An ideal travel camera is lightweight, versatile, and captures great images. Point-and-shoots are the smallest and least expensive option, but they have some limitations in terms of image quality. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras have big sensors and are more compact than digital SLRs—any traveler should give serious consideration to going in this direction. Digital SLRs are the bulkiest and heaviest option but capture professional-grade photographs and offer the widest selection of lenses. Below are our picks for the best travel cameras of 2015 with a detailed description of each.
Point-and-Shoots for Travel
The only truly pocketable camera for travel is a point-and-shoot (mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras have a noticeably larger profile). Point-and-shoots have come a long way in recent years, offering larger image sensors and popular features like built-in Wi-Fi and in-camera panorama mode and HDR. They also are the most economical choice and the lowest liability should something happen on the road.
Weight: 10.5 oz.
Sensor size: 116 sq. mm
What we like: A great value for a high-end point-and-shoot.
What we don’t: No electronic viewfinder.
Sony has released four versions of its high-end RX100 series to date, but the original RX100 currently is still one of our favorite travel cameras. For under $500 you get a high-end point-and-shoot that does jut about everything well. Among its features are a large 20.1-megapixel sensor, a fast Carl Zeiss zoom lens, and RAW capability, all packaged in a lightweight and durable body. The most notable difference between the RX100 and the RX1000 IV below is the lack of an electronic viewfinder, but the older model does have a longer zoom range of 28-100mm (the lens on the RX100 IV is 24-70mm). If you’re looking for a small and discreet travel camera that packs big-time image quality, the Sony RX100 should be a serious contender.
See the Sony RX100
Weight: 10.7 oz.
Sensor size: 116 sq. mm
What we like: A camera to challenge the RX100 series.
What we don’t: Pricier than the comparable Sony options.
Sony has long dominated the high-end compact market, but Canon has released a direct competitor to the RX100 series in the G7 X. This camera features a large CMOS image sensor—the same as Sony’s RX100 III—and the lens and form factor are eerily similar. With the G7 X you also get a fast f/1.8-2.8 maximum aperture, 24-100mm of zoom, and a small size that should fit into most pockets. The biggest shortcoming of the Canon G7 X is the lack of an electronic viewfinder. The LCD screen is large and easy to view, but many photographers who spend so much on a camera prefer not to shoot via the rear display.
See the Canon G7 X
Weight: 10.5 oz.
Sensor size: 116 sq. mm
What we like: The top point-and-shoot on the market.
What we don’t: You can get a great mirrorless camera for this price.
With its continued success, Sony just keeps rolling out new versions of its RX100 series. The fourth is the best and most expensive, featuring new 4K video capabilities, faster shooting speeds at up to 16 fps, and a higher resolution LCD screen. And you get all the functionality that made the RX100 III so popular, including a large sensor, fast Carl Zeiss zoom lens, and unique pop-up electronic viewfinder. It’s the top point-and-shoot on the market for travel, offering an incredible amount of features and functionality in a small package. Nearly $1,000 is a whole lot of cash for a point-and-shoot, however. If you don’t need 4K video and can go without the viewfinder, we love the RX100 above at around $450, which offers similar overall image quality.
See the Sony RX100 IV
Mirrorless Cameras for Travel
Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras were built entirely for digital, fitting DSLR-like image sensors into compact bodies. This class of digital camera is arguably the best for travel, offering outstanding image quality in a lightweight set-up. Below we’ve picked three of the best options for travel from the a6000 up to the new full-frame Sony a7R II.
Weight: 12.1 oz.
Sensor size: 357 sq. mm
What we like: Impressive autofocus and a great value.
What we don’t: Battery life.
We at Switchback Travel know a number of professional photographers that use the Sony a6000 as their on-the-go camera. This should speak volumes—these folks know the market, have discerning camera taste, and depend on photography for their livelihoods. You can go with a cheaper Sony mirrorless camera for travel like the a5100, but the a6000 boasts an electronic viewfinder, vastly improved autofocus compared to its NEX predecessors, and fast shooting for action at up to 11fps. The battery life could be better, but overall we love the Sony a6000 and favor it over any point-and-shoot in its price range.
See the Sony a6000
Weight: 13.8 oz.
Sensor size: 221 sq. mm
What we like: Our favorite Micro Four Thirds camera for travel.
What we don’t: Pricier and heavier than the Sony a6000 above.
Consumers have a ton of options when shopping for an Olympus mirrorless camera, including the popular OM-D E-M1 and new OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Those cameras, however, are too expensive for casual photographers who want to stay below the $1,000 threshold. Enter the new Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II, which offers top-notch image quality in a compact package that costs about $650 for the camera body or $800 with a kit lens. At only 13.8 ounces, this camera is light and easy to carry for travel and comes loaded with features like an electronic viewfinder, a tilting LCD screen, and 5-axis image stabilization. It’s a tough call between the E-M10 Mark II and the Sony a6000 above, and both are superb mid-range mirrorless cameras that make excellent travel companions. We give a slight nod to the Sony for the camera itself, but the wide variety of Micro Four Thirds lenses makes the Olympus a nice choice as well.
