Updated August 2020
As a photographer, I often get asked for advise on which camera to buy. With many people, it’s specifically what’s the best travel camera? While there’s single answer for every person, this article outlines what to consider and provides a few recommendations for every style and budget.
If you want to understand the full behind my recommendations, skip to the end of the article. But the short version is finding the right balance between a quality sensor, a good zoom lens or selection of interchangeable lenses, and size/weight. A bonus factor is weather sealing, so your camera will be safe if you get caught in the rain.
The best travel cameras
The tiny powerhouse
I own the second generation (Mark II) of this camera, released in 2013. I (still in 2020) use it for all my underwater photography and in places where I’m not comfortable taking my large DSLR camera. The current model is the sixth generation. 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 it a great contender for best travel camera.
It has a large 1″ sensor with 20MP, and an astonishing zoom reach equivalent to 24-200mm, with an maximum aperture of f/2.8-4.5. That’s pretty handy for travelling, and still fast enough for most indoor scenes. But biggest (pun intended) selling point is its small size, being only 102×58×43mm and weighing 302g.
The RX100 VA is a revamped version of the 5th generation RX100 camera. It has the same large 1″ sensor with 20MP, but the lens only has a zoom range equivalent to 24-70mm. However, the lens is faster with a maximum aperture of f/1.8-2.8. So if you take a lot of photos in low light, this might be the better RX100 for you. You’ll also save a few hundred dollars compared to the VI version.
For street and landscape photographers
Rangefinder-style fixed-lens mirrorless cameras, like the Fuji X100V, are great travel cameras. While they don’t suit every travel photographer’s needs, they’re the perfect camera for some people. The X100V has an APS-C sensor, and is compact and delivers excellent image quality. It has a fixed prime 35mm equivalent f/2 lens. This is excellent for street photography or landscapes, common tasks for travel cameras. And this latest iteration of the X100 camera adds weather sealing with an optional filter. But if you like zooming into subjects, it won’t be flexible enough for you, now is it wide enough for certain urban landscapes. However, many purists advocate that ditching the zoom makes us think more about composition, resulting in better photos. The lens is fast enough for indoor and low-light photography, but the autofocus speed isn’t as fast as lenses available for the interchangeable lens cameras below. Despite certain trade offs, the X100V is a fun camera to use and it looks really cool too. If you like the X100V but want more flexibility, consider the Fujifilm X-T30 or X-T4 (below), which offers a similar body and the option for small prime lenses, or more flexible zoom lenses.
Small interchangeable lens cameras
The a6400 is Sony’s newest and best camera in their small APS-C mirrorless range. The autofocus is one of the best on the market. While a bit larger than the compact RX100, its sensor is more than 300% larger, and has the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. It’s also weather-sealed (rare in APS-C cameras in this budget range), so a bit of rain won’t cause any issues.
The XT-30 is Fuji’s top camera in the small APS-C mirrorless category. When Fujifilm first introduced their X series in 2011, they cleverly filled a niche gap in the camera market. These cameras, particularly the higher-end ones, have manual control dials like film SLR cameras had. Instead of controlling ISO, aperture and shutter speeds with menus or through multi-button steps, these are directly accessible with dedicated physical controls. (Although the X-T30 doesn’t have a dedicated ISO dial like higher-end Fujis, but if you shoot mostly on auto ISO, you might not notice it’s missing.) The Fuji X series cameras all use APS-C sensors, and Fuji offers a wide range of lenses covering all focal lengths and speeds you’d ever need. The X-T30 often called the baby of their flagship X-T4 camera (but smaller and cheaper, and no weather-sealing).
If budget is a concern, consider slightly older Fujifilm X-E3. This cameras won’t have the faster autofocus of the newer X-T4, but you’ll save a few hundred dollars.
Classic controls and retro look
The XT-3 is Fujifilm’s flagship still camera (and one that seriously tempts me). It’s a top-end APS-C mirrorless camera, with manual control dials for ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation. When combined with a lens with an aperture ring, all shooting settings are controlled by these manual dials (no menus or multi-button combinations). It’s weather-sealed, but significantly heavier than the X-T30.
This is a full-frame sensor camera that packs a lot of photography power into a very compact package. Sony’s flagship full-frame mirrorless cameras are some of the most highly regarded cameras on the market. While Sony has more expensive cameras, the A7C is the best positioned for the serious travel photographer with its compact size that squeezes a full-frame sensor into a body you’d expect to have an ACS-C sensor. It is weather-sealed, so a bit of rain is no concern for the camera. It’s battery is rated for 740 photos, about 2-3x as much as the other cameras in this list (except the Canon 6D below). The trade off is price (it’s expensive) and size/weight when combined with a lens (the zoom lenses for full-frame cameras tend to be quite large).
The new (for 2020) Canon EOS R6 and R5 full-frame mirrorless cameras were met with rave reviews, after the Canon’s lukewarm entry into mirrorless with the EOS R. The more affordable EOS R6 has a 20MP sensor, perfect for most applications, while the flagship R5 has a whopping 45MP sensor, handy for cropping. These R-line mirrorless cameras take advantage of Canon’s amazing smaller, faster, sharper RF lenses (and all older lenses with an adapter). I find the new Canon RF lens mount so promising that I would probably switch to this ecosystem before investing in more Canon EF (DSLR) lenses. While this makes for an expensive travel camera if that’s it’s only purpose, if you’re serious about photography, it’s a solid investment.
