Top recommended travel cameras (pocket, midsize, DSLR, full frame) as of March 2016:
Research by Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable cameras and gear best for on-the-go photographers. Yearly advances now put the sweet spot for serious travel cameras in the range from 1”-Type to APS-C size sensors (read article).
Personally, I carry: (A) a backup pocket-size 1″-size-sensor camera (especially good for macro/close focus), plus (B) a high-resolution midsize APS-C camera with 11x zoom lens.
Traditionalists wanting more lens choices often pick (C)a bulkier DSLR-style camera with optical viewfinder and APS-C sensor. Elite photographers wanting better low-light images at ISO 6400+ may prefer a heavier (D) full-frame sensor camera.
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A. World’s best pocket-size camera:
Sony DSC-RX100 (IV, III, II, or I) packs a surprisingly bright lens and big 1-inch sensor (read my article) into a pocketable zoom camera. Add a Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Fit it into Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag with extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions, explained in Tom’s Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review article. Rival pocketable cameras include:
- Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (April 2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens, EVF, 1″ sensor)
- Canon PowerShot S120 (2013, 8 oz, 24-120mm equivalent lens)
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 (2014, 7 oz, 28-200mm equiv lens, EVF, 1/1.7″ sensor).
- Cheapest: Canon PowerShot ELPH 170 IS (2015, 5 oz, 25-300mm equiv lens, 1/2.3″ sensor).
- Pocket superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 (2015, 8.6 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, EVF).
- Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-4 (2015, 8.7 oz, 25-100mm equiv).
TIP: As a workaround for sluggish autofocus in cheaper compact cameras: 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 modes. Don’t let an inferior camera frustrate your capture of action, people, pets, or sports. Instead, consider a newer model with hybrid AF such as pocket-size Sony RX100, or midsize Panasonic FZ1000, or interchangeable-lens camera for surer action shots.
B. World’s best midsize travel camera:
Sony A6000 with 16-50mm Lens (2014, 12 oz + 4 oz 24-75mm equiv zoom, 24mp APS-C) has Fast Hybrid Autofocus! Upgrade to 11x zoom Sony 18-200mm OSS E-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv). A Sony 10-18mm f4 OSS E-mount lens (8 oz, SEL1018, 2012) is sharper, good for architecture and landscapes. Extend telephoto reach with 10x Sony 24-240mm OSS E-mount lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equiv). Accessories: Wasabi Power NP-FW50 (1300mAh) batteries; Sony HVL-F20M External Flash. If you don’t need a viewfinder, the cheaper Sony A5100 has the same great autofocus system and adds touchscreen. Read my article Sony A6000 tops Nikon for travel with 11x lens.
Other good midsize cameras include:
- Best superzoom with 1″-Type sensor:
Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with 16x zoom lens 25-400mm equiv, 20mp).
- Best 33-oz portable 810mm-equivalent telephoto for wildlife, birds, sports:
Nikon 1 V3 camera (2014, 14-oz body, 1″-Type sensor 18mp) mounting a Nikon 1 Nikkor VR 70-300mm CX format f/4.5-5.6 lens (19 oz, 189-810mm equiv) with blazingly fast hybrid autofocus! Add a 10-30mm kit lens (3 oz) or Nikon CX-format 10-100mm lens for Nikon 1 (10.5 oz).
- More-compact, 11x zoom, with smaller sensor, 1/1.7″-Type:
Olympus Stylus 1s (2015, 14 oz with 28-300mm equiv f/2.8 lens, great EVF).
A smaller, noisier 1/2.3″-Type sensor allows extended zoom range in the following midsize cameras:
- Panasonic Lumix FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, weather sealed).
- Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 32 oz, 16mp, 24–2000mm equivalent 83X zoom lens).
- Cheaper superzoom: Olympus Stylus SP-100 camera (2014, 21 oz, 50x zoom, 24-1200 equiv).
TIP: Upgrade your camera every 2 or 3 years (like I do) to get better real resolution, lower noise at higher ISO speeds ( ≥ 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). Today’s cameras capture much better highlight and shadow detail, by using better sensors plus automatic HDR (high dynamic range imaging) and other optimizations for JPEG files. Plus, editing raw format files extracts the most detail.
What makes an ideal travel camera?
The “best” travel camera is the one you want to carry everywhere. The best Light Travel cameras (as chosen above) should minimize bulk and weight while maximizing sensor dimensions (read article), zoom range, lens diameter, battery life ( ≥ 350 shots), and ISO “sensitivity” (for lower noise in dim light). Upgrade your camera every 3 years to boost image quality. An optimally sharp zoom lens should change the angle of view by 4x to 11x to rapidly frame divergent subjects, without the extra bulk or annoyance of swapping lenses. Lenses should autofocus fast (with hybrid AF minimizing shutter lag ≤ 0.3 sec), optically stabilize images, and focus closely (for macro). Travel cameras should pop up a built-in flash and also flip out (articulate/hinge/swivel) a high-resolution display screen to jump-start your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting at arm’s length. OLED displays usually outshine LCD. Sunny-day reflections often obscure display-screen visibility − but to save bulk, most pocket cameras sadly lack a viewfinder. A camera with a brilliant electronic viewfinder (preferably an EVF with ≥ 1 million dots) gives better feedback on the final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder.
