Finding the best compact travel camera is one of those daunting tasks most travellers face every now and then. When it comes to classical, point-and-shoot style compact cameras, the emergence of smartphones with great photo and video capabilities hasn’t made things any easier. And the decision is further complicated by your specific needs and photography skills, and whether you want a compact camera as your secondary or as your main travel camera.
This post is aimed mostly at those of you who are not necessarily passionate photographers, but still enjoy making photos and want high-quality visual memories of your travels without lugging around big, heavy cameras and/or several lenses.
If you are, like me, an enthusiast photographer, a compact camera will most likely be your backup camera, and you may not learn much by reading this article. If that’s your case, I still invite you read on and chime in with your own views in the comments.
If any of this gets too long-winded or too technical, just skip all of it and get straight to the last two sections of the post where I tell you which are, in my view, the best travel cameras for those who want an all-in-one, high-quality option.
Before I get to the point, let me just clarify that I’m using the term ‘compact’ in a rather loose sense. By ‘compact’ I refer here to non-interchangeable, zoom lens cameras with enough stills- and video-recording capabilities to be used as main travel cameras, as opposed to interchangeable lens cameras of any kind (mirrorless or DSLRs).
So, what aspects should you consider when looking for the best compact travel camera?
Compact travel cameras: what should you look for?
It all depends on your needs and style of photography. Only you know if you like to shoot mostly landscapes, interiors, architecture in narrow streets, portraits of the people you encounter in your travels, scenes in night street markets, a lot of videos… you get the idea. Chances are you’ll do a bit of everything.
You may also value size and weight over any other considerations, because you like to travel extremely light. Or connectivity might be of the utmost importance, because you want to easily share your photos on social media. Let’s examine what I think should be the main considerations:
Size and weight
Some people don’t mind this very much, especially if they are keen photographers. For me, it’s very important, and I’ll always pick the lighter option between two very similar alternatives, even at the cost of a marginal loss in image quality.
Related to size and weight are accessibility and portability. Do you mind having to carry a bag, even if it’s not a dedicated bag for your camera, because it’s not pocketable? Or do you much prefer the convenience of being able to slip your camera in a pocket, be it in your clothes or in your daypack?
Again, it depends a lot on what you like to shoot. It also depends on whether you travel with two cameras or one. If, in addition to your compact camera, you are travelling with an interchangeable lens camera (like a mirrorless or a DSLR camera), then this is not so crucial. But if your compact camera is your main camera, you want it to be a good all-rounder, and that starts with the lens.
You can split lens versatility in two: focal length and aperture.
Many photo enthusiasts don’t have a problem with shooting with a fixed focal length camera or lens (I do it quite often), but most of them would agree it’s not the most flexible or ideal set up for a traveller. Ideally, if your compact camera is your main travel camera, you want it to have a zoom lens that spans a good range, from wide-angle to tele-photo.
Don’t get too crazy about tele-photo, because it’s not the best use for compact cameras and you can always crop your image afterwards to get some extra reach. Any lens that goes up to 70-120mm focal length should be enough for most purposes, like shooting portraits and isolating reasonably far away elements of a scene.
Much more important is the shortest focal length, for wide-angle shots. The human field of view is roughly equivalent to the perspective and angle offered by a 50mm lens, so lenses in the 35-55mm range are considered ‘normal’ lenses.
As you probably know already, the shorter the focal length, the wider the angle (or field of view) it captures. Anything shorter than 35 mm is considered wide-angle, and it is particularly useful for including in your photo as much as possible of the scene in front of you. If you are in a narrow street, or any other closed space where taking a few steps back is not an option, you need wide-angle. Plus, unlike with zoom, there is no trick like cropping that you can apply afterwards. So, the wider a lens goes, the better for travel photography. There is a reason why the lenses in all smartphones are wide–angle lenses: they are the most versatile fixed focal length lenses.
