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How to Choose a Travel Camera That’s Right For You: Looking at the Big Picture

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Buckle up folks, this is going to be entirely different than other “best travel camera” posts or travel camera buying guides where they try to convince you that you need a 42-megapixel camera.  In fact, I’m going to say don’t buy the 42MP camera.

I’m not even going to try to recommend a single camera here.  I will do that in a later post and will link it here when I’m done.

This post is going to mostly represent some of the things I learned in fifteen years of my journey in digital photography.  What to do, what not to do, and how to be realistic while you’re picking the right travel camera.

First and foremost: better isn’t always better!

I think this is a great way to sum up the overall theme of what I have to say.  Let’s break it down.

There is no such thing as a “professional camera”

I know that’s a controversial statement.  And there are certainly cameras that have features that professionals need, thus making them professional cameras.  But there’s more to it than that.

Cameras are often split into three categories: Consumer, Prosumer, and Professional.  I think these names are bogus.  Some professional-level photographers are very successful with amazingly capable “consumer” bodies, while new, aspiring photographers really struggle to make it with a “professional” camera.  Save your money for lenses.

You’ve heard the saying before: an expensive set of pots and pans don’t make a great chef.

Bigger isn’t always better

“Size” applies to a lot of aspects of cameras, but in this case we’ll just focus on resolution.

Do you really need 42 megapixels?  Sure, some people do.  But don’t get tricked into thinking that’s what you need to be a good travel photographer.

I had huge aspirations of taking beautiful landscape photos and then printing them out in the largest size a building could hold.  Thus I thought I needed as many megapixels as were available on the market.

Over the years I came to the realization that I hardly ever did this.  Most of my photos are published either online or in magazines, and for these a 16MP sensor is fine.  No, you don’t have a lot of flexibility for cropping so you’ll need to get the composition correct at capture.  But you’ll still be able to print up to 24″ x 36″ with no problems.  And I rarely do that.

Not to mention all of the digital storage space saved with these smaller files!

And of course, a small sensor means a smaller camera, which means smaller lenses, which means smaller camera bags, which leads to lighter weight, all of which means more money in your pocket at the end of the day.

camera comparison

Canon 5DIV & 17-40mm f/4 at 3.0lbs, Fujifilm X-T2 & 18-55mm f/2.8 at 1.8lbs, Olympus E-M10III & 14-42mm f/3.5 at 1.15lbs. From camerasize.com

The myth of the full-frame sensor

There’s a myth perpetuated in many forums that professionals only use full-frame sensors.  Only amateurs would use APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensors.  I even believed it when I was new to digital cameras; perhaps back then there was a little bit of truth to this but technology has come a long way since then.

An APS-C sensor is just as capable as a full-frame sensor in many common shooting conditions.  And in a smaller, cheaper camera body.  I just switched my primary body to APS-C after nearly fifteen years of full-frame sensors.  I haven’t noticed a difference, other than more money in my wallet and a lighter camera bag.

Advances in sensor technology have also made Micro Four Thirds sensors very favorable to photojournalists who need to travel light and blend in.  The images they get with these cameras are amazing, not to mention marketable.  More proof that it’s about the chef, not the pans.

cam sensors

Canon 5DIV Full Frame, Fujifilm X-T2 APS-C, Olympus E-M10III Micro Four Thirds. From camerasize.com.

Drowning in features

Camera manufacturers know that they can sell cameras simply based on the number of features.  It doesn’t matter what those features are, but there’s a lot of them, so that’s good, right?  A lot of camera reviews will try to sell you the camera based on the number of features, rather than explaining what they mean to your individual photography.

My latest switch was from Sony mirrorless cameras to Fujifilm mirrorless cameras.  The Fujifilm X-T1 & X-T2 are much more basic cameras compared to the Sony a7ii and a6300 that I had been using.  They even have old-fashioned knobs instead of fancy dials and buttons and menus.  But that has allowed me to focus on the photography, not the system.  I’m more excited to go out and shoot now.

Recommendations are just that.  Recommendations.

Everyone thinks that they’re right and that their recommendation is the best.  I even invite you to accuse me of being full of shit.

The point being, if you’re looking for a great travel camera, don’t take recommendations from someone who never takes their camera out of their portrait studio.  You should instead be talking to people who are already doing the type of work that you want to do and pick their brain about what works and doesn’t.

Cinematographers tried telling me that the new Mavic Air drone sucks because it doesn’t have a 1″ camera sensor.  I don’t need a 1″ camera sensor for 4K movies in a drone that needs a giant hard travel case.  I need a drone that will fit in my pocket.  It sucks for them; it’s perfect for me.

What you really need to consider when choosing the right travel camera

Use this little checklist when considering which travel camera to buy.

  • What are you going to do with the photos?  Are they going on a blog?  In magazines?  Murals in the airport hallways?
  • What will you be shooting?  Strictly landscapes?  Strictly environmental portraits?  Strictly cityscapes?  Or all of the above?
  • Which travel conditions will you be in?  Luxury resorts?  A sailboat in the middle of the ocean?  Sandy, windswept deserts?  Humid jungles?
  • How much gear do you want to carry?  Will you at least be driving everywhere?  Or do you need to schlep everything around by foot, and over steep mountains?
  • Will you be shooting stills only?  Or maybe you need it to double as a YouTube camera also?
  • What’s your budget?

This brings me to an important point: remember that the best travel camera is only as good as your worst lens.  If your budget is $1,000, don’t spend $900 on a camera body and then buy a $100 lens, because then you effectively have a $100 camera.  I’d argue that you’re almost better off spending more money on a lens than a camera body.

In conclusion: what’s really important when choosing a travel camera

Identify your minimum requirements and stick to it.  Be disciplined.  Save that money for excellent glass and other accessories.

Do you need a weather-sealed body?  High native ISO?  More megapixels or less?  Will a Micro Four Thirds camera suit your needs instead of a more expensive full-frame camera?

I’ll get more into the weeds about all of these topics in the future, but I think for now this is a great starting point.

I hope this practical, philosophical approach helps you figure out what’s important when choosing a travel camera.  And more importantly, I don’t have to update it every year!

How I ended up with my current camera

I went from big DSLRs that could do anything and everything (at the time) because I wanted the option to do anything and everything.  When I wanted smaller, I went to a full-frame mirrorless camera system that could still do anything and everything.  But it was overly complex and didn’t have great environmental sealing.

Now I’m at a cheaper APS-C mirrorless camera that is weather sealed, puts more emphasis on the basic exposure triangle, and lets me focus on the photography rather than the operation of the camera.  The images I get out of it are better than those from any camera I’ve owned before.

And I’ve never been happier.

What do you look for in a travel camera?

Goran

Sunday 18th of April 2021

Must have phase-detect autofocus, decent low light performance, enough pixels, and then in order... Battery (400-800 shots), manual controls (control everything important without menus), small size with zoom, stabilization, weatherproofing.

Small size is to fit in large jacket pocket including a better reach zoom than standard kits have.

Since Pentax K-3ii + 16-85mm won't fit in my pocket I recently bought a used Fujifilm X30 and love it even though weatherproofing is missing.

12MP 2/3" sensor from 2014 is smaller than I would prefer.

Can't have it all but for me the X30 is still hard to beat in 2021 as small travel camera.

If Fujifilm would make a weatherproof X40 matching RX100V performance but with X30 battery life I would pay 1500$ for it.

Engineer and enthusiast but not a pro.