The Best Travel Camera

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So you want to take great photos on your next holiday and you need to travel light. Which camera is the best?

Of course, the answer is “it depends”. Here’s how I approached the decision to find the best travel camera system for me with my $2,000 budget.

What’s important and what’s not

My holiday to China includes attending tourist attractions, visiting friends in their homes, travelling in the countryside and taking candid shots in cities and towns. So the camera system needs to suit landscape photography, portrait photography, wildlife photography and street photography. Of course, the photographer must be equal to those challenges too!

The trip is with non-photographers, so minimising photography time is essential during this holiday. I hope to refrain from slowing down my travelling companions too much, so I will avoid wrangling large camera equipment or assembling and disassembling a tripod. The camera system will need to fit into a small space in my pack and be as inconspicuous as possible when I’m carrying it in public. Ideally, each lens will fit into a jacket pocket.

Sand dunes near Dunhuang, China
Sand dunes near Dunhuang, China

My travel adventure will include dimly lit indoor settings and cityscape nighttime shots captured from a boat. Reasonably quick shutter speeds in low light will be needed for this. So, good ISO performance is vital, to enable the required higher shutter speeds in low light.

ISO performance is therefore much more important than image stabilisation or vibration reduction in this analysis. Image stabilisation and vibration reduction are only useful to enable longer shutter speeds; moving subjects like people just become blurry at longer shutter speeds. So I won’t be selecting a camera based on its image stabilisation features.

Dynamic range is another factor that I will not consider in detail. There are two main reasons for this:-

  1. Dynamic range seems to vary relatively little between sensors in this price bracket. The Dynamic Range scores from www.dxomark.com for each of these cameras are all around 12 or 13 Evs, which is ample to generate high quality digital images.
  2. Capturing a wide dynamic range can be attained in the field using exposure bracketing, which has a much greater effect than using a sensor with a better Dynamic Range score.

I also don’t consider video shooting capability as important to me. I’m a stills shooter who knows little about video recording.

I always shoot raw. The option to shoot raw at all ISOs is therefore desirable. About 16 megapixels would be ideal, although I know that I may have to clog up my hard disk with higher-megapixel images for many of the cameras that meet my other requirements.

I’m not considering a full frame camera. Aside from the higher cost, full frame cameras and lenses are too big and heavy – even mirrorless cameras.

No holiday to another country is complete without at least one shot of something unusual
No holiday to another country is complete without at least one happy snap of something unusual. Obviously the driver of the green tractor doesn’t see anything unusual – he’s yawning!

Required lenses

I like having three lenses – an ultra-wide angle zoom (the wider the better, but not a fisheye), a fast (f/2.8 or better) mid-range prime, and a telephoto zoom. I find that carrying these three lenses gives me the best opportunity to generate a satisfying image in almost every situation.

Whilst some people prefer a mid-range zoom lens instead of a prime, I find that the smaller aperture (ie. higher f number) of a mid-range zoom is unacceptable. Usually I find it is better to zoom with my feet at the mid-range focal lengths, so a fast (ie. low f number like f/1.8 or f/2.8) prime lens suits me perfectly.

I normally walk around with either the wide-angle zoom or the mid-range prime attached to the camera body. Hence, when considering lens length, it is of primary importance that these two lenses are small. The telephoto zoom should ideally fit into a jacket pocket, but a slightly longer telephoto zoom would be acceptable if the other two lenses are especially small.

A huge Airbus A380 doing crazy stunts, snapped with a small telephoto lens in China
A huge Airbus A380 doing crazy stunts, snapped at maximum focal length with a little telephoto lens in Zhuhai, China

Off-brand lenses will be considered where their specifications better match my needs. If a third party lens is cheaper, faster, smaller or lighter then I would choose it instead of an on-brand lens. Lenses that require a lens adapter (eg a Metabones adapter) will not be considered, though. Getting a small camera then adding an extra lens adapter seems counterproductive to the aim of keeping the system small. Off-brand lenses will therefore only be considered if they are designed to attach directly to the camera body in question.

Autofocus is a must for all lenses, with a camera body that allows back button focussing. Fast autofocus speeds are desirable to catch “the moment” for candid shots.

To summarise, I’m after the smallest, lightest camera rig that is great in low light. It needs an ultra-wide zoom, mid-range prime and telephoto zoom lens. And, of course, it needs to be as cheap as practical; the budget is $2,000.