Most compact cameras offer zoom lenses with something around 28mm as the widest option, which is roughly adequate. However, if you can find one starting at 24mm or less, you’ll see it makes a huge difference and you’ll be able to get some shots that you won’t with a zoom lens that only goes down to 28mm.
What about the aperture? The aperture of the lens determines its light-gathering ability. The aperture values of a lens are marked on it and read something like ‘2.5-6.0’, sometimes with the letter ‘f’ in front (f2.5-6 or to be precise, f/2.5-6 as this number is a ratio). Somewhat counterintuitively (but remember: it’s a ratio), the smaller the number, the larger the aperture, i.e. the lens can open more widely to let more light through.
The f-numbers etched on the lenses refer to the maximum aperture for the shortest and longest focal length of the zoom, respectively. Why the maximum aperture? Because light is the main limiting factor in photography. There are many occasions where there just isn’t enough light to take the shot without using additional light sources like a flash. Therefore, what you really want to know is how well your lens will perform in poor light conditions, which is like saying ‘what is the maximum aperture I can set it to at any given focal length?’
Another thing to consider is that these numbers are somewhat confusing in the sense that at f/2 a lens lets through twice as much light as at f/2.8; in turn, f/2.8 lets through twice as much as f/4.0, and f/4.0 twice as much as f/5.6. As you can see, the differences in light-gathering ability are much larger than the numbers suggest; after all, 5.6 is not two times 4, far from it, but the latter aperture lets in twice as much light.
So what does this all mean?
Without getting too technical, the lower the f numbers and the narrower the range, the more adequate your zoom lens is for low-light work (needless to say, without it affecting in any way the performance of the lens in good light).
Bear in mind though, that when there is a range of maximum apertures (and there almost always is in the zoom lenses we’re dealing with here), that means the aperture diminishes as you increase the focal length (as you zoom in). In some cameras this is very steep, so you only get, say f2.5, in the 28-32mm range, but by the time you get to 35mm you might be at f3.2 or higher.
I’m not a video expert, and in fact I am now regretting I didn’t give more thought to video in my latest journey in SE Asia. While I was on the road, I thought I could get by with the many videos I was shooting on my iPhone; but having seen the videos on a larger screen back home, I find the quality is barely acceptable, and definitely not up to the standards I hold my photos to. Maybe I wasn’t using the gear in the best possible way, I don’t know.
So, the big decision here, at least in my view, is whether to use your dedicated photo camera to shoot video, or to buy an action camera (GoPro and such). They have different uses, but they should both give better results than any smartphone, even a high-end one.
All of the cameras discussed below excel in this department, with the exception of the Fujifilm X30. If you are going to consider other cameras, be advised that many of them offer more limited video capabilities, and some royally suck at it (pardon my French). So, if video is important to you, make sure to check the video specs thoroughly and look for some reviews and samples online.
This is a handy feature that more and more new cameras in all segments are offering. Personally, I can leave without it, but one of my cameras has it and I must admit it is really handy to quickly transfer a photo to your phone and attach it to an email or whatsapp message, or share it on social media.
Again, this may be a feature you require, so check out if it comes with the models you’re after. All of the cameras I recommend at the end of this post have built-in Wi-Fi, except for the first version of the Sony RX100.
This is another feature that we could perfectly live without until recently (OK, we still can). But I suspect it’ll become standard in cameras, if only because smartphones offer it and we are thus discovering how useful it can be.
My main travel camera does not have built-in GPS, and I cannot tell you how many times I have turned to the camera roll in my iPhone in order to find out where exactly I took this or that photo with the other camera. Which temple was this? Did I eat this here or there? Sometimes you just can’t remember, and it’s impossible to infer it from the date and timestamps embedded in your photo files. If you have a photo you took in the same place with your GPS-enabled phone camera, problem solved.
