Choosing the Best Travel Camera

Choosing a travel camera is a little different than just getting a regular camera. On top of brand name and megapixels, you also have to look out for size and weight.

The good news is that here in 2019 there is an increasingly vast selection of lightweight, powerful cameras to bring along on your next voyage. Mirrorless cameras really are the wave of the future, poised to replace the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras many of us have gotten used to.

However, this blog has from the beginning been intended for those with limited time and resources to travel. I understand that for many people, a nice new mirrorless camera may just not be in the picture. Not to worry. In this post I will be including point-and-shoot cameras, and even smartphones! I will also talk about smartphone apps that can make your photos look their very best, no matter what kind of smartphone you own.

If you want to compare any of the cameras listed below, I’d recommend CameraDecision.com.

What to Look For in a Travel Camera

Image Quality

Of course, with any kind of camera, you want one that takes sharp pictures. This is usually measured in megapixels. However, just like more horsepower does not necessarily make for a faster car, not all pixels are created equal. Having said that, I would not get anything under 16 MP. If you can, opt for 24 MP, which is a pretty good industry standard right now.

Sensor Size

So, for the vast majority of cameras you’re going to buy, the sensor size is going to be called APS-C. This is the most common “cropped frame” sensor size. The size of the sensor is important because it’s one of the factors that affects how much light gets to the sensor. A “full frame” camera has better image quality, especially in low light settings, but APS-C (or Micro Four-Thirds, another cropped frame) will work just fine.

Portability

The true measure of a travel camera versus a regular camera. You want one that has a small, lightweight body, and equally lightweight lenses. It’s in this realm that the mirrorless camera systems shine, and why they are the system of choice for the modern travel photographer. Having said that, there are of course point-and-shoot cameras and even some smartphones that have pretty impressive optics in their own right.

Lens Selection

The way it was always explained to me, was to get a decent camera body, and then the absolute best “glass” that you could afford. Lenses are the true heroes of photography, even more so than megapixels.

There’s a lot that goes into picking the best lenses. I could and more than likely will write an entire article on the basics of photography at a later date. For right now, I’ll keep it simple: you just need to worry about focal length.

Your standard kit lens varies, but more often than not it’s going to be something in the range of 18-55mm. If you can, get one with a bit more range to it. 18mm is great for taking wide-angle shots of street scenes or landscapes, but 55mm is not much at all if you want to zoom in from the top of an observation deck. For that, ideally you’ll want something more like 105mm or so. What I would recommend is bringing two lenses: one closer to the 18mm end for wide angle shots and portraits, and then something in the 105mm range for zooming in. You definitely do not want to travel with more than two lenses, or with some 200m+ monstrosity, because that’s just way too cumbersome.

Some of you with photography experience may be wondering why I didn’t include aperture. Aperture, usually shown on the lens as f/(some number), determines how open the shutter is, and thus how much light can get in. This also determines the amount of bokeh, or background blur. Basically, the lower the f-stop, the better. I don’t touch on this too much because 99.99% of all kit lenses you’re going to buy only go down to f/3.5. Just for the record, journalistic standard is usually around f/2.8, but for the average traveler, f/3.5 will suit you just fine.

Weatherization

This one’s important because in your travels, you’re probably going to come into contact with rain. Or sea spray. Or sand. Or dust. Any of those can potentially get inside your camera and mess up the sensor if you’re not careful. Weather sealing makes your camera more rugged and durable.

Battery Life

Of course the one time you forget to charge your camera battery is the one time you miss that once-in-a-lifetime shot. This is one area in which DSLR cameras still consistently outperform mirrorless cameras. Always try to get one capable of taking several hundred shots on a charge, or invest in a second battery.

Mirrorless Cameras

For those of you who have experience with DSLRs or SLR film cameras, you’ll know that the mirror is what makes the “clack” sound when you snap a photo. That’s what flips up, exposing the sensor to light, thus taking the picture.

Mirrorless cameras don’t have that; they are essentially really, really nice point-and-shoot cameras. They have much better sensors, and can take interchangeable lenses just like a DSLR. And yet they are typically close to the size and weight of a comparable DSLR system.

