I can’t blame anyone but myself. I suggested the title based on the many times I’ve been asked this exact same question. So here I am attempting to answer the almost unanswerable—what camera should you buy for your upcoming trip to Italy, Africa, theme park, or... fill in the blank. Well, I suppose your destination does make a difference. If you know you will be climbing mountains or snorkeling, you will want to consider a camera that can withstand extreme environments or go underwater, and I will address that below, but because the variety of possible vacation locales is near infinite, I will undertake this endeavor from a more general position.
The seemingly simple question is made difficult by several factors, of which budget is only one. It’s crucial to ask yourself a few important questions. How much weight am I willing to carry? Do I want to carry and change lenses? Is theft a serious concern where I am going? Will I continue to use this camera after my vacation? These are some things to think about, but the best advice I can give is to buy a camera you are comfortable with, regardless of its listed features and specs. A camera that you don’t know how to operate—or worse, one that sits unused in your suitcase—is easily the worst camera you can buy.
My suggestion is to drop into the B&H SuperStore and try as many cameras as you like. Check the feel, the weight, the menu system, the viewfinder and LCD. If that isn’t possible, think about the camera attributes that are important to you. Will you shoot things at a distance or at night? Is having HD video important, or Wi-Fi for sending images to your smartphone and GPS for geo-tagging, or do you prefer touchscreen; do you want to carry the camera in your pocket, around your neck or in a bag? Remember that almost any camera you buy will take “good” pictures, so get a camera that is comfortable for you and fits your needs.
Advanced Point-and-Shoot Cameras
As we know, many people have drifted into using their phones to take everyday snaps, but for print-worthy resolution, to control settings, and low-light capability, most cell phones don’t cut it. The reality is that there are countless fine examples of point-and-shoot cameras that will take stunning photos that cannot be matched by your phone. Based on size and image quality, these are, to me, the best type of camera to bring for a general vacation.
Advanced point-and-shoot cameras offer not only the ability to ‘let the camera do the work’, but provide manual control, fast-aperture lenses, larger sensors, robust image processors and full HD video. Most won’t quite fit in your pocket but are still compact and lightweight and perfect for a small carry bag, purse, or just to hang around your neck. The advantage of these types of cameras is that they blend excellent image quality and camera control with a built-in zoom lens that offers the versatility to shoot at both wide-angle and telephoto perspectives.
A fine example of an advanced, large-sensor point-and-shoot (and one that will truly fit in your pocket) is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III Digital Camera. The RX100 and the RX100 II models are also still available, but the Mark III version brings with it an upgraded BIONZ X image processor, a faster lens, a pop-up electronic viewfinder, and XAVC S video, among other improvements. The Mark II version features a multi-interface hot shoe and both the Mark II and Mark III models have built-in Wi-Fi. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 offers similar specs as the RX100 Mark III, but in a larger body with a stable handgrip and longer zoom lens.
Like the above Sony cameras, the Canon PowerShot G7 X Digital Camera provides a 1" CMOS sensor, a powerful image processor, and wide-angle to short telephoto zoom lens with fast maximum aperture and built-in Wi-Fi. It is also very compact, at just 4" long and 1.5" thick. It doesn’t offer an electronic viewfinder, but its LCD is a touchscreen and, like the RX100 III, it flips up 180° for easy selfies. The Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX100 Digital Camera has a 12.8MP 4/3" Multi-Aspect MOS sensor, a very fast Leica zoom lens with 24-75mm focal-length equivalent, an electronic viewfinder, Wi-Fi, and 4K video capability.
The following compact cameras are also top-of-the-line point-and-shoots, but each of them features fixed focal length lenses, which can be limiting in terms of zoom reach, but tend to offer sharper imaging. The Fujifilm X100T and X100S, the Ricoh GR Digital Camera, and the Nikon COOLPIX A Digital Camera provide APS-C sized sensors and outstanding image quality while the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R Digital Camera takes the point-and-shoot into exclusive territory with a 24.3MP full-frame sensor.
Long Zoom Point-and-Shoots
If you don’t mind toting a camera that is a bit bigger than the average point-and-shoot, you can garner two distinct advantages from long zooms. First, the cameras’ form and full-size handgrip enable stable control and a comfortable hold and, most important, their lenses can reach ultra-telephoto focal lengths to capture distant subjects. For example, the Nikon COOLPIX P900 Digital Camera looks like a small DSLR, but its fixed lens has an incredible 83x optical zoom with the 35mm equivalence of 2000mm. That can pull you incredibly close to an architectural detail or distant animal. To read more about this unusual camera, read our hands-on review.
