How to Pick The Best Camera for Travel

One of the most popular questions I’m asked by readers of this blog, both here and on our social media channels like Facebook & Instagram, is what camera I use for my travel photography.

I’m asked it so often in fact that I wrote a whole post about our travel photography gear.

The thing is though, the travel photography gear I travel with is specific to our needs as full time travel bloggers and photographers, and won’t be right for everyone. With that in mind, I wanted to put together a definitive (and regularly updated) guide to choosing the best camera for travel, along with some suggestions for the best camera to travel with, based on your needs and budget.

We’ll also cover our top picks for the best smartphones, compact cameras, mirrorless cameras, and DSLR cameras for travel photography that suit a wide range of budgets, needs, and expertise levels.

Let’s get started by looking at what you need to think about when picking the best camera for travel.

 

What To Consider When Picking A Travel Camera

 

Budget – How much do you have to spend?

This is an important one. Cameras vary wildly in price, from a couple of hundred dollars up to thousands of dollars. So you definitely need to think about how much you want to spend.

Also, this is a travel camera. Whilst you want to get the best shots, travel can expose you to risks, from loss to theft. Obviously, these are things that can be mitigated against with insurance, but it’s something to bear in mind when making an investment – the more pricey the camera, the higher the insurance premium.

Finally, don’t forget that the camera is only a part of the puzzle. You will also need things like memory cards, spare batteries, lenses - as well as possibly a tripod and filters. Your needs will vary, but don’t forget to include them in your overall budget – I’ve written a post on travel photography accessories to give you some pointers.

Weight – How much are you willing to carry around?

This is a really important question. If you’re the kind of person who likes to travel light, then you’re not going to want a bulky DSLR. Even a mirrorless system might be too much for you if you want something that will truly fit in your pocket or purse, and your best bet is probably a smartphone or compact camera.

On the other hand, if image quality and low-light performance are more important to you than weight, and you’re happy carrying spare lenses, filters, and other accessories, then you’ll likely be looking at a mirrorless or DSLR system.

Remember, as a general rule of thumb, the bigger the camera, the more room it has for a larger sensor. A larger sensor means the camera can capture more light, which means you’ll get sharper, cleaner images even when shooting in darker situations.

Use – What are you going to be taking pictures of?

The type of photography you’re going to be doing makes a big different to the type of camera you will be buying. If your main goal is to take nice travel photos for your albums, social media, and to post to friends and family online, then any of the camera types will likely do the job. However, if you’re going to be doing a lot of action photography, or need the camera to be fully waterproof, then something like a GoPro is going to be the best option.

If you like astrophotography, you’re going to need a camera with a big sensor to let in plenty of light and you might want to invest in a DSLR. Conversely, if you just want a general purpose camera with plenty of flexibility for a variety of travel scenes, from food to landscapes to people, then something like a mirrorless system will most likely be best, offering the best performance for the weight.

Extra features

A lot of cameras these days come with extra features that you may or may not care about. I’m talking about touchscreen interfaces, built-in GPS, WiFi, weather resistance, pivoting screens, and so on.

The main features you should be looking at in terms of actual image quality are the sensor size, aperture range, level of manual control, and, for camera’s without an interchangeable lens, the optical zoom. Beyond that, which features you are interested in depend on your needs.

For example, you may also want to take videos with your camera. Some cameras are much better at video than others – notably Panasonic’s range of Lumix camera’s are known for their video performance.

Personally, I love having a camera with GPS and WiFi capabilities so I can easily remember where my shots were taken, plus I can remote control my camera from my smartphone. On the other hand, a touchable, pivoting screen isn’t a deal breaker. What works for me might not work for you though, so think about which features are important to you when making a purchasing decision.

 

Photography Terminology To Know When Buying a Travel Camera

Like any subject, photography brings with it a raft of terminology – some of it is important to know about, other things are manufacturer buzzwords that don’t really make any difference to your photography. Here are the important terms to look for when buying a travel camera, and what they mean.

Aperture. The aperture is the hole in the lens that lets light in. It’s measured in numbers, with an “f” preceding the number, for example, f/1.8, f/2.2. The smaller the number after the “f”, the bigger the hole, and the more light that gets in. Look for smaller numbers, which will let you get better pictures even when there is less light available.

