Cameras come in all shapes and sizes these days, from the one on your smartphone to compact cameras to professional level DSLRs. We personally think though that the best camera you have is the one on you and one that you know how to use. For many people, a compact camera, often called a point-and-shoot camera, is the perfect travel camera as they are generally small, lightweight, easy to use, and budget friendly.
We’ll help you decide if a point-and-shoot camera is a good choice for you, provide advice on how to choose the best compact camera, and share a list of the best compact cameras currently available across various price points. We also give some tips on how to make the most of your point-and-shoot camera.
Choosing a Point-and-Shoot Camera for Travel Photography
Before we get into all the various compact camera options though, we want to first explain how a compact camera compares to other camera options, point out the advantages and disadvantages of point-and-shoot cameras, and discuss the various features and specs to look for when choosing a compact camera.
What is a Digital Compact Camera?
A compact camera, also commonly known as a point-and-shoot camera, is a small and portable camera which is designed to make photography easy and accessible to everyone.
In most of the world, “compact camera” and “point-and-shoot camera” are used synonymously which is how we use them in this article. However, in some countries, the terms can have different meanings where “compact camera” refers to any smaller lightweight camera and “point-and-shoot” specifically refers to a fully automatic camera regardless of its size.
The idea is that you can point the camera at whatever you want to take a picture of and just press the “shoot” button, and the camera will handle all the technical stuff. It will shoot in an “auto” mode by default and try to choose the best settings given the conditions.
A compact camera is designed to help you capture great photos without needing to understand the underlying mechanics of how a camera works or fiddling with manual settings and dials. However, more advanced compact camera models do allow for those with more photography knowledge to use manual controls and have a number of professional quality features.
Is a Compact Camera the Right Type of Travel Camera for Me?
A compact camera is one of several types of cameras you might choose for taking photos while traveling. Photos from compact cameras are generally perfect for capturing memories, sharing with family and friends, posting on social media, or printing at a standard size.
Point-and-shoot cameras are not, however, generally ideal for professional photography, wildlife photography, portraits, or printing at a larger size. Although the more advanced and expensive compact camera models do have professional-level features, large sensors, and can take very high quality photos.
There are many options when it comes to picking the perfect camera for travel photography, which broadly fit into four major categories: smartphones, mirrorless cameras, and DSLR cameras.
There is also a sub-category of compact cameras known as action cameras, and these are cameras like a GoPro. These are however for very specific types of photography, and aren’t in most cases ideal for general travel photography use.
We’ll compare and contrast compact cameras versus smartphones, mirrorless cameras, and DSLR cameras, and discuss the general advantages and disadvantages of these cameras to help you choose the right type of camera for you.
Point-and-Shoot Camera vs. Smartphone
The first, and probably most common type of camera in the world today is the one in your smartphone. These have the major advantage that nearly all of us have a smartphone which we carry with us everywhere, and the newest ones all have decent cameras. So using these as a camera doesn’t require any additional purchase or gear.
The disadvantage of a smartphone camera is that they are usually very limited in terms of optical zoom, meaning that you can’t usually shoot subjects that are particularly far away. They also tend to have a limited battery life (which also gets eaten up by all the other things you do on your phone), and most have very small sensors which means they don’t perform well in limited light situations.
Smartphone cameras are used by a very large and broad number of people and are probably becoming the most common type of device used by tourists to capture vacation photos. However, because of their limitations they are not normally the sole camera of those wanting to capture high-quality photos or those wanting to use a camera in all situations, but can serve as a good back-up option.
Point-and-Shoot Camera vs. Mirrorless Camera
Mirrorless cameras are the newest type of camera on the market and unlike the DSLRs do not have optical mirrors or an optical viewfinder. They offer interchangeable lenses, meaning you have flexibility in your lens choice, but in a relatively compact form factor compared to more traditional DSLR’s.
They are generally considerably larger, costlier, and bulkier than most point-and-shoot cameras, but do offer improved image quality and flexibility. Mirrorless cameras are popular among keen hobbyists and amateur photographers who want more control over their photography and some professionals.
