What To Look For In A Travel Camera

by Lissie

I've travelled a lot, and I like to take decent photos. Here are some tips on what to look for when you are shopping for a camera for your next trip

There is no one best answer to the question: what is a good camera for travel? It all depends on who's traveling and how! You really need to work out how important a camera is for you, and look at your budget, as well as your traveling style.

For many people, you will end up with better travel photos if, instead of spending top dollar on a new camera , you spend some time learning how to make better photos with the one you already own.

Prague, Czech Republic

Almost dark, using a flash, a cheap camera probably wouldn't have done so well
Difficult lighting conditions, it was almost dark
Difficult lighting conditions, it was...

What Is The Best Camera For Travel?

Now let's be clear - there is no one answer to this question, what's "best" for me would probably be a horror for a professional photographer and too much for a beginner photographer. Instead of a simple answer, I'm instead I'm going to give you a set of criteria to work out what you want from your camera that you take travelling. You will probably be saving your money for your travels - so to be me you need to trade off cost, for what camera features you want.

What To Look For In A Travel Camera

Basically when I look for a camera to take travelling I want it all:

  • best picture quality 
  • wide lens (24mm) for landscape shots 
  • zoom lens (at least 10X) for people shots 
  • light weight and compact 
  • takes regular batteries so I can buy replacements easily and cheaply 
  • doesn't cost a fortune.

Well like I say - its a wish list - and there is of course no such camera available!

So lets work out what you need from a your Travel Camera: over to you first some questions:

What's Your Budget?

  Display results
Its a trade off - you do get better quality if you pay more, but on the other hand if you are inexperienced you may well get better photos just by learning some basic photographic techniques

How Important Is Photography To You?

  Display results
If you really just want to record the fact that you went on vacation - maybe your iPhone will do?

Kaiteriteri, Nelson, New Zealand

Wide angle is good for general landscapes
A wide angle lens is like a 16:9 movie compared to the old 4:3 TV shoes
A wide angle lens is like a 16:9 movi...

Champs Elysees from the Eiffel Tower , Paris

Without a good zoom this shot would have been bland - its about 5km away
Very cold and clear in Paris, taken with max 20X zoom, no tripod
Very cold and clear in Paris, taken w...

What's Your Travel Style?

Krabi Town, Thailand

I have many Thai temple pictures, this one is a little different because of the angle
Think Outside the Square
Think Outside the Square

What Camera Should I Buy For Travelling?

The I Thought I Should Take a Camera Crowd? 

If you are just buying a camera because you think you should take one, think again. Does your mobile take pictures? Use that as well - they won't be very good - but you save some money and have one less gadget to carry around.

The Serious Hobbiyst
At the other extreme - the serious amateur photographer probably already has the gear. If that's what you enjoy doing - then take your gear with you. Yes, I know some people will tell you to leave the expensive stuff at home, but really? Isn't this at least part of the reason why you want to travel?

I do suggest that you make some choices - don't take every lens you own! If you are mainly shooting landscapes make sure you have a wide-angle lens, if potraiture is more you thing than a good zoom. Tripods are very bulky, and may not be practical to carry with you for a day's sightseeing. Also many places that allow cameras will forbid tripods (they get in the way). A small gorilla grip style tripod may be useful though. Most importantly - make sure you travel insurance will cover your gear!

The Rest Of Us
The other 90% of us need to remember that a fantastic camera won't necessarily make you a better photographer! If you don't know the basics of good photography - how to frame a photo, how to focus in on details to make for interesting shots, the rules of thirds, avoiding trees or building growing out of people's heads - then it might be a good idea to start off with a basic photography book - there are plenty out there. Its quite possible to take decent photos with an average camera.

Camera models change all the time, but some names come up every time: Canon, Nikon, Sony. Serious photographers will argue the relative merits, for the rest of us - they all work just fine.

Paris, France

Taken without a tripod or a flash, I held my breath and braced my arms against my body
You don't always need a tripod
You don't always need a tripod

Krabi, Thailand

Nice depth of field makes the boat "pop"
A cheaper camera couldn't have dealt with the hazy background and the colourful streamers on the boat
A cheaper camera couldn't have dealt ...

Seine at Sunset

Break the rules - shot into the sun, no flash
The sun blinded me - this was a point and hope pic!
The sun blinded me - this was a point and hope pic!

The Photos Above Were Taken By This Camera

Its several years old - still works amazingly well
Canon PowerShot SX20IS 12.1MP Digital...
Only $104.9

The Canon SX20 has been around for at least three years - probably because people keep buying it for the same reasons as I did! Its what's called a "super-zoom" camera, its a hybrid between a point-and-shoot and a true digital SLR.

I bought the SX20 because I wanted a camera:

  • which would allow be to over-ride the automatic settings from time-t0=time, but still take good pictures in full automatic mode; 
  • had a separate view-finder so it was easier to see the picture in bright sun - its not as good an optical view finder, but I can't afford a true dSLR; 
  • it had a 20X zoom, you can now get 35X zooms, I'm not convinced that you can use these without a tripod. The Paris aerial shot was taken at 20X on an exceptionally clear day with no wind, when I could rest my arms on a railing. You aren't allowed to use tripods up the Eiffel Tower;
  • it has a 24mm wide-angle 
  • would take 720p video;
  • a pop-up flash; 
  • the LCD screen swivels - this is incredibly useful for taking shots at odd angles, or over your head; 
  • it takes AA batteries. Usually the batteries last about 3 weeks of heavy use, but on the trip that I took these photos on we flew from Thailand (30C) to Paris (0C) - the new batteries in Paris lasted 24 hours! I'd have had the camera stop working at 10am at Versailles if I hadn't been able to buy new batteries on the spot!

