Today, professional photographer Laurence Norah of Finding the Universe, continues his five part series on taking better travel photos. Many of you are looking to improve your photography so Laurence is here to help us do just that. Part one in the series went over the basics while part two was on taking the perfect shot. In this post, Laurence goes in-depth on how to pick the perfect camera and gear for your trip.
There is a belief that better photography gear will equate to better photographs. While this is certainly the case in specific situations, the reality is that it is the skill of the photographer that makes all the difference. A pro-level camera in inexperienced hands will likely result in worse photographs than those taken by someone using an iPhone.
Knowing how to compose a great photo and how to use your camera properly are the two most important parts of taking a great photo, with the camera gear itself coming next in importance after these two.
Sometimes, gear does make a difference, particularly for situations such as fast-moving subjects or when there is less light available, in which case you might need a camera with a bigger sensor or a lens with a wider aperture. This is why you often seen sports or wedding photographers carrying such expensive-looking equipment. But for your average travel photograph, the gear isn’t going to be the definitive factor. Rather, it’s important to get the right gear for you, your budget, and your skill level.
3 Things to consider
There are three points to consider when purchasing a camera: how expensive it is, how heavy it is, and how likely you are to learn how to use it.
Don’t get overwhelmed by talk of megapixels, sensor size, and focal lengths when you start out. Focus on your specific basic requirements, which will help inform which camera to buy.
There’s no point spending time looking at gear that isn’t in your budget. Set yourself a budget before you begin, and don’t forget to factor in lenses, memory cards, spare batteries, filters, and other accessories.
There is a law of diminishing returns, with a sweet spot currently of around $500–1,000 USD for a solid setup that will do everything you need.
Consider these price guidelines for all the equipment you’ll need:
- Budget: $150–300 USD
- Value: $300–500 USD
- Mid-range: $500–1,000 USD
- High-end: $1,000+ USD
Weight is a serious consideration, and you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what you are willing to carry with you. I’ve often met people taking pictures with their smartphone who say they have a nice expensive DSLR sitting back in their hotel room that was “too heavy to bring out today.”
If you’re not the kind of person who wants to carry a heavy device, then don’t buy one in the first place. The best camera is always the one you have on you, so if you think you’re going to mostly just be keeping it light, then just invest in a decent smartphone or simple point-and-shoot.
For reference, your smartphone probably weighs around 6 oz., a point-and-shoot 8 oz., a mirrorless system with a lens around 16 oz., and a full DSLR system around 30 oz. or more.
The heavier the equipment, the higher the quality of construction, particularly of the optical elements, leading to higher-quality images. However, unless you are planning on selling your work for high-resolution printing, the difference probably won’t be noticeable.
This is another moment to be honest with yourself. Learning how to use a camera properly takes time, and if you don’t want to do that, then don’t invest in an overly expensive or complicated camera.
I’ve seen people with rigs costing in excess of $5,000 USD, shooting away in auto mode and wondering why the folks with the iPhones are getting better results. More expensive gear does not automatically equate to better photos!
There’s no exact science to figuring out how difficult a camera is to use, but difficulty indicators include costing more, having more buttons, and having a massive manual. The more complicated the camera, the more control that you have, but the harder it will be to achieve good results without investing time and effort into learning.
What kind of camera to buy
The main difference between camera types is the size of the sensor inside the camera — the larger the sensor, the better the camera will perform in lower light, and the bulkier and more expensive it will be.
The following list is roughly ordered by sensor size, from small (smartphones) to larger (SLRs).
The latest smartphones come with some pretty impressive camera technology built in, plus you can geotag your photos, edit them, and share them directly from the device.
Advantages: They’re always with you; decent quality; easy to use; no laptop required.
Disadvantages: No zoom; not great in low light; limited (but improving!) manual options.
Recommended smartphone cameras
- Android: LG G4. I’ve used a lot of Android phones over the years, and the recently launched LG G4 is a beast when it comes to mobile photography. It offers full manual control, a super f/1.8 aperture lens, the option to shoot in RAW file format, optical image stabilization, and even pretty good performance in low light. Price: $200 USD on contract, $400–600 USD unlocked.
- iPhone: iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus. I’ve never personally used an iPhone, but they are often lauded by friends as being superb for photography, with each iteration improving on the last. If you’re an Apple fan, you’ve probably already got one though. Price: $200 with contract, $650+ USD without.
