Here are the best compact cameras for 2021
National Geographic’s expert photo engineer shares his picks for capturing your next great journey, whether it’s abroad or in your backyard.
Travel often brings magical moments we hope to capture by camera. While our journeys were curtailed in 2020, now is the time to familiarize yourself with new camera options and get some practice locally by doing photographic exploration in your own backyard or neighborhood.
As the photo engineer for National Geographic, I design and build custom equipment for professional photographers. I also test consumer products for this annual guide to help travelers record their adventures. While 2020 hasn’t brought massive changes in camera manufacturing, there are some excellent new models and helpful updates to discover. Here are the cameras to keep an eye on as we look toward future journeys that will inspire our best images ever.
(Related: Discover 25 destinations on the rise for 2021.)
This compact powerhouse made me want to take photos all the time. At first glance, the ergonomics on the cell phone-sized GRIII appear to be nothing special. But Ricoh has achieved a beautiful balance between pocket-ability and easy one-handed operation. The touch screen is snappy, and the menu system is simple to navigate. The GRIII may not be the prettiest or flashiest, but it packs a punch. The 24 MP APS-C sensor features in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and dual-type autofocus. I could go on and on about how wonderful the 12th iteration of the GR line is, but in short, it’s the one camera I could see myself purchasing as my everyday photographic travel companion. I even regularly recommend this camera to my pros as a handy backup. For more: Ricoh
Tip: The camera doesn’t have a large battery, but it comes with a built-in USB-C. Between shooting days, I simply top it off with the phone charger in my car or on my bedside table.
Sony RX100 VII
The seventh-generation RX100 line is packed with features, yet each camera fits inside a jacket pocket. This version comes with real-time autofocus from Sony’s pro line, giving photographers highly reliable eye/face autofocus that now works with animals as well as people. No other camera in this size has autofocus or shoot speeds close to this little wonder. We’re talking 20 frames per second with real-time autofocus/auto exposure. Thanks to new sensor tech borrowed from Sony’s flagship a9 series, this model also shoots electronically with almost no distortion of moving subjects. In practice, this means silent shooting and high shutter speeds for working in bright light. The RX100 VII also sports a 24-200mm equivalent zoom lens that, while not as bright as I would like, covers a wide range for the traveler. I have regularly described this camera line as my “desert island” choice. Is it a high price for such a small camera? Yes, but it does deliver performance in spades. For more: Sony
While the X-T3 that took a top slot in the past two years is still an excellent choice, the X-T4 has upgrades that make it truly pro ready. They include sensor-based IBIS, a bigger battery, a fully articulating touch screen, and improved autofocus algorithms. I said this of the X-T3, but it is even more true of the X-T4: This camera can go toe to toe with professional full-frame mirrorless models and DSLRs in performance, autofocus, image quality, and handling. It shares the same sensor and image processor as the X-Pro 3, but in a more SLR-style body with all of the controls you could want at your fingertips. One of the most impressive things about the X-T4? It retains retro charm (vintage dials) while providing professional-grade controls (modern, wheel based), weather sealing, and ports for video or still. This leads to an enjoyable shooting experience for enthusiasts and pros. The X-T4 isn’t just an excellent travel camera, it’s one of the best mirrorless APS-C cameras on the market. For more: Fujifilm
(Related: Learn these pro tips for taking photos on your next trip.)
Leica Q2, Q2 Monochrom, and Q-P
I already knew I was going to include the Q2 and aging (but still worth every penny) Q-P camera, and this year Leica sent me the brand-new Q2 Monochrom to test. The Q series comprises full-frame, fixed-lens cameras with a 28mm f/1.7 lens providing built-in stabilization. The Q and Q-P are the first generation with a 24.2 MP sensor; the Q2 and Q2 Monochrom have a 47.3 MP sensor, a larger battery, and full weather sealing. I used to prefer the Q-P to the Q2, but the Q2 Monochrom is a totally different animal with a defining feature you may have guessed: it shoots only black and white. The Q2 Monochrom is nearly identical to the Q2, except that its sensor is missing the color filter stack (or Bayer array) and it has a sleek black paint job. Removing the color filter makes for astounding black and white images but also increases sharpness and high ISO performance because more light reaches the pixels. If you’re happy with only black and white, you’ll love the Monochrom. If you prefer color, the Q2 or the elder Q-P will be more your liking. You can’t go wrong with any of these models. For more: Leica
This is the fifth in the X100 series, and what an upgrade it is! The Fujifilm brand is best known for one thing: film. But the original X100 was a game-changer in the digital camera industry. It not only revitalized an entire brand but also brought retro styling back to the forefront of camera design. Now the X100V brings the line to full realization with a few significant changes. The lens has the same value (35mm f/2 equivalent) but a new design that offers significantly increased sharpness corner to corner while wide open and close up. The body design adds nearly full weather sealing, a flip-out screen, and a slightly changed grip as well as improvements to the control layouts (i.e., control stick). Fujifilm cameras produce the best JPEGs in the industry, with amazing film simulations, and those in the X100 line are often the backup of choice for photojournalists. As with all the line’s models, this one has a leaf shutter that can sync to high speeds with a strobe and a built-in ND filter for combatting the sun. If I had to pick only one camera to own from the list, it would be this one. For more: Fujifilm
Tip: The X100 series always needs three things in my book, a hot shoe thumb rest, a lens hood, and a wrist strap. With those, you can easily ditch the camera bag and the lens cap.
