Choosing the Best Budget Travel Camera (and Drone!) (Updated August 2021)

Choosing a travel camera is a little different than just getting a regular camera. On top of brand name and megapixels, you also have to look out for size and weight.

The good news is that here in 2021 you have a ton of options for lightweight, powerful cameras to bring along on your next voyage. Mirrorless cameras in particular are the wave of the future, poised to replace the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras many of us have gotten used to.

However, this blog is also intended for those with limited time and resources to travel. I understand that for many people, a nice new $1,800 mirrorless camera may just not be in the picture. Not to worry! In this post, I will be including point-and-shoot cameras, smartphones, and even smartphone apps that can make your photos look their very best. I’ll even be talking about video drones!

If you want to compare any of the cameras listed below, I’d recommend CameraDecision.com.

What to Look For in a Travel Camera

Image Quality

Of course, you want a camera that takes sharp pictures. As a general rule, more megapixels = better picture. I would go for at least 16, although 24 and up is really what you want. 

However, keep in mind that not all pixels are created equal. You should also look at:

Sensor Size

The vast majority of DSLR cameras you’re going to buy have an APS-C sensor size. The mirrorless equivalent is called Micro Four-Thirds. These are both “cropped” sensor sizes, meaning the picture you take is not going to capture everything you see through the viewfinder. The size of the sensor is also important because it’s one of the factors that affects how much light gets to the sensor. 

A full-frame camera in either DSLR or mirrorless configurations is the best in terms of image size and quality, but they tend to be very expensive. Unless you can find a used, older full-frame camera at a significant discount, an APS-C or Micro Four-Thirds camera will do you just fine.

Portability

The true measure of a travel camera versus a regular camera. You want one that has a small, lightweight body, and equally lightweight lenses. It’s in this realm that the mirrorless camera systems shine, and why they are the system of choice for the modern travel photographer. Having said that, there are of course point-and-shoot cameras and even some smartphones that have pretty impressive optics in their own right.

Lens Selection

The way it was always explained to me, was to get a decent camera body, and then the absolute best “glass” that you could afford. Lenses are the true heroes of photography, even more so than megapixels.

There’s a lot that goes into picking the best lenses. I could write an entire article on the basics of photography, but for right now I’ll keep it simple: you need to worry about lens length and focal length.

Your standard kit lens varies, but will often have a lens length of 18-55mm. This is how much zoom you have. If you can, get one with a bit more range to it. 18mm is great for taking wide-angle shots of street scenes or landscapes, but 55mm is not much at all if you want to zoom in from the top of an observation deck. For that, ideally you’ll want something more like 105mm or so. 

Weatherization

This one’s important because in your travels, you’re probably going to come into contact with rain. Or sea spray. Or sand. Or dust. Any of those can potentially get inside your camera and mess up the sensor if you’re not careful. Weather sealing makes your camera more rugged and durable.

Battery Life

Of course the one time you forget to charge your camera battery is the one time you miss that once-in-a-lifetime shot. This is one area in which DSLR cameras still consistently outperform mirrorless cameras. Always try to get one capable of taking several hundred shots on a charge, or invest in a second battery.

Mirrorless Cameras

For those of you who have experience with DSLRs or SLR film cameras, you’ll know that the mirror is what makes the “clack” sound when you snap a photo. That’s what flips up, exposing the sensor to light, thus taking the picture.

Mirrorless cameras don’t have that; they are essentially really, really nice point-and-shoot cameras. They have much better sensors, and can take interchangeable lenses just like a DSLR. And yet they are typically close to the size and weight of a comparable DSLR system.

It’s cool because in the DSLR world, it’s basically Canon or Nikon. If you’re any kind of good photographer, you shoot with one of those two brands. In the mirrorless world, there’s a lot more diversity to choose from. To be fair, the best mirrorless cameras out right now are produced by Sony, but you’ll find plenty of solid choices from the likes of Olympus and Fujifilm.

Sony Alpha a6000

Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless camera
Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless camera

Year Released: 2014

Image Quality: 24.3 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 360 shots

Price: $600 (w/ 16-50mm lens kit)

Yes, the a6000 is on the older side. However, I would still confidently recommend it for your first mirrorless camera. The fact that Sony is currently on the a6600, and yet still produces the a6000, should attest to the quality of this oldie-but-goodie. The 24 MP sensor offers solid resolution, and there are a number of good lenses at your disposal. It is widely considered one of the best all-rounder cameras for the money, performing well for both fast action shots and landscape scenes. I myself do not shoot with a mirrorless camera just yet, but my first one will more than likely be the a6000. I’ve had the opportunity to try one out and I was really impressed. It’s really small and flat, being closer in size to the old school film cameras.

