Smartphones have become the Swiss army knife of travel. They’re movie players, maps, travel guides, notebooks, phrase books — some crazy people even use them to make phone calls, if you can believe it.
One of their most-used features, however, is as a portable camera. Just take a look at all the photo apps on the market, or how manufacturers tout the virtues of improved lens in each new model they launch. Smartphone photography just can’t be beaten for sheer convenience, whether you’re sharing your shots (hello, Instagram!), or using it to keep all those travel memories close to hand.
For many travelers, though, there’s a point where they want to lift their photography game. Maybe you tried to print a mobile shot for framing, and it came out all pixelated. Perhaps you’re constrained by a lack of optical zoom, or the limited control over exposure and focus. Maybe you’re just tired of the phone crying out for more storage space every time you take a new photo.
If you’re considering investing in a dedicated camera, though, don’t rush into the cost and weight of a DSLR. Once the only real choice for mid- to high-end photo equipment, DSLRs no longer have the market to themselves.
Compact cameras have been stepping up to the challenge, and currently offer some of the best combinations of price, size and quality in the market. Whether you’re an occasional traveler or a seasoned pro, there’s likely to be a compact model that suits your style.
Best for Occasional Travelers: Sony DSC-RX100 III
Don’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge a camera by its size. This point & shoot may look like any other on the market, but its sleek, compact body hides a truly powerful camera that will level up your travel photos.
Since launching its first model five years ago, Sony’s RX100 range has been featured, recommended and love-talked to death by photography buffs the world over. It is currently onto its fifth version, but at almost $1,000, the price may be hard to swallow for many travelers.
If that’s the case for you as well, we recommend going for the III model instead, described here. It has almost all of the same great features, for three-quarters of the cost.
- Great image quality – 20.2 MP resolution, so images can become large prints without losing any detail
- Super fast: except in deep darkness, it takes single shots in 0.3 seconds
- Fantastic ISO performance, ranging from 125 to 12,800 on auto
- Decent video feature, going up to HD resolution (1920×1080 pixels), at 60p/60i/30p/24p
- Full manual controls available, for those ready to take a step forward in photography
- Light and easy to carry, at 8.9 ounces (250 grams)
- Print (or online) manual is super basic, leaving the details of each mode for an in-camera guide – wasting precious battery if you are not familiar with Sony’s cameras
- Doesn’t allow to choose AF points on rear screen
- Control dial is a little slow, which can make the experience a little disconnected
- Body of the camera does not have a no-slip grip – handle with care!
- Cost – despite not reaching its younger brother’s price tag, the Sony DSC-RX100 III ranks at the higher end for a point & shoot, making this camera a proper investment
Best for the Travel Writer: Olympus PEN EPL-8
If you want to show your travels as well as tell them, the Olympus EPL-8 makes a great choice. Cheaper and more straightforward than the company’s other mirrorless models , this camera makes a great companion to your travel stories, even if words are your main creative tool.
- Quick to focus (0.1-0.3 seconds, depending on ambient light) and shoot (0.9 seconds) — that’s good time for a mirrorless camera
- Built-in Wi-Fi, to connect directly to smartphones and other devices
- Useful stabilization, minimizing blur in low-light or fast-moving situations
- Great articulating touchscreen that bends 90º and 180º. It’s fantastic for selfies, if you’re into that
- Very easy to use, making for a great introduction to mid-level photography
- Compact and sleek design, in a range of colors
- Slow to turn on and off
- HD video is subpar compared to other mirrorless cameras
- No built-in flash, though it includes a clip-on accessory
- You’ll need to buy an add-on electronic viewfinder (EVF) if you want one, as there’s none built in
- At 1.1lb, it’s heavier than other similar models
Best for the Semi-Pro Photographer: Fuji X-T2
If you thought you need a DSLR to take professional travel photos, the Fuji X-T2 is here to prove you wrong. With a phenomenal autofocus system, serious image quality and top-notch lenses, this camera dramatically narrows the gap between DSLR and mirrorless. If you’re looking to get much more serious about your travel shots, but don’t want to deal with the size and weight of a DSLR, this is the camera for you.
- Spectacular, pin-sharp images. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a mirrorless camera with higher photo quality
- Great viewfinder, with a magnification of up to 0.77x
- Dual SD card slot
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Robust weatherproof body, making it as durable as it is powerful
- Well-designed, ergonomic body. It’s easy to handle, with sensibly-placed buttons that never get in the way
- No touchscreen, unlike other mirrorless cameras
- Smaller display than other cameras in the range
- No built-in flash, if that’s a concern
- While the video is fine in a pinch, it’s not as good as other cameras in this price range
- ISO sensitivity is good for darker environments, but at a minimum of ISO 200, it doesn’t drop as low as some similarly-priced models
- Battery life isn’t great. Advertised at 340 shots between charges, some users get noticeably less in the real world
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Best for Travel Videographers: Panasonic Lumix GH4
Getting into video? Check out the Panasonic Lumix GH4, which offers one of the most powerful recording features in the mirrorless camera market. The GH4 lets you record at DSLR-like quality, without the extra weight in your backpack.
It’s not the latest version (that’d be the GH5), but at half the price with many of the same features, we think it’s a better buy.
- Great video quality, enabling shooting at 4K, 2ooMbps HD, or 96fps VFR
- No size limits to clips, unlike other cameras. It’ll keep recording for as long as it has storage space
- Improved cooling, which ensures the camera won’t overheat no matter how long it’s recording
- Includes extra features to make shooting easier, including color bars, audio testing, and zebra and histogram to check over or under-exposure
- Weatherproof body
- Control layout isn’t as intuitive as other cameras, and will take some time to get used to, especially for less-experienced videographers
- While it features a large ISO range, image quality noticeably drops above 3200 ISO
- Larger body than other mirrorless cameras. It’s closer in size to a small DSLR than most compacts, making it a harder to carry and use
Best for the Budget Traveler: Canon PowerShot SX730 HS
If you’re ready to upgrade from your smartphone, but not yet at a level to invest in a semi-pro camera (or you’d rather save your money for the road), check out the Canon PowerShot SX730. It’s one of the best options (well) under $500, and while you can find more affordable compact cameras, the value-for-money of the SX730 is undeniable.
- Great zoom: 40x optical, equivalent to 25-750mm on a 35 mm. That blows any smartphone camera out of the water
- Built in Wi-Fi
- Tilting screen, perfect for selfies (again, if you’re into that)
- Sturdy, yet still light and easy to carry. At 9.5 ounces (270g), it sits comfortably in a pocket.
- Price — you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better camera (and especially, a better zoom) for the money.
- Smaller image sensor than professional-grade compacts or mirrorless
- Average video quality – there’s no 4K shooting mode
- No viewfinder, only a (non-touch) LCD screen
- Only shoots in JPEG (both standard and super fine), with no option for shooting in RAW