Optical zoom. This represents the difference between the smallest and largest magnification that the camera’s lens can achieve. So a camera with a 10x optical zoom can make objects seem 10x bigger in the image compared to when the camera is zoomed out.

Digital zoom. A totally pointless feature that some manufacturers add to their cameras. It’s basically a software zoom – the same effect you get if you zoom in on your PC or smartphone when you have an image. Avoid using it.

Focal length. Focal length is the proper photography term for optical zoom, and is a standard across lenses and manufactures. Optical zoom is an easy to understand number that you will find in point and shoot cameras. Focal length, measured in mm, is the number you will find on cameras with interchangeable lenses. The bigger the focal length, the more magnification the lens offers.

EVF. An electronic viewfinder. This means that the camera has a viewfinder, but rather than being a glass based version that shows the scene in front of you as your eye sees it, instead there’s a small electronic screen which shows what the camera sensor is seeing – the same as the display on the back of the camera. You generally only find these on high end mirrorless cameras.

Megapixels. Megapixels just refers to the number of pixels the camera’s sensor has. Mega means million. So 12 megapixels is 12 million pixels, and would be an image 4000 pixels wide and 3000 pixels high. 4000 * 3000 = 12 million.

Thankfully, manufacturers are nearly over the megapixel war, which is a good thing, because as long as you have over about 12 megapixels, you’re good to go. In some cases, such as smartphones, less megapixels is actually better, as you’ll probably get better low-light performance as each pixel on the sensor might be bigger. But yes, unless you’re planning on printing out your images on billboard sized canvases, you can essentially ignore the megapixel marketing.

OIS / EIS. These are image stabilisation technologies, either Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) or Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS). OIS is found in a number of camera and lens systems, and a small number of smartphones, and is a mechanical system that compensates for small movements of the camera system, such as your hand. EIS is generally only found in smartphones, and is a software solution for motion compensation. OIS generally achieves better results.

Sensor size. The size of the sensor inside a camera is one of the most important specifications to be aware of. The bigger the sensor, the more light it can capture, and so the better it will perform in conditions where there is less light. Sensor sizes range from tiny, such as those found in smartphones, and generally increase in size as the size of the camera increases. Here’s a diagram to show different sensor sizes, and you can read more about different formats here.

Do be aware that manufactures can be a bit sneaky when it comes to describing sensor sizes, particularly in compact cameras. They might for example, talk about having a “1-inch” sensor. This refers to the type of sensor, rather than it’s physical size. So whilst a 1/2.3 inch sensor is smaller than a 1-inch sensor, neither sensor is actually close to 1/2.3 inch or 1 inch. See more on how physical sensor sizes map to actual sensor sizes here.

RAW. RAW is a file format that more advanced camera’s use, allowing you to save the unmodified image data that the camera has captured, rather than the edited JPG version. This gives you much greater control over the final look of your images, with the downside that file sizes are much bigger, and you have to edit them on your computer in an image editing program before you can use them anywhere.

Many cameras give you the option to shoot in RAW, JPEG/JPG, or to shoot in both. We recommend shooting in both even if you plan only to use the JPG version for now – in the future as your photography skills develop, you’ll be pleased to have the option to go back and edit the original RAW files.

If you are interested in learning more about photography and understanding in detail all the terms above and how they affect your shots, check out my travel photography course, which has all the answers you need across 33 awesome lessons.

 

The Best Travel Cameras for Every Budget

I’ve divided this list into the different types of camera for travel, with some information on what to look for in each category. Then, each section has a series of travel camera recommendations ordered by price, from lowest price to highest price, which I will keep updated with the latest travel camera options.

This should give you everything you need to know to help you make a decision on which travel camera to buy, based on your budget, usage scenario and luggage space.

 

Smartphones

 

Why pick a Smartphone for Travel Photography?

If you care about portability, ease of use, and not having to carry another device around with you, then my advice is to get a smartphone with a decent camera, and just use that. The latest smartphones take excellent photos in a wide variety of situations, and you can share the images directly from the smartphone to your favourite social media platforms, plus have them automatically back up to the cloud as you go using something like the Google Photos app.

