BEST TRAVEL CAMERAS 2015 review
Top recommended travel cameras (pocket, midsize, DSLR, full frame) as of Jan 2015:
Research by Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable cameras and gear best for on-the-go photographers. In summary:
Best: Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Camera, 16-50mm lens
- World’s best pocket-size camera: Sony DSC-RX100 (III, II, or I) packs the biggest sensor ever designed into such a small body.
- Compare in Tom’s Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review article.
- Cheaper: Canon PowerShot S120 (2013, 8 oz);
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 (2014, 7 oz, 28-200mm equivalent lens, EVF, 1/1.7″ sensor).
- Cheapest: Canon PowerShot ELPH 150 IS (2014, 5 oz).
- Pocket superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 (2014, 8.5 oz, 24–720 mm equiv 30x zoom).
- Underwater & shock-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-3 (2014, 9 oz, 25-100mm equiv 4x zoom).
- World’s best midsize travel camera:
- Sony A6000 with 16-50mm Lens (2014, 12 oz + 4 oz 24-75mm equiv zoom, 24mp APS-C). Fast Hybrid Autofocus!
- Or best superzoom with 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with 16x zoom lens 25-400mm equiv).
- Portable 11x zoom: Olympus Stylus 1 (2013, 14 oz with 28-300mm equiv f/2.8 lens, 1/1.7″ sensor, great EVF).
- Cheaper superzoom has noisier 1/2.3″ sensor: Olympus SP-100 (2014, 21 oz, 50x zoom, 24-1200 equiv).
- 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 Nikkor CX-format VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens (19 oz, 189-810mm equiv) with blazingly fast hybrid autofocus! Complete this system with 10-30mm kit lens (3 oz) or CX-format 10-100mm lens (10.5 oz).
- Best-value DSLR-style (bulky) travel camera offers a wider legacy of lens choices: Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz body, 24mp)
- Best full-frame sensor travel camera: Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless (2013, 17 oz body + FE lens) high res in dim light at high ISO.
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. For a superior view, get a camera with an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which gives better feedback on the final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder.
TIPS for travel in adverse conditions
- Weather protection: Keep a camera safely in a front pouch on your chest or hip for easy access. During adverse fluctuations of temperature and humidity or near the sea, double-protect the camera in a zip-lock plastic bag inside the padded pouch (thus avoiding the extra expense of a weather-sealed body and lens).
- Cold batteries: 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 an extra battery or two in an interior pocket near skin and swapping with the camera’s battery after every 10 minutes of cold exposure.
- Off the grid: For trips away from electrical power sockets, recharge your hungry GPS, phone or tablet devices with:
- Satellite communication: Stay in touch everywhere in the world via Iridium satellite with DeLorme inReach Explorer (7 oz; buy at Amazon) − great for campers, hikers, hunters, backpackers, backcountry skiers, and alpinists who may venture outside of cell phone networks. 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. 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.
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In more detail, compare the best NEW travel cameras
A. Best pocket-size cameras for everyone
- The best pocket-size cameras have a physically larger and sharper light-gathering sensor:
- Sony RX100 version III (best-ever pocket camera 2014, 10 oz) now amazingly pops up an electronic viewfinder (OLED SVGA 1.44M dots), widens lens view to 24mm equiv (brightest aperture f/1.8), zooms to a sharper and brighter 70mm f/2.8 telephoto, tilts its 3″ LCD to a full 180 degrees for selfies, and adds a Nuetral Density (ND) filter. Sony RX100 beats rival pocket cameras with 1″ sensor (20mp), very fast 0.15 sec autofocus, and sharp LCD (1,228,800 dots).
- Compared to Sony RX100 III, the rival Canon PowerShot G7X (2014) has no viewfinder, poor battery life, unreliable focus and poor manual focus magnification. In its favor, Canon G7X has longer 4x zoom 24-100mm equivalent (versus 3x 24-70mm), brighter lens from 24-50mm (up to 2/3 stop better), touchscreen LCD (that also flips 180-degrees for selfies), in a body having the same weight, size and sensor, capturing similar image quality in studio comparisons.
- Cheaper: Canon PowerShot S120 (2013, 8 oz, 24-120mm equiv lens, f/1.8-5.7 brightest aperture, 1/1.7 inch type sensor) beats slower-focusing S110 (2012, 7 oz).
