Expert Recommendation

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Best Compact Digital Camera for Travel Photos Under $400
Expert (88 Recommendations and 32 Compliments)
Send a ComplimentComplimented (Change)
August 17, 2008 Updated: April 28, 2009
Overview

Sporting a class-leading 12x zoom lens that is sharp and has a best in class wide-angle view for capturing landscapes, a superb HD movie mode, and good battery life in a sturdy body, this camera is the best-in-class companion when traveling. It is an easy to use camera producing pleasing images in auto mode.

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My Best In Class Pick
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

The Pansonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 (also denoted as TZ7) is latest flagship model in the highly successful TZ (Travel Zoom) series. It packs a class-leading versatile 12x zoom lens with a class leading wide angle view in a sturdy metal body, which is great for capturing landscapes and architectural landmarks.
As usual with other TZ series cameras, the lens admirably still retains its sharpness & produces class leading minimal distortion across the zoom range. The camera is a snappy performer and has good battery life making it great companion for travel. The camera also features a superb HD movie mode that supports using the optical zoom while recording movies (a rare feature among compacts).

For easy operation it also offers an Intelligent Auto Mode, where the camera sets the appropriate scene mode by automatically selecting it from the most frequently used scene modes, such as Portrait, Scenery, Macro, Night Portrait and Night Scenery. There is one intelligent exposure mode too which captures high contrast scenes (typical sunny outdoors) minimizing blown out highlights and at the same time retaining details in shadows.

Panasonic has improved their image processing technology over time, and the ZS3 uses their latest Venus HD processor for the task. This processor also facilitates more efficient compression (in AVCHD Lite format) of HD movie clips. Thus you can record larger clips on the same memory card. The unique sensor design captures full resolution (10 Megapixel) images in all three aspect ratios - 4:3, 3:2 or 16:9, which is commendable.

However stuffing so many pixels on tiny sensors does take its toll, resulting in images which are clean but devoid of low contrast fine details because of noise reduction (smaller pixels are noisy & require higher noise reduction to produce clean images). Nevertheless this is generally true for all cameras in its class.

The LCD resolution is also among the best which is great for checking focus and reviewing captured images.

In nutshell, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 has good image quality with great corner-to-corner sharpness, a versatile best in class zoom range, and a superb movie mode. It’s the best in class camera for travel.

Comparison with Canon PowerShot SX200 IS

The Panasonic ZS3 has an edge on image quality & has better movie mode. Nevertheless if you can’t live without Aperture/Shutter priority & Manual modes then Canon SX200IS is the way to go.

Pros
  • +
    Class leading 12x zoom with wide angle view
  • +
    Low distortion lens with good corner-to-corner sharpness
  • +
    Sturdy metal body
  • +
    Class leading LCD resolution (460K dots) that is great for framing and checking focus
  • +
    Good image quality
Cons
  • -
    Lacks useful Aperture/Shutter priority modes.
  • -
    Images lack low contrast fine details because of heavy noise reduction
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 is the Best Compact Digital Camera for Travel Photos Under $400
Where to buy
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Specifications
  • Zoom: 12.0x
  • Resolution: 10.1MP
  • Size: 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in.
  • Battery Life: 300 shots
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Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (3 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com
  • Rated Excellent by CNET.com

Comparing My Best In Class Pick with Other Good Choices

Product
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
2
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
3
Olympus Stylus 9000
Customer Rating
Price $313.29 $179.00
Size (W x H x D) 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.2 in.
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Effective Sensor Resolution
10.1 megapixels 12.1 megapixels 12.0 megapixels
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Shutter Lag Time (including auto-focus time)
0.3-0.7 sec 0.3-0.7 sec -
Power to First Shot Time 2.5 sec 2.0 sec -
Video Zoom Available (while recording) Yes No -
Max Video Resolution 1280 x 720 pixels 1080 x 720 pixels 640 x 480 pixels
Max Video Frame Rate (max resolution) 60 frames/sec 30 frames/sec 30 frames/sec
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Min Focal Length (35 mm equivalent)
25 mm 28 mm 28 mm
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Max Focal Length (35 mm equivalent)
300 mm 336 mm 280 mm
Optical Zoom 12.0x 12.0x 10.0x
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Image Stabilization Available
Yes Yes Yes
Auto Focus Assist Light Available Yes Yes -
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Max Aperture (wide-angle)
f/3.3 f/3.4 f/3.2
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Max Aperture (tele-photo)
f/4.9 f/4.3 f/5.9
Aperture Priority Mode Available No Yes No
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Viewfinder Available
No No No
LCD Screen Resolution 460000 pixels 230000 pixels 230000 pixels
Battery Type Proprietary Lithium Ion Rechargeable Proprietary Lithium Ion Rechargeable Proprietary Lithium Ion Rechargeable
Battery Life 300 shots 280 shots 250 shots
Image Quality
Corner to corner Sharpness Very Good Good Average
Fine details & colors Very Good Good Average
Low light (High ISO) Performance Good Very Good Average
2
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS

The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS squarely aims at Panasonic’s highly successful TZ line of travel cameras and poses serious challenge. It has a high resolution 12 Megapixel sensor and a 12x optical zoom lens. The lens starts at 28mm focal length which is great for capturing wide angle view of scenery.

Along with an Auto mode, easy mode (automatically selects applicable scene mode), face-detection and a lot of scene modes, it also offers full manual modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, etc.) for use by advanced users. Unlike its predecessor it runs on proprietary battery and it is better to carry a spare one while traveling.

Thanks to its DIGIC IV processor, the high ISO image quality is among the best with minimal noise and noise reduction artifacts. The camera is snappy performer too. The movie mode has improved and the camera now can record HD movie clips too. Its pop-up flash does better job at minimizing red-eye phenomenon while taking portraits in low light. However the images suffer from higher instance of purple and green color fringing and corner softness (.e. blurred fine details in corners of image), which mar this otherwise excellent camera.

Nevertheless versatile 12x zoom range, manual modes and compact size makes it best travel camera for someone who loves advanced controls.

Comparison with Olympus Stylus 9000

More zoom, better movie mode & better image quality especially in low light.

Pros
  • +
    Good image quality with good resolution
  • +
    Useful Aperture/Shutter priority modes
  • +
    versatile 12x zoom range
  • +
    wide angle view
  • +
    compact size
  • +
    HD movie mode
Cons
  • -
    optical zooming not possible while shooting movies
  • -
    images suffer from color fringing and corner softness
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS is one of the Best Compact Digital Cameras for Travel Photos Under $400
Where to buy
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
  • Best Price: $313
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 12.0x
  • Resolution: 12.1MP
  • Size: 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.5 in.
  • Battery Life: 280 shots
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (2 reviews)
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com
3
Olympus Stylus 9000

At the time of launch this camera was promoted by Olympus as smallest 10x zoom camera. At 1.2” thickness this camera is indeed slimmer than competition. However it disappoints on image quality front. Compression artifacts are on the higher side even at base ISO leading to smudging of fine details especially in shadows. High noise (spattering of random color pixels) at ISO800 & above makes these settings useless for practical purpose.

Pros
  • +
    compact size
  • +
    good zoom range
Cons
  • -
    compression artifacts
  • -
    noisy sensor
  • -
    corner softness in images
Olympus Stylus 9000 is one of the Best Compact Digital Cameras for Travel Photos Under $400
Where to buy
Olympus Stylus 9000
  • Best Price: $179
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 10.0x
  • Resolution: 12.0MP
  • Size: 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.2 in.
  • Battery Life: 250 shots
More
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