How To Select a Digital Camera for Travel
Of all the things you do during your travels, bringing back photos is perhaps the most enduring. Unfortunately, memories will fade. Details will grow foggy, and now vibrant and distinct events will merge, or disappear entirely, from your mind. Of all the charming people you meet, sites you see and fantastic cafes, holy sites or mountain trails that you stumble across, very few will stick as lasting memories. For this reason, the photographs created during your journey are the most valuable possession you will bring back from your travels.
The primary photographic concerns for the traveler are being ready to capture the shot and having a camera that can respond to the demands of the moment. If your camera is not readily at hand, you won’t bother to dig it out to shoot many of the best images you will witness. If your camera has inadequate zoom capability, slow start up or lacks enough resolution to support the cropping required, your results will be disappointing, if not nonexistent.
The type of camera that best suits your travels is determined by your level of interest in photography and in the uses you plan for the photographs. Some people may be happy with the photos they capture with their mobile phones; some may wish to post photos on the web, while others may desire small prints for a photo album or a few larger prints for the wall. A few may wish to exercise the full creative capabilities of an advanced camera system to create large poster size prints or to generate an album of large prints suitable for competition or display.
In shooting everything from snapshots to professional commercial photography over a span of more than 30 years, I have discovered the ideal travel camera combines compact size and weight, quick startup, fast shutter response, adequate resolution to support the occasional large print, and rugged design and construction. The key is to match these characteristics to your level of interest and intended use.
Following is a guide to the major types of digital cameras available today, along with key factors related to the unique demands of travel photography.
Photo capable mobile phone
No other photographic option provides the easy accessibility of a mobile phone. Because it will always be with you, always be accessible and be the most used, thus most familiar, piece of electronics you own, the photo capable cell phone is tops in terms of always being ready to capture a memory of your travels.
For travel purposes, the ideal photo-capable mobile phone will support global roaming, multi-band GSM, a minimum of five megapixels of resolution and a removable memory card. The large number of megapixels is required because the relatively wide angle of the lens will require you to digitally crop the images. Consequently, you will need a large baseline resolution to yield a cropped picture with adequate resolution. United States market GSM phones are “locked” to American cell phone providers, so you will probably want to buy a phone you can “unlock” or purchase the phone overseas, where phones allow the use of market specific “ID” cards for local providers.
Point and Shoot (a.k.a. Point and Pray)
This class of camera is the easiest to operate, smallest, lightest and most popular among travelers. There are literally hundreds of different models from dozens of manufacturers in this crowded segment. Many feature innovative designs that make sense for the traveler, such as small size and 3 to 1 optical zoom. Some tout features that are pure marketing hype, such as built in caption balloons, which will be of limited or no value to a traveler.
Key features to look for are:
- Very quick start up. You want a camera that is ready to shoot in less than half a second from the time you turn it on.
- Quick shutter release response. You want a camera that shoots almost instantly after you press the shutter button. Look for a camera with 20 to 60 milliseconds of shutter release delay. (This delay can be mitigated on some shots by pre-focusing the camera by pressing the shutter release button half way down. Once the camera locks focus, then reframe the shot and press the shutter button fully. This technique works great for static shots but won’t help much with most fast action situations.)
- Compact size. Cameras in this segment come as small as a credit card. The smaller the camera, the more likely you will have it quickly available. The bulkier the camera, the less likely you will dig it out of a bag to get the shot.
- Optical zoom range (ignore digital zoom capability). The absolute minimum optical zoom range is 3 to 1. The larger the zoom range the better, but keep in mind the more optical zoom range you have, the bulkier the camera is likely to be. Ignore digital zoom capability, it merely degrades the resolution of your photo.
- Image stabilization / anti-shake / vibration reduction. For cameras with optical zoom ranges of greater than 5 to 1, you want some type of technology that keeps the image sharp as your hands shake. Without this technology, cameras with 8 to 1 and longer zoom ranges are essentially unusable without a tripod at the longer ends of the zoom range.
