To move from casual snapshots to more creative photography, you need a camera that gives you more control. One option is a digital SLR, but that means bulk and expense. If you want a camera that you can take everywhere, consider these enthusiast compacts, which combine manual controls with a pocket-friendly size and weight.
Many people freak out at the mention of manual controls, imagining it's a choice between a camera that does everything for you and a camera that does nothing. In reality, creative photography is about nudging the camera away from its one-size-fits-all automatic settings to get a better or more interesting result. You don't have to do everything, you just push the camera in the right direction. As you change one setting, the camera automatically adjusts the others to match, so you still get the correct exposure. As you experiment, you'll start to understand how the settings affect your image, and you'll find yourself taking greater and greater control.
Most enthusiast cameras have four main modes: program, shutter priority, aperture priority and full manual. In program mode, the camera operates automatically, but you can shift the program, usually by tweaking the shutter speed up or down. In shutter priority, you tell the camera which shutter speed to use. You might set a fast shutter speed to 'freeze' a speeding car, or use a slow shutter speed to convey the movement through motion blur. The camera then adjusts the aperture to give the correct exposure.
In aperture priority mode, you set the aperture, which determines how much of the image is in focus. With a large aperture, your subject is in focus, but the background is blurred. This is a nice effect when you're shooting a portrait. Conversely, with a small aperture, everything is in focus, which is more appropriate when you're shooting landscapes. Once you've made the right choice, the camera adjusts the shutter speed. Finally, in full manual mode, you set both the shutter speed and the aperture.
At the budget end of the range, the Canon PowerShot A540 gets you into creative photography for around £130. We like a lot of things about the camera, including the swivelling LCD and the option to use standard AA batteries, but it makes it into this round-up by virtue of its manual controls and solid performance. Other options in this price range include the Olympus SP-350 and the Fujifilm FinePix F650, but it's hard to see why you'd choose either of them over the PowerShot A540.
More sophisticated enthusiast cameras aren't as common as they used to be, thanks to the rise of entry-level dSLRs. Canon has another strong candidate in the PowerShot G7, which offers a vast array of focus, exposure and shooting controls, image stabilisation and a hot shoe for an external flash. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 is the most pocketable camera in this group, measuring just 26mm deep, but still has a 16:9 widescreen sensor, a 28-112mm (film equivalent) zoom lens and support for raw format. We're also looking forward to the Nikon Coolpix P5000, which marks a return to enthusiast compacts by Nikon. Like the PowerShot G7, it provides both image stabilisation and a flash hot shoe, but no raw support.