Best travel camera of 2018? Well that’s no easy feat now, is it. Heck, we’re not even halfway through 2018! But if you’re reading this article, I assume that you are looking now for a camera to create travel photos.
So how does one pick the best travel camera? Most professional photographers already know how to select their gear. I want to help the ones of you who aren’t quite sure. The ones of you who want to challenge themselves and improve their skills. The ones of you who are looking for this exciting photographic tool that will push them to be original and will enable them to create.
The best travel camera is nothing but a tool!
I’ve shot with many amazing cameras over the years, each more cramped with features than the other. One needs to realize that a camera is nothing but a tool. You can buy the nicest chisel available, it won’t make you an expert woodworker. A tool allows someone to carry out a particular function. A better tool doesn’t create better results, it facilitates the process for its user to achieve their desired results.
Based on this truth, one could argue that there isn’t just one best travel camera. They wouldn’t be wrong but it would make for a boring conclusion to this article now wouldn’t it?
How to pick the best travel camera?
A photographer has to consider many variables when picking the right instrument. The best travel camera will be different than the best portrait camera, landscape or studio camera. Defining one’s criteria is critical to this choice, especially if you are buying just one do-it-all tool. The majority of experienced photographers out there already know what they value most. Depending on your shooting style, you might want to prioritize ruggedness over weight, or ISO over ease of use. However, advertisement and consumerism misleads most of us.
Camera manufacturers come out with new toys every year and do their very best to lure potential customers using nice words like “ISO, full-frame, in-body camera stabilization” and so forth. But how much does it really matter? Too many throw their money at something that won’t serve them best just because they were convinced that a full-frame sensor is better than a crop sensor. It’s just not all that simple in real world photography.
Here is a list of what I think matters most for travel photography:
- Pleasure and ease of use: duh… but if you’re not excited to use your camera, you won’t take photos!
- Simplicity: aka combatting the paradox of choice.
- Weight: it can mean the difference between having the energy to capture the sunrise or sleeping in and missing it.
- Size: big cumbersome rigs with their big heavy lenses get in your way more often than they help you.
- Versatility: since travel photography is the best excuse to shoot portraits, landscape, street, animals, sports and everything else!
- Discretion: a small camera makes it easier to be inconspicuous and is less invasive for candid photos.
- Ruggedness: because sometimes it does rain…
- Image quality: has nothing to do with megapixels.
Based on these values, my pick for best travel camera of 2018 is the Fujifilm X100F (Amazon).
Yep, that’s right. I just picked a camera with a fixed 23mm f/2.0 lens (equivalent to 35mm on full-frame), a crop sensor and no weather sealing as the best travel camera of 2018! Let me be clear before we go any further: I am not sponsored by Fujifilm (or any company for that matter) nor was I given the camera for review (I paid full price for it).
Now that we took care of integrity, let me explain point by point why I think the Fujifilm X100F is the best travel camera.
1. Pleasure and ease of use
If you’re not excited to use your camera, you won’t take photos! This sounds silly but it’s actually much more important than one might think. I’ve shot most of my earlier travels with a Sony A7rII. Yes, it’s an amazing camera and I even developed a minimalist travel kit for it, using mostly rangefinder lenses. Yet I wasn’t really excited to use it. I was stuck in the loop of picking a camera solely based on the specs I could afford rather than looking at it from a more emotional perspective.
In comes Fuji with the sharp retro style, build quality and visible dials of the X100F. Picking one up feels like holding a tool designed for pure unobstructed photography. It just works and, of course, is a joy to use.
When you snap a picture, you make an exposure. The only significant ways to adjust an exposure are shutter speed, aperture and ISO (or ASA film speed). On the X100F, these settings have dedicated engraved analog dials. Along with exposure compensation and a mechanical switch to change focus modes, you have everything you need to create an amazing photo. It’s that simple and right at your finger tips.
The analog dials of the X100F are important but only a fraction of what creates pleasure and ease of use. Each point listed in this article are an integral part of the satisfying feeling one gets using this tool.
There is no PSAM mode dial on the X100F. It works by elimination: if all your dedicated dials are on specific values, you are in full manual mode; if you set the shutter speed to AUTO, you are no in aperture priority and so forth. There are no landscape, night, sunset, portrait or other silly “advance” modes.
The X100F has a beautiful fixed 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent on full-frame) built into the camera. You can’t take it off and swap it for another lens, 23mm f/2 is what you get. If you want to capture a super wide or very long shot, you can’t! Either you use your legs as a zoom (which is a great way to think about your shot and see if it’s even worth the effort) or you can carry on with your life and go to the next point of interest.
