- Your choice of camera should be dictated by your choice of travels
- Small cameras often have small sensors, and are best for well-lit locations
- Big cameras are a pain to carry, but give the best results for outdoor shots
- Smartphones may be convenient, but they'll undermine your quest for a great photo
Historically, traveling photographers have had to choose between portability and image quality in their cameras.
Point-and-shoot cameras now have optical zooms to rival Pinocchio's nose, while full-featured DSLR cameras are getting smaller and lighter.
Many cameras now manage large lenses as well as pocket-sized chassis.
But with such a wide choice of cameras, how do you choose?
We recruited Nigel Atherton, editor of the UK-based magazine What Digital Camera, and travel photographer Gary Arndt to find out what travel snappers should look for in a camera, and which cameras to consider.
The first specification to consider is the size of the lens sensor.
Along with megapixel count, this dictates general image quality as well as the camera's performance in low light, for example inside churches, night markets or in twilight along the Seine.
"Small sensors such as those in pocket cameras have very small pixels, which means they don't collect as much light," says Nigel Atherton, editor of the UK-based magazine What Digital Camera.
In other words, a 16-megapixel lens on a large-sensor camera like a DSLR captures far more details and better colors than the equivalent lens on a camera with a small sensor.
In that case, the camera has to electronically amplify the details it captures -- which is what causes blurriness when you view the photos on a bigger screen.
If the final destination for your photos is Facebook, sensor size may not be as crucial as portability.
"The important thing is that the camera isn't too big and heavy, and that you have a good zoom range for both wide-angle and telephoto shots," Atherton says.
A good bet would be a slim, light pocket camera with a decent optical zoom built in; for example, the Nikon Coolpix S9500 zooms to 22x.
But if zoom is important -- say you're planning on sports or wildlife photography, where you can't get any closer than 15 meters -- you may want to consider a superzoom camera (also known as a bridge camera).
Zoom and shutter speed
"These are very popular for travel as they are light, but built with a telephoto lens that can zoom up to 60 times," Atherton says.
For action or crowd shots, shutter speed or burst mode is a key factor.
"When dealing with anything that's active -- wildlife or people in action on the street -- faces change in a fraction of second," says travel photographer Gary Arndt.
"So a fast burst mode is helpful in shooting the several hundred photos you might need to get that single winning shot."
Arndt recommends adding a small tripod known as a gorilla pod to help stabilize tiny point-and-shoot cameras when they're on maximum zoom.
Viewfinder vs. LCD
If you're heading for sun and surf vacations, cameras with a viewfinder are best.
LCD displays can be hard to read in sunlight.
Point-and-shoot cameras don't normally have viewfinders, though some, such as the Samsung NX210, support the addition of a separate viewfinder.
Battery life is a big deal.
Something that can shoot (and check) around 400 shots to last you a full day should suffice.
"Or bring a spare battery," says Atherton.
Wi-Fi and GPS
Wi-Fi and GPS support are important if you want to tag images with the location -- handy when those Thai islands merge into one never-ending beach.
Wi-Fi allows you to backup photos to an online server such as Facebook or Dropbox.
"Samsung offers the best Wi-Fi functionality in their cameras -- particularly auto-saving to your smartphone," Atherton says.
"By the time you sit down in the piazza for a coffee, they're already in your phone, ready to be uploaded. And if your camera gets stolen, at least you haven't lost the pictures."
Forget the phone
As for the truism about the best camera being the one you've got with you -- namely the smartphone, for most of us -- most new cameras offer sensors far superior to all but the top-end phones.
For any photograph requiring a zoom, a dedicated camera is a must.
"It's true that cameras costing under $330 are competing at the same level as smartphones," says Atherton. "But over that, there's a clear advantage that you'll especially notice for low light shots."
Best camera for wildlife and sports
Fujifilm Finepix HS50EXR ($663)
This is a superzoom (bridge) camera with a fixed-lens that can zoom up to 42x and shoot in burst mode at 11 frames per second -- so you're covered whether you're shooting a safari or capturing the running of the bulls.
A comfortable hand grip minimizes shake even when the lens is on maximum zoom.
Portability: Though the camera is shaped and styled like a large DSLR camera, it's far lighter.
Without the need for extra lenses, your camera bag will be less bulky too.
Zoom: The 16-megapixel lens and 42x zoom are perfect for faraway photography.
Image quality: Despite a relatively small 0.5-inch sensor, low light photos are decent thanks to a wider-than-average aperture.
Viewfinder: The electronic viewfinder is larger than most, allowing comfortable framing of that lion portrait even in bright sunshine.
Best underwater camera
Olympus Tough TG-2 ($390)
If you're heading for sea, snow or mountains, you'll need a compact camera built to resist the elements.
The TG-2 is a pocket cam with a tough exterior that's waterproof to 15 meters, crush-proof to 100 kilos and freeze-proof to -10C.
Portability: At less than 3cm thin, it's pocketable whether in your ski suit or wetsuit.
Zoom: The 12-megapixel lens can zoom up to 4x, and supports Olympus's Fisheye and Teleconverter lenses for a greater range of photos.
Image quality: Lowlight Auto mode produces good clarity and color in a range of situations, including low light.
Wi-Fi: No, but it can sync and send photos to your smartphone.
Best budget travel camera
Panasonic TZ40 ($328)
A compact camera with one of the longest optical zooms around, the TZ40 also has a wide lens for great landscape photos as well as detailed shots of the far distance.
On burst mode, it can score up to 10 frames per second.
A fully manual mode makes it a good choice for experienced photographers.
