The defining characteristic of a point-and-shoot camera is that it has a single, non-detachable lens. Modern point-and-shoots capture both still pictures and videos, and vary from inexpensive, fully-automatic subcompacts that easily slip into a pocket, to larger premium models with more manual controls and better image quality, but which may require more input from the user.
Types of Point-and-Shoot Cameras
Basic point-and-shoot cameras typically cost $75-$350. They are simple to use and good for everyday events such as family gatherings, but image quality can be mediocre, especially in low light. Most new models shoot high-definition video and have several automatic modes (i.e., portrait, landscape, soft focus, etc.).
Rugged point-and-shoot cameras typically cost $100-$500, and are usually waterproof, freeze-proof, drop-proof and/or dustproof. Unlike basic point-and-shoot cameras in which the lens slides out when the camera is turned on in shooting mode, the lens on a rugged point-and-shoot camera stays put, making it easier and safer to slide it into a pocket or backpack. They are great for rough-and-tumble activities, but image quality varies by model and some have a limited number of features.
Superzoom point-and-shoot cameras typically cost $200-$500 and are bulkier than basic models. However, they do combine a relatively small size with the ability to zoom in on distant objects (up to 42X zoom on some models) or to capture wide-angle scenery, making them a good choice for vacation photos, sporting events or everyday use as a one-size-fits-all camera. Also called megazooms or ultrazooms, superzooms have more manual settings than basic or rugged models, giving users more control.
Advanced point-and-shoot cameras typically cost $400-$900. They usually have higher image quality than most point-and-shoots and many manual controls that override the preset modes to give the user more control. They may also offer a hot shoe for an external flash, and/or support for RAW (large, non-compressed) image files. Advanced points-and-shoots are smaller and lighter than lens-changing digital single lens reflex cameras or DSLR-like compact system cameras, and can be a way to learn to use manual controls.
A digital camera uses a sensor to capture light and convert it into pixels. CCD (analog) sensors have traditionally provided the highest image quality, but can be more expensive and power-hungry than the CMOS (semiconductor-based) sensors found on most point-and-shoot cameras. Most experts say there is no clear winner between the two in terms of image quality.
Sensor size does matter. Squeezing more megapixels onto a small sensor doesn't improve image quality; if a 10 MP camera and a 16 MP camera both have the same size sensor, the 16 MP camera will probably have more visual noise (colored specs in the photos) and its images will be less clear and crisp than those from the 10-MP camera.
Point-and-shoot camera sensors are measured as a ratio, which is not easy to interpret. Most are 1/2.3" when measured diagonally; a few may be larger, with a ratio of about 1/1.7" or even bigger, but these tend to be more expensive.
A zoom lens lets the user focus on a distant object or get a close-up of a nearby subject. An optical zoom (in the lens) or a mechanical zoom (in the camera body) are generally more effective and more expensive than a digital zoom, which simply magnifies the center of the picture frame without increasing the amount of detail.
Basic points-and-shoots typically have a 3X to 10X optical zoom. Superzoom point-and-shoots (also called megazoom or ultrazoom) can be 10X to 40X or more -- but be aware that many manufacturers list "extended zoom" or "simulated zoom" ratings, which combine the camera's optical and digital zoom capabilities.
Getting a high-quality image requires selecting the best combination of three camera settings: aperture, the ratio of the lens opening to the camera's area of focus when the shutter button is pressed; ISO, which is how sensitive the sensor is to light; and shutter speed, or how long light is allowed to enter the camera.
A point-and-shoot camera's preset modes (i.e., landscape, sports, night, etc.) automatically choose settings designed to make the entire photo as clear as possible, so it isn't necessary to understand these terms. However, knowing the range of available settings on a particular model can indicate how effective it might be at taking good pictures in less-than-optimal conditions.
If an automatic camera senses there isn't enough light to take a quality photo, it might choose a slower shutter speed (which can blur a moving subject) or open up the aperture (which may create a shallow depth of field). If the camera doesn't have a fast enough shutter speed or a low aperture setting to choose from, it might switch to a higher ISO, which can result in more visual noise. Some point-and-shoots let the user manually choose one or more settings to override the camera's automatic modes.
Startup Time, Shutter Lag, Continuous Shooting
Point-and-shoots vary in how long they take to power up, how long the autofocus system takes to be ready to capture a crisp and well-focused photo, and the recovery time between shots. Less expensive cameras may have longer startup and shutter lag times, but it varies. These factors are best evaluated by picking up a specific model and clicking a few pictures.
One indication of shutter lag time on camera specification sheets is the burst mode or continuous shooting count, which indicates the number of shots the camera takes in rapid-fire succession when the shutter button is held down. For sports or action photography, look for a camera with a continuous shooting speed of at least three shots per second.