People who are starting to travel or to photograph ask the same question a lot. What’s the right camera?
It’s a complicated question to answer. Each person is unique, with their own set of preferences and criteria that it’s virtually impossible to say this or that camera is the best for travel photography.
What is the best travel camera?
Budget is one of the first things to have in mind. How much do you want to spend to start travel photography?
In general, there are four budget ranges:
- Up to 250 Euros. It’s an amount that allows you to buy a smartphone with a reasonable quality camera. Keep in mind that it should be your idea of “reasonable,” not anyone else’s. Before you decide, test it, research online, read gear reviews. You can buy a mid-range compact camera (or low-range if you really don’t want to spend that much) and maybe a low-range bridge or mirrorless camera.
- From 250 to 400 Euros. Is where you’ll find the most popular options: low-range SLRs, reasonable compact cameras, good quality smartphones, and satisfactory Bridge and Mirrorless cameras. You have hundreds of options in this range, so good luck with researching and choosing.
- From 400 to 800 Euros. At this range, forget about compacts. If you consider a smartphone that costs this much, think if you’re willing to take the risk of losing it or accidentally damaging it. Most people at this budget range choose a semi-professional SLR or a great Bridge or Mirrorless camera.
- Over 800 Euros. Honestly, there aren’t that many travelers willing to parade around with gear this expensive, that is very close to professional standards. This budget allows you to buy excellent SLRs but to upgrade them with the same-level accessories and lenses you’ll have to invest a lot of money. You can buy a mirrorless that will leave a lot of people jealous. Or use the funds for SLR accessories like a tripod, additional lenses, batteries, etc.
After the budget, consider your inclination to carry all the gear. Many people go into a store, falls for the sales pitch, and comes out with an SLR full of technical possibilities. Then they go on the first trip and pack the camera, but it’s too big and heavy, so it ends up staying at the hotel most of the time, and when they return home they realize they took most of the photos with… their smartphone. Don’t fall for this. You’ll feel bad about it and will end up selling the camera, losing money in the process.
Lastly, consider how much into photography you really are. Is it a temporary hobby? Do you have the time and energy to learn a bit more about this art and the techniques and principles around it? These are essential questions to ask yourself because just like judging the weight and volume of a camera, being too optimistic about your availability will make you lose money unnecessarily.
Photo camera comparison
The acronym SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, and it’s sometimes called just “reflex cameras.” And why reflex? Because these cameras use a little mirror to show the user what the lens is capturing from the outside world and, therefore, what the camera sensor will “see” at the time of the shot. These are the traditional cameras professionals use, they look robust and bulky, and you can change the lens according to your needs at the time, so they’re pretty versatile cameras.
Main Advantages of SLR Cameras:
- Possibility to use different lenses that will open endless possibilities to the photographer. From fisheye lenses to wide angle focal distances and superzoom… An SLR can be upgraded with an infinite range of lenses, and the end quality of the photos depends on what the photographer wants to buy or can buy. The difference between a picture taken with a high-quality lens and a photo taken with a low-range one is gigantic. Many people think that buying an expensive camera will allow them to take high-quality images, but that’s an illusion. It’s all about the lens.
- Reduced battery consumption which, of course, varies according to different brands and models. But it typically has more battery autonomy than other kinds of cameras. It’s not absurd to think you can take about 1200 photographs with only one battery. The main reason for such a durable battery is not having an LCD that’s always on.
- Ergonomy. Although smaller cameras are enticing and easy and light to carry around, the truth is that hands will never become as small as technology. For most people, an SLR is the best concerning stability and comfort to use.
- Quickly ready to shoot. It’s true that this has been improved in other cameras over time, but how fast you can use an SLR will still be better for a long time. You notice that from the moment you turn on the camera. An SLR is ready to work in a split second, while most other cameras take a while to be ready after turning them on. Next is the automatic focus speed that is also faster in an SLR.
Main Disadvantages of SLR Cameras:
- They’re bulky and heavy when compared to other cameras which don’t make them appealing for travelers who need to manage luggage space and weight.
