“What’s the best travel camera?” It’s one of the most frequent questions we receive from readers. The advent of digital technology (and smartphones) has increased the interest in and the importance of photography to document one’s travels. We’re constantly bombarded with questions – from the best waterproof camera to the overall best camera for travel – so we decided to write one long article and share our expertise.
For background, we have always had an interest in photography, but the more we travel, the more that interest has strengthened. Like most people, we started out with one of the very basic travel cameras: a point-and-shot Kodak Easyshare. Since then, travel cameras have evolved, our skill has increased and we’ve sought out the best travel camera. Here are our thoughts.
How to Select the Best Travel Camera
We’re going to share the secret of the best travel camera now. The secret is, there is no secret. The best camera is the one that works for you. A lot of photographers get wrapped up in brand loyalty (Nikon vs. Canon) or the absolute best lens configuration. All of that gear-head talk misses the point: photography is meant to be fun. Unless you intend to be a semi-professional photographer, most cameras on the market have features you will never need and will never use. When selecting the best vacation camera for you, first think about how you will use it. Then figure out which camera fills those needs.
As we wrote in our 15 travel photography tips article, it’s not about how much money you spend on the gear. The best travel camera is the one that gets the job done. We wrote, “Great travel photos can be captured on almost any kind of camera. One of the best photos we ever took (and ultimately sold) was a quick snapshot on an iPhone. It just captured the right moment… You don’t need professional gear to take great shots. Sure it helps, but you can improve not matter what camera you are on.”
Just like cars, cameras have many different market segments. Some of the names can be quite confusing. We’ve tried to simplify the names and marketing terminology to help you focus on the best camera for your needs. The different types of cameras are: point and shoot, digital SLR, mirrorless and action camera. We’ll lay out the strengths and weaknesses of each below.
The Easiest Travel Camera
If you are looking for simple, the smartphone camera you already have is the simplest of all. It’s built in, compact, and is always with you. No matter where you go, you have the smartphone with you. These basic cameras are best for capturing snapshots or candid moments, while requiring no additional investment. While these are great, at some point you want to upgrade and begin taking better travel photos.
The Best Point and Shoot Travel Cameras
Point and shoot cameras go under the name of “compact digital cameras.” They come in two different flavors: basic (cheaper) and advanced (more expensive). If you are just started out in the world of travel photography, this is where you should be looking.
These “compact digital cameras” are…compact. That means, they are highly portable in both size and weight. You can slip them into your purse or backpack while you are out traveling for the day. Many of the point and shoot cameras come with some of the same features that are found in fancier DSLRs, but without the extraneous bells and whistles.
If your primary interest in travel photography is taking pictures of the family or buildings in Europe, a point and shoot will suit your needs.
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV
The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV product line offers amazing versatility in a pocket-sized camera. We recommend this camera because we personally own and use the predecessor camera: the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III. You can do it all with the Cyber-shot RX100: low-light, shooting in RAW and video. Another bonus to these is the ability to get an underwater housing and use it underwater (more on that later).
Sensor: 20MP 1”-type sensor
Cost: $950 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX100
The Panasonic LUMIX DMC-ZS100 is another solid compact, pocket-sized travel camera. This gem offers strong versatility in a low price. The Panasonic offers the same features of more expensive cameras.
Sensor: 20.1MP 1”-inch sensor
Cost: $699 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
Olympus Tough TG-4
The Olympus Tough product line is an excellent choice for a simple point-and-shoot vacation camera. Some our shipmates in the Galapagos Islands had the Olympus Tough TG-4 this camera and we played around with it, and we were really impressed by it. It’s lightweight, ultra-compact and totally waterproof.
Sensor: 16MP 1/2.3” BSI CMOS sensor
Cost: $350 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
The Best DSLR Travel Cameras
A Digital SLR is a single-lens reflex camera (it uses a mirror to reflect the image your camera sees up to the viewfinder for you to see it). These are the bulky, black-bodied cameras with interchangeable lenses. Many people refer to them simply as “professional cameras.” While professional photographers use DSLR cameras, the benefits these cameras offer are open to any photographer.
While DSLR cameras weigh significantly more than point and shoot cameras, they provide remarkable improvements over simple cameras. These benefits include enhanced zoom, ability to photograph in various light settings, factory pre-sets for aperture/shutter priority, and various lens configurations. For some travel, particularly wildlife on an African safari or the animals of the Galapagos, a point and shoot just won’t cut it.
