$500 may seem like a lot, but in photography, it won’t get you far. For 2016, these are the best DSLR and point & shoot camera options for travel. This post is written in direct response to a reader question, which is along the lines of a pretty common question we receive.
Reader Nancy L. asks:
“…I have a point and shoot camera, but it’s several years old and I don’t like the quality and I wasn’t happy with my photos on our last trip…I’m going to WDW this summer and want a better camera before then. I am willing to spend $500 but don’t know what I should buy…”
Note that this question was originally asked last year but has been updated slightly for 2015–the basic advice remains the same, as not a ton has changed at the entry level, besides prices dropping!
For starters, before upgrading equipment, you always want to make sure you’re using your current equipment to its full potential. This means you need to learn how to use your camera (read the manual!) and learn photography. My top recommendation for the latter is reading Understanding Exposure, which is the book I used to teach myself photography. It is absolutely required reading. Beyond that, I have a list of recommended photography books that will help. Your local library should have most of these, so you might not have to spend any money to capture better photos.
With that said, you might already know all there is to know about your camera and a good amount about photography, and may still be unsatisfied with your camera. Or, you may not want to learn about photography, and just want a camera that does better in auto mode. There’s nothing wrong with that, and while every camera will perform better with the photographer choosing the settings, it’s also true that nicer cameras in auto mode will produce better results than in auto mode than lesser cameras.
Since you’re using your camera for travel, size might be a consideration, so I’m going to provide a couple of different options with that in mind. Essentially, you’re going to be making a trade-off of either smaller size or better quality. Regardless, either solution can capture great photos (I shot all of the photos in this post with an entry level DSLR or point & shoot). As far as budget goes, $500 may seem like a lot, but in the world of photography, it won’t get you too far. In fact, for my two main suggestions, you’re going to be just on the cusp of needing to spend a tad more to accomplish what you need.
Let’s take a look…
If size matters more: having a camera that you can put in your pocket might be an absolute necessity, especially if it’s primarily for travel. For this, I only have one recommendation: the Sony RX100. I purchased this on the day it was released almost two years ago, and have absolutely loved it ever since. In my opinion, this is still the gold standard for point and shoot cameras (it’s actually a bit surprising that no other camera manufacturers have caught up…).
While it is expensive for a point and shoot camera, it’s the only point and shoot camera that fits in your pocket and delivers near-DSLR quality. That, alone, is a herculean feat. Unlike most point and shoot cameras, the Sony RX100 has a ton of advanced functionality that really accommodates both experienced photographers or those looking to learn andthose who are just looking for high quality photos from a camera in auto mode.
You can read more about the RX100 and see a ton of sample photos in our Sony RX100 Review. Sony updated the camera with the RX100 II, and again last year with the RX100 III, which I reviewed. Skip the updated cameras as they don’t offer enough advancements to justify the extra cost for most beginners.
If quality matters more: you’re going to want to look at an entry level DSLR. The downside to a DSLR is that it’s not going to fit in your pocket, but the upside is that even the most basic entry level DSLR is superior to the most advanced point and shoot in terms of image quality and performance.
Sony has closed the gap with the RX100, but the gap is still there. I shoot with Nikon DSLRs, and have since I got into photography (I used the Nikon D40 entry level camera back in the day and loved it!), so that’s my preference. However, I think both Canon and Nikon are solid options for entry level DSLRs.
Nikon’s current top entry-level model is the Nikon D3300, which is $495. This is an excellent “starter camera.” The image quality it is capable of producing is excellent, and it has a solid slate of features to help you take great photos, including full manual settings and preset modes if you need training wheels, so to speak.
What you might notice I’m not recommending here is a mirrorless camera. It’s another option to consider, and might hit the sweet spot for you between size (smaller than a DSLR, larger than a point & shoot) and quality (lower than a DSLR, higher than a point & shoot), but my firsthand experience with a couple of lower tier mirrorless cameras in the last few months has left me believing they’re still a couple of generations away before really being “there” on the lower end.
Mirrorless is gaining in popularity and has its fans, and I’m impressed with the new (pricey) full frame models, so consider getting a second opinion on this. However, I have been underwhelmed by the lower end mirrorless cameras, and since this question is seeking my opinion, I’m not recommending them at the $500 price point.
Hope that helps you…and possibly some other readers! 🙂
If you want other photography advice and equipment recommendations, I suggest checking out my Comprehensive Photography Guide. Here are a few of my other top photography blog posts:
Do you have any other <$500 camera recommendations? If you’re in the same boat and looking for a new entry-level camera, do you have any additional questions? Please leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!