Systems to consider

Other photographers recommended a range of systems to me, including mirrorless and smaller DSLR varieties. I already have a Canon 400D rig from 2007, which I know is too big and performs woefully inadequately in low light. So I will include the Canon 400D DSLR in my comparisons for reference.

I settled on the following camera bodies for consideration:-

Camera body types

Note that the Canon 100D is known as the Canon Rebel SL1 in some places. My old Canon 400D is also known as the Canon Rebel XTi in some parts.

The lens models for each system I am considering are:-

Detailed model names

Horses and chariot at the Terracotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China. Shot at ISO 12,800, no noise reduction used at all.
Horses and chariot at the Terracotta Warriors Museum, Xi’an, China. Shot through a glass pane at ISO 12,800.

 

Focal lengths

Comparing cameras with different sensor crop factors introduces a potential source of confusion: are the focal lengths on offer really the ones I want? What I’m after is equivalent full-frame focal lengths of:

  • wide angle zoom : up to 15mm (or 16mm at worst) full frame
  • mid-range prime : a single focal length somewhere between 40mm and 55mm full frame
  • telephoto zoom : at least 300mm full frame

It is easy convert the lenses’ focal lengths listed above to full frame (ie. 35mm) equivalent focal lengths. This is simply done using the equation:-

Full frame focal length = Lens focal length x Camera sensor crop factor

The focal length comparison table is colour coded as follows:-

  • Green – meets requirements
  • Orange – almost meets requirements
  • Purple – unsuitable

Lens focal lengths

Already, we see that the Fuji X-T10 and Sony A6000 are the only systems with ideal lens lineups. The Canon 100D, Nikon D3300 and Olympus OM-D E-M5 systems are almost within specified requirements, and will still be in the running if the other considerations prove favourable.

Although the Samsung NX300 system does not have a suitable ultra-wide zoom, Samsung does offer a cheap, tiny 9mm f/3.5 lens which has an equivalent full-frame focal length of 13.5mm. This ultra-wide prime lens costs $149 and is less than half an inch long. If all other factors are in favour of Samsung then it would be worth considering purchasing this 9mm prime as a fourth lens, or even buying it instead of the wide-angle zoom.

The Panasonic DMC-G7 system is already deemed not suitable to me, as it does not offer an ultra-wide lens within budget. The Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 lens, whose full frame equivalent range is 14-28mm, is perfect and so is included as part the Olympus Micro 4/3 system in this analysis. Unfortunately, at $898, the excellent 7-14mm lens would cause the Panasonic to go over the $2,000 budget. The cheaper, but insufficiently wide 9-18mm lens, can therefore only be considered with the Panasonic system because it is the best option I can afford within budget.

As mentioned earlier, my old Canon 400D system is unsuitable for a variety of reasons, one of them being the unacceptably long focal length of my mid-range “nifty fifty” prime lens.

Morning exercises in Jinshan
Morning exercises in Jinshan, China

Cost

Next check : is each camera system within the $2,000 budget?

Each system is broken into the cost per component to find the total cost. All costs are in US dollars and are derived from www.bhphotovideo.com.

It’s worth noting that both the Samsung NX300 and Nikon D3300 are not sold “body only” as standard. They each come with an 18-55mm kit lens included, which does not meet any of my needs. If the rest of my analysis showed either of these as a strong contender for my “best” camera, I would need to shop around to find a place to effectively sell it “body only”. But, for the moment, the price of both the Samsung NX300 and Nikon D3300 include a free lens that is of no use to me.

Also note that, as I already own an old Canon 400D, it has a zero cost in this comparison. It is included on this graph for the sake of completeness only.

Cost

 

So far, the Fuji X-T10 breaks the budget at $2,646, and so is already out of consideration for my purchase.

The Nikon D3300 system is the cheapest at $1,293, although it remains to be seen if this DSLR will be small enough and have sufficient low light performance to be considered “best for travel”.

An afternoon stroll in Guyuan, China
An afternoon stroll in Guyuan, China

Low light performance

A very high priority is low light performance. One factor that seems to best separate good digital cameras from great digital cameras is faster shutter speeds in low light, to satisfactorily capture dimly lit moving subjects. Good quality images at high ISOs enables these faster shutter speeds.

