Choosing a compact digital camera

Picking a compact camera

Before we go on, this isn’t about reviewing cameras, it’s about choosing the best camera for the job. In this case it’s a good quality, lightweight all round camera, one that a professional won’t be ashamed to have in their pocket, but at the same time isn’t too complex for a relative to pick up, point and shoot.

Basically my daughter is going to Sweden for a few days and I thought I’d get her something to take some shots, ‘cos she’s not borrowing my Nikons! At the same time, I hardly ever take my cameras out with me any more because I’m too unsteady on my feet now and they weigh a tonne and are incredibly bulky.

For comparison some of these compact are as little as 118g while the lightest DSLR camera I carry is a Nikon D70 with a Sigma 28-300 zoom weighing in a 1,085g. One of the other lenses (a Sigma 50-500mm) weighs in at 1,950g – nearly 5lb! So I want something I can take everywhere with me.

To narrow it down, I don’t care about video, or pixel size, especially when the least of them is 10 Megapixel, nor price (provided my daughter doesn’t lose it or smash it!), but as it happens if you shop around all the ones I am recommending are in the £100 to £350 range, so easily affordable. All the prices are based on an online check today (20th June 2011) and rounded off.

In choosing, ease of use, weight, lens range and special features like image stabilisation are all important, as is battery type and life. (Bear in mind we are not talking like for like here, so the quality of images on the smaller compact cameras’ sensors cannot compare to the full size cmos of a DSLR like say a Canon EOS 5D anymore than that can match a medium format camera like a Hasselblad. You get what you pay for.)

The shortlist:

Nikon Coolpix 3100

Nikon Coolpix S3100

Had a play with this in Dixons. Given I’m used to lugging heavy SLR’s this wee thing was like holding a credit card. It is unbelievably light, is easy to use and has a decent zoom on. Pretty certain so far I’ll get one of these! Comes in purple, blue, black, silver, red, pink and even yellow. If should be noted however that a reviewer on cameras said "the picture quality it produces is amongst the worst I have ever seen." Others were less polite. On this basis alone I’ve ruled this one out!

Best price: £85 Amazon with the average everywhere else at £99

Weight: Just 118g

Lens: 5x (equivalent to 26-130 mm, f3.2 to 6.5)

Battery: Ultra-compact rechargeable lithium-Ion battery (Nikon EN-EL19) (About 220 shots)

Image stabiliser: 4 anti blur modes including Vibration Reduction.

Image size: 14Mp (4320 x 3240)

Video: HD 720p

Nikon Coolpix S9100

Nikon Coolpix S9100

Not tried one yet, but albeit more that twice the price the specs are amazing. Very tempted. Comes in black, red or silver. After reading hundreds of reviews of this and the other cameras I’ve shortlisted this one is so far in the lead. The video is said so be mediocre but I’m not bothered about that. There are a few comments about purple casts and slight vignetting, but that is true of all the cameras here. Other grumbles I’ve read include lack of RAW images, lack of GPS (pttt), tiny dials and lack of manual settings. That said, nearly every review agrees that for the target market this is a really great camera and fantastic value. Most of the niggles mentioned can be overcome with the Panasonic Lumix TZ20 or better yet the Sony HX9V, but you’ll pay an extra £60 to £80 or so for it.

Best price: £225 from WarehouseExpress .com, average is £240, though PC World & Currys ask £300

Weight: 214g

Lens: 18x (equivalent 25-450 mm, f3.5 to 5.9)

Battery: Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL12 (about 270 shots)

Image stabiliser: 7 anti blur modes including a hybrid Vibration Reduction.

Image size: 12 Megapixel (4000 x 3000)

Video: Full (1080p) HD movie-recording with stereo sound

Note: This is the one I bought in the end, after handling all the others. It’s decent enough, the only negative comment is that it seems to use a proprietary usb connection. You do get a mains charge in the box at least.

Canon Ixus 1000 HS

Canon Ixus 1000 HS

Available in silver, brown and pink.

Best price: £217 WarehouseExpress .com, average is £225 to £240

Weight: 190g

Lens: 10x (equivalent 36-360mm, f3.4 – f5.6)

Battery: Rechargeable Li-ion Battery NB-9L (about 150 shots)

Image stabiliser: Yes (lens shift-type)

Image size: 10 Megapixel (3648 x 2736)

Video: Full HD movies (1080p) with Dynamic IS

Canon Powershot 220 / 230 HS

<img src=”” alt=”Canon Powershot SX230 HS – blue” title=”Canon Powershot SX230 HS – blue width=”300″ height=”300″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-9927″ />

Available in black, blue, purple and pink. Of note for divers there’s an optional waterproof case (WP-DC42) allows you to go down to depths of 40m – this will set you back about £220 mind, almost as much as the camera. Nearly every review I read complained about the positioning of the flash as being inconvenient, and a few mentioned purple casts, but overall they were all favourable.
Note that the only difference between the 220 and the 230 is the latter adds GPS, but you pay an extra £30 or so it..

