens filter effects and the ability to take multiple exposures, time lapse and stop motion – the creative possibilities are almost endless with this camera, which also takes relatively high resolution 17Mp raw images and records 4k video. ISO goes to 25,600, which is plenty enough for low-light situations.
Sony RX100 VII
Typical price: £1049
Moving further up the price scale, this camera will last you a long time – and is versatile and powerful enough to possibly replace your mirrorless camera or DSLR if you tire of changing lenses.
It has an effective focal length range of 24-200mm, so you can easily change from (relatively) wide angle to telephoto shots, along with a very good quality pop-up viewfinder that’s less fiddly than the one on the Canon, and a tilting touchscreen for awkward shooting angles or selfies.
What really sets the Sony apart is the high-qulity autofocus though, which can easily keep up with fast-moving subjects. There are a wide variety of menu options, however, so this, combined with the price, mean it’s probably not designed to be a camera for beginners
Typical price: £4500
If money is not really an object, and you are looking for the equivalent of an Aston Martin, the gorgeous Leica Q2 fits the bill.
As with the Sony, a lot of street, travel, portrait and documentary shooters might never need another camera, while the performance of the Leica leaves even the fanciest smartphone in the dust.
Take the super sharp lens, which opens up as far as f/1.7 for gorgeous background blur and quality low-light performance or the richly detailed images delivered by that 47.3Mp sensor.
In many ways this is quite a traditional camera, without lots of bells and whistles, as the emphasis is on superb image quality in the best Leica tradition.
You do get a very good electronic viewfinder, however, and a quality AF system – though it’s not really designed for very fast-moving sports and wildlife photography.
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