Things may still be far from “normal,” but our desire for adventure remains the same. Whether it’s spotting a rare bird in your local park or exploring an ancient wonder in a far-flung destination, technology has made it easier than ever to capture and preserve precious moments.
A powerful travel image not only has the ability to tell a story but also reminds us of the extraordinary beauty the world offers. “As a biologist and conservation photographer, I’m always amazed by the diversity of life on the planet,” says Jen Guyton, photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer. “Traveling to see and photograph nature’s riches allows me to learn new things and appreciate the abundance of this planet.”
With that in mind, we tapped the photo engineering team at National Geographic for which compact cameras they recommend—and why. They design and build custom equipment for professional photographers and test consumer products for this annual guide. Here are their picks for travel:
The XT series from Fujifilm—often our top pick—has had a major revamp this year with the XT-5. It can go toe-to-toe with professional full-frame mirrorless models and DSLRs in performance, autofocus, image quality, and handling. While the X-T5 has gotten a little smaller than the X-T4, it gained the fantastic 40 megapixel (MP) sensor from the X-H2, one of the most detailed APS-C sensors on the market, which makes it—in the authors’ opinions—the reigning champion of 2023 travel cameras.
One of the most impressive things about the X-T series is that it provides an enjoyable shooting experience for amateurs and pros by blending vintage dials with modern, professional-grade controls, weather sealing, and ports for video or still photography. For more: Fujifilm
Ricoh GR III and GR IIIx
The GRIII packs some serious photographic power into a pocketable size. It has a stabilized 24 MP APS-C sensor, dual-type autofocus, a responsive touch screen, and an easy-to-navigate menu system. It’s suits for casual point-and-shoot photography, or more controlled manual shooting. If you find the 28mm f/2.8 effective focal length too wide, the GR IIIx, released in 2021, is identical to the GR III in every way except for its lens, which is a slightly tighter 40mm f/2.8 equivalent lens. For more: Ricoh
Tip: The camera’s battery does not have a high capacity, but the built-in USB-C port makes it simple to top off the battery with a phone charger.
When it was first released in 2011, the original X100 rocked the digital camera industry, revitalizing this legendary camera film brand and bringing retro styling to the forefront of camera design.
The latest, the X100V, brings a few significant changes. The lens has the same value (35mm f/2 equivalent), but the new design significantly increases sharpness corner to corner, both for wide-open and close-up images.
The camera’s body design adds nearly full weather sealing, a flip-out screen, and a slightly changed grip, as well as improvements to the control layouts (including a control stick). Fujifilm cameras produce the best JPEGs in the industry, with amazing film simulations; cameras in the X100 line are often the backup of choice for photojournalists. This one has a leaf shutter that can sync to high speeds with a strobe and a built-in neutral-density (ND) filter for combatting bright sunlight. For more: Fujifilm
Tip: When photographing with the Fujifilm X100 always pack a hot shoe thumb rest, a lens hood, and a wrist strap. These allow you to ditch the camera bag and lens cap.
Despite being more than three years old, the seventh-generation RX100 line remains as one of the most versatile ultra-compact cameras. This version comes with real-time autofocus from Sony’s pro line, giving photographers highly reliable eye/face autofocus that now works with animals. No other camera in this size has autofocus or shoot speeds close to this little wonder. Plus, it shoots electronically with almost no distortion of moving subjects.
(These photos from the Nat Geo archives capture extraordinary moments in time.)
This means silent shooting and high shutter speeds for working in bright light. The RX100VII sports a 24-200mm equivalent zoom lens that, while not as bright as we would like, covers a wide range for the traveler. Tom regularly describes this camera line as his “desert island” choice. Does it command a high price for such a small camera? Yes, but it delivers outstanding performance. For more: Sony
Leica Q2 and Q2 Monochrom
Though expensive, the venerable Q series cameras are wonderful to use. The Q series comprises These full-frame, fixed-lens cameras with full-frame, fixed-lens cameras with a 28mm f/1.7 lens providing built-in stabilization. Since the first-generation Q and Q-P have been discontinued, we recommend the modern Q2 and Q2 Monochrom, which both have a 47.5 MP sensor, a larger battery, and full weather sealing.
The Q2 Monochrom is nearly identical to the Q2, except that it shoots only in black and white and has a sleek black paint job. Removing the color filter stack (or Bayer array) makes for astounding black-and-white images; it also increases sharpness and high ISO performance because more light reaches the pixels. If you prefer color, the Q2 will be more to your liking. For more: Leica
OM System OM-1
The OM System (aka Olympus cameras) just released the flagship OM-1 camera, a major upgrade from the beloved Olympus E-M1 series.
