BEST TRAVEL CAMERAS 2013 review
Top recommended travel cameras (compact, mirrorless hybrid, DSLR) as of October 2013.
Research by Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable cameras and gear best for on-the-go photographers. In brief:
- World’s best pocket-sized camera: Sony DSC-RX100 (I or II) packs the biggest sensor ever designed into such a small body.
- World’s best all-around travel camera is mirrorless: Sony Alpha NEX-6 or NEX-7 with Sony 18-200mm OSS lens, APS-C sensor.
- Or under $500: best superzoom camera for birds/wildlife: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 (2012, 21 oz with lens, 25-600mm equiv, bright f/2.8 throughout 24x zoom range, but tiny sensor is noisy at ISO ≥800). Or cheaper FZ70.
- Or $700: Olympus Stylus 1 (2013, 14 oz with 28-300mm equiv f/2.8 lens) 1/1.7″ sensor, 11x zoom, viewfinder.
- Top DSLR-style travel camera: Sony Alpha SLT-A65V with sharp Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA DT lens: beats Nikon and Canon DSLRs with fast autofocus (with tracking) during Live View on LCD using an innovative translucent mirror.
- Or best value DSLR: Nikon D3200
- For shooting in dim light at high resolution, see full-frame-sensor cameras further below.
What makes an ideal travel camera?
The “best” travel camera is the one you want to carry everywhere. When heading out the door, do you first reach for a handy compact camera or a bulky DSLR? The best light travel camera should minimize bulk and weight while maximizing sensor dimensions, zoom range, lens diameter, battery life ( ≥ 350 shots), and ISO sensitivity (for lower noise in dim light). Update your camera every 3 years to boost image quality. A sharp zoom lens with a wide range (4x to 11x) instantly frames rapidly-changing travel subjects without the extra bulk or annoyance of swapping lenses. Lenses should autofocus fast (minimizing shutter lag ≤ 0.3 sec), optically stabilize images, and focus closely (for macro). Look for cameras that articulate (flip out) a high resolution display to jump-start your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting at arm’s length. OLED displays usually outshine LCD. To save bulk, most pocket cameras sadly lack a viewfinder. But in bright outdoor daylight, a sharp EVF (electronic viewfinder) is much easier to see than the camera’s screen. An EVF gives more accurate feedback on the final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder. Travel cameras should also pop an effective flash.
TRAVEL TIPS: Keep a camera safely in a front pouch on your chest or hip for easy access. During adverse temperature and humidity fluctuations or near the sea, double-protect the camera in a zip-lock plastic bag inside the padded pouch (thereby avoiding the extra expense of a weather-sealed body and lens). Below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 Celsius), camera batteries quickly lose charge, causing cameras to shut down or lock. Revive and extend battery life in cold or below-freezing weather by warming a battery or two in an interior pocket near skin and swapping with the camera’s battery after every 10 minutes of cold exposure.
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In more detail, compare the best NEW travel cameras:
A. Pocket sized cameras for everyone (lacking a viewfinder):
- The best pocket-sized compact cameras have a physically larger and sharper light-gathering sensor:
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (best-ever pocket camera, 2012, 8.5 oz) has a sharp 28-100mm equivalent lens, with fast wide angle (f/1.8-4.9 brightest aperture from wide to tele) and close focus distance 5 cm for good macro. Upgrade to Sony RX100 II (2013, 10 oz) to add a tilting LCD, one stop better ISO sensitivity, and a flash mount which can fit an optional viewfinder. Sony RX100 beats rival cameras with an unprecedented 20mp 1″ sensor capturing twice the light area, unusually fast 0.15 sec autofocus, and sharp LCD (1,228,800 dots). It fits nicely into Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag with extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries. To better grasp its slippery body attach a Sony AG-R1 grip. Read my full review of Sony RX100.
- Cheaper: Canon PowerShot S120 (2013, 8 oz, 24-120mm equiv lens, f/1.8-5.7 brightest aperture, 1/1.7 inch type sensor) or slower-focusing S110 (2012, 7 oz).
- A flip-out LCD and now-rare optical viewfinder adds bulk in Canon PowerShot G12 (2010, 14 oz).
- A Canon PowerShot G15 (2012, 12.5 oz) no longer flips out LCD but adds High Speed AF (≥0.22 sec lag) and bright f/1.8-2.8 lens (28-140mm). Costlier G16 is similar.
- The best superzoom pocket travel cameras can cost less (but their smaller sensors limit print size and are noisier in dim light):
- Underwater/shock-resistant/dustproof pocket-sized cameras can go to wetter, rugged places:
- Panasonic Lumix DMC TS5 (2013, 7.5 oz, 28-128mm equiv zoom): best LCD brightness, CIPA battery life 370 shots.