The major issue I have with this camera is its lack of a viewfinder. I personally am used to looking through a viewfinder. On the other hand, those making the jump from a point-and-shoot straight to a mirrorless will find this camera to be the perfect missing link.

Canon EOS M100

Canon EOS M100 mirrorless camera
Canon EOS M100 mirrorless camera

Year Released: 2017

Image Quality: 24.2 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 295 shots

Price: $400 (w/ 15-45mm lens kit)

For those looking for a real budget mirrorless camera, this Canon is a solid choice. While the battery is sorely lacking, the image quality is quite good. This is a solid, budget-conscious choice that will get the job done.

Fujifilm X-A5

Fujifilm X-A5

Year Released: 2018

Image Quality: 24 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 450 shots

Price: $500 (w/ 15-45mm lens kit)

The X-A5 is another entry-level, lower-cost mirrorless that offers really nice photo quality. Its images are praised for their sharpness.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Year Released: 2017

Image Quality: 16 MP

Sensor Size: Micro Four-Thirds

Battery Life: 330 shots

Price: $549 (w/ 14-42mm lens kit)

Typically I would not go with anything less than 20 MP, but I’ve heard very good things about this Olympus, and the photos I’ve seen prove it. It’s another solid choice and further proof that not all pixels are created equal.

Sony Alpha a7

Sony Alpha a7 full-frame mirrorless camera
Sony Alpha a7 full-frame mirrorless camera

Year Released: 2014

Image Quality: 24 MP

Sensor Size: Full-frame

Battery Life: 340 shots

Price: $998 (w/ 28-70mm lens kit)

If your budget has more breathing room, I would the a7 as your first full-frame mirrorless camera. There are more recent models like the a7 III, but for the money you cannot go wrong with the original. 

The full-frame sensor does add to the price tag, but not to the bulk; this is one of the most compact full-frames on the market. The image quality is noticeably better than a lot of comparable DSLRs of similar megapixels. This camera will stand up extremely well for years to come.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

These are–technically–also mirrorless cameras. But these are those less expensive kind that do not feature interchangeable lenses, and so have limited zoom and depth of field capabilities. They are basically the step between camera phones and professional/semi-professional mirrorless cameras.

Having said that, a lot of them are quite small but still pack a punch on the image quality front.

Canon G9x

Canon G9x point-and-shoot travel camera
Canon G9x point-and-shoot travel camera

Year Released: 2015

Image Quality: 20 MP

Sensor Size: 1″ BSI

Battery Life: 220 shots

Price: $235

The G9x is the camera I used on my travels for about a year. It’s small enough that you can literally put it in your pocket. It has a decent zoom, although if you go out too far out you’re going to need to stand really still, or use some kind of tripod. It has pretty good image quality and the build construction is really solid, but the battery life is not great. 

All of the photos I took in Mexico City were shot on this camera.

Action Cameras

These tiny units are meant for video, with the option to capture photos as well. They can be attached to a Scuba tank shoulder strap, a motorcycle helmet, or bicycle handlebars. They are waterproof, shockproof, and extremely durable.

GoPro HERO5 Session

GoPro HERO5 Session action camera
GoPro HERO5 Session action camera

Year Released: 2016

Image Quality: 10 MP

Video Quality: 4K

Price: $170

Commonly considered a “best bang for the buck” GoPro, the HERO5 Session is no-frills but does exactly what it’s supposed to. It takes high-definition footage, is waterproof to 10 meters, and allows for automatic video upload to cloud storage. Its small size ensures it can be clipped anywhere.

GoPro HERO7 Black

GoPro HERO7 Black action camera
GoPro HERO7 Black action camera

Year Released: 2018

Image Quality: 12 MP

Video Quality: 4K

Price: $350

The HERO7 Black is the best action camera that GoPro makes right now. It sports stunning video and image capture, all with the same ruggedness and automatic cloud upload capabilities.

I should mention that this is the best *non-3D* camera that GoPro produces. They recently announced the Fusion, which is an 18 MP, 360-degree camera for shooting VR footage. While this is awesome, the price tag is at least $600, and I don’t think it’s intended for neither beginners nor budget travelers.

