While smartphones ate the low-end camera world, camera manufacturers have been making some extraordinary strides in what an advanced compact camera can do.
Sure, for day-to-day photography, a smartphone is convenient because it’s the camera that you always have with you. But image quality can be an issue in low light, and, if I’m honest, holding a flat rectangle without physical controls often makes for a dissatisfying picture-taking experience. With a dedicated camera, I find it’s easier to get into the zone and focus (pun fully intended!) on making expressive art and capturing decisive moments. There are no social media notifications or text threads getting in the way—just you and a camera and your subject. Nothing else matters.
The first problem these devices easily solve is that of image quality. Although phones can boost their perceived image quality with software tricks, there’s often no breaking the laws of physics–small phones have minuscule cameras inside that are unable to absorb much light. If you can snag more light, you can capture cleaner photos, and the only way to do that is to make every camera component bigger.
Sensors sizes from 1 inch all the way to a full 35 mm (1.38 inches) can neatly fit inside these devices meant for snapshots. For the sake of comparison, the best camera in the iPhone 14 Pro (which has the biggest-ever main camera sensor for an iPhone) has a sensor that’s about 60 percent smaller than the least capable camera on the list below. From 12 megapixels to a whopping 47, the cameras on this list all have more than enough resolution for photographic prints and room to crop and adjust your composition after the fact. We’re at a point where megapixels on the sensor are no longer a key indicator of image quality—remember that most images will be viewed on a tiny 6-inch screen rather than a huge billboard.
Then there’s optics. While smartphone cameras are built with multiple lenses that make them jacks-of-all-trades, a dedicated camera will have a single lens of a far higher quality that often demonstrates unique strengths. Furthermore, although some of the best compact cameras have zoom lenses for flexibility, many opt for a fixed-lens design which can deliver even sharper photos and capture more light. Better lenses can also lend more authenticity to photos—if you love blurry backgrounds added by a phone’s software in “portrait” mode, many of these cameras can do the same trick, but without making your images look weird or unnatural.
Finally, there’s design. Cameras, whether they’re digital or analog, can feel so much nicer to use. All of the models I looked at for this piece have physical controls that are easier to use than the virtual camera controls on a phone’s touchscreen (yes, even the ones in advanced photography apps). These cameras also often include viewfinders you can put your eye to when it’s too bright out to accurately frame a shot on a naked LCD screen. The feel and control afforded by a physical camera give you a chance to hone your skills and experiment in ways that smartphones don’t. And a real camera makes you look cool too, which might explain the recent interest—on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, among other places—in retro-styled digital models.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle you might face when using a stand-alone compact camera is when it comes time to share photos on social media. Nearly all modern cameras have some kind of Wi-Fi built in, but the quality of the companion mobile apps can vary wildly, and image transfer can be slow. But even this may be more a feature than a bug. In the spirit of slowing down and “seeing” what you’re taking pictures of, the slower transfer of images gives you a chance to chill out and be selective. After all, you’re probably not a press photographer sending photos of the big game to an editor on deadline. So relax and enjoy the process!
Updated June 2023: We added the Fujifilm X100V, Leica Q3, and Ricoh GR III and IIIx. We also fixed links and pricing throughout.