Many features help to differentiate the best models from the also-rans: manual controls over exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and focus. Most cameras offer controls over shutter speed and exposure, and have high-sensitivity modes with exposure settings of ISO 3200 (and sometimes even ISO 6400), though these usually produce images that are too noisy for use in artwork and significantly reduce the output resolution.

Few cameras at this level offer manual aperture controls, but more have aperture priority and shutter priority modes – the next best things. In aperture priority mode, the camera automatically adjusts the shutter setting as you set the aperture (in f-stops). In shutter priority mode, the reverse is true.

Body design is important, beyond it being small and light – you don’t want a camera so small that its controls are fiddly to use. A top-notch camera must fit well in the hand (though as hands differ in size so much, this is subjective). The buttons must be easy to navigate, especially if you’re not going to be using it every day. The aesthetics of a camera are also important, as everyone likes to be able to show off how great their camera looks to friends and colleagues.

Other useful features include a large, clear LCD screen that’s viewable in daylight and from a wide angle, and an optical viewfinder for when it’s too bright to use the screen.

Most of the cameras that we’ve reviewed here include facial recognition modes, which find the shapes of faces and adjust focus and exposure in their favour.

Models reviewed

Canon Digital IXUS 970 IS

Casio Exilim Card S10

Fujifilm FinePix F50fd

Nikon Coolpix P5100

Ricoh R8

Sony Cyber-shot W300

How we tested

To test these cameras as they would be used, we took them on a series of extended shoot days, capturing images both indoors and outdoors, and in sunny, overcast, dusk and night settings.

We also created a series of standardized tests to look for common problems. We photographed a flowerbed in Hyde Park, London, under bright sunlight to check colour reproduction and how much clear detail was captured at each camera’s highest resolution.

We captured images of the statue of Achilles against a clear sky to check the reproduction of high-contrast images – with special attention paid to look for chromatic abberation (purple fringing).

We took a set of test photos at full zoom to check reproduction of shots at a distance – and a series of low-light shots of an object lit by a candle (both producing a constant light and flickering). We also tested each camera’s face recognition modes on a variety of models.