What is the perfect camera for traveling? A smartphone, a Go-Pro, a compact camera, a bridge camera, or a DSLR? If DSLR, should it be an amateur, advanced or professional level camera?
Although there is not a single one and universal “perfect camera for traveling”, you might find the perfect camera for your kind of person. Therefore, before embarking on the difficult task of deciding which camera is perfect for traveling, you should ask yourself what kind of traveler and photographer you are. Or, rather, what kind of traveling photographer you want to be.
TYPE OF TRAVELER ACCORDING TO PHOTOGRAPHY
In my experience, there are five large groups of travelers when it comes to photography: those who don’t care much about taking photos and maybe take one occasionally; those who mainly take selfies and random photographs to everything that moves around, not worrying at all about quality photos or practicing photography as an art; those who enjoy taking good photos but didn’t want to learn the techniques and wouldn’t know how to use a professional camera; those who love photography, spent time learning and want to take the most out of their good cameras, because photography is always the most important part of their trips; and those who are professional photographers or are near that stage.
If you don’t care much about photography, it is not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe that you will regret not having in the future those memories of your travels. If you are constantly taking selfies at every park, monument, landscape, or with every person you meet on the road… I would recommend you to reduce your egocentrism a bit. Moreover, please stop taking thousands of bad pictures of random things without much interest, because no one will ever want to see those (not even you). If you are of the latter group, do not buy a DSLR camera. What’s more, you do not need to waste money on any kind of camera: keep using your smartphone (with the selfie stick?): it’s more than enough.
Let’s talk seriously now. If you are the kind of people who enjoy taking pictures but do not want to spend a bundle, you have a lot of options to choose among. If you have a low budget or if it is important for you to go light weight -backpackers-, it would not be a bad idea to invest in a smartphone with a very good camera -like new iPhone models-. That way you also reduce the amount of electronic devices. Buying a cheap camera is not going to improve significantly the quality of the photos taken with a good smartphone. Maybe a GoPro style camera could give you a series of benefits such as being able to put it into the water (some smartphones also do this) or the ultra-wide angle view, as well as being able to carry it around in areas where carrying an expensive phone in your hand wouldn’t be advisable (I think a smarphone call more the attention of thieves than a small and squared GoPro style camera). But even if videos made with GoPro are interesting, the quality and type (ultra-wide angle distorts a lot) of the photos are not so good.
And then, if you really like photography, if it’s one of the reasons why you love to travel and you plan to devote to photography a lot of time during your trip, you can start thinking about investing in a DSLR (digital reflex) or EVIL camera (not reflex but with similar sensor and interchangeable lenses). My advice is not to waste time with compact cameras or bridge cameras, because if you really like photography you will soon fall short. And if you do not fall short is because you do not like photography so much, and then you would have had enough with the camera of an iPhone or similar smartphone, as I described in the previous section.
Ok, but then, what DSLR, or what EVIL camera should I get? Let’s analyze each of the different types of devices in detail.
THE PERFECT CAMERA FOR TRAVELING
Suitable mainly for action videos, because taking photos with it has many disadventages. The GoPro is useful for travelers who just want to record some memories and carry little weight, or a device that they can put into water or carry during a trekking with ease. It is also ideal for making self-videos without the need for a selfie stick, because its ultra-wide angle lens makes it possible to see almost your full body just extending your arm. Of course, in low light conditions the photographs will have a very low quality; similarly, photographs requiring a high shutter speed will most likely be blurry. And as I said before, the ultra-wide angle distorts a lot the image and is not good for every ocassion. There are similar cameras of lesser known brands at a much lower price, and they can give practically the same results. If you pretend to be a youtuber, it can be a perfect tool together with your smartphone.
Mobile with quality camera (iPhone)
Most likely you have to take a smartphone to your trip no matter how: you need it to book hotels, send emails to the family, guide you with maps.me and so on… Then, it is nota bad idea to invest in a smartphone that has a good camera too, so you’ll save the money of buying a normal quality camera. Even more now that some smartphones even come with 2 cameras to create the bokeh effect. You will not be able to compare your photos with those taken with professional full-frame cameras, nor the flexibility of lenses and other accessories, but what you will save in cash, weight and space is something to consider. This option is ideal for someone who wants photos to share in social media and to remember the trip in the future but does not feel a special passion for photography.
Compact and bridge cameras
I do not recommend them to anyon., I think they will soon be extinct. If you like photography, you’ll soon want a DSLR; if you do not like photography so much, a smartphone with a good camera will give you almost the same result at a lower cost, weight and space needed. If you are backpacker you could be interested only in case you do not want to have a smartphone, but in any other case it would be much more advisable to buy a GoPro before any of these types of cameras. That is, if you already have a smartphone with a good camera, the perfect complement is a GoPro for cool videos and action activities, not a compact or bridge camera.
DSLR Cameras (Reflex cameras)
Here comes the crux of the dilemma. If you really like photography and plan to spend a lot of time during your travels into it, as it is one of the reasons why you love traveling so much, think about buying a DSLR. There are lots of options in the market, with several brands doing good cameras, and depending on your budget you can find them from some $450 USD up to $3,000 USD or even more.