Funnily enough, you can find this feature either in low-end compact cameras or in high-end mirrorless/DSLR ones, but rarely in cameras placed in between. If you absolutely must have GPS, together with a crazy zoom range in a pocketable package, then the Panasonic TZ70 (ZS25 in the US and other markets) might be for you. It won’t give you a similar image quality to the cameras I’m recommending at the end of this post, but if you need GPS and are on a low budget, it looks good for the price (€326).
Flashes are not the greatest feature of compact cameras, since they are usually rather weak and placed too close to the lens to project anything but flat, not very interesting light on the subjects. However, they can be really useful to provide a touch of ‘fill’ light when shooting someone in the shade against a bright background, as well as in night portraits. Some people have it and never use it, though. See if this is important for you, as one of the cameras recommended here doesn’t come with a built-in flash (the Panasonic LX100).
Although there are some significant differences among the cameras considered here in this department, my recommendation is that you simply buy at least two spare batteries. That’ll give you peace of mind, and if you go for cheap knock-offs (which generally work fine), it won’t cost you much.
Other features to consider
These are features you may or may not use but can be nice to have, such as special shooting modes, a viewfinder and a touch screen.
Personally, I shoot in semi-automatic or full manual modes, and almost never use special shooting modes, but you may find them useful. Some of the preset scene modes can help you get the photo if you’re not familiar yet with your camera and don’t have much time to fiddle with the controls, or don’t want to risk going into semi-automatic or full manual mode. I do find the panorama mode quite handy sometimes, as it saves you the work of stitching the overlapping photos afterwards. Of course, this is quite easily done with a number of photo editing programs, but you may not want to go into that.
Touch-screens are making their way into an increasing number of cameras. After all, we’ve all become used to it by our smartphones. I’ve never had a camera with this feature, but many people who have it say it’s great, especially to achieve quick focus on any part of the scene. To me, it is not an essential feature, and none of the cameras recommended below has it.
Finally, we have viewfinders. If you are reading this article, chances are you don’t feel too strongly about having a viewfinder or not. Photography enthusiasts tend to be more old-school about it and won’t go near any camera without a viewfinder. A viewfinder not only adds to the shooting experience, but can be very useful in bright light, when it’s sometimes hard to see anything on the LCD of your camera. It’s also easier to keep the camera steady when you’re holding it against your face, which can help avoid blurred photos in low-light conditions.
Some of the older compact cameras come with tiny, optical viewfinders which don’t cover the whole scene your lens is capturing, and thus are woefully inadequate. However, a few of the newer models now come equipped with excellent electronic viewfinders (EVFs), so you may want to have a look at those in a shop before making your final decision. Of the cameras under consideration here, only the first two versions of the Sony RX100 don’t have an EVF.
One final note. You’ll notice I have not touched upon megapixels, one of the big selling points all manufacturers use. Why? Because unless you are planning to make very large prints of your photos, or do extreme cropping afterwards, the megapixel count is totally irrelevant for most users. Any current camera is equipped with a sensor having more than enough megapixels for most needs.
Nowadays, 12 megapixels is the minimum you’ll find, but many smartphones only have 8-megapixel sensors, and do the job just fine under the right conditions. I refer you to the photos in this recent post of mine: can you tell they were all taken with a phone? Many of you can, I’m sure, but it may not be that obvious for everyone.
I’ve also left out of the discussion the image quality at high ISO settings, because most mid- to high-end compacts nowadays offer very good or excellent quality up to ISO 800, so you don’t have to worry about that.
So, which are currently the best compact travel cameras?
[Update, May 2018: This article was published in late 2015. While the previous considerations are still largely valid, some of the recommended models below may be a little outdated now -although all are still great cameras and some might be had for bargain prices today!]
Note that for my final recommendations I have chosen what I consider to be the best among the current options, which doesn’t mean there may not be others more suitable for you.
The reference prices were obtained at the Spanish and U.S. website of that online seller you’re probably thinking of (hint: starts with an ‘a’), but I’m not necessarily recommending you buy from them nor saying you can’t find better deals elsewhere.
