How to choose the best travel camera
As a photographer, I often get asked for advise on which camera to buy. Most of these people are specifically looking for a travel camera. While there’s no single answer for every person, this article outlines what to consider and provides a few recommendations for every style and budget.
Digital camera technology continues to improve, and I keep this post up-to-date to reflect that. Since I first published this article in February 2019, I’ve stopped recommending large full-frame sensor and interchangeable lens cameras. These large, heavy cameras were once the only option for high-quality photography, but that’s no longer the case and smaller, more pocketable cameras can deliver similar image quality.
My top 7 cameras are grouped into 4 categories, with a side-by-side summary at the bottom. All cameras in this list meet a few mandatory criteria:
- Large sensor (1-inch or APS-C, with one exception) but avoiding full frame to minimize size and weight
- Fixed lens (prime or zoom) rather than interchangeable lens camera, also to minimize size and weight
- Maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 or faster, for good low-light image quality
- Released no more than 3-4 years ago (ideally in the last 1-2 years)
- USB charging, so you don’t need to pack a battery charger
My top travel camera picks
The tiny Sony powerhouses
Sony RX100 VII and Sony RX100VA
US$1,200 / CA$1,600 and US$850 / CA$1,100
I own the second generation (Mark II) of this camera, released in 2013. I use it for all my underwater photography, and increasingly for land-based photography. The current model is the RX100 VII (seventh generation) and Sony has done a great job of keeping this camera current. It’s actually remarkable how Sony fit the power of this camera into such a small package (TIME named the first generation one of the best inventions of 2012), making probably my top for best travel camera. The RX100 VA version is similar but one year older and with a few tradeoffs that make it more affordable (it’s a revamped version of the 5th generation).
Both the RX100 VII and RX100 VA have large 1″ sensor with 20MP and the same processor. The RX100 VII has an astonishing zoom reach equivalent to 24-200mm, with an decent maximum aperture of f/2.8-4.5. The RX100 VA has a shorter (but very useful and respectable) zoom range equivalent to 24-70mm but it’s a faster lens with maximum aperture of f/1.8-2.8.
They’ve virtually identical in size and weight, with the RX100 VII 102×58×43mm and weighing 302g, while the RX100 VA is 102×58×41mm and 299g (both weights include batteries).
Most landscape photos tend to use wide focal lengths (24mm is perfect) and both cameras do that. If you like taking photos of animal life, the 200mm telephoto range is beneficial. But if you find yourself shooting in low light (early morning or evening), the faster lens f/1.8 lens will capture better quality photos.
Retro style, functionality and weatherproofing
Fujifilm X100V and Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III
US$1,400 / CA$1,800 and US$1,000 / CA$1,300
These are 2 rather different cameras, both strong players from veteran camera companies, and both sporting retro or classic camera styling.
Where they’re similar is that they both sport a larger APS-C sensor, which is over 3x the surface area of a 1-inch sensor. In theory, this means better image quality in low light, and makes it easier to isolate your subject against a blurry background. But larger sensors require (relatively) larger camera bodies and larger, heavier lenses. However, as more “serious” cameras, they both offer weather sealing (great when caught by a surprise rainfall) and a hot shoe (if you ever think you’ll use an external flash). It’s all about tradeoffs!
The Fuji X100V has a 35mm equivalent prime (not zoom) f/2 lens. This is excellent for street photography or landscapes, common scenarios for travel cameras. But if you like zooming into subjects (like wildlife or portraits), it won’t be flexible enough for you. However, many purists advocate that ditching the zoom makes us think more about composition, resulting in better photos. The f/2 lens is fast enough for indoor and low-light photography. The other unique element that old-school film photographers will appreciate are the manual dials for aperture and shutter speed. They can both be set to auto for full automatic, one or the other set for shutter or aperture priority, or both set for full manual, all without touching a menu.
The more affordable Canon G1 X Mark III looks like a small DSLR because of the hump that holds the fixed viewfinder and flash (most other cameras in this list have pop-up flashes and viewfinders). Unlike the Fuji X100V, the Canon G1 X Mark III has a zoom lens equivalent to 24-72mm. But it’s a slower lens with maximum aperture of f/2.8-5.6. The G1 X Mark III is the oldest camera in this list, having been announced in October 2017, and I suspect a newer Mark IV version will be coming soon.
