What is the best camera for travel?

Travel photography has come a long way since Uncle Bob’s slide night of his world discovery tour. From smart phones to $10,000 professional gear, travellers now have a huge range of choices.

Academy Travel’s itineraries take you to some of the world’s most beautiful places, and many Academy Travellers are keen photographers, so we thought we’d ask professional photographer and tour leader Robin Nichols for his advice:

A question I get asked more often than anything else is “I’m going on a trip, so what camera should I buy?” I usually warn the enquirer that I’m very good at spending other people’s money, but, before I suggest anything, I have to ask them a crucial question: “How much do you want to spend?”.

Almost everybody loves to take at least a few snaps when they travel – you might just be armed with an iPhone, or you could be hefting several kilos of Nikon DSLR gear in your luggage. Whatever your level of interest and budget, I think it’s something that most travellers need to give at least a bit of thought to before heading off on a big trip. After all, these days there are plenty of great bargains to be had. You can now buy a good pocket-sized digital camera for about the same price you might pay for a decent bag to carry it in!

Once you have decided your budget, $100, $1,000 or more, you need to think about what is best for your needs. Who are the photos for? Are weight and space an issue? How much do you know (or are prepared to learn) about photographic technique and which special features will you use?

Robin Nichols draws on his 30 years’ experience as a professional photographer to put together the following list to help you work out what camera best suits you:


 

Smartphones are OK

Although as a professional photographer, I tend to rib anyone shooting pictures with a smartphone when travelling, they are actually quite good. Most of us don’t like to be parted from our communication devices for very long so basically we already have a camera with us wherever we are – whether going to work or travelling the Trans-Siberian Express, it’s there ready to capture any event. And, yes, I have to admit to using my iPhone on quite a few occasions for the same reason – it’s in a pocket so, when I see something I want to record, or spot something I need to remember for later, like a bargain price in a shop, I take a snap…

A smartphone is a sensible alternative to schlepping about in the tropics with kilos of equipment hanging off your aching shoulders, and the picture quality they produce is usually excellent – providing the light is right of course. But what you might not know is that, like most top-of-the-range cameras, smartphones can also be used for shooting widescreen panorama pictures, capturing contrast-beating HDR images, as well as capturing slow motion, time-lapse and HD video.

To make the smartphone experience even more complete, you can upload your snaps and videos directly to your favourite social media platform – straight off the phone. But a word of warning, if you are overseas when you do this, be very mindful of attracting painfully large roaming fees. Always check with your telco in Australia to avoid bill shock on your return.

Smartphones have revolutionised our lives. To extend its capabilities, and your creativity, you can purchase a range of tiny, inexpensive clip-on accessory lenses that convert the existing smartphone lens capabilities to wide-angle, super-wide fisheye, extreme close up (macro) and even super powerful telephoto lenses. These cost anything from $35 for a really good, clear, wide-angle clip-on lens, to something more exotic like a telephoto attachment from German lens legend Karl Zeiss, costing more than $200. I’d go for the $35 model – you’ll be pleased with the quality.

Although I prefer the quality from my (heavy) Canon DSLR, I am always impressed with the quality I can get from an iPhone, especially when set to its panorama mode. (Smartphone ‘panorama’ mode – Yeha, Northern Ethiopia)

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Lightweight solutions

The biggest gripe casual photographers have is that though they like the idea of snapping off some nice pictures, they don’t like carrying anything heavy or bulky. I agree – last time I travelled to Africa I took 11 kilos of camera gear which, on small planes limiting your entire luggage allowance to 20 kilos, left very little space to pack clothes. Small wonder no one wanted to sit next to me on the homeward journey.

The amateur camera market has changed significantly in the past few years with tiny, light, high resolution and feature-rich compact cameras now costing about the same as a night in a good Dubbo motel. In the old days (about two years ago) all compact cameras came with very small electronic sensors – the sensor is the ‘film’ bit that does the actual picture recording. Quality with these sub-$200 cameras is usually OK for static subjects like landscape and family snaps, but for shooting things like fast-paced action, they just cannot keep up so you’d really need to spend a bit more for a better-performing model.

One piece of good news is that, as camera technology has developed so quickly, some of these compacts now feature larger, one-inch sensors. These are nearly three times the physical size of the cheapest point-and-shoot camera sensors, so produce superior results. A larger sensor means that not only do the pictures look significantly sharper, clearer and more detailed, but you can also enlarge the photos bigger than most of us have the wall space for.

So if you like the idea of printing your best shots, either on a home inkjet machine or perhaps using one of the many excellent digital book companies around, I’d recommend checking out those compact cameras that feature the bigger one-inch sensors. You’ll pay more for one of these excellent cameras (probably the equivalent to three nights in a Dubbo motel) but the quality boost is well worth the additional expense.

