Smartphone cameras continue to improve, but they still haven't quite caught up to cheap digital cameras in terms of features and quality. Many frugal consumers also haven't sprung for a smartphone with the latest and greatest camera technology or simply prefer to use a dedicated device worthy of preserving treasured memories. Amateur shutterbugs don't have to spend much to pack this extra piece of electronic gear in a purse or pocket. Our research found several "point-and-shoot" digital cameras that deliver posterity-worthy shots and loads of useful features for less than $200 -- in fact, most are closer to the $150 mark.
Choosing a Cheap Digital Camera
Professional and ambitious amateur photographers opt for more expensive digital single-lens reflex cameras. DSLRs boast larger image sensors, interchangeable lenses, and more bells and whistles than most casual users need. These heftier models generally cost about four times as much as a cheap compact digital camera.
For those who simply want better quality pictures than a cellphone can capture, many of the same brands that serve the upscale DSLR market, including Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Fujifilm, also sell pocket-size point-and-shoots for travel or carrying around day to day. The real strong point of cheap digital cameras -- besides the price -- is their simplicity. Consumers buying a budget point-and-shoot probably don't want to worry about the finer points of good photo composition. They simply want to, well, point and shoot. All the models we researched have myriad preset shooting modes and convenient aids designed to take a lot of the guesswork out of composing photos.
Our top choice among compact digital cameras is the Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS (starting at $205). Although it costs a hair over $200, this camera is a versatile all-around performer that can shoot better, often faster, photos than most of its cheap competitors and packs in a few extra perks. Following close behind is the Nikon Coolpix A300 (starting at $137). It struggles a bit more with speed and low-light image quality, but photos generally turn out well and the price is certainly lower. The older and relatively stripped down Sony DSC-W830 (starting at $118) is the smallest and lightest of the bunch. It generally takes sharp photos but snaps a blurry shot once in a while.
Although Canon generally makes very good cameras, sometimes its budget models fall short of the mark. The Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS (starting at $160) presents one such case. According to reviewers, many of the camera's features feel outdated, especially for the price, and the photo quality is lacking.
Waterproof and Rugged Cameras.It's safe to hazard that most cellphone owners have suffered a cracked screen or submersion accident. With that in mind, one of the best reasons to buy a dedicated picture-taking device is that some cameras can go places a phone shouldn't. With reinforced or waterproof casings, they're made to endure rough adventures or go in the water when users are swimming, boating, or even snorkeling along island shores. They offer varying degrees of protection in the great outdoors -- or in clumsy hands indoors. Waterproofing allows families to capture every moment of a vacation on "film," especially those unique underwater experiences.
Budget shoppers can choose from a variety of "tough" or "rugged cameras," as they're called. Waterproof digital cameras have dropped in price so that even frugal shoppers can afford them, but just keep in mind that there's usually some degree of image quality that must be sacrificed in the service of increased durability. Our top pick for a cheap waterproof digital camera is the Fujifilm FinePix XP90 (staring at $156). It's relatively speedy and waterproof to 50 feet -- and shockproof, freezeproof, and dustproof to boot. For many reviewers, the affordable ruggedness more than makes up for less impressive image quality. The Nikon Coolpix W100 (starting at $157) has a slightly lower water-resistance rating, at 33 feet, and several other basic features that lag behind competitors'. But this new release from Nikon should satisfy consumers looking for a tough family camera that even the kids can use. The previous version, the Nikon S33, was a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon, and with the addition of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC connections, the Coolpix W100 is likely to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor.
Another model that's especially nice for adventurers but a bit outside our price range is the Olympus Tough TG-870 (starting at $279). While the two models above can withstand a drop of about 6 feet, this camera adds another foot to its comfort zone and claims to be crushproof up to 220 pounds of pressure. The less expensive cameras also have their share of focusing foibles, while the Olympus TG-870 is said to produce sharp, clear pictures both underwater and on dry land.
Instant Cameras.Stripped-down "instant" cameras aren't necessarily viable competitors to the best cheap digital cameras, but they offer a simple way to capture the moment, along with immediate gratification. The Polaroid Snap (starting at $90) also one-ups the Polaroids of yesteryear: It can instantly produce those classic "party shots" for passing around while also storing digital copies on a memory card to view, print, and share later.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Digital Camera Reviews: What We Considered
When conducting our research, we consulted reviews by camera and consumer product experts as well as everyday users. Most inexpensive digital cameras get a mix of positive and negative feedback. When it comes to performance, image quality is king, and unfortunately most digital cameras under $200 abdicate that throne. It's certainly possible to snap great-looking photos with a cheap digital camera, but doing so consistently can be tricky. Generally budget cameras require a lot of light and a still subject to take an ideal photo. Most struggle in darker settings and with fast-moving subjects. Still, under the right conditions, our top picks can snap colorful, sharp, vivid photos without a lot of fuss.
Resolution.Today's budget digital cameras almost always have resolutions of 14 to 20 megapixels -- which, truth be told, is more than most users need. A sharp-looking 8x10 photo requires only about 5MP. At a resolution of 10MP, users can dramatically increase a photo's size while retaining sharp detail.