It’s cool because in the DSLR world, it’s basically Canon or Nikon. If you’re any kind of good photographer, you shoot with one of those two brands. In the mirrorless world, there’s a lot more diversity to choose from. To be fair, the best mirrorless cameras out right now are produced by Sony, but you’ll find plenty of solid choices from the likes of Olympus and Fujifilm.

Sony Alpha a6000

Year Released: 2014

Image Quality: 24.3 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 360 shots

Price: $548 (w/ 16-50mm lens kit)

Yes, the a6000 is a little on the older side. However, I would still confidently recommend it for your first mirrorless camera. The fact that Sony has since come out with both the a6300 and a6500, and yet still produces the a6000, should attest to the quality of this oldie-but-goodie. The 24 MP sensor is solid resolution, and there are a number of good lenses at your disposal. It is widely considered one of the best all-rounder cameras for the money, performing well for both fast action shots and landscape scenes. I myself do not shoot with a mirrorless camera just yet, but my first one will more than likely be the a6000. I’ve had the opportunity to try one out and I was really impressed. It’s really small and flat, being closer in size to the old school film cameras.

The major issue I have with this camera is its lack of a viewfinder. I personally am used to looking through a viewfinder. On the other hand, those making the jump from a point-and-shoot straight to a mirrorless will find this camera to be the perfect missing link.

Canon EOS M100

Year Released: 2017

Image Quality: 24.2 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 295 shots

Price: $400 (w/ 15-45mm lens kit)

For those looking for a real budget mirrorless camera, this Canon is a solid choice. While the battery is sorely lacking, the image quality is not bad at all. This is a solid, budget-conscious choice that will get the job done.

Fujifilm X-A5

Year Released: 2018

Image Quality: 24 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 450 shots

Price: $500 (w/ 15-45mm lens kit)

The X-A5 is another entry-level, lower-cost mirrorless that offers really nice photo quality. Its images are praised for their sharpness.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Year Released: 2017

Image Quality: 16 MP

Sensor Size: Micro Four-Thirds

Battery Life: 330 shots

Price: $549 (w/ 14-42mm lens kit)

Typically I would not go with anything less than 20 MP, but I’ve heard very good things about this Olympus, and the photos I’ve seen prove it. It’s another solid choice.

Sony Alpha a7

Year Released: 2014

Image Quality: 24 MP

Sensor Size: Full-frame

Battery Life: 340 shots

Price: $998 (w/ 28-70mm lens kit)

The a7 is probably the best entry into the world of full-frame mirrorless cameras, for the money. The full-frame sensor does add to the price tag, but not to the bulk; this is one of the more compact full-frames on the market. The image quality is noticeably better than a lot of comparable DSLRs of similar megapixels. If you have a little bit more to burn, this is a great one to get. It will stand up extremely well for years to come.

Sony Alpha a7R III

Year Released: 2017

Image Quality: 42.4 MP

Sensor Size: Full-frame

Battery Life: 650 shots

Price: $2,598 (body only)

Th a7R III is, by most accounts, the best mirrorless camera available today. The R designation means it is intended for high-definition landscape photography (the base model a7 III comes with 24.2 MP). This is the camera that very well-known professional travel bloggers like Expert Vagabond use.

I should mention that Sony recently released their a7 IV model, which is capable of…are you sitting down?…61 MP. That just sounds like overkill to me, and will most certainly carry a hefty price tag. Just goes to show the technical advancement of mirrorless cameras.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

These are–technically–also mirrorless cameras. But these are those less expensive kind that do not feature interchangeable lenses, and so have limited zoom and depth of field capabilities. They are basically the step between camera phones and professional/semi-professional mirrorless cameras.

Having said that, a lot of them are quite small but still pack a punch on the image quality front.

Canon G9x

Year Released: 2015

Image Quality: 20 MP

Sensor Size: 1″ BSI

Battery Life: 220 shots

Price: $235

The G9x is the camera I used on my travels for about a year. It’s small enough that you can literally put it in your pocket. It has a decent zoom, although if you go out too far out you’re going to need to stand really still, or use some kind of tripod. It has pretty decent image quality, but the battery life is not great, and I would definitely be sure to charge it every night or every other night. All the photos I took in Mexico City were shot on this camera.