Portability: Light and pocket-friendly at less than 2.8cm thin.
Zoom: It's a fixed-lens camera with an impressive optical zoom of 20x.
Image quality Though the sensor isn't large, it produces good photos in bright light and the 18-megapixel lens gets high-clarity photos throughout its zoom range.
Viewfinder: No -- shots can only be previewed on the LCD display.
Wi-Fi: Yes, including Android and iOS apps to connect to your smartphone, plus features to transfer to PC on your home Wi-Fi network.
Best second camera
Fuijfilm Finepix F900 EXR ($301)
Photographers who use a DSLR will appreciate this pocket cam that shoots in RAW, the file format that contains minimally processed image data, allowing full editing with photo software.
Auto modes are supplemented by a full manual mode.
Portability: With a slender 3.6mm profile and 232g weight, this is an impressively featured camera that'll still fit in the pocket.
Zoom: The optical zoom telescopes 20x for distance shots, while macro focus performs well too.
Image quality: The 16.1-megapixel lens has a Fuji-exclusive 0.5-inch sensor optimized for lowlight conditions. Burst mode shoots at 10 frames per second.
Ultimate point and shoot
Sony Cybershot RX100 II ($956)
Image quality is often sacrificed for portability in the case of point-and-shoots, but the Cybershot RX100 II is one of the best of a new trend -- compact cameras with bigger sensors.
"They're aimed at photographers who already own a DSLR and want the same photo quality in a pocket camera," says Atherton.
Its hot-shoe interface can take an add-on shutter release controller, handy for long exposures in a romantic ocean shot, or fireworks at Chinese New Year, for example.
Portability: At 3.83cm it's a tad chunkier than other point-and-shoots but worth it for the boost in image quality.
Zoom: The fixed-lens will zoom up to 3.6x, which makes it one of the weaker candidates if distance shots are required.
Image quality: The one-inch sensor on the 20-megapixel lens is excellent for low light, and shallow depths of field are nicely created.
Images can be shot in the RAW format for greater flexibility when editing.
Viewfinder: No, but a tilting LCD display lets you angle the screen to avoid the direct sunlight -- and you can purchase an add-on viewfinder.
Wi-Fi: Yes, with mobile app for connection to smartphones and NFC.
Best camera for beginners
Nikon S9500 ($310)
With no manual modes but a range of capable auto scene modes, the S9500 is a good choice for novice photographers looking for a Wi-Fi camera and a powerful zoom.
Built-in filters let you add Instagram-esque colors to photos, and you can even set up a four-second exposure by choosing the Fireworks Display mode.
Portability: Slimline and pocket friendly at 3.3cm thick and a mere 207g.
Zoom: The fixed-lens zooms up to 22x and supports close-ups down to a centimeter away.
Image quality: The 18-megapixel lens does a good job on the various night and day auto modes offered, while a panorama mode delivers easy wide-angle shots.
Most portable DSLR
Nikon D3200 ($564)
Still one of the smallest, lightest DSLR cameras available more than a year after its launch, the Nikon D3200 is an entry-level camera that comes with a Guide Mode to help first-time DSLR users.
If you intend to print your travel photos and image quality is more important than portability, this camera is a reasonably priced and travel-friendly step into the world of DSLRs.
Portability: It won't fit in your pocket or a small handbag, but at just under half a kilo, it won't weigh you down too much either. But extra lenses will add to the weight.
Zoom: The included lens zooms to 3x, so you may want an additional telephoto lens.
Image quality: With a 24.2-megapixel lens and great auto-focus, shots are extremely clear with defined colors.
Wi-Fi: Yes, and it supports a mobile adaptor to pair to Android smartphones.
Panasonic GX7 ($1,180)
If you're considering a DSLR for the superior image quality but are put off by the size, a mirrorless camera like the Panasonic GX7 is worth checking out.
It's a touch heavier than a point-and-shoot but packs a sensor as large as those of DSLRs.
"The only downside is that you may need a telephoto lens, which bulks up the weight," says Atherton.
A silent mode is great for keeping street photography discreet, while a chunky hand grip lends more stability if additional lenses upset the center of gravity.
Portability: At a mere 360g, the GX7 offers a massive feature set in a chassis that can easily be slung in a shoulder bag.
Zoom: The basic lens zooms to 3x, but you can also purchase additional lenses for telephoto and wide-angle shots.
Image quality: The 16-megapixel lens produces good detail and color.
Viewfinder: Yes, with a tilt up to 90 degrees so that you can preview those awkward angle shots.
Wi-Fi: Yes, and NFC, which allows pairing and photo-syncing to Android phones and other NFC devices.
Sony Alpha 7 ($2,161)
Another mirrorless camera, the recently released Alpha 7 officially has the biggest sensor in town.
It's the first compact camera to be built with a full-frame sensor -- one as large as the sensors in the high-end DSLRs -- yet it manages it in a chassis that weighs in at 400g.
This makes it a good choice for anyone already using a DSLR who needs a smaller travel snapper -- or an enthusiast looking to upgrade to an interchangeable-lens camera.
Portability: At a touch under 5cm thick the Alpha 7 isn't pocketable for most, but its angular body looks good and the chunky side grip eases those one-handed shots over the side of a boat.
Zoom: The bundled 3x zoom lens is a slender addition to the camera, and it's built to resist dust and water.
Image quality: The 24.3 megapixel lens packs a full-frame sensor that captures in minute detail and excellent colors, in low light as well as bright light.
Viewfinder: Yes, an electronic viewfinder.
Wi-Fi: Yes, and NFC, for pairing with other NFC devices including Android smartphones.