When you’re looking for the best camera for your holidays or travels, it’s all about finding the right balance between versatility and portability.
Of course, you want to be able to beautifully capture many different scenes, but you don’t want to haul a bunch of heavy gear with you either. This makes compact and mirrorless cameras (and to a lesser extent smartphones) ideal for travel photography.
Unfortunately, when you’re shopping for a camera you can easily get lost in a whirling alphabet soup of acronyms. Have you ever wondered what’s better: a BIONZ X image processor or an XMOR RS BSI CMOS? (Yes, that’s a real thing!). While technical specs are important, so is simply choosing the type of camera that lets you shoot the photographs you want — and this guide will help point you in the right direction.
This post will be focused on cameras for beginner to intermediate photographers.
Choosing the best camera for travel
There are several categories of travel camera, each with their pros and cons.
Smartphones are an obvious type of camera to take with you on your travels. They are lightweight, pocket-sized, and sharing photos on these is by far the easiest. But not all smartphones have good cameras (far from it!) and even the best are ultimately still limited in performance due to their small lens and sensor sizes. Smartphones are also ergonomically constrained as they cannot provide a viewfinder or physical buttons. Some smartphones now have two rear-facing lenses — one for wide-angle and one for portrait view — enabling new creative possibilities. But apart from a few experimental phones, they don’t let you switch the lenses and don’t have zoom lenses either.
Offering convenience over features, a smartphone may well be all you need.
Compact cameras have lost much market share to smartphones in recent years. This is understandable as entry-level point-and-shoot cameras produce images of roughly similar quality to many smartphones. So if you’re going to buy a compact, consider going for something a bit more advanced, as this will give you image quality beyond what a phone can already achieve. As compacts become more specialized and upmarket they have seen increasingly better lenses and sensors, and many even come with full manual controls and RAW shooting mode. That said, they often do not offer interchangeable lenses, which some may find limiting.
A premium compact is a perfect choice for the enthusiast or beginner.
Mirrorless cameras are the ideal type of camera offering a full set of features while also staying portable and lightweight. These cameras are an evolution of the older DSLR type camera and manage to be much more compact as they don’t have to house an optical mirror. The category has seen a lot of innovation in recent years, and while they can still be a bit pricier than conventional DSLRs, they are much-loved for travel photography. Mirrorless cameras often have lots of manual controls that let you make quick adjustments on the fly, as well as allowing interchangeable lenses.
Many of the ultimate travel cameras are in this category.
Finally, if your trip will involve a lot of sports and outdoor- or water-based activities, you may wish to get a rugged action camera instead.
Best smartphones for photography
While smartphones will never be a substitute for a dedicated camera, recent models with two rear-facing lenses will give you much greater versatility than any regular smartphone camera. Two such dual-camera phones currently stand out:
Samsung Galaxy Note 8
This is Samsung’s first dual-lens camera. It has one wide-angle f/1.7 lens similar to what you’ll find on the Galaxy S8+, plus an f/2.4 telephoto lens. Having one normal wide angle lens plus a zoomed-in portrait lens allows you to take a variety of travel pictures at high quality. Unlike the iPhone 7 Plus, both lenses have optical image stabilization, which will help you to avoid blurry pictures. The Galaxy Note 8 can also create a simulated bokeh effect (deliberate blurry background) for stylish portraits and detail photography.
Apple iPhone 7 Plus
This device originally introduced the concept of having two front-facing lenses. The iPhone 7 Plus features a familiar 28mm f/1.8 lens also found on other iPhones, but paired with an additional 56mm f/2.8 telelens. Only the wide angle lens has optical image stabilization. Both lenses can be used in conjunction to create an artificial depth-of-field effect (blurry background) which opens up new creative possibilities for your travel photography. Some say Apple no longer has the very best sensors and lenses in the industry, but I was impressed by the image quality and low-light performance when using the iPhone 7 Plus.
Best compact travel cameras
Compacts offer a great trade-off between versatility and small size. When it comes to premium compacts, three product lines are especially worth looking at.
1. Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II
I used to shoot with an earlier version of this camera before switching to a more fully-featured mirrorless. I recommend taking a look at the PowerShot G7 X if you need a camera that ticks most boxes while staying compact and affordable.
The lens has a wonderful maximum aperture of f/1.8, which means it will perform 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.
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. It doesn’t have a viewfinder though; you’ll have to rely on the screen only.
I recommend the G7 X model over the newer G9 X. While their internal systems 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 that doesn’t tilt. Sometimes the higher number doesn’t actually mean it’s better!
2. Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100
When it comes to camera technology you’re often dealing with trade-offs. The Lumix DMC-ZS100, for example, prioritizes zoom range over other aspects. With its 10X zoom (or 25-250mm equivalent lens) you’ll be able to capture scenes that are far away, though with apertures ranging from f/2.8 to f/5.9 this also comes at a sacrifice to speed and low-light performance.
