Point and Shoot Camera Review
How to Choose a Point and Shoot Camera
The top performers in our review are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50, the Gold Award winner; the Canon Powershot SX720 HS, the Silver Award winner; and the Sony CyberShot DSC-WX500, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a camera to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of point and shoot cameras.
Point and shoot cameras were originally made to be the ultimate consumer camera. They could easily fit in a pocket or purse, and they provided good enough image quality to satisfy the average person. In their prime, not much more was required to make these cameras immensely popular and seemingly indispensable.
In recent times, however, smartphones have grown to match and often surpass dedicated point and shoots – in both their convenience and imaging capabilities. For this reason, the popularity of point and shoots has dwindled. The result is significantly fewer cameras that simply provide a shutter button, lens and display. To stay ahead of cell phone cameras, manufacturers have added larger sensors, versatile lenses and smart physical controls – all features that have yet to be fully absorbed by the smartphone market.
Because these are the areas that determine whether or not a point and shoot camera is worth your time, they're also what you'll want to focus on as you compare devices. Cameras with larger sensors provide intricate detail and superior all-around performance. Those with versatile lenses allow you to vary your photos by zooming in for attractive, focused portraits or zooming out for wide landscapes. And with comprehensive physical controls, you can compose images purposefully, rather than relying on the camera to do that work.
The cameras in our review all feature these attributes at varying levels. What you choose depends on which features are most important to you. For more information on this topic, check out our other point and shoot camera articles.
Point and Shoot Cameras: What We Tested, What We Found
Image Quality: Color Accuracy, Dynamic Range and Low Light Performance
Image quality is a very important factor when considering a compact camera, so it was the focus of much of our testing. The specific image quality aspects that we looked at are low light performance, dynamic range, sharpness and color accuracy. We also tested physical controls, autofocus menus and startup times to determine shooting performance.
To compare image quality, we captured a series of images using each camera on our lineup. In order to make this comparison fair, we framed and exposed each of the images as similarly as possible. Then a panel of reviewers analyzed each of the images for details in highlights and shadows, the realism of reproduced colors and the levels of noise in low light images. We consolidated this analysis and used our findings to assign each camera a score for dynamic range, low light performance and color accuracy.
Control: Menus, Settings and Physical Controls
The level of control you have over your camera is very important, and in our testing we simply used the cameras as you would in the real world. We changed settings, shot on different modes and reviewed images on each of the cameras. Certain devices are significantly more user-friendly than others, although grading cameras in these areas requires a fair amount of subjectivity. Your final choice will come down to your own preferences. For those who prefer to have in-depth control over their images, good physical controls are a godsend. Other things that we focused on were the ease of sharing images and navigating menus. After analyzing these factors closely, we were able assign scores to each of the cameras.
What Else Is Important When Selecting A Point And Shoot Camera?
In addition to what we tested, it's important to take the specifications of each camera into account. Factors like sensor size, focal length, maximum aperture and connectivity will have a profound impact on how you can use your camera. But before you can decide what you need, you first have to understand how these specs affect your photos.
Sensor: Size vs. Quality
A camera's sensor is what gathers all of the information needed to produce a photograph. The best point and shoot digital cameras typically have sensors between 1 inch and 1/2.3 inches. Although it is possible to have poor-quality large sensors, and high-quality small sensors, larger sensors generally capture more detailed images with less light than their smaller counterparts. The result is all-around better photographs, and reduced noise when shooting in low light. In this review, however, all of our cameras featured 1/2.3” sensors and so we focused more on the quality of the sensors by running a series of image quality tests.
Focal Length: How Far Can It Zoom?
A camera's lens determines how light is directed to your sensor and therefore plays a major role in any photos you take. Focal length represents zoom range and affects the versatility of your camera rather than the quality of its images. Cameras with wide zoom ranges, 23 mm to 483 mm for example, allow you to capture wide landscapes, tight wildlife shots and everything between them. The wider the range, the more you can do with your camera.
Aperture: How Well Does Your Lens Gather Light?