Action Cameras

When I talk about action cameras, I’m really talking about GoPro cameras. While there are a few (read: one, that I know of) companies that are making their own action cameras, GoPro is pretty much the first and last name in action photography.

These tiny units are meant for video, with the option to capture photos as well. They can be attached to a Scuba tank shoulder strap, a motorcycle helmet, or bicycle handlebars. They are waterproof, shockproof, and extremely durable.

Because I haven’t messed around with too many of these, I’m only including the newest line. There are earlier versions of all of these that you can research.

GoPro HERO5 Session

Year Released: 2016

Image Quality: 10 MP

Video Quality: 4K

Price: $170

Commonly considered a “best bang for the buck” GoPro, the HERO5 Session is pretty no frills, but does exactly what it’s supposed to. It takes high-definition footage, is waterproof to 10 meters, and allows for automatic video upload to cloud storage. It’s small size ensures it can be clipped anywhere.

GoPro HERO7 Black

Year Released: 2018

Image Quality: 12 MP

Video Quality: 4K

Price: $350

The HERO7 Black is the best action camera that GoPro makes right now. It sports stunning video and image capture, all with the same ruggedness and automatic cloud upload capabilities.

I should mention that this is the best *non-3D* camera that GoPro produces. They recently announced the Fusion, which is an 18 MP, 360-degree camera for shooting VR footage. While this is awesome, the price tag is at least $600, and I don’t think it’s intended for neither beginners nor budget travelers.

DSLR Cameras

Let’s be perfectly clear: DSLRs are NOT ideal travel cameras. They are simply too bulky and heavy.

Having said that, that’s what a lot of people have, and that’s what a lot of people use. I myself shoot with a DSLR, a Nikon D7100. It has good image quality and the battery last a really long time, but it takes up valuable space in my travel backpack. When I’m trying to pack for a week or two with just one backpack, that can make things challenging. Because I can find comparable or better image quality in a smaller package, I will be transitioning to mirrorless by the end of the year.

Luckily, there are some relatively compact DSLRs out there, such as the:

Nikon D3400

Year Released: 2016

Megapixels: 24 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 1,200 shots

Price: $428 (w/ 18-55mm lens kit)

As far as DSLRs go, the D3400 is on the compact side, and offers an extremely long battery life. You should be able to go over a week of constant shooting without having to worry about charging the battery (although you should charge it often just to be safe!). It’s only got probably the lowest price tag for 24 MP on this list.

Smartphones & Apps

Just like mirrorless cameras are slowly supplanting DSLRs, there are those who say that smartphones may one day supplant cameras altogether.

The photography-lover in me is somewhat startled by that statement, although I don’t think that will ever happen, for a variety of reasons. But the fact of the matter is that people like things to be easier, and with a smartphone equipped with a solid camera, you can have your GPS, communication, and travel photos all in one very portable place. There are a lot of phones coming out these days that have very powerful processors on them, and some people just like that mobility and convenience.

For a lot of you, this is all you need! A good photo is a good photo. However, if you really want to capture the best memories, I would not disregard a camera altogether. For one thing, phones are a lot easier to steal than a camera with a strap around your neck or wrapped around your hand. Phones cannot take different lenses, thus severely limiting their zoom capabilities. To my knowledge, there are no camera phones that shoot in RAW file format. While some phones do have 64GB and 128GB storage capabilities, you can store even more on a camera, if you need it. With very few exceptions, most camera phones do not perform well in low-light settings, with or without a flash.

Google Pixel 3

The newest Pixel’s camera might seem subpar at 12 pixels, but remember that not all pixels are created equal. The Pixel 3 has been celebrated by most publications as having possibly the best camera ever put on a smartphone.

Photo taken on a Google Pixel 3

Having said that, I understand that not everyone wants a Google phone, for whatever reason.

Huawei P30 Pro

This phone features a 40(!) MP front camera, which is just unheard of. It’s the other smartphone that’s widely held to hold the very best camera as of 2019.

