The best cheap compact camera

The Canon Powershot Elph 350 HS is simple to use and delivers sharp photos with clean images.

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The best cheap compact camera

By Amadou Diallo

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer's guide to the best technology. Read the full article here.

If you want to buy a decent and basic point-and-shoot camera at an affordable price, the Canon PowerShot Elph 350 HS (the IXUS 275 HS outside of the US) is the camera you should get. After 32 hours of research, considering 24 different models, and doing some real-world shooting with the best of them, we found that the 350 HS is both simple to use and capable of delivering sharper photos with more-vibrant colors and cleaner images in low light than the competition. The PowerShot Elph 360 HS is the newer model, but the two cameras are virtually identical in features and performance. We recommend either camera equally, so keep an eye on pricing and buy whichever one is cheaper.

Who should buy this

The Canon 350 HS is nowhere near as thin as an iPhone, but it is still compact enough to slide into a loose-fitting pants pocket. Photo: Amadou Diallo

The low-end point-and-shoot market has been all but destroyed by smartphones, but for some people, a dedicated camera still makes sense. The major advantage of a stand-alone camera is that it has a zoom lens, which makes a world of difference when you can't get physically close to your subject. Cheap cameras like this also have the advantage of being extremely simple to use, and their low price means that if the camera is lost or damaged, it's a lot less painful, making these models great first-camera choices for kids and teens.

How we picked

If you're looking to buy a digital camera for about $200, it's mostly a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff—and you'll find a lot of chaff. For years, camera makers have pumped out what feels like dozens of near-identical models that get bargain-binned almost immediately and are generally worthless. Lately they've slowed down the pace because fewer people are buying these cheap cameras, but you still have a lot to wade through.

We spent dozens of hours looking at more than 20 widely available sub-$200 cameras. We quickly dismissed a great number of them due to specs that just didn't measure up to those of some of the more competent alternatives. Cameras with CCD sensors, in particular, are best avoided, as they're usually limited to just 720p video, have slow shooting rates of around one frame per second, and generally don't go beyond an ISO of 1600. With these limitations in mind, we removed the vast majority of the cheap cameras. We also eliminated cameras that had lower-resolution 230,000-dot screens, because 460,000-dot screens allow for sharper images on playback. We also cut any cameras that didn't feature optical image stabilization (which helps you take steadier images), as well as those with poor user reviews on Amazon.

Our pick

The Canon 350 HS produces reasonably accurate colors when shooting outdoor scenes.

For most people looking for an affordable, basically decent camera, the pocketable Canon PowerShot Elph 350 HS—with an impressive 12x zoom—is the way to go. It takes sharp, brightly colored photos with minimal effort and produces cleaner low-light images than the competition. It keeps image noise to a manageable level up to ISO 800 (and even ISO 3200 is acceptable if you're only going to post photos to Facebook). Plus, Canon's engineers have set exposure parameters to prioritize faster shutter speeds in low light to avoid camera shake and blurry photos.

Though Canon's DSLRs get all the attention, the company has long been a go-to brand for basic, affordable low-end cameras. If you want a solid option on the cheap, you can trust a Canon to be good for whatever price you paid for it. That hasn't really changed over the years, and the 350 HS offers much of what you might expect in this class of camera. It covers the basics, and its flaws are more forgivable than much of the competition's.

Canon updated the 350 HS with the release of the PowerShot Elph 360 HS, which is identical to the 350 HS apart from the color selection, so we suggest buying whichever model is cheaper.

Touchscreen selfie master

The Nikon S6900 has a fold-out rear stand that lets you take hands-free selfies.

If our main pick and its newer variant are both unavailable, we also like the Nikon Coolpix S6900. It suffers in low light because the camera stubbornly chooses slow shutter speeds, which can lead to blurry photos (the main reason it isn't our top pick). But the S6900 does have a tilting and touch-sensitive rear screen and a faster high-resolution burst speed than our main pick. It also comes with a clever built-in stand that lets you prop the camera up in portrait-shooting position on a flat surface, which is great for taking selfies without having your arm in the picture.

Greater zoom and battery life

The Samsung WB350F is a solid option if you're itching for something with a longer zoom.

If you're willing to carry a slightly bulkier camera and sacrifice a bit of image quality for much greater zoom range, the Samsung WB350F is solid. Its 21x zoom range is bigger than that of any other camera in this class, its battery lasts 60 percent longer than the one in our main pick, and it has a wealth of wireless connectivity options.

What you get by paying more

If you're willing to spend more cash, you can give yourself a huge image-quality boost by getting a compact camera geared more toward experienced shooters. We cover those upgrade models in our guide to the best point-and-shoot camera under $500. Those mid-tier cameras have significantly larger sensors and lenses that let in much more light across their entire zoom range, giving you the ability to capture sharp, clean images indoors and at night.

This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

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