BEST 2020 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

Top recommended travel cameras (smartphone, pocketsize, midsize) as of January 2020.

Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable camera gear for on-the-go photographers:

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Sony RX10 III camera

The world’s most versatile midsize camera: Sony RX10 IV or III has a dust-sealed 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent, bright f/2.4-4 lens.

TOP TRAVEL CAMERAS in more detail: Parts A-E

PART A. Top SMARTPHONE CAMERAS:

zoom poorly but compensate for tiny cameras via vast computational power, with superior AUTO HDR, good close focus, and incredible ease-of-use with instant photo sharing. I recommend these:

Unlocked” lets you pick a lower-priced wireless service provider. Outside your home country, eliminate roaming charges via your phone’s “WiFi Calling” feature; or buy a cheap SIM with generous data.

To save money on your US wireless carrier, try my favorite: Consumer Cellular (external link), which uses the full AT&T network more cheaply, with top customer service. (Tell CC that Thomas Dempsey #102558526 referred you.) If cell reception is poor where WiFi is strong, turn on your phone’s “WiFi Calling”, which also works in most countries outside of USA when calling US phone numbers.

PART B. World’s best POCKETSIZE TRAVEL CAMERAS:

Although expensive, the best & brightest pocketable 8x-zoom camera is now the

If Sony RX100M6 seems too costly, consider the following cheaper travel zooms (best shown first):

  1. Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9). Read my ZS100 review.
  2. Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (2018, 12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 15x zoom, but sibling ZS100 is sharper and brighter through 10x.
  3. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 versions IV, III, II, or I: within its limited 3x zoom is sharper and brighter than that sub-range of Panasonic’s 10x-zoom ZS100. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 III review.
  4. Best value pocketable superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 20mp, Electronic ViewFinder/EVF). Or save on older ZS60. For the price of a newer ZS80, you should instead get the larger-sensor ZS100 above.
  5. Cheaper 10x zoom: Canon PowerShot ELPH 190 IS (2016, 5 oz, 24-240mm equivalent, 1/2.3″ sensor, but no viewfinder).
  6. Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-5 (2018, 9 oz, 25-100mm, f/2.0-4.9 lens) compromises image quality but makes nice underwater movies.
  7. For hiking in the rain, try a waterproof smartphone as we did in New Zealand rainforests with Samsung Galaxy Note9 (or S9 Plus is also great). [While a cheap CaliCase Universal Waterproof Case can take your smartphone snorkeling underwater, beware that 2 out of 4 copies I received noticeably softened camera resolution with a milky stain on the plastic window.]

TIP: As a workaround for sluggish autofocus (AF) 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. For surer action shots, consider a newer model with hybrid AF such as pocketsize Panasonic ZS100, Sony RX100, or midsize RX10 or Panasonic FZ1000 or interchangeable-lens camera. 

PART C. World’s best MIDSIZE TRAVEL CAMERA:

But if you mostly photograph indoor action (such as kids & pets) or events (weddings) or need advanced autofocus in dim light, consider a larger APS-C sensor:

Other good midsize cameras include:

  1. Panasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm f/2.8–4.5, 20mp): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), and has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K) in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  2. Best midsize camera for the money: Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with fast-focusing 16x zoom lens 25-400mm equiv, bright f/2.8-4, 20mp, 1″-Type BSI sensor) rivals the zoom quality of APS-C-sensor and DSLR systems of this weight, for a cheaper price. The FZ1000 version II (2019, 28.5 oz) is worth the upgrade price for new lower-noise sensor and sharper LCD screen & EVF.

A smaller, noisier 1/2.3″-Type sensor extends zoom range in the following midsize cameras (but images from one of the above cameras should be crisper, even when cropped to achieve equivalent telephoto):

  1. Panasonic Lumix FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, weather sealed).
  2. Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 32 oz, 16mp, 24–2000mm equivalent 83X zoom lens).

GENERAL TIP: Upgrade your camera every 2 or 3 years as 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. On advanced models, I always edit raw format images to recover several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost with JPEG.

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). An optimally sharp zoom lens should change the angle of view by 8x to 25x 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 camera history: Tom Dempsey’s travel cameras adopted from 1978 to now.

