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Updated for 2021
If you want to do travel photography it can be tough to pick out a single best camera and lens for it. That’s because when you travel or go on vacation you encounter so many different situations, and there’s truly no “one size fits all” or all-purpose camera out there.
I mean you can go from outdoors walking around in a city, to trying to get a picture of that distant bird in a tree, to back inside a dimly lit restaurant for dinner and wanting to get a picture of your food and friends… all in the same day!
Those are all quite different situations which in ideal circumstances would require at least several different lenses on one good camera to get the best quality. But you’re traveling, and don’t want to carry a ton of gear… so how do you pick out which to buy?
There are 4 main categories of travel cameras to choose from that I’ll go over in this article:
- Phone Cameras
- Action Cameras
- Point & Shoot Cameras
- Mirrorless DSLR Cameras
I’m going to tell you upfront that unfortunately there will always be some kind of compromise, be it size vs. quality, or quality vs. versatility, etc.. But hopefully this guide will help you understand the options and differences, and you’ll be able to pick out what camera works best for you!
The main factors to consider when buying a travel camera are:
- Size – The smaller & lighter, the better. I’m not going to be listing any big DSLR’s here, but you need to figure out how much gear you’d be comfortable carrying around and using.
- Versatility – For travel, cameras need to be as “all-purpose” as possible. Think of the types of situations you’re going to be in using your camera when traveling. Do you also want to take portrait shots? Wildlife?
- Quality – What do you plan on using the pictures for? Social media, and Friends/family? Blogging? Or in a professional photo gallery, high quality prints, and selling originals?
- Enjoyment & Ease of use – This is actually pretty important. You want to enjoy using your camera-not get frustrated with it. And because it is a more personal opinion thing, If you can, go out to a store and try the camera to see if it feels right for you. If not, read as many reviews and even watch some youtube videos on the menu systems of different cameras and operability.
- Your Budget – You can get older models for cheaper prices(which can be just as good quality wise!), or the latest and greatest with up to date features!
What about Megapixels?
There are 2 main reasons you’d want to pay attention to the megapixel count on a camera:
- Zooming in and cropping. This mostly applies to wildlife where even with a zoom lens, the animal still appears small in the picture. So if you want to crop the photo around the animal, the more megapixels you have will allow for the crop itself to be larger, and a bit more detailed. There are some mirrorless cameras with very high megapixel counts, or a “high resolution mode” which are ideal for this.
- Making large photo prints. The higher the megapixel count, the larger the photo print you can make without resizing.
Megapixel Count – Printed Image Size @ 300ppi – Pixel Dimensions
- 8 – 10.8″ x 8.2″ – 3264×2448 px
- 12 – 14.3″ x 9.3″ – 4290 x 2800 px
- 16 – 16.4″ x 10.8″ – 4920 x 3264 px
- 24 – 20.2″ x 13.4″ – 6048 x 4032 px
- 36 – 24.5″ x 16.4″ – 7360 x 4912 px
Obviously when traveling the smaller the camera, the better. As far as portability goes, you can’t compete with anything else. You’re always going to have your phone on you, thus you’ll always have your camera.
New software breakthroughs like portrait mode and low light settings on phone cameras are doing a good job compensating via software. They’re not perfect however. A professional will be able to tell when portrait mode is used in many cases(the background might blur certain parts incorrectly for example). And low light can still be quite grainy if viewing at full size. If you’re keeping the images small and just using for social media, it’s not a big deal however, and these modes can be quite useful and are great to have right on your phone!
Another issue with phone cameras are that they’re limited in zoom ranges. Even with newer models offering multiple built in lenses, the telephoto zooms only go so far or are fixed at certain focal lengths. You can digitally zoom but it’s not recommended for quality. You’re not going to be photographing distant wildlife very well with a phone camera.
Smaller size usually does not equal the best quality, because the sensor and lens are smaller(meaning less light gets in, and more pixel data has to fit on a tiny sensor which gets blown up). Indeed mobile phone cameras have the smallest sensor sizes. It does not necessarily mean bad quality though either.
