Choosing the best camera for your 2014 vacation
What camera will you take on your next vacation? Maybe it needs to be small enough to carry as you trek to Machu Picchu, or survive underwater when you go scuba-diving in the Bahamas. It might need enough zoom to get up close with animals on a safari in the Maasai Mara, or the low-light image quality to capture the streets of Paris at night. Let Gizmag help you choose the best camera for your next vacation.
We'll start off by guiding you through some of the things you might want to think about when shopping for your ideal vacation camera, including considerations of how you want to use the camera, and what you want to photograph. Then we'll take a look at some of the best and most suitable vacation cameras currently on the market, the ones we'd consider putting in our suitcases.
Things to consider:
Size and Weight
Do you want to take photographs while on holiday, or are you going on holiday to take photographs? Unless you're going on a photo-centric vacation, or travel with a photography assistant, you probably don't want to be lugging a big and heavy DSLR (and associated lenses) around all the time. The chances are there would be times you left it in your hotel room, and ended up shooting with your iPhone anyway.
The quality of more compact and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras nowadays means you don't have to give up great image quality to go easy on your back. Many can rival all but the best DSLRs, and are certainly a step up from your smartphone. And remember, the best camera is the one you have with you, not the one in the hotel safe.
Focal Length and Maximum Aperture
When thinking about what lens your vacation camera needs, you'll want to consider focal length in combination with your potential subjects, and how you want to photograph them. For example, if you want to fit in a landscape, you might need a 24-mm, or 21-mm equivalent lens. At the other end, if you want to zoom in on distant subjects, you might need a 70-mm, 200-mm, or even 400-mm equivalent lens.
You should also consider the maximum aperture of the lens, as this impacts how well it will perform in some shooting conditions, and the ability to control the depth-of-field. If you want to shoot with a shallow focus, or in lower light conditions where you can't use a slower shutter speed or bump the ISO, the lens will need a fast enough maximum aperture. This could mean it needs to be F4, F2.8, or F2, at the desired focal length, depending on the camera's sensor size.
For more information on focal length and aperture, check out our camera lens guide.
The subjects you want to photograph while on vacation will determine what you need in a potential camera when it comes to autofocus. Will you be primarily photographing still landscapes and architecture, or will your autofocus needs be more demanding, such as photos of surfing or surprisingly fast kids running around a beach? Also, will you need fast and accurate focusing in lower-light situations?
Cameras which use contrast detection autofocus tend not to be as fast as those which use phase detection, but can feature modes such as face-detection. Hybrid autofocus systems use a combination of phase and contrast detection.
Megapixels and Sensor Size
There was a time when the megapixel-count was one of the first things you looked at when buying a camera. But now, consumers have realized that it's not all about resolution. Anything around or above the 12-megapixel mark will be enough for most people in terms of detail, unless you want to crop heavily, or print huge images to hang on your wall.
What's arguably more important is the physical size of the sensor. As a very basic rule, the bigger a sensor a camera has, the better quality images it will be able to produce, in a wider variety of shooting conditions. Most dedicated cameras feature larger sensors than smartphones and therefore can take better quality images. However, bigger sensors also mean bigger cameras and bigger lenses.
For more information on how sensor size impacts image quality and other factors such as equivalent focal lengths, check out our guide to camera sensor size.
While we're not looking specifically at camcorders in this guide, it's worth remembering that many cameras nowadays are perfectly capable of shooting quality video footage. While they might not all be up to producing a cinematic masterpiece, many of the cameras shoot Full HD video, which will be more than good enough to record how daft Uncle Jim looked flailing about on that banana-boat in Tenerife.
Depending on how important vacation videos are to you, you might want to think about whether you need a camera capable of working with an external microphone or headphones for monitoring audio levels. If you're taking things really seriously you might even want a camera with clean HDMI out for external recording.
Sharing images while on vacation is different to when you are at home and have your computer and card reader at hand. Cameras which feature built-in Wi-Fi, or even connected cameras that have their own data plan, make it easier to make sure colleagues back in the office know that you're lazing on a beach sipping a cocktail while they have their heads buried in an Excel spreadsheet.