Long zooms, while providing video and often built-in Wi-Fi and standard features, tend not to have larger sensors, touchscreens, hot shoes, or other advanced features. The lenses’ focal length is the difference-maker with these cameras, and their menus and functions are user-friendly. Other impressive long zooms include the Fujifilm FinePix S1 Digital Camera and the new Fujifilm S9800 and S9900W Digital Cameras. All three provide 50x optical zoom lenses, which reach the equivalent focal length of 1200mm and are similar in size; the S1 is dust and weather resistant and the S1 and S9900W offer built-in Wi-Fi. Sony offers the feature-heavy Cyber-shot DSC-HX400V Digital Camera with a 50x zoom, Wi-Fi, and 10 fps continuous shooting. Pentax’s entry is the XG-1 Digital Camera with a 52x zoom and sensor shift shake reduction, to control the blur that often accompanies ultra-telephoto shooting. The Samsung WB2200F Digital Smart Camera distinguishes itself with its dual grip, which enables a sturdy hold in vertical or horizontal orientation. Its lens also starts at the ultra wide-angle 20mm equivalence. Since it’s a Samsung, it offers built-in Wi-Fi and is very “smartphone friendly.”
“Tough” Point-and-Shoot Cameras
For those who prefer adventure, or even for family road trips, I wholeheartedly endorse bringing a “tough” point-and-shoot camera with you on vacation. What you lose in terms of sensor size and zoom range, you make up for with extreme durability and the facility to shoot underwater or in freezing temperatures.
Most of the major manufacturers offer their version of a “tough” or “rugged” camera and, while they are well-suited for beach vacations or camping, they are also ideal for sticky-fingered kids or slippery-fingered adults because they can be washed off with water and won’t crack after a normal drop. I love these cameras and would recommend any model that works with your budget. Most have zoom lenses that extend from wide-angle to short telephoto, as well as image stabilization and full HD video. Built-in Wi-Fi and GPS can be found on higher-end models and their button and dial layout is designed for use with gloves or in water. I have used and would recommend the Olympus Stylus TOUGH TG-4 Digital Camera with its TruePic VII image processor, RAW capture, microscope macro mode, and more. It has a 16MP CMOS sensor, 4x optical zoom lens and is waterproof to 50', shockproof to a drop from 7', and able to work in temperatures as low as 14°F. Olympus also offers the Stylus Tough TG-860 model in several colors.
Nikon’s offerings include its top-of-the-line model, the COOLPIX AW130 Waterproof Digital Camera, which offers similar specs as the TG-4 but can shoot at 100' underwater. Having used this camera’s predecessor, the AW120, I can speak for its durability and image quality, especially under water. The COOLPIX S33 Digital Camera is Nikon’s more affordable option with a stylish body design. Speaking of which, the Ricoh WG-5 GPS Digital Camera has the most distinctive form factor and a digital microscope mode with six front-facing LED lights.
Standard Point-and-Shoot Cameras
If budget is an issue or you want a camera to easily fit in a pocket or if you just prefer a camera without all the extra functions and menu options, there are many compact point-and-shoots that create great images without the extras. Many of these still offer a degree of manual control, fun creative filters, and even Wi-Fi. Cameras from Nikon’s COOLPIX series and those from Canon’s PowerShot line offer numerous options, and there is one to fit every budget. However, if you are really interested in a camera to do justice to your well-earned vacation, I would recommend models like the COOLPIX S9900, with its 30x optical zoom lens, built-in GPS, Wi-Fi with NFC, 3.0" Flip-out LCD, and Full HD 1080p video. The COOLPIX S6900 is a slightly scaled-down version of the S9900, with a 12x zoom lens and cool built-in kickstand for easy selfies and group shots.
The Samsung GC200 Galaxy Camera 2 features the Android 4.3 Jelly Bean operating system for running Android apps on your camera. It also has a 21x optical zoom lens and large 4.8" Super Clear Touchscreen LCD. The brand new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX90V Digital Camera is a powerful camera in a small body with the BIONZ X image processor, a 30x zoom lens, Wi-Fi, Full HD 1080/60p and Image stabilization. The Canon PowerShot SX710 HS is also a very compact and powerful camera, featuring their latest DIGIC 6 image processor, 30x zoom lens, Wi-Fi, and Full HD video.