In certain circumstances, such as a bright sunny day outside with everything in focus, you won’t be able to tell the difference from a good phone camera image and that of a larger sensor camera (even up to full frame), unless you zoom in all the way. Seriously!
So again, depending on your ultimate use, the quality can be good enough if you’re taking general photos walking around town or out in nature. Even using portrait mode, and night time shots is fine if you’re just posting small images on social media.
However if you want to crop the image small, taking photos of wildlife from far away, or want to take photos for more professional means(such as selling them or printing them large), then you’ll want a different camera.
Ease of use
If you don’t care much about learning advanced camera settings and really getting into photography, this is most likely the camera for you! Anyone can easily learn to take photos on their phone, and there are tons of apps available for editing. You can instantly upload photos online to galleries & social media, text and share with friends-you can’t beat that!
If you want to do more advanced camera settings, the ease of use gets a bit cumbersome in my opinion. Whereas on more professional cameras you just press a button or dial really quickly to change a setting, you have to go into menus on your phone and adjust the settings that are available-which usually is limited. These cameras really aren’t made for advanced usage. The whole point of them is to be easy and kept in auto mode.
The phones with the best cameras are not cheap, and are not available on all cellphone networks unfortunately. Budget models can be “ok”, but if you’re even a little bit serious about photography, it can be cheaper to get a separate point & shoot camera that you carry along with a budget model phone, than it is to get a top of the line phone.
The Best Phone Cameras for 2021 include:
- iPhone 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max – available unlocked only directly from apple. The difference with the Pro and the Max is that the Max is larger, and offers 5x zoom instead of 4x on the Pro. This phone features 3 lenses on the back, giving a good overall focus selection.
- Google Pixel 5 – The camera in this version has only been slightly changed from that of the 4, in that one of the lenses is now an ultrawide instead of telephoto. So if you prefer that, maybe go with this newer model.
- Google Pixel 4 – Good night photography and water resistant!
Older, but still very good, models:
- Huawei P30 – This phone has 4 camera lenses(3 on back) on it with really good results that very much hold up to the popular brands!
- iPhone 11 Pro – Multiple camera lenses is all the rage on cellphones nowadays. The latest iPhones have 3 on the back (ultra wide, wide, and telephoto).
- Google Pixel 3 – Was considered top of the line all around when it came out.
- Huawei P20 Pro – Excellent low light capabilities!
Another winner in the size category, are super small action cameras. They’re some of the smallest cameras around! In fact they take up so little room, there’s no reason not to bring one with you on a trip along with your phone or other camera.
These cameras are best for action packed, wide angle video and timelapses! They are specifically made to take good video, and most can record for a long time without overheating.
Having an action camera with you along with your other camera means you don’t have to waste battery life or memory on video with your stills camera.
They’re awesome for v-logging, and bringing just about anywhere! They’ve got tons of accessories, you can put them underwater, attach them to your car, motorcycle, or even yourself! They are the best for adventure sports and taking in extreme conditions. New GoPros can be put directly underwater. Other brands and older models you may need an underwater housing accessory for, but they’re pretty cheap and easy to use! Take it to the beach or in a pool with no worries!
The cons on versatility for action cams come with their limited focal length as it’s generally fixed optically. Meaning you can’t zoom. They’re made for wide angle point of view video and photos, to get as much in a picture as possible(this makes them great for selfies though!)
The still photo quality is as good as a cell phone or point and shoot camera, as they have a small similar sized sensor. Best for social media use. They’re around 12megapixels in max resolution. The video quality can be great though, and again, where this camera type really shines.
Ease of Use
With usually just 1 button to power on/off, and a touch screen back interface, they’re simple to learn how to use. You can pair them with their specific apps on your photo to transfer photos via wifi, and the newest models even take live video!
You can get a good quality action camera for $100 today. How’s that for value? The GoPros have also come down in price in the $200-400 range which are much more affordable.
Best Action Cameras of 2021:
- GoPro Hero 9 – Newly updated to include 5k recording, Live streaming, and a front display screen. If you’re ready to spend about $400, this is hands down the best action camera to buy! If you don’t need all the latest bells and whistles, check out the other models below:
Older, but still good, models:
- GoPro Hero 8 – The audio quality is great, and voice controls make it fun and easy to use. You also don’t need a separate underwater housing with the newest GoPros!