Akaso Brave6 Plus

Akaso Brave6 Plus action camera
Akaso Brave6 Plus action camera

Year Released: 2020

Image Quality: 20 MP

Video Quality: 4K

Price: $100

If you want to push even farther into budget territory, you’ve got the Akaso Brave6 Plus. I’m not going to say it’s the best action camera NOT made by GoPro, but for only $100 you can do much worse. This is the one I personally have and that I’ve been toying around with for a minute. 

This type of action camera is great for vloggers and general travel footage, like hiking or biking. Unfortunately, because the 4K resolution only goes up to 30 fps, I would not recommend it for extreme sports like dirt biking. Despite it being an “action camera,” 30 fps is unfortunately not great for real action. For that, I would point you towards GoPro. 

DSLR Cameras

Let’s be perfectly clear: DSLRs are NOT ideal travel cameras. They are simply too big and heavy.

Having said that, that’s what a lot of people have, and that’s what a lot of people use. I myself still lug a DSLR on my travels, a Nikon D7100. It has good image quality and the battery lasts an obscenely long time, but it takes up valuable space in my travel backpack. When I’m trying to pack for a week or two with just one backpack, that can make things challenging. 

Because I can find comparable image quality for a comparable price in a much smaller and lighter package, I will be transitioning to mirrorless soon.

As a traveler in 2021, there’s really very little reason to get a DSLR over a mirrorless. As I’ve shown above, you can find comparable mirrorless cameras like the Canon EOS M100 for very similar pricepoints to any DSLR camera. Having said that, I always like to include a variety of options for a variety of price points, and so the only DSLR I might recommend is the:

Nikon D3400

Nikon D3400, the only DSLR I would recommend as a travel camera
Nikon D3400, the only DSLR I would recommend as a travel camera

Year Released: 2016

Megapixels: 24 MP

Sensor Size: APS-C

Battery Life: 1,200 shots

Price: $428 (w/ 18-55mm lens kit)

As far as DSLRs go, the D3400 is on the compact side, and offers an extremely long battery life. You should be able to go over a week of constant shooting without having to worry about charging the battery (although you should charge it often just to be safe!). It’s also got the lowest price tag for 24 MP on this list. 

Nikon is of course a very trusted name in photography (on par with Canon), and you’re going to find very good build quality, intuitive controls, great image sharpness, and battery life that can easily best any mirrorless on this list.

Smartphones & Apps

Just like mirrorless cameras are slowly supplanting DSLRs, there are those who say that smartphones may one day supplant cameras altogether.

The photography-lover in me is somewhat startled by that statement, although I don’t think that will ever happen, for a variety of reasons. But the fact of the matter is that people like things to be easier, and with a smartphone equipped with a solid camera, you can have your GPS, communication, and travel photos all in one very portable place. There are a lot of phones coming out these days that have very powerful processors on them, and some people just like that mobility and convenience.

For a lot of you, this is all you need! A good photo is a good photo. However, if you really want to capture the best memories, I would not disregard a camera altogether. For one thing, phones are a lot easier to steal than a camera with a strap around your neck or wrapped around your hand. Phones cannot take different lenses, thus severely limiting their zoom capabilities. To my knowledge, there are no camera phones that shoot in RAW file format. While some phones do have 64GB and 128GB storage capabilities, you can store even more on a camera, if you need it. With very few exceptions, most camera phones do not perform well in low-light settings, with or without a flash.

Google Pixel 3

The newest Pixel’s camera might seem subpar at 12 pixels, but remember that not all pixels are created equal. The Pixel 3 has been celebrated by most publications as having possibly the best camera ever put on a smartphone.

 

Photo taken on a Google Pixel 3

Huawei P30 Pro

This phone features a 40(!) MP front camera, which is just unheard of. It’s the other smartphone that’s widely held to hold the very best camera as of 2019.

The other biggest feature of this phone is that it actually utilizes three front cameras, allowing for more powerful photo processing. The lenses are even provided by legendary German photo company Leica.

OnePlus 6T

My friend once showed me a low-light photo taken with the OnePlus 6T that was so crisp I (probably defensively) denied that it was taken without a flash. With dual 16 and 20 MP rear cameras and a proprietary Nightscape feature, you should be able to take some pretty stunning nighttime shots.

 

Photo courtesy of Adam Bath

Disclaimer: With all of these phones, I’m only reviewing their camera capabilities. I can’t tell you much else about their overall processor speeds or reliability.

SnapSeed

This is an app you can use on both Android and Apple phones. SnapSeed allows you to edit your photos, as well as apply filters and effects. Think of it sort of like Instagram without the social media.