With an expensive camera like a DSLR, experts say the size and type of the image sensor, as well as the lens, matter a lot more than the number of megapixels. But the sensors on cheap compact cameras tend to be similarly small (although the type and technology differ), so those with higher resolution may offer better image quality in general. That's why manufacturers are packing more and more megapixels onto the tiny sensors in low-priced cameras (although there's a point at which too many megapixels may prove a drawback).
It's not surprising, then, that among our picks, the Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS, Nikon Coolpix A300, and Sony DSC-W830 -- all of which tout about 20MP -- are said to produce the most pleasing pictures. The resolution is one thing that's typically pared down on "tough" models. Although the 16.4MP Fujifilm FinePix XP90 has more megapixels -- and better overall image quality -- than the Nikon Coolpix W100, experts say its pictures tend to be less sharp than some other cameras'.
There are clearly other factors that influence photo quality, however. This is evident in critiques that pictures taken with the Sony DSC-W830 are hit or miss, and the 20MP Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS doesn't achieve the same regard as our top picks with the same resolution. For example, a reviewer for Steve's Digicams says the colors in photos taken with the PowerShot Elph 190 IS are inconsistent.
ISO Settings.Digital camera reviews tend to talk a lot about a camera's image quality at different ISO settings. Changing the ISO makes the camera more or less sensitive to light. Budget cameras can typically be set to 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO, and most of our top picks can reach levels as high as ISO 3200. The higher the number, the less light needed to take a properly exposed photo and the better the camera can capture shots in dark settings. The Fujifilm FinePix XP90 and the Olympus Tough TG-870, which sport back-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensors purported to capture more light, can go as high as ISO 6400. But there's a tradeoff, especially in budget cameras: Photos snapped at higher ISO settings tend to look "noisy" or grainy and may display other distortions known as digital artifacts. The images also may look more washed out than photos taken in bright light. While you can try to always keep the camera on a low ISO setting, don't expect to take a sharp picture in a poorly lit room with the ISO set to 100.
Image Stabilization.In general, photos taken indoors are likely to wind up blurrier. To take pictures without a tripod or a flash in low light, you need a camera with image stabilization to minimize the blurring effect of unsteady hands or a moving subject. Optical image stabilization used to be pretty rare in budget models, which relied on digital tricks to reduce blurring in photos. Now the feature is commonplace and shows up in all the point-and-shoot digital cameras included in this guide.
Optical Zoom.One of the biggest boons of a compact camera over a cellphone camera is the ability to capture shots from a distance. There are often two types of zoom listed in the specs for a digital camera: optical and digital. Optical zoom is the one to note. Digital zoom is basically the same technology used by cellphones and doesn't preserve image quality; instead, it simply enlarges the individual pixels in a photo, making it less clear and crisp.
Many cheap digital cameras can magnify an image at least five times, but that number is ever climbing higher. The Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS has the highest zoom among our top picks (and within the Canon PowerShot Elph family) at 12x. While the newly released budget Nikon Coolpix A300 has only 8x optical zoom, the next step up in the A-series, the A900 with 35x zoom, costs upward of $200 more. However, unlike with Canon, there's a happy medium for potential Nikon Coolpix customers who want to multiply the zoom without multiplying the price. Although it lies just outside our Cheapism price range, the older Coolpix S7000 (starting at $237) offers 20x optical zoom and good image stabilization. While it packs fewer megapixels than the new A-series models, at 16MP, the Coolpix S7000 is said to produce great-looking, colorful outdoor photos.
Shutter Speed.Shutter speed determines how long the shutter remains open while the camera takes a photo. Less bright conditions require a slow shutter speed, while a faster shutter speed requires more light. A shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second is typical for most photos. When it comes to budget point-and shoot cameras, there's not a lot of variation with respect to shutter speeds. They generally have ranges that fall within 4 seconds to 1/2000th of a second. Given the limited differences, this isn't a setting the average shopper needs to worry about too much, but it is worth noting given that the ability to operate at faster shutter speeds makes some cameras slightly better equipped than others to freeze moving figures. The somewhat pricier Nikon Coolpix S7000 mentioned above can achieve speeds up to 1/4000th of a second. The slowest camera on our list of picks is the Sony DSC-W830, which has a maximum speed of 1/1600th of a second.
Continuous Shooting Speed.A continuous shooting mode lets you hold down the shutter button and snap several pictures in a row. It's a nice feature to have when shooting action shots. Some cameras, as you'd expect, shoot these series faster than others, at "burst rates" measured in frames per second (fps). For example, the Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS can snap photos at a maximum speed of 7.2 fps. The Fujifilm FinePix XP90 shoots at a speedy 10 fps, the fastest burst rate of all the cameras we reviewed -- even the more expensive models. At the other end of the spectrum, while it has many other strong suits, the shooting speed of the Nikon Coolpix A300 is an unimpressive 1.1 fps. Both the Sony DSC-W830 and the Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS, our "Think Twice" pick, can manage only .80 fps.