- Resolution. Because most cameras in this segment have a 3 to 1 zoom range, you will be doing a lot of digital cropping of these images. In order to retain adequate sharpness in the image, you need enough baseline resolution to allow you to “throw away” a lot of pixels (the dot-like elements that make up the picture) during cropping and still have enough resolution to make a print that isn’t soft or fuzzy. As a result, you will need at least five megapixels of resolution. Anything over eight megapixels is probably overkill, and not worth the overhead of the larger data files you will need to manage.
- Rugged construction. Look for a camera with rugged, metal construction. Cheap lightweight plastics will not survive the rigors, bangs and bumps of travel.
- Battery life. Nothing is more heartbreaking than lining up the perfect shot in an exotic location and having your camera battery die before you can shoot. Look for a camera with long battery life, and carry at least four charged batteries with you. And don’t forget to bring the camera’s battery charger with you on the trip!
- Mechanical lens protection. Make sure that your camera has a mechanical sliding cover or metal shutter that closes over the lens when the camera is not in use. Your camera will be thrown into pockets with coins, sloshed around in shoulder bags with metal objects, etc. You need to protect that precious lens from scratches and breakage.
- Powerful flash. While traveling, you will need to fill very large and dark spaces with your flash. Some compact cameras have built in flash units that are useless at distances of more than six feet. This will not be adequate for the challenging lighting situations you are likely to encounter. Look for a camera that can provide adequate flash performance for photographing a person in a dark room at distances of at least twelve feet (four meters).
Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
This segment features cameras that answer the needs of long optical zoom range (up to 10 to 1 and longer), advanced features for the serious photographer (the “prosumer”) and high resolutions (12 megapixels and climbing). The EVF segment is arguably the “sweet spot” for travel photography. It combines the light weight and relatively small size of the “point and pray” segment with the high resolution and advanced capabilities of the digital SLR segment, while avoiding the optical zoom limitations of the former and the weight, bulk, and internal dust challenges of the latter.
As well as the attributes of the “point and shoot” category, features, capabilities and considerations that are important in this segment include:
- You will be unlikely to find mechanical lens protection in this category. Most models require you to manually remove and replace a lens cap.
- Because this segment features very long optical zoom ranges (again, ignore digital zoom capabilities), image stabilization / anti-shake / vibration reduction technology is an absolute requirement. It is essentially impossible to hand hold an 8 to 1 optical zoom camera at full zoom in anything but the brightest light (which yields a high shutter speed).
- Advanced camera modes, including Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program Mode. These modes allow you to explore the full range of photographic creativity, enabling you to bring back images that fully capture the mood, vitality, beauty and energy of your travel destinations.
- Additional lenses. Although this segment features fixed zoom lenses, many models offer additional telephoto and wide angle lenses that attach to the front of the fixed lens. Some of these attachment lenses, especially the wide angle lenses, are bulky and very heavy. Keep this in mind when you are estimating how much weight and bulk you will be carrying. For instance, this can radically change the size of camera bag you will need in order to carry your complete camera system.
- Battery life. Because this segment uses an electronic (video) viewfinder, battery life can be very short. Be sure to carry enough batteries. Some travelers using EVF cameras carry as many as eight to 10 fully charged batteries to ensure they don’t run out of power in areas where re-charging may not be available for a few days.
- Large memory cards. Due to their high resolutions, currently 12 megapixels and growing, cameras in this segment create very large data files, especially if shooting in RAW mode. Multiple two- to four-gigabyte memory cards are a good choice. I would recommend a minimum of three four-gigabyte memory cards for an eight megapixel camera if you are planning to shoot in RAW mode. You can use lower capacity cards if you plan to shoot exclusively in JPEG format, but I would still recommend carrying at least three memory cards in case one fails or is lost.
