Choosing a digital camera and lenses for travel is always a involved process for me, mainly because there are so many choices available and the options change so frequently.
I should mention that I have another related article on this website called Selecting a Travel Camera Format which goes into a lot more technical discussion of the differences between different camera formats and sensor sizes and how those relate to what you can do with each camera and image quality. I’ll be using some of the bullet points from that post in this one, but I’m not going to go into as much technical detail here. If you are so-inclined, look at that article as well.
What are your photographic goals?
I talk about this in the other post as well, but it bears repeating. Your first step should be to define what the photographic goals of your trip will be. If you simply want to document the trip for your own enjoyment and maybe share some photos on Facebook or Instagram, then you can get by with a fairly inexpensive and simple camera setup, or maybe just a smartphone. If you are a photo enthusiast who likes to create artistic and varied types of photos, or shoot action or wildlife or close-up photos, to be able to get good images in a variety of lighting situations, then that will require a more sophisticated camera and more lens options. If you are a semi-pro or pro photographer who makes money selling your images, then your camera gear may take up a large chunk of your luggage weight allowance. Decide what your goals are and we’ll go from there.
Camera types and their pros and cons
For the purpose of discussing the advantages and limitations of different camera types, I’ll break them into the following categories:
- Smart phone and tablet cameras
- Compact cameras with built-in (non-removable) lenses
- Mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses
- DSLR cameras with interchangeable lenses
Each of these camera types has advantages and disadvantages over the others, so let’s get into the details of each.
Smart phone & tablet cameras
I take a lot of photos with my iPhone, most of them not very good. I admit I could probably do a lot better, but usually when I know I want to get a good photo of something I’ll take a DSLR with me and not consider trying to use my iPhone. Some people claim the iPhone can be a worthy competitor to the DSLR in most situations. After researching the topic, I discovered the iPhone Photography Awards website and many sites offering information on how to take better iPhone pictures, such as the iPhone Photography School. The paragon of travel photography, National Geographic, even has a web article on the subject here. I realized from looking at the photos and tutorials on these sites that some of the photos are very good and that I really haven’t done a proper job of learning how to get the best photos out of my iPhone. I’ve set a goal for myself to study the capabilities of my iPhone’s camera as well as photo apps available for it and learn to get better iPhone photos before our next trip. I’ll publish photos and info I learn on this website. I’ve seen some online shootouts comparing the iPhone 5s (the version I currently use) with DSLR cameras. In many of these comparisons the iPhone 5s did a “serviceable” job compared to the DSLR, but there are definitely situations where it didn’t.
First…the good things. The number one best feature of a smartphone camera is that you always have it with you. If for no other reason than this, I recommend having a smartphone with a decent camera. There are a dozen other reasons to carry a smartphone, but this is a very good one. Also, smartphone cameras are very unobtrusive, allowing you to take candid shots that you could never get with a DSLR held up to your face. And some of the newer smartphone cameras have fairly decent specs, comparable to good compact camera of only a few years ago. My iPhone 5s has an 8-megapixel sensor with a 5-element 29mm f/2.2 lens, and a built-in dual-LED flash. It wasn’t that long ago that I shot professional portraits with a 6-megapixel Nikon DSLR (notwithstanding the larger sensor size, which does make a big difference).
One of the main limitations of the iPhone 5s and other smartphones is that the camera has a fixed aperture. You can’t adjust the aperture to control exposure and change depth of field. Exposure is controlled only with shutter speed and ISO settings. If you are accustomed to using a camera with lenses which have adjustable aperture to allow you to selectively blur or sharpen the backgrounds of your images, you will not have that ability with a smartphone camera. In fact, since depth of field increases as the size of the sensor shrinks, and the iPhone 5s sensor is only 4.8 x 3.6mm in size, the result is that just about every image you shoot will have very little background blur. If you are shooting a portrait with a lot of busy details behind your subject, you will see all those busy details in the image. I’ve noticed on several iPhone photo sites that many of the best portraits have their subjects posed with relatively featureless backgrounds behind them. So, when using an iPhone camera you must always keep that fact in mind, and watch out for the backgrounds. If you are shooting landscapes or environmental portraits where you want the whole scene in focus, you will be fine.