I have to admit that I’ve not used a point-and-shoot for a long time — I’m either using my mirrorless system, my DSLR, or my smartphone.
Still, if you want something that offers a zoom and comes in a portable, usually inexpensive package, a point-and-shoot can be a good option, and more recent models come packing built-in Wi-Fi and GPS.
Some manufacturers, namely Sony, have put out some remarkably advanced point-and-shoot models in recent years, with larger sensors and excellent image quality, although you will pay much more for these.
Advantages: Light, cheap options available; easy to use.
Disadvantages: Usually no manual options; not a great step up from a smartphone camera.
Recommended point-and-shoot cameras
- Sony RX 100 IV: While this is by no means a cheap point-and-shoot, it is generally reviewed as best in class. This is due to having a much larger sensor than other models, meaning that the image quality is a lot better. Price: $950 USD.
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ10: At the other end of the scale is this $100 USD point-and-shoot from Panasonic. It’ll get the job done, offers a 12x optical zoom, and will slip nicely into your pocket. Don’t expect National Geographic–quality shots though. Price: $100-200 USD.
- Canon Powershot G16: Thought it sits between the above two options in price, the G16 comes a lot closer to the Sony in terms of image quality. Excellent battery life, rugged construction, and Wi-Fi round out the feature set. Price: $450 USD.
Action cameras are essentially highly specialized point-and-shoots, designed for more rugged adventures, meaning they are often waterproof and shockproof. They don’t offer changeable lenses or much manual control, but if your travels involve activities like white water rafting or other extreme activities, these are your only option.
Advantages: Light; great picture quality for the size; rugged.
Disadvantages: Can be costly; limited manual control; no zoom.
Recommended Action Cameras
- GoPro Hero 4 Silver: Despite other manufacturers’ attempts, there is only one option when it comes to action cameras, and that’s the GoPro range. I recommend the Hero 4 Silver because it comes with a touch screen, so you can see what you’re shooting. Price: $400 USD.
This is a fairly unique type of camera that sits between a point-and-shoot and an SLR, with the advantage that they offer a great zoom (up to 42x magnification!) in a single package. Larger than a point-and-shoot, they are typically smaller and lighter than an SLR and offer a flexible and versatile solution.
If you’re on a reduced budget and don’t want to be fiddling around with changeable lenses, but still want good manual controls and decent image quality, this is the type of camera to get. I was on a trip in the Galápagos with a guy who swore by his Nikon superzoom, and I was impressed by the photos he was getting of landscapes and wildlife.
Advantages: Great zoom; all in one; manual controls; more compact than an SLR; budget friendly.
Disadvantages: No upgradeability; image quality not as good as a more expensive system; still relatively bulky.
Recommended superzoom cameras
- Nikon P530: Nikon has an excellent reputation for superzooms, and this is the model with that crazy 42x optical zoom. It’s a bargain too, with solid reviews, so I have no hesitation suggesting this as an option if you want an all in one with scope for more control over your photography. Price: around $350 USD. (Here are some more options to consider at different price points.)
Mirrorless cameras are where the greatest strides in image quality and portability have been made recently, with brands like Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and Fuji putting out some truly excellent cameras.
When recommending cameras to folks who are keen to get into photography, I almost exclusively recommend mirrorless cameras if they have the budget.
Mirrorless cameras can offer image quality on par with bulkier SLRs but in a smaller, lighter package. They also offer the other advantages of an SLR, including full manual controls and, most importantly, interchangeable lenses, meaning you have access to a wide range of options to meet your photography style. I’ve personally used both Sony and Panasonic mirrorless systems and have been very happy with them.
Advantages: Lighter and more portable than an SLR; excellent image quality; great in low light; full manual controls.
Disadvantage: More expensive (especially with lenses!); no optical viewfinder; battery life can sometimes be an issue; not as many lenses available as with Canon or Nikon systems.
Recommended mirrorless systems
I’d suggest looking at the following models, which often rate highly; reading some comparison reviews; and figuring out which fits best into your budget. Factors such as image quality, low-light performance, and optical image stabilization should play highly into your consideration.