- Olympus Tough TG-2 (2013, 8 oz, with brightest F2.0-4.9 lens, 25-100mm): very rugged, CIPA battery life 350 shots.
- Canon PowerShot D20 (2013, 8 oz, 28-140mm): trusty, CIPA battery life 280 shots.
- Nikon Coolpix AW110 (2013, 7 oz, 28-140mm): cheapest, best quality per dollar, but CIPA battery life only 250 shots.
- For easiest underwater focusing, shoot at default wide angle (without zooming).
- Cheapest $120 to $200 cameras for purse or pocket beat cell phone image quality for sharing on web and standard prints:
TIP: Sluggish autofocus shutter lag ≥ 0.5 second in many compact cameras can frustrate your capture of action, people, pets, or sports. As a workaround, prefocus (lock) on a contrasty edge of the subject by half pressing and holding the shutter button, then the subsequent full press will be instant, ≤ 0.15 second. But half-press autofocus lock doesn’t work in continuous focus or action mode. Instead, for surer action shots, clearer capture of high ISO sensitivities ≥ 1600, and a good viewfinder, consider a larger camera:
B. The interchangeable-lens compact (ILC) cameras best for travel are mirrorless:
1. TOP TRAVEL CAMERA OF 2012-13: a bigger sensor (APS-C size) gathers more light through a larger lens:
2. Best splash-proof, dust-proof, hardy ILC camera for travel (with Micro Four Thirds sensor):
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera (2012, 15 oz weather sealed body) with splash-proof M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens (24-100mm equiv, 7.5 oz, with splendid video, macro down to 36×27 mm). Features: high res Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), tilting 610,000-dot OLED LCD, 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization, best 16mp sensor. The external, clip-on weather-sealed flash unit fits easily in a pocket. But a more versatile travel lens with extended telephoto doesn’t have weather sealing: an Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 lens (28-300mm equivalent, 10 oz) is lightweight, but Panasonic HD 14-140mm lens (16 oz, below) is sharper and recommended.
3. Best price value for ILC camera (with Micro Four Thirds sensor):
- Panasonic DMC-G6 camera (2013, 14 oz body). [Beats smaller-sensor, 14-oz Canon PowerShot G12.]
- Best 2012 travel lens: Panasonic Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8 ASPH./MEGA O.I.S. lens (16 oz, 28-280mm equiv) mounts on Panasonic G6, GF5X, G5 and Olympus OM-D E-M5 cameras (above) [and rivals the optical quality of 10x to 11x zooms from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, and Tamron, for APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensors].
- Most compact (1.1″) Premium “X” lens: Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS lens (3.4 oz, 2012).
Best value compact all-in-one superzoom lens cameras
Instead of an ILC camera, consider an all-in-one superzoom lens for capturing everything from landscapes to wildlife:
- $500: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 (2012, 21 oz with lens) has a bright f/2.8 lens throughout its 25-600mm equivalent, 24x range, with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), HD Video with sound, and raw file support. Or try a cheaper FZ70 (2013). But their tiny 1/2.3-inch type sensor requires bright outdoor light and won’t enlarge big prints as sharply as an ILC or DSLR camera.
- $700: Olympus Stylus 1 (2013, 14 oz with f/2.8 throughout 28-300mm equiv lens) is the world’s smallest camera having an 11x zoom on a 1/1.7″ type sensor. Its great viewfinder is same as Olympus OM-D E-M5. Good 410 shot CIPA battery life.
Serious travel photographers should get a bigger sensor, at least 1″ type (13.2 x 8.8 mm), as in the new
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 (2013, 29 oz) with a bright f/2.8 lens throughout its 24-200mm equiv 8x zoom. (But NEX-6 has a bigger sensor and costs less.)
ILC versus DSLR: mirrorless ILC (interchangeable-lens compact) cameras can pack more quality into a smaller box. In contrast, the design legacy of DSLR cameras (below) comes from the 35mm film era, where a mirror box adds bulk. But for the fastest autofocus ( ≤ 0.3 seconds) and focus tracking (during continuous autofocus) for sports and wildlife, consider a DSLR:
C. Bulkier DSLR (mirror style) cameras focus faster:
Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past the excruciatingly slow Live View autofocus of all rival Nikon and Canon DSLRs!
The following excellent, cheaper DSLR cameras focus fast using optical viewfinder, but autofocus very slowly in Live View on LCD:
- Best value travel DSLR camera: Nikon D3200 (18 oz body, amazingly sharp 24mp, 2012) or Nikon D3100 (2010).