Canon EOS M6 MKII
With easy-to-use mechanical controls and a touch-screen system, this compact shooter offers great value for budding photographers. It has the highest resolution sensor (32.5 MP) of any APS-C mirrorless camera. Photographers who work with full-frame Canon DSLR systems will be quite happy with the adapter that allows for seamless integration of existing Canon lenses. Though the native lens lineup leaves a bit to be desired, and the performance doesn’t match some cameras at the top of my list, the ease of use, sensor resolution, and familiar Canon interface make this a robust travel companion for both new photographers and seasoned Canon users alike. For more: Canon
Tip: Buy the external hot shoe mounted EVF (electronic viewfinder) as a part of a kit; you’ll want it.
Last year I had the Fujifilm X-Pro 3 on the list, and I’m replacing it, not for any faults, but because the new X-S10 is better suited to all-around travel photography. (The X-Pro 3 is an excellent choice for photojournalists and street photography.) The X-S10 trades the classic Fujifilm retro dials for a more modern style with standard dials and a generous deep grip. This comes on a compact mid-range body that shares the sensor of the X100V and X-T4 and has a shrunken IBIS system that provides almost as much stabilization as that of the X-T4. It also shares the same image processor as the X-T4, so it’s a formidable camera. All this comes at a purchase price of only $1,000 for the camera body (as of publication), making it the most affordable new model of APS-C mirrorless camera with IBIS. It’s only major weakness is the lack of weather sealing. If you can live without that, this camera may be the best deal on the entire list. For more: Fujifilm
Tip: Thanks to the ergonomic grip, this camera pairs well with an all-around zoom lens, such as the XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, to make the perfect one-lens travel kit.
The a6600 is the first Sony APS-C camera to use the larger Z-style battery that powers all of Sony’s newer generation full-frame mirrorless cameras, pushing through roughly 800 shots on a single charge. Like the previous a6500, this version has IBIS to help deal with camera shake. Additionally, this model’s best-in-class autofocus technology, borrowed from Sony’s professional full-frame cameras, makes it easy to capture critical moments, like your kid’s big soccer goal or a majestic falcon’s soaring flight. That alone makes the a6600 a solid choice. For more: Sony
(Related: Here’s how to take an amazing photo of the Grand Canyon.)
Tip: Pair the a6600 with the 16-55mm F/2.8 (24-82mm equivalent) lens.
The DC-G9 is comparable to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III but comes out ahead in video. This camera has a full-size HDMI, better ergonomics for waist- and chest-level video shooting, and more options for capture rates and color profiles, plus a convenient electronic viewfinder and roomy eyecup. And unlike the more classical autofocus system found in the OM-D E-M1 Mark III, the DC-G9 uses Panasonic’s DFD (Depth from Defocus) technology, which provides better results in photos of people, still subjects, and animals, with a firmware update—though there can be issues in high-speed situations. Another perk for videos and stills? The IBIS system, which integrates well with Panasonic’s stabilized lenses. The DC-G9 is larger than other cameras on this list, but a pro-style top-down info screen makes up for its size. For more: Panasonic
Tip: Pair the DC-G9 with the wonderful 12-60mm (24-120mm equivalent) kit lens, and you’re good to go for most subjects on your travels.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III
This recommendation comes with two caveats: First, I was unable to test the camera, but I have tested its predecessor many times and all reports indicate that the MK III is a nice upgrade to the MK II. Second, I suggest any potential buyer do more research because this year Olympus sold its imaging division to an investment company, which appears to be continuing with development and production of new cameras and lenses. Historically I have listed the E-M1 series as the best wildlife cameras. I still think it holds that title, but the Fujifilm X-T4 is hot on its tail (pun intended). The combination of dials, buttons, and lever toggles lets you change settings at lightning speed. The weather sealing beats that of top-tier professional DSLRs, with a fantastic grip for its size. And the lenses! All the pro line lenses have a high-quality build and sport features such as integrated lens hoods, smooth zoom/focus rings, and round bokeh, or background blur. As a micro four thirds (MFT) camera, it has a small sensor, giving you long reach from physically smaller lenses, such as the 300mm (600mm equivalent). The fantastic ergonomics, excellent image stabilization, all-weather durability, high-speed performance, and ability to use small lenses add up to a potent wildlife photography kit that won’t weigh you down. For more: Olympus
(Related: Here’s how to photograph wildlife ethically.)
Tip: The best lenses include the 12-100mm F/4 IS PRO (24-200mm kit lens), 40-150mm F/2.8 PRO (80-300mm pro zoom), 7-14mm PRO (wide-angle zoom), and 300mm F/4 IS PRO (600mm F4 equivalent).
Honorable Mention: Zeiss ZX1
I decided to add a bonus entry this year, for technological merit. Zeiss is world renowned for optical quality, and most camera companies owe their success, at least in part, to the original optical designs from the early days of the brand. Why mention this? The Zeiss ZX1 is the company’s first camera in quite a while, and it’s like no other. It houses a bespoke 37.4 MP sensor and a 35mm f/2 lens. But this is the tip of the iceberg. The camera makes its name by being built on an Android operating system, the cause of its strengths and weaknesses. With an onboard Instagram client and Adobe Lightroom Mobile, the ZX1 allows you to edit and post photographs right from the camera whenever you have WiFi. Where the camera falls short is in reaction speed, battery life, and autofocus performance. Because the camera relies so heavily on software, I’m hoping most of these issues can be mitigated through firmware updates. Perhaps by the time we are all able to travel safely, the ZX1 will have grown into a truly wonderful camera. For more: Zeiss
Until next year, keep your eye to the viewfinder … unless you shoot from the hip.