The Best Adventure Travel Camera — Buyers Guide and Review
After a lot of research, testing and use, we’ve concluded that the Sony RX10 is the best adventure camera for photographers like us who want every feature of a larger SLR without any lens switching.
Many people ask us, after seeing Jo’s Instagram (@shesatrailblazer) what camera we use. The decision to buy a Sony RX10 came after lengthy consideration of how we photograph, the places we go, and experimentation with what we already had. And here it is!
While the best camera is “the one you have with you” (the trusty smartphone), or just “one that you want to use” (probably also your smartphone), we want to explain how we chose this camera as being the best one for us. No camera is perfect – and we admit that below too.
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Why you should trust our opinion on cameras
Dana has been a massive digital camera nerd for over twenty years. (Yeah, he’s super old.) He first started reading camera review sites like DPreview in 1998 when shopping for his second camera (a then top-of-the-line Sony DSC-S70 with a whopping 3 megapixels, upgrading from a Kodak DC220, a camera invented before the word ‘megapixels’ was a thing) and still does, for fun. Since then he has owned about a dozen, including compacts, DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, doing weeks of research and comparisons before buying each one. He knows everything about camera specs, features and various pros and cons, almost on recall.
Jo is a photography nerd. She obsesses over angles, composition, lighting and poses, trying to get the perfect balance of every element of a photo. She can tell you not just where to go for a great photo but the exact spot in a location where you’ll get the best angle, then instruct you on composition, time of day and how the shadows should fall to best capture a subject and scene. She makes us get up obscenely (“Would you be terribly upset if we woke up at 3:30am?”) early just to trek for hours to get to one location at the right time.
Together, we have challenging demands for our equipment. We need them to produce images we want, but also to be able to function where and when we need them in very specific circumstances.
What’s important to us as travel and adventure photographers
It was only through a lot of experience travelling, taking a ton of photos, processing them and publishing them that we really honed in on our needs. After using digital cameras for over 20 years in dozens of countries I’ve had a lot of opportunity to evaluate what’s important to me in cameras for travel.
You must experiment. This is a mandatory part of your journey. No two photographers are the same. We all vary in what we want to shoot, when, how we like to shoot, how we like to process, and where we publish. One person might be doing landscape photography to print in exhibitions, another doing candid event photography to publish in web albums, and another doing studio portraits to publish on Instagram. These all would lend themselves to different ideal cameras.
Here’s what is important to us, in order of priority, and how the Sony RX10 stacks up.
- Sharp lens ✔ – for good photos, not having to restrict zoom range or know the edges will be soft
- Long Zoom lens, at least 200mm (equivalent) length ✔ – for zoom compression, and occasional wildlife photography
- High dynamic range ✔ – to be able to increase shadows or drop highlights without noise.
- Weather sealing ✔ – in case it gets misty or some water splashes on it (or we drop the camera in a river… it has happened to me), we don’t want to freak out and lose days of photography
- Wide aperture throughout the zoom range ✔ – to capture more light, and not have to rely on sensor signal amplification (which produces noise)
- Single lens ✔ – to avoid having to carry multiple lenses or change lenses on the fly, which we’d never do
- Convenient body layout ✔ – to be able to mount it on a tripod and still access things like connections, battery, memory card without having to unscrew bits all the time
- Lightweight and compact ✖ – so it’s not a pain to carry around
- Reasonable cost ✔ – under $1,000 for the camera + lens. It’s easy to spend $2K+ (even $5K if you get a full-frame kit or multiple cameras).
- Electronic viewfinder ✔ – we shoot out in bright daylight pretty often. Having a viewfinder is very helpful to be able to frame a photo accurately.
- Ease of control ✖ – Easy to manipulate on the go with button controls and not having to dive into menus
These things are not high priority for us, even if they are for other photographers
- Shallow depth of field (that blurred background effect) ✔ – we take a lot of environmental photography and blurring a background is rarely important, just occasionally nice for a portrait shot.
- Fast switching on and focusing ✖ – to capture moving targets, or really quick candid moments, especially in low light. We don’t do candid/action photography so this isn’t a focus.
- Wi-Fi/connectivity ✖ – we’re happy to get back to home base and process photographs there, not publish them on the fly
There is no camera on the market that hits the nail on the head in every regard, but knowing what is important to us helped us narrow down the choices.
