Some of my friends have been asking for my recommendation on camera gear, so this week I'll be diverging a bit from the usual Reel Foto blog photographers' series and give you a quick rundown of what I think are the best compact cameras out in the market today, along with a few links to more reviews and recommendations. I won't go into detail about each product, or describe their pros and cons. I'm simply listing down three compact cameras that should suit 99% of your everyday photography needs based on my very biased view.
Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS
The Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS is the latest offering by the industry giant in the budget range. For $160, you get 12.1 MP of picture resolution plus 1080p HD video in a compact package that comes with 5x optical zoom. That's probably more resolution and zoom you'll need for casual occasions.
The only downside in my experience is the so-so build quality; I've seen a few older ELPH and IXUS cameras with their paintwork faded away, but the real concern is the plastic housing, especially around the lens mechanism (the glass opening at the center) as I've had a friend's IXUS camera shut down after its lens covering wouldn't open. That was with an older model however, and for less than $200, it was well worth the thousands of pictures she took with it.
If you have absolutely no idea about where to start with compact cameras and you're only willing to spend less than $200, then this is the best choice in the market right now. Here are few more sites that might be helpful.
Canon Powershot S100
The Canon PowerShot S100 looks conspicuously like it's little brother the ELPH 300 above. With the ability to take 12.1 MP images and 1080p HD video in a 5x optical zoom package, it even sounds like the same camera. However, the similarities end there. This solidly-built camera has a fast f/2.0 lens at its widest zoom (meaning it captures slightly better pictures with less light available), captures in RAW format (which is a better format for storing and manipulating images) and has full manual controls for precise picture taking.
For $370, you would think that you'd get more than 5x optical zoom, but the S100 already delivers quite a punch for its slim form. In fact, it's small size is what swayed me when choosing between this and its equally impressive and much more established cousin the Canon G12 (pictured in the header photo above); I mean, if I needed the added functionality of the G12, I would just bring my DSLR.
This camera is really meant for professional photographers who want a compact camera for everyday use, or for serious hobbyists who don't want to spend $1,000 on bodies and lenses.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 can capture 10.1 MP images and 720p HD video with its 3.8x optical zoom. If you're wondering why this Panasonic camera has slightly less features than its comparable Canon offerings, its because this camera was introduced in 2010 and hasn't been updated since. Still, it has the same tantalizing fast f/2.0 lens along with a hotshoe, something the Canon S100 doesn't have.
The most impressive feature for this camera is its DC Vario-Summicron lens provided by the German optics leader Leica. In fact, this is almost the exact same camera as the more prestigious and expensive Leica D-LUX5 as both are made by the same Japanese manufacturer, only the Panasonic is $400 cheaper.
Aside from the difference in resolution and lens zoom, there's really nothing substantial that you can compare with this camera and the Canon S100. Both cameras can capture great images, and in the hands of people who know what they're doing, it would be hard to tell the difference unless you were really nitpicking. The bottom line is: both cameras are fine choices.
If you're just starting out in photography and don't know which compact is best, go with the Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS. Otherwise, if you already know what you're doing more or less, go with the Canon PowerShot S100 or Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5.