There’s no arguing that the smartphone has become our favorite camera for everyday casual shooting. But when you’re venturing hundred or thousands of miles to see something new, there’s no beating a traditional camera. Whether it’s a rugged shooter that can withstand the water and sand of the beach, or a high-zoom model that lets you reach a distant landmark without schlepping there, dedicated cameras bring extra tools to the table that can pay dividends on vacation. And, since many of the latest cameras have Wi-Fi built in, you can pair them with smartphones to share your travel pics during the vacation, not after.
The camera you pick depends on the type of travel you’re planning to do this summer. You can go for an all-purpose model that covers the basics, or a niche camera designed for precisely the activity you’re doing. Whether you’re looking to record some action video or capture stunning sunsets, there’s an ideal vacation camera for you to bring along – and most won’t break the bank.
The size and weight of action cams is a no brainer for travel. In fact, many are small enough that they take up hardly any room in a carry-on. The latest models, particularly our favorites, the GoPro Hero4 Silver and Sony Action Cam Mini, can shoot great looking video at Full HD 1080p (the Hero4 Silver even dabbles at 2K and 4K, but you don’t need those) as well as sharp, high-res photos. Their wide-angle lenses capture more of the view, Wi-Fi lets you share photos via a smartphone, and operating them is as simple as pressing a single button. Plus, they come with housing that lets you subject them to all kinds of abuse.
If you want to add a unique spin (literally), check out some of the new 360-degree action cameras, like the VSN Mobil V.360 and Kodak Pixpro 360. While image and video quality aren’t as strong as the aforementioned products, they can record everything around you, in one shot. You need to use special software to view the full spherical image or video, but it’s an interesting way to remember a vacation.
Rugged point-and-shoot cameras are similar to action camcorders, except here it’s photo first, video second. While larger than action cams, rugged cameras don’t require a special housing; their bodies are built to withstand the elements. That means they are waterproof, dustproof, freeze-proof, and crushproof. Most include special shooting modes for situations like underwater, so they’re great for beach- or pool-side. If you’re looking for a model that’s easy to use, check out the FinePix XP80 from Fujifilm or Olympus Tough TG-860; the XP80 has a mode that turns the camera into an action cam with an 18mm wide-angle lens (via converter). For a more advanced model, Olympus’ TG-4 can shoot uncompressed RAW photos.
The Nikon 1 AW1 is a mirrorless camera that is waterproof, shockproof, and freeze proof, including its interchangeable lens. The AW1 gives you the performance of a larger sensor that what’s in a point-and-shoot (for improved image quality), as well as different lens options. It’s a niche product and on the pricey side, but there’s no other rugged camera like it. (See below for non-rugged mirrorless options.)
Also called a bridge camera, the megazoom is a point-and-shoot that has a long zoom lens – as much as 83x, like Nikon’s Coolpix P900. Some have a DSLR-like body, while others are compact. They also offer advanced shooting modes, but they utilize typical components found in most pocket cams. Their appeal is the option of a long zoom lens without moving up to an interchangeable lens model.
One of our favorites is Canon’s PowerShot SX700 HS and the newer SX710 HS. The 30x optical zoom lens doesn’t match the P900’s 83x, but it is more than enough for most situations. At the maximum focal length, keeping steady is a challenge; Canon’s image stabilization system is one that works well. On the plus side, the SX700/SX710 is compact enough to fit in a coat pocket.
If you want a long zoom but are on a budget, try out Fujifilm’s new FinePix S9900W. It has a 50x zoom lens, Wi-Fi, and DSLR-like controls.
Mirrorless cameras (and one DSLR)
Mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses models like DSLRs, but are much smaller and lighter. In the past, mirrorless cameras didn’t perform as well as DSLRs, but the latest batch are so strong, they’re giving DSLRs some competition.
Micro Four Thirds, a type of mirrorless camera, is a good option for those who want an interchangeable-lens model that’s small and lightweight, but offers the performance and picture quality one expects from these cameras. We found Panasonic’s new Lumix G7 to be the ideal traveling companion, capable of shooting really nice photos and 4K videos. Another favorite of ours is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, but it’s pricier than the consumer-friendly G7.
If you want a larger sensor, check out the APS-C options from Sony and Samsung. We recommend the 4K-capable Samsung NX500 or Sony Alpha A6000. Sony’s Alpha A5000 is a great budget option. For photography purists where the best image quality matters, we like Sony’s Alpha A7 Mark II and Fujifilm’s X-T1, but it also pushes the price past the $1,000 mark.
(If you swear by DSLRs but wish they were smaller, Canon’s EOS Rebel SL1 is your camera. It’s the world’s smallest DSLR, takes great stills, and works with a wide selection of Canon lenses.)
Advanced pocket point-and-shoots
The smartphone has pretty much annihilated the pocket camera, but there’s a special breed that smartphones can’t touch. Advanced models like Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 Mark III and Canon PowerShot G7 X offer amazing performance out of a pocket-sized body. Unfortunately, they have a high price to match. But if you want power from a very compact camera, these are the cameras to turn to.