The 10 best compact cameras, according to National Geographic
Published November 22, 2022
15 min read
Things may still be far from “normal,” but our desire for adventure remains the same. Technology has made it easier than ever for us to preserve and capture precious moments, whether we’re looking for rare birds in our local parks or exploring ancient wonders in faraway places.
A powerful travel image can tell a story and remind us of the beauty that the world has to offer. “As a biologist and conservation photographer, I’m always amazed by the diversity of life on the planet,” says Jen Guyton, photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer. “Traveling to photograph nature’s riches gives me the opportunity to learn new things, and appreciate the abundance of the planet,” We reached out to National Geographic’s photo engineering team to find out which compact cameras they recommend and why. They create custom equipment for professional photographers, and test consumer products for this year’s guide. Here are their picks for travel:
The XT series from Fujifilm–often our top pick–has had a major revamp this year with the XT-5. It can compete with professional full-frame mirrorless models as well as DSLRs in image quality, handling, performance, and autofocus. While the X-T5 has gotten a little smaller than the X-T4, it gained the fantastic 40 megapixel (MP) sensor from the X-H2, one of the most detailed APS-C sensors on the market, which makes it–in the authors’ opinions–the reigning champion of 2023 travel cameras. One of the best things about the XT series is its ability to provide a fun shooting experience for both amateurs and professionals by blending vintage dials and modern, professional-grade controls. Weather sealing and ports for still and video are also included. For more: Fujifilm
Ricoh GR III and GR IIIx
The GRIII packs some serious photographic power into a pocketable size. It has a stabilized 24 MP APS-C sensor, dual-type autofocus, a responsive touch screen, and an easy-to-navigate menu system. It can be used for point-and-shoot or manual shooting. If you find the 28mm f/2.8 effective focal length too wide, the GR IIIx, released in 2021, is identical to the GR III in every way except for its lens, which is a slightly tighter 40mm f/2.8 equivalent lens. For more: Ricoh
Tip: The camera’s battery does not have a high capacity, but the built-in USB-C port makes it simple to top off the battery with a phone charger.
When it was first released in 2011, the original X100 rocked the digital camera industry, revitalizing this legendary camera film brand and bringing retro styling to the forefront of camera design.
The latest, the X100V, brings a few significant changes. The lens has the same value (35mm f/2 equivalent), but the new design significantly increases sharpness corner to corner, both for wide-open and close-up images. The camera’s body design includes almost full weather sealing, a flip out screen, and a slightly modified grip. There are also improvements to the control layouts (including an optional control stick). Fujifilm cameras produce the best JPEGs in the industry, with amazing film simulations; cameras in the X100 line are often the backup of choice for photojournalists. This camera has a leaf shutter that syncs at high speeds with a flash and a built in neutral-density filter (ND) to combat bright sunlight. For more: Fujifilm
Tip: When photographing with the Fujifilm X100 always pack a hot shoe thumb rest, a lens hood, and a wrist strap. These allow you to eliminate the need for a lens cap and camera bag.
Despite being more than three years old, the seventh-generation RX100 line remains as one of the most versatile ultra-compact cameras. This version features real-time autofocus from Sony’s professional line. This allows photographers to use eye/face autofocus with animals. This tiny camera is unlike any other in size and shoots at a similar speed. It can also shoot electronically with virtually no distortion of moving subjects.
(These photos from the Nat Geo archives capture extraordinary moments in time. )
This means silent shooting and high shutter speeds for working in bright light. The RX100VII sports a 24-200mm equivalent zoom lens that, while not as bright as we would like, covers a wide range for the traveler. Tom often refers to this camera line as his “desert islands” choice. It is a small camera, so it does not come at a high cost. It is a great camera with outstanding performance. For more: Sony
Leica Q2 and Q2 Monochrom
Though expensive, the venerable Q series cameras are wonderful to use. The Q series comprises These full-frame, fixed-lens cameras with full-frame, fixed-lens cameras with a 28mm f/1.7 lens providing built-in stabilization. Since the first-generation Q and Q-P have been discontinued, we recommend the modern Q2 and Q2 Monochrom, which both have a 47.5 MP sensor, a larger battery, and full weather sealing.
The Q2 Monochrom has almost identical features to the Q2, but it only shoots in black and white. It also has a sleek black paint job. The amazing black-and-white images can be achieved by removing the color filter stack (or Bayer array). It also improves sharpness and ISO performance due to more light reaching the pixels. The Q2 will appeal to those who prefer color. For more: Leica
OM System OM-1
The OM System (aka Olympus cameras) just released the flagship OM-1 camera, a major upgrade from the beloved Olympus E-M1 series.
The OM-1 has a similar layout to the E-M1 series but it packs a super fast stacked sensor for high-speed stills shooting at up to 10 FPS mechanical and a blazing 120 FPS electronic. The updated sensor has improved low light performance and subject detection algorithms that can detect animals, humans, and planes.