- Backup device. Because you will be generating a lot of large data files, it is likely that you will need a dedicated backup/viewing device for your images. A wide variety of options exist in this segment, including devices that burn your photo data files onto a CD and devices that copy your photo data files to an internal hard disk drive (just like the one in your computer at home). Some devices also include small “video” screens that allow you to review and/or display your photos in a slide show.
Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex)
The top tier of photographic options for the traveler is the Digital SLR segment. These cameras and lenses offer the advanced amateur and working professional photographer the ultimate in lens sharpness, camera features, pixel resolution, rugged design and system performance. Offsetting these positives are the downsides of orders of magnitude more weight and camera system bulk that the traveler must carry, protect and manage.
In addition to the factors applicable to the “point and shoot” and EVF segments, important considerations for travelers using digital SLRs include:
- Lens selection. Swapping lenses is not an optimum experience for the traveler. It often seems that having interchangeable lenses available merely guarantees that you’ll have the wrong lens mounted for any given spontaneous shooting opportunity. While there will be times when you will have hours to wait for the perfect light, it is more common to have fleeting seconds to grab the shot of the farmer and his goats climbing the mountain, the wild carnivore crossing the trail or the laugh of the elderly vendor in the market. Because of this requirement to select from a wide range of focal lengths quickly during rapidly changing conditions, I have found that a wide ratio zoom, such as Canon’s 28-300mm IS L, is the best lens to have mounted and ready. For specific shooting situations conducive to their focal lengths and capabilities I also carry an F2.8 16-35mm L and either a 24-70mm F2.8 L or a F2.8 100mm Macro.
- UV filters. Use top quality UV filters on all of your lenses. The front element of my 28-300mm lens, along with my trip’s photography, was saved from destruction by my Hoya UV filter while I traveled in China. Using a filter means having more surfaces to clean, and a slight loss of light transmission, but it is much cheaper to replace a filter than the front element of a lens.
- Sensor dust. No matter how careful you are when you change lenses, dust will accumulate on your imaging sensor. If you are traveling for months at a time, you will need to have the digital SLR sensor cleaned during your travels, so either take some appropriate swabs & solution along or make arrangements to get some sent to you while you're on the road. It is best to practice this procedure in the cleanliness, optimum lighting and comfort of your home or office prior to departure.
- Lens dust. When you change focal lengths with a zoom lens, the glass lens elements move back and forth inside the lens barrel. This movement sucks in air as the lens elements move back and forth in the barrel of the lens. This sucking pumps dust into your zoom lenses as you change focal lengths. Even with professional grade, weather sealed lenses such as Canon’s L series, internal dirt will eventually be a problem. Unless all of your travel photography is in studio cleanliness conditions such as museums, dust will eventually find its way inside the lens. Once the dust has infiltrated your lens, shooting at small F stops such as F22 will yield a lot of time editing out dust spots. The only way to get the dust out is to send the lens into the repair depot to have it cleaned and recalibrated. This cleaning can take up to four to six weeks, so plan your back to back trips accordingly.
- Tough, rugged, road-worthy digital SLR bodies. Traveling is tough on equipment. If you are taking an African Safari, a trek through the Himalayas, or a journey through the deserts of the Middle East, you need an SLR body that can stand up to the abuse these hostile environments hold in store. Consumer market SLR bodies that are primarily plastic construction are not optimum choices. SLR bodies that use magnesium frames, tough composite or metal construction and feature weather sealed controls are designs better suited to the rigors, bangs, shocks, dust and moisture of travel.
- Match output / market requirements to your digital SLR’s capabilities. It is important to match the fundamental capabilities of your digital SLR body with your intended purposes. If you are shooting stock photography, make sure to check your stock photo agencies’ standards prior to departure. Some agencies have strict requirements for specific camera models, pixel resolutions, file formats and file sizes. If you plan to produce images for calendars or other large format uses, a resolution of 11 to 16 megapixels may be required.