Also be aware that many smartphones will have their own proprietary versions of photo editing software. These will be much less powerful, but can still make your photos pop.

Drones

Drones have really been blowing up in the past couple of years. I recently got into the world of droning and it’s opened up a ton of possibilities! You can take both video and still photos with them, and they allow you to get incredible footage at heights and angles you never would have been able to get before!

There are a ton of options, at a variety of price points, but DJI is widely considered the industry leader. Their Mavic line is great because they offer incredible imagery and flight times in relatively small, foldable designs.

DJI Mini 2

This is the drone I use to make my YouTube videos! 

You can read my full review of the DJI Mini 2 4K video drone here. You can see an example of what it’s capable of below:

Year Released: 2021

Video Quality: 4K

Photo Quality: 12 MP

Flight Time: 32 minutes

Range: 10km (6.2 mi)

Max Height: 500m (1,650 ft)

Price: $500 (+$150 for the Fly More combo package)

I have been using the Mini 2 for about 5 months now and I’m very happy with it! They pack a lot of performance into the same chassis as the original Mini. 

Speaking of the original Mini, you really can’t go wrong with it, either. Check it out below:

DJI Mavic Mini

DJI Mavic Mini video drone

Year Released: 2019

Video Quality: 2.7K

Photo Quality: 12 MP

Flight Time: 30 minutes

Range: 4km (2.4 mi)

Max Height: 500m (1,650 ft)

Price: $400 (+$100 for the Fly More combo package)

I got the DJI Mavic Mini back in the summer of 2020 and was instantly hooked! Up until its very unfortunate demise in Salt Lake City in March of this year, I took all kinds of footage with it and had a lot of fun. I have since replaced this with the newer DJI Mini 2, which I’ll write about below. 

$400 will get you the drone, controller, and battery; an extra $100 will get you two extra batteries, a three-slot charger, a carrying case, and spare propellers. The carrying case is the size of a lunchbox and will fit well into a travel backpack.

The DJI Mavic Mini’s gimbal-stabilized video camera shoots in 2.7k, which is between 1080p and 4k in terms of quality. 4K is all the rage right now, but unless you’re showing your footage on a large screen, 2.7K is perfectly sharp. The still camera shoots in 12 MP, which is admittedly a little underpowered for landscape shots. However, the ability to snap photos of skylines, sporting events, and even fireworks from the air makes up for this quality. This is, after all, a $400 drone, and it’s not going to have everything.

Pro Tip: There is actually one other entry-level DJI drone, the Spark, but I wouldn’t worry about it. The Mavic Mini and Mini 2 are much better values for your money.

Software

For those of you who want to really produce your best work, you’re going to need to get some kind of photo editing software. There’s just no two ways about it. You can get the best camera money can buy, and your photos will certainly look good. But to make them look great or amazing, you’ll need to tweak them. Trust me, once you get done with your photos, the originals will look black and white.

Can you get by with just taking JPEGs and posting those on Facebook or Instagram? You sure can! Nothing wrong with that. But if you want to take your photography game to the next level, shoot in RAW, and then run those RAW files through some kind of software.

Picasa

Picasa is completely free to download, and it’s what I used on my personal laptop all through college and for a while afterward. If you’ve never used photo editing software, I would recommend you download Picasa. It has automatic settings like Auto Light and Auto Contrast that will really spruce up your photos. 

Picasa is a great free program to start out with, but it’s really a better organizational program than an editing program. For a true photo editing program, you’ll eventually want to pay for something like:

Adobe Lightroom

I started using Lightroom back in 2020, and it’s been a serious game-changer. I pay about $11 a month for my subscription, and it’s worth every penny. There are other payment options available, but that’s the one that works for me right now.

Like Picasa, Lightroom has Auto settings, but you can manually alter much, much more. You can manipulate contrast, vibrancy, saturation, highlights, shadows, color temperature, and more. Lightroom has not just made my photos their best, it has also straight up saved others. Basically, my dumb ass had been taking a lot of landscape photos using too low an f-stop, and so the focus was very soft. After realizing my mistake, I ran them through Lightroom, cranking up the texture and sharpness controls. They look very nearly as good as if I’d just used the correct settings to begin with!

Conclusion

That should all be enough to get you going. Whether you choose to invest in a good mirrorless camera and lenses, or download Snapseed onto your smartphone, I hope this article helps you in your travels.

As always, if you found the article useful, I would appreciate a Like, Share, Tweet, and Pin!

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1 Response

  1. MAP195 says:

    good one Alek …nice post…thanks for share…

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