See the OM-D E-M10 Mark II
Weight: 15.5 oz.
Sensor size: 368 sq. mm
What we like: A camera we carry on a day-to-day basis.
What we don’t: Video is disappointing.
Fujifilm cameras are known for their colors and overall image quality, and the company hit it out of the park with the X-T1. The photos produced by the X-T1 are sharp, the colors exemplary, and it has a much more classic feel than some of the overly electronic mirrorless cameras to date. We love this camera—it’s one that we often carry in our bag for travel and outdoor photography. One downside of the X-T1 is that the video is subpar for the price, but the stills simply can’t be beat.
In terms of kit lenses, Fujifilm didn’t buy into industry norm when creating the 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0, which produces great images with little distortion or need for post processing. We also like the 18-135mm kit lens, which isn’t quite as good in low light but adds weather resistance for travel and outdoor photography.
See the Fujifilm XT-1
Weight: 22.1 oz.
Sensor size: 864 sq. mm
What we like: The best mirrorless camera on the market.
What we don’t: Videographers may want to look elsewhere.
If money is no object and you want hands down the best travel camera on the market, our pick is the new Sony a7R II. The original Sony a7 and a7R were impressive in their own right, but Sony has really honed it in with the a7R II. The camera features a 42.4-megapixel back-illuminated image sensor, 4K video, improved low light performance, and built-in image stabilization. In addition, the a7R II weighs considerably less than leading full-frame DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mark III (30.3 oz.) and Nikon D810 (31 oz.) and has a much smaller form factor. This all adds up to professional-grade image quality and features in a lightweight package: it’s our dream travel camera.
See the Sony a7R II
Digital SLRs for Travel
Digital SLRs have the largest sensors, the most precise lenses, and capture the highest overall image quality of any type of camera. They also are bulkier than mirrorless cameras or point-and-shoots and come with a higher price tag. For travel, many of the entry-level models are lightweight, offer great image quality along with features like built-in Wi-Fi and GPS.
Sensor size: 357 sq. mm
What we like: Lightweight and a great value.
What we don’t: LCD screen is stationary.
Digital SLRs are larger in size than their mirrorless counterparts, but it’s tough to argue with the image quality or price. For under $500, you can get Nikon’s leading entry-level DSLR with an 18-55mm lens. This camera excels for both still photography and videos, and you have Nikon’s large selection of DX-format lenses to choose from.
Compared to the older D3200, the improvements were enough to give the nod the D3300. First, Nikon removed the optical low pass filter for better sharpness. Second, they added an EXPEED 4 image processor to speed things up and improve low light performance. Finally, Nikon lightened the camera body slightly and cut the weight of the new 18-55mm VR II kit lens by 20%. This all means that the Nikon D3300 offers impressive images in a lightweight body.
See the Nikon D3300
Weight: 13.1 oz.
Sensor size: 328 sq. mm
What we like: The whole package in a beginner DSLR.
What we don’t: A bit heavier than comparable models from Nikon.
For Canon shooters, the company’s extremely popular Rebel series of digital SLRs are known for their ease of use and photo and video quality. The Canon Rebel SL1 is the lightest in the Rebel line, and it’s a solid all-around camera for travel and daily use. You get an 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor, a large LCD screen for navigation, and Full HD 1080p video capability. If you’ve used Canon before and prefer that brand over Nikon, the Rebel SL1 is a great travel DSLR. For more features and functionality, try the slightly bulkier Rebel T5i.
See the Canon SL1
Weight: 14.2 oz.
Sensor size: 366 sq. mm
What we like: Nice and light for a mid-range DSLR.
What we don’t: Built-in Wi-Fi but not GPS.
The major announcement from Nikon to kick off 2015 was the release of the D5500. All in all, this is an excellent mid-range DSLR with more features than the D3300 above. You get a flip-out screen with touchscreen functionality, superior autofocus, and better low light performance. For travel, we love the improved ergonomics that make the D5500 lighter in the hand than its predecessors and easier to grip. Despite all the features, the camera body weighs only 14.2 ounces, which is lighter than the D3330 and just an ounce or two heavier than some of our mirrorless camera choices above. The D5500 is about $250 more expensive than the entry-level D3300, but video shooters and those who want the jump in image quality will appreciate the differences.