The following comparison uses the “Low Light ISO” score from www.dxomark.com. Whilst a single score from a DXOmark test does not fully describe the low light performance of a camera sensor, it is an excellent guide which seems to gel very well with overall low-light performance.

Note that DXOmark cannot test the Fuji X-T10, as the Fuji has an “X-Trans” sensor as opposed to all the other cameras’ “Bayer Filter” sensors. The Low Light score in the graph therefore includes an estimation of the Fuji’s low light capabilities, based on online descriptions and sample images from other online tests.

Low Light Performance

The Nikon D3300 DSLR has the best low light score of ISO 1385. It just nudges out the Sony A6000 mirrorless camera at ISO 1347. These two camera systems are the current front-runners, although the Nikon D3300 is probably ahead so far because it is also cheapest.

As expected, the old Canon 400D DSLR has the worst low-light performance, with a rating of ISO 664. The Panasonic DMC-G7 is only marginally better at ISO 718, with the other Micro 4/3 camera, the Olympus OM-D EM-5, at ISO 884. The Micro 4/3 system may therefore be struck off as a possible “best for me” system now, too.

A common sight near a city wall in China, albeit snapped with a telephoto lens from a long way above
A common sight near a city wall in China, albeit snapped with a telephoto lens from a long way above

“Length”

“Length” in this report is how far the camera and lens protrudes when carried, hands-free, via a strap slung around the neck. The “length” of the camera body in this comparison is therefore actually the camera body thickness. The lens lengths are simply the distance from one end of the lens barrel to the other.

The length comparison also relates to how easily each lens will fit into a jacket pocket, and how much space is taken in a backpack or carry bag.

"Length"

 

Surprisingly, the Samsung NX300 (9.1” total length) beats the Micro 4/3 systems (Olympus OM-D E-M5 @ 9.6″ total, Panasonic DMC-G7 system @ 9.8” total length). The Sony A6000 and Fuji X-T10 are close behind at 10.2” and 10.3″ respectively.

The Canon 100D at 11.4″ total length was over an inch longer than its mirrorless competition. The Canon 400D at 12.4” and Nikon D3300 at 12.5” were over two inches longer than the mirrorless alternatives. This puts the Nikon D3300 out of the running for mine; it is even bigger than my old Canon 400D, which is already too big!

Impressively short lenses were each only 0.9” long (ie. shorter than 1 inch) : the Fuji 27mm (for Fuji X-T10), Samsung 30mm (for Samsung NX300) and Canon 24mm (for Canon 100D).

Impressively small wide-angle lenses included the Olympus 9-18mm (used here on the Panasonic DMC-G7) at 2.0”, the Sony 10-18mm (for Sony A6000) at 2.5” and the Samsung 12-24mm (for Samsung NX300) at 2.6”.

The standout in the telephoto zoom range was the Panasonic 14-140mm kit lens (which comes with the Panasonic DMC-G7 as a package) at 3.0”, followed by the Olympus 40-150mm lens (for the Olympus OM-D E-M5) at 3.3”.

Sunset over the Helan Mountains, Inner Mongolia, China
Sunset over the Helan Mountains, Inner Mongolia, China

Weight

The final, and least important consideration (to me) is the weight comparison. Being a fairly big, burly bloke, I would carry heavier camera equipment if the other considerations were favourable. Still, carrying a lighter load is always desirable no matter how big and strong a person is.

Weight

 

When it comes to weight, the mirrorless cameras come into their own. Apart from the heavier Fuji X-T10 system at 1.244 kg, the mirrorless systems all weighed within 100g of one kilogram.

The DSLRs all weighed in excess of 1.4 kg with the Nikon D3300 the heaviest at 1.585 kg – approximately 40-50% heavier than its mirrorless competition. Note that the cheaper Tokina wide angle lens was selected for the Nikon D3300; the equivalent Nikon ultra-wide angle lens is about 100g lighter than the Tokina although it is also twice the price.

Best travel camera system for me

Considering all above factors in order of priority, the best for my requirements is the Sony A6000 system. It is within budget ($1,943), it has great low light performance (ISO 1347), it is impressively small (10.2″ total length) and is very light (1,044 grams) compared to the DSLRs. The Sony A6000’s wide angle and prime lenses are suitably small, and its telephoto lens is acceptably small. The Sony A6000 system is my own choice for purchase.