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 (2014, 7 oz) 28-200mm equiv lens, unusual EVF, 1/1.7″ sensor, 12mp.
- Budget $120-250 pocket-size: beat cell phone image quality for sharing on web and small prints.
- Superzoom pocket-size travel cameras: beat cell phone image quality.
- Underwater/shock-resistant/dustproof pocket-size cameras can go to wetter, rugged places for hiking & climbing:
- Olympus Tough TG-3 (2014, 9 oz, brightest F2.0-4.9 lens, 25-100mm equiv zoom): long CIPA battery life 380 shots.
- Canon PowerShot D30 (2014, 8 oz, 28-140mm): trusty, CIPA battery life 300 shots.
- Nikon Coolpix AW120 (2014, 7.5 oz, 24-120mm): good quality per dollar; CIPA battery life 350 shots; dim LCD.
- Tip: For easiest underwater focusing, shoot at default wide angle (without zooming).
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 as follows for surer action shots:
B. Best midsize cameras
The best midsize cameras for travel have interchangeable-lenses and an Electronic ViewFinder (EVF; mirrorless) as follows:
1. TOP TRAVEL CAMERA OF 2014-15: a bigger sensor (APS-C size) gathers more light through a larger lens:
- Sony A6000 with 16-50mm Lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens, 24mp) with Fast Hybrid Autofocus
- Sony A6000 tops the earlier Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 (which also beat Nikon for travel with 11x lens − read article): A6000 lacks a horizontal level indicator and has poorer viewfinder resolution (1.44 million dots vs 2.36 million; with magnification 0.70x equiv versus 0.73x) but is otherwise superior.
- Sony says A6000 autofocus (as fast as 0.06 seconds) is the world’s fastest on a mirrorless camera with an APS-C image sensor. [For faster AF as of 2014, you would need a much more expensive Panasonic GH4 (20-oz body, 2014, mirrorless with smaller 4/3 sensor) or much bulkier DSLR such as Nikon D4S (48oz body, 2014, full frame sensor).]
- Add a sharp 11x travel zoom (27-300mm equiv) to make the world’s best travel system:
- Sony 24mm f/1.8 E-mount Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens resolves the most detail from 24mp A6000 (or NEX-7), best at f/2.8 to f/4.
- On the go, protect your camera and 18-200mm lens in a Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW Bag.
- Buy extra Wasabi Power NP-FW50 (1300mAh) batteries for A6000 when trekking away from electrical outlets.
2. Best splash-proof, dust-proof, hardy midsize 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.
- A more versatile travel lens with extended telephoto doesn’t have weather sealing:
- Most compact (1.1″) Premium “X” lens (without weather sealing): Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS lens (3.4 oz, 2012).
- Compare cameras:
- Sony A6000 beats Olympus OM-D E-M5 in price, AF speed, and more (except E-M5 has a weather sealed body).
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 Camera (2014, WITHOUT a weather-sealed body) is $300 cheaper than an E-M5, for equal image quality. But Sony A6000 easily beats Olympus E-M10 (due to larger sensor APS-C versus Micro 4/3, faster autofocus, smaller body, longer CIPA battery life of 420 shots per charge versus 320, faster 11 fps continuous shutter, and more movie modes; with equal viewfinder & LCD).
3. Best portable 810mm telephoto for wildlife, birds, sports (33 oz with 1″-Type sensor):
Best budget superzoom midsize cameras (non-interchangeable lens)
Instead of an interchangeable-lens camera, consider saving money with an all-in-one superzoom midsize camera, which can capture wide-angle landscapes and also magnify wildlife in the distance. Serious travel photographers should get a bigger sensor, at least 1″ type (13.2 x 8.8 mm), as in the following:
- Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with lens) f/2.8-4 lens 25-400mm equiv, 16x zoom. 1-inch-type, 20mp sensor. Fast autofocus. Fully articulated LCD. Notes:
- For the same weight (but twice the price) as FZ1000, you can upgrade to Sony A6000 with 18-200mm lens and APS-C sensor (having 3x bigger light-gathering area, but maybe not as sharp at long end of telephoto).
- The Panasonic FZ1000’s brightest “equivalent F-stop” (f/7.7 to f11 equiv from 25-400mm equiv) is not as bright as Sony’s E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (f/5.25 to f/9.45 equiv from 27-300mm equiv). [Definition: “equivalent F-stop” is the F-number on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the brightest F-stop of the camera lens being compared, and lets you compare control over shallowest depth of focus/field.]
