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I know that there are some expensive ($300 and up) compact camera that can take nice photos.

My question is about compact cameras in the $150-200 range vs. high-end Android phones (Galaxy s7, Huawei P9 and such). I am talking about those models with lenses that are almost completely retractable.

Excluding the optical zoom, what are the main advantages of a compact? Consider that I do not have photography experience, so my use would be mostly point and shoot.

My main concern is for low-light photos but it seems that most compact do not excel on this point.

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Setting aside ergonomics, the differences are mainly in the depth of field (DOF) and low light photography. The smaller the sensor, the greater the DOF and the more noise in low light photography.

Considering DOF, using a small sensor is equivalent to cut (crop) in the image for a greater sensor.

Considering low light photography, the amount of light forming the image is directly related to the sensor size. And for the same resolution, a smaller sensor has smaller sensor sites. Hence a higher noise level.

BUT, that leaves a question does enter level point and shoot 5PS) camera have a sensor so much larger than the smartphones.

It is not always the case : the Nokia 808, had a 1/1.2" sensor (10.67 x 8 mm), most smartphones have a 1/3" sensor 4.89×3.67; some low-end PS had a 1/2.7" (5.37 x 4.04 mm).

That needs to be compared to the sensor size of higher end camera: full frame = 36 x 24 mm, APS-C = 24 x 18, 4/3" = 17.30 x 13 mm.

CONCLUSION: If you are interested in low light photography, you need to think about a higher end camera with a larger sensor: 4/3" or larger.

Two interesting remarks: 1/ Samsung for its later smartphone flagship, S7 Edge, chose to lower the pixel count from 16mpx to 12mpx. 2/ The low-end PS market is dead.

Note : For sensor size see http://cameraimagesensor.com/size/ but the site has not been updated recently.

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Here are just some examples.

Low light photography

You say that your main concern is low light photography. This is actually an area which will show a significant difference.

On a continuum between very small sensors and large sensors, cellphone cameras are at the very bottom of the pile. Compact cameras have pretty small sensors, so they too have a reputation for poor low light photography, but they are usually not as small as those on a smartphone or other cellphone.

The effect of a small sensor size is that, all else being equal, low light photography will have higher noise levels. Since modern cameras try to filter out the noise, it will mean that low light photos will generally become more "muddy".

Zoom

As you mentioned, cellphone cameras tend to have a fixed focal length and can only zoom digitally, which degrades effective resolution as you zoom in. Some compact cameras now have incredibly long optical zoom lengths, eg 14x which is the equivalent of 28-400mm on an old full frame camera. They can include these long zooms without too much cost or bulk because of the small sensor size.

Depth of field

The smaller the sensor and lenses, the wider the depth of field, all else being equal.

This is both an advantage and disadvantage of smaller sensor sizes: the advantage being that you can get more in focus with a wider depth of field, but the disadvantage that it's harder to get less in focus: ie, to blur the background.

Due to their slightly larger size, compact cameras will be a little better at this than cellphone cameras.

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One difference is ergonomics. Many modern smartphones have rather large screens, and are designed to be very slim. So this may not be an easy shape to hold while taking a photo. Whereas compact camera are typically smaller, but thicker, so a better shape to hold steady in the hand.

Compact cameras have physical buttons, at least for the shutter, and often the zoom, and maybe other dials for settings. So these are easier to use than poking at a touchscreen.

Also compact cameras often have better battery life than phones. Plus it is usually easy to swap to a spare battery as required. Whereas many modern phones have non-replaceable batteries.

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    If the compact camera you choose has a view finder vs lcd composing images in full light will be exponentially easier. – pfeiffep Jul 25 '16 at 17:39
  • I have to say that a viewfinder was the one thing I really missed with the first several compact digital cameras I owned, especially when shooting in bright sunlight. I now have a Fujifilm X30 and I love its digital viewfinder! – Colin Brace Jul 27 '16 at 14:37
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I think the answer partly depends on whether you would have the time and interest in learning how to use the manual controls of a compact camera. For example, it can be very useful to be able to adjust the exposure level in difficult lighting conditions, such as an overly bright background. My phone doesn't allow this type of control; my compact camera does, but I had to learn how to use this. The same goes for things such as flash compensation. Dialling down the flash on a phone.. is it even possible?

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    That depends on what camera app you are using on your phone. Changing to a different app could give more manual settings. – vclaw Jul 26 '16 at 19:23
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    ...and low-cost cameras often don't offer full-Manual mode. P may be the best you can hope for on some compacts. – inkista Jul 27 '16 at 1:27
  • You're right of course. I mean "manual" in the generic sense, not the full Manual mode some camera offer. – Colin Brace Jul 27 '16 at 14:35
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In practical usage, there probably isn't a lot of difference in image quality. While the larger sensors in dedicated P&S cameras will theoretically give you a better dynamic range, better high iso performance, the size difference is such that you may not even notice the differences, especially since rear phone cameras have equivalent resolution these days. And this is why that end of the camera market has had sales eroded by improving cameras in phones.

The main differences you'll run into are that the phone camera is certainly more convenient (as it's always with you). But that it offers less control over taking the picture. As you noted, a phone limits you to digital zooming, not optical, the inherent ergonomic differences between a phone and a camera with a dedicated shutter button, and possible features like a flip-out screen (so no having to choose between front/rear cameras with differing resolutions/sensors), tripod mount, and a variable aperture (P&S) vs. a fixed-aperture (phone) camera.

I should note, however, that simply learning how to use a small travel tripod with a phone, if your low-light images are of static subjects, could make your images look considerably better. I used one back in the day with a very old (then-$500) 3 megapixel P&S camera to good effect.

But to improve low-light performance while handholding notably, the fixed-lens cameras that offer wider max. aperture settings (lower f-number) and larger sensors (and also RAW capability, full Manual mode, and flash hotshoes) are more liable to be in the $500-800 price range (e.g., Canon G1X II, or Sony RX-100 IV), if not much higher (e.g., Fujifilm X100T, Sony RX-1). The only way to find these types of camera in the price range you're looking at is to buy them used, probably two or three generations back from the current models (e.g., an RX-100 (mark I)).

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