Wireless capabilities can also come in handy when you want to be in the picture yourself, but don't have anyone to take the photo for you. Many cameras can now be remote-controlled via a companion smartphone app … perfect for getting that shot of you pretending to hold up the Tower of Pisa, even if you are on your own. GPS can also be helpful for geo-tagging your images.
It's not just if you plan to go scuba-diving or skiing on vacation that you might need a tougher-than-usual camera. The beach, with all its sea and sand, isn't generally that nice to cameras. Another reason you might want a camera which can withstand the odd knock is if younger children might also be taking photos with it.
Though there are cameras specifically designed to withstand extreme conditions, many waterproof and shockproof devices have a limited image quality. So, unless you need full-on waterproofing and shock-resistance, you might be better served by a sturdy camera which is weather- and dust-proof.
Manual Controls and Viewfinder
Many holiday-makers simply want a vacation camera which they can point and shoot, to record a moment, and then move onto the next cocktail. But others want to slow down and take control, manually adjusting settings like aperture and shutter speed to produce the photograph they want to take.
Some cameras make this easier to do than others, and some are only good for shooting in fully automatic modes. If you want to make use of full manual controls, it's worth thinking about how you want to do this. Are you happy menu-diving to make adjustments, or do you want direct physical controls to some settings?
Depending on how you like to use your camera, you'll also want to think about whether you'd be better suited to a camera with a viewfinder (optical or electronic) or are happy just using the rear monitor for composing shots. Either way the quality of that rear monitor is still important, as you'll probably be using it to review your shots at the end of each day.
Top cameras for your vacation
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 M3
If you've decided your ideal vacation camera needs to be extremely portable, but still have a massive jump in quality from your smartphone, the Sony RX100 III is well worth consideration. It measures a pocketable 102 x 58 x 41 mm (4 x 2.3 x 1.6 in), weighs just 290 g (10.2 oz) and features a (large-for-a-compact) 1-inch-type (13.2 x 8.8 mm) 20.1-megapixel CMOS sensor.
This is paired with a 24-70-mm equivalent F1.8-F2.8 lens and a pop up electronic viewfinder. The camera also has an ISO range of 125-25,600 and can shoot at 10 fps. It's capable of recording Full HD 1080p footage at 60/50 fps, and built in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity makes sharing images or video instantly easy. The RX100 M3, which uses contrast-detection autofocus and features a tilting 3-inch TFT LCD monitor with 1,229K dots, costs US$800.
Alternatively … If you want a bigger zoom (25-600-mm equivalent) in an equally small package, and don't mind a smaller (1/2.3-inch-type) sensor, the considerably cheaper $400 Olympus Stylus SH-1 is worth a look.
Canon PowerShot D30
So you think your vacation camera might need to go underwater or survive the odd knock? The Canon PowerShot D30 could be the tough-camera for you. It's waterproof to impressive depths of 25 meters (82 ft), shockproof to drops of up to 2 m (6.5 ft) and freeze proof to -10° C (14° F). It also has built-in GPS for tagging the location of your photos and videos.
Measuring 109 x 68 x 28 mm (4.3 x 2.7 x 1.1 in) and weighing 218 g (7.7 oz), the D30 features a 12.1 megapixel 1/2.3-inch (6.17 x 4.55 mm) CMOS sensor with a 28-140-mm equivalent F3.9-F4.8 lens. The $330 camera can also shoot Full HD video at 1080p 30 fps, has a 3-inch TFT LCD monitor with 461K dots, and uses contrast-detection autofocus.
Alternatively … The $350 Nikon AW120 is an almost equally tough camera which has a slightly wider and faster lens (24-120-mm equivalent F2.8-F4.9), but also features built-in Wi-Fi for easy image sharing and remote shooting.
If you've decided that you want top-notch image quality and portability, and don't mind giving up a zoom, the Ricoh GR is an intriguing proposition. It packs a 16.2-megapixel DSLR-like APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm) sensor into a small 117 x 61 x 35 mm (4.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 in) and 245 g (8.6 oz) body. Paired with a fixed 28-mm equivalent F2.8 lens, it's able to deliver exceptional image quality.
