For the majority of us, the global pandemic has made travel and tourism all but impossible for now – but when borders open, flights resume and hotels unlock their doors once more, we’ll be eager to pack our bags and get out into a world that has felt far too small and limited for the past year.
When you do get back out there, you’ll want a camera to document the sights and sounds. A smartphone can do a job, but it’s still no match for a dedicated camera – and thankfully there are a plethora of portable powerhouses available, offering the sort of versatility that makes them ideal as travel cameras. From tiny, go-anywhere pocket rockets to flexible superzooms to waterproof action cams, there’s something out there for every type of trip and every type of traveller.
Read on and find out what you should be putting in your hand luggage the next time you head off on holiday.
What’s the best travel camera in 2021?
The Sony RX100 VII (£1,200) may not be marketed as an out-and-out travel camera, but as WIRED’s favourite compact camera available it fully deserves its top spot on this list as the best travel camera. While it’s expensive, this is one of the few pocket-sized cameras around that offers pro-level stills and video performance, plus class-leading autofocus and a decent zoom range. It really is a do-it-all point-and-shoot.
If more zoom reach is required, consider the Panasonic TZ200 (£599), a similarly pocketable model that features a 15x optical zoom lens – the best travel camera for zoom under £1,000 – or Sony’s bulkier bridge camera the RX10 IV (£1,499), which totes a 25x optical zoom.
Don’t discount system cameras, though: an interchangeable lens camera like Fujifilm’s small, lightweight X-S10 (£899) can be kitted out to suit your trip perfectly, thanks to its wide range of speciality and all-purpose lenses. It also offers fantastic image quality, great battery life and in-body image stabilisation.
Sony RX100 VII
WIRED Recommends: The king of compacts offers superb image quality in a pocket-sized package
Sensor: 20.1MP 1in Exmor RS CMOS | Lens: 24-200mm (equiv.) f2.8-4.5 | ISO: 100-12800 | Continuous shooting speed: Up to 20fps | Video: 4K/30p; Full HD/up to 1000fps | IS: 4-stop Optical SteadyShot | Screen: 180º flip screen LCD | Viewfinder: 2.36m-dot pop-up OLED | Battery life: Approx 260 images, 40 mins video | Size: 101.6 x 58.1 x 42.8mm | Weight: 302g
Now in its seventh iteration, Sony’s venerable RX100 compact camera has long been a go-to premium point-and-shoot for demanding photographers. Despite its petite, pocket-sized body, the RX100 VII (£1,050) is among the top-performing cameras in its class, with the best autofocus system we’ve encountered in a point-and-shoot: the hybrid setup combines 357 phase detection AF points with 425 contrast detection AF points, covers almost 70% of the sensor’s imaging area and tracks even fast-moving subjects with laser-like accuracy. It also recognises faces and eyes (both human and pet) and will keep them constantly in focus as they move around the frame.
As well as the small size and low weight, travellers will appreciate the RX100 VII’s lens, which offers a zoom range of 24-200mm (35mm camera equivalent). The large 1in back-illuminated sensor and maximum f2.8 aperture (when the lens is at its widest focal length) allow the camera to perform well in low light conditions too, while the high-speed shooting mode can capture up to 20 still photos per second with autofocus and metering engaged (handy when attempting to snap a moving subject or otherwise fleeting moment) and up to 90 a second with high-density Single Burst Shooting. The RX100 VII is a truly versatile performer, in other words – and its decent battery life will suit travellers too, delivering about 250 still shots. It’s only good for about 40 minutes of video recording, mind you, but is at least rechargeable via USB.
Video recording is another strong area, with the camera able to capture detailed 4K footage at up to 30fps as well as smooth super slow-motion clips in Full HD at up to 1000fps. The forward-flip screen and dedicated 3.5mm microphone port will appeal to anyone wanting to vlog, while video makers seeking the best image quality can record in pro-friendly log modes (including HLG HDR) for more post-processing scope.
Despite its high price tag, we don’t think there’s another small camera that offers the Sony RX100 VII’s level of all-round performance.
