Five Features to Look for in an Advanced Compact Camera

Today I am going to post a version of an article I recently wrote about some of the main features to consider when you’re choosing an advanced compact camera.  I sent a shorter version of this article around to various web sites, a few of which posted it. It seemed like a logical article to write after having written a series of guide books for what are often called “advanced compact” cameras—that is, cameras that take excellent pictures and have advanced features, but are self-contained, small devices, as opposed to the more bulky DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) models and others that accept interchangeable lenses.

Here is the article:

Five Features to Look for in an Advanced Compact Camera

If you are looking for an advanced compact camera with excellent all-around features and  your choice is not being dictated by any particular need, there are a few factors that can help you narrow down the options to a manageable group.  Different photographers will have varied opinions about the critical factors to consider, but this is the list I rely on, and I hope it will help you in deciding which high-end compact camera to purchase.

I am including just five factors in this list, in the interest of simplicity. There are many other factors you could consider, but if you concentrate on these five, you will end up with a camera that is likely to produce great results in a wide variety of situations.  I am assuming you are starting your search by considering cameras in the broad range of advanced compacts, meaning all of the cameras under consideration should include manual focus, resolution of at least 10 megapixels, and the full range of PASM (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) exposure modes.

With that introduction, here is my list of features to look for.

1. Raw Format

With consumer-oriented cameras, there generally are two main image formats: Raw and JPEG. The more common format is JPEG, an acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group, which establishes standard file formats for image capture.  JPEG files, which usually have a file extension of .jpg when saved to a computer disk, are compressed digitally so the image information can be saved in a minimum of disk space. This compression results in a loss of image quality, though the technology is sophisticated enough to minimize that loss.

Apart from the reduction in quality, though, a major issue with JPEG files is that the camera internally processes the sensor data and creates a final image that includes the camera’s decisions about matters such as exposure level, white balance, sharpness, contrast, and dynamic range. These decisions are essentially “baked” into the JPEG file. You can make some changes to the image using Photoshop or other software, but the changes you can make are limited.

With the Raw format, the situation is dramatically different. The camera takes in the “raw” data that comes to the sensor and saves it in a largely unprocessed format without making its own decisions about exposure, white balance, sharpness, and the like. Then, when you work with the Raw file on your computer, you have a wide range of opportunities to alter the image. For example, if the image was taken with too narrow an aperture, resulting in an overly dark appearance, you can alter the exposure level using the software and end up with a properly exposed photograph. Or, if the white balance on the camera was set for daylight when the image was captured under incandescent light, resulting in an overly red picture, you can change the white balance setting in the Raw software, and the image will look just as it would have if you had used the proper white balance setting when you shot the picture.

For example, I took Figure 1 using a camera that does not offer the Raw image format.

Figure 1 - Raw Format Illustration - Nikon Coolpix P520 as Taken

Figure 1

I purposely set the exposure level too low and set the white balance to the setting for daylight, when the actual light source was incandescent bulbs. As you can see, the resulting JPEG file is considerably underexposed and has a distinct reddish tint because of the incorrect white balance setting.


For Figure 2, I used a Panasonic Lumix LX7 camera, which does offer Raw shooting.  I used the same improper settings for this photo as for the first one, and the image initially looked just like that first shot. However, I then opened up the Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw software and used that program to reset the exposure to a brighter level and to reset the white balance setting for incandescent light.  In this case, the result looks the way it would have if I had used the correct settings to begin with.

Figure 2

Figure 2

In other words, with the Raw format, you have a considerable ability to “go back in time” and fix problems with the original capture of every image. This ability is not unlimited, but it provides you with a great margin for error in your shooting, and with great flexibility in the post-processing of your still photos.



2. Sensor Size

The heart of a digital camera is its image sensor, a small rectangular component that takes the role that film plays in film-based models. There are several characteristics of sensors that can be considered, such as their construction and the arrangement of the photosites on the sensor that actually receive and process light rays. The only factor I am discussing here is the size of the sensor.

The basic rule is simple: larger sensors yield greater image quality, because the camera has more space to include megapixels, and the individual pixels that make up the image can be larger than the pixels that are crammed into the limited space on a smaller sensor. Apart from image quality, though, having a larger sensor means that the camera can readily produce an image with selective focus, using the blurred background or “bokeh” effect. It often is desirable to take a shot in which the foreground subject is in sharp focus while the background is pleasantly defocused, thereby emphasizing the main subject. If you use a camera with a small sensor, it can be difficult to achieve this effect.

For example, Figure 3 was taken with a camera phone.

Figure 3

Figure 3

The image has good overall quality, but, because of the very small sensor in this device, the camera has a broad depth of field, and the background is hardly blurred at all.

Now look at Figure 4, taken with the Sony DSC-RX100, which has a large APS-C size sensor. In this case, the background is substantially blurred because the large sensor provides the shallow depth of field that is necessary to achieve the “bokeh” effect.

