Search for the Ultimate Travel Camera

Ahh, the mythical and often sought ultimate 'travel' camera. Is it a myth or reality? If you are ready to join me, I'm about to go down the rabbit hole in search of the best travel camera for my needs. And who knows, maybe your needs too as I happen to be in the market to replace my older Nikon P7000 and Sigma DP1s point & shoot cameras. The timing for this adventure in specs & details couldn't be better.

So why am I in the market for a new travel camera? As I've mentioned previously I'm an airline pilot and of course travel on a weekly basis. I usually keep one of the aforementioned smaller point & shoot cameras in my messenger bag for a general walk around camera as I'm exploring various locales each week. On trips where I intend to do more 'serious' shooting I'll of course bring the much more capable & amazing Fuji X-T1 along with the rest of my kit (tripod, filters, lenses, etc.) but I do enjoy having a high quality compact camera with me at all times.

The impetus to move forward with finding a new camera came a few weeks back from a licensing inquiry. Last year I snapped the image below with my much loved but also despised at times Sigma DP1s in Devils Lake, North Dakota. The client desired a larger version of the picture but I had already cropped it from the maximum file size that the DP1s produces (2652x1768 pixels). Thus the best I could do was upsize it in Photoshop with decent result. After that request I realized I needed a much more capable camera for my weekly travels as I do happen upon portfolio & large print worthy shots from time to time.

A cold sunset in Devils Lake, ND | Sigma DP1s

Travel Camera Defined

So before we proceed, we should define what exactly constitutes a 'travel' camera. Opinions will of course vary for many photographers, as anything from a larger DLSR to a mirrorless ILC to a smart phone might be the answer for some. For me a 'travel' camera is defined as a compact, fixed lens, high image quality capable camera that can be easily tossed in your daily bag or jacket pocket without trouble. If you are bringing multiple lenses or need a separate camera bag that defeats the purpose of a true travel camera. While budget constraints will affect the ultimate selection, I'm going for the higher end $700 - $1,200 point & shoot cameras that will meet my own performance, quality & printability needs. 

Along with my general description above, I'm also looking for the following key aspects in said camera: excellent image quality & large sensor, good ISO performance, wide'ish angle lens for landscapes, fast lens (f/2.8 or faster), tilt screen, rugged build, external controls, built in ND filter a plus, decent macro, and perhaps limited zoom though a single focal length is just fine. 

Things that I'm not looking for in my quest for the ultimate travel camera are as follows: mega zoom range (lame), interchangeable lenses, bulky design, fancy automated shooting modes (give me manual control!) or video capabilities. 

For comparison sake an image from the Nikon P7000 - Keeping an eye on the storm from 32,000 feet | Nikon Coolpix P7000

The Contenders

So, which cameras fit into my definition?

I'm currently researching five different cameras from 4 different manufacturers. The soon to be released Nikon DL 18-50, Fuji X70, Fuji X100T, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 and the Sony DSC-RX100 IV. Each camera has its strength & weaknesses which I'll attempt to briefly highlight below so as to not write a novel.

The 5 choices left to right - Nikon DL 18-50, Fuji X70, Fuji X100T, Lumix DMC-LX100 & Sony RX100 IV. Photo credits to respective manufactures.

Nikon DL 18-50 - MSRP $850 - as a current Nikon shooter (and former Nikon DSLR shooter) I'm actually quite excited about this camera. Although Nikon are a bit late to the game in introducing larger sensors in compact cameras, they seemingly have a great offering here. The DL 18-50 (uninspiring name btw) hasn't been released yet so I'm a bit hesitant to pull the trigger before some extensive reviews are out there. Or better yet, I get my own hands on it!

