THE Best Compact Camera for Travel Photography

Six months, five cameras, 867 photos, and one definitive winner. Becki and I have been on the hunt for a new camera, but more than that – we’ve been on the hunt for the best compact camera for travel photography.

Not for a professional level camera costing thousands of dollars that needs its own bag for all the lenses and huge camera body. No, we’ve been looking for something that doesn’t cost too much money, that can easily slip inside a pocket and stay concealed, and doesn’t scream, “steal me!” to poor passersby in countries torn from civil strife. A camera that is perfect for 80% or more of travelers.

Here’s exactly what we were looking for in our new camera:

  • Excellent image quality: For most people, this is the most important feature of any camera. Far more important than megapixels, people really focus on the color reproduction, sharpness, and noise at higher ISO speeds.
  • Can fit inside a pants pocket: Let’s qualify that by saying a guys pants pocket, cause womens pants have those tiny little pretend pockets that can barely hold lip balm. This is important for any intrepid traveler both for easily hiding the camera, and to have both hands free when needed (such as kayaking or camel-riding). Small size also generally helps keep the weight down too.
  • Lots of optical zoom: If you’re on safari in the Serengeti and a lion is lounging in the sun a quarter of a mile away, you’re going to want a camera with enough zoom to have it fill your viewfinder. With our winning travel camera, a quarter of a mile would be reduced to only 66ft of distance. Don’t be mislead with high digital-zoom cameras – digital-zoom is not nearly as good as optical for a myriad of reasons.
  • Decent megapixelage: Megapixels are not nearly as important as many people think they are. The only reason to have lots of megapixels is if you’re going to print your photos, and really only if you’re going to print them on high-quality printers at large sizes. If you’re printing on at 300ppi – which is about as high as you can get before your eyes stop being able to see a difference – it’ll only take a 14MP image to make an 11” x 14” print with no loss of quality. For our purposes, we’ll say 12MP or higher is good enough.
  • GPS: This one might not be a huge deal for many people, but since we are looking at cameras specifically for travelers, geotags can be kind of cool. A GPS built into your camera lets you easily make an electronic push-pin map of everywhere you’ve been.

Any features beyond these we’re just going to consider bonuses. We want a camera that won’t leave us disappointed when we come home and see the results, and as long as these key features are met, you won’t be complaining that none of your shots of Machu Picchu do it justice.

Scroll down to the bottom to see a gallery of all our test images

The Contenders

5) Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 – $253


Well, what can I say. We never actually ended up testing this camera in depth. I really wanted to like it because of it’s Leica-made lens, but alas! It was not to be. After just turning it on and playing with it in the store, the menu system alone made me despise it.

The menus are very non-intuitive, and SLOW moving. Painfully slow… miss-that-awesome-shot-while-waiting-for-the-menu-to-finally-acknowledge-your-manic-button-smashing-slow. Turned off by the menu system alone, we decided to not even spend the time on reviewing this one. (Buy On Amazon)

4) Canon PowerShot S100 – $249


This one was a bit of a stretch to fit into our requirements, but we felt Canon’s photography pedigree would give it a leg up. It’s lack of optical zoom meant it let us down in many situations (the view from the nosebleed seats at a Brewers game in Miller Park being one of them), but we thought it had interesting features that would win us over anyways.

The ability to shoot in RAW mode, a “manual control ring” mounted around the lens, and a digital zoom that reputedly didn’t suck helped this camera stand out from the crowd on paper, but in practice didn’t live up to expectations.

The camera didn’t have enough processing power, so RAW mode was infuriatingly slow. The control ring worked as stated, but switching between ISO, shutter speed, focus, and f/stop was cumbersome. Also, the lenses on these compact cameras can’t stay where you put them. I.E., if you set it to it’s lowest f/stop (lets say 2.8) cause you want a short depth-of-field (or “bokeh” for all you youngsters out there…), and then zoom in to frame your subject, it will automatically bump up to an f/stop of 4.5 or some such nonsense, totally negating your attempts at manual control.

I’m not sure why this is – my guess is because the lenses aren’t fast enough to maintain that wide-open aperture once zoomed in – but I am sure that it’s frustrating and ruins your chance of getting a good photo through manual controls.

The digital zoom, on the other hand, was easily the best we’ve ever seen. Not as good as optical, but not horrible either. This wasn’t enough to overcome the cameras weaknesses though, and especially not since it is the most expensive camera in the lineup. (Buy On Amazon)

3) FujiFilm FinePix F770EXR $213

This was a camera I was expecting to love. After all, Fuji has a long history of making high-quality film for traditional cameras, and they’ve recently made a huge impact on digital photography with their retro-inspired X-series of cameras.

While I was stoked to try this camera, it didn’t really leave a lasting impression. I’m not saying it was a bad camera – in fact, it didn’t really have any big drawbacks to it. It just didn’t have any huge advantages either.

