This review is intended to help you choose the best compact digital
camera for your goals. In coming up with these recommendations for my
friends, I looked carefully at Canon digital cameras (often the highest
technology), Kodak digital cameras (great balance and simple user
interfaces), Sony digital cameras (an alternative to Canon), and Olympus
cameras, which can be good values and have some unique features such as
Digital cameras fall into the following categories:
ultra compact: good for slipping into a pocket or purse, but
the controls and viewfinder are very cramped
compact: what most people buy, reasonably pocketable,
reasonably easy to control
creative compact: more features and options than "compact",
$200 more expensive; good for techno-junkies
SLR-like: chunky, easy to control with fingers, larger
sensors and better image qualty in low light
SLR: large and cumbersome, best image quality, best low-light
capability, best tool when you are going out specifically to take photos
[Each of these categories gets a separate section below. If you
don't want to wade through this article, my current best
recommendations for most people are the Fuji F30 (about $265; chunky
but great for photos indoors without flash) and Olympus 720SW (about $280;
waterproof and very compact)]
Decide if you're buying a camera to carry with you all the time, and
therefore it must be compact, or if you're buying a camera that you will
take out when you are specifically engaged in a photographic project.
If you only use a camera during your child's soccer game, for example,
the responsiveness and controllability are much more important than the
camera's size. For travel, on the other hand, you probably don't want
something so heavy that you are tempted to leave it back in the hotel.
In shopping for a good digital camera, the one specification that you
can safely ignore is the number of pixels, which has almost nothing to
do with image quality. A 3 MP camera will produce acceptable prints up
to 8x10" in size. The interesting question is not the number of pixels,
but their quality. Is the photo in focus? Is the high contrast and
punch of a scene captured? Are the edges of objects rendered sharply?
Physically larger and more expensive cameras generally do a better job
at satisfying these harder-to-quantify objectives than small and cheap
Whatever the advertisements might say about megapixels, these cameras
have traditionally suffered from mediocre image quality, especially in
low light. The sensor in an ultra compact camera is very small and
therefore it picks up a lot of noise along with the image. Your images
will look "snowy" if taken at twilight or indoors without flash.
Canon and Casio have been the traditional leaders in this category.
Casio digital cameras have the style and Canon digital cameras have the
image quality. These cameras are about the size of a mobile phone and
can be slipped into any pocket. They qualify as "best digital cameras"
only if you are willing to extend the phrase with "best digital cameras
that fit into a shirt pocket".
reasonably late and reasonably great
(big 2.5" screen; 38-114/3.5-5.0 (equiv.) lens). Water- and
shock-proof, perfect for keeping in the front pocket of your jeans or
using in the pool (down to 10' under). Simple user interface: to
review pictures, press the playback button on the rear of the camera;
to take pictures again, press the shutter release. Lacks an optical
viewfinder. If you already have a digital SLR for low-light
photography, this rugged camera is a good complement.
Casio Exilim Card
EX-S600; the thinnest camera available. Worst
feature: to review photos, you press the "playback" button on the
rear; if you don't remember to press the adjacent "camera" button, the
shutter release is disabled and you can't take photos.
Canon PowerShot SD700 IS
Digital ELPH (big 2.5" screen; optical viewfinder; image-stabilized 35-140mm
(equiv.) F2.8 - 4.9 lens; first picture 1.8 seconds; next picture 1.4
seconds); the manufacturer's
underwater case is a fun accessory for SCUBA divers
and snorkelers. This is substantially larger than the Casio, but much
higher image quality, especially indoors and in low light. What I
don't like about this camera is the tiny control wheel on the right
and side, whose symbols would not be readable by anyone over 40
without the aid of reading glasses. If this control wheel is set to
"playback", the camera is stuck in that mode and won't take a photo no
matter how many times you press the shutter release.
There are newer versions of all of these cameras, but in some cases
they actually perform worse than the cameras listed and in all cases
are more expensive.