See the Nikon D5500
Camera Comparison Table
|Sony RX100||$448||10.5 oz.||116 sq. mm||20.2||10 fps||125-25600|
|Canon G7 X||$649||10.7 oz.||116 sq. mm||20.2||6.5 fps||125-12800|
|Sony RX100 IV||$948||10.5 oz.||116 sq. mm||20.1||16 fps||80-12800|
|Sony a6000||$698||12.1 oz.||357 sq. mm||24.3||11 fps||100-25600|
|Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II||$799||13.8 oz.||221 sq. mm||16.1||8.5 fps||100-25600|
|Fujfilm X-T1||$1,199||15.5 oz.||368 sq. mm||16.3||8 fps||100-51200|
|Sony a7R II||$3,198||22.1 oz.||864 sq. mm||42.4||5 fps||50-102400|
|Nikon D3300||$499||24.2 oz.||357 sq. mm||24.2||5 fps||100-25600|
|Canon Rebel SL1||$497||13.1 oz.||328 sq. mm||18||4 fps||100-25600|
|Nikon D5500||$747||14.2 oz.||366 sq. mm||24.2||5 fps||100-25600|
What Makes a Good Travel Camera?
Perhaps the most important feature of a travel camera is a compact form factor that makes it easily portable. Point-and-shoots are smallest: a quality model like the Sony RX100 weighs around 8.5 ounces and easily slides into most pockets. Mirrorless cameras are larger, approximately 1/2 the size of a digital SLR depending on the model. They won’t quite fit in a pocket but are easy to grip with one hand and have small cases that are light enough to carry throughout the day. Digital SLRs are the largest type of camera but there are some nice entry-level options like the Nikon D3300 that weigh under a pound without a lens. For travel, smaller is better and we’ve weighed that into our decisions above.
Travel photography requires capturing images in a wide range of circumstances and sometimes unexpectedly. If you’re buying a point-and-shoot, you want a lens with a wide zoom range that will perform well in lighting conditions from bright to dim. Mirrorless cameras and digital SLRs have interchangeable lenses, so you’ll want a versatile zoom lens or a few prime lenses at common focal lengths. When traveling, I’ve used just about every focal length from wide-angle to telephoto and recommend a camera kit that can do the same.
The last thing you want when traveling is to be handicapped by fear of carrying or using your camera. In dense urban areas, for example, it can be uncomfortable and somewhat risky to have an expensive camera and bag of lenses knowing that someone else at your crowded café may be eyeing it. When traveling in small villages in impoverished countries, it can feel awkward and attention grabbing to break out a $3,000 full-frame DSLR (you may wish you had a smaller and more unassuming camera). The point is that you want to be able to to use your camera at all times—it doesn’t do you any good in your hotel room or backpack.
Point-and-shoots are most discreet due to their small size—I love that a common thief would likely have no idea that the Sony RX100 IV or Canon G7X is such a nice camera. Mirrorless cameras generally look less expensive than DSLRs but clearly are the real deal. DSLRs scream money but that doesn’t at all mean you shouldn’t use one—just take proper precautions to keep it safe.
Depending on the type of travel you do, a weather resistant camera may be in order. Generally, we don’t recommend rugged models, which essentially are basic point-and-shoots that have a special casing to make them waterproof, dustproof, shockproof, etc. The truth is that these cameras have small sensors and you pay a lot for the protection. The Olympus TG-4 is one of the leading rugged cameras on the market, but I prefer a cheaper point-and-shoot like the Panasonic LX-7 that offers superior image quality. The exception to this rule would be serious outdoor excursions like rafting or long overland travel to remote places where you just don’t want to think about the condition of your camera.
Reasonable care, not shooting in wet or dusty weather, and proper storage will protect most cameras just fine. However, some mid-range and high-end cameras are weather resistant and have sealed joints that make them better able to handle the elements. For more information, see our list of weather-sealed DSLRs.
Before you buy a travel camera, ask yourself how you plan on using the trip photos. If the majority will be online either through social media or on the web, any camera on the list with a smaller image sensor will do just fine. If you plan on enlarging and printing your photographs, the size of the sensor, megapixel count, and lens choices all play a role in the quality of the photos. Some of my best photos have been taken with small cameras simply because I had them available, but these are factors to consider.
Video is a take it or leave it feature: some people love it, while others rarely use it and don’t need to pay extra for the functionality. Even pocket cameras capture 1080p video nowadays,but 4K is becoming much more prevalent (see the new Sony RX100 IV and Sony a7R II). When buying a mirrorless camera or DSLR, features like a flip-out LCD screen are designed for shooting video, as are lenses like Canon’s STM collection. Most cameras shoot decent video, but videographers will want to make that a priority in their buying decision.
Summing it All Up
In theory, most quality cameras should make good travel cameras, but we’ve given extra weight to the five factors above to come up with our 2015 list. Keep a close eye on zoom range or your lens choices to make sure your preferred focal lengths are covered, and buy a camera that you don’t mind using on the road. Most importantly, shoot frequently and creatively and you’ll be happy with the results.