The second area where the smartphones will have problems is taking pictures in low light. The iPhone 5s sensor has pixels with an area about 7x smaller than pixels in the APS-C format sensor in the Nikon D5500, for example, so the iPhone’s camera will have a 7x lower signal-to-noise performance, thus much grainier images in low light situations. The ISO range of the iPhone 5s goes to 3200, but in sample images noise gets pretty bad at anything over 800.
When I bought my iPhone 5s, the camera did not have the ability to manually control shutter speed and ISO, but with IOS 8, Apple has included hooks that allow programmers to write applications that can manually control exposure and some other camera features. For the iPhone, some of the apps available which add manual exposure controls include ProCam 3, Hydra, NightCap Pro, ProCamera+, ProShot, and VSCO. For Android phone users, you’ll need to find apps that are compatible with your specific device.
What can’t you do with an iPhone camera? I already mentioned portraits with blurred background are impossible. Similarly for macro shots of flowers or other closeup subjects with blurred backgrounds. If you want to capture an image of that monkey sitting in a shaded tree 50 feet from you…forget it. A fixed 29mm lens doesn’t do telephoto. There is a digital zoom feature, but I’ve found the image quality suffers too much to bother using it. Shooting anything with movement in lower light…not going to work.
Compact cameras with built-in (non-removable) lenses
This category used to be called “point-and-shoot” cameras, but many of the cameras in this class now offer larger sensors and better lenses than their predecessors. Compact cameras offer excellent portability without the complication (and benefit?) of having interchangeable lenses. If you are a person who can live with the limitations of the single lens provided on the camera, this can be a good choice for a travel camera. Cameras in this category usually come with a wide-angle (24-28mm equivalent) to short-telephoto (70-130mm) zoom lens, although a few go to full telephoto focal lengths. Some compact cameras offer a fixed single focal length lens, usually a moderate wide angle or standard focal length lens (35-52mm equivalent).
Most of the zoom cameras come with 1” or 2/3” sensors, although the Canon Powershot G1 X sensor has a 1.5” sensor which is slightly larger than the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensors in some of the popular mirrorless DSLRs. Cameras with 1” (8.8 x 13.2mm) sensors include the Canon Powershot G5, G7, and G9, Panasonic Lumix ZS100 and LX100, and Sony Cybershot RX100 series cameras. All these use 20 megapixel sensors with maximum resolution of 5472 x 3648 pixels. This works out to a pixel size of .0024mm, with pixel area about 2.6x smaller than the Nikon D5500 pixels. Cameras with 2/3” (8.8 x 6.6mm) sensors include the Fujifilm X30 and XQ2, which have 12 megapixel sensors with max resolution of 4000 x 3000, which works out to a pixel size of .0022mm, about the same as the 1” sensor cameras. As mentioned above for phone cameras, having a smaller pixel area means more noise and poorer low light performance.
The compact cameras in the $500-1000 price range mostly have fairly fast (large maximum aperture) lenses to allow a decent amount of light into the sensors, so in most cases you can get good results with these cameras, although generally not as good as you would get with cameras with larger sensors. I looked at a number of these cameras but decided that being restricted to a single lens wouldn’t do it for me. If I were to buy one, however, I’d probably choose one with at least a 1” sensor and a fairly fast zoom lens, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 or the Sony Cybershot DSC-RX100 IV. The zoom ranges on these cameras only cover about 24-70 or 75mm but that would cover at least 80% of the shots I’d normally take on a daily basis. If you want a longer zoom range at the cost of slower apertures, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100 wouldn’t be a bad choice. I wouldn’t consider buying one that doesn’t have an Electronic View Finder. Trying to take pictures with an LCD as your only means of viewing your images in bright sunlight is a nightmare.
Mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses
I’m making the distinction between mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses and DSLR cameras (with mirrors) with interchangeable lenses, but there doesn’t really need to be a separation between the two. The only difference is that mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror and prism that presents the image to your eye in an optical viewfinder (OVF). Instead you look at the image on an LCD display or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF). An EVF can provide several advantages over an OVF. With the EVF you see what the camera sensor sees and your view is not blocked at the moment of exposure as the mirror moves out of the way, so you can see the image exactly when it is taken. Sometimes in low light situations you may have a harder time focusing with an OVF, where an EVF which adapts to the ambient lighting can give you a brighter image in the viewfinder. An EVF can also provide additional information in the display, such as showing which areas are in focus. On the minus side, some EVFs have issues with lag time, making it harder to track and photograph moving subjects. Also the EVF consumes battery power which can lower your total shots per battery charge. OVFs give you a clearer, higher resolution image (limited by your eye’s resolution, so to speak), and better dynamic range, without any lag time.