Related article: Tom Dempsey’s travel cameras adopted from 1978 to now.
C. Best-value DSLR-style travel camera
Nikon D5500 (2015, 15 oz body, 24mp APS-C sensor/DX format), or earlier Nikon D3300 DSLR camera (2014, 16 oz), is bulkier than mirrorless but offers more lens choices…
Recommended travel zooms for Nikon DX format (APS-C sensor):
- Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (2014, 19 oz, 3 x 3.9″): versatile 19x travel zoom, kit-lens quality.
- Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Lens (2009, 20 oz, 3.0 x 3.8″) 11x zoom equals kit-lens quality.
- Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G lens (26 oz) takes sharper shots of birds, wildlife, and sports.
Best wide angle lenses for Nikon DX format (APS-C sensor):
- Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens for Nikon (2013, 19 oz) is sharper than f/3.5-f/4 rivals.
- Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (2012, 19 oz) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics.
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM lens (2013, 28.5 oz, 3.1 x 4.8″, 27-52.5mm equivalent) is the world’s first zoom having a constant f/1.8 brightest aperture and is the sharpest wide-angle lens (including primes) as of 2014! Shoot this “Art” series lens sharpest at around f/2.8 throughout the zoom. Sigma DC lenses are optimized for cameras with APS-C size sensors.
- See related article: “BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for DSLR.”
The following telephoto lenses seriously magnify wildlife, birds, and sports with optical stabilization and also full-frame coverage, for Nikon bodies:
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Nikon (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2 inches, best telephoto reach for the money).
- Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens for Nikon (2014, 69 oz or 1951 grams, 4.2 x 10.2 inches).
- Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM for Nikon (2012, 120 ounces, 4.8 x 11.5″) unbeatable sharpness, bright f/2.8 zoom.
- See related article: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+“
Recommended close focus/macro lenses for DSLR cameras (for macro enlargement of insects and plants, copy work, and extra-sharp general photography):
- 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.
- Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens for APS-C sensors (12 oz) captures true 1:1 reproduction ratio; for a Canon body.
- Compared to the above 60mm lenses, longer macro lenses such as 100mm and 105mm give 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), but at the cost of larger size, weight, and expense.
- Instead of carrying one of the above prime macro lenses for a DSLR camera, consider carrying a pocket camera (at top, 8-11 ounces) which can focus very closely at wide angle with deep depth of focus, and can serve as a backup for your larger/main camera.
Nikon D3300 offers more for your money (at a lighter travel weight) than Canon EOS Rebel cameras of 2014 and earlier. Also, the earlier Nikon D3200 beats Canon Rebel DSLR cameras of 2012. The best mirrorless designs can pack more quality into a smaller box, but DSLR cameras offer more specialty lenses, with a design legacy inherited from the 35mm film era, where an optical viewfinder’s mirror box adds bulk.
D. Best full-frame-sensor travel camera:
The lightest-weight, best-price-value, full frame-sensor camera is Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless camera (17 oz body, 24mp, 2013), or Sony Alpha A7 II (2014, 21 oz), or newer Sony A7R II. The A7 series requires Sony FE (full frame) E-mount lenses. This big sensor resolves more detail with less noise in dim light at high ISO 3200+ (when compared to APS-C and smaller sensors).
The A7R (2014, 16.4 oz) captures 36mp. In contrast, A7S (2015, 17 oz) has 12mp optimized with large photosites and more sensitive autofocus great for low-light videographers, but its stills require ISO 12,800+ to beat A7R’s 36mp image quality. Instead of having an optical viewfinder like a DSLR, the A7, A7II, A7R, and A7S have a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 2.4 million dots (XGA). The 3-inch tilting LCD has 1.23 million dots (except 921,000 on A7S). New Hybrid AF builds phase-detection autofocus into the sensor, capturing 5 fps with continuous autofocus. With contrast-detection autofocus only, A7S shoots 5 fps and A7R shoots 4 fps. Weatherproof bodies.
As an alternative, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1 full frame compact camera (17 oz with 35mm f/2 fixed-lens, non-interchangeable, 24mp, 2012) 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.
Nikon D750 DSLR camera (26.5 oz body, 24mp, 2014) is excellent. 6.5 fps continuous shooting. Tilting 3.2″ RGBW LCD screen has 1.23 million dots. Long 1230 shots CIPA battery life. Uses Full frame Nikon F Mount/FX Format lenses.