Point-and-Shoot Camera vs. DSLR
Digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR) like mirrorless cameras also have interchangeable lens. DSLR cameras were the pinnacle of camera technology, although mirrorless cameras are rapidly catching up to them.
They tend to be the largest and heaviest of all the cameras, but they offer excellent image quality, long battery life, and the widest selection of lenses and accessories due to the fact they have been around the longest. As an example of the lens selection, check out my guide to the best lenses for travel photography, which will give you an idea of what is available.
The disadvantage of DSLRs are their bulk, weight, and cost of these cameras means that they are not the best option for most travelers. DSLRs are generally best suited for professionals or very keen amateur photographers.
Advantages of Compact Cameras
Here are the general advantages of a point-and-shoot camera:
- Specifically designed to take photos and be easy to use so that they can be used efficiently by almost anyone.
- Better image quality than the majority of smartphones and have optical zooms.
- Portable, lightweight, and small. Most models fit easily into pockets, purses, and backpacks, and don’t add much weight to luggage.
- Inexpensive compared to other types of cameras and there are many good value options out there.
- No expensive additional purchases needed to use the camera. Unlike mirrorless and DSLRS where you have to purchase a camera body and at least one lens, the only extras you need for a point-and-shoot camera is a memory card and perhaps some extra batteries.
- Due to their size, point-and-shoot cameras are much more discreet and unobtrusive than larger cameras.
- Perfect for capturing memories for those who plan to share photos with family and friends, post on social media, or print at a standard size
- Higher end compact cameras have a number of advanced features allowing you more control and can shoot at a quality similar to some mirrorless cameras.
- Great for situations where you are worried about damage to a more expensive camera such as during a hiking, climbing, skiing, boating, backpacking, or camping trip.
Disadvantages of Compact Cameras
Here are the disadvantages of a point-and-shoot camera:
- Requires you to carry a dedicated camera compared to just using the one on your phone.
- Most allow less manual control over photos than with most mirrorless or DSLR camera. This makes it more difficult to do more advanced types of photography like long exposure or time lapse photography.
- Small size means that they have smaller sensor sizes than most mirrorless and DSLR cameras, resulting in lower image quality, especially in lower light situations.
- Not ideal for those who want to sell their photos, use their photos for professional purposes, do wedding or portrait photography, or print them at larger sizes. Although at the high-end range (over $800) you can get professional quality results.
If after reading this you are leaning more towards a mirrorless or DSLR camera than a point-and-shoot one, I’d check out our mirrorless cameras for travel guide, guide to best DSLR cameras for travel, and this general camera guide.
If your are looking to give a camera as a gift, you might want to also check out our guide to the best gifts for photographers for more ideas.
What to Look for when Buying a Point-and-Shoot Camera for Travel
When you are shopping for a compact camera (or any time of camera), you might find yourself quickly overwhelmed by technical jargon and features, and wonder which of them is actually important. Here are some of the key features you should keep an eye out for when looking at and comparing various camera models.
An optical zoom is one of the main reasons to invest in a compact camera over a smartphone, so obviously this is an important feature to look out for! The number in the optical zoom signifies the difference in zoom between the most zoomed out setting and the most zoomed in setting.
So for example, a camera with a 10x optical zoom will be able to make an object seem ten times larger from one end of it’s zoom range to the other. We’d suggest a zoom of at least 8x would be a good number to aim for.
Note that optical zooms are not always directly comparable between cameras. Two cameras can have a “10x” optical zoom, but one might make your subjects seem bigger. This is because the “10x” just refers to the difference between the zoomed out and zoomed in positions of the lens, and if one lens has a wider angle at its most zoomed out setting, then the zoomed in result will be different to a lens with a narrower wide angle.
Image stablization is a really important feature for any camera to offer, and compact cameras are no exception.
Generally when we take pictures, and especially with compact cameras, we are likely to be holding them in our hands. And I don’t know about you, but I find it’s generally impossible to hold anything entirely still for any length of time.