- GoPro Hero 7 Black – If you don’t need all the latest bells and whistles, this model is a great option. Also is waterproof!
- Yi 4k+ – Just as good as GoPro with photo quality. Not as good audio or image stabilization though.
- Yi 4k – Great budget model. This one isn’t waterproof on its own, and it’s stabilization isn’t as good as the best GoPro, but it’s still really good, the image quality is on par, and at the price of only $100 now it’s a steal! I personally owned this camera and can attest to it being a great value!
Point & Shoot Cameras
So you have a camera on your phone with a small sensor. Why would you want to trouble yourself with an actual camera with a sensor of the same size? Will it really offer you any better quality or features? Well that depends on what you like to take pictures of and what you like to use.
Good quality “point and shoot” or “non-interchangeable lens” cameras still offer the following advantages over phone cameras:
- Greater zoom range, giving the ability to shoot wildlife or other distant objects.
- Larger sensors in the higher end models (giving you better quality with noise and dynamic range).
- Real camera controls, and generally easier to use ergonomics for all the options.
- An EVF (Electronic View Finder)
- Tiltable or rotatable screens
Note that not ALL point and shoots have all of these features. You might have to compromise on some of them.
Also, I’ve kept this category limited to “pocketable” sized cameras instead of the larger, DSLR-like “bridge cameras” which also exist, because let’s face it…this is about travel cameras! When you’re traveling, you want to carry the least amount of stuff as possible. If you don’t mind carrying more and spending more money, then go with a higher quality mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.
Best Pocketable Superzooms you can currently get:
- Lumix DC-ZS80 – 20.3MP – 30x zoom (24-720mm), tiltable 180 flip screen.
- Canon PowerShot SX740 – 20.3MP – 40x zoom(24-960mm), tiltable 180 flip screen.
- Nikon COOLPIX A1000 – 20MP – 35x zoom(24-840mm), tiltable up & down screen.
Advanced Cameras with 1″ sized sensor or greater
Ok, so maybe you don’t care about zoom or shooting far away wildlife that much. You care more about quality. There’s a class of camera that has larger sensors that will give you a boost to quality, with the trade for less zoom(still a good amount though for most situations!).
They also may be a bit bulkier in size than the slim superzooms.
Another thing to look at with these cameras, in addition to the larger sensor size, is their aperture value. The lower the aperture number(such as f2.0, or 2.8), the more light gets in, thus better quality in low light, and more nice blurry backgrounds for portrait scenes.
These cameras are higher end in that they’re much more expensive, and also are geared towards people who are more advanced with photography. That doesn’t mean you can’t start out using it on auto and grow into learning the settings however! In fact these cameras are great for that 🙂
Best Advanced point and shoot cameras:
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VII – 20.1MP – 8.3x zoom(24-200mm), F2.8-F4.5. Tiltable 180 screen. Has improved video features over the VI model.
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100 – 20.1MP – 10x zoom(25-250mm), F2.8-5.9
- Panasonic Lumix ZS200 – 20.1MP – 15x zoom(24-360mm), F3.3-6.4
- Panasonic Lumix LX100 II – 21.7MP – 3.1x zoom(24-75mm), F1.7-2.8. Uses a larger, Micro 4/3 sensor, for even better quality!
Older, but still good, models:
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI – 20.1MP – 8.3x zoom(24-200mm), F2.8-F4.5. Tiltable 180 screen.
- Panasonic Lumix LX100
- Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – 20.1MP – 4.2x zoom(24-100mm), F1.8-2.8. Tiltable 180 screen.
Waterproof, Shockproof, Crushproof cameras
Lastly, I’m going to mention another category of point & shoot camera that’s just awesome to take with you anywhere. Drop it in the pool? No big deal. Falls out of your pocket onto the pavement? That’s ok! Kid plays with it and throws it somewhere…no worries with that either!
I once had a very nice, slim camera. It fell out of my lap one day onto the floor and was $300 down the drain 🙁 After I found out about these “tough” cameras…I said, that’s it. That’s the camera I need for being my clumsy self, because if it doesn’t have a neck strap, chances are high I’m going to drop it!
