You Don't Need an SLR to Upgrade from a Smartphone

Ask a photographer what type of camera will give you the best photos and they'll likely suggest an SLR or mirrorless model—but for many casual shooters they're just too bulky and complicated for day-to-day use. Most folks reach for their smartphone to snap images, and if you've got a modern flagship model you'll be very happy with what it delivers, especially if you opt for one with dual rear lenses.

But what if you want picture quality that's better than a smartphone? Or the versatility of a long optical zoom lens? You can still get a cheap compact camera, but we've been underwhelmed by models in the sub-$200 price range. They tend to use CCD image sensors, which don't do well in low light and have limited video capabilities. (If you're set on an inexpensive compact, the Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS is a good way to go, as long as you understand its limitations.)

Our recommendation is to prepare to spend a bit more on a compact camera, around a few hundred dollars if you simply want a model that offers a strong optical zoom range, and more if you're after a large sensor that delivers significant advantages in image quality.

You Get What You Pay For

It's in the premium price range—greater than $500—that we've seen quite a bit of growth in recent years, as the lower end of the market erodes. Manufacturers have moved to 1-inch class image sensors, many times larger than the tiny imagers in smartphones. The larger sensor size, often paired with a bright lens with a modest zoom range, delivers images that pop thanks to a blurred background, without sacrificing a pocketable form factor. It's also a big plus for low-light shooting.

Related Story See How We Test Digital Cameras

And there are options with larger than 1-inch sensors, including the Canon G1 X Mark II, the lone camera on the market with a 1.5-inch class sensor, and the Panasonic LX100, which sports an even larger Micro Four Thirds sensor—as big as one you'd find in a mirrorless camera—and a zoom lens.

Models with APS-C chips, the size you get with an SLR, typically feature lenses that don't zoom, as zooming designs simply eliminate any size advantage they'd enjoy versus a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses. The Fujifilm X100F and Ricoh GR II are our current favorites in this unique class.

For a look at every camera we've reviewed, and not just those that are easy to slip into your pocket, check out our Digital Cameras Product Guide. And for advice on getting the best shots, check out our 10 Quick Tips to Fix Your Bad Photos.

  • Fujifilm X100F Review

    MSRP: $1299.95
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    Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X100F is everything a premium compact camera should be, capturing SLR-quality images in a form factor that slides into your jacket pocket.

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  • Ricoh GR II Review

    MSRP: $699.95
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    Bottom Line: The Ricoh GR II is a modest update to many a photographer's favorite pocket camera, adding Wi-Fi and a few firmware tweaks.

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  • Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III Review

    MSRP: $799.99
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    Bottom Line: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III compact camera earns Editors' Choice accolades because of its image quality and excellent EVF, even despite its high price.

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  • Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS Review

    MSRP: $159.99
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    Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS doesn't offer as much as more expensive cameras, but it's the best choice if you're looking for an inexpensive point-and-shoot.

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  • Olympus Tough TG-5 Review

    MSRP: $449.99
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    Bottom Line: The Olympus Tough TG-5 is a go-anywhere camera with a fast lens, speedy response, and 4K video, but it's more expensive than previous iterations.

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  • Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II Review

    MSRP: $799.99
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    Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II fixes just about every fault of the original G1 X, but it's got some stiff competition for your dollar.

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  • Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II Review

    MSRP: $699.99
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    Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II is a pricey pocket camera with image quality that goes toe-to-toe with much larger models.

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  • Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II Review

    MSRP: $529.99
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    Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II camera is more responsive than its predecessor, and squeezes a big 1-inch sensor into a compact frame.

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  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 Review

    MSRP: $899.99
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    Bottom Line: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 is an ambitious compact camera with a big sensor, a wide-aperture lens, and 4K video recording, but it falls just short of top honors.

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  • Canon PowerShot SX530 HS Review

    MSRP: $429.99
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    Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot SX530 HS is a fairly compact superzoom camera with a 50x zoom lens, but it can be slow to focus when zoomed in all the way.

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