Digital Compact Cameras overview

Feb 21, 2011 No Comments by

What constitutes a ‘compact’ digital camera has been changing over the past few years.  After digital usurped film two significant categories emerged: basic point-and-shoot snappers and digital SLRs; pretty much a mirror image of what had been the case with film cameras. Then superzooms came along; cameras with powerful, non-interchangeable zoom lenses that were larger than a compact but smaller than a DSLR.  Superzooms (also known as ‘bridge’ cameras) assumed a position between compacts and DSLRs.  The Fujifilm FinePix HS10 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 are examples of superzoom, bridge cameras

The problem with any camera that has a long zoom lens (eg the equivalent of, say, 300mm on an SLR film camera) is that the longer the lens, the less light gets in and the more grainy the picture can be, especially in low-light conditions.  Being physically larger, DSLRs can accommodate a larger sensor – the gubbins that actually records the image.  The bigger the sensor, the greater the camera’s capacity for recording the digital information that constitutes the photograph.  Generally speaking, even though compact cameras had small sensors their lenses had a short focal length which let in plenty of light.  Superzooms had slightly larger sensors but their long lenses, when extended, let in less light.

Having said that, a compact camera such as the Canon Powershot S95, launched in 2010, has a larger sensor than the Olympus E-500, a DSLR launched in 2005.   Bigger sensors used to cost HUGE money but as is so often the case in gizmo-world, progress happens at a furious pace and prices have reduced to the extent that what was once the preserve of professionals is now available to mere mortals.  The Canon Powershot S95, while undeniably compact, is not a budget camera.  In the UK it will set you back around £300 and, like its immediate competitors the Panasonic Lumix LX5 and Samsung TL500, it’s aimed at professionals who also want a pocket camera and amateurs with aspirations and/or high standards.

Advances in compacts have even begun to squeeze superzooms out of the market.  12 megapixels resolution is now increasingly common in a compact. Five years ago you’d have needed to buy a DSLR to get that kind of image resolution.  And even though a compact won’t zoom as far as a superzoom the Canon S95 will still whizz from 28mm to 105mm.

New features are added, often at no significant extra cost.  Value for money in digital cameras generally, but especially the highly-competitive compact market, has never been better.  The only downside to all this good news is that if your photographs still turn out crap, it’s certain to be your fault.

In recent years the digital camera market has become segmented beyond compacts, superzooms and DSLRs with the arrival of yet another hybrid category: micro-four thirds.  And just to be even more confusing these have also been labelled ‘bridge’ cameras.  The Olympus Pen series and Panasonic DMC-G series are micro four thirds,  the last word on which can be found here.