They’re not amazing quality. They don’t have superzoom. But, you can take it to the beach and get cool pictures of the waves splashing right up at you on the sand, how cool is that! Oh..best part is, they don’t need any special underwater housing. They’re just built tough!
Best Tough Cameras:
- Olympus TG-6 – The latest Olympus Tough camera, it’s almost the same as the TG-5 I have listed below, but with improvements to some overexposure issues and super macro video added!
Other models to consider:
- Olympus TG-5 – 4x zoom(25-100mm) f2.0-4.9, waterproof to 50ft(15m). I own this camera and it goes with me everywhere! In addition to all the above, it’s got a super macro model-you can take microscope like images of things up close-which is really fun to use! Plus it has camera RAW support for better quality photos if you want to edit them on your computer, and optional accessories you can attach to the lens(telephoto, fish eye, or LED light ring). Only downside in my opinion is that the screen is fixed.
If you want the best quality images you can possibly get, you’re going to have to step up to an Interchangeable Lens Camera(ILC). DSLR’s are being replaced these days by “Mirrorless” cameras, which have more compact bodies from taking away the mirror.
There are 3 different sensor sizes in this category that you should be aware of. From small to large they are Micro Four Thirds(M4/3), APS-C, and Full Frame(35mm). The difference between M4/3 and APS-C isn’t that great, but between both of those systems and a Full Frame it is a lot bigger, so you’d see more of a quality difference there in low light scenarios.
In order to fully utilize the larger sensor, bigger lenses are needed to gather in more light. So that means Full Frame, although the best quality, will always have the largest, heaviest gear. You might be able to fit one camera and one full frame lens in your bag, compared to three or more M4/3 or APS-C lenses. That’s a big size advantage. And it’s because of the smaller size, combined with the really good quality of M4/3 that I personally chose to go with it as my preferred system.
For smallest size, Micro 4/3’s wins. If you don’t mind carrying a little extra gear with you and you want to take pictures of wildlife on vacation, you can easily take a good quality 200-600mm lens, or a great quality 200-800mm lens along with you. These lenses for APS-C or Full Frame would be huge and heavy.
That being said, if you do go with an APS-C Canon, Nikon, or Fuji you can get a decent travel zoom lens and also be able to bring a couple other smaller lenses in your bag with you. You won’t have to compromise much on size with these.
Full Frame, you’re just going to have to accept the fact that if you want a zoom lens it’s going to be bigger and heavier. You can get some smaller compact prime lenses however if you’re a more creative type photographer and don’t feel the need to get every kind of shot. Having the best quality comes with the compromise of size.
In most cases, you’re not going to notice much of a difference in quality between any of these systems, as long as you’re using good lenses of course(the ones that come with the camera, “kit” lenses, are usually not the sharpest). Taking photos out in nature, hiking, walking through cities, indoors in museums or restaurants of yummy delicious food…any of these cameras would be fine.
The better quality with larger sensors comes into play when you’re taking pictures in low light. Smaller sensors and lenses gather less light, and your pictures will come out more grainy as a result. There is noise reduction and Image stabilization to compensate however. M4/3 cameras do an excellent job with stabilization. But that only works for static subjects. If what you’re trying to take a photo of is moving around in dim light, you’ll want a full frame to get the best results you can.
The other advantage Full Frame cameras have over smaller sensors is that they offer more “Bokeh” or background blur when you want to isolate subjects. If you have a 50mm lens at aperture f1.8 on a Full Frame camera, to get the same equivalent background you’d need a 25mm f0.95 lens on a M4/3 camera(multiply by 2 for the crop factor because the sensor is twice as small). Some lenses like that do exist, but they’re mostly manual focus. That said, the background blur with standard M4/3 lenses is more than good enough for most. I won’t go into anymore detail on this here as most likely you would not need something like this for travel, but you should be aware of it if you’re deciding on these cameras.
Ease of Use
These cameras are for people who are serious about getting into photography. There are still auto modes, so don’t worry if you’re a beginner and want to learn. You can work your way up to learning how everything works!
