Photographs are an important part of the travel experience and, with so many budding photographers in this community, I wanted to create a semi-ongoing series about travel photography. Since I’m not a photographer, I’ve invited professional photographer Laurence Norah of Finding the Universe (and teacher of our Superstar Blogging photography class) to share his wisdom. In this post, Laurence will discuss how to pick the best camera (for any budget) for your travels.
Getting great photos from our travel adventures is something all of us want, and I know that when I started my life of full-time travel, deciding what kind of camera to take with me was a big decision.
In the end, I went with a bulky digital SLR (from the Canon Rebel line), and I’m pleased I did so, because it led me to becoming a full-time professional travel photographer. In my case, the investment cost and extra weight were the right decision for me — there was no such thing as mirrorless when I started out!
However, my choice certainly won’t be right for everyone. There’s a wide range of devices on the market that can take photos — everything from smartphones and point-and-shoots to mirrorless cameras and those big, heavy DSLRs. You have to decide which is right for you.
In this post, we’re going to help you do just that. And all you have to do is answer three questions.
How much money do you want to spend?
Your budget is a key part of choosing the right camera for travel. There’s no point dreaming about a high-end camera if you only have a couple of hundred dollars to spend.
Budget is a personal consideration, but there are a few things to remember that folks sometimes forget:
First, the accessories. When you buy a camera, you’re going to want to pick up a high-capacity memory card ($20–40), a case or bag ($10–200), a spare battery ($10–50), and maybe filters or a tripod. If you buy an interchangeable lens camera, think about the cost of any extra lenses as well.
Second, remember that travel can sometimes be risky. Things can be lost or stolen, and you need to think about what value of equipment you’re comfortable having with you. It’s also worth checking what your travel insurance will cover — most policies have relatively low single-item limits, so for high value equipment, you might have to consider specialty insurance.
There are good camera options at a variety of price points. For under $400, look at a compact point-and-shoot or an action camera like a GoPro, or spend that money upgrading your smartphone. The sweet-spot budget of $400–800 really opens up more possibilities, including some excellent mirrorless and entry-level DSLR options.
Above $800 and you are venturing into “prosumer” and professional territory. Unless you’re planning on going pro at some point, or want to really focus on night or action photography, you don’t need to spend over $800 on a travel camera.
How much gear are you willing to carry?
Camera equipment ranges from the “slip it into your pocket” portability of a smartphone or point-and-shoot to some backbreaking professional lens setups.
As photography is my thing, I carry about 20 lbs. of camera equipment and accessories. That is definitely too much for most users, though.
The most important decision regarding weight is only to invest in a camera system that you are going to want to carry with you. You need to be honest with yourself here. Having a camera that lives in your hotel room while you’re out traveling is a poor investment.
If you’re one of those “passport and a toothbrush” style of travelers, then you’ll want the lightest option possible — either your smartphone, a small point-and-shoot, or an action camera like a GoPro.
If you want something that is portable but still lets you change lenses, then a mirrorless camera is your best option.
How much effort are you willing to put into learning to use your camera?
A top-of-the-range DSLR or mirrorless camera is capable of taking great photos, but if you don’t know how to use it, you’ll probably get better results from a smartphone.
Case in point: I visited Antelope Canyon in Arizona once, and bumped into a guy with the latest Canon professional SLR and a $5,000 lens. This was a newly released lens that I’d not seen in the wild before, and I approached him to ask him how he was finding it. He confessed he had no idea how to use it, and was just shooting in auto — he’d just bought the most expensive gear on the market without investing in the necessary training to get the most out of it. Sadly, I knew that the folks with the iPhones were going to get better shots.
There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to spend a lot of time mastering a camera. Photography is a skill, and like any skill, it takes time and effort to master. But you can make your path easier by investing in a simpler camera that has a range of automatic shooting modes.
In that case, you’ll still need to master the basics of composition and learn what makes a great photograph, but the complexities of how to use the camera and its settings won’t worry you as much. Sure, you might not be able to capture every photo you’d get with a more advanced camera, but if you don’t learn how to use that fancy camera, you won’t be getting those photos anyway!
The types of camera on offer
There are six main types of camera to buy. I’ve put these in order of weight and complexity, from the lightest and least complicated to the heaviest and most complicated. There is a range of price points in each category, although generally, each category is on average more expensive than the previous.
