There are dozens of compact digital cameras on the market in a wide variety of shapes and even colors. Most are aimed at folks who just want to get nice pictures without having to learn much about photography, and they do a great job at that. But what about those who do know something about photography? Are there any compacts that allow us to put that knowledge to good use? Whether you’re looking for a solid backup for your DSLR or an alternative for traveling lighter, yes, there are many compact cameras designed with you in mind.
Compact digital cameras are conveniently sized—many will fit in a pocket, making them easy to take just about anywhere. One of the trade-offs of which you should be aware is that to achieve that compact size, image sensors much smaller than DSLR sensors are typically used, and that makes itself known in the form of noticeably reduced image quality, especially at higher ISO settings (400 and up with most compacts). A few compact models do use larger DSLR-sized sensors, but these are the exceptions, not the norm.
Used at lower ISO settings, however, today’s compact digital cameras can produce excellent images, and the higher-ISO results are also much better than just a few years ago. So, while they’re not a true replacement for your DSLR when quality matters most, the models featured here are excellent alternatives when a compact device is advantageous.
Compact cameras come in two basic form factors: flat and SLR-like. The former are slimmer and more pocketable, while the latter are more comfortable to use, especially at longer focal lengths, as they can be more naturally held to the eye like an SLR.
Manual exposure settings are important for creative control. Note that while all consumer compact digital cameras offer fully automatic operation, most don’t offer full manual control. The cameras included here do offer manual exposure and focus settings, along with automatic modes.
CANON POWERSHOT G12
Dimensions: 4.4×3.0x1.9 inches
Canon introduced the first G-series PowerShot more than 10 years ago, and that pioneering G1 model set the path for the series: a compact camera with DSLR versatility, including RAW capture, compatibility with EOS DSLR accessories, easy dial controls, both optical viewfinder and LCD monitor (tilt/swivel in most models, including the new G12) and more. The G12 features Canon’s HS (high-sensitivity) system—a 10-megapixel sensor and powerful DIGIC 4 processor with revised noise-reduction algorithms for improved image quality in tough lighting conditions.
Verdict: One of the most versatile compacts, the G12’s ability to use EOS accessories makes it an excellent choice for EOS-system SLR users.
CANON POWERSHOT S95
Dimensions: 3.9×2.3×1.2 inches
Providing the same sensor, DIGIC 4 image processor and image quality as the G12, but in a package about one-third the size and weight, the PowerShot S95 features a fast 28-105mm (equivalent) ƒ/2.0-4.9 power zoom lens, full manual control and all the automatic options a serious photographer would want, plus a larger, 3.0-inch LCD monitor. It also has its big brother’s RAW capture, 720p video and HDR modes. To obtain its tiny size, the S95 lacks the G12’s tilting/swiveling LCD, optical viewfinder, hot-shoe and control dials (although it adds a handy round-the-lens dial).
Verdict: With many of the G12’s features in a package not much larger than a deck of cards, the S95 strikes a great balance between size and performance.