For many years, Matt and I travelled to amazing places with a very, very old point and shoot camera and our super dodgy iPhone 3’s. We visited places like Iceland and, with no money for a camera or understanding of how important it was, we took pretty bad quality photos and now, we have nothing but those to show for ourselves. I wish I could go back in time and have a better camera to capture the amazing places we visited. A great camera for travel is essential and, thanks to some great advancements in tech, not only are cameras better, there are cameras to suit a wider range of budgets and needs.
If you’re thinking about buying a new travel camera but are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information out there, I’m hoping this guide will be able to help you. Here, I’ve compiled everything I know and wish I knew about cameras, from start to finish, stepping you through everything you need to actually choose the very BEST new travel camera for you. I haven’t been paid to write it or mention anyone – this is my genuine, honest insight based on my experiences lugging camera gear around the world for the past few years. If there’s anything anyone thinks I’ve missed, please share your thoughts and insights in the comments.
1. Understand the different types of camera
Before you start looking for a new travel camera, it’s important to understand the different types of camera available. This will help you work out which one best suits your needs, travel style and budget. Here’s a breakdown of the four main types of travel camera.
For a long time, the DSLR was King of the cameras. When Matt and I bought our first good camera, we went straight for a DSLR as it offered the very best image quality, manual control and a range of lenses to play with. A DSLR is comprised of two parts – the body and the lens. Inside the body, there’s a mirror that reflects the light coming from the lens, sending it through a series of mirrors or a prism, to the viewfinder.
This means, you can see the exact image you’re going to capture and there’s no lag time, as you experience with a point and shoot or mirrorless camera. DSLR’s have great battery life, as the viewfinder uses very little power, but because of all that tricky mirror tech inside, even the smallest of DSLR’s is quite big and heavy. For me, my Canon 7D DSLR offers amazing quality photographs and control over each image I take but it’s expensive, bulky and heavy. Remember, you will get addicted and want new lenses and they ain’t cheap!
Best brands: You’ll find people who are loyal to different brands but both Nikon and Canon perform very well, when it comes to lenses I’m a big fan of the Sigma Art Series lenses, they’re so smooth and buttery.
Enter the era of the mirrorless camera, which has fast become the go-to choice for travellers! In fact, Matt and I are looking to switch to mirrorless this year. You’ll find mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than a DSLR. Remember all that stuff I said about DSLR’s and their mirrors? Well, as the name suggests, a mirrorless camera doesn’t have all that junk in its trunk, so it’s far lighter. The imaging sensor in a mirrorless is exposed to light at all times, which gives you a digital preview of your image, as opposed to seeing it with your own eye as you do with a DSLR.
You can still buy interchangeable lenses for a mirrorless, which is part of what makes it a BIG step above a point and shoot camera. While the camera itself will be lighter, if you go for a big lens it’s going to add weight, so keep in this mind when shopping. Mirrorless cameras offer excellent image quality and full manual controls, they can be much lighter than a DSLR but they burn through battery life faster. From what I’ve seen, mirrorless is a cheaper alternative to DSLR.
Best brands: The new Sony Alpha Series of cameras are legendary, so they’re definitely worth looking into, though Fujifilm throws down too.
Point & Shoot
The best thing about a compact point and shoot camera is the size and weight! They’re easy to slip and out of your pocket which, honestly, means you’ll probably take more photos than if you have to whip out your big DSLR or mirrorless each time (trust me, they get annoying). Don’t let the idea of a point and shoot put you off by conjuring up images of grainy, terrible photos because the technology has come a long way.
On the low end of things, you can get a fantastic, powerful little point and shoot for under $300. I recently bought a SONY RX100V for its video capabilities and it’s now my go-to camera over my DSLR because it’s so incredibly light, easy and fast to use, reliable and amazing in low-light situations. I love it. Mine was by no means cheap (coming in at around $1,400) but I use it nearly every day for work, so the cost is justified. A compact point and shoot camera doesn’t have to mean compromising on photo quality. Depending on your budget, they can offer fantastic, reliable images with absolute ease!