In addition, since a smartphone is a device that nearly all of us will be travelling with anyway, choosing one which takes good photos is a cost-effective way of buying a camera.

The main disadvantages are the lack of lens options, reduced manual controls, and generally poor performance in low-light due to the small sensor. But if you want something you’re always going to have on you, a smartphone is hard to beat.

Finally, I’d also add that’s its worth picking a smartphone with a good camera even if you plan on buying a standalone camera. It will serve as a good backup, and you are likely to always have it on you.

What to Look For When Buying a Smartphone for Travel Photography

Manufacturers are fairly inventive when it comes to squeezing tech into tiny smartphone bodies, but obviously there’s a limit to what can be achieved in such a small form factor.

Features to look out for include a wide aperture, which will let more light in, and let you capture shots in low light conditions. Some smartphone manufacturers talk about having bigger pixel sizes. This relates to the physical size of the pixels on the sensor, a number measured in µm, or micrometers. Larger pixel sizes are good as they are more light sensitive and help low light performance.

Speaking of pixels, be wary of high megapixel numbers. In my opinion, anything above 16MP is a warning sign that the manufacturer is trying to win you over with high numbers – you really want less megapixels, as each pixel can then be bigger to capture more light.

Other features to look out for are some form of stabilisation, either optical or electronic, which will let you get photos in lower light and compensate for your hand movement. Better smartphones will have more manual controls to give you more options for your photos. There are different types of focusing system, but I’ve never found a lot of variation between them. Waterproofing can be a benefit, meaning you can get photos in the rain or at the beach.

Also if you plan to travel internationally with your phone a lot, try to choose an unlocked phone so you can put a foreign SIM card in, and that works on multiple frequencies so you still get 3G and LTE/4G. and can still easily use it to call, text, and get online when travelling internationally. Here’s an excellent resource for finding out which phones work on which networks in which countries.

The Best Smartphone for Travel Photography

Here are five suggestions for current phones which I think are some of the best smartphones for travel photography and should definitely at least get you started in your search:

1. Xiaomi Mi 5

Best Smartphone for Travel Photography

A huge name in China, but not well established yet elsewhere, Xiaomi offers cutting edge tech at great prices. The Mi5 offers OIS, a 16MP sensor, a dual flash and a Sony sensor. In everything other than low light photography, it performs very well, and is a bargain price to boot. ~400 USD.

 

2. LG G5

A dual camera phone, the LG G5 uses the two lenses to allow you to simulate optical zoom. One camera is a super-wide angle 8MP lens with an f/2.0 aperture, and the other is a more standard 16MP option with f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilisation. This gives you more flexibility when framing your shots, letting you choose between getting more in (wide-angle), or using the 16MP lens to get closer to the action. ~450USD.

 

3. Nexus 6P

A phone made by Google, the Nexus 6P is a great camera phone. With a 12.3MP sensor toting huge 1.55µm sized pixels and an f/2.0 lens, this is a great pick at a reasonable price. There’s no OIS, but the phone makes effective use of EIS for video. There’s a new version of the Google phone – the Pixel, but in terms of the camera hardware it’s essentially identical and not worth the price difference in our opinion. ~550USD.

 

4. Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung’s flagship Galaxy phones are known for their superior photography capabilities, and the Galaxy S7 is no exception. Skipping dual camera gimmicks, instead the S7 focuses on solid internals and a great specification. With an f/1.7 aperture lens, large 1.4µm pixels on a 12MP sensor and OIS – all packaged in a waterproof smartphone, it’s no wonder that it is usually found at the top of the pile when people review cameras for smartphones. ~550 USD. 

 

 

5. iPhone 7

If you’re an Apple fan, you probably won’t even be considering the other phones in this list, and will be making a bee-line for the iPhone 7, despite it being the priciest option in the list. It might be expensive, but at least Apple makes phones with great cameras. The iPhone 7 offers a 12MP sensor with 1.22um sized pixels, OIS and an f/1.8 aperture. A no brainer for Apple people.  ~700 USD.

 

Compact Travel Cameras

 

Why pick a Compact Travel Camera for Travel Photography?

