If you’re looking for the best travel camera, chances are you’ll soon go down an infinite rabbit hole of specs, opinions, and technical jargon. It seems every photographer online has their own pet camera to recommend; Canon fans swearing by Canon, Sony users only pushing Sony, and so on.
The truth is that most modern cameras can be good for most uses, including travel photography. I even know some professional photographers who barely know anything about the specs and features of their cameras — they just shoot!
But if you’re looking for a camera ideally suited to travel photography, I highly recommend looking at Micro 4/3 cameras made by Panasonic and Olympus.
I switched to Micro Four Thirds two years ago and it changed everything! Let me explain why.
Quick Overview: Best Travel Cameras - Micro 4/3
Panasonic Lumix GX9
- Rangefinder-style mirrorless camera
- 20 Megapixel
- Tilting electronic viewfinder
Panasonic Lumix G9
- More pro-oriented edition
- Higher burst shot speed & other specs
- But pricier and heavier than GX9
Olympus OM-D E‑M5 Mark II
- Most popular MFT system from Olympus
- Lenses inter-compatible with Panasonic
It’s all about weight
I realize that claiming MFT cameras to be the best for travel might make me sound like all those other opinionated fans out there, but this is not just about specs. I believe these cameras are amazing for travel not based on how many megapixels they can push (or some other arbitrary measure), but based on how these cameras actually feel to use in practice when you’re on the road.
There’s clearly some truth in the popular saying that ‘the best camera is the one you have with’, but the type of gear you use can make a huge difference in both your enjoyment and possibilities for taking travel photos. For me, switching to a Micro Four Third camera was a total game-changer.
The big reason why is that MFT cameras manage to be amazingly portable, while still giving you fantastic image quality.
Understanding sensor size
There are many technical aspects to cameras, but arguably the most consequential for a travel camera is sensor size.
Simply put, the sensor is the element inside the camera that converts light entering the lens into pixels in your image. A bigger sensor means your camera has more light-sensing dots.
Smartphones and compact cameras have very small sensors, which limits the level of quality they can produce. Smartphone images are more likely to be grainy or poor quality in low light because of this. (Some tricks are used to still make images look better on phones, but if you’ve ever looked at your smartphone images on a laptop or PC, you’ll know what the real quality is like.)
Meanwhile, most top-of-the-line cameras have a full-frame sensor. This type of sensor is waaaay bigger. It enables such cameras to capture images with very high resolutions and in low light conditions, among other advantages. Popular examples of full-frame cameras include the Canon 5D or the Sony A7.
There’s just one problem: with a bigger sensor, you also need a bigger lens. And so full-frame cameras have massive and heavy lenses that are a real pain to carry around.
For example, a Canon 5D body already weighs 895 g (1.97 lb). A high-quality 24-70mm f2.8 lens will add to that another 950 g (2.09 lbs). Now you’re already lugging around 2 kilos! Carrying heavy gear like that around is going to slow you down and constantly restrict you on your travels.
That makes you wonder: what if there is some kind of middle ground between the small sensors and really big ones?
Why I love Micro Four Thirds
Enter the Micro Four Thirds cameras, which sit happily between these two extremes. Their sensors are much bigger than any smartphone or compact, enabling you to get a very high level of image quality. But their sensors are still smaller than full-frame or APS-C cameras, which means their lenses are smaller too.
For example, my main walkaround lens, the Panasonic 12-35mm, f 2.8, weighs just 305 grams (0.67 lbs). Keep in mind this lens is roughly similar to the Canon 24-70mm f2.8 lens I mentioned before (on Micro 4/3, exactly half the number of millimetres is the same as full-frame).
This low weight changes totally how I engage with my camera now.
I used to kind of hate bringing my old Canon gear along because it was just so heavy. I had three lenses for my previous system but almost always brought just one. And I would often leave my camera bag at my hotel because I couldn’t be bothered carrying it all the time, which made me miss many unexpected moments.
