A guide to buying a point-and-shoot digital camera

By far the largest segment of the digital camera market, point-and-shoot models are compact, easy to use, and typically take great pictures with minimal effort. You simply press the shutter button, and the camera automatically adjusts shutter speed, aperture, focus, and light sensitivity to capture a clear image with optimal colour. Hence the phrase point-and-shoot, as that’s exactly what you’re doing. This is a very different photographic experience compared to Digital SLRs which offer larger image sensors, more manual control and interchangeable lenses. Another bonus is that point-and-shoot cameras can often slip easily into a pocket, and are typically less expensive.

Deciding to buy a point-and-shoot camera is the simple part, but with hundreds of models with varying price points and feature sets to choose from, selecting the best one is no easy feat. That’s why we’ve laid down the rules you should follow in order to find the right compact digital camera.

Rule #1: There's more to a photo than megapixels

"That camera looks great, how many megapixels does it have?" This is a question I've heard time and time again, but the truth is that more megapixels don't make for better photos. A decade or so ago, when cameras were making the jump from 2-3 megapixels to 4-5, it was a matter of discussion. But now, with point-and-shoots weighing in from 12-megapixels upwards, it's a moot point. Very few of us are going to make prints large enough to take advantage of all those extra pixels.

Sensor size is much more important. Putting too many pixels on the smaller image sensors (which are generally 1/2.3in when measured diagonally) found in compact cameras can actually hurt camera a camera's low-light shooting performance. These sensors are much smaller than those found in D-SLRs, which can make colour gradations less smooth, and make it more difficult to create a shallow depth of field. But the advantage is the ability to put lenses with longer zoom factors in compact packages – you can find a camera with a 20x lens that can fit into your shirt pocket like the Canon SX260 HS, something that no D-SLR can match.

Some compact cameras have larger image sensors, in the 1/1.7in range, but these are usually aimed at enthusiasts and are priced accordingly. If top-notch image quality in a compact package is an absolute need, no matter the cost, consider one of these larger-sensor compacts. These cameras can't match the long zoom range of compacts with smaller sensors, but generally perform better in low light. You won't be able to blur the background like you can with a D-SLR unless you're focusing on an object only a few inches from the lens, but larger sensors generally produce images with a bit more depth than their smaller counterparts.

Rule #2: Pay attention to lens focal length, not just zoom factor

The zoom range of a camera is often highlighted in marketing material, but that "x" number, which expresses how far a camera's lens reaches, doesn't tell you the full story. The focal length range, which is generally expressed as a 35mm equivalent value, tells you more about the field of view that the camera can cover. For example, two cameras may both have 5x lenses, but if one covers 24-120mm, and the other 28-140m, the former will be better suited for shooting in tight spaces while the latter will have a longer telephoto reach. Better point-and-shoots start at around 28mm these days, which is a nice wide angle that is well suited for shooting in tight spaces. Budget cameras often start around 35mm, which is less useful for family snapshots, as it will be harder to frame photos with multiple people in smaller spaces.

Rule #3: Weigh size against features

You can get a truly capable point-and-shoot camera that's downright tiny, but it will likely lack a long zoom lens and other advanced features, in order to keep it slim. And it might come with harder-to-manipulate controls, especially if you have larger hands (smaller cameras mean smaller buttons and dials). If you can, get your hands on a camera before you buy, it's the best way to see which models feel best.

If you're happy with a moderately long zoom and you don't need, say, an articulating LCD, you can get yourself a basic ultracompact model at a good price which will fit nicely into a pocket. Cameras that add more advanced functionality, like Wi-Fi for example, will generally be a bit bigger. All that extra electronics and gadgetry has to go somewhere, of course. And if you want a camera with an extremely long zoom range, like the 35x-equipped Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, you'll be nearing the size of a small D-SLR.

Rule #4: When it comes to LCDs, display resolution is as important as size

Because you'll be using your camera's rear LCD to frame and review photos and videos, its quality is paramount. You should look for a camera with at least a 2.5in display, although 3in is preferable. Camera LCDs are generally measured in dots, with larger values representing sharper displays. A 230k-dot display is just passable in terms of sharpness for a standard 3in screen. You'll be able to see fine detail in your shots and enjoy better outdoor performance with a camera that has a bright 460k or 921k LCD. Larger point-and-shoots sometimes include articulating screens, which can rotate a full 360 degrees, allowing you to shoot from more interesting angles.

