Last updated: January 2017. Contributions by Rajib Mukherjee.
Smartphone cameras may have come a long way in recent years, but they’ll never beat having a dedicated camera with a larger (or interchangeable) lens. There are some truly killer point-and-shoot and mirrorless cameras on the market today that will let you better capture your travel memories, and even do some serious travel photography.
Unfortunately, when you’re deciding on the best travel camera for you it’s easy to get lost in a dizzying labyrinth of specs and acronyms. Ever wondered what’s better: a BIONZ X image processor or an XMOR RS BSI CMOS? (Yes, that’s a real thing!) I’ve been down this rabbit hole a few too many times.
While the tech specs are important in some ways, so is getting the right camera overall. Perhaps that might be a compact for you, or maybe you’d be happier with a mirorless or an action camera. There’s something out there for everyone, and in this guide I’ll try to help you find a suitable camera for your travel photography needs.
What makes a good travel camera?
Travelling can be a great time to advance your photography skills, as you’ll have so many opportunities to take interesting photos every day. It’s usually a good idea to invest in something slightly better than you currently need, so that you can stretch into more advanced options if you want to.
Versatility is also key for a travel camera. Travel photography can involve truly anything: you might be shooting landscapes, portraits, macro, wildlife, abstract, even sports. That’s why many opt for a strong all-rounder, or a camera with interchangeable lenses.
That said, more zoom isn’t always better. Zoom is the first thing many people look for, but it isn’t the only spec that matters. Lenses with an extreme zoom factor (or to put it another way, a wide focal length) are often compromised in other ways, leading to poorer image quality. Extremely zoomed in pictures often look bad anyway due to atmospheric effects or the (usually) slow speeds at such focal lengths. Instead of looking only for more zoom, it’s better to go for a balanced lens. For example, a 10X compact can perform much better overall than a 30X, or a 24-70mm lens can be much sharper than a 24-300mm.
Weight and size are also important. Having a full-frame DSLR with a bag full of lenses might be nice at home, but you won’t have much fun carrying that gear up Mount Kilimanjaro. Compacts are lighter, and mirrorless cameras have become a popular alternative to DSLRs thanks to their much lower weight and size.
Types of travel cameras
Before we look at some recommended cameras, let’s consider the different types of cameras. While the lines between these can get blurry sometimes, broadly speaking there are the following categories:
||Can edit & share on the fly. Image quality can rival that of budget compacts.||Tiny lenses, no optical zoom.|
||Zoom lenses. Usually better than phones in low light. OK for casual snaps.||Possibly not worth getting if you already own a good smartphone camera.|
Best for beginner looking to upgrade
|Better lenses and sensors, full range of manual controls. Can usually shoot RAW, not just JPEG.||No interchangeable lenses.|
|Action camera (GoPro)||Great for (certain types of) video. Mounts and protective housing are perfect for active travel.||Crummy photos. (Read my GoPro review.)|
|DSLR||Changeable lenses, full range of features.||Going out of style for travel photography. Mirrorless is smaller and lighter.|
Best multi-lens cameras for travel
|Smaller, lighter, changeable lenses.||Viewfinders are digital (some people don’t like this). Can be pricier, at least for now.|
Are you not too fussy? Then there are some cheaper compacts that will do the trick. You might want to look at a Canon PowerShot SX610 or a Nikon COOLPIX S7000. I used to shoot on a Canon PowerShot just as a back-up to my main camera, and they’re OK. This type of basic compact will get you image quality not too different from a recent iPhone or Samsung Galaxy though — so think twice if you already have a premium smartphone.
Want something really good? Then you should go for either a premium compact (if fitting the camera in your pocket is important) or a mirrorless with interchangeable lenses if you want to get more serious. Read on for some specific recommendations for best travel cameras.
Premium compact cameras
Small but powerful, these compact cameras will give you performance far beyond what any smartphone camera can achieve.
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II
The PowerShot G7 X packs a ton of features in a small body, while producing stunning images in good light as well as bad light. The Canon HS system produces images that are cleaner even when using a high ISO number, something that even the best smartphone cameras fail to deliver. The lens also has a wonderful maximum aperture of f/1.8, which again means that it performs superbly in low light. With a 35mm equivalent optical zoom range of 24-100mm, you can take nice wide angle shots while also giving you a bit more at the long end than your typical zoom lens.
I recommend the G7 X model over the newer G9 X. While their internal specs are almost identical, the G9’s lens has a poorer zoom range, a higher max aperture (this is a bad thing), and has a fixed screen. Sometimes the newer model actually isn’t better!
The G7’s touchscreen tilts down and up which makes taking low angle or overhead shots much easier, and the screen even tilts all the way up for helping you pose for a selfie. Transferring files is easy with built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity. For just around $600 (or about £470 or €560), you have yourself a fantastic travel camera.Price: $699.00 view at amazon
Sony RX100 V
The Sony RX100 is a seriously impressive compact. It’s renowned for its large 1″ sensor size, and in what is a first for a single-lens compact, the latest Mark V version even boasts a phase-detection autofocus system (this is better than the G7 X’s contrast detection AF). This does come with a higher price tag.
Some of the older models are a bit cheaper, but I recommend getting either the fifth or the fourth iteration as these have a 24-70mm lens, which is a better focal length range for travel than the 28-70mm of previous models. (The extra 4mm at the wide end lets you take pictures of interiors or wide landscapes more easily. I personally love shooting at 24mm.)