- Simplified software. If you like to explore menus, settings, and endless possibilities, SLRs can be disappointing. When it comes to technological fantasies, they’re not that gifted. Panoramic photography and other software-based options, for example, are more common in compact and mirrorless cameras than in SLRs.
- Price can be a disadvantage but not necessarily. It’s true that a compact camera costs less than an SLR, but it’s also true that a low-range SLR is quite affordable, costing even less than most compacts and mirrorless. But, of course, it will be a low-range SLR.
- Noise. The shooting noise can be inconvenient when you’re trying to photograph a silent place, like a church or a museum, a music concert, or when you’re trying to shoot people or animals discreetly.
- Sensor dust. When we change lenses, the sensor is exposed to dust particles in the air, and they frequently stick to the surface. In most photos, only the abnormally large particles are visible, but when you need to use tiny lens apertures, all those particles show up in the picture, which means you’ll have to remove them with software. The cameras come with a self-cleaning system, but it’s quite limited.
2. Compact Cameras
Compact cameras are the oldest in the market. They’re the real veterans, the first alternative to the largely sold classic SLRs, even before the digital age. These days, they depend a lot on the quality of the software, and the physical and mechanical aspects are often overlooked. As you can tell by their name, they’re small and light cameras, ideal for traveling, in theory. As with everything else, there are some inconveniences.
Please note that mirrorless cameras are technically compact and when I talk about compact cameras, I mean mirrorless. Meaning, they don’t have a mirror that reflects what the lens is “seeing” into the sensor. However, it’s now common to call mirrorless cameras to the more upgraded and less compact models, including some that slide into the market of changeable lenses that used to be SLR exclusive.
Main Advantages of Compact Cameras:
- Being light and small is the most significant advantage of compact cameras. It’s the natural choice for travelers. By definition, they can easily fit in a pocket.
- Price. Some cost small fortunes with jaw-dropping results. But, realistically, they’re the most affordable camera range. You can buy a compact camera for under 50 Euros.
- Software functionalities like getting a panoramic photograph from a sequence of images or the HDR (High Dynamic Range) effect are very interesting features in these cameras
- Durable models are available at interesting price ranges. Although the ordinary compact cameras are fragile, there are models available in the market that are prepared for outdoor activities, with rubber casing to resist impact and rain proof. There are also models for under 200 Euros that you can take for a swim in the ocean or the pool, providing great underwater photographs.
- Simplicity. Okay, the extreme simplicity in working these cameras can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. It all boils down to your photography skills or your willingness to improve them. If you want to keep things practical and simple, you wouldn’t probably be reading this article, but if that is still the case, the simplicity of compacts is a bonus for you.
Main Disadvantages of Compact Cameras:
- Poor ergonomics: It’s the perfect size to carry when traveling, but the human hands don’t adjust well to the reduced size of compact cameras.
- Poor robustness. These were cameras that weren’t built to handle significant impacts. Even the smallest contact or rain can easily ruin one of these cameras. There are exceptions of course.
- You easily lose them. They’re so small that they’re quickly forgotten in a dark corner, a hotel bed, a plane or a train, at a restaurant table.
- No viewfinder. For old school photographers, shooting through an LCD instead of the viewfinder can be a problem. And not many compact cameras have it.
- Poor flexibility in controlling the traditional functions of photography. Low-range models offer no control over the photo, and that’s why they call them point and shoot cameras.
- Lower image quality, although some of the top-range models produce surprising results. You can’t work around some elements, though, and the small size is the enemy of quality in this matter.
3. Mirrorless Cameras
This is a relatively recent range of cameras. They combine features of SLR and compact cameras. In theory, they should give the best of both worlds, but not all is wonderful about this concept. Nevertheless, they’re either the top choice of most travel photographers, or they’ll soon become one.
They are called mirrorless because they don’t have an optical system, like the SLRs, where there’s a mirror that projects into to the viewfinder what the lens transmits and, when you click to shoot, the mirror rotates to send the same image into the viewfinder. That’s why when you’re taking a photo with an SLR, you can’t see anything through the viewfinder in the split second the image is being captured.