- For travel flexibility, mount an all-in-one 11x zoom Nikkor DX 18-200mm VR II lens (20 oz, 3 x 3.8″, 2009),
or cheaper 8x zoom Nikkor DX 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (17.3 oz, 3 x 3.8″, 2013),
or hefty 17x zoom Nikkor DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012).
- Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G lens (26 oz) takes sharper shots of birds, wildlife, and sports.
- For a pro wide angle, consider Tokina AT-X Pro SD 12-24mm F4 (IF) DX lens (or stitch images with Adobe Photoshop).
- For your money, Nikon D3200 beats Canon DSLR camera choices of 2012.
DSLR cameras are best for shooting action (sports, birds) reliably with no shutter lag, capturing low noise in dim light, shooting indoors, making sharp poster-sized prints, and interchanging more lens choices. “DSLR” means Digital Single Lens Reflex, where a mirror lets the viewfinder see through the lens. During a shot, a mirror briefly flips up to expose a digital sensor. As of 2013, almost all DSLR cameras have excruciatingly slow autofocus (2-4 seconds) in Live View on the LCD, except for the super fast Translucent Mirror Technology such as in Sony Alpha SLT-A65V (2011) with fixed mirror.
Join the exciting digital revolution — upgrade your camera every 2 or 3 years like I do to get better real resolution (measured in lines per picture height, LPH or LPPH), lower noise at higher ISO sensitivities ( ≥ 800), and quicker autofocus. Since 2009, most cameras take sharper hand-held shots using optical image stabilization (branded as Nikon VR, Canon IS, Panasonic OIS, Sigma OS, Tamron VC, Sony OSS). The latest cameras capture better highlight and shadow detail using automatic dynamic range optimization for JPEG, but you can get much better results using raw file format.
Recommended full-frame (35-mm-size) sensor cameras (for indoor or dim-light action shots at ISO ≥3200)
- Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless (17 oz body, 24mp, 2013) is the lightest-weight, best-value full frame camera. A7 requires new FE-series (full frame E-mount) lenses. New Hybrid AF builds phase-detection autofocus into the sensor, capturing 5 fps with continuous autofocus. Great XGA (2.4 million dot) electronic viewfinder (EVF). 3-inch tilting LCD with 1.23 million dots. Weatherproof body. Upgrade: A7R captures 36mp.
- Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1 (17 oz with fixed 35mm f/2 lens, 24mp, 2012) compact full-frame camera fits in a coat pocket, but the optical viewfinder/rangefinder is a costly add-on. Shooting as high as ISO 25,000 still captures usable pictures.
- Sony SLT-A99 DSLR (29 oz body, 24mp, 2012). Its Translucent Mirror beats all full frame rivals with fast Live View autofocus speed and full-time continuous autofocus with tracking in movie mode, full HD 60p/24p video. It has a weather-sealed body, 3-way tiltable LCD, 6 frames-per-second continuous shooting with AF, 2.4M-dot OLED EVF, 14-bit raw, and ISO 100-25,600.
- Nikon D800 DSLR (32 oz body, 36mp, 2012) camera demands highest quality full frame Nikon F Mount lenses and excites professional studio and landscape photographers with its very high resolution (3200 lph raw) rivaling the quality of medium format film for making big fine-art prints. In dim light at dusk, dawn, or indoors, capture low-noise images at high ISOs 6400 to 12,800 — even ISO 25,600 can look good in small prints. Unfortunately it has very slow autofocus using LCD Live View. Only 4 frames per second at full res FX mode for sports (or 6 fps DX).
- Nikon D610 DSLR (30 oz body, 24 mp, 2013) costs less than D800. Captures less noise than Sony NEX-7 by 2-3 stops of ISO when set at ≥3200. Raw resolution up to 2800 lph.
Recommended macro (close focus) DSLR lenses
For close focus (enlargement of insects and plants), copy work, and extra-sharp general photography:
- Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens for APS-C sensors (12 oz) captures true 1:1 reproduction ratio.
- Nikon AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED Macro Autofocus lens (15 oz) with fast SWM (Silent Wave Motor) and IF (Internal Focusing), captures true macro 1:1 reproduction ratio.
- Compared to the above 60mm lenses, the larger size, weight, and expense of longer macro lenses (such as 100mm or 105mm) gives you a few more inches of comfortable working distance from the front of the lens (to avoid startling insects) and can have a different bokeh (character of out-of-focus areas).
- Instead of carrying one of the above prime macro lenses for a DSLR camera, general travel photographers may prefer an all-in-one 11x zoom lens plus a backup 8-ounce pocket camera (at top) which can focus very closely at wide angle with deep depth of focus.