A good point-and-shoot camera is the Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II Digital Camera (one-inch sensor) ($557 from www.cambuy.com.au)

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Lens quality – don’t be fooled by big numbers

If you love close and detailed portraiture you might consider packing a specialist lens like the excellent 85mm f1.8 (Canon or Nikon) lens for the job. Light, relatively inexpensive and producing very sharp results, these small lenses are a great alternative to the bulky, heavy ‘do-everything’ zoom lens. (Canon EOS 5D MkIII DLSR with 85mm f1.8 portrait lens)

Another feature to look out for when considering a new camera is of course its lens. While the sensor captures the detail in the image, it’s the lens that controls exactly how much of the scene is caught in the resulting picture. When shopping, don’t get caught out by big numbers. One of the most cynical marketing ploys in the camera business has been the development of the super zoom point-and-shoot camera. This is typically a camera costing between $200 and $600, kitted out with an outrageously powerful magnification lens, which on paper appears to be a wildlife or paparrazzi photographer’s dream come true. It’s not.

Camera designers make this magnification miracle happen by fitting a reasonably good zoom lens onto a tiny camera with the smallest camera sensor available. The picture quality most of these cameras produce can only be described as ‘OK’. And it’s going to be extremely difficult to hold a camera with huge magnification anywhere near steady enough to get good results.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of a powerful telephoto lens – perfect if you want to shoot wildlife and sport – but I’d recommend you limit the ‘times zoom’ factor to something closer to 30x, or thereabouts. This still provides a very powerful magnification, will be far easier to hold steady, and will produce clearer, less shaky results.

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DSLR cameras

If you’re looking for a ‘professional’ camera with a good lens, I’d suggest an entry-level DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. They used to cost thousands.  You can now buy yourself a brand new DSLR, with a standard lens, for less than $500 (from Kogan) while a DSLR ‘kit’, a camera body that comes with two lenses, will cost a bit more than $700 – not a bad buy for a camera sporting 24 megapixels.

For the best travel lens I’d recommend something like Canon’s EF-S 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 lens or Nikon’s excellent (but more expensive) AF-S DX 18-300mm f3.5-6.3G lens – both are perfect all-in-ones for travel including a reasonably good wide-angle setting combined with a powerful telephoto. If you are watching your budget, but won’t compromise on quality, consider the Tamron AF 18-270mm f3.5-6.3 PZD lens. Small, compact, high quality – but less expensive than either the Canon or the Nikon products mentioned.

If you are in the market for a new camera but really want to keep weight and size to a minimum – and who doesn’t these days – check out www.camerasize.com, a website that allows you to compare different cameras, with or without lenses. If you are shopping you can’t always rely on a retail outlet to have everything open for you to compare – making this is one of the best camera resources available. (Pictured: Nikon D5600 DSLR, with 18-300mm zoom lens, Olympus OMD EM5MkII mirrorless camera with 14-150mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 28-300mm DSLR lens) and Canon Powershot G9X MkII).

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How many megapixels?

The resolution of a digital image is measured by the number of pixels per square inch. Pixel measurements refer to print quality, not image quality. High megapixel images are useful if you want to print a large image – say a billboard. When you are shopping, don’t get blustered into thinking megapixels are the most important factor. It was relevant ten years ago, but now every camera on the market has a resolution big enough to print your photos up to A3 and bigger, large enough for most of us.

The only practical reason to buy a higher resolution, 30Mp+) camera is if you want to print billboards, or because you can’t afford a very powerful telephoto lens. By cropping into the photo you can make a small subject appear much larger – and still end up with a photo with a lot of pixels and high quality. Nikon, Canon and Sony all produce such cameras – but you’ll have to start saving now. Expect to pay in excess of $4000 for cameras over the 30 megapixel mark.

Having a camera with a powerful telephoto lens allows you to shoot from a safe distance while still getting dramatic close-ups of wildlife. Their main disadvantage is that they are harder to hold rock-steady. A monopod is an essential accompaniment for most wildlife shooters. (Canon EOS5D MkIII DSLR with 300mm lens, Kruger National Park)

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Mirrorless cameras – an alternative to DSLR

For a seasoned traveller keen on getting great photos, I think a micro four thirds, or ‘mirrorless’ camera is now the perfect travel companion: most models are considerably lighter than a DSLR and are significantly smaller but, because mirrorless cameras are the ‘new big thing’ in photography, they come packed with many more excellent features.

At the top end of the market, with a 24Mp sensor is Sony’s A9, a mirrorless powerhouse that leaves pretty much everything else, including top-of-the-line pro DLSRs, for dead. OK, it currently sells for more than $6,000, but for a small form camera that can shoot twice as quickly as any other pro camera, it has set the commercial photography world abuzz. Sports photographers often have to heft a big pro camera body with a 500mm lens attached to press-worthy event. The lens alone weighs more than five kilos so I suspect Sony, with its smaller, lighter and feature rich mirrorless cameras might well clean up in the pro market.