For those who prefer an increased level of control over their imaging, yet still want to limit the weight of the gear they carry, a mirrorless camera system might be the way to go. “Mirrorless” are interchangeable-lens cameras that are generally smaller and lighter than the more familiar DSLR cameras. They are available in consumer-grade models and those whose materials and features are ready for professional and advanced use. What distinguishes a mirrorless camera from a DSLR is the omission of a mirror to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder. Without the mirror and optical viewfinder, a mirrorless camera can be built smaller and quieter. There are benefits to both styles of cameras; for our purposes it’s important to remember that mirrorless cameras will be smaller, but do need and benefit from various lenses that also need to be carried with you. Perhaps, if you plan to continue shooting regularly after your vacation and intend to advance your skills, it would be a good idea to buy a mirrorless camera with one versatile zoom lens and then have the option to add lenses upon your return or when your skill level has increased.
There are many advantages to having a variety of lenses to use on your camera, and this applies to DSLR cameras, as well. Interchangeable lenses and specifically single focal length (“prime”) lenses normally offer a simplified optical design, which translates into sharper images. Also, maximum aperture is often wider, allowing better low-light shooting and depth-of-field control. Finally, an interchangeable-lens camera allows you to bring and use only the lenses you know you will need. If you will be shooting architectural interiors on your visit to Rome, just bring a wide-angle lens, or if you are on safari shooting lions from a 4x4, bring your telephoto lens. Apart from these specific examples, it seems that for a “vacation” camera, your first lens should be a versatile zoom lens that allows you to shoot in a range that incorporates standard wide-angle and telephoto perspectives.
An impressive mirrorless camera that retains a very compact form is the Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera. It features a 24.3MP APS-C sensor, fast Hybrid Autofocus, an LCD and high-resolution electronic viewfinder, built-in Wi-Fi, and a Multi-Interface hot shoe. Feature-heavy with customizable controls and a stable grip for such a compact body, it is very easy to manage, no matter what lens you attach. The a6000 is available as a kit with different lenses and will fit any E-mount lens, but bundled with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, with its 35mm focal-length equivalence of 24-75mm, it is a very useful all-around lens for vacation shooting.
Mirrorless cameras, like point-and-shoots, comprise a group consisting of varied cameras aimed at advanced users and those geared for beginners. While the a6000 is appropriate for both groups, cameras such as the Sony Alpha a7 II, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4, and the Samsung NX1 are more appropriate for the advanced user. Both cameras offer top-end features and performance, even for video capture. Both are also a bit larger than the standard mirrorless camera, so they while they will give you incredible capability, perhaps they defeat a bit of the purpose of carrying a smaller camera on vacation, especially when you add lenses. Nikon and Canon do have their mirrorless models, but Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Fujifilm have produced some of the most notable mirrorless cameras, and each offers cameras in a range of prices.
While the Fujifilm X-T1 and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II are both relatively new models—the flagship of their respective mirrorless lineups that’s receiving high critical praise—for vacation use you may want to consider smaller models such as the new Fujifilm X-A2 with an APS-C sensor, Wi-Fi and a flip-up LCD for easy selfies, or the Olympus PEN E-PL7 Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera, which I tested and found to be a multi-faceted, fast-performing and easy-to-use camera. Pentax offers its Q-mount series of mirrorless cameras, which are perfect for the style-conscious and budget-savvy traveler, thanks to the numerous color options and versatile feature set and, finally, Samsung has created a whole separate ultra-compact mirrorless system from its NX mount series. It is called the NX Mini and yes, befitting its name, it is the thinnest interchangeable-lens camera available, smaller than many point-and-shoots. Also available in distinctive colors, it has a 20.5MP 1" sensor, 1080p video, and built-in Wi-Fi. Presently, just three lenses are available from the NX-M mount, including a versatile zoom with 24-73mm focal length equivalence.
With deference to Steve Martin, “Let’s get small!”
DSLRs pose a dilemma when talking about “cameras for vacation” because there are many photographers who want to and should bring their best gear with them. They need a powerful camera with the best imaging system available, and a set of lenses to capture a variety of perspectives; perhaps taking great photos is even part of the reason for the vacation. To those photographers, I suggest you check out this article on the new Nikon D7200; it’s a competent APS-C-format DSLR that will serve for almost all shooting needs without breaking the bank. Of course, if you’re a Canon shooter, the EOS 7D Mark II is a great APS-C camera. Pentax has also just released its K-3 II DSLR, which is an incredibly sturdy shooter, weather-sealed for protection, and with built-in GPS.
If you are a “full-frame-or-die” type of shutterbug, then consider the Nikon D750, Canon 5D Mark III, or Sony Alpha a99 DSLR. I’m not going to suggest you bring along the Canon 1D X or Nikon D4S, as these flagship pro cameras indicate your trip is more work than vacation, but if you want to, go for it.
