What’s the best compact camera for travelling?

Dave wants a point-and-shoot camera, but should he just buy a top-end smartphone instead?

Im looking for a compact travel camera. I presently have a Canon S100 and realise it is old and out of date. In its price range to maybe double its value ($1,000 Canadian or 570), what would you recommend for a simple but good point-and-shoot that also takes top-quality video?

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On the other hand, a US camera reviewer suggests buying the best quality smartphone possible, not a camera Dave in Canada

The Canon S100 was announced in November 2011, and it was one of the best digital compacts of its day. Enthusiasts liked its ability to shoot RAW images, its full manual controls and its 5x zoom lens. It also offered HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, in-camera GPS, auto-focus tracking with face detection, and could shoot 1080p videos. It wasnt bad value at 429/$429.95 (US dollars). Amusingly enough, I recommended the Canon S95 in Ask Jack, before your S100 replaced it.

At the time, cameras were developing in several different directions. These included the rise of enthusiast cameras with bigger sensors, and a boom in the new category of travel zooms, which I looked at in 2011 and 2017. Travel zooms have small sensors but their lenses have much larger zoom ratios, typically from 10x to 30x.

With a travel zoom, you can capture the wide expanse of the Old Town Square in Prague then zoom in for a close-up of the astronomical clock. Or you can capture a panorama of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo then zoom in on the dome of the distant cathedral. Good luck doing that with a smartphone.

Your S100 should still be perfectly serviceable despite its age. However, its a 12 megapixel camera with a too-small 1/1.7in CMOS sensor that has fallen behind todays standards. And while it has a very respectable 5x zoom lens, every travel camera can now go longer.

Unfortunately, not many small compacts can provide both high quality and big zooms, and theyre usually not cheap. However, there are a couple within your budget.

Quality matters

Digital cameras use sensors to capture light, so the bigger the sensor, the more light it captures. This leads directly to better image quality and less noise, particularly in low-light conditions. The problem is that a bigger sensor needs a bigger lens, which makes it harder to provide a bigger zoom range. (Zooms for full-frame DSLRs can be enormous.)

Typical smartphones have had 1/2.3in sensors that measured 6.3 x 4.7mm while compacts like your S100 usually have slightly bigger 1/1.7in sensors measuring 7.6 x 5.7mm. Quality compacts such as the Sony RX100 brought us 1in or 13.2 x 8.8mm sensors, and a few have even gone beyond that to 4/3in or 17.3 x 13mm sensors, marketed as Micro Four Thirds. Either way, a one-inch sensor is now an affordable target. See: Compare digital camera sensor sizes.

Dont forget that lens quality is also very important, just as it was with film cameras. In fact, DxOMark which tests smartphones, cameras and lenses introduced a metric it calls the Perceptual MegaPixel to show how much the lens quality reduces the effective sensor quality. You can lose up to half the resolution youve paid for because the lens isnt good enough.

Compact choices

Sony RX100 line of cameras are some of the best. Photograph: Sony

If you want a compact with smartphone-beating image quality, the 20MP Sony RX100 VA is one of the best of the bunch, but it only has a 3x zoom (24-70mm equivalent). Its also beyond your budget at CDN$1,1179.95 (or 799 in the UK), though you might be able to find one for less. The strongest challenger is Panasonics Lumix LX100 II, which has a bigger 4/3in sensor and a Leica 24-75mm zoom lens for around the same price (CDN$1,199 or 786.60).

If this is the kind of camera you want, there may be older and cheaper models available.

Last year, both Sony and Panasonic introduced versions with big sensors and long zoom lenses. Sony launched the RX100 VI with an 8x 24-200mm zoom, albeit it at a very high price (CDN$1,599.97 or 1,084.60). Panasonic upgraded the superb Lumix DC-ZS100 (TZ100 outside North America) to the ZS200 (TZ200 outside North America), giving it an even bigger zoom. Where the ZS100 had a 10x 25-250mm lens, the ZS200 pushed that to a 15x 24-360mm zoom.

At the moment, the DC-ZS200 is my top recommendation at CDN$969 (623), just within your budget, though the DC-ZS100 looks like a bargain at CDN$749 (431). You decide.

Theres a side-by-side comparison of the main cameras mentioned here at DP Review. As you can see, they all have electronic viewfinders (essential), RAW support, wifi and so on.

Both Sony and Panasonic make professional video equipment, and all these compacts produce excellent video, with Panasonic perhaps having the edge. However, shooting video eats batteries very quickly, and can cause small cameras to get hot. Compacts cant really compete with DSLRs or the legendary Panasonic GH5 (CDN$2,800 or 1,749).

Ive linked to Amazon prices for convenience because Im not familiar with the Canadian retail scene, but Photoprice.ca could help you to shop around.

The smartphone option

Smartphones such as the Huawei P30 Pro have multiple cameras on the back that allow you to switch between zoom, standard and wide-angle shots. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Theres no doubt that smartphones can take most of the pictures that most people want to take most of the time. That much is obvious from the steep fall in sales of compact cameras. I also know from experience that decent smartphone cameras produce far better results than the cheap fixed-lens cameras that consumers used for decades, from Kodak Box Brownies to 110 and 126-format Instamatic cameras to 35mm compacts such as the popular Olympus Trip.

Smartphones also have the advantage that theyre almost always available. Most people carry their smartphones everywhere, which is something that even the keenest pocket camera users find hard to match.

Further, smartphones are better at doing what people want, which is to edit photos immediately then share them online via Facebook, Instagram or whatever. In these cases, convenience trumps absolute image quality. Facebook reduces images to 2048 pixels wide or tall, and Instagram to 1080px, so shooting 5216 x 3472 pixels on a proper camera is overkill. Youd need the full resolution to make a big print, but now many people still make prints?

But smartphones also have their drawbacks. In particular, there are trillions of pictures you just cant take with a smartphone.

Apart from a rare few expensive models, you usually cant swap the built-in lenses for wide-angles or zooms, which means they cant really handle wildlife or sports photography, and they may struggle with architecture and landscapes. Most dont handle low-light situations well, and none of them have powerful flashes. You cant frame and shoot subjects as quickly or as accurately as you can with cameras that have zoom lenses and proper viewfinders. And while you may always have your smartphone camera with you, its probably running out of battery.

Todays smartphones have powerful processors so they can use lots of computational tricks to make their results look good, such as stitching together sections from sequences of images and/or multiple lenses. But ultimately, they dont deliver the image quality you can get from the best digital cameras, even if most people either cant see or dont care about the differences.

In the end, it depends what youre shooting, and why. Youd be perfectly happy to Instagram your lunch with a smartphone. But I hope you wouldnt want your wedding album shot on one, because its an unrepeatable and, ideally, once-in-a-lifetime event.

If youre making that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kansas, Kyoto or Kathmandu, then you can get better results with a good camera. Any pixels you dont capture at the time are lost forever.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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