Unfortunately, the motion produced by our hand movements can quickly translate into blurry images that aren’t sharp. Thankfully, image stabilization resolves this problem by compensating for small movements from our hands, and letting us produce images that are still sharp. This is particularly important when shooting in lower light conditions, as the camera has to use a lower shutter speed to let more light in, meaning movement is picked up on the images even more apparently.
It’s also important to have image stabilization when shooting zoomed in as the zoom exacerbates the motion a great deal. So you really want to be sure that any camera with a longer optical zoom, say 8x or higher, has good image stabilization.
When it comes to compact cameras, you will often see talk of a camera’s aperture rating. Usually this is denoted as a sequence of number, say 3.5 – 5.6, and may also be written at f/3.5 – f5.6.
The aperture of a camera refers to the size of the hole inside the lens through which light passes through. In most cameras, this aperture is variable and the camera can change the size of the aperture to let more or less light in, depending on the scene.
As a rule of thumb, the smaller the aperture number, the bigger the actual aperture, and the more light the camera will be able to let in. This will lead to improved image quality, especially in low light situations, and wider apertures are a desirable feature.
If you see the aperture is labelled as something like 3.5 – 5.6, this means that the maximum aperture varies depending on the zoom. So at its most zoomed out setting, a camera may have a maximum (widest) aperture of 3.5, and when zoomed in, the maximum aperture will reduce to 5.6.
Overall, the wider the maximum aperture, the better, as this will let more light in. A maximum aperture of f/3.5 or higher would be ideal, with more expensive cameras offering apertures as wide as f/1.8.
The sensor inside the camera is the modern day equivalent of a piece of film, and this is the part of the camera which records the light and saves it as image data.
The size of the image sensor is directly related to the quality of the image the camera will produce, with larger sensors producing better images. So generally the larger the sensor, the better quality the photos will be, especially in lower light situations.
For a long time, most compact cameras had similarly sized smaller sensors, but as of 2012, 1 inch sensor camera have become more popular. These offer improved image quality and better low-light performance, although the cameras tend to be a little bit heavier and more expensive as a result.
RAW / Manual controls
If you would like to have a bit more control over your photography process, you might want to invest in a camera that offers manual controls and/or RAW image support.
Manual controls just mean that you can adjust the settings of the camera, and specifically shutter speed, aperture and ISO yourself. So if you want to have more control over your settings, this may be a feature you want.
RAW is a file format and describes how the camera saves the image data, and RAW is essentially an uncompressed unaltered version of the more common JPG or JPEG file format. But unlike JPG or JPEG files which can be used, shared, or printed directly, RAW files cannot be used directly and need to be opened through a program and edited in a software program like Lightroom in order to create a usable image.
If you don’t see yourself doing either of these features, and just want a point and shoot camera that does everything for you and produces usable images, these are unlikely to be features you should worry about paying extra to get. However, if you think that in the future you may want more control over your photography, you might invest in a camera with these features but you can set the camera in Auto mode and use JPG or JPEG images until that time.
Video features / 4K support
Although compact cameras are mainly used to take photos, most compact camera these days also features video support. So if you are comparing cameras and there doesn’t seem to be much between them, take a look at the video support which might be a way to tell them apart.
As a rule of thumb, cheaper cameras shoot in lower resolutions. 720p is usually the lowest resolution available, followed by 1080p and finally, the most modern compact cameras offer high resolution 4K support.
Shooting video is quite demanding for a camera, so only a camera with fast image processing hardware can shoot at higher resolutions like 1080p and 4K. If you are thinking about doing video, then you might want to invest in a camera with 4K video support.
WiFi / NFC
Many of the camera in this guide feature WiFi connectivity. WiFi connectivity isn’t critical but it is a handy feature that allows you to remotely control the camera and copy pictures from the camera to your smartphone or computer for easy sharing without having to use the camera cable or remove the memory card.
