Best Travel Camera – a Backpacker’s Guide

Best travel camera

In January 2014 I saw an ad for the Nokia Lumia 1020. I don’t usually take much notice of gadgets especially phones but this ad caught my eye for one reason.

The camera on the device boasted a whopping 41 million pixels. Obviously, its still a phone. It still has a tiny image sensor and a tiny crappy lens, but looking at some sample shots, it was clear that smartphone technology is moving pretty fast.

Choosing the Best Travel Camera

To anyone thinking of a long backpacking trip choosing the best travel camera is essential.

For the first time since I’d been paying attention, taking a smartphone instead of a compact camera or bulky SLR was starting to look like a viable option.

If, like me, you are planning such a trip, you’ve probably spent hours poring over specs trying decide which camera was right for you. What’s the image quality? What’s the pixel count? Does it fit in my pocket or do I need a bag? Has it got Wi-Fi? Can it shoot in low light? Do I need zoom? How much zoom? Is it waterproof? Is it weather sealed?   How much does it weigh? The list of considerations is endless. And the specs are so varied as to avoid any meaningful comparisons from one camera to the next.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just use our smartphones?

Smartphones vs Camera’s

The short answer, I’m sorry to say, is No. Well at least not yet. Not for me anyhow.

I tried using my smartphone on a recent trip abroad and wound up a little disappointed.

In good light, the image quality was OK but I missed that feel of a real camera. Somehow the smartphone interface took away the enjoyment of photography.

Regrettably, if you enjoy taking pictures and want high quality images straight from your device, without post processing in Photoshop, you still need a dedicated camera. Sure you’ll get lucky now and again with a smartphone and there are some great apps which make in device processing easy and fun but most of the pics I see from smartphones still lack that zip you get from a decent compact or SLR.

Now I’m not saying smartphones don’t have their advantages they certainly do. For the modern digital nomad looking to travel light they are the sensible choice. But,

for the person who enjoys photography as a hobby and also demands high quality images, smartphones aren’t quite there yet.

Anyway, all this got me thinking? If you’ve decided you don’t want to travel with just a smartphone, you’re gonna need to wade through some specs to ensure you are choosing the best travel camera. But which specs and features are important in the real world? And which are simply there to up-sell unsuspecting consumers?

Here’s my top list of what’s important, what’s not and why. Hopefully this will help you decide.

I’ve ignored video for the post. Largely because I don’t know as much about it. This article is about still photography, but I’m certain many of the principles will be the same. Currently I’m camera-less, but the next one I buy will have video. I’ll post again once I’ve tried it out and done some learning.

Choosing the Best Travel Camera: Feature Guide

I’ve listed all the main features in order of their importance. The least important goes first. Truthfully though,  everyone’s needs are slightly different. Don’t get mad if you don’t agree with me. Have a moan in the comments section at the bottom.  Maybe you can change my mind.

Megapixels

Pixels are the tiny dots that make up an image. A camera that has 10 Megapixels for example contains an image sensor with 10 million microscopic holes. Each hole captures light. Each tiny piece of captured light is transposed into one pixel on your photograph.

If we didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume that more pixels means a sharper and more detailed image.

Do not buy into the megapixel myth. The human eye cannot tell the difference between 6 million and 60 million. In 2004 when I bought my first DSLR (a little canon rebel) it had 6.5 million pixels. That was enough in 04 and its enough today. Yes, more pixels means larger images but, the bigger the image, the further back you have to be to look at it. Don’t think you can do crazy cropping with high pixels either. Crop anywhere near 100% and the images will still look awful. If you ever find you need that much crop, perhaps its time to invest in a zoom lens.

Pointless, pointless, pointless. Don’t waste your cash on pixels you cant see and don’t need.  The difference is so minor. Why not invest in a photography course instead and see a real difference.

Built-In Flash

Unless you are buying a big DSLR, every camera will have a built in flash. But it doesn’t end there. Each flash will have a long list of its particular capabilities, modes and features. Ignore them all.

Modern cameras with modern sensors are much better at dealing with low light situations than in the days when flash was invented.

Flash is for people who don’t understand or can’t be bothered to learn how to setup the camera they just bought. If you’re doing studio work or you want to change the lighting in a controllable setting, flash is a consideration. For travel photography its very low on the list. I never, ever, ever use it.

Auto Focus

Is it quick? Does it work every time? That’s really all you need to be concerned about here.

Face recognition, and 51-point auto focus systems sound awesome, but for years all we had was a dot in the center of the viewfinder. You put the dot on your subject and pressed the shutter and guess what? 9 out of 10 times you ended up with an image that was in focus.

I’ve used the center dot method in every picture I’ve ever taken. Each time I’ve bought a new camera I’ve adjusted the focus to its simplest possible setting. I’m confident enough with photography to be able to point the camera at the thing I want to focus on, press the focus button and frame my shot. I don’t want the camera second guessing me.

Frames per Second

Frames per second refers to how fast the camera can take and process continuous pictures if you hold the shutter down.

If you’re shooting sports, action or wildlife, frames per second will certainly be a consideration. The higher the frame rate when shooting, the more chance that one of your pics will capture that precise moment in time and turn out to be absolute killer.