PART D. Best-value DSLR-STYLE TRAVEL CAMERA:

features an optical viewfinder using a legacy mirror box, for good price value:

Best wide angle lenses for Nikon DX format (APS-C sensor):

  1. 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.
  2. Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (2012, 19 oz) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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 or smartphone which can focus very closely at wide angle with deep depth of field, and can serve as a backup for your larger/main camera. Better yet, don’t get a DSLR — instead, do everything well with 25x zoom Sony RX10 III or IV (Tom’s review; with best macro at 600mm f/5.6). Or a cheaper Panasonic ZS100 captures good close focus shots at 45mm equivalent after Macro/Flower symbol button is pressed.

Historical DSLR comparison: 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.

PART E. Best FULL-FRAME-SENSOR TRAVEL CAMERA:

Full-frame-sensor cameras excel at indoor, night, and very-large-print photography, but require bulkier lenses, often with limited zoom ranges. Full-frame sensors can resolve more detail with less noise in dim light at high ISO 3200+ when compared to APS-C and smaller sensors of a given year. 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.

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:

  1. Buy extra Wasabi Power brand batteries (from Blue Nook / Amazon.com).
  2. Portable Charger Battery Pack: Mi Premium Power Bank Pro 10000mAh, 18W Fast Charging Slim. Great for travelling away from electrical outlets! It efficiently powers a phone 40% longer than rival Anker PowerCore 10000, says PCMag. It thankfully supports pass-through charging of itself AND your device at the same time. Fits most phones; includes USB-C adapter cable.
  3. SanDisk Extreme PRO 128GB UHS-I/U3 SDXC Flash Memory Card (buy at Amazon) fits weeks of shooting, great for 4K video. Or cheaper: SanDisk 16GB Extreme SDHC Memory Card.
  4. A clear glass filter protects precious lenses from scratches & catastrophic drops. I speak from experience! Get a clear glass filter, NOT a UV filter, which modern multi-coated lenses have made redundant. Example: high quality B+W 72mm XS-Pro Clear MRC-Nano 007M Filter fits my Sony RX10 III (read article).
  5. Mount a circular polarizing filter (B+W brand at Amazon) only to remove reflections or haze, or to contrast clouds with polarized sky. Don’t forget to immediately take it off for all other conditions, as it can block 1-1.5 stops of light.
  6. 2x Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver Duo triggers your flash or camera wirelessly at distances up to 328 feet.
  7. Critical editing & organizing software: Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom Classic CC 7.x and Photoshop CC) speeds modification (non-destructively), editing, sorting, and labeling of images. Lightroom version 6 added Photo Merge to Panorama and HDR. In 2016, Lightroom CC subscription added Boundary Warp essential for stitching panoramas quicker, and Dehaze to remove haze in skies & glass, as a leap beyond Clarity. (Adobe Photoshop software lets advanced users manipulate complex Layers such as for printing, or CMYK color space for publishing.) If your Lightroom CC subscription expires, you can still view, organize and export (but not Develop) images.
  8. Free editor for stitching panoramas from multiple overlapping images: Image Composite Editor (ICE) (from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group) was faster and sharper than my old Photoshop CS5.
  9. Canon Pixma Pro-100 photo printer (new in 2013, with 8 color dye cartridges) makes economical, vibrant high-quality prints up to 13 x 19 inches, lasting about 30 years behind glass before fading. But the following pigment inkjet printers make longer-lasting prints: Canon Pixma Pro-10 printer (2013, with 10 color pigment cartridges) and Epson SureColor P600 printer (2015, with 9 color Ultrachrome HD pigment cartridges, makes superior black & white prints, prints on thicker paper up to 1.3mm thick, supports roll paper, but costs $250 more plus 20% more per print).
  10. Tamrac digital camera bag protects your precious device on the road.
  11. Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” Tripod has a built-in quick-change plate, good for small cameras.
  12. 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. Better yet, get a factory precalibrated monitor like mine: ASUS PA328Q 32″ 16:9 4K/UHD IPS Monitor
  13. Pacific Image PowerSlide X: Batch scan 50 slides, up to 10,000 dpi, excellent dynamic range of 4.2, with critically important Magic Touch infrared dust and scratch removal (ICE).
  14. Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE scanner (2014) reincarnates your slides & film digitally, with important infrared/ICE removal of dust & scratches.

TIPS for travel in adverse conditions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 frame35mm-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” referred 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 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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Sensor size comparisons for digital cameras - PhotoSeek.com

In this illustration, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger diameter, bulkier lenses. To optimize the size of a serious travel camera, consider 1-inch Type sensor or up to APS-C sensor size. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor / film size (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0 In comparison, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

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