A Guide to Buying a Digital Camera for Travel
There are so many digital cameras on the market at the moment that finding the right one for you can be a real challenge.
A good digital camera (and a certain degree of photography expertise) will allow you to capture those amazing memories so that you can remember and relive them forever.
Many people get confused by the different terms (such as ‘Digital SLR’) and just end up buying the cheapest camera they can find. While this isn’t necessarily a bad way of shopping, you won’t always get the camera that suits you and your travel experiences.
In this guide I’ll explain everything that you need to know about buying a digital camera for travel, so that by the end you should have a clear idea of exactly what camera is best for you.
Point & Shoot vs. DSLR vs. Micro Four-Thirds
There are 3 major types of digital camera on the market at the moment – Point & Shoot, DSLR and Micro Four-Thirds (MFT). Each has its own set of positives and negatives, which we’ll take a deeper look into.
What Features Should You Look for in a Digital Camera?
- Megapixels – When buying a digital camera, most people typically just look at the amount of megapixels and assume that a higher number equals better quality photos. While it’s true that being able to capture more pixels can lead to higher quality photographs, it’s just one small piece of the puzzle. The quality of a picture is affected far more by the quality of the lens and the sensor. When shopping for a camera, aim for one with 8-10 megapixels. Anything higher is excessive.
- Lens Quality – A good lens is what really separates good cameras from bad ones. Sadly, there are very few ‘statistics’ that you can read that’ll tell you about the quality of a camera’s lens. Instead, the best way to get an accurate judge is to read a review of the product. Amazon.com is a great place for camera reviews, as they have an enormous selection and a series of unbiased reviews.
- Lens Speed – This is measured as ‘f/numbers’. For example, ‘f/2.0’ or ‘f/3.0’. As a rule, the lower the number, the better. Lenses with a lower aperture operate well in low-light environments, whereas lenses with higher f/numbers tend to suffer.
- Zoom – The zoom is something that most people never consider when buying a camera, but is one of the most important things when it comes to taking pictures (especially if you’re photographing landscapes). It might also surprise you to learn that there are different types of zooms. As a rule of thumb, avoid ‘digital’ zooms in favor of ‘optical’ zooms instead.
Digital SLR (DSLR) Cameras
‘SLR’ stands for single lens reflex and refers to the way the camera takes pictures. SLR cameras can be hard work, as there’s lots of different functions (such as shutter speed and light control) to play around with.
Thankfully, DSLR cameras (i.e. their digital counterparts) have an ‘automatic mode’ that enables the camera to sort out everything for you.
- Amazing Picture Quality – DSLR cameras allow you to take amazing and professional looking photos with easy. Albeit a little more knowledge of photography is required to get the most out of the camera, but learning it is easy (and it’s mostly just common sense anyway).
- No Shutter Lag – Taking action shots is incredibly easy as there’s no delay from you pressing the shoot button to the shot being taken (as there is on most standard digital cameras).
- Better Zoom – Most DSLR cameras have great lenses that can zoom long distances, and with some models you can even take off the lens and attach a bigger one on if you need to zoom further.
- Large Size – These cameras can be pretty large and bulky, making them extremely impractical for traveling. I know several people that own a DSLR camera, but who choose to take a more compact Point and Shoot camera instead when they go traveling.
- Target for Thieves – In addition to this, carrying a DSLR camera around with you will make you stick out like a sore thumb in most places, and you’ll be a natural target for thieves.
- More Technical – As I mentioned earlier, to get the best out of these kinds of cameras you really need to have at least a basic understanding of photography and the functions of the camera, otherwise you might not notice a whole lot of difference between your pictures from your DSLR camera and your budget Point and Shoot camera.
- Expensive – As expected, DSLR cameras can be very expensive – especially if you’re shopping around the higher end. Expect to pay around $500 for a standard model.
Point and Shoot Digital Cameras
Although Point and Shoot cameras often get a bad rap for not taking ‘great’ pictures, you can get some excellent high quality models.