I personally have had three Nikon models. I started with the D3100 -initial level-, then moved to the D5300 when the previous one was stolen -intermediate level-, and from there I went to the D610 -basic model of the professional level-. Why didn’t I buy Canon? Because I think in the low and medium range models Nikon is far superior to Canon. In the high range they are much more even, being a matter of preference.
Which are the PROS and CONS about each model and camera levels? The Nikon D3x00 series (D3100, D3200, D3300 …) is ideal for anyone who feels in their heart that they want to focus on photography and enjoy it to the fullest, but do not have a high budget, or are afraid to carry a camera of more than $1,000 USD traveling around places where it could be stolen. Also for those who want to learn first or want to check how does it feel and later decide whether they want to progress and buy something better. Also for those who prioritize the weight over anything else (people into hiking, for instance), as these cameras can be around 700gr in total including the lens. Later we will talk more about lenses.
The next level, the D5300 and above, is still for the same type of users, but are a bit more expensive and aimed at those with more interest in recording video because this series has a tilting screen. Few differences regarding photography quality, since they often use exactly the same sensors and technologies. It can be a good starting camera for those who can afford it and do not intend to buy something better in the future. There is an intermediate series between D5x00 and the professional level: the series of the D7100 and above; cameras already quite advanced and more expensive although not full frame. It is a camera I would never recommend to buy because I feel it is not cheap and small enough for those who want to try, and not good enough for those who want to be into it. If you are thinking about this model, I would advise you to expend a bit more and buy a full frame sensor camera.
The larger size of the full frame sensor -same size as the negative size of analog cameras-, is what makes the D610 that I have now the first step of professional cameras in Nikon. For me, this model was the one I identified as the perfect camera to travel in my personal case. It significantly increases the price (around $1,400 USD without lens) and weight (762gr.), but it is still quite cheaper and a bit lighter than the more advanced models of Nikon and other brands.
DSLRs are undoubtedly an ideal option for those who wish to dedicate themselves to photography with intentions to do some professional work during their trips too, even if it is just an idea for the future. Investing in more expensive models of DSLRs is something that depends on your budget, but I believe that anyone who does not earn a salary from photography has enough with this model. I mean: if you don’t get money selling your photos, why do you need the best professional camera? I think it is enough with an entry level. Even those who are professionally engaged in photography would have enough with the model immediately above, the D750, which in image quality is virtually identical to the D610 and only enhances the focusing system, which can be quite useful depending on what type of photography you do.
Recently we have seen some amazing models to be launched into the market. I would mention first the professional full-frame models of Sony: a7, a7R and the news a7 II and a7R II. Truly amazing cameras. These are mirrorless cameras, being that the main difference with DSLR reflex cameras. They don’t have optical viewfinder but a digital one, so what you see is a digital image instead of the real world. This is one of the reasons why its battery life is around half of that of the professional DSLRs. However, image quality is as good as that of best Nikon’s and Canon’s models, and they also have a good amount of lenses to choose among (even if not so large as those of Nikon and Canon) and they are quite lighter (400gr the old models and around 550gr the new ones). Pricewise they are around the same price too, from $1,000 USD the old a7 to $1,700 USD the a7 II and $2,700 the a7R II (approximate price, body only).
As well, do not hesitate to look at Fujifilm X-T1 and X-Pro1 cameras, they stay below the 500gr and its price is very cheap now that the new X-T2 and X-Pro2 came out. Of course, the battery lasts much less than those of DSLRs, and there are fewer lenses to choose from. Regarding photographic quality, this model is not full-frame, but still can be compared with those advanced models of Nikon and Canon.
The shorter battery life is non an issue from my point of view, as you can always carry 1 or 2 spare batteries for a little extra cost.
Once you have found your perfect camera for traveling, it is time to choose your lens. For those who are pragmatic, the ideal option is to get a zoom lens. Nikon’s classic zoom lens is the 24-70mm f/2.8 is very versatile, but a bit heavy (1.1kg) and expensive ($2,000+ USD). Expensive doesn’t mean best, and the photo quality of any zoom lens will be always lower than that of a good fixed lenses. Another kind of zoom lens that I like is the 16-35mm: Nikon, Canon and Sony have one model each with this focal distance range.
Fixed lenses are ideal for those who want to enjoy photography emphasizing quality and light weight, ideal fixed lenses. Having only one focal distance and at the time forces you to move and helps to improve your photographic skills. In my case, I only shoot with fixed lenses now, being the main one used the Nikkor 24mm f/1.8G. I also carry a Nikkor 50mm 1.8D and, sometimes, a Nikkor 85mm 1.8G and an ultra-wide angle Samyang 14mm 2.8 (this one quite heavier), which I take depending on the moment or the trip. In the end I am carrying much more weight in total than if I had only one zoom lens, but in my hand I never have a very heavy camera+lens. This is the last headache of a photographer: what is the best lens? As you can imagine, this is a problem only for those who have fallen completely in love with this beautiful (and expensive) hobby that is photography.