The real thing to look for with ease or enjoyment of use is in the camera’s menu system however. This is where you’d want to get your hands on a camera if possible and try it out. How hard is it to access this or that function? Are the buttons laid out well for you? Are they customizable if not? Does everything make logical sense and you don’t have to keep hunting around to find a setting?
I loved my old Sony Nex 5 camera for its small body size(it’s an APS-C). But its menus drove me crazy. When I got my Panasonic Lumix GX85..it was like a breath of fresh air…I was enjoying using the camera so much more than the Sony thanks to its easy to use touch screen and menu that made sense!
Again if you can’t get to a store to try the camera out, watch YouTube reviews on the handling and menu systems.
Mirrorless cameras vary in price to a few hundred to several thousand(for latest full frame models). Choosing the right camera body is only one part of the equation however. The other thing you have to be aware of in your budget is if you’re going to be wanting more than one lens. This is where cost can really come into play. Each lens can be several hundred dollars. So before you choose a camera, look at all the lens prices that you may want for the future. Are they affordable to you? You’re not just buying a camera, you’re buying into a system.
So below is a list of a bunch of different mirrorless cameras. I was a bit hesitant to include the full frame cameras, because of their size they aren’t ideal for travel, but when it all comes down to it, it’s mostly about personal preference, and I realize some people just might not mind the extra weight and opt for the extra boost of quality instead.
As far as travel lenses go, I recommend a versatile zoom, a wide angle, and a small pancake lens that’s good in low light.
*Also I want to make a note here, if you’re on a budget, a lot of these cameras come with a starter, or “kit” lens. That lens is good for beginners, but having used one myself if you can afford a better lens to upgrade I recommend doing so. Their quality is generally not the best, so I haven’t included them on any of the lists here, with the exception of the Sony full frame camera for travel size convenience.
Micro Four Thirds Cameras
These include Panasonic and Olympus brands. The nice thing about these companies is they developed a lens format that is compatible with each other. So you can always use an Olympus lens on a Panasonic camera body and vise versa.
- Panasonic Lumix GX85 – 16MP – A good compact body size with lots of great features. Screen tilts up & down.
- Panasonic Lumix G85 – 16MP – This camera has all the same features and quality as the GX85 above, but in a slightly larger body with better grip and weather resistance. Screen rotates 360.
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III – 16MP – A great budget camera. Screen tilts up & down.
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II – 16MP – 360 rotating screen. Weatherproof!
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III – 20MP – Top of the line for Olympus. If you want all the bells & whistles this is it!
Best travel lenses for Panasonic & Olympus M4/3 cameras:
*Just as a note, I put the Full Frame Equivalent focal lengths and aperture values in parentheses. Their base numbers are different because of the different sensor sizes(crop factor). The full frame equivalent values are there so it’s understood exactly what focal length it would be across different systems-that way everyone understands each other 🙂
Versatile Zoom lenses:
- Panasonic Lumix 14-140mm f3.5-5.6 (28-280mm) – This lens is rated best in its class. A lot of zoom lenses just aren’t that sharp. I personally own the second version of this lens and love it, it’s on my camera 90% of the time. This newer version is now weather resistant too!
- Olympus 14-150mm f4-5.6 (28-300mm) – Not quite as sharp as the lens above, but is weather resistant and you can get a good deal on these usually!
- Panasonic Lumix 12-35, f2.8 (24-70mm f5.6)- less zoom, but bigger aperture, and weather resistant! Great walk around zoom range if you don’t need telephoto shots.
- Olympus 12-40, f2.8 (24-80mm f5.6) – same as above. These are both great lenses if you’re used to working with a 24-70mm lens.
Wide Angle lens:
- Panasonic Lumix 8-18mm f2.8-4 (16-36mm f5.6-8) – If you want a wide angle, this is the best in the system. It accepts filters and has a really nice zoom range which is great for street photography and even indoors.
Small & Compact lens:
- Panasonic 20mm f1.7 (40mm f3.4)- this is a small “pancake” lens, great for low light, but no zoom.
