Choosing the Right Travel Camera Part 1: Basics

The camera you choose is more about your travel style than anything else. It’s also about just how much you are willing to put up with to get the photos you want. It’s not true to say that there are unlimited options when it comes to choosing a camera, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed...

The camera you choose is more about your travel style than anything else. It’s also about just how much you are willing to put up with to get the photos you want. It’s not true to say that there are unlimited options when it comes to choosing a camera, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed nonetheless.

This is the first installment in a short run of posts dealing with choosing the right camera – for you. First we’ll deal with the, shall we say, philosophical considerations for a camera purchase. Later posts will delve into the nitty-gritty details and technical considerations once you understand how you want to use the camera of your dreams and finally I’ll reveal the camera I chose for our trip and go over why I made the choice I did.

It’s important to remember that any camera involves some sort of compromise – be it size, speed, durability, versatility or image quality, and this is doubly true for a travel camera. Realistically speaking, there are only a few major considerations to take into account when you pick the camera that will be at your side every step of the way, and I’ll outline them below. You’ll find that with a basic grasp of some photographic concepts and a realistic idea of how you plan to use a camera, the choice becomes easier than you would at first believe.

How important are pictures to you, really?

This may seem like a silly question, but if you look at it on a deeper level, it’s probably the most important question in your decision process. Are you someone who cherishes their photographs, makes elaborate slideshows, uploads to facebook and flickr, and makes prints? That is to say, are you very involved with your photographs? Or, are you a casual snapper, someone who takes the odd party picture and a shot here and there to memorialize the moment, but would rather keep the evidence in your mind’s eye? I tend to fall into the first camp, though being a former professional photographer, I do have some reservations about taking too many photographs, and forgetting to actually be “in the moment.”

The answer to this question will determine your outlay for photographic equipment, the more important photos are to you, the more you’ll probably end up spending on your camera.

How much gear do you want to carry?

At the most basic level, there are two paths to take when it comes to choosing a camera: removable lenses or not. Once you make that decision, this process becomes somewhat simpler. Or, at the very least, you have fewer choices. Simply put, removable lenses mean better image quality, but they also mean more trappings, thus more gear to lug with you and to worry over. Again, this goes back to the first question: if photos are important to you, it’s probably worth looking into a camera with removable lenses.

What will you do with your photos?

Forgive me if I begin to sound like a broken record here, but this ties in to the first question once more. You can be very involved with your photos and the photo process, but it’s important to be realistic about your end product. How often do you print photos? If you do print them, how big do you go? Do you have any other uses for your pictures that might require more resolution? For example, as a designer I often had to blow images up well past the point of imagining. Some murals I made were over 50 feet long, so my requirements for resolution are a little more stringent than most. I also plan to place my better images on some stock photo websites while we travel as a potential source for additional income, so again resolution becomes important.

However, for the average photographer, realistically your photos will never been seen anywhere other than a computer (or mobile phone) screen. Maybe you’ll make a few prints, but that is increasingly unlikely as our world digitizes. The bottom line here is this:

Unless you plan to make large prints or murals (and I mean very large), a camera with a good lens needs no more than 8 megapixels of resolution to do everything you could ever want.

Of course, there are always caveats to a statement like this. Nothing is absolute in the world of photography. An 8MP sensor in a pocket-sized camera is by no means the same quality as an 8MP sensor in a removable lens camera. So the revised bottom line is this: don’t get caught up in the megapixel wars. Anything over 12MP is more resolution than you will ever use, and on a small sensor camera (pocket-sized) more megapixels generally means more noise and poorer low-light performance. I used a Panasonic LX-3 for years, and that 10MP camera would happily enlarge sharp, clear photos to 16×20 and beyond. I shot a Canon 20D 8.2MP DSLR for nearly all of my wedding photo career and never had a single word of complaint, and I enlarged photos from that camera to well over 5 feet high.

Summing it up…

It seems as though picking a camera to travel with follows much the same mantra as choosing what to put in your backpack: take a long hard look at how much you need certain things, and be very realistic about the usage, both past and future, of what you bring. It’s easy to end up with a camera that is bogged down with unneeded features, size, resolution, or what have you if you’re not careful.

In my next post we’ll deal with some of the technical aspects of choosing your camera. Just what is the big deal about sensor size, bokeh, removable or fixed lenses, minimum aperture and how do these things affect your photos? You’ll find this out and more!

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5 comments Leave a comment

  1. My camera is a Nikon D40 with 6.0 megapixels. I feel like no one believes me when I say it’s more than enough “megapixel power” for what I need!! I’m no expert, but I at least know that!

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Jul. 26 2012 @ 11:08 pm
    1. Jill author

      Yeah, it’s easy to get caught up in the “more is better” school, but I tend to believe that if something did everything I wanted when I first got it, a newer version of said thing doesn’t take away the original’s ability to still do what I need. That said, I’m certainly not exempt from gear lust, and I did just buy a new camera to replace a perfectly good camera, but I have my (legitimate) reasons, which will be made clear soon enough.

      Jul. 26 2012 @ 11:22 pm
  2. I’m glad you pointed out that sensor size is the main factor in determining the quality of an image, while the number of mega-pixels mainly determines the size. So many people just go for this highest megapixel camera (in many cases due to “encouragement” form a salesperson).

    Jul. 27 2012 @ 2:17 am
    1. Daniel McBane author

      Yeah, sensor size is usually the first thing to look at if image quality is your primary concern, but like anything else, it’s always a game of compromises. Certainly just going for the highest megapixel count is not a very good tactic!

      Jul. 27 2012 @ 10:51 am

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