Photograph by Selimaksan, Getty Images
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Sharing the magic of travel through photography can be a breeze with the right camera. National Geographic’s Tom O’Brien offers his best bets for light cameras that pack a technological punch.

Photograph by Selimaksan, Getty Images

Best new compact cameras for travelers

National Geographic’s expert photo engineer shares his picks for capturing your next great journey.

Travel generates moments you know you’ll remember forever: spotting an elusive blue whale, reveling in a colorful street festival, reaching the summit of that windy peak. Sometimes the experience is so transformative you want to share some of that magic with family and friends. As the photo engineer for National Geographic, I design and build custom equipment, such as a robotic camera platform shaped like a bird, so pros can capture that hard-to-get image. But I also test consumer products to help travelers record their global adventures. I took several compact point-and-shoot cameras on my own trips to try out their features in real-world situations. The result? My list of top 10 best compact cameras for 2020.

Fujifilm X-Pro 3

The X-Pro 3 has an unorthodox design. Its main screen flips up and away, leaving just the small color E-ink screen—which mimics the film box windows of vintage film cameras—as well as rangefinder handling and a hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. But the hidden main screen prevents the practice of “chimping” or checking the screen after every frame—encouraging you to keep moving, keep shooting, and keep experiencing. After all, cameras should be unassuming participants that enhance the travel experience, rather than distract from it. This camera also has the same great sensor and autofocus (AF) system as the X-T3 but in a package that further pushes Fujifilm’s film simulation ethos. The new Classic Neg, akin to Fuji Superia, adds to the excellent film emulations found in earlier Fuji cameras. Get it: Fujifilm

Tip: To understand the full power of Fujifilm’s emulation system, set the camera to shoot in JPEG format. Better yet, use it with just a couple of fixed focal point lenses (rather than zoom) in the range of 24-85mm, so you can enjoy less screen time, more you time on your travels.

Ricoh GRIII

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Best for: Portability and ease of use. Ricoh’s GRIII is a little workhorse that does it all, and it’s small enough to carry in your pocket.

This little ninja 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 easy to navigate. The GRIII may not be the prettiest or flashiest, but it packs a punch. The 24 MP APS-C sensor features IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization) and dual type autofocus. I could wax on for pages 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. Get it: Ricoh

Tip: The camera doesn’t have the biggest battery, but it comes with a built-in USB-C. Between shooting days, I simply topped it off with my car charger or my bedside phone charger.

Sony RX100VII

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Best for: Speed and accuracy. Real-time AF from Sony’s professional line means the RX100VII can shoot 20 frames per second with virtually no image distortion.

The seventh-generation RX100 line is packed with features yet each camera fits inside a jacket pocket. This version comes with real time AF, 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 (FPS) 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 RX100VII 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. Get it: Sony

Leica Q2 and Q-P

This year I road-tested Leica’s Q-P and the new Q2. The Q-P is just a Q with a fantastic matte black paint job. The Q2 has the same lens and similar handling as the Q-P plus a new massive sensor with 47.5 MP of pixel-peeping madness as well as significant weather sealing. The newer technology found in the modern Q2 sensor is terrific, though the large sensor creates massive files, which slowed performance. I prefer the button layout of the Q-P and smaller native file size for the style of shooting this camera lends itself to. So if you want the latest, buy the Q2. If you want to save some money and get the same experience, get a Q-P (or a Q). You can’t go wrong with any of these models. Get it: Leica

Fujifilm X-T3

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Best for: Overall performance and ease of use. With all the bells and whistles, the Fujifilm X-T3’s mirrorless APS-C camera works well for newbies and pros.

Last year’s overall champ is still no slouch. This camera can go toe to toe with professional full-frame (FF) mirrorless and pro DSLRs in performance, autofocus, image quality, and handling. It shares the same sensor and image processor as the X-Pro 3 in a more SLR-style body with all of the controls you could want at your fingertips. The three-way tilting screen and electronic viewfinder (EVF) are quite good. One of the most impressive things about the X-T3? 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 serious professionals. For me, the X-T3 isn’t just an excellent travel camera, it’s one of the best—if not the best—mirrorless APS-C cameras on the market at the time of this writing. Get it: Fujifilm

Olympus OM-D E-M1MKII

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Best for: Fast autofocus and drive speed. The Olympus OM-D E-M1MKII’s pro-style weather sealing, toggling levers for quick settings changes, and small sensor help get that rare photo.

The OM-D E-M1MKII is the best wildlife camera in the bunch. The combination of dials, buttons, and lever toggles lets you change settings faster than on most other imaging systems, compact or professional grade. The weather sealing rivals that of top-tier professional DSLRs with a fantastic grip for its size. And the lenses! All the pro line lenses have a high-build quality that can take whatever you throw at them and sport wonderful features, such as integrated lens hoods, smooth zoom/focus rings, and round bokeh, or background blur. As a micro four thirds (MFT) camera, its sensor is small, giving you long reach from physically smaller lenses, such as the 300mm (600mm equivalent). The ability to carry a small backpack with a few small lenses, fantastic ergonomics, excellent image stabilization, all-weather durability, and high-speed performance means a potent wildlife photography kit that won’t weigh you down when you’re on the go. Get it: Olympus

Tip: Suggested lenses: 12-100mm F4 IS PRO (24-200mm kit lens), 40-150mm F2.8 PRO (80-300mm pro zoom), 7-14mm PRO (wide angle zoom), and of course the 300mm F4 IS PRO (600mm F4 equivalent).

Fujifilm X100F

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Best for: Street photography. The leaf shutter on Fujifilm’s X100F is quiet and can be synced with flash at a high speed.

I’ve traveled a fair bit with the X100s and have learned how versatile and valuable the series is. This camera is small enough to fit inside a large pocket or a tiny camera bag and comes with a fixed 35mm-equivalent lens (you can also get two adapter lenses). The fixed lens has one of my favorite attributes—a leaf shutter. That means a remarkably quiet shutter for shooting in locations like cathedrals and the ability to sync flash with the shutter at a high speed. (You can use a small flash to overpower the sun in the middle of the day.) The system uses an excellent sensor, has all of the lovely Fujifilm emulations, a nice big battery, and the wonderful hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder (similar to the X-Pro 3). Put all of this together with a wrist strap, a hotshoe thumb rest, and a lens hood, and you’re ready to hit the streets. Get it: Fujifilm

Canon EOS M6 MKII

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Best for: Beginners. Easy-to-use controls, a touch screen, and familiar Canon interface mean a low learning curve on Canon’s 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 very potent travel companion for both new photograhers and seasoned Canon users alike. Get it: Canon

Tip: Buy the external hotshoe mounted EVF (electronic viewfinder) as a part of a kit; you’ll want it.

Panasonic DC-G9

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Best for: Stills and videos. Photographers who also want to take videos can do both with Panasonic’s DC-G9, which features a full-size HDMI and top-notch image stabilization.

The DC-G9 is comparable to the Olympus OM-D E-M1MKII 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 AF system found in the OM-D E-M1MKII, 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. Get it: 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.

Sony a6600

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Best for: Long days out in the field. The Z-style battery on Sony’s a6600 powers through 800 shots on a single charge. Related: How to take an amazing photo of the Grand Canyon

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 FF 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. Get it: Sony

Tip: Pair the a6600 with the 16-55mm F/2.8 (24-82mm equivalent) lens.

Tom O’Brien is a mechanical engineer and the photo engineer for National Geographic magazine. He spends his days in his National Geographic HQ workshop surrounded by all manner of nuts and bolts, designing and building custom equipment for the magazine’s photographers. You can follow him on Instagram.