- Smartphone: Smartphones win when it comes to portability. You can also edit your photos directly on the smartphone and share them on social media networks, no computer required. They are, however, relatively restricted when it comes to zooming in and low-light photography.
- Point-and-shoot: If you want a dedicated camera that slips into your pocket, get a point-and-shoot. These have an optical zoom and a wide variety of shooting modes for different scenes. They won’t perform well in limited-light situations, but for most travel photography scenarios, they’ll do a good job with minimum effort.
- Action camera: If your travels are of the adventurous kind, consider an action camera. These are designed for use in more extreme photography situations, including in the water, snow, and dust, but are basic in terms of manual controls and don’t let you zoom.
- Bridge camera: A bridge camera crosses the capabilities of a point-and-shoot with those of a DSLR, offering manual controls and a long zoom but no interchangeable lenses. Not as compact as point-and-shoots, but still relatively easy to use and affordable
- Mirrorless: Smaller than a DSLR but offering the same capabilities, mirrorless cameras have excellent image quality, interchangeable lenses, and full manual controls. They are more expensive and have a steeper learning curve, but they are my recommended choice if you are more serious about your photography.
- DSLR: A digital SLR, or DSLR, was for a long time at the top of the heap when it came to image quality, lens choice, and manual controls. However, they have been largely replaced by mirrorless cameras as the go-to choice for travel photographers.
The best travel camera for each style of traveler
Having given you some things to think about when buying a camera — weight, cost, and complexity — here are some suggestions to consider. I’ve tried to whittle down all the many choices out there to a few solid options, based on my real-world experience.
- Smartphone: iPhone 7 or Galaxy S8. If you just don’t see yourself carrying around any kind of camera, you can still get good results from a recent high-end smartphone. The iPhone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 offer best-in-class performance. You won’t be able to zoom in on faraway objects with great detail or have amazing low-light capabilities, but at least you’ll always have the camera on you, which is the most important thing in photography.
- Point-and-shoot for low budgets: Panasonic Lumix ZS50. At just under $300, the Panasonic Lumix ZS50 is an excellent investment. It has a long (30x) optical zoom as well as image-stabilization features, meaning you can shoot faraway objects and still get reasonable results in low light. It’s easy to use and will slip into a pocket.
- Point-and-shoot for high budgets: Sony RX100. If money is less of a concern, take a look at the Sony RX100 series. These offer outstanding image quality and manual controls in a compact form, although the price tag of almost $1,000 for the latest model is quite steep.
- For adventure: GoPro Hero Series.If you want a camera that will happily go everywhere you go, I’d suggest investing in a GoPro for around $350. It is restricted in terms of manual options and you can’t zoom, but it’s the best option for action shots.
- For image quality and features: Sony Alpha Series. If you’re more serious about photography, then I recommend investing in a mirrorless camera system. The Sony Alpha 6000 (around $500), for example, is a fantastic camera, with a relatively large sensor, full manual controls, and interchangeable lenses, all in a reasonably compact form. There are more recent models in the Alpha 6xxx range, but I still think the original Alpha 6000 is one of the best options for travelers looking for a great camera.
As I said at the beginning of the post, this investment is definitely one that you need to take a bit of time to think about and research. There are countless options, and you might even find that none of the above work exactly for you — which is fine! If you do all the research and decide that a DSLR is the way to go for you, then go for it! The most important thing is to pick the camera that works for you and the way you travel. Hopefully this post has helped you get a little bit closer to making that decision. Happy shooting!
Laurence started his journey in June 2009 after quitting the corporate life and looking for a change of scenery. His blog, Finding the Universe, catalogs his experiences and is a wonderful resource for photography advice! You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr.
P.S. – Did you know Laurence and I run a photography course? If you are looking to master your camera and take amazing photos when you travel, Laurence and I developed a comprehensive photography course that will get you out of auto and have your friends go “Wow! That’s really breathtaking!” in no time. You feel more confident and improve your ability to take pictures from day one! Click here to learn more about it.
P.P.S. – Want to be featured on my Instagram account AND win some sweet prizes? I’m holding a contest on Instagram right now, so check out my account for the details!