Lens Note: Lens focal lengths in this article are specified in terms of
the equivalent perspective on an old 35mm film camera. A normal
perspective is 50mm. The world of wide angle begins at 35mm and becomes
noticeably wide at 28mm, dramatic at 24mm. A moderate telephoto or
"zoom" perspective is achieved at 100mm. Sports photography from the
sidelines begins at 200mm. The f-number after the focal length
indicates the light-gathering power of the lens and is important for
indoor or low-light use. The lower the f-number, the better. An f2.0
lens requires only half as much light as an f2.8 lens. When there are
two f-numbers, they refer to the light gathering capability at the
extremes of the zoom range. The lens may go from a "fast" f2.8 at the
wide end to a "slow" f4.9 at the long end, where nearly four times as
much light will be required.
Timing Note: "first picture" is defined as the time between turning your "best
digital camera" on and capturing the first image. "next picture" is
defined as the time between pressing the button on top of your
already-woken-up "best digital camera" and capturing an additional image.
A digital SLR such as the Canon Digital Rebel
XT will turn on almost instantly. Compact digital cameras were
often painfully slow until mid-2004 when faster processors became
standard. A camera will be referred to as "responsive" if it has been
tested and found to turn on and capture within 2.0 seconds, with
subsequent pictures being captured in less than 0.6 seconds.
These cameras are small enough to fit in a coat pocket, a purse, or a
belt case. They have larger sensors than the ultra compacts, which
results in better low-light performance. The Compact cameras can have
heavier, higher quality lenses as well. Compact digital cameras are a
good choice for travel when you know that you'll want to take a
photo every 15 or 20 minutes.
My favorite: the Fuji
F30 (2.5" screen; 36-108mm (equiv.) f2.8-3.5 lens).
Very responsive and minimal shutter lag. Like professional digital
SLRs, the Fuji does not have a "playback mode" in which you can get
stuck. You press the review button to look at photos you've taken.
If you see something interesting to photograph, press the shutter
release and the camera instantly switches to "recording mode". The
camera includes a lightweight rechargeable Lith-Ion battery that
should be good for nearly 600 photos between charges.
Weaknesses: no optical viewfinder; no orientation
sensor--if you take a picture while holding the camera vertically, the
image will show up sideways your computer and you'll have to use
software to rotate it.
Everyone else's favorite: Canon PowerShot A640 (2.5" screen;
35-140mm F2.8-4.1; should be responsive); WP-DC8 should be the SCUBA
case. I don't like the Canon PowerShot A6xx cameras for the following
reasons: (1) They use four AA batteries, which are heavy and will last
for only 50 pictures (you can go out and buy four rechargeable NimH
batteries, but these are even heavier), (2) the A6xxx cameras have a
record/play switch (if you are going through photos that you've
already taken and something interesting catches your eye, pressing the
shutter release does nothing--you must first remember to switch the
camera from playback to record mode)
Potentially Interesting: Canon
PowerShot A710 IS; chunky, but useful image-stabilizer for low-light
photography; 35-210mm (equiv.) lens
1000. Similar capabilities to those above, but weatherproof and good for use in the rain or at the
beach. Slower CPUs than the Canon.
If you are on a tight budget, this is the category of camera that you
want. You can get a reasonably good compact digital camera for around
$150. Here are some safe low-cost bets:
C330 -- the Kodak digital cameras have a simpler
user interface than the Japanese brands and sometimes produce better
overall image quality (most folks buy this camera in a kit with a printer)
These cameras aren't much bigger than the compact digital cameras, but
they offer a lot more user control. The lenses might be bigger,
heavier, and of higher optical quality. Almost all creative compact
cameras offer the option of storing images in RAW format, usually
proprietary but sometimes in Adobe's standard DNG format. A standard
JPEG is convenient for uploading to the Web, sharing with friends, or
getting prints. Unfortunately, a lot of shadow and highlight detail
that was captured by the sensor can be lost with a standard JPEG. With
the RAW format, the photographer has the option of bringing out that
shadow or highlight detail in an image editing program on a personal
computer (or letting a professional lab do it and make a really great
Don't buy one of these cameras unless you are prepared to spend an
evening reading the manual and learning the settings. Otherwise the
results will be the same as if you had used a simpler compact camera.