The advantage of not having to provide room inside the camera body for a mirror and prism assembly is that mirrorless camera bodies can be smaller and lighter than DSLRs. For travel purposes, smaller and lighter is a good thing. However, if the mirrorless camera has the same sized sensor as a DSLR then the lenses aren’t going to be much smaller because the lens still has to have the size to provide an image circle to cover the sensor. Matching a smaller body with the same size lens doesn’t always produce and camera-lens combination that is balanced and comfortable to use. Many pros know the benefits of having big bodies matched with big lenses. The Olympus and Panasonic micro-four-thirds (MFT) cameras use a smaller sensor which allows them to produce smaller lenses to match the smaller bodies better. If you are considering a mirrorless camera system mainly to save weight and space in your bag, the MFT sensor cameras may be a better choice than the mirrorless cameras using APS-C or Full-Frame sensors.
The four main contenders right now in the mirrorless camera marketplace are Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, and Fuji. Sony has the Alpha A6000 and A6300 APS-C sensor cameras, and the A7 and A7R II cameras using a full-frame sensor. Olympus has the OM-D series cameras, all using MFT sensors, including the OM-D E-M10 Mark II, E-M5, Pen-F and E-M1 Mark II (just announced a week ago). Panasonic also has the G series of mirrorless cameras using the MFT sensors. Olympus and Panasonic lenses will fit either camera system, which gives you more lens options if you buy into one of these systems. Fuji has the X series of cameras, all using the APS-C sensors.
The same caveats regarding noise and depth-of-field differences with smaller sensors apply to the MFT format cameras. The crop-factor for these cameras is 2x, so a 25mm lens on an MFT camera will have the same angle of view as a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera. If you shoot images with these lenses on their respective cameras at the same subject distance, you will have to shoot the MFT camera two stops more open (lower f-number) to get the same DOF as the full-frame camera. For example, using a 25mm lens on the MFT camera, shooting at f/2 will give you the same DOF as using a 50mm lens set at f/4 on a full-frame camera. If you are a fan of shallow DOF for portraits or macro photography, be aware that you will need to purchase the fastest lenses available to get the same shallow of DOF that you could get on a less expensive (and lighter) lens that is two stops slower on a full-frame camera. If the MFT camera sensor has the same resolution as an APS-C camera sensor, then the MFT sensor will have smaller pixels and thus be more susceptible to noise at lower light levels. That’s why you will usually see the MFT cameras with 16MP sensors and the APS-C cameras with 24MP sensors. They both have roughly the same sensor pixel dimensions, so they will have roughly the same noise performance. But you lose the extra resolution with the smaller sensor camera. The newly announced Olympus E-M1 has a 20MP MFT sensor, so the pixel dimensions will have to be smaller. I’ll be curious to see what its noise performance is like when it gets reviewed.
DSLR Interchangeable Lens Cameras
These are the tried and true digital cameras that use technology which evolved from earlier film cameras, using mirrors and prisms and optical viewfinders. DSLRs have either full-frame or APS-C sensors which deliver high resolution with low noise when shooting in lower light situations. They usually offer the best bang for the buck when purchasing an entry level system with body and kit zoom lenses. Lens choices, particularly for Canon and Nikon systems, are much wider than for any of the mirrorless cameras available. Because there is no EVF lag, they are better for shooting moving subjects. Autofocus performance is also usually better than on most mirrorless camera systems although that is becoming less so as mirrorless cameras improve. The main disadvantage of DSLRs is that they are bigger and heavier than the alternatives, especially full-frame DSLRs which can be downright brutal to carry around with a selection of fast lenses. If you want your camera system to take up very little weight and space in your bag, a DSLR is not the way to go. If you want to take the best quality photos in a wide variety of shooting situations with the flexibility of having multiple lenses in your bag, then a DSLR is a good choice.