Often, the big decision is Nikon vs. Canon. This is the Coke or Pepsi debate in the photography community. Truth be told, both offer some differentiation at the really, really high end of DSLR cameras. However, for most photographers who are just looking for travel cameras, you won’t be able to tell a difference. If we’re asked to recommend, we usually give a slight edge to Nikon because their menus are simpler, they use more obvious terminology and are slightly more intuitive for the non-professional. But you won’t go wrong with either one.
The Nikon D5500 is the company’s entry-level DSLR model. As such, it makes a great travel camera, especially when paired with a versatile 18-55mm lens. It offers all the benefits of a DSLR, but at an attractive price-point.
Sensor: 24.2MP, APS-C CMOS sensor
Cost: $999 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
Canon EOS 750D (Rebel T6i)
Canon continues its entry-level excellence with the EOS 750D (Rebel T6i). It’s a great DSLR-in-a-box with multiple lens configurations and an ergonomic body.
Sensor: 24.2MP, APS-C CMOS sensor
Cost: $975 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
The Best Mirrorless Travel Cameras
Mirrorless cameras lack the “reflex” optics of a DSLR. What in the world does that even mean? Essentially, mirrorless cameras use digital/electrical technology to project the image you see into the viewfinder, rather than a mirror to project it up to the viewfinder. Why does it matter? Without the mirror, these cameras can cut weight and size, but make a small sacrifice in speed.
Just like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras have the potential to change lenses. While there are fewer lenses available for mirrorless cameras, an entry-level photographer looking for a good travel camera won’t have a problem finding the lens you need.
On pricing, mirrorless cameras are comparable with the very high end of the DSLR camera range. This means if you are looking for a basic or entry-level camera, you’ll pay more for a mirrorless than a DSLR.
The X-T10 takes Fuji’s industry-leading X-T1 mirrorless camera and brings the features into an entry-level mirrorless camera. It’s a great travel camera.
Cost: $1,099 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
The Best Action Camera for Travel
This category goes hand in hand with the best waterproof camera, since that is probably what you’re looking for. Here, you need to ask yourself the question: are you looking to do more video or more photography? There is a definite tradeoff on camera and video functionality in the action camera market.
For years, the action camera market has been dominated by GoPro. We have a GoPro Hero 3 and have used it from Eastern Europe to South America. The video is excellent. The photography…not so much. The issue is that the housing is so stiff that as you take the picture, you get a lot of movement, so everything comes out blurry (even in “burst mode”).
The solution for us has been the TomTom Bandit. From our tests, this has been the best overall action camera. The photography is exceptional and the video is first rate. The downside is size – it’s slightly larger than a GoPro and the tubular shape is a little more cumbersome to use (and makes headmounting nearly impossible). We still use both our GoPro Hero 3 and our TomTom Bandit, but find ourselves using the Bandit more.
If you are only looking for the best waterproof camera for travel, there are a number of options in the point and shoot market, including the Olympus Tough TG-4. For a more dedicated camera for scuba diving, we recommend (and use) the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 inside the Fantasea Underwater Housing.
GoPro Hero 4 Silver
GoPro has set the standard in the action-camera market, and has continued to push the boundaries with the introduction of the Hero 4. The Hero 4 features a rear view display and exceptional video quality. The Silver edition is slightly better for those interested in travel (and is $100 less than the Black-level edition).
Cost: $399 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
Slightly bulkier than the GoPro, the TomTom Bandit offers a sleek design within a single package (no waterproof casings, rather the camera itself is waterproof). The Bandit also excels in still photos, making it an exceptional all-in-one action camera.
Cost: $499 MSRP (Check current prices at Amazon)
What’s In Our Gear Bag
On our trips, we carry:
- A DSLR. We’ve been using the Nikon D90 with an 18-105 lens for about 8 or 9 years and it’s been a great, highly functional camera.
- A compact digital camera. We use the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 and adding the Fantasea Underwater Housing if we’re going to be snorkeling or scuba diving.
- An action camera. Our go-to camera is now the TomTom Bandit.
- But…we still can’t let go of the GoPro Hero 3.
- A tripod. We use the MeFoto Q1 tripod for a lot of our best shots.
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