While both the X100 and G1 X are quite portable (they’d easily fit in a purse or fanny pack), they’re a fair bit larger and heavier than the Sony RX100 models. The Fuji X100V is 128×75×53mm and 478g while the Canon G1 X Mark III is 115×77×51mm and 399g.
Travel camera plus photo editor (aka smartphone)
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
US$1,100 / CA$1,550
For many travellers, a smartphone camera really is the best camera. It’s more pocketable than any dedicated camera. It’s also more multi-purpose, since it’s, well, a smartphone. While they have smaller sensors than the dedicated cameras in this list, they take advantage of sophisticated software to improve image quality in low light. Smartphones also make it easier and faster to edit a photo and get it posted to Facebook or Instagram. Third-party camera apps, including Lightroom, give you manual setting functions and capture RAW files.
Phone cameras also geotag your photos, so you’ll always know where you took that shot, useful on roadtrips and when visiting remote areas.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the most expensive iPhone, and one of the most expensive phones in general, it’s not the most expensive camera in this list, and it serves many other functions. So when you look at it like that, it’s really a bargain!
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is my recommendation for a camera replacement because it sports 3 lenses that provide effectively the same functionality as the zoom cameras in this list.
The three cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro Max are:
- Ultra wide 13mm equivalent f/2.4 with optical image stabilization and lens correction
- Wide 26mm equivalent f/1.6 with sensor-shift optical image stabilization
- Telephoto 65mm equivalent f/2.2 with optical image stabilization
By having 3 discrete lenses, they can each be more specialized than a generalist zoom lense. The ultra wide lens on the phone is wider than any camera in this list, so it’s great for those of us who love the look of ultra wide angle photography. The wide f/1.6 lens is the fastest lens in this list. (It’s also worth noting this wide lens is 47% larger than that on the iPhone 12 Pro for better low-light performance.) And while the telephoto 65mm equivalent isn’t the most telephoto lens in this list, it’s the fastest.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max also introduces a LiDAR sensor to help focus in low light (among other applications) and the ProRAW image format that combines the benefits of RAW images with Apple’s computational photography algorithms.
It’s also worth nothing that the iPhone goes beyond the weather sealing of the Fuji X100V and Canon G1 X with its IP68 rating, meaning it can survive up to 6 metres (19.6 feet) of water for 30 minutes. So no worries about being caught in a torrential downpour or taking it for a swim or snorkel!
Budget-friendly zoom cameras
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III and Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II
US$750 / CA$1,000 and US$900 / CA$1,200
“Budget-friendly” is a subjective definition and these are still relatively expensive being around the $1,000 mark, but they’re the cheapest cameras in this list while still meeting my strict requirements for a large sensor and fast lens. These both sport a 1-inch sensor like the Sony RX100 cameras. They’re similar in many ways to the RX100 VA, but a tad larger and heavier, so I almost didn’t include them in this list. (If you’re not looking to spend $1,000 on a camera, my advise would be to just stick to the camera on your existing smartphone; a budget camera won’t give you much more!)
They’re included here because, compared to the Sony RX100 VA, they have a larger zoom range. The Canon G7 X Mark III has a 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 lens, and the Canon G5 X Mark II has a 24-120mm f/1.8-2.8 lens. So both are as fast as the RX100 VA but with a larger zoom range, and shy of the RX100 VII zoom range but faster.
In size and weight, the Canon G7 X Mark III is nearly identical to the Sony RX100 cameras at 105×61×41mm and 304g. The Canon G5 X Mark II sits between these Sony cameras and the larger APS-C cameras from Fuji and Canon at 111×61×46mm and 340g.
Here’s a summary of the key features and specs of these phones for easy comparison.
Sony RX100 VII
Sony RX100 VA
Canon G1 X III
iPhone 12 Pro Max
Canon G7 X Mark III
Canon G5 X Mark II
|Sensor size||1-inch||1-inch||APS-C||APS-C||unknown, 1/3.6”, 1/3.4”||1-inch||1-inch|
|Focal length equiv.||24-200mm||24-70mm||35mm||24-72mm||13mm, 26mm, 65mm||24-100mm||24-120mm|
|Max aperture||f/2.8-4.5||f/1.8-2.8||f/2||f/2.8-5.6||f/2.4, f/1.6, f/2.2||f/1.8-2.8||f/1.8-2.8|
|Weather sealing||–||–||Yes||Yes||Yes (IP68)||–||–|
Have questions? Ask away! What camera do you use for travelling? Do you have another suggestion for best travel camera? Share your thoughts in the comments below.