The OM-1 has a similar layout to the E-M1 series but it packs a super fast stacked sensor for high-speed stills shooting at up to 10 FPS mechanical and a blazing 120 FPS electronic. An updated sensor brings better low light performance and subject detection autofocus algorithms that can detect cars, planes, animals, and humans.
This model also has hand-held high-res shooting (you can take 50 MP images out of a burst of 16 frames) and the Live-ND filter, which simulates a neutral-density filter. In addition, computational photography for handheld shooting emulates some tripod-based long exposure shooting (for example, a blurred waterfall). The pro line lenses have a high-quality build, integrated lens hoods, smooth zoom and focus rings, and round bokeh visualization (background blur).
The OM-1’s lens options make it ideal for birders and wildlife watchers. The new 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO gives you a lightweight 300-800mm range and an integrated teleconverter up to 1000mm handheld. Tom tested this lens/camera combo and had a blast photographing birds in his neighborhood without his arms getting too tired. For more: OM Systems
Tip: The best lenses include the Olympus 12-100mm F/4 IS PRO (24-200mm), 12-24mm f/2.8 II PRO (24-80mm f/2.8 equivalent), 40-150mm F/2.8 PRO (80-300mm pro zoom), 7-14mm PRO (wide-angle zoom), 300mm F/4 IS PRO (600mm F4 equivalent), 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO (300-800mm f/4.5).
With an internally stabilized 26 megapixel APS-C sensor, the X-S10 features impressive ergonomics despite its smaller size. It also has contemporary unmarked command dials and a mode selector, compared to the retro style used on other Fujifilm bodies.
What do you give up for the affordability and compact size? It has a smaller battery, a single card slot, a smaller viewfinder, no weather sealing, and a slightly lower top shutter speed. But these are all fair trades in our book. For more: Fujifilm
Tip: Thanks to its ergonomic grip, this camera pairs well with an all-around zoom lens. The Fujifilm XF18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR makes the perfect single lens travel kit.
Nikon’s new Z30 is the third version in the company’s Z-mount APS-C lineup. Its compact size sets it apart. That’s thanks in part to not having an electronic viewfinder or a 30-minute recording limit, plus a vari-angle (or “tilty-flippy,” if you prefer) screen.
Although it’s considered an entry-level camera, the Z30 is capable of 4K 30p recording without a crop, which cannot be said of its bigger, full-frame brother, the Z5. Its stills credentials are impressive as well, with the same amazing low-light performance, an 11fps mechanical shutter with AF tracking, strong AF performance, and the option to save images as high-quality raw files.
More importantly, it’s light, easy to carry around all day, and just plain fun to shoot with. It’s a perfect match for Nikon’s compact DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR, which makes for an excellent setup to document your adventures. For more: Nikon
Tip: If range is more of a concern than camera size, consider adding the Nikkor Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR to your camera bag. At effectively 375mm on the long end, with five stabilization stops, you’ll have no trouble capturing brilliant images of distant subjects.
Canon EOS R7
The R7 is among Canon’s first APS-C RF mount cameras (announced in May of 2022 alongside the trimmed down R10). The largest camera on this list justifies its size with impressive features, including one of the best APS-C sensors on the market (X-T5 has the crown now) at 32 megapixels.
Additional features include an in-body stabilization that can auto-level your horizons, a 15fps mechanical shutter (and a blistering 30fps electronic), two UHS-II card slots, and a comfortable ergonomic grip that houses the same LP-E6NH batteries used by its full-framed siblings, giving it a very dependable battery life.
We’ve also been impressed by its auto-focus on objects—using the same deep learning algorithms as the R3—but the face and eye detection performance leaves something to be desired. Its weather sealing means you can feel comfortable taking it just about anywhere, making it a solid action and adventuring companion. For more: Canon
Tip: Pair this powerhouse body with a good lens. We recommend purchasing a Canon EF-RF mount adapter so that you can take advantage of the countless affordable used EF DSLR lenses on the market.
The a7C lost out last year to the Canon RP (the first full-frame, interchangeable lens camera to make our list). But the a7C offers some noteworthy features. It’s remarkably compact for a full-frame camera.
Our research suggests this camera body has the smallest full-frame, interchangeable lens with a mechanical shutter or stacked sensor on the market. This is an important distinction because there are smaller full-frame cameras, but they either have a fixed lens or do not possess a shutter/fast read out sensor. As a result, photographing moving subjects is impaired.
Despite its small size, the a7C comes loaded with Sony’s quick and dependable real-time autofocus system. Pair this camera with one of the ultra-small prime lenses from Sony, such as the Sony 24mm f/2.5, 35mm f/2.8, 40mm f/2.5, or 50mm f/2.5. Doing so will give you a wonderfully compact travel camera that keeps a full frame sensor in your hands. For more: Sony
Eric Flynn is a machinist/fabricator who works in the photo engineering department of National Geographic, where he manages equipment loans. Follow him on Instagram.