Figure 4

Figure 4







The largest sensor available in a consumer-level camera is the “full-frame” sensor, which is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Very few compact cameras use the full-frame sensor.  The only one I am aware of is the Sony DSC-RX1, which has a retail price of about $2,800.00. Several compact models use the next-largest sensor size, referred to as APS-C. Those models include the Leica X2, the Fujifilm X100S, and the Nikon Coolpix A. Several of these cameras retail for more than $1,000.00.

One difficulty in choosing a camera by sensor size is that there is no simple specification by which sensors are classified; the industry rates sensor sizes using an arcane and outdated system based on the sizes of television tubes. I recommend that you use the actual dimensions of the sensor, as listed in the camera’s specifications. A full-frame sensor is 24mm by 36mm; the smallest is about 3mm by 4mm.  The APS-C size is about 15.7mm by 23.7mm, though there are some variations within this category. A “large” size sensor may measure about 9.6mm by 12.8mm.  A good, medium-range camera may have a sensor of about 5.5mm by 7.4mm.  If possible, I recommend choosing a camera with a sensor of that size or greater.

3. Widest Aperture Setting

A camera’s aperture, designated in f-stops, is a measure of the width of the opening that lets in light to create the image.  If other factors are equal, the wider the maximum aperture, the better.  The lower the f-stop number, the wider the aperture. A maximum aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4 is considered very wide, but many cameras have a widest aperture of f/2.8 or f/3.0.

The ability to use a very wide aperture means you can shoot with a shallow depth of field, thereby achieving the desirable “bokeh” effect, as you can with a larger image sensor.  A wide-aperture lens also lets in more light, meaning you can use faster shutter speeds than you could otherwise, thereby stopping action when necessary. It also lets you shoot better images when lighting is dim.

Figure 5 is a close-up shot of pink azaleas using the widest aperture available on the Nikon Coolpix P520, which is f/3.0.

Figure 5

Figure 5

In this shot, the green trees and other parts of the background are somewhat blurred, but still are relatively sharp, because that maximum aperture is not very wide.


Figure 6, on the other hand, was shot from the same position with a Sony DSC-RX100 using that model’s widest aperture of f/1.8. In this case, the background is substantially blurred, creating a more pleasing effect that emphasizes the sharp focus on the azaleas in the foreground.


Figure 6

Figure 6

If possible, I recommend you choose a camera with a maximum aperture no less than f/2.0. (That is, the lowest f-stop number should be no higher than 2.0.)

4. Maximum Wide-Angle Focal Length

Camera makers often emphasize the telephoto power of their zoom lenses, using terms such as “30 times optical zoom” to describe a lens whose focal length extends from, say, 28mm to 840mm, for a 30-times zoom range. I don’t so often see companies boast about the wide-angle end of the range. But having a strong wide-angle focal length can be of great value in several situations.

For example, when you are photographing a large group of people, if you don’t have a good wide-angle capability you may have to stand back a long way to be able to get them all in the frame. It may not always be possible to stand back that far. Or, if you are taking pictures indoors and want to include the contents of a room, it can be difficult to get the whole scene in your image unless you have a good wide-angle range. You also may need a wide view when you photograph landscapes, buildings, and other large expanses of real estate or scenery.

Many cameras have a wide-angle range starting at 28mm or higher. There are also quite a few models whose widest focal length is 24mm. Although that 4mm difference does not sound like a lot, it can make a considerable difference in practical terms when you need to include a wide view of a scene in your image.

For example, in Figure 7, I took a picture of a three-window display in a nature park, but could not fit all three windows into the image with the lens set to the 28mm focal length.

Figure 7

Figure 7

When I set the lens to its full wide-angle setting of 24mm, though, I was able to include the complete set of display windows in the image, as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8

Figure 8

So, unless you are certain you will not need that capability, I recommend you look for a camera that can zoom out as wide as 24mm.


5. Continuous (Burst) Shooting

With film cameras, continuous shooting is largely limited to photojournalists and others who need to fire rapid bursts and can afford to pay for the special equipment that is needed, not to mention the costs of purchasing and processing extra-long rolls of film. With some digital cameras, without added cost, you can capture bursts of high-quality shots at speeds around 10 to 12 frames per second, or at super speeds of more than 100 frames per second, though at lower quality.

If you aren’t in the habit of shooting images at baseball or soccer games, you might not see a need for burst shooting. But, because it does not cost any more than taking single shots, this capability is one you should consider for everyday situations. For example, in taking a portrait, with a burst of 5 or 10 shots you have a better chance of getting one image with just the perfect expression on the subject’s face, or with just the right angle of sunlight falling on the person’s hair. And, with children at play, taking a burst can help you catch the perfect moment of interaction between playmates.

Figure 9 contains a series of continuous shots I took while trying to catch a good view of a blue jay that was flitting around in a tree. I held down the shutter and kept shooting in burst mode; several shots caught the bird hidden behind branches, but the last shot finally got a good, mostly unobstructed view of the elusive bird.

Figure 9

Figure 9


My recommendation is to look for a camera with the ability to shoot at least 5 frames per second in a burst of at least 5 shots, using its full image size and quality.



If you use these five factors to concentrate your search for an advanced compact camera, you should end up with a sophisticated and versatile tool for excellent image-making.

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