See related articles: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+ for DSLR” and “BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for DSLR.”
- Memory cards
- Buy at least 2 extra batteries for travel. Wasabi Power brand batteries (from Blue Nook / Amazon.com) have a generous warranty and can last longer than name brand due to higher mAh rating. Blue Nook has top customer satisfaction ratings and a generous return policy. Check if off-brand batteries work with your model (for example, Panasonic GH2 firmware may reject off-brand batteries).
- DSLR lens filters
- A clear glass filter protects your valuable DSLR lens when dropped. I speak from experience! (Get clear glass, not a UV filter, which modern multi-coated lenses made redundant.)
- Use a circular polarizing filter temporarily only to remove reflections or haze, or to contrast clouds with polarized sky.
- Printer with archival quality
- Lightweight travel tripod
- Recommended fast computer for running Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
- HP Envy Desktop PC with Windows 64-bit operating system (or Apple is fine), quad-core 3.5 GHz Intel i7-3770K Ivy Bridge (or i5-3570K) processor, 12 to 16 gigabytes RAM, GeForce GTX570 graphics card, hard drive 2 or 3 terabytes 7200 RPM, and USB 3.0 ports.
- Computer workflow software
Where to buy cameras and gear with reliable customer service
- B&H Photo Video of New York charges no sales tax outside of NY. Buy new cameras, video, software, and electronics at low prices. Test your new gear within the generous 30-day B&H return policy. (Most competitors only give you 15 days.)
- Amazon.com: After looking on B&H, search Amazon.com for used, older model, or new cameras, books, electronics, etc. Buying a used or pre-owned camera may save money, but don’t miss the quality and ease of use of the latest models.
- Sign up for photography classes with expert Tom Dempsey. Buy his photos, prints, downloads. Order his book at bottom of page.
Gear history: Click here to see Tom’s travel cameras carried from 1978 to now.
Terminology and metric conversions
- oz = ounces. Above camera weights in ounces (oz) include battery and memory card.
- g = grams. Multiple ounces by 28.35 to get grams.
- sec = second.
- mm = millimeters. A centimeter (cm) equals 10 millimeters. Multiply centimeters (cm) by 0.3937 to get inches.
- ILC = Interchangeable Lens Compact camera (mirrorless).
- DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex (traditional camera where an optical viewfinder uses a mirror to see through the interchangeable lens).
- EVF = Electronic Viewfinder.
- LCD = Liquid Crystal Display.
- OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) beats an LCD in dynamic range from darkest to brightest and consumes less power.
- LPH or LPPH = resolvable lines per picture height = the best empirical measure of real resolution of a camera’s sensor for a given lens (independent of pixel pitch or megapixel count). A camera with higher LPH can make sharper large prints. Look up cameras on dpreview.com to find absolute vertical LPH judged by photographing a PIMA/ISO 12233 camera resolution test chart under standardized lighting conditions. Note which lens, settings, and camera body was used in each test, and compare with others within the same web site.
- equiv lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equivalent lens or equiv refers to what would be the lens focal length (measured in mm or millimeters) that would give the same angle of view on a “full frame” 35mm-size sensor or film camera (using 135 film cartridge).
- Compared lenses are “equivalent” only in terms of angle of view. (To determine sharpness or quality, read lens reviews which analyze at 100% pixel views.)
- “Crop factor” = how many times smaller is the diagonal measurement of a small sensor than a “full frame” 35-mm size sensor. For example, the 1.5x crop factor for Nikon DX format (APS-C size sensor) makes a lens labeled 18-200mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 27-300mm focal length lens in terms of a 35mm film camera. The 2x crop factor for Micro Four Thirds sensors makes a lens labeled 14-140mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 28-280mm lens in terms of a 35mm film camera.
- Superzoom lenses
- In 2012, superzoom often refers to lenses of about 15x zoom range or larger. Steady quality improvements in the resolving power of sensors has made possible superzoom cameras in ever smaller sizes. As superzoom range increases, laws of physics require lenses to focus upon smaller sensors (light detectors) or else to increase lens size. For a given level (most recent year) of technological advancement, a camera with physically larger sensor (bigger light detecting area) should capture better quality for a given zoom lens range.
- “10x zoom” = zoom lens telephoto divided by wide angle focal length. For example, a 14-140mm focal length zoom has a 10x zoom range (140 divided by 14). An 18-200mm zoom has an 11x zoom range (200 divided by 18).
Compare digital camera sensor sizes overlaid together: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″, 1/2.5” Type.
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