Best brands: Panasonic and Canon offer some great options for less and, of course, I love my Sony. Sony’s camera game is ridiculous at the moment! Although, I totally appreciate mine isn’t a low-budget option.
If you live for adventures, an action camera like a GoPro could be a fantastic choice for any of the others listed here. I met a photographer who exclusively shoots on GoPro and his images are fantastic, so there’s no reason an action camera couldn’t be your one and only camera too. Action cameras are incredibly light and relatively easy to use, especially as you can tether them to your phone and use it as a remote for the camera, making it perfect for solo travellers wanting to get photos of themselves. You can also do some really creative photography with an action camera + accessories, things like split-shots, where the photo is taken above and below the water at the same time. It’s awesome.
In addition, you will find waterproof housings far more affordable than you can for the camera types listed above. This means you can take your action camera skydiving, snowboarding and snorkelling with you. They capture amazing action video, are sturdy and open up a world of unique photography options. Of course, the disadvantages are around stability, the ability to manually control the shot, zoom and battery life.
2. Think about how you want to use it
Now you know the four main types of camera and what each of them actually does, plus a few of the pros and cons, it’s time to figure out how you want to use your new travel camera. This is going to help you decide which type of camera is best suited for you. From there, you can hone in on what, specifically, you need your camera to do then find the perfect one for you.
So, take some time to have an honest think about what type of traveller you are. If you love action and adventure, chances are you’re going to need something light. If you’re a luxury traveller who likes to chill out a lot, something a little heavier may not bother you. If you like to have full control over your travel photographs and really craft the shot, a DSLR might be more suited. If you just want to snap some images for the memories, a point and shoot might be your best bet.
It’s also important to be honest about how lazy you are because a DSLR is a big investment and if you don’t genuinely have the patience to learn how to use it in manual mode, maintain it properly and take the time to set each shot, you’re not going to get your money’s worth. This is where mirrorless cameras or a high-end point and shoot like mine make a great alternative.
3. Weigh up the ergonomics
Okay, so you’ve been real with yourself about how committed you are to travel photography, your travel style and photography needs, which means by this stage you should have a fairly good idea of the type of camera that’s going to suit you best. Now, it’s time to weigh up the ergonomics of the camera. When you start researching different brands, these are the things you’re going to want to look for.
Be sure to hold each camera in your hands so you can understand the size of it properly. Think about how you plan to transport it safely and securely. Will it need its own backpack or camera bag? How big will this need to be and how much bulk is that going to add to you? Will it fit easily in your carry-on for long-haul flights? If you’re after a point and shoot, will it fit snuggly and securely in your pocket? Does that mean it can easily be pickpocketed? If you’re after a DSLR, how big is the camera with the lens on and where/how are you going to store and transport the lenses?
Again, you need to hold the camera in your own two hands to truly understand the weight of the thing. My DSLR is ridiculously heavy but, when you first hold it, it feels so cool and professional you don’t really notice it. Trust me, after a 6-hour walking tour through Europe, you, your shoulder and your massage therapist know all about it. It’s important you get a very good feel for the weight of any camera you’re considering buying then think about how that weight converts to travel. A heavy camera and all its lenses won’t transport itself so think about how that weight will feel on your back or shoulder while in transit and how you can make that weight bearable. If you don’t think you can cope, choose a lighter option.
Trust me, the last thing you need is a flimsy camera that can’t take a knock. While you’ll have the very best intentions of keeping your beloved camera safe and sound, you are definitely going to drop it, bump it, scratch it or hit it at some point. Can it take a knock? Will it fall to pieces at the first bump? How is it in different weather situations? Does it handle damp weather situations okay? What happens if you’re somewhere really cold or really hot? Make sure your camera can stand up to all the different travel situations you’re going to put it through.
Ease of use
Is the camera you’re looking at within your capabilities or is it really complicated to work out? If you need to learn to use the camera in manual mode, are you committed to doing that? I love using my DSLR in manual mode as I love the control it affords me and I can take the shot exactly as I want to but it took me a while to learn how and, when I see a photo I want to take, it does take me a few minutes to set the shot up and get the settings right. What are the menus like? Do they look easy to figure out? What about the controls on top of the camera, do they make sense? If it all looks too crazy, it might not be right for you.
