This is a great time to buy a travel camera. Since 2012, several innovative contenders have come on the scene—ones that will likely see only incremental improvements over the next few years. In other words, anyone shopping now can pick up a terrific, future-proof model, maybe even at a deep discount.
Do you need one? Travel cameras are relatively inexpensive, so you don’t have to worry about theft. They’re lots of fun too, so you’ll want to use yours everywhere life takes you. Most important, they’re capable of producing sharp, poster-size prints—and your smartphone camera isn’t.
Below are my picks for the best cameras to bring in tow.
Panasonic Lumix GH3 (~$1,000)
Best for the Passionate Traveler
This is a stupendous camera capable of producing detailed still images and cinema-quality video. The bonus? It only weighs about a pound, much less than what a DSLR like the Canon 5D would weigh. On a recent road trip, I found myself filming videos simply because they’re so sharp, and at the U.S. Open tennis competition last summer, I saw two professional news crews using these cameras to gather broadcast footage.
Drawback: A lens, which usually costs about $300, is not included in the $1,000 pricetag.
The Future: The GH4—announced in early February, to be released this year—offers upgrades aimed at the pros, such as the ability to shoot 4K video. It will likely cost between $1,300 and $1,600.
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS (~$360)
Best for the Casual Traveler
The reason the SX50 is one of Canon’s best-selling cameras? About the size of a can of beans, its image-stabilized 50-times zoom lens allows you to photograph everyone seated at your dinner table, and then sneak a headshot of the bride across the room. Snobs usually need cases of equipment to get similar images.
Drawback: Some photos will appear grainy when printed poster size.
The Future: Many brands have announced competitors, some of which might be available as soon as March. They have slightly longer zooms (60x) and might offer better image quality. The prices will be $100 to $200 higher.
Sony RX100 (~$500)
Best for the Urban Traveler
While I haven’t used the RX100, I have heard almost unanimous praise from other reviewers. It’s a point-and-shoot the size of two decks of cards that takes gallery-quality pictures—of dimy lit frescos, sunrises, motorscooters zipping past—and then slips into your shirt pocket.
Drawback: The 3.6x zoom limits your ability to capture objects, such as wildlife, in the distance.
The Future: The $600-successor released last summer, the RX100 II, offers a tilting screen and WiFi connection.
Nikon F4 (~$200)
Best for the Rugged Traveler
Ready for this throwback? The professional’s film camera from the late 1980s remains the camera for tossing in a backpack. Weighing 2.5 pounds, it’s built of unbreakable metal, runs for a month on four AA batteries, and suggests accurate exposures for virtually any situation with virtually any lens, including inexpensive old manual lenses that can transform backgrounds into beautiful washes of color.
Drawback: Film must be delivered or mailed off for processing, scanning, and printing.
The Future: Nikon's latest professional camera—the digital Nikon D4s, announced in January and avaliable mid-March—shoots video and sharper images faster, but will cost $6,500.