I always cringe a little when I see people on a once-in-a-lifetime trip taking pictures of unforgettable sights… with their phone, or even worse, tablet! I believe in travel with “leaving only footprints, taking only memories & photos”, so I try to make the most out of the photos I take on my travels. Surely, if you are spending a lot of money on a trip like that, it’s worth bringing a good camera to take a picture that really captures that moment? Read on to find out why and how to find the right camera for you!
What do look for: A common sayings among photographers is: “the best camera is the one you have with you” and I believe that’s a good guideline. If you miss to capture the best memories, because your expensive DSLR camera is sitting in the hotel safe, it’s not helpful. That’s especially important when you are traveling, because you can find wonders anywhere and anytime and want to have a camera with you. Therefore, size & weight are an important part in selecting a camera with travel in mind. I also look for flexibility, specifically for a zoom lens that allows you to go from landscapes to wildlife quickly and easily. Having a long zoom is important – or that picture of an orangutan is just a picture of a tree! You also want to get plenty of shots out of your battery and make it easy to recharge – I actually prefer “in camera charging” (much hated by many photographers), so I can just plug it in with my phone every night and know, it’ll be ready in the morning. One feature that is pretty common today is GPS – if you forget where exactly you took a picture, you can tag it with the GPS location and map it out later! It’s neat, although I’m not using it as often as I thought I would… The most important feature in any camera of course, is the image quality – and that depends most on the size of the sensor (bigger is better) and the quality of the lens. Regardless of what the sales and marketing people say, the number of megapixels is not an indication of quality – after years of megapixel-wars it is actually counter productive in some cases (read this for all the geeky details! The following types of cameras are all great for travel – and they vary significantly in size and budget, so I’ll give you my take on what they are good for, my personal choice – and links to more detailed reviews from photo enthusiasts!
Travel Zoom Cameras: The biggest problem with phone cameras are the size of the sensor, the quality of the lens and the lack of an optical zoom. Travel zoom cameras address all of those issues by having a bigger sensor and a good zoom lens of 10-30x, allowing you to get closer to your subject. They usually have an “automatic” mode, so you can focus on taking the photo, and not on the camera settings. I recently purchased the Sony Cypershot WX-350 (new model is Sony WX500) – it’s small enough to fit into jeans pockets, has a 20x zoom, has WiFi to transfer photos to my phone and allows in-camera charging and offers good image quality, even in low-light situations. A step up is the Sony HX90 with a 30x zoom, a viewfinder (helpful in bright sunshine) and a screen that flips up for selfies! Before the Sony, I used various models of the Panasonic Lumix TZ series, the first travel zoom on the market. The current model, Panasonic TZ70, offers a 30x zoom, has a viewfinder and offers similar picture quality in a slightly bigger package! I travel most often with a travel zoom camera – it’s small enough to fit in my pocket wherever I go, I don’t stand out as much and I have flexibility to take most shots and get good image quality. All of these models give you an automatic mode or some creative control over your photos when you want it!
Bridge Cameras: The next step up are bridge cameras. They use the same kind of sensor as compact cameras, but offer even larger zoom lenses of up to 83x. Some of them use lenses that can operate with less light, giving you more flexibility and better pictures in low light. There is limited value though in zoom ranges past 20x – because it is really difficult to hold a camera steady beyond that and you risk blurry photos without a tripod! You also end up with more size and much higher weight – some of them look like a traditional DSLR camera! More recently, the top-end bridge cameras are using sensors of DSLR or interchangeable lens cameras (ILC), improving on the image quality, but also increasing in price. Because the improvement in image quality is generally small compared to travel zoom cameras, I think they are better used at home, on cruises or for single-stop vacations, where you don’t drag them around as much. You can read more in this review of the best bridge ultra-zoom cameras.
Interchangeable Lens Cameras: Often called mirrorless cameras, they have taken the photography world by storm. They are interesting for travel, because they attempt to offer the image quality of a DSLR camera with the same flexibility of changing lenses – all in a smaller package. While some of them now have DSLR size (APS-C or full-frame) sensors, most are slightly smaller (1” or 4/3”), which also allows for lighter lenses. You get great image quality in a smaller size, yet still keep the flexibility to exchange lenses when you really need it. You can explore a city with a standard zoom – and bring a long zoom lens to your safari! It also allows you to buy a “starter package” and upgrade to better lenses later. After a few years, you can buy a new camera body and keep your valuable lenses, making it cheaper to stay up-to-date with technology! Unfortunately, this comes at a price: Many ILC approach DSLR prices or even exceed them! I have used a Nikon 1 for a while. It’s at the lower end of the spectrum, both in sensor size (and therefore lens size and weight) as well as price. If you want something better than a compact, you can score an older model Nikon 1 often for under $200, which makes them a bargain! You get a great camera at the price of a compact point & shoot – with room to grow as a photographer! One of the most highly reviewed cameras is the Sony A6000 series with a great balance of image quality, size, flexibility and price! You can read more in these reviews of the best entry-level ILC, mid-range ILC and high-end mirrorless cameras!
Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras: The choice of most enthusiast photographers is the DSLR. They typically have the largest sensors and you can choose from a wide variety of lenses to fit your purpose. While the entry-level models usually have an automatic mode to take care of the camera settings, the high-end models often require more engagement to take good photos. The image quality is as good as it gets – and you can spend a lot of money on all the equipment. Many travelers end up with an extra bag just for their DSLR, to fit the camera body, lenses, flash and more. I have a Sony A65 that I take on those once-in-a-lifetime trips, like the Cape Town to Victoria Falls Adventure. To keep the size and weight small, I use a single telezoom lense, from 18-200mm – it’s a compromise, but allows for great quality images and flexibility! I can take shots from landscapes to wildlife, can carry it easily and didn’t spend a fortune on it either. While that model has been around for a few years, I haven’t seen the need to upgrade yet. The image quality is great and it has the features I need! You can read more in reviews of the best current entry level DSLR and high-end DSLR.
If this sounds all very confusing, I’d suggest to start with one of the travel zoom cameras – they are compact, versatile, have a great zoom and good image quality without costing a fortune. If you enjoy the photos and taking them, you can always work your way up to a better, more complex (and unfortunately more expensive) one later.
I have provided the links to two great sources for in-depth camera information and hope you find them useful. The individual reviews on the photographyblog also have a “main rivals” tab to show you some alternatives and how they fare! Keep in mind the special considerations for travel cameras – the highest rated from a photography perspective are often also the bulkiest ones or most expensive ones! What seems reasonable size to a photo enthusiast who is usually traveling with a big bag full of gear might be way to big for you and me! And some cameras recommended for travel have zooms under 10x – which is fine for a “second” camera, but not enough for your only camera!
Price is always a special consideration for travel gear – you should be ready to loose whatever you take on a trip. If it is lost with your check-in luggage, stolen along the way or damaged in the process, you don’t want it to ruin your trip. You also make less of a target for scams, if you look less like a rich tourist! I’d recommend to shop online and consider last year’s model or a refurbished one. You can save a lot of money, loose few features and get a great camera on a budget. The Sony WX350 I just purchased on clearance sale was about half-price compared to the just released WX500/HX90 – the small improvements weren’t worth the much higher price to me!
I hope this helps you find the right camera for your next trip! If you are not in a hurry, check my weekly DealDispatch – I regularly feature deals of good travel cameras! Bring back lots of great pictures from your next trip and feel free to send them to me, happy to share them!