Pros: good zoom range without being ridiculous, wide aperture throughout focal length, 20.8 MP backlit sensor, image stabilization, good ISO performance, compact size, touch/tilt screen

Cons: new camera with limited reviews, Nikon smart phone app gets bad reviews, no flash or viewfinder

(quick note - to make matters even slightly more confusing I'm adding the Nikon DL 24-85 for consideration due to its macro capability, specs otherwise are the same as the DL 18-50 though of course not quite as wide)

Fuji X70 - MSRP $700 - as a current Fuji owner the immediate familiarity with this or the X100T make both cameras leading contenders. I absolutely love the images my X-T1 produces with that classic Fuji look and both cameras will produce great results with the X-Trans sensors. The compact size of the X70 makes it very attractive indeed. Though similar to the Nikons above, it is a new release as of February 2016 so not many reviews out there just yet. However I'll be renting one next week to see what I think.

Pros: compact size, budget friendly, same 16.3MP APS-C X-Trans sensor as more expensive Fuji options, touch/tilt screen, 18.5mm lens (28mm equiv) is great for landscapes, actual aperture/shutter/EV dials, digital crop feature to increase reach of lens (unsure of quality though), hybrid autofocus

Cons: no image stabilization, no built in ND filter, no optical viewfinder, 2nd smallest resolution size of the five, max aperture of f/2.8 not the widest but overall good

Fuji X100T - MSRP $1,300 - honestly this is probably the leading contender right now, though the price tag is higher than I was hoping to spend for a walk around/travel camera. The X100T has many features I'm looking for and yet it isn't the equivalent of my X-T1 nor is it 'too much' as the XPRO-2 would be for my weekly travel needs. With the rumored Fuji X-T2 also coming out in the fall, I shouldn't go overboard for a travel camera either as I'll be picking up the X-T2.

Pros: basically an XT-10 (not quite X-T1) wrapped in a compact body, great ISO range, fast lens with quality Fuji optics, built in ND filter, good resolution, 35mm focal length

Cons: largest camera among the five, no image stabilization, rumored replacement forthcoming in the fall (see below for thoughts), no tilting LCD screen, expensive but currently around $1,000USD

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 - MSRP $800 - this camera has been a favorite among many photographers and offers many great characteristics. My main hesitation in purchasing it is that most likely Panasonic will release a new version this fall. I don't want buyer's remorse later on, especially after a likely price drop after the replacement is announced.

Pros: good image quality, zoom range, 24-75mm, large sensor, good autofocus, good battery life, manual controls, good deals to be had right now

Cons: replacement due fairly soon, reported lens flare issues, no tilting LCD screen, smallest max resolution of the five

Sony DSC-RX100 IV - MSRP $950 - another fan favorite, the Mark IV RX100 has won over many photographers. Its very compact size with respect to image quality is enticing to be sure. Though it lacks the external controls for quick adjustments which is a turn off. And while I don't need a camera to look 'sexy' it lacks the retro look that so many others have launched of late that I am honestly smitten with.

Pros: Zeiss f/1.8-2.8 lens, 20.1 MP 'stacked' sensor, tilting LCD, built in ND filter, responsive, truly pocketable

Cons: lacks the retro look & no external dials for quick adjustments, very particular about SD card type (bad when traveling perhaps if other cards fail), short battery life

Ok, So Now What?

One final option would be to simply purchase the Fuji 18mm f/2.0 pancake lens, slap it on my X-T1 and always have that with me. Though there are a handful of issues with that approach:

  • I prefer having a good camera for my wife to shoot with when we travel together. She has captured some amazing images, so having a good camera in her capable hands is always smart.
  • I don't want my primary camera to get unnecessary wear & tear each week.
  • I'll also bring two cameras when out by myself in case one fails or the other is busy doing a time-lapse for instance.
  • Slapping the 18mm on and calling it a day with would defeat the entire purpose of this post ;)

So there you have it! Over the next month or two I'm going to do a handful of rentals, hit the camera store and attempt to find my ultimate travel camera. Though I realize there is probably no such thing, I believe one of these will be a very good fit with few compromises. I'll plan to report back with my choice and will give a full breakdown of its performance.

So what do you think? Am I on the right track? Have you shot or do you own any of these cameras? Did I miss any? Please feel free to comment below on what you think might be your choice for ultimate travel camera.