Based on the criteria set out above, these are the main options you should consider:
There have been four iterations of this camera, each one even more attractive than the last. Depending on your needs, you may want to skip the latter two versions in favour of the first two. The mark III and IV versions have an EVF, a narrower zoom range (24-70mm, but note it starts at true wide angle) and the lens is brighter (f/1.8-2.8). The mark IV model is also the first one in the series to offer 4K video.
In contrast, the first two versions have a wider zoom range (28-112mm) but the lens starts at a slightly limiting 28mm, and only opens up to f/4 (i.e. at best, it lets through two times less light than the lens in the newer models). They also lack a viewfinder, and the image quality is slightly worse than in the two newer versions, but they are much cheaper.
All four RX100 versions are the only true pocketable cameras in this list.
Price: mark IV (€ 1,059 / $948), mark III (€ 730 / $798), mark II (€ 463 / $498), mark I (€ 351 / $448).
Almost pocketable (will fit in a large jacket, or cargo pants pocket). Nice zoom range (28-112mm) but, again, it starts at just 28mm, and a ‘fast’ lens (f/2-2.8). Its main weaknesses compared to the other contenders here are its more limited video capabilities, and its slightly worse image quality, due to the fact that the sensor is the smallest in the group (2/3”).
On the plus side, those Fuji colours are gorgeous, and it is the second cheapest camera here, after the RX100 mark I.
Price: € 410 / $499.
Almost pocketable (similar to the X30, as shown here). A solid all-rounder with a somewhat limited zoom range (24-75mm) that is still slightly better than the range in the newer RX100s, and with an equally ‘fast’ lens (f/1.7-2.8). Video capabilities are excellent, and include 4K video (like the RX100 mIV and the much larger FZ1000).
The image quality is also the best in this group, particularly at high ISO values, due to the fact that this camera has a much larger sensor (in surface, not in megapixel count) than the 1” sensors found in the other cameras (the X30 sensor is even smaller). Other than that, the lack of a built-in flash might be a deal-breaker for you.
Price: € 620 / $690.
We’re leaving here small form-factor, light-weight territory, as this and the next camera are more similar to traditional DSLRs in those respects (which is why they are called ‘bridge’ cameras). However, this camera is an excellent all-in-one solution with a quite astonishing 25-400mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens, and superb video capabilities that include 4K video recording. And all this at a price that won’t break the bank.
Price: € 675 / $ 798.
The direct competitor of the Panasonic FZ1000. It’s also an excellent all-round camera, packing a 24-200mm, fixed f/2.8 aperture zoom lens (i.e. half the reach as the FZ1000’s, but ‘faster’ at the longer focal lengths). As the FZ1000, it’s a great camera if you are also going to shoot a lot of video, but unlike the FZ1000, it doesn´t offer 4K video. The RX10 mark II has just been released and does offer 4K video, but it costs much more than any other camera discussed here (€ 1,565 / $1,298).
Price: € 782 / $898.
OK, assuming you’ve made it up to here ( and I know I didn’t make it exactly easy for you), which compact cameras should you go for if you want the…
Best value for money, all-rounder pocketable camera: Sony RX100 mark III.
Best value for money, all-rounder non-pocketable camera: Panasonic FZ1000.
Best value for money, ‘compromise’ camera: Panasonic LX100.
Please note that ‘best’ and ‘value for money’ are very subjective, and any of the cameras discussed here would be excellent choices as a main compact travel camera, again, depending on your requirements and skill level. I’m only picking three for the sake of practicality.
The most important thing, and I cannot stress this enough, is that the camera fulfills your specific needs and feels easy and comfortable to use to you. If possible, hold it in your hand and try it in a shop, or buy from a dealer that accepts returns no questions asked. Then, make sure the camera has that one feature or spec that is all important to you, and you’ll be all set.
What do you think? Do you own any of these cameras?
Would you like me to discuss other options for travellers among the interchangeable lens cameras?
Do let me know in the comments section below!