Here’s why we think the RX10 is freaking awesome for travel adventure photography
Let’s look in more detail at what we love about the Sony RX10.
Sharp Lens – The lens is incredibly sharp, all the time
After many stringent tests by different reviewers, we are confident that the lens on the Sony RX10 is one of the best in the class. Firstly, you’ll notice that the lens is HUGE. A “lot of glass”, as photographers like to say. The zoom length is crazy, from an equivalent ‘wide’ of 25mm to a full zoom of 600mm, with an aperture range from F/2.4 to F/4.0.
What’s important in a lens with this range is that it’s sharp in the whole frame in all conditions. When the aperture is at its widest, at F/2.4 when the lens is fully zoomed out, we want to make sure that the lens is sharp both in the center of the frame and at the edges. Similarly, when zoomed in a reasonable distance, we’d want to be sure that the lens is still sharp.
Long zoom lens means we can play with zoom compression (and do animal photography)
There are some strong arguments for NOT using zoom, and this led me to using prime lenses for many years. Some of these are
- By restricting your zoom range, you are forced to be more creative. Absolutely true (although you can’t be creative with zoom compression).
- Prime lenses are generally higher quality. For the given telephoto, you are likely to have a sharper lens with a wider maximum aperture
- Prime lenses are smaller and lighter for given lens quality. (True)
- You can always “zoom with your feet” — just get closer. True, having just one telephoto length forces you to be bolder instead of zooming when you’re lazy. (However, it assumes that the only reason you’d zoom is to get closer, not for the zoom compression effect.)
This leaves two reasons to get a zoom:
- You can do wildlife photography, like when you’re on safari occasionally.
- Zoom compression! What’s this??
One effect we like in travel photography is to flatten a scene by using ‘zoom compression’. By having a subject far away and then zooming in, you can make it seem like the background is closer. See the photo at the beginning of this section for an example. See how close the mountains look?
We didn’t buy this camera to do things like photograph lions in the prairie, but there’s a decent chance we’ll go on a small safari while in Tanzania or Kenya, so it’s a good option to have.
OK fine, sometimes I do things like point a camera at the sky and see what I can get.
It’s true – you can also get the effect of zoom compression by cropping. If we had an extremely high resolution sensor, like 40MP, we could crop the middle bit out and still have a 20MP photo.
High dynamic range means we can recover shadows in processing
We often shoot photos early in the morning or late at night, at times when light varies a lot. Shadows might be dark, and highlights in the sky will be bright. This is called “dynamic range”.
Think of a song with very deep bass and very high treble. If you record such a song with a lousy microphone or play it back through cheap headphones, you’ll miss out on crisp bass and get muffled treble. You need microphones and headphones with high dynamic range to capture and reproduce it all.
Better cameras (usually with bigger sensors) have higher dynamic range. This lets them capture many shades of darkness and light, so you can see detail in the shadows as well as in the sky.
Additionally, having high dynamic range gives us more headroom to make mistakes. Sometimes (often) we accidentally under-expose or over-expose a photo. This happens in confusing light situations, like a bright sky and dark landscape, which is something that happens at sunset. Even if we expose it right in the middle, we want the photo to be processed the way the eye sees it – showing clouds as well as detail in the landscape. This is really hard! A sensor with high dynamic range lets you do this, because it lets you recover a lot of information that’s hiding in the dark or bright parts.
The sensor in the RX10 is fairly high in dynamic range, providing much more than a cellphone (which has almost none – what you’re given in the photo output is what you get). It’s definitely not the best in class though. For better results you should look at a DSLR, preferably a top-of-the-line full frame camera (that will also set you back thousands of dollars).
Weather sealing – we’re not afraid if water splashes on it
We want to use our camera as often as possible. Sometimes it’s misty, and sometimes it’s actually raining. This shouldn’t stop us from using our camera! So we prioritised models that are weatherproof. Note: This doesn’t mean “waterproof”. Waterproof is what you’d call a GoPro. Weatherproof is more like… don’t worry too much if you’re in adverse weather conditions.
From the specs page, Sony says that “Dust- and moisture-resistant sealant and construction of operating parts enable the camera to withstand rugged conditions”, with a footnote adding that they don’t guarantee that water won’t enter the body. This is good enough for us. We don’t ever want to just let the camera get totally soaked under a shower, partly not to test fate, but partly because then you’d get water droplets all over the lens and your photos won’t look as nice anyway.