Thankfully every other camera manufacturer is now making mirrorless cameras – Samsung, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji. You can pick up one of these mirrorless marvels, with a good lens, for just under $600, though on average you’d expect to pay around $1,000. It might not go quite as fast as the Sony A9, but with a large sensor and a raft of features packed into a lightweight and small body, it’s an excellent compromise between DSLR point-and-shoot.

Not surprisingly you can also buy good, all-round ‘travel’ lenses for these cameras too. For example, Panasonic’s excellent Lumix G Vario 14-140mm f3.5-5.6 ASPH lens, which is half the weight and costs about 40% less than the Nikon DSLR equivalent. Because the mirrorless system was co-developed by Olympus and Panasonic, this Panasonic lens will also fit an Olympus mirrorless camera.

With one of these little performers you can not only capture great shots, but, like the Canon Powershot G9X MkII, you’ll find a lot more empty space in your luggage.

Sony A9 Alpha Digital Camera, a mirrorless powerhouse – at a cost!

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Some suggested cameras

Point-and-shoot travel camera:
Mirrorless camera:
Olympus OMD EM10 II – an excellent compromise between DSLR point-and-shoot

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Recommended Accessories

Spare memory cards

Essential. These used to be very expensive (my first 256Mb card cost me nearly $500) but these days you can get a quality 32Gb SD card for around $40. Look for SanDisk or Lexar brands – both come with lifetime warranties. Buy a card with a read/write speed of at least 80Mb/s. The faster it is, the quicker your camera can function and the faster your pictures download to the computer.

Spare camera batteries

Essential. For the traveller on a camel trip through the Sahara, or anywhere for that matter, I’d recommend carrying at least one, maybe two spare batteries. Generic brands (like those from Inca) are at least 35% cheaper than a ‘genuine’ one from the majors, and guess what, they work just the same

Glass UV protection filters

Essential. An almost totally clear filter used to protect the new lens from dust, dirt, moisture ingress.

Don’t get talked into buying one of the top-of-the-range brands – they will cost you four times the price for no appreciable benefit. (approx. $15 – $35 from www.digitalcamerawarehouse.com.au – cost depending on lens diameter).

Camera strap

Essential for big cameras. All cameras come with a strap, but they are not very good, especially if the camera and lens are heavy. Buy a quality neoprene-style wide strap from Black Rapid or Joby, and you can heft a camera for hours without it being a hassle. $75 for a strap might seem a bit steep but the comfort level is exceptional as the camera rests against a hip and not your stomach or chest. The chiropractic savings alone makes this a worthy investment.

Tripod

Optional. OK, most people do not like the idea of squeezing a tripod into an already overstuffed suitcase – only consider one of these useful devices if you are really serious about shooting at night (when the camera is bound to produce blurry images). Benro produces a good range of light, carbon fibre ‘Travel Angel’ tripods costing around $400. Because most tripods are black, have three legs, come in different heights and weights, and all essentially look the same as the next one, I’d recommended you visit a store that holds a good range so you can feel the weight and try them for size. (Benro agent – www.photo-shop-studio.com.au)

A tripod is an important consideration for any landscape aficionado – use it to hold the camera steady in poor light, or if you are deliberately exposing for a long time to get this smoky waterfall effect (Godafoss, Iceland – 30 second exposure, 10-stop Neutral Density filter).
Polarising filter

Optional. Used for reducing reflections off water and foliage in sunny conditions – not a vital piece of gear, but useful if you love shooting landscapes (from $30, depending on lens size).

Neutral density filter

Optional. These are used to restrict the amount of light that gets into the lens to deliberately slow down the shutter speed. Note: a tripod is essential because the shutter speed might slow to seconds or minutes. Use an ND filter to produce a smoky waterfall look. Filters come in different densities – only buy one that reduces at least five or more f-stops (a 5 stop filter is called an ND32). These look almost totally opaque but will work efficiently in daylight. The standard ND2, ND4 or ND8 filters are not really dark enough for many uses. Expect to pay $50 or more for one of these specialist filters.

(Prices and model numbers were correct at the time writing)

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About the writer

Robin Nichols is a photography teacher and tour leader. With Academy Travel he has led photography tours to South Africa, Namibia, Ethopia and Rwanda and in early 2018 will lead a private photography tour to Sri Lanka > for more details on this tour click here.

Robin or Academy Travel have no commercial relationship with any of the cameras or retailers mentioned in this article.

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Robin Nichols

Robin Nichols

Robin Nichols is well known through his regular classes and photography tours to locations around the world. He has been a professional photographer for more than 30 years. Robin’s good sense of humour and approachable style have made him a popular teacher and tour leader. In early 2018, Robin will lead a private photography tour to Sri Lanka - For more details click here.

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