Dusk on the city walls of Xi'an, China. Sony A6000 camera, Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @10mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 4000, hand held. No noise reduction either in-camera or in post production.
Dusk on the city walls of Xi’an, China. Sony A6000 camera & Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @10mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 4000, hand held. No noise reduction at all was used here, either in-camera or in post production.

 

Best budget travel camera system

The best budget system is the Nikon D3300 system. At $1,293, it is the cheapest system by $150 and it has the best low light performance (ISO 1385) of all cameras considered. Total lens length (12.5″) is about 20% greater than the best alternatives and its total system weight (1.58 kg) is about 50% heavier than the lightest alternatives. If you are willing to sacrifice some size and weight, the Nikon D3300 is the best option.

The cost of the D3300 used in this article includes a 19-55mm kit lens, which is additional to the three lenses under consideration. The Nikon D3300 system could possibly be obtained even cheaper if a supplier could be found to sell it effectively “body only”.

Lightest travel camera system

The lightest camera system is the Panasonic DMC-G7. It is the only system that weighs under 1 kg (ie. 995g) and is also very small (9.8” total length compared to the shortest system, the Samsung NX300 at 9.1”). The Panasonic DMC-G7 does not include a sufficiently wide ultra-wide-angle zoom lens for me, its other lenses are not quite suited to my needs, and its low light performance is very poor (ie. ISO 718). But if weight is of primary importance to you, then the Panasonic DMC-G7 could be your best option.

The Great Wall of China, 2,200 years old and completely unrestored. On the edge of the Gobi Desert, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18 f/4 OSS lens @ 10mm, f/6.3, 1/250, ISO 100.
The Great Wall of China, 2,200 years old and completely unrestored. On the edge of the Gobi Desert, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18 f/4 OSS lens @ 10mm, f/6.3, 1/250, ISO 100.

Best balance of all factors

The best balance of all the factors is the Samsung NX300 system. Priced at under $1,500 and being smallest (9.1″ length) and very light (1,056 grams) makes this a very attractive system for travel photography. Low light performance at ISO 942 is a little lacking in this camera, which means I could not consider it as “best for me”.

Also, for ultra-wide-angle shooting, a fourth lens (ie. the tiny 9mm f/3.5 @$149) would be required in this system. It actually would be worth considering purchasing this ultra-wide prime instead of the wide-angle zoom lens, which would make the Samsung NX300 system the cheapest system of all those considered.

Finally, note that the Samsung NX300 comes with a mid-range zoom kit lens as standard, so a price saving may also be possible from a supplier who can offer this camera effectively “body only”.

Worst system

The Canon 100D is the worst system compared here (ignoring my 8-year-old Canon 400D which was included for interest only). The Canon 100D had the worst ISO rating (ISO 843), it was the second heaviest (1.41 kg) and second longest (11.4″) system. Two of its three lenses were not quite (or “almost”) suitable. Although the Canon 100D system was the second cheapest (about $150 costlier than the Nikon D3300 system), it could be concluded that the Canon 100D system is the cheapest system that I definitely don’t want for travel photography.

Yinchuan, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @18mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 100, handheld.
Yinchuan, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @18mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 100, handheld.

Conclusion

To answer the original question, the best travel camera system (for my needs) is:-

Camera body : 

Wide-angle zoom lens : 

Mid-range prime lens :

Telephoto zoom lens :

I have purchased this system as it best meets my requirements. It does exactly what I need.

This study also concludes the following:-

  • Best budget travel camera system : Nikon D3300 with Tokina PRO DX-II 11-16mm f/2.8, Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX, Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G DX ED
  • Lightest travel camera system : Panasonic DMC-G7 with Olympus ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6, Sigma 19mm f/2.8 DN, Panasonic 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 (kit)
  • Best balance of all factors : Samsung NX300 with Samsung 12-24mm f/4-5.6 ED, Samsung 30mm f/2.0 pancake, Samsung 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ED OIS II
  • Worst system studied : Canon 100D (ie. Rebel SL1) with Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5, Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM, Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II
Concentration : Water calligraphy in a park in Yinchuan, China
Concentration : Water calligraphy in a park in Yinchuan, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @ 18mm, f/4, 1/125, ISO 100, handheld

