While everybody is seemingly obsessed with getting better cameras on their smartphones, there’s still a very real market for a good ol’ proper camera. They’re cumbersome. They can be complicated to use. And they’re far less convenient to use than your smartphone.

But there’s plenty of reason to use a real camera over the app-powered kind on your phone. They have proper flashes and their low-light photos are light-years ahead in terms of quality. You can have a proper zoom lens. You’ll be able to take photos long after your phone’s battery has died. And since they’re bigger, image sensors are larger, which means photos look better – simple physics, really.

Unfortunately, it’s far easier to choose a fancy new phone than it is to choose a camera.

To help make that a whole lot less intimidating, we’ve waded through the current crop of cameras in all market segments, and rounded up the best of the bunch. In this, the first part, we will cover all camera categories where they have built-in lenses. In our second part, next week, we will cover all removable-lens cameras.

Compact cameras on the cheap

budget

At this price point (around sub-R1 500) you’re really looking at something that will do a bit better than your smartphone’s built-in camera – and only just. Given the capabilities on some modern smartphones you might stand a better chance using that as a point-and-shoot. However, if you want a cheap, standalone camera for not a lot of money, this trio will do just fine.

1) Canon PowerShot A1400 – R740, at FotoDiscountWorld
16 megapixels and a 5x zoom – the best specs for this kind of money. It even does 720P video. There’s also the allure of an optical viewfinder, if the habit of looking at a camera has proven difficult to kick.

2) Nikon Coolpix S31 – R1 390, at FotoDiscountWorld
Give one to your kids and forget about it. While your little tykes may or may not be the next Ansel Adams, you can rest safe knowing that this toughened-up snapper can go for a swim in water up to 5 metres deep, and withstand drops from around a metre high. Inside sits a 10-megapixel sensor and a 3x zoom lens.

3) Samsung DV150F – R1 399, at Cats Digital
The ultimate pocket camera for the selfie-obsessed generation. You can point this sucker at your smug mug, and use the front-facing display to perfectly frame the image of you and your mates shouting YOLO moments before jumping off a bridge. Key specs: 16-megapixel sensor, 5x zoom, 720P video, and it’s also got Wi-Fi, to transfer pics to your smartphone.

Power in your pocket

mid

If you’re prepared to spend a bit more on a real camera, and think that taking photos with your phone is for Instagram posers, you’ll find a huge host of cameras that do what you want. But we’re here to tell you which ones are the best when image quality and compactness matter most.

1) Canon PowerShot S110 – R3 660, at FotoDiscountWorld
The S110 is a bit of a paradox: it’s simultaneously the most camera and smallest camera for your money. Its tiny frame houses a 5x Canon zoom and a 12-megapixel sensor that uses the company’s high-sensitivity system for better results in low light. It also packs some nice manual functions, to help you get creative with your shots.

2) Sony Cyber-shot HX50V – R3 795, at ORMS
Sit tight: 30x optical zoom, 20-megapixel sensor, 1080P video at 60 frames per second, 10-frame-per-second still shooting, and a hot shoe for external mics and flashes. This is almost like buying an SLR, without the hassle of swapping lenses. Or draining your bank balance.

3) Fujifilm X100s – R12 590, at Camera Warehouse
All those art-school graduates who want to do things the old school way will fall in love with the X100S, at first sight. And then when they use it, they’ll fall in love again – those proper manual controls, the f/2.0 35mm lens, and Fuji’s insanely cool hybrid optical viewfinder. Image quality is simply stunning. This is the last word in artful street photography (at least for sensible money).

4) Sony Cyber-shot RX-100 II – R9 499, at SA Camera
With a 20-megapixel sensor you’d be forgiven for thinking that megapixels still matter. And you’ll also be confused that this only has a 3.6x zoom lens. But the RX100 II is all about image quality and near pro-level features. A high-res rear display, Zeiss lens, f/1.8 aperture, and other impressive specs will leave you wondering whether an SLR is still needed as an everyday camera. (Also consider the RX100, which only lacks a few features and will remain on sale for a bit less.)

M-m-m-megazoom for your money

zoom

1) Sony Cyber-shot HX300 – R4 399, at Kalahari
Sony’s 50x megazoom barely pips Canon’s entry, but only because Sony’s 3-inch display on the HX300 is vastly better. It also has a 20-megapixel sensor, and some trick Sony technology for doubling its zoom power, if you have steady hands.

2) Canon Powershot SX50 – R4 399 at FotoDiscountWorld
This family of cameras is a staple favourite with us, because they’re so accomplished. It’ll zoom, it’ll stabilise. It’ll take photos in dark conditions. It’ll do nearly everything most people would want from a camera, and it doesn’t break the bank. Plus, there’s a hot shoe for external accessories.

3) Nikon Coolpix P520 – R4 710 at FotoDiscountWorld
If Canon can play here, Nikon can too. The P520 has a slightly more modest 42x optical zoom lens, stabilised of course, mated to an 18-megapixel sensor. Out back there’s a high-res 3.2-inch display that’ll swivel around to your heart’s content.

Crash and splash-proof cameras

tough

1) Nikon Coolpix AW110 – R3 800 at Cats Digital
Like swimming with the fishes? Take Nikon’s AW110 with you. And in case those fishes are all buff, this’ll take a few knocks as well: it can be safely dropped from 2 metres, without a hassle. You can also take it to climates as cool as -10 degrees celsius. To help you get there, this 16-megapixel and 5x zoom sucker has a built in compass and GPS. You’re not likely to need more adventure in a pocket camera.

2) Canon Powershot D20 – R3 229, at Kalahari
Canon’s all-weather wonder is slightly less capable than the segment-leading Nikon: 10 metres underwater, -10 degrees celsius, and drops from 1.5 metres or lower. But it has Canon’s fantastic 12-megapixel backlit sensor, so low-light results are very good

3) Pentax Optio WG-3 – R4 390, from CameraWarehouse
If anything, the Optio WG-3 at least looks the part for tough-and-tumble camera. The zany-looking housing protects its 16-megapixel sensor and 4x optical zoom from depths of up to 14 metres, drops of 2 metres, and temperatures of -10 degrees celsius. Oh, and it can withstand crushing forces of up to 100kg. Perfect for mountain-climbing types, then.

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.