(28-110mm F2.8-4.9 image-stabilized Leica lens;
good for wide angle).
35-210mm F2.8-4.8 lens; no RAW capability; very bad noise at high ISO
GR Digital. This has a fixed focal-length 28mm equivalent lens
that will be superb for wide-angle scenic photos. It is not clear if
this camera is going to be sold in the United States.
This product category seems to have gone out of favor and therefore
there isn't much to choose from. Camera companies are
concentrating their energies on the "SLR-like" category (below) and
SLR category (separate article).
These are physically large cameras, often built around large, heavy, and
high-quality lenses. "SLR" stands for "single lens reflex", a camera in
which the viewfinder and the film or sensor see through the same lens.
In a film camera or true digital SLR, there is a mirror behind the lens
that directs the light up into a beautiful bright optical viewfinder.
When you press the shutter release, the mirror flips up and lets light
through to the sensor. The drawback to this approach is that the LCD
display on the back of the camera cannot offer a continuous preview.
The SLR-like cameras get rid of the optical viewfinder found on the
standard compact digital camera. In its place you have the screen on
the rear of the camera and an electronic viewfinder rather like that on
a video camcorder. The electronic viewfinder is good in very dim light
but traditionalists will have trouble adjusting to it. One advantage of
an SLR-like camera over a true SLR is that the rear LCD display offers a continuous preview.
SLR-like cameras have lenses that zoom in to substantial telephoto
magnifications, up to 200mm. Magnifying the scene also magnifies any
shake of the camera body, so unless it is very bright out, you risk
blurry pictures at long telephoto settings. The best cure for blur is
to mount the camera on a tripod. In-lens image stabilizers are also
quite effective if you cannot use a tripod.
Here are some high-value SLR-like cameras:
P880 (24-140/2.8-4.1 lens).
The 24mm widest setting on this lens makes for much more dramatic wide
angles than the standard 35mm widest setting. The sensor records 8
megapixels for poster-sized prints.
Canon PowerShot S3
IS (36-430/2.7-3.5 lens; slightly unresponsive).
Bad for wide angle photography, good for super telephoto (birds,
sports), especially with the built-in image stabilizer.
Sony makes a couple of higher-end SLR-like cameras that come with
very good lenses, but the $750+ price makes you question whether you
wouldn't be better off buying a real SLR. The latest is the
DSC-R1, which has
the same APS-C size sensor found in the true digital SLRs. A big
sensor means very good performance in low light (though not as good as
the Canon Digital Rebel and Nikon D-series). The DSC-R1 has a
24-120/2.8-4.8 lens that would be an expensive addition to a digital
SLR. The R1 rounds out its bid for "best digital camera" with a very
You should look at a real digital SLR if you need any or all of the
reliability; SLR bodies almost never fail; by comparison, point and
shoot cameras are built for light weight and low cost
big bright accurate optical viewfinder
good quality images in low natural light, e.g., indoors without
blasting everything with flash
ability to attach specialty lenses, e.g., very wide angle lenses for
interiors, scenery, and architecture, or long telephoto lenses for
You will definitely need at least one memory card. Most of the compact
digital cameras take SD cards. If you are taking JPEG photos rather
than RAW, you'll be able to fit between 250 and 500 images in a 1 GB
4 GB SD cards: SanDisk (good for a long trip
into a remote area where you can't copy images to a computer)
Personally, I have found that it is more convenient to use a single
memory card for an entire project or trip rather than juggling multiple
If you want to keep the camera on your belt, consider a small padded
case. Lowe and Tamrac are generally the highest quality brands. The
manufacturers' own brand cases are generally the lowest quality.