Of course, these days you can certainly get a point-and-shoot with a touchscreen interface. These models allow you to adjust camera settings and fire the shutter by tapping the rear screen, eliminating traditional physical control buttons. The main advantage is the ability to put a larger screen on the rear of the camera. If you're the type who likes to fiddle with manual controls, a touchscreen camera might not be a good choice, as it takes longer to change settings when compared to button-based commands. But if you want to happily shoot in automatic mode, the touch interface could be an appealing choice.

Rule #5: Good low-light performance lessens the need for flash

The high-ISO performance of a camera is very important. Basically, ISO is a measure of the camera's sensitivity to light. The higher the setting, the more light the sensor collects. A camera that is set to ISO 100 will capture the same amount of light with a one-second exposure as it will with a half-second exposure at ISO 200. Getting a camera that performs well at higher ISO settings will make it possible to snap blur-free photos in lower light. Almost every compact camera has a built-in flash, but there are certain situations where it doesn't make sense to use it. Because the surface area of the flash is much smaller than that of a professional light, it's better to let the camera use it to fill in shadows rather than provide the entire illumination for a scene.

As you increase the ISO, image noise increases as well – and too much noise makes for grainy, blotchy photos. A camera that performs better at high ISO values – you should look for one that keeps noise under 1.5 per cent at ISO 800 – can use a lower powered flash to grab sharp photos without creating a washed-out look. It's important to check reviews to see how cameras actually perform at these higher settings, as one camera may produce much better images at ISO 1600 than another. We can’t stress how important it is to read some reviews – not just one – and compare and contrast models you’re considering, not just in terms of low-light performance, but across the board. User reviews (on the likes of Amazon) are also worth considering as well as professional write-ups.

Rule #6: Image stabilisation is a must

Optical image stabilisation, which compensates for the shakiness of your hands when taking a photo, is a must in a point-and-shoot camera, unless you plan on shooting on a tripod all the time. Nowadays, almost every midrange and high-end point-and-shoot includes this feature, but if you're trying to find a camera in sub-£100 bargain basement territory, it's something you should definitely check for. Of course, these days smartphone cameras are starting to make good use of optical image stabilisation, such as the Nokia Lumia models.

Rule #7: Don't get hung up on 1080p video

Almost every point-and-shoot on the market will capture video, and indeed HD video at that. However, while many compact cameras now offer full 1080p resolution, don’t get too hung up on that. A compact that records in 720p is more than capable of capturing video destined for online sharing. Most models that record HD video also feature a micro or mini HDMI output port to the camera connect to your HDTV for High Definition image and video playback; if you have a large screen HDTV, this is where you might benefit from the higher video resolution.

As far as recording the video, you'll want to check and see if the camera can zoom while recording, but be aware that the sound of the lens zooming is often picked up by the camera's mic. Some larger point-and-shoots will have an external mic port, making them better suited for more serious video work. Of course, you should look at a camcorder if you really want to get serious.

Rule #8: Get last year's camera for less

Point-and-shoot models are generally refreshed yearly, and improvements are usually incremental rather than dramatic. You can save a bundle by going for a year-old model, without sacrificing all that much in terms of functionality. If you can live without a few new features, and a slightly lesser spec, you could well be quids in. The same is true for camcorders of course, and a lot of consumer electronics. If you’re the type who has to have the absolute best, though, this advice probably won’t wash.

Okay, that’s all our rules covered, but we’ve one final point – some recommendations for good point-and-shoot models that you might want to consider.

Fujifilm X100S (£900)

Don't be fooled by the retro exterior of the Fujifilm X100S; it's a modern, full-featured digital camera. The X100S is quite simply an outstanding piece of equipment, but it's not one that is going to appeal to casual snappers. Pros who don't want to lug around a heavy D-SLR for personal shooting will appreciate its image quality and size, and rangefinder enthusiasts who can't afford a digital Leica will be drawn to its design and bright optical viewfinder. Its autofocus system is quick, and the fast lens and excellent high ISO performance will allow you to capture some seriously impressive images in low light.

Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS (£225)

The Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS is the best rugged camera that we've seen, and it's well worth your money unless you already own a TG-1(the previous model). Other than the increased depth rating and the addition of an aperture priority mode, the cameras are basically the same. If you need a camera that’s happy outdoors and can take knocks as well as pictures, here it is.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II (£570)

The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II packs a huge 1in image sensor into a point-and-shoot body, delivering close to SLR quality images, all from a camera you can fit in your back pocket. This model offers a few worthwhile upgrades over the already excellent RX100, including integrated Wi-Fi and a tilting rear LCD, but it comes in at a higher asking price (the RX100 can be had for £399 – so rule #8, get the older model, could come into play here).