Want to know a secret? Every single camera on the market is perfect for someone. The trick is figuring out which one is right for you and your travel style, so here’s my take on what travel photographers should know when buying a camera.
First, figure out which general style best fits your needs.
A DSLR camera provides “pro” features like interchangeable lenses and lighting-fast auto focus, but they also cost thousands of dollars, and for me, they’re just too big and heavy to carry around when I’m on the road.
At the other end of the spectrum, budget compact cameras are small, portable and affordable. However, I tend to stay away from these just because my iPhone has essentially the same capabilities, while also letting me edit and share images on the fly.
So that leaves the middle-of-the-road cameras, what some call “prosumer” cameras. Most are not quite pocket-sized, but still small enough to fit in a backpack or purse. I use a Canon G11, but there are many great options from all the major manufacturers. I find this style of camera works great in most situations, though they do leave something to be desired in low-light or when you need good autofocus, like for shooting a moving subject.
The next step is to consider which features you really need.
Some people may balk at cameras like my G11 for their lack of long zoom capabilities, preferring to pay extra for something with a serious telephoto lens. But despite camera makers spending outsized time talking up how much zoom their cameras have, it’s really not that useful unless you plan to do some police stakeouts or serious wildlife photography.
The key to good travel photos is to capture people and their settings together, and wide-angle is the best focal length for this kind of photography. I always leave my camera zoomed out as far as it can go, opting instead to “zoom with my feet” by walking to within arm’s length of my subjects. So instead of buying a camera based on how far out it zooms, look for the how wide the lens is (28mm equivalent or lower is ideal).
Speaking of the lens, “faster” is a good feature to look for as well.
And by a “fast” lens, I’m talking about the size of the aperture, which dictates how much light the lens allows through to the sensor. A bigger opening equal more light, more quickly, and therefore better performance when you’re indoors or in the shade. To compare while you’re shopping, look for the f-stop number. A good camera should have a number of F/2.8 or below (the smaller the number, the bigger the aperture).
Try your top three choices in person.
Once you narrow down the choices based on the above criteria (which can be done through online research), go to a camera store so you can physically hold and take pictures with each camera you’re considering. Try different settings, test the autofocus, scroll through the menus to see if they make sense. Whichever one has the most intuitive controls and fits comfortably in your hands is the one for you.
The philosophy of this blog is that good travel photography absolutely does not require an expensive camera. Of course this guide is based on my own experiences, so if you have some can’t-live-without features of your own, feel free to share them in the comments.