The camera had a nice solid feel to it, and a grippy outside that didn’t feel cheap (unlike the Canon), the ability to choose different “film-simulation” modes is awesome (Fuji adds digital filters to the camera to make a picture look like you took it on their traditional film, such as Velvia and PROVIA) and all around it’s just a nice camera.

But at the same time, it never really reached the next level. The two cameras that came out ahead of the F770EXR were able to do what old analog cameras did – they made photography fun again.

And here the Fuji falls short. I honestly can’t tell you what it was – maybe it was a little too slow to capture pictures as they’re happening, or maybe it was the menu system… I don’t know. All I can say is that we weren’t disappointed by the results, but it didn’t inspire us to go out and just take pictures just for the fun of taking pictures. And that’s when you really get your best photographs. (Buy On Amazon)

2) Nikon Coolpix S9300 – $200

Right off the bat I had a feeling that we were going to like this camera. Both of us have owned Nikons in the past, and generally consider it our favorite manufacturer. Like Fuji and Canon, Nikon also has a long-standing photography pedigree, and they make their own lenses, allowing them to customize them to the camera.

And we did like this camera – in fact we liked it a lot. Like the Fuji, the S9300 won’t disappoint you with its results. As Nikons always seem to be, it’s very fast in its menus, its auto-focus, and everywhere else, allowing you to quickly capture whatever moment is happening in front of you.

The only reason it came in behind the Sony is this – it has slightly less optical zoom (18x vs. 20x), and the Sony has a built-in “soft background” effect that can be used in multiple modes. This allows you to pretend like you have truly manual control over the picture, simulating the short depth-of-field you can achieve with a DSLR and fast lens.

The Nikon did, however, have a high-contrast black-and-white effect that I simply loved. High-contrast B&W has been my thing ever since I first stepped into a dark room. I’ve always been drawn to it, even having one art professor comment that I seemed to be “punishing” myself, “choosing high-contrast film, printing on high-contrast paper, photographing high-contrast scenes, but spending hours in the dark room on each photo making sure the details aren’t lost to the contrast…why?”. So this endeared the Nikon to us as well, and also helped to be a camera that was fun to use. (Buy On Amazon)

1) Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V – $300

Here we have it – the single best camera to bring with you on all your travels around the world. It’s fast and got a great optical zoom, allowing you to capture everything you come across. It is small enough to fit into a jeans pocket and not be much of a nuisance there, and will completely disappear into a jacket pocket.

It’s special effects are less gimmicky than most, and include perennial favorites such as tilt-shift (aka miniature-mode) and the aforementioned background blur. I know I’m going mentioning the background blur a lot, and that’s because it allows you to actually have a subject in your photo. It’s important to only have in focus that which you want to be in focus, so that viewers can hone-in on the subject and ignore the rest.

Of course there are times when you’ll want everything to be in focus, and most cameras can do that with aplomb, but the ability to blur the background and foreground – whether through the actual optics of the lens or software trickery – gives you much more creative control. (Buy On Amazon)

Yup, We Bought It

We finally bit the bullet and invested some money in a decent digital camera. Like I mentioned at the top of the article, because we’re no longer just travelers – we’re travel bloggers – and it’s our duty to our readers to have awesome photos, we might pick up a DSLR camera next year.

But until that time comes, we love our little Sony HX20V and all the awesome photos it’s already taken. With all our Wisconsin travel plans we have coming up, I’m sure we’ll be putting it to good use, and we can’t wait to share our photos with all of you.

Do you love your camera? What kind of camera do you take travelling with you? Should we just stop beating around the bush and buy a DSLR camera and a bunch of sweet lenses? What do you think?

Comments

  1. Great post man! I am starting to look at compact cameras so I don’t have to lug my SLR everywhere. This post gave me some great options.

  2. Excellent post, guys! I just bit the bullet and bought a DSLR finally. Been working on channelling my inner Mr. T so that I can exude an “it is not in your best interests to mess with me” vibe to prevent getting mugged.

    • Lol, well I suppose just sporting a fro-hawk and a bunch of chains would go a long ways toward not getting mugged. Especially if you have your uke with you ;)

      • Yes, I think I’ll rely on my ‘tude and badass uke to ward off evildoers. Not really a gold chains kind of gal. Glad you found a camera you like. We must discuss your travel plans in further detail sometime when I’m not on the verge of insanity (i.e. after my South America trip.)

  3. Thanks for this great review! Just spent the afternoon looking at cameras with my boyfriend and basically nailed it down to the Sony and Lumix. Will definitely go for the Sony now! Thanks!

  4. Hello Andy,
    Thank you for the great reviews. By far the most helpful I’ve seen. I would like your opinion. I have a Canon 7D, am looking for something more portable, but to take great shots to print (really no bigger than 11×14). I’m travelling to Italy this summer. 2nd time there, first time I lugged my 7D with me, and learned its not the easiest to travel with. Would you choose the Sony Cybershot over the Panasonic Lumix fz200? Which do you feel takes a better photos? zoom? low light situations? Thank you in advance.

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