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Compact cameras have come a long way in recent years, and as well as basic snappers, there are plenty of cameras suitable for enthusiasts and experts. To help you choose your perfect model, we've put together this straightforward buying guide.

The term 'compact camera' isn't actually very helpful, though. It made sense at one time, when they were almost always pocket-sized cameras you could take anywhere, but they've moved on since then, and 'compact' cameras now come in all shapes and sizes.

Compact camera types
These are all 'compact' cameras, but they're completely different, so what's going on? We explain the types and what to look for.

It's probably more helpful to think of them as 'fixed lens' cameras. This remains the big difference between compact cameras and digital SLRs and mirrorless compact system cameras.

You need to keep this in mind when you're choosing a camera, and we'll talk more about lenses as we go through this guide. You can't change the lens on a compact camera, so you have to be sure it covers all the subjects you want to shoot.

The fact is, compact cameras cover a whole spectrum of uses and users, from basic point-and-shoot party cameras to powerful high-end compacts that can match the sensor size, image quality and controls of an SLR.

There are so many compact cameras on the market that it can quickly get confusing, so we've broken them down into five types:

  • Regular compacts: pocketable snapshot cameras
  • High-end/advanced compact cameras: SLR features and/or quality in a pocket-sized body
  • Bridge cameras: huge zoom ranges, SLR styling – 'do-it-all' cameras
  • Travel/superzoom cameras: the size of a compact but the zoom range (almost) of a bridge camera
  • Waterproof/adventure cameras: compact and waterproof, shockproof, even freeze-proof!

Once you know what type you're looking for, it's a whole lot easier to pick the right model for you.

Point-and-shoot compacts

If you just want a camera that's small enough to slide in your pocket and simple enough to take care of all the technicalities, a regular compact camera is ideal. These range from the cheap and cheerful but perfectly adequate, right up to stylish fashion accessories.

But it's these regular compact cameras, particularly the cheaper ones, that are facing the biggest competition from smartphones.

Cheap compact camera
Cheap compact cameras are losing ground to camera phones for sheer convenience, but they still have some advantages.

A compact camera does have certain advantages, such as a zoom lens, different 'scene modes' for different kinds of subject and probably better picture quality.

But smartphones are catching up. The image quality from a smartphone is often perfectly adequate for casual snapshots, and you get the added convenience of instant sharing via the cellular network. Many compact cameras have wi-fi which connects to a smartphone, but still rely on the smartphone for sharing them with the wider world.

The other advantage of smartphones is that they can run a wide range of applications. They can shoot a photo, edit it, apply a wide range of special effects and them with others really easily.

But many people still prefer to keep their phones and their cameras separate. Regular compact cameras do have the edge over smartphones for quality and they are easier to handle when taking pictures.

But what do you look for? Most regular compact cameras use tiny 1/2.3-inch sensors, so there aren't too many differences here. These are large enough to give them a quality advantage over smartphones for the most part, but the gap is shrinking.

Compact camera with bigger sensor
Bigger sensors always bring better quality. The 2/3-inch sensor in the Fuji XQ1 is bigger than the 1/2.3-inch sensors in cheaper cameras.

Some regular compacts have larger sensors than this, and the Fuji XQ1 is a good example. They cost more, but you do see an improvement in picture quality. If you do want a pocket-sized point-and-shoot camera with a little more quality, though, be careful not to get drawn into the world of high-end compacts (more on these later), because the cost, complexity and size can take a jump.

The other thing to look for is the lens's zoom range. Most have a 4x zoom range or thereabouts, offering a wideangle view at one end of the range and a modest telephoto effect at the other.

If you think you might need more than that, take a look at the section on travel/long zoom compacts – these are a very popular alternative to the regular point-and-shoot camera and offer a much bigger step up from a camera phone.

Compact camera with bigger zoom
Bigger zooms are always useful, like the 8x lens on this Sony WB830.

Don't worry too much about megapixels. In the early days, when compact cameras had just 8-10 megapixels, it might have made a difference. Cramming more megapixels into a small sensor brings very dubious benefits. Any increase in sharpness is offset by increased noise (random speckling) and image smoothing (to get rid of it).

Back-illuminated sensors are a recent development that helps reduce noise, though only to a degree.

The better point-and-shoot compacts do now have much of the tech you see in smartphones, such as touch-screen control, built-in wi-fi and even GPS. You should expect to get full HD movie modes, too.