In a mirrorless camera, what the lens “sees” goes straight into the sensor. If the camera has an apparent traditional viewfinder, what you see there is generated electronically (and that’s why you can’t see anything when the camera is off, or you see a strange shadow).
Main Advantages of Mirrorless Cameras:
- Attractive design generally based in vintage, revival models that reminisce of what was probably photography’s golden age, around the 1970s.
- Excellent quality-size ratio, considering mirrorless don’t need the prism and mirror as the SLRs.
- What you see before shooting is already a prediction of what you’ll capture
- Best sequence shooting speed, which is essential for photographing very active scenes or wildlife
- They are relatively inconspicuous, an important feature for when you’re shooting sensitive locations or people when
- Usually, it’s possible to use an adaptor to use other models’ lenses
- The problem of dust particles in the sensor is not as troubling in mirrorless cameras as it is in SLRs
- Good quality/price ration and a big range of models to choose
Main Disadvantages of Mirrorless Cameras:
- Energy management. Mirrorless cameras consume a lot of battery. A standard model uses up one full charge after 300 photos. You get four times more with an SLR. Of course, you can carry extra batteries, but logistics becomes cumbersome and come with a price.
- Response time when turning the camera on or when using autofocus and other essential features. Although these issues are less frequent in more recent models and they’ll probably end soon.
- Just like in the SLRs, changing the lens will cause dust particles to settle on the sensor and show up in some of the pictures
- Seeing a preview of the photograph instead of what it will really look like can also be a disadvantage. In situations when you don’t have the best light, that preview is slow and dark.
- Ergonomics. Most models are too small to be used properly
4. Bridge Cameras
The concept behind these cameras is somewhat obsolete. It was over a decade ago that some manufacturers invested in this idea of a camera that was supposed to be a bridge (hence the name) between compacts and SLRs.
Some people say the name comes from the connection between photographing with film and digital pictures. Whatever the reason, when these cameras came up, in the early 21st century, the amateur photography world was reduced to two great options: compact cameras or the heavy and bulky SLRs.
Bridge cameras, in which Sony invested a lot, offered a quality level close to some of the SLRs and without the disadvantages, I’ve already mentioned.
They were cheaper, lighter, and slightly smaller. On the other hand, you can’t switch lenses on a Bridge camera, although they come standard with a pretty versatile one.
The golden age for these cameras is around the year 2004, but the concept has survived and made it to our days.
Main Advantages of Bridge Cameras:
- The balance between the advantages and disadvantages of compact cameras and SLRs.
- Versatility. You can’t change the lenses but the ones that come with the camera cover most of the basic needs of a travel photographer
- The same flexibility in controlling all of the picture parameters that you’ll get in an SLR.
- Without lenses to change, you can keep the camera sensor clean and dust particle free
- They’re the best one-piece cameras (without separate lenses) you can buy
- In theory, they’re the right fit for the traveler who enjoys photographing
Main Disadvantages of Bridge Cameras:
- You can’t change the lenses which limit the potential of more demanding photographers
- Although lighter and mostly more compact than SLRs, they’re still quite bulky
- Not the best in optical engineering, with lenses with a limited maximum aperture
- The sensor in most Bridge cameras is less wide than the SLRs, which means you can’t compete with the picture’s result and quality
5. Mobile phones
Although many people look at mobile phones as the distant cousin of the real travel photography gear, and even some people refuse to accept it as such, the truth is the latest generations of mobile phones offer a quality level that was unthinkable just a couple of years ago. They’ve become very popular, and travelers stopped packing a camera for their trip, especially the younger generation.
Of course, I mean smartphones when I’m talking about mobile phones. In recent years, they’ve become the norm although there are simpler phones available in the market that don’t have an inbuilt camera.
Main Advantages of Smartphones:
- You don’t need to carry a separate camera. These days, most people can’t live without their smartphones, and that includes, of course, travelers. Which means, whatever happens, you always pack your phone. If you use it to photograph your adventures and the amazing places you’ll see, that means you don’t need to pack a camera, and it’s one less bulky, heavy item in your luggage.
