Your bog-standard compact camera is actually much more than that these days. Forced by the spectre of cameraphones to up their game, today's compacts offer more features and better image quality than ever. Technologies like face detection and intelligent auto ensure sharp, perfectly exposed photos in most situations while some of the on-board extras, such as in-camera editing, effects filters, automatic panoramas and slo-mo video are great fun and can produce amazing results.
In addition to the basic pocket-friendly version there are waterproof compacts (usually just down to a couple of metres, for snorkelling) and some are designed to withstand being freozen, dropped or crushed. Do check the limitations though!
The more expensive models, sometimes called ‘creative compacts', offer premium features like slightly larger sensors, better quality and wider aperture lenses, manual controls and features such as the ability to shoot Raw files.
Browse our Compact Camera reviews
Canon Ixus 220HS: Tiny but gorgeous stainles steel model that takes great pictures for a modest price
Samsung MV800: you may have seen this on TV, with its panoramic touchscreen that flips upwards 180°
Fujifilm Finepix X100: This retro masterpiece delivers stunning image quality thanks to its DSLR size sensor
Superzooms (also known as 'Bridge' cameras)
Bridge cameras, also known as superzooms, are distinguishable by their prominent zoom lenses with ranges that extend at least 20x and in some cases over 30x. They also feature electronic viewfinders (EVFs), which are like smaller internal versions of the LCD, that you view through an eyepiece. Some are styled to look like mini DSLRs but the key difference is that the lenses cannot be removed. Bridge cameras use compact camera sensors so the quality is not as good as a DSLR but they offer the convenience of all-in-one package with a zoom range that you can't get in a DSLR or CSC with a single lens, and would require spending considerably more and being lumbered with several kilos of kit to achieve at all. If this sounds like your ideal camera do try one first to see how you get on with the EVF, as not everyone likes them.
Bridge cameras can be found within our Compact Camera section
Panasonc Lumix FZ150: Its 24x zoom may not be the longest but few that can match its AF speed and all-round performance.
Canon Powershot SX40 HS: A whopping 35x zoom and up to 10fps, making it perfect for sports and wildlife, while the HS sensor delivers great image quality.
Compact System Cameras
CSCs offer the interchangeable-lens benefits of DSLRs but in smaller, near compact-sized bodies. Some of them, such as the Sony NEX and Samsung NX systems, use DSLR-sized sensors for optimum image quality, but the latest models, the Pentax Q and Nikon 1, use smaller sensors and put a greater emphasis on compactness. In between is the Micro Four Thirds system, jointly developed by Panasonic and Olympus, which has the widest range of models, lenses and accessories.
This means that those looking for a CSC type camera must first decide which is the most important: small size or superior image quality, and buyers should look at the whole package, including the lens - the Sony NEX cameras, for example, are among the smallest but their lenses are, on average, the biggest.
There are two main types of CSC: those with EVFs and those with only an LCD screen for viewing, though some of the latter category can accept an optional clip-on electronic viewfinder, at additional cost.
Browse the latest Compact System Camera Reviews
Olympus E-P3: The flagship PEN is a retro styled, beautifully made delight, with a superb OLED touchscreen and high-end features like a hot-shoe for external flash
Panasonic GF3: One of the world's smallest CSCs the GF3 is a delight to use, with lightspeed autofocus and great images at a great price. Great for beginners.
Samsung NX200: With a whopping 20MP APS-C sized sensor the NX200 can only be matched in image quality by the Sony NEX-7, which costs more than twice the price.
Digital SLRs (DSLR)
The most popular category of camera among hobbyists and professionals, DSLRs use larger sensors for superior image quality, and they feature interchangeable lenses. The distinguishing feature of an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera is its internal optical system, in which an angled mirror reflects the image coming through the lens up to a prism above, and out through an optical viewfinder. When the shutter is pressed the mirror flips up out of the way and the shutter opens momentarily so that the image can be exposed onto the sensor. The main benefit is that the user gets a bright, clear view of exactly what the lens sees, and is able to focus precisely on the point of interest. In general, DSLRs offer the highest image quality, fastest and most accurate focusing and the greatest range of lenses and accessories.
Browse the latest DSLR reviews
Pentax K-r: a fast burst rate, high-resolution screen and built-in sensor-based shake reduction make this great value for money
Canon EOS 600D: arguably Canon's best ever consumer DSLR, with a 18MP sensor and features like a vari-angle screen and full HD movies.
Nikon D7000: an outstanding camera with lots of semi-pro features, such as twin SD card slots, 39- point AF, 6fps burst mode and magnesium alloy construction.
DSLT (Digital Single Lens Translucent)
Sony's DSLT (Digital Single Lens Translucent) system is a variation of the DSLR and is only about a year old. It still uses an angled mirror but it is fixed and translucent. Two-thirds of the light hitting it passes through to the sensor, and one-third is reflected upwards to a phase shift AF module for auto focusing, while the viewing is provided by an electronic viewfinder or ‘EVF' (a smaller, internal version of the LCD screen on the back). The benefits are in faster burst rates with continuous high-speed AF, and a viewfinder that shows exposure, white balance and all shooting data, and can also be used for video shooting (which DSLR viewfinders cannot). The downside is that EVFs are not as bright and clear as optical viewfinders (though the new models come closer than ever before) so not everyone likes them. Sony is the only company making DSLT cameras at present, and its cameras can accept the same Alpha lenses and accessories as its DSLRs. because there are only a handful of DSLT cameras available, you'll find them within our DSLR reviews
Sony Alpha 35: Sony's entry level DSLT offers fast AF, fast burst shooting and great image quality at a bargain price
Sony Alpha 77: WCD's Product of the Year for 2011, the A77 has an awesome spec but its the handling and stunning image quality from that 24MP sensor that set it apart.