APS-C Sensor Size Cameras
These include the big names of Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Sony, and several others. Unfortunately their lenses are not compatible with each other, so you’d have to stay all within a certain brand.
Sony APS-C Cameras & Lenses:
- Sony A6100 – 24.2MP – If you want compact, this is it! Tiltable 180 screen.
- Sony A6600 – 24.2MP – Next size up. This camera has a lot of great features including image stabilization. Tiltable screen.
Versatile Zoom lenses:
- Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 (27-202mm) – Considered a good quality mid zoom range lens.
- 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 (27-300mm)– A decent all in one lens with a wide zoom range.
Wide Angle Lenses:
- Sony E 10-18 f4 (15-27mm f6.0) – Wide angle
- Rokinon 12mm F2.0 (18mm f3.0)– A less expensive wide angle option(I own this, it’s manual focus, but the quality is good!)
Small & Compact lens:
- Sony 16mm f2.8 (24mm f4.2) – Small pancake lens.
Canon APS-C Cameras & Lenses:
- Canon EOS M100 – 24.2 MP – This is Canon’s smallest APS-C model. Tiltable 180 screen.
- Canon EOS M6 II – 24.2 MP – Tilt screen
- Canon EOS M50 – 24.1 MP – 360 rotating screen
- EF-M 18-150mm f3.5-6.3 (29-240mm f5.6-10) – Good zoom range.
- EF-M 11-22mm (18-35mm) – Wide angle.
- EF-M 22mm f2 (35mm f3) – Nice small pancake lens!
Nikon APS-C Cameras & Lenses:
Nikon Z50 – 20.9MP – Entry level, but also the SMALLEST out of the Nikon cameras, this would be a great option for travel light. This camera has a kit lens that comes with it which is also small and light weight. Unfortunately Nikon didn’t make any other small APS-C sized lenses for this camera, but left it’s mount larger so that it can accommodate those of it’s full frame line. Which is nice for the versatility, but a little disappointing if you wanted some smaller lenses.
Fuji APS-C Cameras & Lenses:
Fuji cameras are for more advanced photographers with many of the manual settings found right on top of the camera in the form of dials instead of menus. This can be great if you don’t like clicking on different buttons or menus to change settings. They’re also said to have some of the best .jpg photos straight out of the camera!
- Fujifilm X-T4 – 26MP – Rotating screen, weatherproof, and up to 6.5 stops of stabilization, this is Fuji’s newest flagship model!
- Fujifilm X-T3 – 26.1MP – Improved video quality over the X-T2. Tiltable screen in 3 directions. Weatherproof.
- Fujifilm X-T2 – 24.3MP – If you’re just into still photography, this camera is just as good as the newer model above! Tiltable screen in 3 directions. Weatherproof.
- Fujifilm X-T30 – 26 MP – Tiltable screen. If you don’t need weatherproofing, this is a less expensive model than the others. It doesn’t have as many features, but the image quality is just as good!
- 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 (27-202mm) – This lens is weatherproof, so take it out on that rainy day!
- 10-24mm F4 (15-36mm f6) – Fuji’s ultra wide angle lens.
- 18mm f2 (27mm f3) – A nice, small, wide angle pancake lens.
What about Full Frame cameras for travel?
The advantage to Full frame cameras are that you get much better low light photography (lower noise because the sensors and lenses are larger), they tend to have more megapixels which can be cropped in tighter if needed, and also improved autofocus when shooting fast moving subjects.
However, I generally don’t recommend full frame cameras for travel, because the good quality lenses are bigger and heavier and most people want to travel light. If you specialize in a couple small prime lenses, and only want to use those lenses, then it might be worth it for you.
Sony recently just came out with a new camera however, that has a smaller travel sized lens. This could be a good option if you really want a full frame to travel around with! Granted, the zoom range isn’t that much, so you’d have to get another lens for that, but at least it’s lightweight and comparable with the micro four-thirds and APS-C sized models.
Smallest and lightest Full Frame Camera for travel:
I hope this article has helped you out with choosing a new camera! If you have any questions at all, feel free to leave a comment and ask. Also if you yourself have a favorite travel camera, let us know why and what you love about it 🙂