As a full-time traveler and full-time travel photographer, I hear two things all the time: “What kind of camera do you use?” and “I could take better pictures, too, if I had a better camera.”
My standard answer to both is, “It’s not the camera. It’s the photographer.” And, to illustrate my point, I can show them the three photographs I’ve taken in the last five years that have received the most likes on my Facebook page. The three were taken, respectively, with a cheap Panasonic point and shoot camera, with my iPhone 4s and my newer iPhone 5s. In all three cases, I saw something I wanted to shoot and that was the only camera I had with me at the time.
Could I have gone back to the hotel for my $5,000 Nikon DSLR and made the photo any better? And, if I could have, would the light still be there by the time I got back? The answer to both is no. So, that brings me to the old adage: “The best camera you can have is the one you have with you.” That maybe the most profound bit of advice I ever got about photography.
I should admit that I do carry a lot of expensive camera equipment on our travels. Usually, I have something in the vicinity of 28 pounds and $10,000 worth of stuff on my back. My TripIt Pro app tells me I’ve traveled over 140,000 miles in the past two years and carrying that much equipment over that distance is—literally—a pain in the back.
I’ve taken a lot of very nice photos with all that metal and glass. But, increasingly, I’m relying less and less on all that and instead using my iPhone and a very small and lightweight camera that cost less than $500 to handle the bulk of my work. And, if I can do it, so can you.
Here are some of the best tips I can give you when looking at travel cameras.
First, buy a digital camera. If you’re still using film, you’re: 1) a purist who prefers the luscious look of the old Kodachrome you still have in your refrigerator or 2) someone who thinks it’s cheaper to keep developing 36 exposures of film than it is to shoot thousands of exposures for the price of a $20 memory card. If you’re thinking number 2, you’re wrong. Buy a digital.
Second, if you’ve already spent a few hundred on your phone, there’s no reason you can’t just use that. In the past few years, the cameras included in your iPhone or Samsung have improved phenomenally. For most “tourist” photos, they’re just fine. They don’t do everything a dedicated camera can do, but you can dramatically increase the capabilities of your phone by using inexpensive apps such as Snapseed and Pro HDR X.
What smartphones won’t do easily is allow you to capture a nice photo in difficult lighting situations, such as bright sun and deep shadows, a backlit subject such as the common portrait of your companion against a sunlit background or low light situations such as the inside of a gothic cathedral. For those times, you need a real camera.
I’m going to recommend two that I’ve used and suggest you check out before your next trip. Both are small, light, easy to use and under $500. Not to mention, they both allow you to do the one thing that will force you to take better pictures—shoot in manual mode.
The Canon PowerShot S120 is a point and shoot on steroids. It’s not much larger than your cellphone and weighs less than half a pound. You can use it in completely automatic mode—like any point and shoot—but the real beauty is to be able to use it in manual mode without any steep learning curve. It has a dial on the back that controls shutter speed and a dial around the lens on the front that controls aperture (lens opening.) By spinning the two dials and properly setting your ISO (sensor speed/sensitivity,) you can control pretty much exactly what your shot is going to look like simply by looking at the screen on the back of the camera. Voila, no more grossly underexposed pictures of your friend’s face in front of that light background.
Add to that great low light sensitivity that allows you to shoot that cathedral ceiling without a flash and you’ve got a terrific camera for only about $350.
The other inexpensive camera I love is the Fujifilm X30. In fact, it’s my current go to camera for carrying around on long shooting days when I don’t specifically need the professional capabilities of my big Nikon DSLR. Its capabilities aren’t all that different than the Canon S120, but it’s a bit larger, weighs just short of one pound and has three features that make it a little more useful for me.
First, the zoom lens is not electronic, meaning you zoom by twisting the lens barrel, which gives a little finer control.
Second, it has a screen on the rear that flips out and tilts both up and down so you can hold the camera at waist level or over your head and still see what you’re shooting. It also has an eye level viewfinder. When you put your eye up to the finder, the camera automatically senses that and puts the image there instead of on the screen. Take your eye away, and the image goes back to the screen. Neat.
Third, it has very similar manual controls for aperture and shutter speed as the Canon S120 but it adds an option for manual focus, which is especially useful when you’re shooting in very low light and the auto focus just doesn’t work as well. The Fujifilm X30 costs $500.
Try either one of those cameras and spend some time learning the rudiments of shooting in manual mode. You’ll be very happy with the results and you won’t have to spend $5,000 on that Nikon D810 to get them.
Tom Bartel blogs about his travels at www.travelpast50.com. He and his wife, Kristin Henning, have been to 55 countries in the past five years and strive to make every visit picturesque.