- Frame rate and autofocus capability. If you are planning to photograph wild animals in Africa, action sports or other fast moving subjects, your digital SLR body needs to support a frames-per-second rate of at least six, if not eight, and have an image buffer capable of storing at least 18 to 30 images. In addition, a slow autofocus system will cost you many shots while in the field. A high performance autofocus system, with focus points in many portions of the frame, is essential for these types of subjects. For tracking moving subjects such as an approaching race car or a running animal, an autofocus system capable of maintaining focus on a moving target is required.
- Multi-tiered file backup. If you are dedicated to your photography enough to carry, monitor and protect a digital SLR & lens system as you travel the world, then your photographs mean enough to you not to lose them due to data storage system failure. A viable data file backup strategy and systems are vital to ensuring that your once-in-a-lifetime images find their way home. I recommend a three tiered system consisting of a laptop, a backup device and recordable DVDs. I make a copy of all photo image data files from each camera to the laptop every day. I copy the files from the laptop to recordable DVDs and mail them home with pre-addressed mailers I bring along. (I’ve mailed well over 50 DVDs home from all over the world and every single one of them has arrived safely.) As each memory card is filled, I copy the card’s files to the portable backup device. This yields three copies of each file: one on the laptop for field edits, emails & web postings; a second on the DVD that is mailed home; and a third on the portable backup device. The key is to never, ever have the only copy of your data file on a hard drive in a laptop or a portable backup device. It is not a matter of if a hard drive will fail, only a matter of when.
- Flash. Carry a high output flash that is matched to your camera’s auto-exposure system. Carry plenty of batteries for your flash and change them often. Don’t wait until they are completely dead, keep a fresh set in the flash at all times. It is heartbreaking to miss a shot because you are waiting for the flash to recycle. If your flash does not have a slide-out catchlight screen/reflector, consider carrying a small one that will Velcro to your flash. A plastic diffuser hood is also a good idea if you’ve got the room in your camera bag.
- Filters. After starting with a wide assortment of filters, I ended up carrying a single circular polarizer filter. I happened to have a range of lenses that shared a common filter size, so I was able to share one filter among all lenses. In my case, because we normally travel by motorcycle, this space and weight savings was important.
- Tripod. I carried a carbon fiber tripod around Africa, but did not take it to any other continent. I couldn’t justify the weight and space on the motorcycle considering how little I was using it. If you use a tripod, a ball head is much faster to adjust and more convenient than a three axis design.
Whatever camera you buy, read the manual enough times to know the equipment inside and out. You need to be able to make every major mode, ISO and offset adjustment without thinking about which buttons need to be pushed or having to look down and study the camera controls. Invest the time to practice with every piece of equipment you plan to take with you on your travels. One of the big upsides with digital photography is that it costs nothing to take and review an image, so don’t scrimp on experimenting, testing and familiarization. Most importantly, take a warm up trip or two with all of the photography equipment you plan to utilize to ensure everything is working smoothly and that you have adequate familiarity with each element of the system.
Over time, as you add new equipment, strive to add only one new element to your system per trip, i.e. a new body, a new flash, a new lens, etc. Having multiple new items to study, understand and familiarize yourself with can be overwhelming when faced with all the other aspects of planning, researching and executing a major trip.
Again, being very familiar with everything you carry is very important. When you have that one chance to capture the giraffe’s head silhouetted against the setting sun, you need to have the skills, experience and confidence that both you and your camera system will successfully bring back the image to grace the walls of your home.
There are literally hundreds of digital cameras available on the market today, with new and upgraded models available every week. While the task of picking the optimum digital camera for your travel needs can seem overwhelming, by following these guidelines and recommendations it is possible to find the camera that perfectly suits your travel requirements. By picking the right digital camera for your travel needs you can help to ensure that you will bring back and preserve the precious once-in-a-lifetime memories of travel exploration and discovery.
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