NFC (Near-Field Communications) is another technology that many cameras come with. This is a very short range wireless transmission technology that makes it easy to connect two devices together, such as when you want to pair your phone to your camera. This is definitely a “nice to have” but not a necessity, as you usually only need to pair your phone and your camera once, so I would definitely advise against worrying if a camera doesn’t have this one!
Battery life is an often overlooked feature, but one that you will definitely start to care about when you find out that you camera dies after only taking 150 photos!
The battery life of compact cameras definitely varies a lot. It’s usually rated by number of shots the camera should be able to take in “average” conditions, although what exactly these conditions are is often a little vague. It’s always worth checking online reviews from real people to see if anyone reports noticeably lower battery life than that suggested by the manufacturer.
Generally you’ll want a camera that will go for around 300 shots or more per charge, although bear in mind that those big touch screens and additional features can drain batteries. Plus, you can always buy extra batteries quite easily, so don’t make this a deal breaker if it’s the only feature you’re not impressed by.
Image burst shooting
Last on our list of features to look out for is burst rate, also known as continuous shooting or continuous frame rate. This refers to how many pictures the camera can take if you put it into burst mode, often used for capturing the moment when shooting action scenes.
Like video, continuous shooting requires high end camera hardware, and if a camera has a high burst rate, you can be fairly confident that the hardware inside is top notch. Of course, it’s not important for everyone and not a feature most people looking for a compact camera care too much about, but it can certainly be nice to have a better burst rate.
As an example of the difference, the Canon Elph 180 has a burst rate of 0.8 photos per second, which isn’t exactly great. The Sony RX100 VI on the other hand, can take 24 photos every second. Quite a difference!
The Best Compact Cameras for Travel Photography
Now we’re going to go through what we think are the ten best compact cameras for travel photography across a variety of price points. These are ordered by price, from least expensive to most expensive. For each pick, we’re going to share a little bit of detail of each model. This compact camera comparison will hopefully help you choose the perfect camera for you.
We have chosen point-and-shoot cameras that we think would be ideal for every budget. Note that our suggested starting price point is $100 USD and while there are some cheaper compact cameras out there, we think at that price point you would likely be better off sticking with your smartphone rather than investing in something that may not perform well.
Here is Laurence’s list of best point-and-shoot cameras for travel photography:
If price is your key consideration, then this Canon Powershot Elph is a great option. Both Jess and I’s first compact digital camera were from the Canon ELPH range. We were always impressed by the image quality and features given the price point.
With image stabilization, an 8x optical zoom, a variety of creative shooting modes, and positive reviews, this is a great entry level compact camera for those on a tighter budget. Very lightweight at only 4.5 ounces and will even fit into your pocket.
Price: ~ USD $110
2. Sony DSC830
Sony have an excellent reputation for building excellent cameras, and even at the lower end of the price spectrum this little compact camera offers a number of great features.
These include an 8x optical zoom, optical image stabilization, and a very compact form factor, all in a package which comes in at just over 4 ounces. Definitely a good option right at the budget end of the digital compact camera market.
Price: ~ USD $125
The Canon PowerShot ELPH 360 is another excellent compact camera from Canon at a budget price point. With a 12x optical zoom and image stabilization, this model also offers a number of extra features over the lower end models, including Wi-Fi connectivity and NFC.
If you’re into video, this powershot also lets you shoot at 1080p high definition, which is a step up from the 720p of the Sony. The extra optical zoom is also nice. Lightweight at around 5 oz. Offers great value at this price point.
Price: ~ USD $180
Our next compact camera recommendation is another Sony, this one offering a few more features at a slightly higher price point. The main focus on this camera is its small physical size – somehow this diminutive compact camera manages to fit a 10x optical zoom with image stabilization, Wi-Fi, and NFC into a package weighing just over 4oz!
Definitely an excellent option if size is a primary concern. The image quality also receives positive feedback from reviewers.
Price: ~ USD $200
Stepping up the price a little bit, this is the first entry on our list from Panasonic, who have a solid reputation for making excellent compact cameras. This ZS50 is no exception, and your extra money largely goes towards the lens as this camera offers an impressive 30x optical zoom lens. This makes it perfect for capturing the action even when it’s far away.