Pros: Excellent autofocus; tiny size; versatile lens; good vlogging features
Cons: Expensive; video drains battery life quickly
A small camera with a big zoom
Sensor: 20.1MP 1in Live MOS | Lens: 24-360mm (equiv.) f3.3-6.4 | ISO: 125-12800 | Continuous shooting speed: Up to 10fps | Video: 4K/30p; Full HD/up to 100fps | IS: 5-axis | Screen: 3in fixed LCD touchscreen | Viewfinder: 2.33m-dot | Battery life: Approx 370 images | Size: 111.2 x 66.4 x 45.2mm | Weight: 340g
A zoom lens is an invaluable tool for travel cameras, allowing the user to get in close and capture things in a way they couldn’t with a smartphone or fixed focal length camera. And Panasonic’s TZ200 (£599) has one of the rangiest zoom lenses on a compact camera (fun fact: in Panasonic-land, “TZ” actually stands for “Travel Zoom”).
Going from 24mm at the wide end to 360mm at the telephoto end, the lens offers a 15x zoom range. Keep the camera steady (its 5-axis image stabilisation helps here) and you’ll be able to grab sharp shots of distant wildlife and other far-off subjects at levels of detail that other similar-sized compacts simply can’t match. The image stabilisation works with movie recording too, albeit not when the TZ200 is capturing its most detailed 4K footage or high-speed clips for 4x slow-motion playback. Stick to 1080p Full HD quality when you’re using the full reach of the zoom for the steadiest results.
At the other end of the scale, the 3cm minimum focus distant makes the TZ200 a dab hand at macro photography. So, should you spot a particularly fetching flower or insect on your travels, you’ll be able to capture it in sharp detail from up close too. Another travel bonus is the battery life, which allows for around 350 stills images per charge, while the inclusion of a viewfinder is helpful on sunny days when glare can make the fixed rear screen difficult to see.
While the TZ200 lags behind the Sony RX100 VII in autofocus and video features, it’s worth bearing in mind that it costs around half as much. With a long zoom reach, good battery stamina and solid all-round performance, this point-and-shoot compact would make a fine addition to any jetsetter’s travel bag.
Pros: Great 15x zoom range; small size; good battery life
Cons: Non-tilting screen; no IS with 4K/slow-motion video
GoPro Hero9 Black
The Hero every self-respecting thrill seeker deserves
Sensor: 23.6MP | Lens: Undisclosed, f2.8 | ISO: 100-6400 | Continuous shooting speed: Up to 30fps | Video: 5K/30p; 4K/60p; 2.7K/120p; Full HD/240p | IS: HyperSmooth 3.0 | Screen: 2.27in rear touch LCD; 1.4in front LCD | Viewfinder: No | Battery life: Up to 2 hours | Size: 71 x 55 x 33.6mm | Weight: 158g
GoPro has firmly established itself as the Coca-Cola of action cams, thanks to many years of delivering capable products and a vast eco-system of ancillary mounts, mods and other add-ons. Released in 2020, the Hero9 Black (£330) is the company’s current flagship, featuring pretty much everything an extreme sportsperson could want: it’s tiny and lightweight, waterproof to 10m, shoots through an ultra-wide angle lens that captures everything in front of it and its HyperSmooth 3.0 electronic image stabilisation is a wizard at levelling out your footage, whether you’re strolling along a beach or careening headlong down a mountain on two wheels.
For travellers who favour vlogging and live broadcasting, the Hero9 Black supports Facebook and YouTube livestreaming, features a small front-facing screen to aid self-shooting and its 5K maximum video resolution is higher than anything else in this list. As always, it should be noted that a higher resolution doesn’t necessarily mean better-looking video; the Hero9’s small sensor size means its low light capabilities are limited, and its highly distorted wide-angle field-of-view won’t be to everyone’s taste. Overheating can also be an issue when recording 5K, particularly if you’re in warm weather, which stops the GoPro recording anything until it has cooled down.
While it’s true that the lens’ field-of-view isn’t as wide as that of the Hero9 Black’s predecessor, the Hero8 Black (£300), it can be increased to 155º with the addition of a Max Lens Mod (£90), while the return of removeable lens covers means that cracking your current cover means only a simple switcheroo rather than a pricey repair job.
Finally, GoPro has given the Hero9 Black the biggest and best battery of any of its action cameras to date. Depending on what you’re using the camera for, it can record up to two hours of video on a single charge.
Still photographers won’t get much out of the Hero9 Black, but vloggers and sporty types should certainly consider taking it on their next trip.