Note that restricting us to weatherproof cameras significantly narrowed the field. There are a lot of fantastic cameras out there that don’t claim to be weatherproof, and thus which had to be struck off the list of contenders.
Wide aperture throughout the zoom range
Having a wide aperture, in this case F/2.8-4.0, means capturing more light, which means not having to rely as much on sensor amplification (which can lead to noise).
This is a little technical and not something I want to examine in great detail here. But basically, the lower the F number on the lens, the more light you can gather. The more light, the better. You need light to take photos, after all. Photons.
Something else that’s important is that with zoom lenses, generally the F number is higher (gathering less light) as you zoom in, and dramatically higher at the very end of the zoom range. So it’s important here with the Sony RX10 that even at the end of the very long zoom range, the F number is only at 4.0. This means it’s gathering a lot of light at the zoom end, meaning shutter speed can stay short and photos are less liable to be affected by camera shake.
Another thing that F number delivers (along with sensor size) is the ability to blur the background and make portrait-style photos. This is cool, but in practise for our photography, it isn’t something important to us.
Single lens – no switching or carrying other lenses required
This is a distinct advantage for us, though it is a disadvantage for others. Read on.
I’ve used interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) for years, and have learned I often just use one lens—the best one I have—and stick with it.
When I had a Canon DSLR, I had a high-quality Sigma prime lens and a Canon zoom lens. Both lenses were heavy so I’d only take more than one lens if I was going on a dedicated “photography” expedition. Not even just to a place where I’d take photographs (like a wedding). I often left the Sigma on the camera as it was sharper and worked in more lighting conditions than the Canon zoom lens.
I later upgraded to a Micro 4/3 unit, and got three high-quality prime lenses for it, including the amazing Panasonic-Leica f/1.4 25mm lens, a fairly compact and very sharp lens that also worked in a lot of lighting conditions. While I had some other ones I could attach to it, I also often just left this lens attached. It was the best lens.
For our current endeavours, I considered getting either an ILC and leaving one lens on it, or getting a compact camera with a prime lens (like the Fujifilms, which are amazing), but I wanted control over lens compression that you only get through a zoom lens. That’s the primary reason I chose a zoom camera, and one with significant zoom range at that. I had previously used a compact zoom (a Panasonic LX100), and it didn’t have enough reach – I knew I’d need 200mm equivalent at least.
Convenient body layout – easy to use with a tripod
Shooting photos is only one part of photography. Yes, shooting photos has to be easy and convenient—we have to be able to configure camera settings easily, customising things like aperture, focal point and zoom length without diving into menus (something which, unfortunately, is not entirely possible on the Sony RX10).
There are many other parts we do daily as well, though. They, too, have to be easy. Things like
- Replacing the battery
- Attaching a tripod
- Attaching a flash unit or remote controller to the hotshot
- Charging from the wall
- Removing the SD card to download photos
- Plugging in a cable to download photos
With small compact cameras, you often make compromises that makes them harder to use physically. For example, with some cameras, you can’t use them while charging. This would make them impossible to use in a studio. With other cameras, you can’t remove the battery if it’s on a tripod mount. Inconvenient!
There are no such inconveniences with the Sony RX10. I haven’t once sworn under my breath that I have to remove the tripod mount – which is quite hard to do (as you have to secure the mount quite firmly to make sure it doesn’t move. So, full marks on this one, something unusual on a camera that’s short of professional grade.
Reasonable cost – under $2,000
It’s so easy to spend a fortune on photography. You don’t just buy a camera — you have to buy lenses, plus all the other accessories!
Then we’d be worried about theft, breaking or losing the lenses, and then feel obliged to spend another fortune on insurance, protective bags and the very best accessories. After all that, we’d probably feel dissatisfied with the camera after a while, because no camera is perfect.
Better then, we think, to save money and buy something imperfect in a world where we know nothing is perfect. Even better, to buy something ‘last season’ that’s still amazing. We tell ourselves: remember how amazed we were when this camera came out one or two years ago? Well, it’s still amazing.
To prove the point of how an outdated camera can take amazing photos in the right place and at the right conditions, here’s one I took in the year 2002 with a 3-megapixel Sony S70. No tricks to this photo; just go somewhere nice and point.