The downside of the Canon SX20 is that its bigger than a true "point and shoot" - it gets a little heavy carrying it all day, but for me this is an acceptable compromise. I still carry it everywhere. So often I've met people with seriously expensive gear who have missed the "great shot" because they didn't have their camera with them because they were worried it would get damaged or stolen, or it was just too heavy.

These are all small, compact and robust. The main compromies is image quality and zoom. Personally I wouldn't travel with less than a 10X zoom - but I hate pushing a camera into people's faces. I also like architectural detail.

The other disadvantage of these cameras is that they often have custom batteries and a custom charger - so you need to carry a second battery and a charger with you. If you break or loose either, you're be in trouble.

They only have a LCD screen to take pictures with - fine if you only take pictures indoor - but I do a lot of travel in hot countries, and like the beach - its impossible to see those LCD panels in bright sun. 

Cameras for Specialist Travel

If you enjoy water sports, snow sports, or are planning a trip to a very dusty environment, then a water proof camera may be worth considering, especially as a second camera. The dust proof is well worth having, particularly if you are going 4WDing in a desert, or for a careless child. The freeze-proof is a marketing gimmic (just wear the camera under your jacket) - but waterproof can be hugely useful! 

Like to Fiddle With Your Photos?

I tend not to do much post-processing except cropping and striaghtening, but if you really like to play - check out the new Lytro Light Field Camera - something very different! 

Read more of my Travel Articles

Phuket is Thailand's largest island and most popular destination for tourists. With many beaches working out where to stay is not that simple.
Vacation packing is an art that I've perfected in over 30 years of travel! Its not that hard, and certainly not worth stressing over. Here's some simple tips.
Planning for the trip of a life time? Or just a 10 day overseas vacation? Check out these health tips before you leave home.
Driving overseas can be very different from driving at home! Here are some practical tips and advice that may save your vacation or even your life.

Who is Lissie?

I'm Elisabeth Sowerbutts, I took my first trip when I was about 3 years old, and I haven't really stopped travelling since. I've been to every continent, except Antarctica, and done everything from backpacking to being a business traveller. I spent six months solo travelling through South America and another six months backpacking through India, Nepal and SE Asia. 

My partner didn't used to travel much but I've passed the bug onto him now. Our more recent adventures include Europe in the middle of winter, Thailand, and 35,000km's through Australia's outback. 

I've lived in England, Scotland, Canada and Australia, and currently I'm back home in New Zealand 

I write a popular travel tips blog called: Lis's Travel Tips

I've also published my first book on Vacation Packing: Save Your Back, Time and Money

Updated: 02/19/2012, Lissie
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Which camera do you like to travel with and why?

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Pretraveller on 04/20/2012

I am a point and shoot camera person, but I have learnt a couple of tricks to better frame my photos. My husband is a keen amateur photographer so he the full on DSLR and several lenses. I have seen his journey to learn how to take better photos, which has involved several courses and a lot of experimentation.

As a result I cringe when I hear someone say just before they head off on a trip 'I am buying a DSLR so I can take better photos'.

Sheri_Oz on 03/24/2012

Interesting. I wonder what the difference is between your camera and my Canon G11. Great photos.

katiem2 on 02/21/2012

Nice tips on taking great shots, I love the Nikon, my youngest wants one. I think I'll suggest she cleans up her room first. But seriously, once kids are old enough to take pictures its a great way to vary up the who's who in the photos and get everyone in the shots, with out threat of theft, like we see in the movies. Great cameras and awesome tips, thanks

BrendaReeves on 02/20/2012

Great article! My Canon Power Shot died on me. It was only sid years old. I think it was from dropping it so many times. That's obviously something to avoid. I bought a cheap point and shoot to use while I decide what I really want.

Sam on 02/20/2012

Very well written article, Lissie! I rarely leave the house without my trusty but rusty Canon DSLR, but I agree, the whole equipment can be a bit heavy when traveling ;-) Have also a look at the Canon G series, they are expensive, but the pictures are outstanding, I think the Canon G12 is the latest available model, with the Canon G13 coming soon, but will be marketed as 'Canon EOS G1X' just to confuse us a bit more ;-) Great and useful article on what to look for in a travel camera!

Meagan on 02/20/2012

Great topic idea and great article! I last bought a camera for travel 5 years ago - and chose the lightest most compact DSLR on the market at the time. I love it but found myself using it less and less in recent years. It felt too conspicuous, especially in countries where it seemed to highlight my relative wealth. And I was constantly mucking about changing lenses. I've often wished I had one of the excellent hybrid cameras available these days - but I'm one who keeps things until they don't work anymore so I guess it will be a while before I'm looking for a new one!

Noved on 02/20/2012

Great page! I love photography and am an avid photo taker. I have Nikon DSLRs and a SLR. I have been looking for a pocket-able point and shoot camera and really like you guide/list for selecting a new camera.

Lissie on 02/19/2012

Thanks for your kind comments Angel! I haven't done any photography articles for ages, but I this one was fun, I might have to do a few more related ones!

Angel on 02/19/2012

I am in the market for a good camera. Not so much for travel pics but more for close up pics for my makeup articles. To take pics of eye and eye makeup. I will have to look into these you have listed and see if one will fit my needs. Thanks for the great travel photos.. I admire you for traveling all over. I really like your dancing articles too..please do more.

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