For most readers of this article, a compact DSLR with wide-ranging lens options and the performance muscle to get their vacation images recorded in the simplest, most beautiful manner is the way to go. Fortunately, the major camera manufacturers are well aware that there is a huge market for compact DSLRs, those that offer the form factor, performance speed, lens options, and some of the features of the above cameras, but do so in a smaller, lighter, more travel-ready body. And the truth is, some of these cameras cost less than their mirrorless and point-and-shoot cousins.
The Canon EOS Rebel SL1 DSLR is presently the smallest DSLR on the market. The camera body weighs just 13 oz and it provides an 18MP APS-C sensor, 3.0" touchscreen LCD, full HD video, RAW format, hot shoe, and compatibility with all of Canon’s EF and EF-S lenses. The other, slightly larger (but still compact) and more powerful cameras in the Rebel series include the EOS Rebel T5 and T5i and the new T6i and T6s. The T6 models bring with them the impressive Hybrid CMOS AF III system with 19 AF points, ISO to 25600, and 24.2MP sensor. The T6s has a few more advanced features but both are solid, ergonomic cameras with manual and auto modes that will serve any vacation well. They are particularly serviceable if you’d like to include video in your repertoire.
Nikon’s compact offerings include the D3300 DSLR, which weighs just 15 oz without a lens. It will work with Nikon’s F-mount lenses and offers fast performance, 5 fps continuous shooting, and a 24.2MP DX format sensor without an optical low pass filter for utmost sharpness. Its form factor, with large hand grip and optical viewfinder, will be comfortable and familiar to most and, with auto and manual capabilities, it’s a camera that will capture great shots easily and will also enable you to control specific settings and increase your growth as a photographer. The D3300 is available in black, red, and gray models.
Sony’s Alpha a58 DSLR is the company’s most compact offering, with a 20.1MP APS-C sensor, a tilting LCD, and Translucent Mirror Technology, which enables an electronic viewfinder and fast focusing. Sony DSLRs also offer in-camera image stabilization for controlling motion blur, regardless of the lens you use. The latest Pentax compact DSLR is the K-S2 DSLR, which is available in a wide selection of color combinations, including a cool forest green model. Pentax DSLRs are known not just for their stylishness but also for their durability. The K-S2 model also features Wi-Fi, in-camera shake reduction, and anti-alias filter simulation, which allows for extreme detail reproduction as well as moiré reduction. Compact and ergonomic, the K-S2 can be bundled with an 18-50mm lens, which is an ideal set of focal lengths for travel and is retractable, to maintain the camera’s smaller profile.
Going off the board totally, we have the Narrative Clip Wearable Digital Camera. If you are an artist, an experimenter, an obsessive paranoid or just plain lazy, this camera might be for you. It would be fun on a vacation day of walking through a new city. The 1.4" square camera clips to your clothing and shoots a 5MP image every 30 seconds without you needing to even touch the camera. Talk about coverage! With a GPS, accelerometer, and magnetometer built-in, along with 8GB of internal memory, your work is pretty much done for you. The camera’s lens provides a 70° angle of view and a 19.7" minimum focus distance. What to do with all those photos? You can download them to your computer via the micro-USB port, sync the files to the Narrative cloud service, or use the bespoke smartphone app to transfer selected images to social media sites.
Another interesting option to keep your load light and provide shooting versatility is “lens-style digital cameras” or “camera modules.” Sony produced the first models, and now Kodak has entered the market with its version. These cameras are designed to clip to a smartphone and use the phone’s (or tablet’s) screen for composition and playback. They look like a small lens and are a portable option—you can use your phone’s camera for some shots and clip the module to your phone when you want a longer focal length or better image control and quality. Built-in Wi-Fi connects them to your phone for image composition and storage, although they also support microSD and Memory Stick Micro cards. They can operate independently, just without a viewfinder. Sony offers the QX30 with a 20.4MP sensor and a 30x (24-750mm) optical zoom lens and the QX10 with an 18.2MP sensor and 10x zoom lens. Kodak has the PIXPRO SL10 SMART LENS Module with a 16.35MP sensor and 10x optical zoom lens. Sony also produces the ILCE-QX1 Mirrorless Lens-Style Digital Camera, which enables the attachment of E mount lenses for still further versatility.
Finally, the Ricoh Theta m15 Spherical Digital Camera is a slim, pocketable camera with a lens on each face, and it takes 360° spherical photos with just one click. This would be a fun camera to have when visiting impressive architectural sites or hot-air ballooning and will bring a unique, inclusive perspective to any place you visit, with you included in the shot. For such a simple design, the camera offers many control features, as well as built-in Wi-Fi, 4GB of internal memory, 1080p video, and 3.9" minimum focus. Available in four colors, these cameras will make vacation shots like no other, and you can leave the selfie-stick at home.