Electronic viewfinder: For ease of composition in bright daylight
We shoot out in bright daylight pretty often. Having a viewfinder is very helpful to be able to frame a photo accurately.
Fifteen years ago, the live display was a revolution. I still think it is a revolution, especially when it comes to image review.
That said, no matter how bright displays get—and they do get pretty bright these days!—in bright daylight, we find using a viewfinder far more practical. Good composition means that we have the least amount of manipulation work to do later, doing things like slightly rotating photos and cropping, and so we have more time and more information to use in the final product.
Viewfinders are becoming more common. But having one that’s always there without having to clip it on or slide it out does rule out a number of contenders, so it’s worth mentioning.
Other awesome things about the Sony RX10 that we don’t really use
You can control the depth of field to an extent
Controlling the depth of field is known as “blurring the background”, having a “shallow depth of field”, or “portrait mode” thanks to new cellphone technology. It lets you create portrait photos where the background is blurred, like in the above two photos (taken with two different cameras, but illustrating the point).
The typical hardware you need to blur the background is a large-sensor camera with a large aperture, typically with a longer lens (more telephoto). For example, a full-frame camera with a f/1.8 75mm lens is a popular choice, as is 135mm. These lenses and cameras will set you back $3-4,000 for the total kit, depending on which exact camera and lens you buy, and help you produce incredible photos.
You can also just use the portrait mode enabled in cameras. This produces pretty good results — definitely good enough for web publication—so on the occasion we do need a portrait photo, it’d be a reasonable compromise to just use a cell-phone. (There is the caveat that sometimes the calculations fail and something in the background remains in focus. I have examples of these but they’re not flattering photos—happy to share them personally!)
With our RX10, we have a much smaller sensor and much smaller apertures on the zoom lens. It means we’re much more restricted in the kinds of portraits we can produce. It’s still possible, however. That said, we have little use for this style of photography, because we often want to capture the entire background in focus.
It performs well in low-light photography
Here’s what we don’t like so much about the Sony RX10
It’s large and heavy
The Sony RX10 is a somewhat heavy camera, weighing over a kilogram (2 pounds) with the battery inside it. It’s heavier than the previous generation, thanks to all the new glass of the new lens (with much longer reach – 600mm vs 200mm effective). And while it’s still lighter than a full SLR with two lenses, it definitely isn’t the lightest camera. Given we can carry something like 50kg between us, adding a whole kilo of anything something to be considered carefully!
When we’re hiking with a camera, it’s VERY significant. Choosing this camera meant choosing to take it out even when we barely could be bothered. This is helped somewhat with great accessories like clips and belts that make the camera easy to carry and more available (will get to that later).
In addition to being heavy, the Sony RX10 is not a compact camera. It’s large, and has to be carried either on a sturdy strap, clip or using a hand strap. It does have a generous hand grip that’s easy to use to hold it, position it and keep it stable, but it still needs a little extra security.
The interface needs too much button pressing
There are a few operations we often do that take a lot of button pressing. Here are some examples. You might relate.
- Changing focus point: Press ‘up’, then scroll to focus type, press to select, then move the focus point around on the screen with the arrows. Need to do this every time we recompose a photo slightly.
- Connect external controller: Press ‘menu’, scroll about 10 times until we find the external controller page, select it, scroll twice to the correct type of external controller, select it, press ‘connect new’. We do this to use the external viewfinder via a phone, which isn’t even that reliable.
It doesn’t have a touch-screen
Sounds unnecessarily fancy to many, right? The best use case for a touch screen is selecting focus, which is important if you want to get composition right.
Some cameras let you just tap on one part of a screen to take a shot with that part of the frame in focus. I know Olympus cameras do. I would consider that.
Can I type here? I kind of can. It lags badly. But not as badly as before.
The phone connection is unreliable
We downloaded the PlayMemories app onto our top-of-the-line Google Pixel 2 phones and tried to control the camera remotely. When it worked, it was brilliant – you could use your phone as a viewfinder and external shutter button! However, it only worked about five times before never working again, despite using different phones. We really liked this feature, and just wished it actually worked.
We will try it with iPhone as well (we have a backup), but in general that’s a clunkier process because iPhones make you manually select the WiFi network coming from the camera, and doesn’t switch back automatically if you’re using another WiFi network, as iOS doesn’t let you software change the WiFi settings.