In the DSLR camera category, bodies using the APS-C sensor are the best compromise of image quality vs weight and size. Full-frame cameras are mostly targeted at pro or semi-pro photographers who are willing to carry the extra weight in order to get the highest resolution, lowest noise, and shallowest DOF at fast apertures from their lenses. In the Nikon lineup, their full-frame FX-format camera bodies range in weight from 26.5 to 49.6 oz and sizes from 78 to 147 cubic inches. Their APS-C DX-format bodies range from 14 to 23.9 oz and sizes from 53.5 to 68 cu in. The two lightest and smallest Nikon bodies, the D3400 and D5500, are good choices for a light travel DSLR, weighing just 14.0 and 14.9 oz respectively. Canon has comparable offerings with heavier and larger full-frame cameras like the EOS 5D and smaller and lighters APS-C offerings like the Rebel T5, T6, T5i weighing in at 15.3 to 18.5oz and the super-lightweight Rebel SL1 weighing just 13.1 oz for the body only. Couple either of the lightest weight Nikon or Canon DSLR bodies with a do-it-all zoom lens with a focal range from wide-angle to telephoto and you’d have a good travel setup weighing in at about 2 lbs or less.
My Own Experience Choosing a Travel Camera Kit
My first decent film cameras were Nikons and when I moved to digital I stayed with Nikons because I had a significant investment in Nikon lenses which would have cost a lot to replace with another brand. Recently I decided I wanted to reduce the weight and size of my DSLR and lenses for travel, and I evaluated a bunch of different camera systems, focusing a lot of my attention on mirrorless camera systems but also keeping the Nikon D5500, a very lightweight DSLR alternative, in mind. I was very interested in the Olympus OMD E-M10 and E-M1 cameras. After reading and viewing many online reviews I was seriously considered jumping brands from Nikon and getting one of these mirrorless cameras. I also looked at the Sony Alpha A6000 and A6300 but found the lens selection for these cameras disappointing. When I visited a camera store and actually held the Olympus E-M10 in my hands, I found it to be too small for me to hold comfortably. It turns out that there is a limit to “smaller is better”. The salesperson helpfully demonstrated the optional expansion grip that you can buy to make the camera larger and easier to hold, but that seemed somewhat ridiculous, buying an attachment to make a camera, whose small size is one of its major selling points, bigger? When I put the 12-40\2.8 lens I was thinking of buying on the E-M10 body it seemed unbalanced and front-heavy. The 40-150\2.8 companion lens is even more unbalanced and front-heavy. I also discovered that I hated the E-M10’s electronic viewfinder. It was overly bright and grainy and not good looking to me. The Olympus E-M1 was a much better fit. I liked the EVF a lot better and it felt a lot better in my hands, but the camera is bigger and heavy enough that it competes with the lightest DSLR bodies. The Nikon D5500 body is actually 15% lighter than the E-M1 body and has a benefit of a larger 24MP APS-C sensor compared to the E-M1’s 16MP Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT) sensor. Also, the battery life of the E-M10 and E-M1 are 320 and 350 shots respectively. The battery life of the D5500 is 820 shots. I’d have to carry five E-M10 batteries to get the same number of shots I can get with two Nikon D5500 batteries. The E-M1 body was getting a bit long in the tooth, having been released in 2013, so I waited until the new E-M1 Mark II was announced to see what improvements were offered in that camera and it looked even better with an improved 20MP sensor, but the attractive pricing available on the original E-M1 with the 12-50\2.8 lens didn’t extend to the new E-M1 Mark II, so I’d end up spending a lot more money for it.
After looking at the addition costs for purchasing adequate lenses to cover my needs, the E-M1 would end up costing me a lot more than going with the D5500, so I decided nto forego the E-M1 and purchased a D5500 instead. If I didn’t already own a Nikon DSLR system and lenses I might very well have gone the other way. After I had decided to purchase the D5500, I discovered that it doesn’t have an internal motor to drive older version Nikon AF-D lenses, of which I have a collection, but it would work with my newer AFS 17-55/2.8 lens, which is my most used lens, so I’ll still have to purchase some new lenses for travel, but the cost is still substantially less. I purchased the D5500 bundled with the Nikon 18-140/3.5-5.6 lens which was on sale for $950 and also purchased a 35/1.8 lens to use for low light situations and in case the zoom lens fails. That brings the total weight of my camera kit to about 2.5 lbs, which is about 2 lbs lighter than my previous kit. In the past I’ve always traveled with faster and heavier lenses. Our next trip will be my first experience shooting with a slower zoom (granted it has VR, which helps), so I’ll be curious to see how well it goes.