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, so is getting the right camera overall. That could 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 important. Travel photography can involve truly anything: andscapes, portraits, macro, wildlife, abstract, even action or sports. A good travel camera should cover many different scenarios.
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 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. 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 key. 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 thinner bodies and lower weight.
Types of travel cameras
While the lines between these can get blurry, broadly speaking there are the following categories of travel cameras to consider:
||Easy sharing. 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.||Only incremental upgrade from many smartphone cameras.|
Best for beginner looking to upgrade
|Better lenses & sensors, full manual controls. Can usually shoot RAW, not just JPEG.||No changeable lenses.|
|Action camera (GoPro)||Great for video. Protective housing and many action mounts.||Crummy photos. (Read my GoPro review.)|
|DSLR||Changeable lenses, full range of features.||Larger and weigh more. Only incremental updates to popular product lines.|
Best serious multi-lens cameras for travel
|Smaller, lighter, changeable lenses. Innovative tech.||Can be pricier, at least for now.|
Are you not too fussy? Then a cheaper compacts can do the trick, like a Canon PowerShot SX610 or a Nikon COOLPIX S7000. I used to shoot on a Canon PowerShot as a casual back-up camera, and they’re OK. A recent iPhone or Samsung Galaxy will have equal or better image quality though — so think twice if you already have a premium smartphone.
Want something better? Then you should go for either a premium compact (if pocket size is important) or a mirrorless with changeable lenses (for something more serious). Read on for a few up-to-date 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.
1. 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:
2. 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 more advanced than the G7 X’s contrast detection AF). This does come with a higher price tag.
The fifth or the fourth iteration have a 24-70mm lens instead of the 28-100mm of previous models. This is a matter of preference, but I’d say the extra 4mm at the wide end are great for travel as this lets you take pictures of interiors or wide landscapes more easily.
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: $998.00 view at amazon
3. 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: $797.99 view at amazon
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 changeable lenses.
1. Panasonic Lumix GX8
The Lumix GX8 is an impressive “it does everything” mirrorless camera for the serious enthusiast. It sits in the same category as Sony’s Alpha a6000 series, though the GX8 offers such features as a touch screen and in-body stabilisation at about $500 less than the a6500. It’s one of the few mirrorless cameras with a fully articulating screen, which is just perfect for 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’re after an awesome all-rounder portable mirrorless, this might just be the best choice at the moment. If you’d like to know more, I recently did a full review of the GX8.
It does use the smaller micro four-thirds sensor format, which can have a few disadvantages (mainly with low light performance). One 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 grams (11 ounces). A comparable lens on the Sony Alphas, or on a Canon DSLR system, weighs over 1 kilo (2 pounds).Price:
2. Sony Alpha a6300
Sony’s Alpha a6000 series is quickly becoming a favorite among enthusiast 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. It’s in a roughly similar category as the Panasonic GX8, though a key difference being that it has a larger APS-C sensor.
Videographers do complain about strong rolling shutter, though it offers 4K recording, external mic input, slow-motion video at 120fps, and s-log recording (which is usually a pro-level feature), making it a very capable video camera.
A newer Sony Alpha a6500 has also been released, which adds 5-axis in-body stabilisation and a touchscreen, but is significantly pricier. Arguably, the a6300 gives better value for money at the moment.Price: $998.00 view at amazon
3. Fujifilm X-T10
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: $1,099.00 view at amazon
4. 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 generally gotten amazing reviews so far, though the latest M5 is the first one to get some buzz. (I haven’t tried it yet, but thought I should include it here for completion’s sake.)
There are unfortunately only a handful of native lenses available for the system, though Canon does bundle the EOS M5 with its EF-M lens adapter ring, which makes virtually all existing EF and EF-S lenses compatible. Adapted lenses don’t perform as well as native ones, but if you already have Canon lenses (or wish to pick up some for cheap second-hand on eBay), then this could be an interesting argument in favor of the M5. For now, though, other manufacturers are still leading Canon in mirrorless cameras.Price: $1,099.00 view at amazon
Didn’t quite make the mirrorless list: the full-frame Sony A7 may be a favorite among professionals, but with price tags running into the multiple thousands for the latest models, and bigger lenses to pair with the bigger sensor, it may not be an obvious option for most people.
Budget SLR options
So far this list has been hugely focused on portability, with most attention given 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 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 this Canon SLR. Both the Nikon and Canon are fantastic cameras, and safe options if you don’t need to be exactly on the cutting edge. You can get package deals including a decent kit lens for around $500.Price: $524.49 view at amazon
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