- Panasonic: Lumix GX7 ($650 USD) or GX8 ($1,000+ USD)
- Sony: Alpha 6000 ($800 USD) or A7R II ($3,200 USD)
- Fuji: XT-1 ($1,200 USD)
- Olympus: OM-D EM II ($650 USD)
Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR)
Widely regarded as the pinnacle of photography gear, I’d generally advise against buying a DSLR for travel unless you are a professional or have specific lens requirements.
The main reason you would want a DSLR is the wide range of lenses available, with Canon and Nikon currently making some of the best (and most expensive) lenses available.
For general travel purposes though, you’re not likely to want to cart around a series of insanely heavy and expensive lenses, or really an SLR at all. Opt instead for a mirrorless system.
Advantages: Great image quality; wide selections of lenses; optical viewfinder.
Disadvantages: Expensive, heavy.
- Canon EOS 6D: I shoot with two of these cameras and am always impressed by their performance, particularly in low light. They are the lightest SLRs with a full-frame sensor, and also have Wi-Fi and GPS, the latter being particularly handy for travel. Price: $1,400+ USD.
A note on lenses
If you are buying a mirrorless or SLR system, then you’re going to have to buy a lens. Consider spending at least as much on the lens as the camera body, if not more.
I suggest buying the camera body by itself and then buying a lens to meet your needs rather than the “kit-lens” that might come with it.
A lens has two specifications: focal length and maximum aperture.
The smaller the number of the aperture, the more light the camera will let in, allowing you to achieve various effects (as I described in the second post in this series).
The focal length is the zoom factor of the lens — the bigger the number in mm, the more magnification the lens offers; the smaller the number, the less magnification.
What to look for in a lens
For travel purposes, I’d advise buying two lenses:
- A cheaper “prime” lens with a fixed focal length of around 50mm and an aperture of 1.8, perfect for portraits or food.
- A good-quality “walk-around” zoom lens with a wide focal range to let you get everything from wide landscapes to close-up shots of people. Something in the range of 24-105mm would likely do.
You must factor in some money for purchasing accessories when buying a camera. I’d suggest the following:
- Spare battery: Most camera batteries last for 300-500 shots, so if you think you’ll be taking a lot of photos and might be away from power for a few days, a second battery could ensure that you don’t miss a moment. I’d advise buying the battery from your manufacturer to guarantee compatibility. Price: usually around $30 USD.
- External hard drive: Depending on the capacity of your laptop, you might find you need an external hard drive to store your photos. I travel with threeTranscend ruggedized hard drives and store backups of my photos across two of them, as well as synchronize them to a cloud-based backup when I have fast enough Internet. Price: currently around $99 USD for a 2TB model.
- Filters: Lenses aren’t cheap. Pick up a relatively inexpensive UV filter for the front of your lens, and if you scratch it, you’ll just need to replace the filter rather than the whole lens. I would also suggest investing in a polarizing filter (as I mentioned in the second post in the series). Price: the larger the filter, the more expensive it is. $10–100 USD, with Hoya, B+W, and Tiffen being respectable brands.
- Memory cards: Memory cards are cheap, so pick up one or two Class 10 32Gb or 64Gb cards that’ll let you keep shooting for ages. I’ve not found much difference between brands, and have never had a card fail in all my years shooting. Price: $30 USD for 64Gb.
- Tripod: A tripod can really expand your creative possibilities, letting you take longer exposures and play with time. Even a small travel tripod can reap dividends for your photography. Again though, if you don’t think you’ll use it, don’t buy one. Price: $100 USD will get you a perfectly respectable model. I use the VEO range of Vanguard tripods, which fit nicely into a bag and weigh around 5 lbs, with prices ranging from $100 to $350 USD.
Never forget that the most powerful photography tool is you — not your camera! I traveled the world with an old 10-megapixel Canon Rebel SLR for years, producing both award-winning and income-generating photography from — by today’s standards — a very basic bit of kit. I only upgraded my photography gear when the limitations of my photography were very clearly my gear rather than myself.
It is far more important to invest time into learning how to take better photos than throwing money at gear. Do your research, figure out your personal travel style, and pick the gear that is right for you, based on weight, price, and your personal learning goals.
If that camera turns out to be a smartphone, awesome. The best camera for you is the one you are going to be taking with you whenever you walk out your door and head into the world and the one that fits your budget.