Camera technology has, in recent years, come a long way, especially in the compact market. Although smartphones initially captured large numbers of traditional small camera users, improvements in sensor and image processing capabilities, as well as the rise in popularity of lifestyle blogging, vlogging and travel photography, have made these small packages more and more attractive to buyers.
To lure customers away from smartphones, the sector had to up their game. Happily, they did just that, and spending good money on a compact camera is now well worth it.
There are a number of advantages – most obviously their size, but also in their speed of operation. For people used to a DSLR, with their complicated controls and clunky buttons, compact cameras operate at a fraction of the speed and many have touchscreens, focus tracking and 4K video as standard, rivalling and in many cases surpassing more advanced, complicated camera systems.
Compact cameras also by tradition and definition don’t have interchangeable lenses, which not only makes them smaller but means there’s a lot less to think about for the casual user.
Some we’ve featured here have zoom lenses, but some have prime lenses, meaning that it’s got a fixed focal range and if you want to do a close-up, you’ll simply have to get closer to your subject.
For more serious users, we’d recommend an advanced compact camera – most of our picks are within this bracket. These machines often enable you to take photos in a RAW file format (a must if you want to edit your photos to a high standard), film in 4K and have a number of other features more akin to higher-grade professional equipment.
We tested these cameras over a period of a month in a range of settings, as far as current lockdown restrictions allowed, both indoors and outdoors. Testing criteria included ease of use, ergonomics (how the menu systems operated and how easy they were to hold and operate), video and photography quality including stabilisation and audio quality, and each individual package’s value for money when compared to the competition.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
Many people who buy compact cameras already have their stills photography needs met by their smartphone, and that’s why we liked the fact that Sony has focused on video with the ZV-1, making it a truly superb vlogging camera. The autofocus and lens quality is among the very best in our tests, and we particularly liked its clever tracking ability which, when recording video, enabled us to keep people or particular subjects in-focus. It comes with a microphone wind protector too, which is a nice touch.
It’s not a one-trick pony, however: the quality of the photographs themselves are excellent and the intelligent scene mode seems to quickly and automatically change relevant settings when required. Highly recommended.
Canon powershot G7 X Mark III
We tested this product on several shoots during lockdown walks over a two-week period, including in low-light conditions. With 4K video shooting, this is a popular camera with YouTubers and vloggers and it’s easy to see why. We particularly liked its simple-to-use layout and ergonomics, which will be familiar to both existing Canon users and traditional compact camera users too, with its built-in rotating wheel on the top-right of the camera for selecting different modes.
Our only criticism is that the autofocus tended to “hunt” a little and the images could be on the soft side. It was a fast and simple camera to use, however, with its built-in neutral-density filter providing excellent image quality in a range of conditions. The vertical tilting rear screen makes selfies and vlogging especially easy. Our second favourite camera on this list.
The X100V from Fujifilm is a highly attractive product, and probably the camera we’d go to again and again in the looks department. It has a stylish, retro design with a fixed 23mm lens (much like compact cameras of the past such as the indomitable Olympus trip) which makes it perfect for street photography. It was one of our favourite lenses we tested, however, the package is somewhat let down by the prohibitive cost. For this money, we think that there are options available that still do just as good a job.
Not just one of the best compact cameras on the market, the Lecia Q2 is arguably one of the best cameras in the world, full stop. Leica has always prided itself on quality, and this full-frame offering is no exception. It has a 47.3 MP full-frame sensor, is totally weather-resistant, spray and dustproof and comes with a fast, fixed 28mm 1.7 prime lens that is the perfect focal length for a range of portraiture, landscape and street shooting styles.
Prohibitively expensive for most of us, but an article about the best compact cameras wouldn’t be complete without including an example of how far the technology has come in this area.
The alpha range from Sony offers tremendously powerful performance in small, mirrorless packages, and it’s proof that an alternative manufacturer away from the mainstream camera producers such as Canon and Nikon can make devices that rival pro DSLRs.
The A7C, although larger than some of the other cameras we tested, is still Sony’s smallest full-frame camera with interchangeable lenses. We liked its side-hinged vari-angle screen, fast autofocus and the fact that you can swap out lenses for more flexibility. We’d recommend this for photography enthusiasts who’d like to bridge the gap between compact cameras and larger DSLR offerings. It is, however, on the pricey side.
Sony cyber-shot RX100 V
Size, or lack thereof, is the name of the game when it comes to the RX100. The camera fits a relatively large sensor into a small body, so we think this is the perfect option for travelling around and keeping it in your pocket or rucksack. This model has had number of different iterations over the years, and now the 24FPS continuous shooting has been refined, there’s extended support for 4K video capture and a super slow-motion function has been added. It also has one of the fastest autofocus systems we’ve come across. A good example of a brand refining a successful product over the years.
Another stylish option from Fujifilm, which we liked as it’s one of the cheapest high-end compact cameras on the market and also one of the simplest on which to take good, striking images full of depth and colour. We’d recommend this for people moving up from smartphones who want to learn the basics of camera and photography technology. Its handling, ergonomics and functionality all work well considering the price point.
It feels sturdy and solid, but we noticed the difference compared to more expensive cameras in the speed of the autofocus and the quality of the video. If shooting movies isn’t your thing, and you need something on a bit more of a budget, we’d recommend this.
Ricoh GRIII street edition
The Ricoh GR is a famous luxury camera from a brand that was first started in the film era. It’s a go-to for many travel and street photography fans. We liked the size of this new incarnation of its GRIII – a “street edition” with a detachable viewfinder, an orange lens ring, two batteries and a bespoke leather strap.
This limited edition is not, however, necessarily any better than the original GRIII, and although the original has been around a while, its portability, discreet appearance and the 18.3mm, f2.8 lens is still well suited to those wide street scenes, also making it a good option.
The verdict: Compact cameras
Our best buy is the Sony ZV-1, which in stills mode is much like the RX100, also included in this list, but with superior filmmaking and audio recording functionality. It’s an exceptional camera for vloggers and budding filmmakers. The Canon powershot G7 X mark III, meanwhile, is a very close second, nearly pipping the Sony to the spot if it wasn’t for the soft and sometimes wayward autofocus. We would recommend roadtesting these examples for yourself, as it can be down to personal preference.
In third place, we do love the Fujifilm X100V if you have the money to spend.
IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.