But no matter. This camera is a wonderful choice if you’re looking for a great in-between balance of zoom range and image quality. While low light performance and background blur aren’t as nice as on the PowerShot G7 X, the level of optical zoom available will give you great versatility.
It also comes with many wonderful features. 5-axis image stabilization helps to ensure your pictures don’t turn out blurry very easily. And with a built-in digital viewfinder the Lumix DMC-ZS100 is also nicer to use than other compacts that only let you frame your photos using the screen.
It’s a fantastic compact for enthusiasts looking to capture subjects both far and near while also maintaining great picture quality.
3. Sony RX100 V
The latest RX100 may not be the cheapest compact on the market, but its specs are seriously impressive. Its 1″ sensor is known for delivering higher image quality and less noise. In what is a first for a single-lens compact, the latest Mark V version even boasts a phase-detection autofocus system, which is more advanced than the typical contrast detection AF found on many competing products.
The fifth or the fourth iterations have a 24-70mm lens instead of the 28-100mm of previous models. This is a matter of preference, but the extra 4mm at the wide end are great for travel as this lets you take pictures of interiors or wide landscapes more easily (personally I 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 a gorgeous 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.
The RX100 V is a great choice if you’re looking for a top-of-the-line compact that also includes some of the best video features for this type of device. I’ve seen absolutely stunning travel videos shot with this camera.
Best mirrorless travel cameras
Mirrorless cameras provide a full range of features, as well as letting you put different lenses on them. They’re the most lightweight and compact “full cameras” that you can get, making them ideal for taking on the road.
1. Panasonic Lumix GX8
The Lumix GX8 is the camera I currently shoot with and I absolutely love it. While there are many Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market, the GX8 ticked all the boxes for me. I chose it for its 5-axis image stabilization as well as its fully articulating screen, which is perfect for taking photos from unusual angles, selfies, or even vlogging. It’s also weather-sealed, making it less of a worry to take into dusty or rainy environments as you travel. If you’d like to know more, I recently did a full review of the GX8.
The Micro Four Thirds sensor format is smaller than the APS-C format found on products like the Sony a6000 series. This means its low-light performance isn’t quite as good, but this is also outweighed by other advantages.
The key advantage of MFT is the low weight of the lenses. A 12-35mm zoom lens (24-70mm full-frame equivalent) at a constant 2.8 aperture weighs just 300 grams (11 ounces). A comparable lens on the Sony Alphas, or on a Canon DSLR system, weighs over 1 kilo (2 pounds) — in other words the Micro Four Thirds lens is three times lighter. The extreme portability of the Micro Four Thirds lenses makes this a perfect system for travel photography, especially if you like to carry multiple lenses.
Keep in mind that with interchangeable lens systems, you often still have to buy the lens separately. The price shown here is for the camera body only.
I’m a huge fan of the Lumix GX8, though there are other less costly Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II.
2. Sony a6300
Sony’s a6000 series has quickly become a favorite among enthusiast travel photographers. It’s a camera I’ve loved using on a number of occasions and nearly purchased for myself.
At the moment the Sony a6300 version has a great balance of high specs and value-for-money. It features a 3” tilting LCD screen, weather-sealing, an electronic viewfinder, and an autofocus with a whopping 425-point detection system. A newer Sony Alpha a6500 has also been released, which adds 5-axis in-body stabilization and a touchscreen, but it is significantly pricier.
This camera is in a roughly similar category as the Panasonic GX8, though a key difference being that it has a larger APS-C sensor, which results in less noise when shooting in low-light situations. If you’re often shooting at night or at dusk, this may be a more important factor to you. The a6300 is usually paired with a 16-50mm kit lens, but for better image quality, consider pairing it with a 35mm prime or a 16-70mm zoom.
The Sony a6300 is a highly capable video camera as well, offering 4K recording, external mic input, slow-motion video at 120fps, and s-log recording (which is usually a pro-level feature). This makes an attractive camera even for experienced videographers.
While I think the Micro Four Thirds format is more attractive due to its portability, if you’re looking for an APS-C sensor mirrorless (which is a sensor equivalent to entry-level DSLRs) then the Sony 6300 is a perfect choice. The manual control and digital menus on the a6300 can be a bit more fiddly than on other cameras, but it’s the tech inside that really impresses.
3. Fujifilm X-T20
Like the Sony a6000 series the X-T20 is also an APS-C format camera, though with arguably better ergonomics. The Fujifilm X-T20 feels closer to a traditional SLR-styled camera with a few more manual control dials and a larger and more comfortable viewfinder. Not that looks are always important, but its retro design is quite attractive as well! Its build quality is worth noting too, with a design using magnesium alloy over plastic, though unlike the mirrorless cameras mentioned previously it is not weather-sealed.