This model also has hand-held high-res shooting (you can take 50 MP images out of a burst of 16 frames) and the Live-ND filter, which simulates a neutral-density filter. The handheld computational photography emulates tripod-based long exposure photography (e.g. blurred waterfall). The pro line lenses feature a high-quality build with integrated lens hoods, smooth focus and zoom rings, and round, blurred bokeh visualization (background). The OM-1’s many lens options make it ideal to birders and wildlife watchers. The new 150-400mm F4.5 TC1. 25x IS PRO gives you a lightweight 300-800mm range and an integrated teleconverter up to 1000mm handheld. Tom tried this lens/camera combination and had a great time photographing birds in his neighborhood. For more: OM Systems
Tip: The best lenses include the Olympus 12-100mm F/4 IS PRO (24-200mm), 12-24mm f/2.8 II PRO (24-80mm f/2.8 equivalent), 40-150mm F/2.8 PRO (80-300mm pro zoom), 7-14mm PRO (wide-angle zoom), 300mm F/4 IS PRO (600mm F4 equivalent), 150-400mm F4.5 TC1. 25x IS PRO (300-800mm f/4.5).
With an internally stabilized 26 megapixel APS-C sensor, the X-S10 features impressive ergonomics despite its smaller size. The X-S has modern unmarked command dials, and a mode selector. This is in contrast to the retro style on other Fujifilm bodies.
What do you give up in exchange for affordability and compact size It has a smaller battery, one card slot, no weather sealing, and a lower top shutter speed. These are all fair trades in my book. For more: Fujifilm
Tip: Thanks to its ergonomic grip, this camera pairs well with an all-around zoom lens. The Fujifilm XF18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR makes the perfect single lens travel kit.
Nikon’s new Z30 is the third version in the company’s Z-mount APS-C lineup. Its small size makes it stand out. That’s thanks in part to not having an electronic viewfinder or a 30-minute recording limit, plus a vari-angle (or “tilty-flippy,” if you prefer) screen.
Although it’s considered an entry-level camera, the Z30 is capable of 4K 30p recording without a crop, which cannot be said of its bigger, full-frame brother, the Z5. Its stills credentials are impressive as well, with the same amazing low-light performance, an 11fps mechanical shutter with AF tracking, strong AF performance, and the option to save images as high-quality raw files. It’s lightweight, portable, and fun to use. It’s a perfect match for Nikon’s compact DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR, which makes for an excellent setup to document your adventures. For more: Nikon
Tip: If range is more of a concern than camera size, consider adding the Nikkor Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR to your camera bag. At effectively 375mm on the long end, with five stabilization stops, you’ll have no trouble capturing brilliant images of distant subjects.
Canon EOS R7
The R7 is among Canon’s first APS-C RF mount cameras (announced in May of 2022 alongside the trimmed down R10). The largest camera on this list justifies its size with impressive features, including one of the best APS-C sensors on the market (X-T5 has the crown now) at 32 megapixels.
Additional features include an in-body stabilization that can auto-level your horizons, a 15fps mechanical shutter (and a blistering 30fps electronic), two UHS-II card slots, and a comfortable ergonomic grip that houses the same LP-E6NH batteries used by its full-framed siblings, giving it a very dependable battery life.
We’ve also been impressed by its auto-focus on objects–using the same deep learning algorithms as the R3–but the face and eye detection performance leaves something to be desired. You can take it anywhere with you thanks to its weather sealing, making it an ideal companion for adventure and action. For more: Canon
Tip: Pair this powerhouse body with a good lens. To take advantage of the many affordable used EF DSLR lenses available, we recommend buying a Canon EFRF mount adapter.
The a7C lost out last year to the Canon RP (the first full-frame, interchangeable lens camera to make our list). The a7C has some notable features. It is remarkably compact for a full frame camera.
According to our research, this camera body features the smallest interchangeable lens on the market with either a mechanical shutter or stack sensor. This distinction is important because smaller full-frame cameras may have a fixed lens, or a shutter/fast reading out sensor. It is therefore difficult to photograph moving subjects.
Despite its small size, the a7C comes loaded with Sony’s quick and dependable real-time autofocus system. Pair this camera with one of the ultra-small prime lenses from Sony, such as the Sony 24mm f/2.5, 35mm f/2.8, 40mm f/2.5, or 50mm f/2.5. This will result in a compact camera that can still hold a full-frame sensor. For more: Sony
Tom O’Brien is a mechanical engineer and runs the photo engineering department for National Geographic. He spends his time in his workshop building and designing custom equipment for National Geographic’s photographers. Follow him on Instagram.
Eric Flynn, a machinist/fabricator, works in National Geographic’s photo engineering department. He manages equipment loans. Follow him on Instagram.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.