The fixed lens design prevents any sensor dust issue and greatly simplifies packing. I use to wonder all the time about which lens to pack for the next trip, only to end up worrying about what I didn’t bring. With the X100F, that’s not even a possibility. Not being able to change focal length or swapping for a faster prime can be challenging. However, accepting and learning how to be satisfied with the results created within these restrictions has been one of the most rewarding photographic experiences I’ve had.
Weight is often underestimated. People will buy heavy lenses and bodies under the pretense that f/1.2 is worth it (it usually isn’t). Ask any thru hiker how important every ounce is. Thru-hiking might be an extreme of course, but the concept of shaving off grams here and there still applies. If the features of whatever it is you are packing make you ignore added weight, you are bound to feel like you can keep adding weight to a kit. On the other end, if you are much more critical when it comes to the value of weight vs. feature, your are bound to end up with a lighter rig.
Weight is everything. Weight can mean the difference between getting a shot and not even knowing that there was an opportunity for one. It’s not just the obvious fact that you wouldn’t be able to hike as far or as long, it also affects your entire trip. The best travel camera should not wear you out. You might not notice that the anvil around your neck is adding to your overall tiredness, but it certainly does. If it’s heavy enough, it might not only get in the way of capturing photos, it might affect your overall enjoyment of the trip. You’ll feel more tired at dinner time, waking up in the mornings and hiking throughout the day. You might not associate the fatigue with the camera, but its weight is there, affecting every step you take.
X100F weight comparisons with some contenders for best travel camera (the ones you were told you should buy):
- Fujifilm X100F: 469g (16.5oz).
- Sony A7III: +65% w/ 35mm f/2.8 and +180% w/ 24-105mm f/4.
- Fuji X-H1: +82% w/ 23mm f/2 and +183% w/ 16-55mm f/2.8.
- Nikon D850: +176% w/ 35mm f/1.8 and +263% w/ 24-120mm f/4.
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII: +48% w/ 17mm f/1.8 and +104% w/ 12-40mm f/2.8.
All these high-end cameras are heavier though some are relatively close when using a simple prime lenses. However, the fact that they are interchangeable-lens cameras creates the opportunity for choice. You will most likely pack several lenses just because the design of the camera gives you the opportunity to do so, and more lenses equals more weight.
On a side note, the percentages listed above could also be used for price comparisons with the X100F!
Mirrorless cameras have redefined the industry. The mirror in a (D)SLR has to flip out of the way when taking a photo. That design not only makes the camera larger, it also makes the lenses larger. As with weight, it’s useful to think in extremes when estimating the value of size. The larger the rig, the heavier it is, the tougher it is to pack, to walk around with, to get in museums with, to be discreet with, to not be a target for thieves, etc.
The X100F fits in most large pockets, you arguably don’t even need a camera bag (I just traveled with it to California, shoving it in a sock… a nice wool sock). Even with a charger and other accessories, it would fit in some of the smallest camera bags. Just like many of us, I like to travel with carry-on bags only. This can be challenging if you’re spending a lot of time in a cold country as the clothes you’d bring would take most of the carry on. Now imagine if you decided to pack a DSLR and a collection of lenses. You’d need a significant bag just for the camera rig. Depending on how you pack, you might have to check a bag or deal with two large carry-ons. With the X100F, you don’t even have to think about packing extra lenses, you just go!
Here are some size comparisons using camerasize.com:
How can a camera with a permanently attached prime lens be versatile? Surely a zoom lens is necessary for the best travel camera! That’s what manufacturers want you to believe but the ability to zoom in and out is only one small aspect of adaptability. Despite its focal length limitations, the Fuji X100F is one of the most versatile cameras I’ve used. In addition to the high-end camera features it already has (see pros and cons at the end of this article), it adds a few more that are specifically valuable for travel photography.
Combining leaf shutter technology with a 3-stop built-in neutral density filter and built-in flash
The leaf shutter inside the X100F is different from standard sideways-moving focal plane shutters found in all other interchangeable-lens cameras. The main advantage of this shutter, which functions more like an iris, is flash sync speed. Standard shutters are limited to 1/180th or 1/250th while the leaf shutter can flash sync at 1/4,000th. Combining the ND filter (which reduces the intensity of the light hitting the sensor) with the built-in flash, the X100F gives you the power to balance harsh light without the need of extra gear. This is extremely useful and always undervalued when picking a camera.
