Choosing a camera can be complicated, but many people use price as the determining factor. In this shootout we look at five cameras priced between $200 and $300, a popular price point for pocket cameras. The four from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony are typical point-and-shoot models that you think of as conventional pocket cameras. The fifth is the venerable Olympus PEN E-PL1, the least expensive of the new breed of mirrorless cameras on the market. It has been around a while but thanks to price cuts it now costs less than $300.
Here is how these five cameras under $300 stack up:
Nikon COOLPIX S8200
$238, 16MP, 14x zoom
The Nikon S8200 looks like your typical point-and-shoot camera. In many ways, it is. But more than that, it is the archetypal point-and-shoot, providing great picture quality and most of the features and functionality of the other cameras. The flash is awkwardly placed but plenty powerful, though it shows some quirky behavior if you don't want to use it all the time.
Packed with useful features, the Nikon S8200 is our pick for the best overall value for a pocket camera in the $200-$300 price category. It is not the most pocketable camera in the group, nor does it take the highest-quality images in the group. What it does is combine quality and compactness in a package that is reasonably priced and easy to use. Read more about the Nikon S8200
Olympus PEN E-PL1
$278, 12.3 MP, 3x zoom
The E-PL1 is the pure picture quality winner. Judging the cameras solely by how the pictures look, the E-PL1 dominates the competition with its large Micro Four Thirds and interchangeable lenses. The standard 14-42mm lens (3x zoom) is sharp throughout the range and the camera offers more manual control than anything else in the field.
Of course, to get that larger sensor, you end up with a larger camera. The E-PL1 is also a few years old, and lacks some of the fancy features you'll find on the new cameras in the shootout. Video is limited to , and there is no in-camera panorama stitching. Olympus does not make a lens with the 12x to 16x zoom reach of the other cameras. Despite this, the E-PL1 is still an excellent choice for someone interested in picture quality above all else, and a budget under $300. Read more about the Olympus PEN E-PL1
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-ZS15
$215, 12.1 MP, 16X zoom
The Panasonic ZS15 has a lot going for it. Its 16X is the longest in the shootout, tied with the Sony H90. The 12.1 megapixel sensor takes detailed, high-quality photos and full HD /24 frame per second video. It also has the best flash of the bunch; Panasonic's point and shoot cameras seem to be more intelligent than others when it comes to the use of flash.
Vacation-goers should note the lack of a GPS, which is not unusual in this class of camera (in fact, none of the cameras in this shootout have one). Also of interest is the lack of a stereo microphone, something the first-place NIkon S8200 has. Images lack the crisp, clean sharpness of the top two cameras, but color saturation is rich and pictures are still plenty detailed enough for most use. Read more about the Panasonic ZS15
Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS
$259, 10.1 MP, 12X zoom
The ELPH 520 is from Canon's line of super-compact cameras, and it is the smallest camera in this shootout by a long shot. The tiny ELPH 520 HS is truly pocketable, and will easily fit in a regular pants pocket -- no ugly cargo pants required. Its sleek metal case hides a capable 12x zoom lens, but its 10 megapixel sensor lacks the super high of its competitors.
The main downside to the ELPH 520 HS is an overall higher level of in photographs taken with the camera. The pictures can occasionally appear softer than those of the other cameras in the shootout as well. The ELPH 520 HS uses MicroSD cards instead of the larger SD cards used by most other cameras. MicroSD cards tend to be more expensive than SD cards, not to mention easier to lose. Finally, battery life is limited. Read more about the Canon ELPH 520 HS
Sony Cyber-shot H90
$218, 16.1 MP, 16x zoom
The Sony H90 finds itself outmatched by most of its competitors. While it is tied for the best zoom range in the shootout and has a high-res 16.1 megapixel sensor, it is also the bulkiest "pocket" camera (though not larger than the Olympus E-PL1). Sony's panorama mode is present, which is among the easiest to use, but it is not unique in this price class. The flash is awkward, there is no direct video record button, and the rear LCD screen is low in resolution. In addition, video is limited to 720p at 30 frames per second. While the camera takes fine pictures, it is more difficult to use than its competitors and less pocketable. Read more about the Sony H90