Pros: Waterproof out of the box; high resolution video
Cons: No optical zoom; potential 5K overheating
Sony RX10 IV
Speed and zoom make this bridge cam a golden gate to great photos
Sensor: 20.1MP 1in Exmor RS CMOS | Lens: 24-600mm f2.4-4 | ISO: 64-25600 | Continuous shooting speed: Up to 24fps | Video: 4K/30p; Full HD/up to 1000fps | IS: Optical SteadyShot | Screen: 3in 1.4m-dot LCD | Viewfinder: 0.39in 2.36m-dot OLED | Battery life: Approx. 400 images, 75 mins video | Size: 132.5 x 94 x 145mm | Weight: 1,095g
The Sony RX10 IV (£1,499) is a bridge camera, so-called because it spans the gap between a compact point-and-shoot and an interchangeable lens model. The RX10 IV has a fixed, non-swappable lens, but its DSLR-like shape and size make it easier to grip firmly, while allowing space for a large electronic viewfinder and a hot shoe (for attaching an external flash or microphone).
The lens may be fixed, but it’s flexible. Covering the equivalent of a 24-600mm focal length range, it has a 25x optical zoom, with digital zoom taking that all the way up to 100x for movies and 380x for stills (albeit with a noticeable hit to image quality). Even if you just stick to using the optical zoom, it’s a huge amount of reach to have in a single camera, while its maximum aperture of f2.4, paired with the decent-sized 1in sensor (the same as the one found on the RX100 VII featured above), makes it an impressive low light performer to boot.
The RX10 IV is a powerful camera, with the ability to record Full HD videos at super-fast frame rates (for up to 40x slow motion) as well as 4K video at up to 30fps. It doesn’t have all the picture profiles that you get from the RX100 VII, but it does feature the likes of S-Log2 and S-Log3, which should boost its appeal for serious filmmakers. The autofocus system is similar to that on the RX100 VII, with a focus (no pun intended) on effective tracking via a hybrid system combining 315 phase detection AF points with 25 contrast detection AF points. Those numbers aren’t as impressive as the RX100 VII’s, but they still do a fine job of keeping up with moving subjects.
There is one big advantage over the RX100 VII here, which is the RX10 IV’s much larger capacity battery. It means you can capture about 400 photos or 75 minutes of video on a charge, which is almost double what the RX100 VII’s battery can manage.
Pros: Huge zoom range; superb autofocus; weather-sealed
Cons: Bulkier than a compact; expensive
A small and light interchangeable lens camera
Sensor: 26.1 APS-C X-Trans CMOS | Lens: Various (X-mount system) | ISO: 80-51200 | Continuous shooting speed: Up to 8fps | Video: 4K/30p, Full HD/240p | IS: 5-axis in-body sensor shift | Screen: 3in vari-angle touchscreen | Viewfinder: 0.39in 2.36m-dot OLED | Battery life: 325 still photos, 55 mins video | Size: 126 x 85.1 x 65.4mm | Weight: 465g (body only)
For real versatility, many would claim you need an interchangeable lens camera. While packing extra lenses is sure to bulk up your baggage (not to mention hit you in the wallet), it does have its advantages in that you can tailor your camera to specific jobs: fit a long telephoto lens for wildlife shooting, for instance, or a wide-angle lens for capturing the interior of a building.
The Fujifilm X-S10 (from £949) is a small, lightweight mirrorless interchangeable lens camera using the X-mount system, giving it access to an excellent range of zoom and prime lenses – and even a couple of professional cinema lenses for serious filmmakers. Not only that, but it comes with in-body image stabilisation (IBIS), meaning any lens fitted will get the boost to stability. IBIS is rare on an interchangeable lens camera this compact and lightweight, which is one of the reasons the X-S10 feels particularly suited to travel – you can carry it around all day and not feel like your neck is about to drop off.
The body is made from sturdy magnesium alloy, but Fujifilm makes no claims regarding weatherproofing – so it’s not advisable to pull it out and start snapping away during a downpour.
Another advantage over the other cameras here is sensor size. The X-S10’s APS-C sensor is physically larger than anything used by the other models here, giving the camera a clear advantage in low light situations – an area where the aforementioned IBIS also comes in handy. All-round image quality is excellent, and whether you’re taking still photos or capturing 4K video you can expect sharp detail and clean colours. Vloggers will love the front-facing screen too, plus the fact that video can be recorded in a flat F-Log profile for easier colour grading post-shoot.
The X-S10’s hybrid autofocus setup, which includes accurate face and eye tracking, is another big tick in the plus column, while its 8fps continuous shooting speed might not sound that impressive but rises to 30fps when you switch to electronic shutter and put up with a slight crop to the image.
While a system camera might not match the self-contained simplicity of the other models here, its flexible, modular nature means it can be tailored for any task – whether you’re at home or away.
Pros: Small and light; in-body stabilisation
Cons: Not weatherproof; small viewfinder