Other contenders for best adventure travel camera
We continue to check out the competition and alternatives. The cost of changing is significant, so it’s not something we’ll do too often, but we always have our eye out for the best possible solution to our many requirements.
“Just use an iPhone” (or other smartphone)
The phone is always a serious contender.
The advantages of the phone are obvious. A phone is always on you. The photography quality is usually ‘good enough’. It has instant connectivity, meaning you backup instantly to the cloud or online storage, sync to iPhoto and/or Google Photos, and can easily publish to the web. Also… modern phones are extremely weather resistant, if not absolutely waterproof.
The other thing that attracts me to the phone is the advent of computational photography. The latest Google and Apple devices make it super easy to do things like
- Capture high dynamic range images – the phone takes a succession of photos, aligns and combines photos to make really stunning ones. The latest iPhones (yes, the ones that cost US$1200+) are particularly good at this
- Take night shots—the phone intelligently takes up to 6 seconds of exposure and makes a really high-quality night photo that you previously used to have to use a high-end photo to take
- Make immersive 360-degree experiences—you help the phone take 30 or so photos, and then have a scrollable immersive view (it’s particularly cool using Google Googles)
- Shoot portrait-style photos—both iPhones and Google Phones can do this well
So why not just use a phone? Basically because phones give us about 10% of the creative latitude that a high quality SLR does. If we under- or over-exposed, with a phone, we’re screwed. If we get focus wrong we are out of luck. The much lower resolution means we have less headroom to rotate and crop if the framing is off. And finally, the small image sensor means that you need ample light without too much dynamic range to take a decent photo, making photos in the best lighting conditions like evening or dawn comparatively difficult.
Looking at the best photography and travel accounts online, it’s obvious that they not only don’t use cellphones, they use high-end SLRs. Full-frame models from Canon, Nikon and Sony are abundant. So much so that it’s all we can do to not get one—and consider it an eventual inevitability. After all, every photo not taken with the best hardware is an opportunity lost.
Small compact camera for adventure travel photography: Sony RX100
A few months after we bought this camera, the sixth-generation Sony RX100 was released. The main difference between the sixth and fifth generation is that it has a longer zoom – 330mm equivalent!
The only reasons I didn’t buy this was: I already had the RX10, and the RX100 does NOT have weather sealing. Also, the lens isn’t going to be as good as the one in the RX10, though I’m confident it’d be good enough for our uses.
The best compact mirrorless: Olympus OMD-EM5II (Weather Sealed Kit)
If you want an interchangeable lens camera, then the Olympus OMD EM5 Mk II is an extremely good choice for a few reasons.
Firstly, it has an incredible sensor. It may be one quarter the size of a full-frame sensor, but it has high dynamic range and is used by many enthusiasts and professionals the world over.
Secondly, it is really compact. You have to see one in person. It’s a lot smaller than any full-size camera. The fact that the sensor is smaller also means that the lenses are a lot smaller.
Finally, and this is a big one, it’s basically totally waterproof. There was even a video passing around of one of these sitting in a shower, simulating torrential rainfall, and of course it came out fine. Caveat: it has to be using a waterproof lens for this to be the case. Still, impressive.
I used to be a big aficionado of ILCs. If space and size or budget were the ultimate priority, I’d lean this way over a full-frame camera.
Full-frame SLR – Sony A7 III
Finally, if you really must get an SLR… get the Sony A7 III.
A full-frame camera is still the best choice for high-quality lenses, extremely high dynamic range (letting you capture photos in broad daylight and not worry about it being too “harsh”) and excellent physical controls.
If you’re going to get a full-frame camera, you can still choose between an SLR and a mirrorless camera. The main difference is that with an SLR, you look through the lens when you look through the viewfinder (so you see the same content that will end up on the sensor), but the mirror mechanism takes up space. With a mirrorless camera, there is no mirror, but you see a digital representation of the photo you’ll take, captured directly by the sensor and displayed in a tiny screen in the viewfinder. But it’s more compact.
All three major manufacturers (Sony, Canon and Nikon) have great full-frame cameras. They even all have mirrorless options these days. But Sony has had them for the longest, and their range is the most extensive and affordable. So get that.
There are various other options in the Sony full-frame range, like the A9, or the A7R, but they’re bigger and more professional, e.g. for sports or wedding photographers. The A7 is the sweet spot for the traveller like us.