I recently received a message on facebook from a friend looking for advice on a travel camera. She wants to photograph her 4-week journey/adventure to the middle east to visit family, with a follow-up week at The Cochella Music and Arts Festival. To be completely honest I’m a tad jealous, but as a professional travel photographer I do have some pretty well tested thoughts and to help her (and possibly you) out in this matter.
First, I am writing this in March of 2017 so if you are reading this some time from now, technology will have changed, but the underlying philosophies will remain the same. Apply this to whatever camera is equivalent at the time.
Second, the best travel camera in the world is the one you have with you. Even if you are big baller status and can splurge on $30k of the highest end DSLR camera gear on the market it will do you no good if you leave it in the airbnb because you don’t feel like lugging around 10 pounds of metal and glass. Really evaluate this and what you are willing to do. It takes some time getting used to carrying a big camera with you all the time, and if you aren’t willing to do that the iPhone 7plus in your pocket is way better than the latest Sony/Canon/Leica flagship sitting at home.
Third, the amount you are willing to spend (to a degree) is proportionate to the quality of the camera you will get and the resulting images. I am going to give you ideas about how to do this as economically as possible, but expect to toss some money away in exchange for something that will help you keep those memories alive for the rest of your life. You have to look at the outlay as a long term investment, because you are going to come back to these photos and videos for the rest of your life.
What to Look for in a Travel Camera
I wouldn’t even consider a travel camera that has an image sensor less than 1-inch in size; forget megapixels. In reality you want to look at a larger sensor that has a lower megapixel count. This will give you an image with less noise, especially in lower light. Lets all be realists and admit that the chances of you making a 24”x36” high resolution print are pretty slim, and if you decide to do that there are plenty of software options out there to help you make the most of all the pixels you have available. You are probably going to be viewing the photos on an electronic device of some sort that really can’t display all of those megapixels and better noise or low light performance will really be what you are going to notice. If you are going with something that has a sensor smaller than 1” you would be better served with a smartphone that possesses a camera with optical zoom.
You want to find a travel camera that looks more ubiquitous than stylish. If a camera comes in multiple color options you want the most basic and boring black box you can find. This will help put the odds of being a target for theft ever so slightly in your favor. I typically even go one step further and cover up any logos or markings with black tape or vinyl decals and basically try to make the camera look as un-interesting to a thief as possible. You are going to be in a foreign place distracted by taking in all of the sights, sounds and smells that are new, and that is the type of environment thieves thrive on, so going for understated instead of stylish can help make you a less interesting target (however you still need to be aware of your surroundings).
You also want a means to back-up all of the photos that you take as frequently as possible. Hopefully most of the places you go will have Wi-Fi. Most modern point & shoot or mirrorless cameras can connect to a cloud service over Wi-Fi and upload the days photos. Frequent backups are super important, that way, if the worst happens, you won’t loose the memories of your entire trip, just what you have taken since your last backup. If you choose a camera that doesn’t have Wi-Fi there are memory cards out there from Eye-Fi that can add this feature to most modern cameras. If you choose to go the smartphone route there are apps like Dropbox or Amazon Photos that can do this for you as well.
Options for Renting vs Buying a Travel Camera
Most of the travel cameras I am recommending are not cheap, and if photography isn’t something you are into, may be more expensive than you are willing to own for the long term. There are two ways to get the use out of these cameras for the period of time you are looking for and do so economically. The first is renting them from a source like BorrowLenses.com (you can use this link https://www.talkable.com/x/DyyVBN to get $20 off your first rental) a really nice point & shoot that costs $700 – $1000 can be rented for six weeks for $200-$250 not including accessories, and memory cards, and the highest end Mirrorless or Micro 4/3 cameras and lenses that would cost upwards of $2500 can be had for $350-$400 for that amount of time.
The second option is buying and re-selling once you are done with your trip. This will take more time/effort on your part, but you can keep the cameras for longer (up to a couple of months) and possibly save a bit of money in the long run. If you are selling a camera that is new and still has 6-months or more of warranty attached to it, you should only loose about 15-20% of its value if you turn it around quickly, so that $1000 point and shoot could only cost you $150 to own for three months. The same holds true for an unlocked smartphone which can be purchased outright for $800 – $900 and then sold for most of their value upon your return if you aren’t in need of a new phone.
The one caveat that can cost you on this is if a new product is announced during the period which you own it, so do some googling about “x product update rumors” before you buy.
Travel Camera Recommendations
I am the most familiar with products from Canon, Sony, and Apple, so that is where my recommendations will come from. That being said I’ve heard good things about equivalent cameras from Olympus, Fuji, and Panasonic, but don’t have enough experience to expressly recommend them.
The Smartphone Option
As I mentioned above the iPhone 7 Plus or Moto Z + Hasselblad True Zoom Moto Mod would be great options for a travel camera, because they have “Optical Zoom” as opposed to “Digital Zoom.” In reality all that digital zoom is doing is cropping your photo before you take it. Lets say you start out with a 12-megapixel photo and crop half of the pixels away before you even take it you are starting with a 6-megapixel photo. Its always better to start with the best image possible. Also with these phones unlocked you can buy a pre-paid SIM card wherever you are and have a phone with a local number and the ability to share your adventures via social media.
For a compact point and shoot travel camera the Canon G7X Mark II or Canon G1X Mark II and Sony RX100IV or Sony RX100V are pretty hard to beat for a small package that produces amazing photos. You can purchase these or rent either one of them. These are super powerful little cameras that come in very small packages. I would also recommend getting a minimum of 2 – 32gb or 64gb memory cards and at least 1 extra battery. The charger that comes with them will be capable of converting international voltages, but you will likely need a plug adapter.
The Mirrorless Option(s)
Mirrorless cameras are great I personally own and use the Canon EOS M3 as my travel camera and I will recommend below. They have the same size sensor (APS-C) as a DSLR, but are closer in size to a point and shoot. This means AWESOME image quality, and convenient to carry around. The down side is that they are priced like DSLR cameras. I would recommend either the Canon EOS M3 with the EF-M 18-150mm lens and the Sony A6300 with the E PZ 18–105 mm F4 lens for this category. Just like the point and shoots I would recommend getting a minimum of 2 – 32gb or 64gb memory cards and at least 1 extra battery. The charger that comes with them will be capable of converting international voltages, but you will likely need a plug adapter.
While this goes slightly against my statement earlier, but if you are the adventurous type the only way I would recommend a point and shoot with a sensor smaller than 1” as a travel camera would be if was one that was also waterproof. The thing to realize is that you are giving up some quality to get a little extra capability. The two cameras I like in this group are the Olympus Tough TG-4 or the Fuji XP90. Just like above I would recommend getting a minimum of 2 – 32gb or 64gb memory cards and at least 1 extra battery. The charger that comes with them will be capable of converting international voltages, but you will likely need a plug adapter.
Feel free to let me know if you have any questions.