A compact travel camera offers a number of advantages. First, they offer larger sensors than most smartphones, so image quality and performance is usually improved. They are pocketable, so easy to take with you. They also tend to be designed to be more user friendly (hence the nickname point-and-shoot cameras) and are generally much less expensive than mirrorless and DSLR camera systems. Many models offer manual controls, and having a separate device means you can keep on taking photos even if your smartphone battery is on the way out.

One of the biggest advantages though, and the reason to pick a compact travel camera over a smartphone, is the optical zoom. All the compact travel cameras we feature have an optical zoom (except the GoPros), letting you get shots of distant objects that you wouldn’t be able to get with a smartphone.

The main disadvantages are the smaller sensor sizes compared to a mirrorless or DSLR and the lack of interchangeable lenses.

What to look for when buying a Compact Travel Camera for Travel Photography

There are a variety of features that compact travel cameras offer for travel photography. Key features to look for are the optical zoom, and specifically, how much optical zoom the camera offers. Other features include the size of the sensor – the bigger the sensor, the better the performance – the maximum aperture, and whether or not there is some form of image stabilisation technology built in.

Any camera with a long optical zoom needs excellent image stabilisation, as the more you zoom in, the more exacerbated tiny movements become.

Other features to consider depending on your needs include GPS, WiFi and touchscreen capabilities. Some more advanced compact travel cameras also include manual modes, which can really help you get the most out of them, and some even shoot in RAW. Let’s take a look at our pick of the best compact travel cameras.

Best Compact Travel Camera

Here are seven suggestions for recent compact travel cameras which I think are some of the best options for travel photography:

1. Panasonic Lumix ZS50 / (TZ60 in UK)

Best Compact Travel Camera

Whilst this camera is a little older, it’s still no slouch, and pricing is great for it. With a 30x optical zoom, a 12MP 1/2.3 inch sensor and OIS, this camera puts out some great shots even in lower light conditions. ~280USD

 

2. Canon Powershot SX720

With a 40x optical zoom, image stabilisation, and WiFi, the SX720 offers a lot for the price. At 1/2.3in, the sensor isn’t that big, so low-light performance and noise control are a bit of an issue, especially as the aperture only goes to f3.3, and at maximum zoom, is all the way down at f/6.9  Still, it’s one of the best optical zooms out there and the price is excellent. ~330USD

 

3. Canon Powershot G9 X

Compared to previous cameras in the list the G9X has a larger, 1-inch sensor type, helping you get better pictures in lower light. It has more manual controls, allows for RAW shooting, and an aperture that starts at f/2. The optical zoom isn’t too impressive at 3x, but you definitely get improved image quality from that larger sensor. ~430USD

 

4. Sony RX100

Sony has an extensive range of RX100 cameras (see a comparison between them here), and this, the original version, was one of the first compact travel cameras to feature the large 1-inch type sensor, as well as full manual controls and RAW shooting. It also has a fast f/1.8 aperture and a 3x optical zoom. It’s a little long in the tooth now, but you can pick one up for a great price, hence the inclusion in this list. ~450USD

 

5. Panasonic Lumix ZS100 (TZ100 in UK)

Panasonic’s 1-inch sensor camera model is no slouch, with an f/2.8 aperture lens and an impressive 10x optical zoom. It also has full manual controls, a touchscreen interface, EVF, OIS and RAW shooting. It’s a little more pricey, but that optical zoom is a definite bonus in the 1-inch sensor category. ~700USD

 

6. Sony RX100 V

There’s a big jump in price to Sony’s latest RX100 model, the RX100 V, which is one of the best compact travel cameras money can buy. Whilst the base specs are similar in terms of aperture and that still relatively limited optical zoom, the RX100 V features incredibly fast autofocus, an EVF, and a tilting screen to tempt you.   ~1000USD

 

7. GoPro Hero 5

Worth a mention in this category is the GoPro Hero range. Whilst GoPro’s don’t offer optical zooms, they do excel at action photography. If you need something that’s going to survive water and action, then the GoPro line is the best option out there.  ~400USD

 

Mirrorless Travel Cameras

 

Why pick a Mirrorless Travel Camera for Travel Photography?

A mirrorless travel camera is a relatively new development in the travel camera space. They are similar to DSLR camera’s, however they do not have an internal mirror to reflect light from the lens to the optical viewfinder. This means that they can be smaller, lighter and more portable – ideal for travel photography.