The other biggest feature of this phone is that it actually utilizes three front cameras, allowing for more powerful photo processing. The lenses are even provided by legendary German photo company Leica.

OnePlus 6T

My friend once showed me a low-light photo taken with the OnePlus 6T that was so crisp I (probably defensively) denied that it was taken without a flash. With dual 16 and 20 MP rear cameras and a proprietary Nightscape feature, you should be able to take some pretty stunning nighttime shots.

Photo courtesy of Adam Bath

Disclaimer: With all of these phones, I’m only reviewing their camera capabilities. I can’t tell you much else about their overall processor speeds or reliability.

SnapSeed

This is not a phone, but an app. It is available for both Android and iPhone users, and allows you to edit your photos, as well as apply filters and effects. Think of it sort of like Instagram without the social media aspect. Most users will probably use the Auto feature on it, but that is a very powerful function for a mobile app.

Also be aware that many smartphones will have their own proprietary versions of photo editing software. These will be much less powerful, but can still make your photos pop more than they would have. For example, my mid-range little HTC has a Fix Lighting feature that I regularly make use of.

Drones

Drones are really blowing up right now. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to try one out, although it’s definitely on my to-do list. Once I do I will update this section.

While I can’t speak from personal experience, I have done quite a bit of research on them, and I’ve seen certain models recommended far more than others. So, might I introduce you to the:

Holy Stone HS110G

Video Quality: 1080p

Flight Time: 13 minutes

Range: 984 ft

Price: $150

4K is all the rage right now, but unless you’re showing your footage on a larger screen, 1080p is still perfectly sharp. At $150, this drone seems to be the one to go with if you’re just breaking into the drone world. Like with current mirrorless cameras, drones have limited range and flight time. But 13 minutes is still plenty of time to zip around and take some incredible aerial video.

DJI Phantom 3 Advanced

Video Quality: 2.7K

Flight Time: 23 minutes

Range: 5 km

Price: $800

A truly professional video drone. The price is high, but for a quality full-frame camera, you’d be spending that much or more.

Bonus: Software

For those of you who want to really produce your best work, you’re going to need to get some kind of photo editing software. There’s just no two ways about it. You can get the best camera money can buy, and your photos will certainly look good. But to make them look great or amazing, you’ll need to tweak them. Trust me, once you get done with your photos, the originals will look black and white.

Can you get by with just taking JPEGs and posting those on Facebook or Instagram? You sure can! Nothing wrong with that. But if you want to take your photography game to the next level, shoot in RAW, and then run those RAW files through some kind of software.

Google Picasa

Picasa is completely free to download, and it’s what I used on my personal laptop all through college and for a while afterward. If you’ve never used photo editing software, I would recommend you download Picasa.

It has Auto Light and Auto Contrast settings which will really spruce up your photos. Go ahead and play around with the settings. See which provide the best results for you.

Picasa is a great free program to start out with. Having said that, Picasa is really a better organizational program than an editing program. For a true photo editing program, you’ll eventually want to pay for one.

Adobe Lightroom

I started using Lightroom earlier this year, and it’s been a serious, serious game-changer. I pay about $11 a month for my subscription, and it’s worth every penny. There are other payment options available, but that’s the one that works for me right now.

Like Picasa, Lightroom has an Auto setting, but it’s far more powerful. That works for a lot of my photos, but it’s also easy to manipulate contrast, vibrancy, saturation, highlights, shadows, color temperature, and more. Lightroom has not just made my photos their best, it has also straight up saved others. Basically, my dumb ass had been taking a lot of landscape photos using too low an f-stop, and so the focus was very soft. After realizing my mistake, I ran them through Lightroom, cranking up the texture and sharpness controls. They look very nearly as good as if I’d just used the correct settings to begin with!

That should all be enough to get you going. Whether you choose to invest in a good mirrorless camera and lenses, or download Snapseed onto your smartphone, I hope this article helps you in your travels.

One of these days I’m also going to publish a short article explaining a lot of the terms I’ve used here (like Micro Four-Thirds) in greater detail.

Safe travels out there!

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