It’s especially useful for travel photography since you are taking photos throughout the day, in bright sunlight.Your subject is backlit with the sunset in the background? No problem. Shadows hide the eyes of your subject? No problem.
The built-in flash works beautifully as a fill-flash.
The leaf shutter does have its limitations though. It can shoot up to 1/1,000th of a second for all aperture but can’t shoot wide open with faster exposures. That’s because the iris style shutter doesn’t have time to fully retract before the exposure is done. Fortunately the camera can automatically switch from mechanical to electronic shutter, which enables you to take photos up to 1/32,000th of a second at all apertures. This is very handy in extremely bright environments if you want to shot with the lens wide open. The mechanical shutters found in most cameras are limited to 1/4,000th or 1/8,000th of a second.
The X100F combines both the rangefinder and “live view” experience in the viewfinder. The live view provided by the EVF (Electronic ViewFinder) is what we’re used to seeing in all mirrorless viewfinders, nothing new here, but the OVF (Optical ViewFinder), or rangefinder, is completely different. Framing shots that way can be a little challenging since you aren’t seeing exactly what the lens sees though frame lines help and quick pull on a lever brings up the EVF. The beauty of the OVF is that you have an instant and unaltered view of what you are about to shoot, comparable to a DSLR. The advantage of the OVF over the DSLR is that you can see what happens around your frame, which can be very useful for composition and timing. If you want to capture someone walking for instance, the OVF will show them before they even get into the shot.
You can also combine both viewfinders which is extremely handy for manual focusing. When using the OVF with manual focus, a push on that same lever brings up a small section of the EVF in the lower right corner of the viewfinder. The little screen displays a zoomed-in live view of what you are shooting, allowing for precise manual focus peaking. Brilliant!
Fuji’s famous film simulations and RAW vs JPG
We’ve all seen a version of the t-shirt claiming “I SHOOT RAW.” What a bunch of bollocks. Don’t get me wrong, RAW has its laundry list of advantages, but I don’t think they necessarily apply for travel photography. RAW files are huge and need tinkering with before sharing. If you come back from your two-week trip with 2,547 photos (which you shouldn’t!), not only will you have a storage challenge on your hands, you’ll have a sorting, processing and sharing challenge too. The best solution is to get as close as possible to the result you want straight out of the camera. This will help keeping processing time as low as possible. Unless I’m framing a shot I think will be used for extreme printing, I shoot JPG and I do my best not to come back with thousands of photos.
Once you realize that most people don’t need RAW, JPG adjustments become handy with getting the results you aim for as quickly as possible (eg: Color + 4, Sharpness + 4). Combine these adjustments with Fujifilm’s excellent film simulations and you can get exceptional result straight out of the camera. Transfer these to your phone using their app, share them right away and skip the computer all together!
Interchangeable-lens after all?
The lens of the X100F is a stellar performer. Combined with Fuji’s X-Trans CMOS III 24 megapixel sensor, the camera produces beautifully detailed images. Yes, the Fujinon 23mm f/2.0 is a fixed lens, but if you really can’t do without the ability to change your focal length, the camera has a couple of tricks up its sleeves.
The X100F has the ability to create a digital 50mm or 70mm field of view by cropping the image from the sensor and cleverly upscaling it back to 24 megapixels. I didn’t use this much but people seem to be happy with the results.
And if that’s still not enough, Fuji makes a couple of conversion lenses that will change the 35mm field of view to either a wider 28mm (Amazon: WCL-X100 II) or tighter 50mm (Amazon: TCL-X100 II) field of view. They don’t affect image quality and aren’t that bulky but if you feel that you need these, aren’t you defeating the purpose of choosing the X100F in the first place? They do add to the versatility of the camera, but owning them will most likely make you carry them as well, most of the time at least. Buy at your own risk!
By the way, the lens can focus ridiculously close (under 4 inches) allowing you to do some macro photography!
Additional note about JPGs and editing
All the photos in this review, whether they were captured RAW or JPG (most were JPGs to start with) were edited using Adobe Lightroom on my iPad Pro (Amazon). Part of my workflow when I travel is to dump all the photos on my iPad (I use the iPad Pro 10.5″ as I found that the iPad Pro 12.9″ was just too large and didn’t have USB 3.0 speeds when it came out) and edit them right onto the iPad. It’s actually a more enjoyable experience then doing it on my MacBook Pro (Amazon)!