Nikon D810 DSLR camera (big 35 oz body, 36mp, 2014) camera demands highest quality full frame Nikon F Mount/FX format lenses and excites professional studio and landscape photographers with its very high resolution (3200 lph raw for D800 and better in D810) 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. Capture unprecedented dynamic range in raw files from bright to dark. Unfortunately it has very slow autofocus using LCD Live View (fixed by using mirrorless Sony A7). Frames per second at full res FX mode has increased to 5 fps for sports (versus 4 fps in D800, or 6 fps if DX frame size).
Nikon D610 DSLR camera (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.
Tom recommends these accessories:
- A speedy SanDisk 16GB Extreme SDHC Memory Card ensures uninterrupted action shots and HD video recording.
- Buy extra Wasabi Power brand batteries (from Blue Nook / Amazon.com).
- Essential Adobe Lightroom software speeds modification (non-destructive), editing, sorting, and labeling of images. Version 6 and Creative Cloud (CC) thankfully includes Photo Merge to Panorama and HDR. (Optionally add Adobe Photoshop software to manipulate complex Layers or CMYK color space for publishing.)
- Samsung 16GB Galaxy Tab S Multi-Touch 10.5 Wi-Fi Tablet (16 oz) for free Wi-Fi internet worldwide at hotels, hot spots, or home.
- Tamrac digital camera bag protects your precious device on the road.
- Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” Tripod has a built-in quick-change plate, good for small cameras.
- Canon Pixma Pro-100 photo printer makes vibrant archival-quality prints up to 13 x 19 inches with 8-color cartridge.
- Datacolor Spyder4Express Color Calibration System: Calibrate your PC monitor and laptop before printing photo files so editing efforts match color standards without color shifts. The pricier Datacolor Spyder4Elite Display Calibration System accounts for ambient light and calibrates projectors.
- Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE scanner (2014) reincarnates your slides & film digitally, with infrared removal of dust & scratches.
- DSLR lens filters: A clear glass filter protects your valuable DSLR lens when dropped. I speak from experience! Get a clear glass filter, NOT a UV filter, which modern multi-coated lenses have made redundant. Use a circular polarizing filter temporarily only to remove reflections or haze, or to contrast clouds with polarized sky.
- 2x Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver Duo triggers your flash or camera wirelessly at distances up to 328 feet.
- For stitching panoramas from multiple images, use one of the following: free Image Composite Editor (ICE) from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group, which is faster and sharper than Photoshop CS5.
TIPS for travel in adverse conditions
- Weather & dust protection: Prudent bagging can avoid the extra expense of a weather-sealed body & lens – keep a camera handy, safely in a front pouch on your chest or hip (where it can be retrieved more quickly than from a pack on your back). Adverse fluctuations of temperature & humidity, or dusty conditions, or sea spray all require cameras to be double-protected in a zip-lock plastic bag inside the padded pouch. Use a soft, absorbent silk cloth to wipe away moisture or dust from lens & body before bagging.
- Cold batteries: Using camera batteries below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 Celsius) loses their charge quicker, causing camera shut down or lock. Revive and extend battery life in cold or below-freezing weather by warming an extra battery or two in an interior pocket near your skin and swapping with the camera’s battery after every 5-10 minutes of cold exposure.
- Off the grid: For trips away from electrical power sockets, recharge your hungry GPS, phone or tablet devices with:
- External battery: Etronic Jupiter787 10000mAh Portable High Capacity 5V 3.1A Dual-USB-Port External Battery Power Bank Backup Charger (8.5 ounces, 4.2 x 2.8 x 0.8 inches)
- and/or Poweradd Apollo 2 Solar Charger (9.4 oz, 5.9 x 3 x 0.6 inches)
- or simply bring enough extra camera batteries, which I purchase at Blue Nook.
- Satellite communication: Stay in touch everywhere in the world via Iridium satellite with DeLorme inReach Explorer (7 oz; buy at Amazon): send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates (accurate to five meters) to cell numbers or email addresses worldwide and post updates to social media. This new, affordable technology connects campers, hikers, hunters, backpackers, alpinists, and backcountry skiers who often venture outside of cell phone networks. The portable 7-ounce device includes a color-coded map with waypoints, elevation readings, current speed, average moving speed, and compass. Also, you can trigger an SOS, receive delivery confirmation, and communicate with DeLorme’s 24/7 search-and-rescue monitoring center.
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 = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
- DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex = a 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.
- “equivalent“ lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equiv or equivalent lens 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 35mm 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 used on 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 used on a 35mm film camera.
- Superzoom lenses
- In 2013, 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).
- “equivalent” F-stop = refers to the F-stop (F-number) on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the F-stop of the camera lens being compared. The concept of “equivalent” F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of focus (depth of field) on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.
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