 

 

Post script

Photographers can use many factors to decide which is the best camera system for them, including those considered in this article. Other factors include :

  • system functionality
  • how easy the menus are to use
  • how likely a camera company will support their product in future
  • how good the camera feels to grip
  • battery life
  • whether the camera can have back-button focus
  • how many megapixels the sensor has
  • how many other lenses are on offer for a body
  • which materials are used in the construction of the body and lenses
  • how easy it is to transition between manual and auto focus
  • whether parts are weather-sealed
  • how cool or trendy a system is
  • the country of origin of camera parts
  • which way the focus and zoom rings turn
  • how effective image stabilisation is
  • how high the quality of lens glass is
  • whether the battery can be charged in camera or via a separate power supply
  • how readily available or costly other accessories like L brackets or battery grips are
  • colour options of cameras and lenses
  • whether a camera is recommended on telemarketing shows
  • what one’s favourite photographer uses or recommends
  • how often a manufacturer updates their cameras’ firmware
  • compatibility with cameras owned by friends or family
  • focussing system features
  • kind of viewfinder
  • size of screen
  • whether the rear screen articulates
  • whether the camera’s screen is a touch screen
  • what kind of memory card/s a camera uses
  • how many memory card slots a camera has
  • which software best processes raw files
  • how good the jpeg files are straight out of the camera
  • how well suited the camera is for video
  • what apps can be uploaded to the camera
  • whether a camera has an inbuilt flash
  • GPS availability
  • WIFI availability
  • how many knobs, buttons or dials are on the camera

The above list probably just scratches the surface.

Apartment view in Shanghai, China
Apartment view in Shanghai, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @ 10mm, f/5, 1/1250, ISO 100, handheld

For me, I know that I will need to take time to learn any new camera system no matter which one I pick. Once I’ve done that, I will be comfortable with that system, so long as good image quality is possible. The ability of the camera technology to best capture the available light is therefore my primary concern in deciding which camera to choose. Once my options are whittled down to one or two based on the camera and lens technology, I then consider the other features of a camera. These include some of the factors I listed in the paragraph above.

So, after I discover that the Sony A6000 system best meets my technical requirements, I look in detail at whether that camera would be practical for me to use. I confirm that back button focus works and discover that the autofocus is lightning fast. The A6000 generates raw files up to ISO 25,600. Most dials and buttons on the Sony A6000 are customisable so I can set the camera up to best suit my natural way of shooting. Battery life is much better than I expected, and I discover I can shoot all day on one battery on my holiday (I have spare batteries as a precaution, though). Dynamic range and video recording quality, despite what I said earlier, are very good.

I am very glad I took the time to complete this detailed comparison because the Sony A6000 system does exactly what I wanted.

One of the world's last working steam trains, Sandaoling Coal Mine, China
One of the world’s last working steam trains, Sandaoling Coal Mine, Hami, China. Sony A6000 & Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS lens @ 11mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO 100, handheld

Finally, a note on low light performance. To properly consider the low light performance of a camera system, strictly the T-stop (ie. light transmission) of each lens should be investigated in addition to a camera’s ISO performance. There is no point having a camera that is great in low light if the lens is so poor that it just doesn’t let much light through. The T-Stop measures how much light a lens transmits through to the camera, so the T-Stop values would be useful to know.

Unfortunately, the T-stop of each lens is not available, so rather than “make it up” (like I had to for the ISO performance of the Fuji), this analysis assumes that all similar lenses have roughly equivalent T-stops. In fact, for the same reason, this study assumes that similar lenses are roughly equivalent in all lens-test parameters.

This assumption is probably not practically correct; for example, the high cost and relatively heavy weight of the Fuji system probably indicates that its lenses are better than its competition. So Fuji’s ultimate image quality may be better than its competition, which could be partially borne out (or disproved) in full ISO performance and T-Stop tests plus tests for sharpness, vignetting, chromatic aberration, distortion etc. However, no matter how great their system may be, Fuji would still not be within budget here.

Also, it is unlikely that a slightly better lens here and a slightly worse lens there would outweigh the factors I considered in this study. Camera manufacturers don’t seem to make “bad” lenses these days or they wouldn’t sell. So, even if full lens measurement tests were available for every lens/body combination in this article, it is unlikely that this article’s conclusions would be any different.