What point and shoot camera should I buy?
It’s a good question, and one that doesn’t come with an easy answer. After all, there are hundreds of options on the market, many of which seem to offer cool features left and right.
So how do you decide on the right point and shoot camera for you?
That’s what this article is all about. I’m going to cut through the confusion and the fluff by sharing the key point and shoot camera characteristics you need to know before buying, along with lots of advice for selecting the perfect point and shoot camera for your particular shooting interests and style.
If you’re ready to pick your point and shoot camera…
…then let’s get started!
Table of contents
- What Is a Point and Shoot Camera?
- The Four Types of Point and Shoot Photographers
- Choosing a Point and Shoot Camera: Factors to Consider
- What Point and Shoot Camera Should You Buy?
- What Point and Shoot Camera Should I Buy: Next Steps
What Is a Point and Shoot Camera?
Point and shoot cameras are generally aimed at beginner photographers, which means that they’re easy to use (hence the name “point and shoot”) while staying compact and portable.
Point and shoot cameras tend to offer limited control over camera settings (manufacturers expect that they’ll primarily be used on Auto mode). They feature fixed (non-interchangeable) lenses, generally small sensors, and can be found for impressively cheap prices, though image quality struggles to rival that of DSLR and mirrorless competitors.
That said, there are plenty of higher-end point and shoot cameras. These come with excellent ergonomics, top-notch build-quality, and good high-ISO performance. You can expect these cameras to offer pro-level images while giving the photographer complete control over camera settings.
There’s also another class of point and shoot cameras, which are designed for specific purposes–such as the point and shoot action cameras that come with rugged build-quality and impressive shockproof/waterproof ratings.
The Four Types of Point and Shoot Photographers
I’ve talked about the different types of point and shoot cameras.
But it’s important to recognize that there are four basic types of point and shoot photographers.
First, there are hobbyist/consumer point and shoot photographers.
If you fit into this category, then you’ve probably never used a DSLR or a mirrorless camera before. You’re looking to take casual snapshots of your family, your life, etc., and you want a camera that will get the job done without any complexity. You don’t plan on ever upgrading to a more serious camera (such as a DSLR), and you don’t need impressive image quality or fast shooting speeds; you just want to point, shoot, and be done.
Second, there are up-and-coming photographers.
If you fit into this category, then you haven’t used a DSLR or a mirrorless camera before, but you plan to sometime in the future. You’re interested in becoming a serious photographer, but you don’t feel comfortable with all the controls on a higher-end camera. You want to familiarize yourself with photography by way of a point and shoot camera, then you plan to take things to the next level with a mirrorless body or a DSLR.
Third, there are professional photographers.
If you fit into this category, you’re a practicing professional or semi-professional looking for a second (or third) camera for scouting trips, casual photography, or situations where you don’t want to carry a big camera but want to have some camera body with you. You know your way around a camera, so you want a point and shoot option that allows for extensive customization and produces top-notch images.
Fourth, there are action photographers.
If you fit into this camera, you may or may not use higher-end cameras for other functions, but you’re looking for a point and shoot body that’ll survive anything you throw at it, from dives into the ocean to skydiving to crashes during a mountain-bike trip and more.
Now it’s time to ask yourself:
Which point and shoot photographer are you?
If you can identify what you’re after, picking a point and shoot camera will become a much easier task!
Choosing a Point and Shoot Camera: Factors to Consider
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of point and shoot photographers, let’s discuss the different aspects of point and shoot cameras, and what you’ll want to think about before buying:
Most point and shoot cameras are pretty compact, but you’re going to find a range of options. Some point and shoot bodies will slip neatly into your pocket, while others will present more of a challenge (and you’ll probably want a holster or some other method of carrying the camera around).
If you’re hoping for a pocket-ready point and shoot camera–for travel photography, street photography, walkaround photography, and more–then you’ll need to make sure that the camera you buy is sufficiently small.
If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a larger camera, then this isn’t something that you’ll need to prioritize. And you’ll want to keep in mind that smaller cameras can be more frustrating from an ergonomics perspective; especially for those photographers with large hands, a small camera can be frustrating to use.
Do you plan on taking your camera on long, bumpy hikes? Will you take it underwater? In rain? How about sand? And are you likely to drop it?
Most point and shoot cameras don’t offer strong build quality (they tend to be very plasticky), which means that they can’t take much of a beating. So if you’re someone who doesn’t mind shooting in inclement weather or other difficult situations, you’ll want to avoid your standard point and shoot cameras, and instead focus on the rugged, tough models.