They also have all the other benefits of a DSLR – larger sensors, manual controls, excellent image quality and interchangeable lenses.

In terms of disadvantages, they are of course larger and heavier than smartphones or compact travel cameras and are more expensive, especially when you factor in one or two good lenses. Compared to DSLR’s, they generally have poorer battery life, and less lens choice – although this latter is improving as mirrorless systems mature.

What to look for when buying a Mirrorless Travel Camera for Travel Photography

Mirrorless cameras come with different sensor sizes, from the micro 4/3 format up to full frame. All of these are larger than those you will find in compact travel cameras or smartphones, and again, the larger the sensor, the more light the camera can capture in any given situation.

Another key factor to consider is the lens selection. Different manufacturers offer different lens systems, so it’s worth investigating to be sure there are sufficient lens choices for the kind of photography you want to be doing. Also be aware that whilst most mirrorless cameras ship with a kit lens, you can also buy them without a kit lens and then buy a more suitable lens for your needs.

Other considerations include the screen type, if the camera has an EVF, WiFi, water resistance, focus system and so on.

Also be aware that all of the camera manufacturer's below have a range of mirrorless options – I’ve done my best to highlight those that offer the best combination of price and features for travel photography.

Best Mirrorless Travel Camera

Based on a few years of experience shooting with a variety of different mirrorless camera systems, and feedback from fellow travel photographers, we’re put together our list of five of the best mirrorless travel cameras:

1. Sony a6000

Best Mirrorless Travel Camera

We’ve been recommending the Sony a6000 as the best budget mirrorless travel camera for a long time, and I believe it still fits that bill. With an APS-C sized sensor (the same as you find in most DSLR’s), fast autofocus, a tilting screen, EVF and a wide range of lenses, plus WiFi, this is an excellent bit of kit for the price. ~550USD (body only)

 

2. Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II

Olympus’s, mirrorless cameras use the micro 4/3 sensor, which is a bit smaller than the APS-C size sensor found in the Sony or Fuji cameras. This doesn’t make a huge difference in my experience to image quality. The Olympus has an excellent in camera stabilisation system (Sony and Fuji only offer lens based stabilisation to date), an EVF, a (fixed) touchscreen and WiFi connectivity. There’s also a wide range of micro 4/3 lenses available. ~650USD (body only)

 

3. Fujifilm X-T10

Fuji makes an excellent range of mirrorless camera’s and the X-T10 is one of the best value options. Featuring an APS-C sized sensor, excellent build quality and a reputation for taking superb photos. You also get an EVF, a tilting (non-touch) screen and WiFi. ~800USD (body only)

 

4. Panasonic Lumix GX8

Like Olympus, Panasonic’s mirrorless cameras use the micro 4/3 sensor. Whilst this camera is a bit pricey, there are a number of advantages. To start with, Panasonic cameras are known for excellent video performance. The GX8 also has the advantages of a fully tilting touchscreen, 4K video, excellent sensor based optical stabilisation, a wide lens choice (most micro 4/3 lenses will work) and a weather sealed body. The latter is brilliant if you’re out and about in adverse weather and don’t want to worry to much about ruining your camera. ~1000USD (body only)

 

5. Sony Alpha a7 II

A bit of a price jump now, but I wanted to include a full frame option in this list. A full frame camera has a sensor that is approximately equivalent to a frame of 35mm film, and they generally offer the best image quality and low-light performance. They are also the most expensive. Sony made waves when they introduced their mirrorless full-frame system, and they now have a variety of products at a range of prices. The a7 II in my mind represents the best value of the full frame mirrorless options, with in-body image stabilisation, a tilting LCD, WiFi and relatively fast autofocus. It’s all about that sensor though – if you want to go full frame with your mirrorless camera, look no further.  ~1700USD

 

DSLR Travel Cameras

 

Why pick a DSLR Travel Camera for Travel Photography?

If travel photography is something you intend to pursue at a professional level, then in my opinion a DSLR is still the way to go. The lens selection for DSLR cameras is still unbeaten, the optical viewfinder means that battery life is superior, and image quality is generally fantastic.