Best price (220 HS): £218 Dixons / PCWorld / Currys
Best price (230 HS): £250 Dixons / PCWorld / Currys

Weight: 222g

Lens: 14x (equivalent 28 – 392mm, f3.1 to f5.9)

Battery: Rechargeable Li-ion Battery NB-5L (about 210 shots)

Image stabiliser: Yes (lens shift-type)

Image size: 12 Megapixel (4000×3000)

Video: Full HD (1080p) with optical zoom. Dynamic IS and Stereo sound

Panasonic Lumix TZ20

Panasonic Lumix TZ20

Available in black, blue, red and silver. Has gps and a 3D option. Good reviews.

Best price: £270 (Jessops) £275 (WarehouseExpress, Amazon)

Weight: 219g

Lens: 16x (24 to 384mm, f3.3 to f5.9)

Battery: Rechargeable li-ion (about 260 shots)

Image stabiliser: Power O.I.S. (On / Off / Active mode(only for motion picture)) Hmmm!

Image size: 14 Megapixel (4320×3240)

Video: 1920 x 1080 (50i) Full HD

Olympus SZ30-MR Travel Companion

Olympus SZ-30MR travel companion

Undecided about this one yet, but it’s light and has a great spec with some interesting features. Few if any reviewable reviews to go on yet, only the odd grumble about lack of RAW image files. If RAW is that important you need a full DSLR not a pocket camera!

Best price: £249 WarehouseExpress / Amazon (Dixons etc ask £300)

Weight : 226g

Lens: 24x (equivalent 25mm – 600mm, f3 to f6.9)

Battery: LI-50B Lithium-Ion Battery (Guesstimate 225 shots)

Image stabiliser: Dual Image Stabilisation

Image size: 16 Megapixel (4608 x 3456)

Video: 1080p Full HD Movie with Digital Image Stabilisation

Sony Cyber-Shot HX9V

Sony Cyber-Shot HX9V

This is the whistles and bells option of the pocket cameras, but with a price to match. Features include gps, full HD video, manual settings and RAW images.

Best price: £300 (WarehouseExpress / Amazon)

Weight : 245g

Lens: 16x (equivalent 24mm – 384mm, f3.3 to f5.9)

Battery: Lithium N (about 410 shots)

Image stabiliser: Yes, Sony Steadyshot (Hmmm!)

Image size: 16 Megapixel (4608 x 3456)

Video: 1080p Full HD Movie

Canon Powershot SX30 IS

Canon Powershot SX30 IS

More DSLR than pocketable, but nice spec. Hard call between this and the Nikon P500. I think this just has the edge with a better image stabiliser, but the Nikon is a good 100g lighter and somewhat cheaper.

Best price: Amazon £337, Dixons and Warehouse Express around £349

Weight: 601g

Lens: 35x (equivalent 24 to 840mm, f2.7 to f5.8)

Battery: Rechargeable Li-ion Battery NB-7L (about 370 shots)

Image stabiliser: Yes, 4.5-stop optical Image Stabilizer

Image size: 14 Megapixel (4320×3240)

Video: HD movies (720p) in stereo sound with Dynamic optical Image Stabilizer

Fuji Finepix HS20 EXR

Fuji Finepix HS20EXR

I’ve included this for completeness and because it has some very nice feature such as a horizontal level in the viewfinder. However, on closer inspection it shot it’s own foot off and should be considered one to miss. The zoom range, while respectable is less than the Canon and Nikon, but the real killer is it uses standard AA batteries. As well as pushing the weight up to half as much again as the Nikon P500 it will eat batteries. You can use rechargeable AA’s but they would drain fast.

Best price: £320 (Amazon) to £339 (WarehouseExpress)

Weight : 730g

Lens: 30x (24 to 720mm equivalent, f2.8 to f5.6)

Battery: 4xAA type alkaline batteries (Ewww)

Image stabiliser: Yes (CMOS Shift + High ISO)

Image size: 16 Megapixel (4608 x 3456)

Video: Full 1080p HD at 30fps with stereo audio.

Nikon Coolpix P500

Nikon Coolpix P500

Again, not tried yet, but I’m a long time Nikon fan but from the specs I’m tempted from. With its DSLR look and buttons it’s more a luggable than a pocketable camera, but even so, it’s half the weigh of my usual camera and a far larger zoom range.

Best price: £300 (Amazon, Jessops, Warehouse Express). Dixons were £304, yet PC World and Currys want £400 !

Weight : 494g

Lens: 36x (equivalent 22.5 to 810 mmm f3.4 to 5.7)

Battery: Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL5 (about 220 shots) AC Adapter EH-62A (option)

Image stabiliser: 7 anti blur modes including a hybrid Vibration Reduction. (Sensor-shift and Electronic Vibration Reduction)

Image size: 12Megapixel (4000×3000)

Video: Full (1080p) HD movie recording with stereo sound


(Caveat : Prices correct at time of writing, June 2011. Models will certainly be updated and replaced over time)

(Tellingly, nine year after writing this, only the Nikon links still work. Even the Warehouse Express and B&H sites were redirected and had to be updated

Addenda 2020

I remember Polaroids and instamatics in the 60s, rugged Zeniths and developing in the shed in the 70s, even have an ‘O’ level in the subject. Since them B/W has gone, film has gone, a great many photographic companies has gone, and even photo-journalists are reading for their phones instead of an SLR. Some companies, like Nikon, still make compacts, but regular cameras seem to heading the way of the Box Brownie.

Still, leave it here for the archives.

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