Really, better build quality is rarely a bad thing (except when it adds a lot of weight to the camera body), so keep an eye out for point and shoot cameras that are reasonably priced but still feature a decent build.
Point and shoot cameras use fixed lenses.
Which means that you cannot change your lens. What you buy is what you’ll always have.
Fortunately, most point and shoot cameras do offer a decent range of focal lengths. Unless you’re planning to shoot a single, very particular subject (such as birds), then I’d recommend going with a wide-to-telephoto zoom, such as a 24mm to 200mm lens or thereabouts.
Note that this focal length range (from wide to telephoto) is pretty standard on point and shoot cameras, so you won’t need to look hard to find a good option. But if you’d also like to shoot distant subjects, such as planes or wildlife or birds, then you’ll want a lens that can zoom out a lot farther; anything from 400mm and on should work.
And if you’re looking to capture sweeping landscape shots, the wider the lens can go, the better. Even a difference of a few millimeters (from 26mm to 24mm, for instance) can make a difference, so get the widest option you can find (provided that it has all the other features you’re after, of course!).
By the way, there are also point and shoot cameras that offer prime lenses (i.e., lenses that have a single fixed focal length). And while I wouldn’t recommend a prime lens for a casual, all-around shooter, if you’re willing to sacrifice the flexibility of a zoom lens, then a prime lens will generally offer better image quality.
Point and shoot cameras are small, which means that their sensors tend to be small, as well.
Why does this matter?
Smaller sensors make for lower resolution and decreased pixel size–where lower resolution hurts your ability to crop and print large (as discussed in the next section), while tiny pixels struggle to offer good low-light performance.
In other words:
The larger the sensor, the better.
If you plan to do very casual photography, this may not be a big deal (though small pixels will cause lots of noise in low light, which can be annoying).
But if you’re a frequently low light shooter–e.g., you like to shoot indoors during events or outdoors in the evening or at night–then you’ll want to find a point and shoot camera with the largest possible sensor.
Fortunately, while most point and shoot cameras have small sensors, this isn’t universally true. Many point and shoot options offer 1-inch sensors, and there are some APS-C sized point and shoot cameras, as well.
So if you’re after stellar low-light image quality, I’d recommend checking out those options!
Resolution in photography is pretty simple:
The higher the resolution, the more you can crop, which gives you greater latitude when shooting distant, hard-to-reach subjects such as birds and mammals.
And the higher the resolution, the larger you can print, which matters if you’re looking to create large prints for your home or for others.
Now, resolution does tend to get overemphasized, so don’t get hung-up on having the highest-resolution images possible.
(And, as I explained in the previous section, smaller pixels are bad for low-light performance, so more pixels isn’t always a good thing.)
Really, I’d recommend getting a camera in the 20 MP to 24 MP arena. Anything more than that will start to cause low-light problems, assuming the sensor size is in the area of 1 inch, and anything less than that will start to inhibit your printing and cropping capabilities significantly.
Viewfinder and LCD
If you’re after a digital point and shoot camera, it pays to have a good method of viewing the scene before you take a shot, as well as reviewing images after you’ve shot them.
What does this mean?
For one, it means you’ll want a viewfinder of some sort. Many point and shoot cameras include an optical viewfinder that’s mounted off to the side of the lens, which can work–but it’ll give you a slightly shifted view of the composition (i.e., a view that doesn’t correspond to what your lens is seeing).
That’s why you’ll want a higher-end electronic viewfinder if you can afford it. These offer a digital feed to the camera sensor, so you can see what the camera sees at all times. It’s perfect for determining whether your images are well-exposed and well-composed as you’re taking them.
Note that some point and shoot cameras don’t offer viewfinders at all, which is a big drawback. If you’re a very casual shooter, you may be able to work this way, but it’ll hinder your ability to compose beautiful images at will.
In terms of LCDs:
Pretty much all point and shoot cameras include a rear LCD of some sort, which allows you to review your images after you’ve taken them (and can also be used to preview the scene as you’re shooting).
Higher-resolution LCDs are more useful, and I’d recommend you also consider fully-articulating options (i.e., LCDs that angle and flip out), as these are key for shooting from tricky positions, as well as touchscreen options, which are just generally useful.
If you’re planning to do very casual photography (that is, if you’re the first type of point and shoot user, as described in an earlier section), then you’ll want a point and shoot camera that is almost entirely automatic.