The discrete camera has easy access to full manual controls and uses a contrast-detection autofocus, which recently received a firmware boost. Optional optical viewfinders are available and the rear 3-inch TFT LCD has 1,230K dots. While it lacks built-in Wi-Fi, it's compatible with Eye-Fi SD cards for wireless sharing. The $700 camera can also shoot Full HD video.
Alternatively … The retro-styled Fujifilm X100S is another camera with an APS-C sensor aimed at photographers who don't need or want a zoom. While slightly larger, and $1,300, the X100S has a 35-mm equivalent F2.0 lens, and looks as good as it performs.
Panasonic Lumix FZ1000
The Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 is not like bridge cameras of a few years ago. While it still has a permanently attached versatile super-zoom lens (25-400-mm equivalent F2.8-F4), it also uses a large (for a bridge camera) 1-inch-type (13.2 x 8.8 mm) 20.1-megapixel sensor for increased image quality, and boasts an OLED 2,359k dot electronic viewfinder.
Measuring 137 x 99 x 131 mm (5.4 x 3.9 x 5.2 in) and weighing 831 g (29.3 oz) the $900 camera is one of the biggest we're recommending, but the do-it-all device can also shoot 4K resolution video at 30/25 fps, and Full HD 1080p video at 60/50 fps. It's free-angle 3-inch LCD monitor has 921K dots. There's also built-in Wi-Fi for sharing and remote shooting, and its contrast-detection autofocus is boosted by Depth From Defocus technology.
Alternatively … If you like the idea of a camera that has a large focal length range, but want something smaller, lighter and cheaper, and don't mind a smaller sensor and reduced image quality, the $400 Pentax XG-1 might be worth checking out.
If you simply can't bear the thought of not having an interchangeable lens camera at your side, you might find the Fujifilm X-T1 a good vacation companion. The retro-styled X-mount shooter features a 16-megapixel APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm) sensor, along with a built-in viewfinder and physical manual controls, for composing shots in a more traditional manner, and a Hybrid autofocus system.
Costing $1,300 body-only, the X-T1 measures 129 x 90 x 47 mm (5.1 x 3.5 x 1.9 in) and weighs 440g (15.4 oz) before you add a lens, of which there are a growing number to choose from. Some, like the mouthful that is the Fujinon XF 18-135-mm F3.5-F5.6 R LM OIS WR, even have weather-proofing to match the X-T1. It has a tilting 3-inch LCD monitor with 1,040K dots. Built-in Wi-Fi is on hand for wireless sharing or remote shooting, and the camera can record Full HD 1080p video at 60 fps.
Alternatively … If you want an even tougher interchangeable lens camera, the Nikon 1 AW1 is capable of surviving whatever your holiday can throw at it, and even shooting underwater. It costs $750 with a 30-74-mm equivalent zoom lens.
Your current camera
We don't know what camera you already have, but you do, and that's important because it presumably means you already know how to use it, and are comfortable doing so. That's what you want from any camera you take away ... otherwise you could spend most of your vacation scratching your head and looking at an instruction manual.
If your current camera is still up to the job, taking it away, rather than buying a replacement, might mean you've got a bit extra cash to do more things while on vacation. If you want to take your current mirrorless or DSLR camera, think about whether you need to take all your lenses, and what gear you'll be happy carrying around.
Alternatively … Your smartphone! Yes, we've given you a selection of cameras which will comfortably out-shoot your phone, but we all know the one camera you're realistically going to have at hand all vacation. Do you need another?
There you have it, a selection of cameras which would be comfortable shooting any vacation, whether it's a city-break or lazing on a beach somewhere. Hopefully this guide has helped you identify what to look for in your ideal vacation camera, and offered a few suggestions.
It might be that you want to travel light and a compact is the way forward, or that you need a massive zoom and a bridge camera is the one for you. Maybe your camera always gets wrecked on vacation and this time you'll opt for a tough-cam, or you want to take an interchangeable lens camera, maybe even your current DSLR set-up.