As a handy, pocket-sized way of capturing an image, a digital camera is as crucial a part of the professional creative’s toolkit as lipgloss is in a beauty queen’s. Illustrators, designers, and 3D and motion-graphics artists need photos as compositional elements, for textures and as reference materials.

For the highest-quality shots, it’s best to invest in a digital SLR. However, these are pricey – especially once you start buying extra lenses – not to mention bulky. They can also be tricky for occasional photographers to use.

Luckily, the latest generation of compact cameras is more than capable of taking photos to use in your work – and can be carried everywhere, ready to shoot when needed.

The cameras we’ve looked at here are generally the top-spec models from the middle ranges of each manufacturer’s compact camera line-up, as these offer the best balance of size/weight and performance. Cameras such as these generally cost between £200 and £250 (excluding VAT).

The once-meteoric megapixel rise in CCD capture resolution has slowed: most models offer either 10- or 12-megapixel capture. Ten-megapixel models capture images at 3,648-x-2,736 – which can be printed at larger than A4 at 300dpi, or at A3 at 220dpi. A 12-megapixel sensor captures images at 4,000-x-3,000, which allows you to zoom in further, or print at A3 at 240dpi – which is more than acceptable. Whether you need the extra resolution depends on how you’ll use the photos.

Of course, resolution isn’t everything. To be fit for professional use, a shot must be clear, detailed and not covered in noise. Many ultra-compacts and some mid-range cameras promise high resolutions, but if you zoom in you’ll find unusable levels of fuzz and noise – though this often the fault of poor glassware.

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Models reviewed

Canon Digital IXUS 970 IS

Casio Exilim Card S10

Fujifilm FinePix F50fd

Nikon Coolpix P5100

Ricoh R8

Sony Cyber-shot W300