Dedicated cameras simply record photos that are clearer, more vivid, and better lit, particularly at sunset and in other low-light conditions. You’ll have more control over exposure and focal length (which determines whether you have that lovely blurred background or keep the scenery crisp) and have better macro for close-up shots. And when it comes to capturing landscapes, you can use actual, optical zoom – which is entirely different from the digital zoom that most smartphones employ, where you essentially crop the photo without truly “zooming in.”
Which brings us to the next point. You’ll see us discuss the size of sensors, which process all the light, colors, and information that a camera captures into photos. (A basic rule: bigger is better.) We also mention aperture, which controls exposure, or how much light is let in, because that plays a huge part in clarity and detail.
Below, we’ve rounded up some excellent cameras that can do a lot for less than $200 – plus two more for people who might want to invest a little more. Because we’re looking for a bargain, many of the models are about two years old. But if you’re open to refurbished or even secondhand purchases, more recent models won’t cost you too much more.
Beginner Basics with Room to Grow
Canon Powershot S110: $209
It wouldn’t be fair to call this camera a starter camera and leave it at that, but that’s what we love about it. Yes, beginners will appreciate its speed, quick dial access, touchscreen focus, and myriad preset modes. But full manual control also makes this camera one you can grow into and keep for years. For indoor candids and food shots, the camera’s large sensor and bright, wide angle lenses (1/1.7, f2, 24mm) help it outperform similar cameras in lower light settings. Film lovers, on the other hand, enjoy slo-mo recording options and the nifty Movie Digest feature, which creates a highlight reel of clips and stills from the day.
Wet ‘n Wild
Panasonic Lumix TS4: $195
This machine is an older version of Panasonic’s Tough series, and like its more expensive cousins, it certainly deserves its name. As popular for snorkeling as it is for skiing or extreme mountain climbing, the camera is waterproof up to 40 feet underwater* as well as drop-proof up to 6.6 feet, freeze-proof up to 14 Fahrenheit, and generally dust proof. More importantly, it boasts truer colors and less noise than other cameras at this price range, many of which record harsh colors or process details poorly. Nice extras include GPS functionality, 4.6x optical zoom, and HD video recording.
*Cautionary note: Waterproof cameras don’t always perform as advertised beyond a certain depth, particularly for a prolonged length of time. If you’re a serious diver, you’ll need additional protective cases (which unfortunately have price tags in the hundreds) or be prepared to switch out cameras in a year or two.
Zoom, Zoom, Zoom
Canon PowerShot SX280: $189
Again, here’s one category in which smartphone cameras still aren’t even close to many point-and-shoots. Great for landscapes and cityscapes alike, this camera’s 20x optical zoom is among the longest you’ll find in a similarly compact body. Techy features include wifi and GPS capabilities for the social media-inclined, plus video recording, and Canon’s new Digic 6 image processor, which helps with noise reduction. (For even more zoom, so long as you don’t mind the extra volume, the SX510 boasts 30x optical zoom at a similar price point.)
Olympus Stylus XZ-1: $199
For travelers who are keen on going a significant step above iPhoneography, here’s a camera that can just about do it all. Open up the aperture to f1.8 for gorgeous portraits and sharp food shots, take advantage of the fast lens to capture the action on the streets, or switch to video to capture a short film. It’s on the slightly bulky side, but its larger 1/1.7 sensor is responsible for great detail and low lighting performance. And with a longer battery life than its competitors, this baby won’t be dying out on you halfway through the day.
Bells & Whistles
Nikon Coolpix P330: $200
Love fancy accoutrements like HD video, GPS, panorama shooting, and even 3D photo modes? Nikon’s Coolpix P330 delivers all these fancy extras on top of a nice, large sensor. While wifi capability isn’t built-in, it’s easy to hook up an adapter (for an additional $50 or so). With a wide aperture that stops down to f/1.8 and solid 5x zoom, you won’t sacrifice quality for creativity. The only drawback seems to be that it is notably slower than its current competitors, but you can’t have everything while keeping the size small and the costs low.
Samsung WB800F: $165
This camera is worth considering if you have an incurable itch to share your photos with friends and family ASAP. Samsung’s long mastered easy wifi, and the performance is solid for the price. The sensor is larger than that of most smartphones, the 21x optical zoom is impressive, and you get a little more control. You will have to do a little more wrangling for photos that you can truly call great, but it’s still superior to, say, the newest iPhone, and it’ll certainly be a good smartphone companion.
Bonus: An Additional Small Step Up
Panasonic Lumix LX5: $299
A favorite among many food and home bloggers, this camera is a serious contender if not a slight winner over the Canon S110 that we also feature here, with the same levels of full control. Unfortunately, its more vivid colors, closer macro, and better auto white balance puts it just beyond our price limit. Especially if you love filming your trips, though, this one’s worth a second thought – its video quality beats both that of the S110 and Olympus XZ-1 (chosen as our Do-It-All affordable camera).
Bonus: A Bigger Talk-of-the-Town Upgrade
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 ($479)
For the “prosumerist” who’s interested in stretching their budget, Sony took the compact camera world by storm with its RX100. Like others before it, the camera boasts the famed Zeiss lens, a bright aperture (f1.8), and nice ISO range. What’s truly new and impressive? That it packs a huge one-inch sensor, which means possibly the most brilliant colors and best low-light performance that’ll actually fit into your pocket. The sensor, nearly double the size of most point-and-shoots, actually makes it closer to “mirrorless” cameras that compete with traditional DSLRs today.