A distinguishing feature of the RX100 is the pop-up viewfinder, which can make composing shots a little easier than looking at a screen. It also has an ultra-slow-motion video recording mode at 960 fps, 4K video mode, and built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity. Like the Canon Powershot, the RX100 has a fully tiltable screen.Price:
Panasonic Lumix LX100
The Lumix LX series helped establish the premium compact category, and its latest Lumix LX100 edition remains an excellent choice. With a 24-75mm zoom with a f/1.7-2.8 maximum aperture range it’s perfect for travel. It’s not quite as slim as the RX100 or Powershot G7, but will still easily fit into a coat pocket. The slightly bigger size does also bring with it some great features, including an excellent viewfinder. The Lumix LX100 also distinguishes itself with its attractive design, available in both Black and Silver editions.Price:
Didn’t quite make the compacts list: Leica makes some high-quality and fashionable compact cameras, but they don’t come cheap. For a camera with a fixed 35mm lens you could check out the Leica X, which looks super stylish but can’t always compete on specs or value-for-money. Sony has made much waves with the Sony RX1, the first full-frame compact camera, also featuring a fixed 35mm lens. It’s a triumph of miniaturisation and great if you must have a pro-grade full-frame sensor, though its price tag of around $3000 (which is about £2360 or €2800) arguably makes it poor value for the average consumer.
Mirrorless cameras make a lot of sense for travel photography as they’re much lighter than the bulkier DSLRs (such as Canon’s classic Rebel series or Nikon’s D-series). All of the following mirrorless systems have interchangeable lenses.
Panasonic Lumix GX8
The Lumix GX8 is a hugely impressive “it does everything” mirrorless camera for the more serious enthusiast. It sits in the same category as Sony’s Alpha a6000 series, though the GX8 offers features like a touch screen and in-body stabilisation at about $500 less than the a6500. It’s one of the very few mirrorless cameras with a fully articulating screen, which is perfect for taking photos at odd angles, selfies, or even vlogging. It’s also weather-sealed, making it less of a worry to take into dusty or rainy environments when you travel.
It uses the smaller micro four-thirds sensor format, which can have some disavantages mainly with low light performance. But the huge advantage is that micro four-thirds uses much smaller and lighter lenses. A 12-35mm zoom (24-70mm full frame equivalent) at a constant 2.8 aperture weighs just 300 gram (11 ounces). A comparable lens on the Sony Alphas, or on a Canon DSLR system, weighs over 1 kilo (2 pounds). If you’re after an awesome all-rounder mirrorless for enthusiasts that’s also highly portable, this is arguably the best choice at the moment.
The GX80 is a slightly more compact model with different tech inside, though it doesn’t have the fully articulating screen, and misses some key features for video enthusiasts (like a mic input).Price: $783.49 view at amazon
Sony Alpha a6300
Sony’s Alpha a6000 series is another favorite among travel photographers. The Sony Alpha a6300 features a 3” tilting LCD screen, weather-sealing, an electronic viewfinder, and an autofocus with a whopping 425-point detection system. With 24 megapixel images, you’ll have all the resolution you need. You’ll also love features such as focus peaking, a fully silent shooting mode (great for street photography), and WiFi connectivity.
This camera is great for shooting photos but it’s great for video as well, with 4K video, an external mic input, s-log recording, slow-motion video at 120fps, and more. Some of these are pro-level features normally found only on more expensive cameras.
A newer Sony Alpha a6500 has also been released, which adds 5-axis in-body stabilisation and a touchscreen, but is also significantly pricier. Te a6300 currently gives better value for money. One common point of criticism of Sony’s cameras are the menu systems, which can be quite confusing.Price: $1,148.00 view at amazon
Fujifilm makes some fine mirrorless cameras, and if you love the retro design then this could easily be a decisive factor for you. The Fujifilm X-T10 is the brand’s mid-range model, smaller and lighter than their flagship X-T1 model while adding a new autofocus system. It has an electronic viewfinder as well as a tilting screen allowing you to more easily take photos from creative angles.
It pushes slightly fewer megapixels than its competitors at this price (specifically, 16 megapixels) and the video recording is at 1080p, but its attractive price tag and ease of use nevertheless make it a great choice for a travel camera. While you can get the X-T10 with a decent kit lens, Fujifilm’s 18-135mm zoom makes for a particularly versatile travel lens.Price:
Canon EOS M5
Canon has only cautiously entered the mirrorless market, perhaps not wanting to cannibalise their existing DSLR products. Their M-series hasn’t gotten amazing reviews so far, though the latest M5 is the first one to be getting some buzz.
Its main advantage is lens availability and price. Because Canon has long been a leading digital camera manufacturer they do have a wide array of lenses, often cheaper than Sony lenses and also easier to buy second-hand. Canon bundles the EOS M5 with its EF-M lens adapter ring, which makes virtually all existing EF and EF-S lenses compatible. That makes this camera a good choice if you already have Canon lenses, or want to benefit from the wide range of Canon lenses available.Price:
Didn’t quite make the mirrorless list: the full-frame Sony A7 is becoming a favorite mirrorless among professional photographers. But with a price tag running into the multiple thousands for the latest models, and full-frame making both the camera body and lenses significantly heavier, most enthusiasts will probably want to go with a cropped sensor mirrorless such as the three cameras mentioned above.
Best-value SLR options
So far this list has been hugely focused on portability, with most attention going to mirrorless cameras which are smaller and lighter. But… they can also be quite a bit pricier. If you’re more of an entry-level travel photographer on a budget, maybe you just want an SLR with a kit lens.
In that case, have a look at either the Nikon D3300 or the Canon Rebel T5i / Canon 700D (these are two different names for the same camera). Most of the photos on my blog were actually shot using an earlier version of the 750D. These are fantastic cameras, and very safe options if you’re starting out, or if portability or being on the cutting edge is not your main concern. You can get package deals with a kit lens for around $500.Price: $499.99 view at amazon
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