Don’t forget though shooting dozens of pics each time you press the shutter will quickly fill up your memory card and your laptop.

For every day and travel photography, ignore frames per second. You’ll struggle to find occasions to use it. Also, it makes reviewing your pics in the evening a real chore instead of a pleasure because you’ll have 10 of every photo rather than one or two.

ISO

In years gone by ISO referred to the sensitivity of the film in the camera. The more sensitive the film, the quicker it resolved an image when the shutter opened. This all meant you could shoot at higher shutter speeds. Great for hand held low light photography or those occasions when you wanted to freeze the action, like sports and wildlife.

These days, digital cameras use the same reference, but instead of film, ISO refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor. In other words, what’s the least amount of light the camera can let in and still produce an image? The higher the ISO number, the less light it needs.

Much like megapixels though ISO specs are starting to look a little ridiculous. Ignore the max and minimum ISO settings. You cant use them in the real world. Try to determine what the usable maximum and minimum ISO are. In other words, how high can the ISO get before noise starts to creep into your image.

An adequate usable ISO range for a modern camera, in my book is ISO 200 ISO 800.

If you think you need anything above or below that you’ll be pushing the boundaries. Get a DSLR. You obviously want one.

Other Neat Features

Wi-Fi. GPS. Weatherproofing. Image stabilization. Raw mode. Built in filters. Exposure bracketing. Special lens coatings. Macro mode. HDR mode. Red-eye prevention. Histograms. The list goes on. All this stuff is useful in the right circumstance. But the camera companies are not dim. If they made the best camera they possibly could and put all these features on it, no-one would buy anything else. This is where manufacturers will try to up-sell you to next years model by telling you these things make a huge difference.

They don’t. Compared to the important considerations, when choosing the best travel camera, these features mean very little.

Sure, if you’re planning on learning to dive it would be nice to have a waterproof camera. But how long are you actually going to be in the water? Not as long as you’ll be on dry land I suspect. Why burn your cash on a bulky waterproof camera that takes crappy pics of your friends?

Focus on the basics. Try to forget the detailed specs, at least until you’ve narrowed down your options to 2 or 3 choices anyway.

Zoom

Once again, unless you are shooting sports, action or wildlife exclusively, a massive zoom capability is not too much use. Zoom lenses are never as good as their fixed lens counterparts. The longer they become, the worse they get. Without going into too much detail.

When you zoom into your subject, you’ll lose light and you’ll lose image quality.

For travel photography a small zoom of say 100mm or around 3x optical is more than sufficient.

Weight

A major consideration when choosing the best travel camera. Obviously the lighter the better. Big heavy cameras also take up a lot of room and paint a target on your back for scammers and thieves. This one really comes down to what you are willing to sacrifice for the enjoyment of photography.

Aperture

Aperture is a measurement of how much light the lens lets in. Aperture is important for two reasons. Getting more light to the sensor and creating a depth of field affect. Aperture is measured in F-stops. The lower the F-stop number, the better the aperture. Low aperture lenses are sometimes referred to as fast lenses. Shoot at the lowest possible aperture and you’ll isolate your subject beautifully and create a blurry out of focus background.

There is no easier way to give your pictures that zip than shooting close to your subject at low aperture.

If you’re looking for a quick cheat. Aperture is it. All you need is a lens that shoots at F2.8 or faster and a half decent camera. Congratulations, you just turned pro.

Image Sensor

Image sensors are the heart of every camera. They are the canvas upon which your pictures are drawn. How well your image sensor does its work will pay a huge part in determining how good your photographs turn out.

Image sensors come in a number of types and sizes but instead of babbling on about the various merits of each lets make it simple.

The bigger the better.

Get the biggest image sensor you can afford for your chosen camera format. Photography at its most basic is about the mechanics of collecting light. If your sensor collects more light, your pictures will be better.

In addition to this, collecting more light means you can shoot when its darker. Some of the best photo opportunities are in the evening or inside dimly lit buildings like restaurants, bars or museums. Don’t miss out by buying a feature rich camera with a tiny image sensor. And don’t think you can cheat the system by using flash – you can’t.  Flash is no substitute for natural light.

Feel

This is the easiest one to overlook while trawling specs on the internet. How does it feel in your hand? Are the buttons where you want them? Is the menu easy to navigate? Try it before you buy it. Pick it up and try changing the settings. Look through the viewfinder. See how the focus feels. Take a picture. Take another one. Better still, hire it for a day here.

If the combination is right, with a little practice you’ll be able to setup the camera in an instant without even looking at it. If the combination is wrong. You’ll have a frustrating camera.

All the features in the world are pointless if you become unenthusiastic about photography.

Conclusion

If I can end with one thought its this. The camera fraternity has gotten too hung up on specs. Blockbuster movies from 10 years ago were being shot on cameras that today’s smartphones could embarrass. Most digital cameras on the market today will shoot great pictures and great movies in crazy conditions.

Research the specs by all means but don’t get sucked in by the numbers. There’s no such thing as a magic wand in the camera world.  Hard work, perseverance and imagination are the things that will really make the difference.