Additional note about Workflow
When I shot RAW, or using my Sony A7rII, the files were huge and even the iPad Pro could struggle a little. I found myself sorting photos on the little screen of the camera, trying to delete as many as possible to minimize file transfer times. Now that I shoot more JPGs, file transfer and editing on the iPad is super fast! I can sort using Lightroom, which is much better than using the little camera screen. I then export the edited photos from the iPad and upload them here. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before I sell my laptop, we’ll see.
The best travel camera should create opportunities and a small camera can get into places bigger ones can’t. The X100F is pocketable, granted you’d need a big pocket but pocketable nonetheless. Not only are there camera restrictions to get in some places, you might not always want to carry a ponderous camera all the time.
Big cameras can also make people uncomfortable. No, this is not another comment about camera weight, it’s about the people you might photograph. Pointing a large lens at the face of someone who most likely never interacted with photographers can unsettle them.
Street photography is also enhanced with the discretion of the X100F, both thanks to its size and sound. The leaf shutter is almost silent, the electronic shutter is completely silent. When you are much less noticeable, you get more candid results. And being noticed in some places with a big expensive looking camera can bring the wrong kind of attention.
Travel photography might mean different things to different people, but I think the goal of most is to capture what the place being visited really is like and the best travel camera shouldn’t work against that goal.
The all metal body of the X100F can take a beating but it’s not weather sealed. If you are caught in a downpour, the camera will not survive. However, if you are caught in a downpour, you’re probably not taking photos anyway. Weather resistance is critical for those of us making a living with photography AND doing so when it rains. That is not the case for the masses of travelers out there. When it rains, the camera usually doesn’t come out, which means that all you really need is a weatherproof bag. Such bags are readily available, and as usual, are much easier to deal with when the camera is small.
Imagine if you have your camera out with your favorite lens attached, maybe a filter and a flash on when it starts to drizzle. If you have several lenses in your kit, chances are that your camera won’t fit in your bag with the wrong lens attached. Swapping lenses in a hurry, putting the flash away, removing filters just to be able to protect your camera from the elements could get old and risky. With the X100F, you don’t have anything to remove or tinker with, you just put the camera back in the bag or even better, in the pocket of your rain jacket!
So how important is it really to be able to keep shooting when it rains?
Being able to shoot in the rain would definitely be a nice feature to have and a good way to create unique images. Weather sealing is one of the major couple features I miss with the X100F. But shooting in the rain can also be very challenging as a single drop of water on the front element tends to ruin a photo.
8. Image quality
Last but not and arguably least, image quality. IQ (which is fantastic on the X100F) is often overvalued by most of us. The truth is that if you are reading this article, the cameras you have been researching will ALL deliver beautiful results. Image quality is relatively important to someone chasing the light, but it’s much more crucial to manufacturers chasing sales. What is necessary for a photographer is creating the opportunity to capture moments. You could have the most amazing medium format sensor around, if you can’t get your camera out in time, pick the right settings, the right lens or flash when you need to take the photo, that opportunity is gone. That’s why many believe that a contender for the best travel camera is a smartphone, as you have it with you almost all the time.
The best travel camera should not slow you down when the time comes to press that shutter.
That’s why I listed image quality as the last item in this list. Ironically, it’s usually the very first aspect we debate about, at the expense of everything else. Remember that image quality won’t matter if you’ve missed the shot.
With that said, the X100F is no GFX 50R (Amazon) of course, but it is no slouch either in the IQ department! Its 24 megapixel APS-C sensor produces detailed results, even at high ISO. And the 23mm f/2.0 is sharp at all settings and even has pleasing bokeh. Fujifilm is also known for producing amazing skin tones and having some of the best colors in the market (though that is often subjective).
You can spend your time pixel peeping at images from a dozen different cameras, or you can realize that you’re better off making a choice and sticking with it!
What about other fixed lens cameras?
I picked a fixed lens mirrorless as the best travel camera, so why not one of the others currently on the market?
Fujifilm’s own X70 is an amazing little camera but isn’t in production anymore, lacks a viewfinder and has soso IQ.
The Sigma dp Quattro’s (Amazon) funky ergonomics wouldn’t provide the same joy of use (though some people might enjoy it), also lacks a viewfinder, doesn’t record video and has poor dynamic range and high ISO performance.
A decent contender would be the Ricoh GR II (Amazon) as it is truly pocketable and shares some of the X100F’s features, but is getting old (though there are rumors of a GR III), also lacks a viewfinder, doesn’t have exposed readable dials, performs poorly at high ISO and is unexciting (which is subjective).
