Travel & Leisure
updated 9/16/2011 12:49:27 PM ET 2011-09-16T16:49:27

You’re out for drinks at a tango hall in Buenos Aires, with your bulky digital SLR camera back in the hotel room. As the dancers pause in a dramatic embrace, you reach for your smartphone. But it’s too dim, and by the time the built-in camera focuses, the moment has passed.

Welcome to one of today’s biggest travel photography conundrums. Five-or-more-megapixel smartphones give us a false sense of being covered, photo-wise. But all too often, they fall short, and we’re left with blurry, even discolored vacation photos. The truth is that dedicated digital cameras are just as important as ever.

Fortunately, the digital SLR—with its super-fast shutter speeds, big image sensors, and interchangeable lenses—is no longer the only option for top-notch photos. By ditching the internal reflective mirror that gives the SLR its what-you-see-is-what-you-get viewfinder, a new generation of interchangeable lens cameras provides the same versatility, image quality, and performance at about two-thirds of the size and weight. You’ll really appreciate the difference after a day of sightseeing.

Going on an extended vacation that combines hiking, city tours, midnight walks, and wakeboarding? The mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is up to the challenge: Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3, for example, has 11 different lenses, among them, wide-angle, telephoto, and zoom, that can handle any situation.

If you prefer something smaller, it’s worth upgrading to the latest generation of pocket-ready point-and-shoot cameras, which offer many advantages over camera phones. New features include built-in GPS, which automatically geo-tags images with their location—allowing you to share and map vacation routes later online via services such as Google Panoramio. The Pentax Optio WG-1’s built-in GPS can even tell you which Cayman Islands coral reef you photographed, since it’s waterproof up to 33 feet.

One advantage you do get with a smartphone is the ability to instantly share your pictures online. But some cameras now offer workarounds: the Kodak Playfull has a special function that lets you tag photos for sharing, then automatically uploads them the next time you connect to your computer. Similarly, an add-on for the Olympus PEN E-PL2 will send your pictures wirelessly to your cell phone via Bluetooth, allowing you to upload on the fly.

Read on to find out which of the best digital cameras for travel is right for you.

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