Many people buy a camera for taking photographs when travelling. Yeah sure, you could use a smartphone, but it won’t provide you with the flexibility of a real camera. Really. Smartphones are restricted to having small sensors (with tiny photosites), a low-power flash, and uber-poor battery life. While they have improved in recent years, offering quite incredible technology inside their limited form factor, they will never replace dedicated cameras. Conversely, you don’t have to carry around a huge DSLR sporting a cumbersome 28-400 zoom lens.
There are so many posts out there which are titled something like “best travel camera 2022”, it’s almost overwhelming. Many of the cameras reviewed in these posts have never really been tested in any sort of real setting (if at all). So below I’m going to outline some of the more important things to consider when choosing a travel camera? Note that this is a list of things to think about, not a definitive and in-depth interpretation of requirements for cameras used for taking travel photos. Note that this discussion related to digital – choosing a good analog cameras for travel is another thing altogether.
① Budget − Of course how much you want to spend is a real issue. Good cameras aren’t cheap, but spending a reasonable amount on a camera means that it should last you years. You want a good balance of the items described below. If your budget is limited, go for a compact camera of some sort.
② Compactness − The first choice from the camera perspective may be whether you want something that will fit in a pocket, a small bag (e.g. mirrorless), or a complete camera backpack (e.g. full-frame, which I would avoid). For a compact, you could go with one that has a zoom, but honestly a fixed focal length works extremely well. Good examples include the Ricoh GRIII (24.3MP, 18.3mm (28mm equiv.) f/2 lens) and Fujifilm X100V (26.1MP, 23mm (35mm equiv.) f/2 lens, 4K video). Because of their size, compacts sometimes have to sacrifice one feature for another. You also don’t want a compact that has too many dials – their real benefit is being able to point-and-shoot.
Mirrorless cameras are smaller than full-frame cameras because they don’t need to fit a mirror inside – they use a digital viewfinder instead of an optical one. They have a compact size, and provide good image quality. The downside is that they generally have smaller sensors, like APS-C and MFT. I normally opt for both a compact pocket camera, and a mirrorless. Some are better suited to some situations, e.g. compact cameras are much less conspicuous in indoor environs, and places like subways – that’s why they are so good for street photography. More compactness = enhanced portability.
③ Resilience − When you travel, there is often very little time to worry about whether or not a camera is going to get banged up. Cameras made of metal are obviously somewhat heavier, but offer much better survivability if a camer is accidentally dropped, or banged against something. A camera constructed with a body made of magnesium alloy is both durable and lightweight. It is both corrosion resistant and can handle extremes in temperature well. A magnesium alloy body has less chance of cracking as opposed to a polycarbonate body.
④ Weather resistance − You can never predict weather, anywhere. Some places are rainy or drizzly, others environs are dry and may have particles of stuff blowing in the air. Obviously you’re not going to take photos in pouring rain, but dust and dirt are often a bigger concern. My Ricoh GRIII is not weather sealed, which seems somewhat crazy when you consider it is a street camera, but there are always tradeoffs that have to be considered. In the case of the GRIII, adding weather sealing would have resulted in less flexibility on lens barrel construction, button/dial layout, and heat dissipation. My Fuji X-H1 on the other hand is weather resistent. Of course you should also choose lenses which are weather resistent. If weather resistance is important, be sure to read up on the specifics for a camera. For example the Fuji X100V is deemed to be weather-sealed, but the lens is not. To achieve this you have to buy an adapter, and add a filter.
⑤ Weight − How much are you willing to lug about on a daily basis when travelling? You don’t want to choose a camera that is going to give you back or shoulder pain. Larger format cameras like full-frame are heavier, and have heavier, larger lenses. If choosing a camera with interchangeable lenses, you also have to consider their weight, and the weight of batteries, and anything else you want to carry. There are even differences between compact cameras, e.g. the GRIII is 257g, versus the X100V at 478g, 85% more.
⑥ Lenses − If you choose an interchangeable lens camera, then the next thing to do is choose some lenses… a topic which deserves numerous posts on its own. The question is what will you be photographing? In general it is easy to narrow the scope of lenses which are good for travelling because some just aren’t practical. Telephoto for example – there are few cases where one will need a telephoto when travelling, unless the scope of the travelling involves nature photography. Same with macro lenses, and fisheye lenses (which really aren’t practical at the best of times). In an ideal world the most practical lenses are in the 24-35mm (full-frame equivalent) range. I think prime lenses are best, but short-range zooms work quite well too. I would avoid long-range zooms, because you will always use the smaller focal lengths, and long-range zooms are heavy.
⑦ Batteries − Camera batteries should have a reasonably good use-time. Using camera features, and taking lots of photos will generally have an impact on battery life. For example using image stabilization a lot, being connected to wi-fi, or turning the camera on and off a lot will run down the battery. There are other things to consider as well. For example most batteries run down quicker in colder environs. Full-frame cameras are bigger, and therefore have a longer battery life than cropped-sensor cameras. Also determine if the camera just comes charging in-camera, you will likely need to buy an external charger. Some battery chargers are also slow. Ideally always carry extra batteries no matter what the manufacturer claims.
⑧ Use − What is the camera’s main use during travelling? Street-photography? Vlogging? Landscapes (for poster-sized prints)? Or perhaps just simple travel snapshots. If the latter, then a compact will work superbly. If you want to have the flexibility of different lenses, then a mirrorless camera makes the most sense.
⑨ Video − Do you plan to take videos on the trip? If yes, then what sort of capabilities are you looking for? Most cameras produce video in HD1080p, and some have 4K capability. Some cameras limit the length of a video. If you plan to use the camera mostly for video, choose one specced out for that purpose.
⑩ Stabilization − Many cameras now offer some form of image stabilization, which basically means that the camera compensates for rudimentary camera shake due to hand-holding the camera, and keeping the camera steady in low-light situations. This is more important for travel photography because it is cumbersome to lug around a tripod, and many places, like the Arche de Triumph won’t allow the use of tripods. Some compacts like the Ricoh RGIII do have stabilization, whereas others like the Fuji X100V do not.
The best way of choosing a camera is to first make a list of all the things you want from the camera. Then try and find some cameras which match those specifications. Then see how those cameras stack up against the considerations outlined above. Narrow down the list. When you have about three candidates, start looking at reviews.
I tend to stay away from the generic “big-box” style reviews of cameras, especially those who use the term “best of YEAR” in the title. I instead pivot towards bloggers who write gear reviews – they often own, have rented, or are loaned the cameras, and offer an exceptional insight into a cameras pros and cons, and provide actual photographs. Usually you can find bloggers that specialize in specific types of photography, e.g. street, travel, video. For example, for the Ricoh GRIII, here are some blog reviews worth considering (if anything they provide insight into what to look for in a review):
- 5050 Travelog – A travel blog which offers camera and lens reviews. (lots of Fuji)
- Eastern Portrait Photography – Review of the Ricoh GR III
- Malificent Images – A Long-term Review of the Ricoh GR III
- Compacts Shooter – Still the best: Ricoh GR III Long Term Review
Lastly, don’t worry about what professional photographers carry when travelling. Chances are they are on assignment, and carry an array of cameras and related equipment.