- They’re small and light. By choosing a smartphone to photograph, you’ll gain in comfort. While exploring a new destination, you don’t need to worry about special cases and the safety of walking around with a camera. You put a smartphone in your pocket, and you’re ready to go see the world and photograph.
- Available software. Be it an Android or an iPhone, your smartphone is a small computer. That means you can install a wide range of applications. When it comes to photography that means a world of options: apps to label images, to edit them, to share them on social media, to send them to friends and family as postcards. An infinity of possibilities available right there, without the hassle of downloading or uploading image files and travel with a laptop or a tablet.
Main Disadvantages of Smartphones:
- Quality. There are no miracles. Such a small mechanism with such a small sensor and lens cannot give you the same quality that cameras can, even though a good phone camera sometimes provides better results than most compact cameras models.
- Autonomy. These days, battery technology hasn’t been able to keep up with all the needs of a well-equipped smartphone. If you use mobile data or WiFi and GPS will probably end a day of sightseeing with a drained battery. If you’re going to photograph, it’s even worse. Of course, all this can be avoided by carrying a power bank, but it’s not very practical and adds another not very light item to your luggage.
- Zoom. Or the absence of one. A smartphone lens is limited in this area. Most times zoom, or part of it, is obtained digitally and that decreases image quality. But, check out Samsung S9+ and its amazing optical zoom feature.
- Dependency. Are you familiar with the saying “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? What if you depend on your smartphone for everything and there’s a problem, damage, a theft? You lose all your photos and an essential travel tool.
6. Action Cameras
It’s not normal for a photography enthusiast to travel only with one of these cameras because it’s a specific gear and, therefore, not as versatile. Travel photography is the type of photography that demands versatility, from the photographer and the equipment.
I won’t write about their advantages and disadvantages because they are straightforward: it survives pretty much everything, but it’s clumsy and not very versatile. As I said, it’s not a travel camera. It’s more of a photography accessory for travel photographers who want a crazy shot of a radical situation. A good example? The famous GoPros.
Best Accessories for Travel Photography
1. Tripods and other Supports
At times you might need to photograph in poor light conditions. It happens when you want to capture night images or shoot indoors.
Remember what happens with the light?
If there’s not a lot of it, the photographer needs to adjust the camera settings to get the shot despite the conditions. He can crank up the ISO while compromising quality and increase the lens aperture to the max. Even so, chances are he’ll need even more light, and there’s only one way to get it: reducing the shutter speed. By doing this, the photographer needs to keep the camera still, making sure the natural motions of his hands don’t make the photo come out blurry.
The most common method is by placing the camera on a tripod, attached to it with a screw.
The quality of a tripod differs, and there are a lot of things that can influence how well a tripod performs. Those factors include how robust their joints are, how smoothly the “joint” on the “head” of the tripod rotates, how high can you extend the feet and how they settle on the ground.
In theory, weight is also a stabilizing factor. But in recent years the manufacturers, aware of how important it is to reduce the weight of the tripod to make the tool more comfortable and functional, have been working on making lighter tripods that don’t compromise on stability.
The higher quality tripods are usually sold in two separate parts: the structure, with “legs” that stretch and “feet” in the end, and the “head” that is like the core part of the tripod.
The docking system is usually standard and should fit with any camera.
If you want a stabilizing tool but can’t picture yourself traveling with a tripod, you can choose a mini tripod. There are some that fit in your pocket, with hinges that bend. They’re light and functional and usually very cheap. Of course, you can’t expect the same kind of stabilization, but they’re a great solution and a compromise for occasional use.
Monopods are lighter and easier to carry, but they don’t provide the same degree of stability. They’re ideal for intermediate situations when you just need a little help with stabilizing the camera. Bipods aren’t so frequent nor so easy to find.
2. Flash Air Memory Cards
Initially developed by Toshiba, these memory cards come with an inbuilt micro WiFi device and communicate with your device without the need to remove them from the camera. On a computer, you can control the connection on a browser while on a smartphone or a tablet, you do it by installing a specific app.