In fact, a high quality Point and Shoot camera is far better for traveling than a bulky low quality DSLR camera.
- Compact and Portable – These cameras are the perfect size as they’re tiny and light enough to fit easily in your luggage but also large enough to be able to take quality pictures. Because they’re so compact and easy to take anywhere, you’re far more common to take them with you wherever you go when you’re on the road. I’ve often found that with DSLR cameras I’ll leave them in the hotel room unless I’m visiting a major sight. Unfortunately most of the best photo opportunities occur at unexpected and random times, so having your small camera with you at all times means you’ll never miss one again.
- Simple to Use – The great thing about these cameras is that they’re incredibly simple and easy to use, meaning literally ANYONE can use one. Sure, most of them have additional features (such as ‘Scene mode’) but you don’t ever have to use them, as the automatic picture function (that sorts everything out for you) is generally excellent.
- The Price – These cameras can be bought EXTREMELY cheaply now. With a huge influx of high end Point and Shoot cameras, there are more cheap travel cameras (albeit lower quality (but still excellent)) on the market than ever. You can expect to find them for around $120-130 these days.
- Shutter Lag – If you’ve ever tried using a standard Point and Shoot camera to take pictures, you’ll have experienced the shutter lag. This means that when you press the shoot button there’s a delay before the actual picture is taken. This is fine for most shots, but if you’re trying to take action shots it’s virtually impossible to time it perfectly.
- Minimal Zoom – Unlike DSLR cameras, the zoom on Point and Shoot models is usually pretty pathetic. This is fine if you’re just photographing your friends, but landscape shots can really suffer.
- Require Good Lighting – These cameras work well in the morning and the daytime, but as the sun starts to go down and light becomes poor the quality of your pictures will also begin to deteriorate (except with most high-end models).
Micro Four-Thirds Digital Cameras
Most people will have never heard of Micro Four-Thirds cameras as they’re pretty new on the market, but most experts believe that they will one day be the most popular style, as they combine the best features of the Point and Shoot cameras (i.e. compact size) and the DSLR cameras (i.e. high picture quality).
The Micro Four-Thirds system was designed by Panasonic and Olympus (two leading electronics companies) in 2008 and contains a customized (i.e. smaller) version of the technology that is used in DSLR cameras.
- Great Quality Pictures – Providing you know how to use the camera properly and have some basic photography knowledge, great quality pictures can be taken with relative easy, thanks to the quality of the technology.
- Compact Size – While I did mention that MFT’s are basically a cross between DSLR’s and Point and Shoot’s, they’re actually a little bigger than the standard Point and Shoot model. Saying that, they’re still WAY smaller than the typical DSLR and they are definitely small enough to carry around all day, although they might not fit in the standard sized trouser pocket.
- Excellent Zoom – Much better zoom than the standard Point and Shoot cameras.
- Minimal Shutter Lag – Another one of the benefits of this style of camera (and of MFT technology) is that there is very little shutter lag, enabling you to take great action shots.
- The Price – As expected with any new technology these cameras cost a fair bit. Expect to pay anything between $500 and $1300 for one.
- Note Quite DSLR Image Quality – Again, although MFT cameras are said to have the same picture quality as DSLR’s, in truth the quality of photos that they take isn’t quite up to the same level. Saying that, unless you’re a professional photographer, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever notice the difference.
Digital Camera Accessories
When buying a camera, remember that you’ll need batteries to power it, a memory card to store all of your photos and a case to keep it in to keep it protected. Sometimes any of these three (or even all three) items will be included in the price of the camera, but if they aren’t then don’t forget to make sure you have them all before leaving for your trip.
Even if you do, having a spare memory card (in case you run out of space) is always a good idea, as is having extra batteries in case you run out of juice half way through a trek. Luckily, both items are pretty cheap these days (SD memory cards especially), so you shouldn’t have to shell out too much extra.
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