Most useful and useless camera features

We examine the most useful and useless features in today's point-and-shoot compact cameras

Some of the features available in today's compact point-and-shoot cameras can be very useful, while others are just a gimmick designed to lure you in for the sale. The best features are those that actually help you take a better photo and aid you with getting the most accurate focus. The worst features are those that claim to be able to help you, but end up being a nuisance to use.

Below are some of the special features (some common, some rare) that you can find in today's point-and-shoot cameras, with our opinion on their usefulness and an example of a camera model where that feature can be found.

On-screen level

Purpose: To let you know if you are holding the camera straight or at an angle.

Found in: Ricoh CX5

Useful or not: Useful.

We love this feature. There are times when you can't tell for sure if you're holding the camera straight, especially when taking photos while holding the camera above your head or off to the side; but when that on-screen level goes green, you know you've nailed it.

AF assist beam

Purpose: To shine a powerful beam of light on your subject in order to gauge focus in a dark environment.

Found in: Most compact cameras

Useful or not: Useful.

Without an auto-focus assist beam, your camera would not be able to focus on objects in the dark. Many beams these days are very powerful and they can illuminate objects up to 5m away.

Blink detection

Purpose: To let you know if someone in your photo blinked while you were taking the photo.

Found in: Canon PowerShot SX200 IS

Useful or not: Not

You don't need blink detection to let you know if someone blinked while you were taking their photo — just look at the photo for yourself and zoom in on people's eyes! In many cases blink detection doesn't work properly anyway.

Face detection

Purpose: To ensure the most important parts of a scene — people's faces — are in focus.

Found in: Almost every compact camera on the market

Useful or not: Useful

The ability to detect a face and focus on it is one of the most useful features ever put in to a point-and-shoot camera. It ensures that your photos of people always have a proper focus. Some cameras can detect many faces in the same frame.

Smile shutter

Purpose: To take a photo automatically when a smile is detected.

Found in: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W180

Useful or not: Not

Detecting a smile is a tough task for a camera, and if you use this feature you might end up with a bunch of photos where a person is only half-smiling and looking awkward. It can be useful as a remote trigger for self-portraits, but even then the chances of it capturing you while you are actually smiling are slim to none.

Dual screen

Purpose: To allow you to take well-framed self-portraits.

Found in: Samsung ST600

Useful or not: Useful and not useful

The second screen in Samsung's dual-view cameras can be very handy if you want to take self-portraits, and it can also be used to display images that are designed to incite laughter and smiles from babies. However, the front-facing second screen sometimes isn't all that useful in bright conditions, as you can struggle to see yourself in it; and we're yet to make a baby laugh by displaying a picture of clowns on the front-facing screen.

AF tracking

Purpose: Allows you to lock on to a target in your photo and track it in order to keep it in focus anywhere on the screen.

Found in: Panasonic LUMIX DMC-TZ10

Useful or not: Useful

Autofocus tracking can be used to lock on to moving objects in order to keep them in focus anywhere in the frame. It can also be used to lock in on stationary objects, so that you can then move the camera to frame them in a different way, all the while keeping the target in focus.

Touchscreen operation

Purpose: To allow you to use your fingers to navigate menus and change settings.

Found in: Canon IXUS 210 IS Touch, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9

Useful or not: Not

Touchscreens can be very annoying to use at the best of times on the small 3-3.5in screen that most compacts offer. They get even more annoying when you have to use them in bright sunlight. The best use for a touchscreen we've seen is on-screen focus-point selection, which allows you to point anywhere on the screen to select a focus point. Apart from that, they are useless.


Purpose: To protect the camera from shocks, water, dust and snow.

Found in: Olympus Mju Tough 6010, Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FT10

Useful or not: Useful

If you're an outdoors type, then a tough camera with rugged features should be on your shopping list. You'll be able to take photos near or in water without fear of the camera getting damaged if you drop it. If it gets dropped on a hard surface it will survive; you can even take some models to the snow and use them via tap control even while you are wearing thick gloves.

Art filters and Creative scenes

Purpose: These allow you to add various effects to your photos either in real time or when you play them back.

Found in: Ricoh CX5

Useful or not: Useful.

These may seem like a gimmick at first, but they can really be fun to play with and add a little pizzazz to your regular-looking photos. Among the best filters we've seen are grainy film, pin-hole, miniature and pop art.

High-speed video recording

Purpose: To record video at a fast frame rate, then play it back at a normal frame rate to give a slow motion effect.

Found in: Casio Exilim EX-FH100, Canon IXUS 1000HS, Samsung WB2000

Useful or not: Useful.

This is one of the most fun features you will ever find in a compact camera. You will forever be on the look-out for things to shoot in slow motion. Be warned, though, this feature doesn't work well in dark conditions and video shot under fluoro lights will flicker noticeably.

HD video recording

Purpose: To record high-resolution video that can be played back clearly on your big-screen TV.

Found in: Samsung WB2000

Useful or not: Useful.

There's no doubt that many people want their digital camera to double as a camcorder. It makes it so much more convenient to carry only device while on holidays and most cameras do a reasonable job of capturing video. However, most cameras also don't handle motion very well, so you have to hold them as still as you possibly can to prevent the picture from looking jumpy.

Built-in projector

Purpose: At the press of a button project photos onto a wall, anywhere, anytime.

Found in: Nikon COOLPIX S1100pj

Useful or not: Not

This feature, which can only be found in Nikon's COOLPIX S1100pj is purely a gimmick. While it's fun to be able to show your friends pictures you've taken by beaming them onto a wall, the quality isn't great and you'll get over the novelty quickly.

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Elias Plastiras
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