For some 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. Smartphones take excellent photos, as long as you have good (bright/sunny) conditions. Smartphone camers won’t perform as well as the other cameras in this list in darker scenes. Smartphones also make it easier and faster to get a photo posted to Facebook or Instagram. So if your criteria is convenience, and if you don’t need the manual settings of a dedicated camera, a smartphone might be the best camera for you (although dedicated camera apps, including Lightroom, give you manual setting functions, and many will also capture RAW files).
You do get what you pay for, so opt for a high-end smartphone. Since it will be your primary travel camera, invest a little bit more than you normally would in your smartphone.
Which one to get? High-end smartphone cameras all perform similarly well, so it’s not worth changing brands if you’re loyal to Apple, Samsung or Google. They’re all working very hard to include great cameras in their latest phones, so if you buy their latest model, you won’t be disappointed.
The old powerhouse
DSLR cameras are still the go-to cameras for professionals, and I continue to use my trusted Canon EOS 5D Mark III full-frame DSLR camera for the majority of my travel (and at-home) photography. But with the progress Sony is making with mirrorless cameras and with Canon’s new RF line of lenses, I won’t buy another DSLR camera. When it’s time to replace my 5D Mark III, it will be a 3-way competition between the Fujifilm XT-4, the Sony a7 III, and the Canon EOS R6. But if I had to choose a new DSLR, it would be Canon EOS 6D Mark II, which offers built-in GPS location tagging.
Best camera lenses for travelling
If you opt for an interchangeable lens camera, you’ll need to pair it with the right lens (or lenses). I have a separate article on the best camera lenses for travelling.
Why camera sensor size is important
Photos are essentially reflected light captured on film or a digital sensor. It’s pretty easy to block light when there’s too much of it, but it’s more difficult ot create light (flashes and studio lights work well in a studio, but not so much for travel photography). Good quality photography relies on getting as much light to the camera sensor as possible. The two things that affect this are the sensor itself and the lens.
Forget about megapixels. In the early days of digital photography, megapixel count mattered if you wanted to print your photos and get decent quality. Today, nearly all cameras offer a minimum of 20-30 megapixels, more than enough megapixels for prints and poster-sized enlargements. Even smartphone cameras at 12 megapixels are enough for most prints. Some cameras offer 40-50 megapixels, which sounds better, but is only useful for certain professional applications. If anything, the larger image size will just take up more room on your memory card and harddrive.
An important consideration in actual image quality is the physical dimensions of the camera sensor. In high-end professional DSLR cameras, the sensor is the exact same size as 35mm film (36×24mm). In smaller cameras, the sensor needs to be smaller.
The sensor in a smartphone is closer to 6x4mm, with larger, higher-end phones being closer to 7x6mm.
Point-and-shoot cameras will have a sensor size somewhere in between.
In this case, size matters. For a given number of pixels on a sensor, a larger sensor can have larger pixels. Larger pixels means they can each capture more light. This is less of a concern on a bright day, but on a dim day or indoors when there’s not much light, smaller pixels means grainier images or blurrier images.
Only a few years ago, the options for large sensor cameras were limited to large (and complicated) DSLR cameras. Today, technology and engineering means we can get smaller, easier-to-use cameras with larger sensors. There are countless sensor sizes on the market, but if we focus on the larger, “good” ones, there are only a handful that you need to know about.
“Full-frame” sensors (36×24mm) are the largest sensors found in consumer-level camera (although medium-format sensors are starting to become affordable, depending on your definition of affordable). You’ll find full-frame sensors in your more expensive DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Full-frame sensor camera are getting smaller (an important factor in travel cameras), but their lenses can often be large and heavy, making the total package sometimes a challenge for travel.
“APS-C” sensors (22.5×15mm), also based on a film negative size, is one step down and found in smaller DSLR and mirrorless cameras. These cameras are often a bit smaller than full-frame sensor cameras (but not always). But their lenses are often smaller than full-frame sensor lenses.
“Micro Four Thirds” or M4/3 sensors (18×13.5mm) was a sensor size created in 2008 as a large-ish sensor that they could squeeze into a compact interchangeable lense body. With technology advances, we can now fit APS-C sensors into similarly sized camera bodies, so I rarely recommend M4/3 cameras.
“1-inch” or 1″ sensors (13.2×8.8mm) are found in a few high-end compact cameras, such as the Sony RX100 series. These make great travel cameras, trading off some image quality for portability.
Smaller sensor sizes are named based on a convoluted measuring system related to their size, expressed as a fraction. We’re not considering these; if you’re serious about photography, I recommend a sensor no smaller than the 1″ size. But I’ll make exceptions for smarphone cameras and GoPro cameras, because of the interesting tradeoffs they offer.
Before getting to the sensor, light needs to pass through the lens. So the lens also plays an important role in the amount of light that gets into your camera. I discuss how lenses work, and the best lenses for travelling in a separate article.
What camera do you use for travelling? Do you have another suggestion for best travel camera? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.