It has a built-in touchscreen, a feature that’s lacking in the similarly priced Sony a6300. The tilting screen helps you take photos from different angles, though it is not fully articulating like the Panasonic GX8.
The video features on the X-T20 aren’t quite as good as on the Sony a6300, but if you’re looking for a still photography camera with an APS-C sensor and with a more traditional design and operation, this may well be your best bet.
Best action travel camera
If you are planning an active trip, you may be more interested in an action camera. But no longer used just for filming extreme sports, action cameras can also double as a half-decent all-purpose travel camera.
GoPro HERO 6
GoPro is the go-to action camera. It’s built to take a beating and benefits from a huge ecosystem of accessories that lets you strap the camera to pretty much anything. A GoPro is the best camera for adventure travel but it honestly isn’t ideal for taking normal photos of tourist sights and the like.
You can check out my impressions of the pros and cons in more detail in my full review of the GoPro.
I have been traveling with a GoPro since 2014. To me it serves mainly as a specialized video camera for when I’m mountain biking, paragliding, jumping off cliffs, and other such shenanigans. It’s also an amazing underwater camera and so I end up using it a lot when scuba diving, or when I’m in tropical countries (such as in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia) where I spend a lot of time in and around the water.
Key things to consider
While I’ve shared with you my personal picks above, let me round up this post with some general camera buying advice.
The following are some key things to keep in mind when choosing the best travel camera for you.
Travel photography can involve truly anything: landscapes, portraits, macro, wildlife, abstract, even action or sports. A good travel camera should therefore cover many different scenarios. On a compact you’ll probably want a lens covering a wide zoom range, and on an interchangeable system you’ll either want a lens covering a versatile zoom range or a set of specialized lenses.
That said, more zoom isn’t always better! Lenses with an extreme zoom factor are often compromised in other ways, leading to poorer image quality. Extremely zoomed-in pictures often look bad or blurry anyway due to atmospheric effects or the (usually) slow speeds at such focal lengths.
It’s often better to go for a balanced lens. For example, a 10X compact can perform much better overall than a 30X, and a 24-70mm lens can be much sharper than a 24-300mm. Don’t assume more zoom always means it’s a better camera because the opposite is often true.
A prime lens (without zoom) doesn’t have to be bad either. It can give you beautiful background blur and encourages you to move around and get more creative with your shots.
Size and portability
Having a full-frame DSLR with a full bag of lenses might be nice at home or in a studio, but you won’t have much fun carrying that gear up Mount Kilimanjaro! Even a smaller DSLR may be too much bulk to bother with for the casual photographer just wanting some nice holiday snaps.
I used to have a lot of heavy kit and I kept leaving it at my hotel because I couldn’t be bothered to carry it all the time. This made me miss a lot of spontaneous moments. I later switched to a compact and then a mirrorless, and these let me happily carry them all day long without complaints.
That’s why on this page I’ve focused on lightweight and portable devices only. Consider getting either a good smartphone, a compact camera, or a mirrorless camera, as all of these categories are known for their low weight and high portability. A regular DSLR will be bulkier than a mirrorless and you should consider this only if budget is of key concern (as they are still a bit cheaper).
This goes hand-in-hand with portability. A smaller camera will attract less attention, which is comforting especially when visiting countries that are poor or where theft is common.
A smaller camera is also more suited to street photography or taking natural portraits. When you point a big chunky lens at people’s faces it inevitably makes their behaviour change, as they will treat you like you’re a professional photographer, but a less-assuming camera will get you a more natural look.
Travel can put you in situations you don’t ordinarily find yourself. A sandy desert is a bad place to be if your camera isn’t weather-sealed (as sand can easily get inside the electronics). Any situation involving water can be problematic too; for example, after shooting the epic waterfalls of Iguazu in Brazil, my Canon DSLR crapped out because of all the water vapor in the air.
If you are going to do a lot of extreme stuff then an action camera inside a protective casing, such as a GoPro, will be the most suitable.
That said, even for ordinary use it’s nice if your camera is weather-sealed. Not all cameras on the above list are, though realistically this is fine as long as you keep your camera away from heavy rain, extreme dust, and so on. Still, it’s very nice not to have to worry about these issues, so you may wish to go with a camera that is not so easily affected by adverse conditions.
Best travel cameras
List of cameras mentioned on this page:
- Canon PowerShot G7X
- Lumix DMC-ZS100
- Sony RX100 V
- Panasonic Lumix GX8
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II
- Sony Alpha a6300
- Fujifilm XT-20
- GoPro HERO 5
Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links with earn me a small commission if you decide to buy a product (more about this here). Thanks to camera reviewers Rajib Mukherjee and John Scott for contributions to this guide.