You also get a number of other features, including good low light performance, the option to shoot in RAW for more control over your images, and an advanced optical stabilization system. It does come in at a little over 8oz, but considering the size of the zoom, that seems to be a worthwhile compromise. This is our pick for the best compact camera under $300.
Price: ~ USD $280
6. Sony RX100
The Sony RX100 line of compact cameras marked a shift in compact camera thinking when first released in 2012, as it was one of the first compact cameras to feature a “1-inch” sensor. This larger sensor meant better quality images and better performance in low light situations, and the camera was named best invention of the year in 2012 by Time Magazine.
Since its release, seven models of the RX100 have been released, but you can still pick up the original, and to be honest, it’s an absolute bargain for what you get. With full manual controls, a 3.6x optical zoom, and a weight of 8.5oz, this is a great compact travel camera for the price.
Price: ~ USD $370
As with the Sony RX100, the well regarded PowerShot G9 Mark X II compact camera from Canon features a 1-inch sensor, offering good low-light performance and superb image quality.
The G9 X Mark II only features a 3x optical zoom. However, it has a wealth of manual controls, RAW support and a touch screen, as well as fast burst shooting and Wi-Fi support. All this fits in a package that weighs just over 7 ounces. If image quality means more to you than optical zoom, this is a good deal. This would be our pick for the best compact camera under $400.
Price: ~ USD $400
If optical zoom is more important to you than a large image sensor, then the Canon PowerShot SX740 should definitely be on your compact travel camera shortlist.
This model offers a remarkable 40x optical zoom, image stabilization, 4K video support, the ability to shoot at a fast 10 frames per second as well as a tilting LCD screen. It also offers manual controls, but no RAW support. That optical zoom does increase the weight a bit though, to just over 10 ounces.
Price: ~ USD $380
The last two cameras in our compact travel camera round up are somewhat more expensive, but you certainly get what you pay for, with near professional level features and image quality in remarkably small formats.
First is the Panasonic Lumix ZS200. This is Panasonic’s flagship 1-inch sensor compact camera, and it features an impressive 15x optical zoom with image stabilization, 4K video recording, a touch enabled LCD, WiFi connectivity, and a digital viewfinder. All that functionality does add a bit to the weight, which is around 12 ounces.
If you have the budget, this would definitely be our pick for the best point and shoot camera under $1000.
Price: ~ USD $750
10. Sony RX100 VI
At the top of Sony’s RX100 range is the 2018 RX100 VI. This offers a 1-inch sensor alongside an 8x stablized optical zoom, world-leading autofocus performance, 24fps burst shooting, 4K video recording. and WiFi video connectivity. It also has RAW support and full manual controls.
Naturally, image quality is superb, and the camera manages to fit all this into a package that weighs just over 10oz. It can’t quite match the optical zoom of the Lumix TZ200, but it certainly has an impressive pedigree. This is one we have our eye on getting and are hoping to purchase later this year!
Price: ~ USD $1,200
**You can also see all the compact cameras we recommend above in a single page on Amazon here with current prices for an easy and handy reference.**
Tips for Taking the Best Photos with a Compact Camera
Now that you’ve hopefully decided on the best point-and-shoot camera for you, we wanted to share a few tips for getting the most out of your new compact camera.
Learn how to use your camera properly
I always think that you will get more out of your equipment if you understand the various features, modes, and buttons that it offers. Whilst the idea behind a point and shoot is to make your photography life easier, every camera has a variety of features that can help you take better photos. We’d suggest having a look through your camera’s owner’s manual, or looking online for information about your particular camera model.
It is also important that you understand how to enable and disable features on your camera if required. For example, when traveling there are often restrictions on the use of flash photography, especially in museums which house valuable art and objects that can be damaged by light. Flash is often set as automatic on compact cameras so being able to disable and enable features like this can be really important.