The Leica Q (Amazon) is an astounding 24mpx full-frame camera with a gorgeous sharp stabilized lens (though the stabilization has been a subject of debate) with a built-in leaf shutter. Yet even with it’s similar shutter, it can only flash sync up to 1/500s (which to be fair, is still twice as fast as most DSLRs). It also lacks the built-in flash, is significantly larger and costs more than three times as much!
Second best travel camera: Sony RX1R II (Amazon)
The last fixed lens camera to consider would be the Sony RX1R II. It has an incredible and massive 42mpx full-frame sensor which produces some of the finer images on the market. The Sony is smaller (but thicker) than the X100F and weighs about the same. It also has a quiet leaf shutter and can flash sync up to 1/2,000th, has a pop-up quality electronic viewfinder, a tilt screen and its shutter button even has a threaded cable release! It doesn’t have all the basic dials the X100F has, but it does have an aperture ring, exposure compensation dial and a focus switch. So why isn’t it the best travel camera of 2018?
Unfortunately, the camera has very poor battery life, which means that you need to remember to turn it off. It’s also slow to turn on which means you might miss the shot more often than not. It doesn’t have a built-in flash, is sluggish, generates huge files (42mpx is an IQ blessing and a processing curse) and can only shoot up to 1/4,000th of a second. With no built-in ND filter, the camera’s capabilities are greatly reduced in bright sunlight. If these were the only issues, the choice between the Fuji and Sony would be very difficult. However, the $3,299 price tag of the RX1R II, two and a half times as much as the X100F, makes the decision easier. Unless you can get over the hefty cost, the X100F is the best travel camera for you.
The X100F might be the best travel camera, but it isn’t a perfect either (none are). Here is a summary of pros and cons that apply to travel photography:
- Not weather sealed
- Not stabilized
- No flip screen
- Only one SD card slot (mostly for backups)
- Battery life: 390 photos isn’t bad and has been enough for an entire day (and spares are easy to pack)
- Menu system: not the best organisation and takes time to get used to
- No pitch level (there is a tilt level)
- Rounded blades: no sunstars with bright points of light
- No flash switch/button
- Weird reverse 49mm filter thread
- Price: $1,299 is relatively expensive for a fixed lens camera, but relatively cheap for the features and capabilities
- Small and (somewhat) pocketable
- Shutter speed dial
- Aperture ring
- ISO dial
- Exposure compensation dial
- Focus switch (and instant focus override)
- 1/4,000th flash sync speed
- Built-in 3-stop ND filter
- Built-in flash
- Almost silent leaf shutter
- Completely silent electronic shutter
- Amazing hybrid viewfinder
- All buttons (except focus mode) on the right side of the camera for one hand operation
- Magnesium/metal construction
- Facial recognition that works very well
- Threaded cable release
- Film simulations
- High IQ 24 megapixel sensor, sweet spot for image quality
- Sharp 23mm f/2.0 fixed lens (never deal with dust on your sensor!)
- Macro capabilities
- Usable digital converter
- 8 FPS (60 frames JPG buffer)
- USB charging (you can charge two batteries with it and the charger)
- Still useable in a studio setting: laser portraits!
It took many trips with many systems for me to realize how important some of these elements are. Most recently I traveled to Cuba for two weeks and the Fujifilm X100F was the only camera I carried. I knew deep down what would make that camera a great travel companion, but it still wasn’t easy to convince myself to bring just one camera and one lens.
As a matter of fact, my girlfriend was using the Fujifilm X-E3 (Amazon) with its great kit lens, a Samyang 12mm f/2 (Amazon) and Mitakon 35mm f/0.95 (Read my comparison between the Mitakon and the Fuji 35mmf/2 WR, or go straight to Amazon). I figured I could just grab that camera if I ever needed to. In the two weeks we spent in Cuba, I used the X-E3 once for a sunset shot which I actually could’ve capture with the X100F. And the two extra lenses, which are amazing performers too, were never even mounted on the X-E3.
I’ve been to Iceland and Thailand with a collection of lenses, all over the USA, Canada, Europe and many other places always carrying a variety of photographic options. The best results I ever got were from these two weeks in Cuba. The most fun I had shooting was during these two weeks in Cuba. The greatest opportunities I had were thanks to the X100F’s features and capabilities. The most rewarding challenges came from the camera’s designs.
And that’s why the Fujifilm X100F (Amazon) is the best travel camera on the market today!
If you have another favorite travel camera, let me know in the comments below.
Here are a few of my favorite shots made with the X100F while in Cuba. To see the rest of them and learn about this amazing country, read my post: Visiting Cuba: A two-week trip report