It’s a bit of a trivial device for people who use a laptop or a desktop, but it could come in handy if you’re working with a smartphone, especially for those who usually share images on Instagram and Facebook.
3. Carrying Equipment
Cases, backpacks, bags. Our photography gear has to travel with us. There is a multitude of options and considerations on how to accommodate it, and most of them come down to personal choice, not only about the carrying equipment but the photography gear itself.
Minimalists don’t have to think about this as hard as someone who’s willing to travel with a range of photography gear, of course.
So I’ll start by mentioning the most simple way of all: get the camera and “throw it” inside a backpack. If your style is not photographing with a smartphone only, that is.
If you’re carrying just one camera, regardless if it’s an SLR, a compact, a mirrorless, or a bridge, but you’d like to protect it during transportation you can buy a simple case. Some are custom made to fit your camera model; others are one size fits all. You can look at photography gear stores or buy online on eBay for example.
If you have extra accessories or an extra lens for your SLR, there are more elaborate cases with additional compartments. But if you take your travel photography seriously and are determined to travel with a bunch of gear, you’ll really have to invest in a backpack or a bag specifically designed to accommodate a vast number of photography parts.
There are a lot of models and price ranges to choose from, but consider that:
- A photography gear bag that’s too revealing of what’s inside is a calling card to pickpocketers and petty thieves;
- Checking it in as checked baggage is a high risk for your photography gear.
4. Cleaning Supplies
Maybe you don’t need to overpack to bring along cleaning supplies, or perhaps it’s possible to care for your gear once you’re back from your travels.
But if you have enough room in your luggage and you like to keep things clean, you may want to pack a spray and a cloth to clean lenses, as well as a blower that’s used to clear dust particles lodged in sensitive areas, without touching them
Other Photography Accessories
In addition to all the extras I mentioned above, many other accessories fit your photography style and personal preferences.
A remote control could be useful to reduce the camera vibration on a tripod when shooting. Or to take that group photo with friends without running to beat the timer. Or to photograph wild animals in a situation when you don’t want to be near the camera when shooting.
Travelers may also want to protect the camera from environmental aggressions, and there are plenty of accessories for that, especially for the more common camera models. There are custom made accessories that are assembled like an armor around the camera. And adaptors that you place over the LCD and that work as a shutter. Without mentioning the protective films you can put over the screens and the waterproof cases that work like trench coats for our cameras.
If you want a head start on advanced photography, buying a good external flash is important. It’s a source of artificial light that you can use more elaborately, having more control and more power.
Although the generalized use of software to enhance photos turned using physical filters obsolete, there are some situations when they’re irreplaceable. Like in cases when there’s too much light that you need to reduce artificially, as opposed to the more frequent problem of not having enough light. In those situations, a specially designed filter over the lens is precious. This is just an example. Other filters come in handy, like a good polarizer that reduces or increases light reflections to give depth to the blue tones in the sky.
Lastly, you have to consider packing extra batteries and memory cards. If you think they’re necessary, of course. Everything will depend on your gear and your photography style. Those who use an SLR camera will need less battery, but maybe, because of the size of the sensor, you’ll need cards with more storage space.
Those traveling with mirrorless cameras will probably want to pack an extra pair of batteries because the average autonomy of these cameras is around 300 photos with one full charge. It’s not much unless you don’t take that many pictures on a traveling day.
Those who do travel photography with a smartphone can also carry extra batteries in their pockets, but it’s not the best idea. Usually, smartphone batteries go through a complicated calibration process and changing them all the time will mess things up. In the end, you may be using batteries that are physically okay, but that won’t last that long.
The best is to use power banks, big batteries in a functional packaging that allow transferring energy between them and your phone. There are power banks with different storage capacities. In most cases, a good power bank of 10,000 mah is enough to charge your smartphone completely four consecutive times, without needing to recharge. When buying a power bank, choose one that can charge at least two devices at the same time, and that has an inbuilt battery level. And, of course, make sure it’s compact and easy to carry.
Regarding cards, you can invest a little more and get a 128 Gb one. A card this big will give you significant autonomy. Even if you travel the world for months, chances are you won’t be able to fill it unless you do video as well.