Another lens-related factor to consider is aperture. Aperture, along with shutter speed, determines how much light gets through your lens and onto your sensor. You can think of it as an iris that expands and contracts to control the size of the opening through which light can penetrate. As aperture numbers decrease, the iris expands, allowing more light to reach the sensor. Conversely, as aperture numbers increase, the iris contracts, restricting the access of light to the sensor. This important role can influence the look, feel and even quality of your image.
Most lenses have very high apertures; it is those with low aperture limits like f/1.8, f/1.4 or f/1.2 that really go above and beyond. Cameras with low apertures like these influence the look and feel of your images by providing a shallow depth of field. This means that less of your image will be in focus, allowing you to isolate subjects like a pro. As aperture numbers get lower, the effect is multiplied.
Aperture also indirectly affects the quality of your images when shooting in low light conditions. The sensitivity of your camera sensor is called its ISO. The higher the sensor sensitivity (ISO), the brighter your images will be. For this reason, as light decreases, photographers often increase their camera's ISO to compensate.
Unfortunately, increasing your ISO also increases the amount of grain, noise and other fuzzy impurities that show up in your images – sometimes to the point of making them unusable. Cameras with lower apertures are able to widen the camera's iris, thereby allowing the camera to make use of more light rather than simply increasing its sensitivity to the existing light.
Connectivity: Pairing Your Camera With a Mobile Device
One of the best aspects of shooting with an iOS or Android device is the ability to access innumerable apps for cropping, collaging, captioning and sharing your images. While many point and shoot cameras come with useful software features for editing images in-camera, it's not surprising that they fail to match the infinite possibilities available in today's mobile app stores.
Rather than attempting to compete head-on with editing platforms, many camera manufacturers are simply making the editing apps accessible through built-in Wi-Fi. This allows you to connect your phone or tablet directly to your camera for easy image transfer. Although this admittedly requires a few more steps than simply shooting on your phone, it’s a nice compromise for someone who doesn't want to physically connect their camera to a PC every time they want to edit or share.
Point And Shoot Cameras: Our Verdict And Recommendations
As image quality in smartphone cameras continues to progress, point and shoot cameras become less and less appealing, and rightfully so – many people simply no longer need a dedicated camera in order to capture good-looking images. In our testing, however, we've determined that there are still very convincing reasons for the photographically inclined to have a small, dedicated camera.
One of the main reasons to get a point and shoot camera instead of – or in addition to – a DSLR camera is portability. It's small enough to carry around so you're ready to shoot whenever your creativity is sparked. And since point and shoot cameras usually have larger sensors than the one in your smartphone, you'll be able to capture more dynamic, detailed and color-rich images than with your phone.
The best example of this is the Lumix DMC-ZS50. In our testing, it proved the most capable in terms of image quality. Its colors are very lifelike, its dynamic range is excellent and its low light performance is impressive for a camera of its size. In addition to this, it also captures great-looking full HD video at up to 60 frames per second. Due to this impressive performance and minimal size, we've ranked the ZS50 as the best point and shoot camera available for under $350.
Another great reason to buy a point and shoot camera is optical zoom. Due to the necessity to be thin, smartphones have flat lenses that are recessed into the body of the phone. This means that smartphone users have no optical zooming capabilities and must instead rely on cropping, which degrades image quality, to enlarge distant subjects.
In contrast, point and shoot cameras like the Canon PowerShot SX720 HS offer up to 40x optical zoom, which allows you to capture distant subjects without sacrificing resolution. In addition to this, shooting at different lens positions allows for different perspectives and more diverse and interesting photos.
Finally, there are physical benefits to consider. Because of the need for pocketability and visual simplicity, smartphones simply cannot cater to those of us who like to adjust settings like shutter speed, aperture or ISO using physical controls. Although our top three cameras were great in this regard, we give the edge to the Sony CyberShot DSC-WX500 thanks to its useful articulating screen.
As you consider a new point and shoot camera, consider the reasons why you want to upgrade from your phone's camera in the first place. Whether its image quality, zoom capabilities, physical controls or some combination of the three, your priorities and price range will determine which camera is best for you. Once you've decided what you want in a camera, making a choice is as easy as using our comparisons to eliminate the choices that don't fit your criteria.