Pretty much every point and shoot camera does a good job of delivering on this, so you won’t need to be too selective. Even the higher-end point and shoot cameras still include useful Auto modes that you can set and forget about.
But if you’re after a point and shoot camera that’ll give you pro-level control, then you’ll need to be more selective. You’ll want:
The ability to adjust your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
The ability to change your focusing modes.
The ability to change your shooting speed per second.
The ability to shoot in RAW (or JPEG, though I highly recommend you work in RAW!).
If your camera can autofocus quickly, you’ll be able to lock onto moving subjects as they dart past you.
But if your camera is a slow-focuser, then you’ll pretty much only be able to shoot still subjects.
It’s worth bearing in mind that not every photographer needs lightning-fast autofocus. If you shoot landscapes, the ability to autofocus at high speeds is pretty pointless. And if you’re after casual family portraits, fast autofocus won’t make much of a difference.
But if you want to capture action shots of moving animals, birds in flight, athletes on the move, and more, then you’ll definitely need a fast-focusing point and shoot camera.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell if a camera can focus fast enough from specifications alone. So if you’re after a speedy camera, I’d recommend reading hands-on reviews, most of which will discuss autofocus capabilities in depth.
Continuous Shooting Speeds
If you want to shoot action, you need to be able to fire off several shots in a few seconds.
Many point and shoot cameras do a good job here, offering five or more frames-per-second of continuous shooting.
But watch out for cameras that shoot at much lower speeds. Because while they won’t be an issue for landscape and portrait photographers, you’re going to need the speed if you shoot pretty much anything else.
Do you want to shoot only still images? Or is video an interest, too?
Most photographers want to be able to shoot both still and video, which is why cameras tend to include decent video specs (and point and shoot cameras are no exception).
For casual purposes, pretty much any video capabilities will work fine. But if you’re a more serious videographer, you’ll want at least 4K resolution, ideally with 30 or 60 fps. That way, you’ll be able to capture high-quality video while on the go!
What Point and Shoot Camera Should You Buy?
Choosing the perfect point and shoot camera is hard.
But now that you’re familiar with the different point and shoot camera characteristics, it’s time for advice on picking your new camera:
For Casual Photographers
If you’re a casual photographer, I’d recommend you aim for a camera with at least 16 megapixels, decent autofocus, and a wide-to-telephoto zoom (such as a 24-200mm option).
For those who are on a budget, skimping on build quality shouldn’t be a big deal, though I don’t recommend you get an ultra-plasticky camera (it’ll break soon enough and you’ll end up spending more on your next camera).
You don’t need a viewfinder, but I’d really recommend an optical viewfinder if at all possible. You’ll find this much easier than shooting using the rear LCD, especially in bright light.
For Up-and-Coming Photographers
If you’re looking to get a point and shoot camera before upgrading to something better, then you’ll want a decent-sized sensor (I’d recommend 1 inch or more), a 20+ megapixel count, and a nice zoom range (again in the 24-200mm range). Build quality is going to be important if you plan to do a lot of photography, and if you’re thinking about shooting action then fast autofocus and a high continuous shooting rate is a must.
If possible, get a camera with an electronic viewfinder. This is extremely useful, plus it’ll help you transition from photographing with a point and shoot model to photographing with a more serious camera down the line.
You’ll also want to make sure the camera offers control over settings such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO; this will help you learn the ropes so you can hit the ground running when you grab your next camera.
For Serious Photographers
If you’re a professional or semi-professional looking for a compact option, then you’ll want to aim for a large sensor size (APS-C, if possible), fast autofocus (if you need it), and impressive build quality.
An electronic viewfinder is an absolute must; this will be critical for ensuring you nail focus and composition in the field. And I’d seriously consider getting a point and shoot camera with a prime lens for the improved optics.
As with up-and-coming photographers, you’ll want to be able to take complete control of your camera. So you’ll need to be able to quickly change aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus modes, and more.
For Action Photographers
If you’re hoping to capture stunning action shots, then you’ll want to ensure you’ve got fast autofocus and lightning-fast continuous shooting speeds.
But you’ll also need an ultra-tough camera body, one that’s shockproof and/or waterproof. The specifics will depend on the type of shooting you hope to do, but bear in mind that durability should be your primary concern.
What Point and Shoot Camera Should I Buy: Next Steps
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about choosing a point and shoot camera.
And you should be well-equipped to pick the perfect model for your needs.
So think about the type of shooting you’d like to do. Think about the camera features you’ll need.
Then purchase your point and shoot camera!
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.
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