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To optimize the portability of a serious travel camera, consider APS-C sensor size or as small as 1-inch Type sensor (recommended here: BUY>CAMERAS). The archaic inch-sizing of sensors is clarified in the illustration and table below with relative sizes and millimeters.
Recent digital sensor improvements have shrunk cameras and increased zoom ranges while preserving image quality. These days, evocative images can clearly be captured with most any decent camera, even as small as a good iPhone or Nokia Lumia smartphone. But if you ever want large prints and more control, get a bigger camera. For a given year of technological advance, a camera with physically bigger sensor area should tend to capture better image quality (by gathering more light), but at the cost of larger-diameter, bulkier lenses than a smaller-sensor camera system.
In the illustration below, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type.
The best two-pound 11x zoom travel system of 2014-15 is Sony A6000 (12 oz, with 24mp APS-C sensor) with Sony 18-200mm OSS lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv). Improving its quality across the same zoom range would require a heavier set of prime (non-zoom) lenses or a larger-sensor camera (such as the full-frame-sensor Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless) requiring bulkier lenses. Click here for my latest camera recommendations.
From 2012 to the present, I have been traveling with the earlier mirrorless Sony NEX-7 camera with 18-200mm lens with APS-C sensor (23.5 x 15.6 mm) and electronic viewfinder (EVF). I also carry a pocket-sized Sony DSC-RX100 camera, which justifies its price premium by ingeniously packing a 1-inch Type sensor (13.2 x 8.8 mm) with a light-gathering area several times bigger than its peers. The revolutionary 20-megapixel Sony RX100 captures great wide-angle close-focus shots (macro) and also landscape photo quality beating my 3-times-bulkier camera of 2009:
Paradigms are shifting fast. In 2014, new technology slashes camera size and weight (compared to DSLR systems) for serious 810mm-equivalent-lens photography of sports, birds, and wildlife:
I upgrade my digital cameras every 2-4 years because the latest devices beat the image quality or abilities of older models.
For me, yearly advances as of 2014-15 put the sweet spot for a serious travel camera between 1”-Type and APS-C size sensors. Most cheaper compact cameras have smaller but noisier sensors such as 1/2.3″ Type (6.17 x 4.56 mm) — tiny enough to miniaturize a superzoom lens (above 15x zoom range), but poor for capturing dim light or for enlarging prints beyond A4 or letter size.
Smartphones have even tinier sensors such as 1/3.0″ Type (4.8 mm x 3.6 mm) in iPhone 5S. Top smartphone cameras (as in the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Apple iPhone 5S of 2013 in the table below) have improved miniature sensors to the point where citizen journalists can capture newsworthy photos with image quality (debatably) good enough for fast sharing and quick international publication.
Click here for a great perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. While I don’t use a smartphone camera myself, evocative images can clearly be captured with most any decent camera. The “best” travel camera is the one that you are willing to carry. But tiny-sensor cameras have considerable limitations compared to physically larger cameras in terms of print enlargement, autofocus speed, blurred performance in dim or indoor light, and so forth.
The non-standardized fractional-inch sensor sizing labels such as 1/2.5-inch Type and 1/1.7″ Type confusingly refer to antiquated 1950s-1980s vacuum tubes. When you see those archaic “inch” size labels, instead look up the actual length and width in millimeters reported in the specifications for each camera:
|Sensor Type||Diagonal (mm)||Width (mm)||Height (mm)||Sensor Area (in square millimeters)||Full frame sensor area is x times bigger||Diagonal crop factor* versus full frame|
|1/3.2″ (Apple iPhone 5 smartphone 2012)||5.68||4.54||3.42||15.50||55||7.61|
|1/3.0″ (Apple iPhone 5S smartphone 2013)||6.00||4.80||3.60||17.30||50||7.2|
|1/2.3″ Type (Canon PowerShot SX280HS, Olympus Tough TG-2)||7.66||6.17||4.56||28.07||31||5.64|
|1/1.7″ (Canon PowerShot S95, S100, S110, S120)||9.30||7.44||5.58||41.51||21||4.65|
|1/1.7″ (Pentax Q7)||9.50||7.60||5.70||43.30||20||4.55|
|2/3″ (Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone with 41mp camera, Fujifilm X-S1, X20, XF1)||11.00||8.80||6.60||58.10||15||3.93|
|Standard 16mm Film Frame||12.7||10.26||7.49||76.85||11||3.41|
|1” Type (Sony RX100 & RX10, Nikon CX, Panasonic FZ1000)||15.86||13.20||8.80||116||7.4||2.72|
|Micro Four Thirds, 4/3||21.60||17.30||13||225||3.8||2.00|
|APS-C: Canon EF-S||26.70||22.20||14.80||329||2.6||1.62|
|APS-C: Nikon DX, Sony NEX/Alpha DT, Pentax K||28.2 – 28.4||23.6 – 23.7||15.60||368 – 370||2.3||1.52 – 1.54|
|35mm full-frame (Nikon FX, Sony Alpha/Alpha FE, Canon EF)||43.2 – 43.3||36||23.9 – 24.3||860 – 864||1.0||1.0|
|Kodak KAF 39000 CCD Medium Format||61.30||49||36.80||1803||0.48||0.71|
|Hasselblad H5D-60 Medium Format||67.08||53.7||40.2||2159||0.40||0.65|
|Phase One P 65+, IQ160, IQ180||67.40||53.90||40.40||2178||0.39||0.64|
|IMAX Film Frame||87.91||70.41||52.63||3706||0.23||0.49|
* Crop Factor: Note that a “full frame 35mm” sensor/film size (about 36 x 24 mm) is a common standard for comparison, having a diagonal field of view crop factor of 1.0. The debatable term crop factor comes from an attempt by 35mm-film users to understand how much the angle of view of their existing full-frame lenses would narrow (increase in telephoto power) when mounted on digital SLR (DSLR) cameras which had sensor sizes (APS-C) smaller than 35mm.
With early DSLR cameras, many photographers were concerned about the loss of image quality or resolution by using a digital sensor with a light-gathering area smaller than 35mm film. However, for my photography, APS-C-size sensor improvements easily surpassed my scanning of 35mm film by 2009.
An interesting number for comparing cameras is “Full frame sensor area is x times bigger” in the above table.
Cameras with larger sensors can achieve a shallower depth of focus than smaller sensors, a feature which portrait photographers like to use for blurring the background (at brightest aperture setting, smallest F number value) to draw more attention to the focused subject. Conversely, smaller-sensor cameras like the Sony RX100 (version III) tend to be much better at capturing close-focus (macro) shots with great depth of focus (especially at wide angle), at ISO up to 800. But the macro advantages of small-sensor cameras can quickly diminish in dim light or when shooting at ISO higher than 800.