Finally, learning the limitation of your camera can be the difference between frustration and understanding. For example, point-and-shoot cameras are not usually great in low-light situations, so if you are trying to take photos in a dark room or at night, you are probably not going to get the most ideal photo. However, you can compensate for limitations such as this one by using a tripod or finding a low light mode that helps.
Learn how to compose a great photo
Many people think that the better a camera, the better the photo will be. This is untrue. Someone who knows how to compose a great photo can usually get good results, regardless of their photography gear.
Photography composition is the art of understanding what makes a good photo, and how to place your subjects, using ideas such as the rule of thirds, color, and leading lines. Check out our full guide to photography composition for more ideas.
Learn some basic editing techniques
In the case of point-and-shoot cameras, especially if you are shooting in JPG, for the most part, images will look good straight out of the camera. However, you might want to learn some basic photo editing techniques so you can do things like crop images, straighten photos, fix red eyes, adjust the lighting, and so on.
For editing on smartphones or tablets, we highly recommend Snapseed (Android app version / iOS version), which is an excellent free photo editing tool app. On computers, your camera may come with free editing software or you can a free online editor like Canva or one like PicMonkey (small monthly fee).
Take advantage of the light
Photography is the art of capturing the light, but did you know that not all light is the same when it comes to photography? For example, the light at the start and the end of the day, around sunset and sunrise, is generally softer and warmer, and results in more pleasing images. In contrast to this, the light in the middle of the day is usually a bit harsher and less flattering.
As well as time of day, direction, and availability of light is important. Generally, the more light that is illuminating a subject the better. If the sun is covered by clouds and you can wait until the clouds move, you will generally get a better photo with more color and pop. Although the sun is a photographer’s friend, you will generally want to avoid shooting directly into the sun as this will result in very high contrast photos.
Consider getting some camera accessories
Although you won’t need as many accessories as larger cameras, there are still a few extras you’ll likely want to consider:
- Extra batteries and memory cards. To ensure you can use your camera all day while out traveling, you’ll want to keep spare memory cards and batteries (and maybe your charger) handy. For the best performance of your memory card (and to keep from having to replace it a lot), we recommend getting a larger and faster one, we use these ones. Also remember that in cold weather, batteries will drain faster and you can check out these cold weather photography tips.
- Camera case to store the camera and protect it when not in use, particularly recommended for those using it as a travel camera. We recommend a protective case like this one or this one that will easily fit where you need it (e.g., purse) and store your camera plus your most used accessories (e.g., spare batteries, cable, and memory cards).
- You probably won’t need a camera strap with a lightweight compact camera. However, if you choose a heavier model or prefer to have your camera around your neck when traveling, a camera strap might be a good investment. Many of the colorful iMo strapsare great for more lightweight cameras.
- If you want to enhance your photography, you might want to consider a tripod. A tripod can help you shoot in low light conditions, capture better photos of yourself, and take better couple photos when traveling. Although a bulky tripod is not ideal for traveling, you can get a foldable mini-tripod like this one that can fit into a purse or backpack. We have a travel tripod guide to help you explore your options.
Think about taking a photography course
Finally, photography is very much a skill that benefits from practice and training, and one of the best way to improve is to take a photography class or workshop. Laurence teaches a popular online travel photography course which allow you to learn at your own pace while getting personalized feedback. The course will teach you everything you need to know about taking better travel photos, and it even has a whole lesson dedicated to how to get better photos with a compact camera.
Whether you decide to take a course or not, one of the best ways to improve your photography is to practice, practice, practice. Don’t just dust off your compact camera when its time to take a vacation or capture a special event. Take your camera with you to family outings, hikes, cafes, museums, sporting events, and even while out walking the dog.
Take the time to look through your photos with a critical eye, and you’ll naturally see improvement with more practice. Practice, experiment, and have fun!
And that’s it for our advice on choosing the best compact camera for travel! Hope this helps give you if you are looking for a compact camera or trying to take better photos with your point-and-shoot camera.
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Do you have any of your own tips or advice choosing or use a point-and-shoot camera? Have a questions about compact cameras or travel photography? If so, just let us know in the comments below!