- More compact: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 (2013, 29 oz) with nice 8x zoom lens, f/2.8 (f/7.6 equiv) throughout 24-200mm equiv.
- $700: Olympus Stylus 1 (2013, 14 oz, 12mp, 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.
- The tiny 1/2.3-inch Type sensor in the following cameras should beat cell phone quality, requires bright outdoor light, and is suitable for sharing images online or making small prints:
- $400: Olympus SP-100 (2014, 21 oz, 16mp, 50x zoom, 24-1200 equivalent, 1 cm close focus, nice 920k dot EVF): innovative On-Camera Dot Sight helps track distant birds or moving subjects.
- $600: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 (2012, 21 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens throughout 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, with OIS/Optical Image Stabilization, HD Video with sound, and raw file support). Or FZ70 (2013) is cheaper.
Mirrorless versus DSLR: mirrorless 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 more lens options and proven focus tracking (during continuous autofocus for sports and wildlife), consider a DSLR:
C. Bulkier DSLR cameras have more lens options and fast autofocus using an optical viewfinder (using a mirror):
As with most DSLR-style cameras, the following great travel system focuses fast using optical viewfinder, but autofocuses very slowly in Live View on LCD:
- Best price-value travel DSLR camera: Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz body, sharp 24mp body).
- Compare DSLRs: 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.
DSLR cameras are best for interchanging more lens choices and for shooting action (sports, birds) reliably with little shutter lag when using their optical viewfinder. “DSLR” means Digital Single Lens Reflex, where a mirror lets the viewfinder see through the lens. During a shot, the mirror briefly flips up to expose a digital sensor. However, almost all DSLR cameras of 2014 and earlier have excruciatingly slow autofocus (2-4 seconds) in Live View on the LCD, except for Canon 70D (2013, 27 oz) with Dual Pixel CMOS AF built into its 20mp sensor, and for Sony’s super fast Translucent Mirror Technology (fixed mirror). Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past the excruciatingly slow Live View autofocus of most rival DSLR designs:
TIP: 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). 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 milks even more detail.
D. Full-frame (35-mm-size) sensor cameras excel at indoor, night, or dim-light action shots at ISO ≥3200.
- Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless (17 oz body, 24mp, 2013) is the lightest-weight, best-price-value full frame camera. The A7 is not a DSLR: its great electronic viewfinder (EVF) has 2.4 million dots (XGA). 3-inch tilting LCD has 1.23 million dots. The A7 interchanges the new FE-series (full frame E-mount) lenses. New Hybrid AF builds phase-detection autofocus into the sensor, capturing 5 fps with continuous autofocus. Weatherproof body. Upgrade: A7R captures 36mp. Compare:
- Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1 (17 oz with 35mm f/2 fixed-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. (Lens is fixed and cannot interchange.)
- Nikon D750 DSLR (26.5 oz body, 24mp, 2014): Excellent camera. 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 (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 (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 close focus/macro lenses for DSLR cameras
For close focus (macro 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, 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, 8-10 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.
See related articles: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+” and “BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for DSLR.”
- Memory cards
- Buy at least 2 extra batteries for travel. Check if off-brand batteries work with your camera model. (For example, Panasonic GH2 firmware may reject off-brand batteries.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Printer with archival quality
- Epson Stylus Photo R2000 Ink Jet Printer: 13 x 19 inch prints, 8-color cartridge, Epson UltraChrome Hi-Gloss 2 pigment ink for vibrant prints and beautiful skin tones, highly resistant to water, smudges, and fading.
- Epson Stylus Photo R3000 Inkjet Printer: 13″ x 44″ prints, Exhibition Quality Prints, 8-color ink set UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta, enriched three-level blacks, print permanence rated 200+ years.
- Lightweight travel tripod
- Handy off-camera FLASH synchronization: 2x Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver Duo triggers your flash or camera wirelessly at distances up to 328 feet.
- Good film and slide scanner: Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE (2014): The scanner’s built-in infrared channel removes dust and scratches during scanning, saving you much editing time.
- 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.
- Essential 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 Tom’s book at bottom of page.
Gear history: Click here to see Tom Dempsey’s travel cameras adopted 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 = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
- 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.
- 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 brightest F-stop of the camera lens being compared. Equivalent F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of focus (depth of field) on cameras with different-size sensors. Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.
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