When I now travel with my Panasonic GX8 camera, it’s so light I hardly notice I have it with. I keep it in a sling backpack which gives me constant easy access to my camera. I’ve gone from carrying my camera about 20% of the time during my travels (e.g. only on the days I would visit a major tourist sight) to carrying it pretty much 80% of the time.
Even with multiple lenses in my bag, the total weight is still much lower than what I used to carry before.
When I’m going to a destination for my blog, I now carry my camera body along with a 12-35mm f2.8 lens, a 25mm f1.8 prime lens, a 45-200mm telephoto lens, and an ultra-wide angle 8mm prime. All this together is still well under 2kg (4.4 lbs).
Because travel photography can involve pretty much any kind of subject matter (people, landscapes, architecture, etc.) it’s amazing to be able to easily carry a full set of tools, rather than just one walkaround lens.
Used by professionals
The most popular formats for cameras are full-frame and APS-C, whereas Micro Four Thirds is a bit more niche. That might give the appearance that it’s not as good as other formats, or that you’re not serious unless you have a $3,000+ Sony A7S.
As it turns out, many professional travel photographers use Micro Four Thirds cameras. For example, Mitchell Kanashkevich does truly stunning travel photography while using a Panasonic GX9. He recently made a video explaining why he favours this camera over his Sony A7.
James Popsys is another travel- and landscape photographer on YouTube who now swears by MFT cameras. He did a similar kind of video arguing why he likes to shoot with them. Again, it’s all about portability.
Former professional photographer David Thorpe even has a YouTube channel dedicated to MFT camera and lens reviews, which is an amazing resource when you’re trying to decide on which lenses to buy. He also did a side by side review of the Panasonic Lumix G9 (which is Micro 4/3) and the Panasonic Lumix S1 (which is full-frame), ultimately preferring the former.
I’m not saying that you should be swayed by a few photographers using a particular system. I’m just saying that despite not being one of the leading brands, there are many people happily using these smaller and lighter cameras.
Disadvantages of MFT
All that said, there are two technical disadvantages to Micro Four Thirds (although one of these is often misunderstood).
Firstly, because the smaller sensor has fewer light-sensing dots, the image quality in low light will be lower than on an APS-C or full-frame camera. If you set the ISO to anything more than about 1600, you’ll start to see a lot of noise in any photos taken in low light. While I feel you can still take wonderful photos in low light, people who shoot in such circumstances all the time would probably favour a larger-sensor camera. Personally, I’m usually satisfied with the images I get in low light with 800 ISO on f 2.8 or lower. Then again, I know there are people who are pickier than I am!
Secondly, it can be a bit more challenging to get bokeh (i.e. blurry background) in your photos on Micro Four Thirds. This again relates to the sensor and the lens optics. On a full-frame camera, it is very easy to achieve shallow depth of field. On a Micro Four Thirds camera, you can still do this, but you’ll need to use a lens with a low f-value.
Personally, I’m satisfied with the blurry backgrounds I can achieve with an f 1.8 or f 2.0 lens on my MFT camera, but some photographers might like an even shallower effect.
One thing to clear up: even though an f 1.8 on an MFT is not as shallow as a f 1.8 on a full-frame, the amount of light they capture is still the same! I’ve seen some people confused over this on travel photography forums. If you’re using lenses with a low f-value to capture more light, you’ll achieve just the same on Micro Four Thirds. It’s only the depth of field that has to be halved from that of a full-frame camera, not the amount of light that is captured with the given aperture.
Not the only option
Let me close by saying that this is just my opinion based on having used a Canon APS-C system and then switching to Micro Four Thirds. There are many other camera options around. Some do swear by the amazing low-light performance of a Sony A7. Others like alternative mirrorless cameras like the ones made by Fuji. What kind of travel camera you should get also depends on your requirements. For me, it’s important to have an interchangeable lens system, but perhaps this is not essential to you, in which case you could consider a fixed-lens premium compact like a Sony a6500+.
Ultimately though, I think there is a great case to be made that the Micro 4/3 cameras are the ultimate travel cameras around.
Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links with earn me a small commission if you decide to buy a product (more about this here).