In addition, if you have already been using a DSLR travel camera and have a selection of lenses, then upgrading to a new body from the same manufacturer makes sense as you don’t have to invest in new lenses. The learning curve will also be reduced as most menu options and terminology remains the same between models from the same manufacturer.

The main disadvantages of a DSLR are the weight and cost – the weight in particular, especially when you add in some high quality lenses, is a real issue for many users.

If this is your first travel camera purchase, then I suggest that a mirrorless camera is a better choice for most travel photography use. They offer all the control you need in a smaller, lighter package, with an ideal balance of portability and image quality.

What to look for when buying a DSLR Travel Camera for Travel Photography

DSLR’s tend to be the largest type of camera, so one thing that is important to look for is that the camera is comfortable in your hand. My suggestion is to visit a store and try the camera in hand, with a variety of lenses attached, to see how they perform before making a purchase. Canon and Nikon still rule the cameras in this category.

Features are fairly similar across most DSLR’s in terms of capability. They’ll either offer an APS-C sized sensor, or, more expensively, a full frame sensor.

Other features to look for include the ISO range, lens selection, weather resistance, GPS, WiFi, touch screen, autofocus system and number of control dials. More dials can be a good thing – letting you quickly set the camera up for different needs without having to dive into menu options.

Best DSLR Travel Camera

We personally travel with both mirrorless camera’s and DSLR’s – for our work as travel photographers we still love our full frame DSLR – the image quality and lens selection still make these a great choice for us. Based on our experiences, here are the top five DSLR travel camera’s available at the moment:

 

1. Nikon D3300

Best DSLR Travel Camera

The Nikon D3300 is the entry level Nikon to beat. Whilst there is a newer model of this camera, the D3400, I don’t feel it offers sufficient value for the price premium. It has a 24.4 APS-C sized sensor, reasonable performance and an excellent selection of lenses. To be honest, there’s not much between this and the Canon below, it really depends what works for you. ~350USD (body only)

2. Canon Rebel SL1 (EOS 100D in Europe)

The Canon Rebel line is an excellent series of good value entry-level DSLR cameras, and the SL1 is no exception. It’s one of the smaller SLR camera’s Canon has made, and offers great performance for an excellent price. Specs include a touchscreen, 18MP sensor and compatibility with all of Canon’s lenses (and a great many third party lenses.). If a touchscreen isn’t as important to you as wifi, consider the similarly priced but slightly larger Rebel T6/1300D. ~400USD (body only)

 

3. Nikon D7200

Moving up into the “prosumer” category of DSLR camera’s, and Nikon’s version is the D7200. This is Nikon’s high end APS-C camera, with a 24.2MP sensor, fast autofocus, a weather sealed body, dual SD card slots and Wi-Fi. It is missing a touchscreen, and the screen is also fixed. If you’re looking to upgrade from an existing consumer focused Nikon to something a bit more professional from the Nikon range, this is a good choice. ~1000USD

 

4. Canon EOS 80D

And now for Canon’s high end APS-C camera, a logical upgrade from the Rebel line. The EOS 80D features a 24.2MP sensor, a very sensitive autofocus system, weather-sealing, WiFi, a movable touchscreen and WiFi. A great upgrade for any Canon user. ~1100USD

 

5. Canon EOS 6D

Finally, my favourite DSLR for travel photography – the EOS 6D. This is a full frame camera, offering excellent low-light performance from a 20.2MP sensor, weather sealing, as well as built-in GPS and WiFi. There’s no touchscreen, and the screen doesn’t move, but it’s solidly built, and can be picked up for an excellent price if you shop around, especially considering it’s a full-frame camera. Just be aware that it’s only compatible with “EF” mount lenses – any “EF-S” mount lenses from other Canon bodies won’t work. ~1500USD

 

Further travel photography reading and resources

And that summarises my guide to picking the best camera for travel photography! Hopefully you found it useful. I’ll be keeping it up to date as new camera models come out and prices change. In the meantime, if you’re looking for more resources to help you make the most out of your travel photography, check out the following resources I’ve put together:

And we’re done! Thanks for reading – if you’ve got any comments, feedback or suggestions, just let me know in the comments below.

Tips and advice on how to pick the best camera for travel, including what to look for, and suggestions in every category including the best smartphone, compact, mirrorless and DSLR cameras for travel photography!




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