Q I want to buy a travel camera with interchangeable lenses, which I guess means an SLR. I'd like something on the small side. What do you recommend?
A For travel I'd strongly recommend a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. You can fit an extremely capable outfit and an iPad in a small, light shoulder bag, which is how I travel. Mirrorless camera bodies and lenses are much lighter and more compact than their SLR equivalents, while producing equal or better picture quality. Mirrorless also works better for recording video.
Besides their superiority for travel, I actually find them to be a superior choice for most other uses. In Japan, mirrorless cameras already make up about half of interchangeable-lens camera sales and are likely to outstrip SLRs in the not too distant future. Here in the United States, SLRs are still dominant. I think a lot of this has to do with consumer education (or lack of it) and big-box retailers stocking up on SLRs and telling their staff to push them.
Almost all the major brands now offer mirrorless cameras. About a year ago I indicated my preference for the Micro Four-Thirds system developed by Olympus and Panasonic. The past year has solidified my preference, as the cameras have gotten better and the lens lineup has expanded with more choices from both manufacturers. Though the Micro Four-Thirds sensor is slightly smaller than most SLR sensors, the latest Micro Four-Thirds sensors have achieved image quality parity with their SLR competitors.
I prefer the Olympus cameras for their built-in image stabilization and their ability to produce sharp, bright, colorful pictures that look perfect straight from the camera. As of my deadline, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 was in the lead on dpreview.com for reader choice of best camera of 2012. After using it extensively I can report it is hands-down the most enjoyable photographic tool I have ever used.
The OM-D E-M5 kit sells for $1,099, which is a bargain for what it offers but still a bit much for many. You can now get the same image quality and most of the capability with the new $599 E-PL5 and $499 E-PM2. Both share the sensor and imaging technology of the OM-D EM-5 in a smaller, more affordable package.
Another reason I am in love with Micro Four-Thirds: the lenses. Olympus and Panasonic have come up with a dream lineup of impressive optics. Besides the quality affordable zoom lenses, there are many fixed-focal-length lenses available. Fixed lenses are preferred by serious photographers for their sharpness and low-light ability. I recently tested the Olympus 75mm/1.8 lens on the OM-D and it is the best portrait lens I have ever used. Third-party manufacturers are also making lenses for Micro Four-Thirds. Sigma recently introduced two lenses, the 19mm/2.8 and 30mm/2.8, which are only $149 each after instant rebate. They are a great way to get a taste of what it is like to shoot with a fixed lens.