Smartphone cameras are getting better and better every year, and while no one would argue DSLRs are the best choice for serious photography, smartphones have made middle-of-the-road point-and-shoots all the more rare in people’s arsenals. But there are still a few areas in which point-and-shoot cameras are superior to the phone in your pocket.
Point and Shoots Save Your Phone’s Battery Life & Storage
Taking lots of photos and videos doesn’t do wonders for your phone’s battery life or storage space. If those two things are important to you, having a dedicated point-and-shoot camera can take that load off your phone.
If you have a 64GB iPhone or an Android device with a microSD card slot, storage probably isn’t a huge worry, but there’s plenty of other stuff that you’re cramming onto your phone, like apps, games, music, and more.
Furthermore, when you’re constantly opening up the camera app and snapping pics, your battery life takes a hit, especially when you start rolling video. Many users already have issues trying to last a whole day without recharging their phones, and taking photos and videos only makes that worse—especially when you’re traveling, which is when most people really go nuts with their cameras. Packing the extra camera is worth it so your batteries don’t die before dinner.
If You Need to Zoom In
The ability to zoom in and out is one of the biggest differences between smartphone cameras and point-and-shoots. Yes, you can still zoom in and out with smartphone cameras, but it’s a digital zoom rather than an optical zoom, and that difference is critical.
Point-and-shoot cameras use optical zoom, which is when the lens of the camera physically moves forward to zoom in without degrading the quality. Smartphone cameras, however, use the phone’s software to zoom in, which is no different than cropping a photo and enlarging it—it makes the picture rather grainy and pixellated.
The image comparison above shows off this flaw. The figurine in the first photo (from the iPhone 6s) is pretty blotchy, while the other two are much clearer—the last photo from the Canon G7X being the best looking. The figurine was about six feet away from the camera, so zooming in provides more detail and fills the frame well.
Below is another example of zooming in with point-and-shoot cameras compared to smartphones:
You can see that the first picture is much blurrier than the other two, because it’s using digital zoom instead of optical zoom.
Now, a few smartphones—including the iPhone 7 Plus—include a second “telephoto” lens that zooms in twice as close to your subject, but most phones do not. Furthermore, most point-in-shoot cameras can zoom in way farther than the 7 Plus’ 2x—even the cheaper cameras, like this $160 Canon model, can have 10x optical zoom.
You Want More Control Over Your Photos
Most cheaper point-and-shoot cameras don’t come with a lot of manual controls, like a DSLR does. Most only let you change the ISO and exposure, and things like shutter speed and aperture are permanently set to automatic. However, spending a little more can get you a point-and-shoot camera that not only takes better photos, but also comes with full manual controls if that’s something you’re interested in. The Canon S110 is a great example, and a used model can be had for less than $200 on eBay.
Of course, there are a lot of third-party apps that you can download to your smartphone that give you more control, like Camera+ for iPhone or Camera FV-5 for Android. But their user interfaces aren’t extremely intuitive, whereas point-and-shoot cameras that have manual controls have interfaces and physical controls specifically for that use.
Plus, these camera apps still don’t let you have full manual control, since you can’t change the aperture. Even with older cameras like the S110, you will get more control, including other modes like shutter priority and aperture priority.
You Want Better Quality Photos, Especially in Low Light
When it comes to overall image quality, a huge factor is the camera’s sensor size—the larger the sensor is, the better photos the camera can take, theoretically. And most point-and-shoot cameras have larger sensors than smartphone cameras (as you can see from the above image, taken from this great tool at CameraImageSensor.com).
Camera sensors are used to record the information that comes through the camera lens to produce an image, and the larger the sensor is, the more information that can be gathered, thus producing better quality images. They’re also better for most low-light situations, although many newer smartphone cameras are getting better at that.
In the photos below, you can see that the iPhone 6s produces more noise when there’s less light, whereas the other two photos have very little noise.
The Canon S110’s sensor is almost twice as large as the sensor on the iPhone 6, 6s, and 7. Furthermore, if you were to spend a bit more money on an even nicer point-and-shoot camera, like the original Sony RX100 (which you can buy used for well under $300 on eBay), the one-inch sensor in that camera is three times larger than that of the iPhone.
Where Your Smartphone’s Camera Excels
While point-and-shoot cameras can be better than smartphone cameras, that doesn’t mean they’re better in every situation, and there are many times when a smartphone is still the best choice.
For starters, your smartphone camera can take basic photos really well. If you don’t need to zoom in or do anything crazy other than just snapping a basic pic, your smartphone’s camera is perfect for that. There are many ways you can take some really great photos with your phone, but most people just need to capture a moment and be done with it.
As you can see in the above photos, there’s very little difference between the three, other than the post-processing that the iPhone does to automatically correct colors, white balance, saturation, and more—you’d have to do this in a photo editor manually when using a point-and-shoot camera. (Some may prefer that, but for most people, the iPhone does a pretty good job).
Furthermore, many people just don’t want to carry around a second device everywhere they go, no matter how compact a point-and-shoot camera might be. If you don’t normally carry around a purse or a bag of some sort, finding a place to comfortably pocket a standalone camera can be difficult and somewhat annoying for some users. The best camera is the one you have with you, and that’s why smartphones have become so common as people’s main cameras.
Which Point-and-Shoot Camera Should You Buy? (and What About Mirrorless?)
If you want a point-and-shoot camera to replace your smartphone’s shooter, there are literally thousands of options to choose from and many price points you can decide on.
My golden rule of thumb for cameras is that it’s better to buy a great, slightly-older camera for the same cost of an okay, newer camera. Some newer cameras might come with more megapixels or a better zoom, but generally the cheaper cameras don’t have that great of a sensor and processing power. Plus, camera technology doesn’t advance quite as quickly as smartphone technology, so buying an older camera can still give you great photos.
I bought a used Canon S110 a while ago for $200 that retailed for $450 when it was brand new (its successor, the S120, is available for $400). It’s now a four-year old camera, but it’s technology is still very relevant today and it takes decent photos. Even if you want something a little better than the S110, you can get a used original Sony RX100 for under $300 (the latest Mk V model costs $1,000) or a Canon G7X for under $400 (the latest Mk II model is $650)—both cameras feature a larger 1-inch sensor and were easily priced at least double the cost when they were brand new.
We’d also be remiss not to mention mirrorless cameras. They’re a bit more like DSLRs with their larger sensors and big lenses, but they don’t have a mirror blocking the sensor like DSLRs do, meaning the cameras bodies can be much smaller—though they still have larger lenses, which make them larger than most point-and-shoots. Think of them as an in-between point between point-and-shoots and DSLRs—though some of the good ones cost the same amount as a point-and-shoot, making them a better option for many people (better quality at the same price. In fact, the only advantage of a point-and-shoot over a mirrorless camera is the size—a point-and-shoot will fit in your pocket, while a mirrorless camera won’t.
In this category, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 is a good option ($700 new, previous model used for ~$400), as well as Sony’s Alpha a-series lineup like the a6000 ($550 new, ~$400 used). You can read more about mirrorless cameras in our guide to buying a high-quality camera.
Of course, never forget these words of wisdom: The best camera is the one you have with you, and any camera is better than no camera. In any case, smartphone cameras might be pushing point-and-shoot cameras out the door, but there’s still a time and place for a dedicated camera, especially if you want more versatility and better quality.