4. Understand the extras
Aside from the basic features and ergonomics, there are a few other things you’ll need to consider. Again, these will only come into play depending on what you want your camera to do for you.
This is a big one! When you’re out all day travelling, you either need a camera with fantastic battery life, lots of spare batteries for a camera with shitty battery life or a way to recharge batteries. Matt’s drone is a great example of this – it has a battery time of 20 minutes, it needs to be plugged into the wall to recharge and a spare battery is a few hundred dollars! It’s not ideal. My Sony point and shoot doesn’t have good battery life either but I can recharge it on-the-go using a battery pack, so it’s fine. By far, the camera with the best battery is my DSLR. It runs for days!
Image stabilisation will reduce shakiness when you’re shooting, which means reduced blurriness when you’re shooting in a low light situation. Without a tripod, I am pretty much unable to use my DSLR for video or low-light situations as it’s just so shaky when hand-held – the weight of the thing makes this problem even worse. My Sony RX100V has fantastic image stabilisation which is a big part of why I bought it and what makes it so good for video. Consider whether image stabilisation is something that matters to you.
Video mode features
If good quality video footage is a priority for you, you’re going to want to look into the video features of your potential new camera. The standard for high-definition (HD) is 1080p but you can also find cameras shooting as high as 4K, which is four times the resolution of 1080p. My Sony shoots in 4K but I don’t use it as it drains the battery and memory and it’s a bit unnecessary for what I’m doing. Consider if you want to be able to shoot in slow-motion too.
Think about how you want to access your photos and if it’s important for your camera to have wifi connectivity. If it doesn’t this means you’ll need to download the photos from your computer/laptop to access them. If it does, you can transfer photos from your camera to your device – perfect for getting a great snap on your phone and social media quickly and easily.
5. The cost of camera accessories
The cost of a camera doesn’t start and end with the purchase of the camera itself, trust me. Here are a few other things to consider as they’ll impact the overall spend on your camera and could potentially impact your decision on what to go with.
If you’re shelling out big bucks for an amazing camera, it needs to be protected properly. So, factor in the cost of a very good quality camera bag that offers reliable protection for your camera, I’d also recommend it’s waterproof, comfortable on your back and shoulders and meets airline carry-on requirements. Because my Sony is so small, I sewed a little soft-lined bag for it myself, which saved a bit of money.
If your camera is going to have a low battery life, be sure to factor in the cost of additional batteries. Like I said, the cost of extra drone batteries is huge and with a 20 minute flight time, additional batteries may be essential, bumping up the overall cost of your camera.
Cost of memory cards
Before you buy, look into the cost of memory cards for your camera so you aren’t shocked when you go to the check-out and have the salesperson ring you up for an extra few hundred dollars. Again, it’s just one of those things you need to buy but will, ultimately, bump up the overall price of your camera.
6. Shop around and know what you want
Before you start looking at cameras and go out shopping, make sure you have a really clear idea of what it is you want. When we get into stores it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information a salesperson shares with you and they’re often speaking a lingo us mere mortals may not properly understand. So, be very clear on what it is you do and do not want. Know your budget and stick to it. When you go into a store, be confident and well-informed. I always do detailed research before I go, so I’m rock-solid in my knowledge and, when I’m talking to them, the salesperson knows I understand what I’m talking about. Decide what you need first, then find a camera that matches that.
I’d also recommend watching YouTube reviews of cameras, that’s how I found my Sony. I was tossing up between it and the Canon G7X but after watching one really great, detailed review that explained everything in human terms, I knew the Sony suited me better. If you’re a visual learner, seeing the camera in action and a compare/contrast of different features may be really helpful.
While online research and online shopping are great tools, especially if you find a great sale online that saves you some money, it is important you go into a store and hold that camera in your own two hands so you can properly understand its size, weight and quality. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: choose a camera that is the best quality you can afford for your budget and be very aware of how heavy it is. There’s a reason my Sony is my favourite – the photos are great quality and it’s light as a feather!