Shooting Modes.One area where budget point-and-shoots really shine is their simplicity. Digital cameras have become very easy to use, with automatic settings that eliminate the need for any tinkering. Preset shooting modes give images a little extra oomph and take some of the guesswork out of shooting nice-looking photos. Sunning at the beach? Watching a burst of fireworks? Chasing after a frisky pet? All our top picks have automatic modes that adjust shutter speed, light sensitivity, and color balance to suit a variety of occasions and venues, from portraits to landscapes and even food photography. The waterproof Fujifilm FinePix XP90 and Nikon Coolpix W100 have additional shooting modes for underwater photos. Cameras also have several white-balance settings users can tweak for daylight, cloudy, and indoor shots.
Almost all digital cameras have nearly identical shooting modes, so this shouldn't factor too heavily into the buying decision, although some users might find the in-camera editing options included on the Nikon Coolpix W100 particularly fun to play around with. They include Add Makeup, Add Starbursts, Decorate, and Make Photo Albums.
LCD Screen.LCDs have largely replaced viewfinders on digital cameras as a way to frame an image before capturing it. Most digital camera screens measure about 2.7 to 3 inches, so you don't need a magnifying lens to see what's in the frame.
Images should be visible on a camera screen both indoors and out, although bright sun can make an LCD hard to see. Digital camera screens have resolutions measured in dots. The higher the resolution, the sharper images appear on the LCD. The screens on most of the models we looked at in our digital camera comparison have resolutions of 230K dots. The Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS boasts 461K dots, and the display on the Fujifilm FinePix XP90 has an impressive 920K dots -- which makes it even better suited for its intended outdoor and underwater usage. The pricier Olympus Tough TG-870 features a screen that can flip upward to allow more views of the action and better selfies.
HD Video.Digital cameras usually can record video as well as snap photos. The best point-and-shoot cameras record video in full high definition (1080p) at up to 60 frames per second. Many budget cameras, though, record video in 720p -- still HD quality but not quite as sharp as 1080p HD -- and often only at 30 fps. Three of the cameras on our list of top picks record at 1080p: the Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS, the Fujifilm FinePix XP90, and the Nikon Coolpix W100. The Olympus Tough TG-870 and Nikon Coolpix S7000, both outside our Cheapism price range, also can shoot in 1080p.
Wireless Connections.Wireless support is commonplace on higher-end models and is becoming the norm on budget cameras, as well -- especially as consumers look to quickly and easily share pictures with family and friends via mobile devices and social media. Wi-Fi and wireless connections via Bluetooth, NFC, or other proprietary linking systems also make printing photos a quicker process. All our top picks, with the exception of the Sony DSC-W830, which is a slightly older camera, support Wi-Fi at the very least.
The Canon and Nikon models are the most capable in terms of connectivity, although the Fujifilm FinePix XP90 has a feature they lack: geotagging. Another technology that's starting to catch on in digital cameras, geolocation capabilities equip cameras to automatically embed images with information on where pictures were taken. There's also GPS on the Olympus Tough TG-870, which makes sense for a camera meant for trekking out-of-doors and around the globe.
While GPS functionality and Wi-Fi support are nice features, they have no effect on image quality and aren't make-or-break options for most budget shoppers. Consumers who insist on skipping the few extra steps required to upload images via a memory card or cable are cut off from a range of respectable choices, like the Sony model we picked (which does accept Eye-Fi memory cards that provide Wi-Fi accessibility).
Memory.A photo snapped at 16MP can easily use up a few dozen megabytes on a memory card, depending on the file type. However, most budget cameras have little, if any, built-in memory. Most of those we reviewed max out around 20 megabytes. Again, a notable exception is the Fujifilm FinePix XP90, which has 95MB of internal memory -- a handy feature given the imagined disappointment of a vacationer about to snap the perfect shot of some elusive underwater fish, only to find no storage available.
We also found an uncommonly large internal memory cache on another rugged camera we researched, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30 (starting at $148), with 220MB of onboard memory. Although this model missed our list of recommended choices and lacks Wi-Fi, it may be worth a second look for adventure travelers. It also boasts an LED "torchlight," in addition to the built-in flash, to provide a continuous light source when attempting to capture images in murky water or outdoors in the dark -- think campfires and caves.
Along with a digital camera, experts at Photography Review recommend buying a memory card that holds at least 1 gigabyte of data. Most budget digital cameras, including the ones featured here, accept SD (secure digital), SDHC (secure digital high-capacity), or SDXC (secure digital extended capacity) cards. The Sony DSC-W830 also accepts the brand's Memory Stick format. The Polaroid Snap digital-instant hybrid takes microSD cards, like those that go in a smartphone, instead of full-size SD cards. Memory cards are generally cheap enough nowadays that it's worth buying at least two. A 32GB SDHC memory card can be picked up on Amazon for about $13, and that's more than enough memory for most users. (For a simple guide to the types of memory cards and recommended speeds, look to Digital Photography School.)