If there’s one question I get asked as a photographer more than any other, it’s this: “Which camera should I buy?” And I get it–if you’re anything like me, hundreds or thousands of dollars isn’t pocket change, and you want to make the right choice.
My answer to this question is that it doesn’t really matter.
“Hold on–why in the world am I reading this post if you’re saying it doesn’t matter?”
Well, okay…it does matter–just not in the way that people sometimes think it does. Deciding which travel camera to buy matters because you’re investing your money into something, and you want to make a wise decision. I’m the same way, and I often agonize over these decisions. It matters because everyone has different priorities and needs for what they’ll use their camera for.
But while it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of different cameras for travel, it doesn’t matter because any given camera will not make you a better photographer. Photography is mostly about light and how your camera sees it, and the specific camera you use is just a tool.
The camera itself won’t make you a better photographer.
What WILL help you take better photos and become a better travel photographer? Learning photography basics will help you use whatever tool you have at your disposal because you’ll see that every camera works the same–whether it’s a smartphone, film camera, or expensive DSLR.
It’s totally okay if you don’t have any clue what any of this theoretical talk about light means right now. The important thing is to remember that you are the photographer (not your camera!) and to find a camera that you can grow with.
To address the aspects that do matter because I know that you’re investing a whole lot of money, I’ve put together this in-depth guide to help you find the best travel camera for your needs. Whether you want to do your own research in an organized way or you just need a cheat sheet, it’s all here!
How to Use This Camera Buying Guide
For the Researchers and Aspiring Photographers
Before you even start looking at specific brands or models, I want to help you uncover what it is you need from your camera. In this post, I’m sharing my step-by-step process for figuring out which specific camera fits your needs best:
- First, I’ll break down a bunch of camera jargon with a rundown of features, camera systems, and information about lenses.
- Then I have some questions for you to answer about your needs and preferences.
- Next, I’ll help you do basic research to narrow down the playing field to just a few options.
- And last, I give you a tool to evaluate your top options with an organized approach so you can decide exactly which camera to purchase!
Quick Start Version
If the thought of researching overwhelms you, I’m sharing my top picks for the best travel camera based on extensive research and my own photography experience.
What to Look for When Buying a New Travel Camera –> The Jargon Explained
When I got my first “real camera” in high school, all I knew was that it had a lot of buttons and I could zoom in and out with the lens. I felt like a rockstar. I had no idea what all the buttons did, but I was so excited. I’ve shot countless terrible photos and had many frustrating moments over the years while I learned about all of them, little by little.
So I want to take a few minutes to break down all the terms for you. This might seem like a big list, but you don’t have to know how to use them all yet, so try not to get overwhelmed. Every photographer has been at the stage when they had no clue what all those buttons did.
Plus, many of them are not that essential to creating a great photograph–they’re what I call “bells and whistles” because they’re just not that important when you boil photography down to the basics.
As a starting point for anyone interested in learning photography: I recommend looking for a camera with manual and semi-automatic shooting modes and the ability to shoot both RAW and JPEG files (more on what both of those are in a bit).
The rest of the features will vary based on what you’ll be using the camera for and what is most important to you.
As you read through these features, make notes and star items that you think are important for you–we’ll be using that info later on to clarify what your top priorities are.
And remember that it’s important to find a camera that feels manageable but also one that you can grow into.
Automatic Mode: It’s likely that when you start out, you’ll be in shooting in Automatic mode. Most cameras except high-end ones have this mode, and it makes it easy to start using right out of the box. But as you learn more about photography, there are other modes that you might want to start experimenting with.
Semi-Automatic Modes: These are called aperture priority (indicated by A or Av) and shutter speed priority (indicated by S or Tv). In these modes, you choose the “priority” setting and the camera chooses the rest. For example, in aperture priority, you would set the aperture and the camera would set the shutter speed and ISO automatically. There is often a program mode (P) as well that is semi-auto, allowing you to override some settings while the camera chooses the rest.
These semi-automatic modes are great ways to start venturing away from shooting full auto and to start learning how specific settings affect the image.
Manual Mode (M): This is the mode in which you choose all settings manually, and it’s indicated by M. While it’s definitely more advanced and you may not use it for a long time after you start shooting, it’s important to have a camera that gives you the ability to shoot manually if you want to learn photography. The good news is that most cameras have this mode, along with the semi-automatic modes. The exceptions are smartphones (currently, no smartphones allow you to change the aperture) and very basic point and shoot cameras.
Scene Modes: Scene modes are things like sports, portrait, snow, fireworks, macro, night, and more, and they are usually indicated with image icons. These can be fun to play with at first, but I encourage you to move away from them as soon as possible. Understanding what each of them does to the camera settings will give you much more flexibility and the results you are trying to achieve. When you let the camera apply settings without understanding what they are, you’ll often get some good results and some very frustrating results.
HDR Mode: HDR is another mode similar to scene modes. HDR stands for high dynamic range. Usually, a camera can’t capture the same amount of detail in the shadows and highlights as your eye can see.
But an HDR photo layers several pictures together to capture more detail from the dark shadows up to the bright highlights. Photographers have different perspectives on HDR because it is sometimes overdone to the point of looking fake. It can be something that’s fun to experiment with, but understanding the fundamentals first (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) will give you the best foundation to use HDR well.
Questions to Ask: Do you think you’ll ever want to learn the technical side of photography in the future as you grow and get more comfortable with your new camera? Or do you want the camera to do the heavy lifting for you and not have too many knobs and buttons?
If you want to learn photography, I recommend looking for a camera with manual and semi-automatic shooting modes (usually indicated with M, S or Tv, A). Scene modes are a bell and whistle, and they’re not really necessary for learning photography.
Performance & Image Quality
Camera Sensor: You may have heard people talking about “full frame” or “crop sensor” cameras and wondered what in the world they were talking about. Basically, they’re referring to the size of the camera’s sensor, which is what the image gets captured on–kind of like film. Higher end cameras tend to have full frame sensors, while lower end cameras and smartphones have smaller “crop” sensors.
Full Frame Sensor: Think of a full frame as the default sensor size and equivalent to shooting on a standard film camera. It’s the biggest sensor and has a few advantages: better low light performance and higher image quality. Most full frame cameras are significantly more expensive, although some brands have created full frame options at lower prices ($1500 USD).
Crop Sensor: There are various types of smaller “crop” sensors, and they are all different sizes. Understanding the ins and outs of each of them isn’t as important as understanding the basic idea behind a crop sensor. It’s smaller in size, so it takes up less room and allows for a smaller camera, and it essentially crops your image.
So if you shoot with a lens on a full frame and then use the same lens on a crop sensor, the crop sensor will look like it’s zoomed in. This can be good if you’re trying to shoot close up, but it can be bad if you want to shoot a wide angle landscape. Additionally, the smaller the sensor is, the lower the image quality, though the average viewer might not be able to tell the difference in good lighting situations.
These are some of the crop sensor types from largest to smallest:
- APS-C sensors are the most common, and you’ll see these in many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
- Micro 4/3 sensors come in certain types of mirrorless cameras.
- Point and shoot and smartphone sensors vary in size but are on the smaller end of the scale. Newer smartphones are getting larger sensors now and are pretty much equivalent to point and shoot sensor sizes.
Questions to Ask About Image Sensor: What is your budget? Would you prefer something with simpler controls?
If you can afford a full frame camera, go for it. But don’t feel like you need to have one if you can’t afford the cost. A full frame may be too much camera for a beginner. Most beginners go for the less expensive crop sensor camera. You can always upgrade in the future and keep your crop sensor body as a backup. (There’s an important note about lenses if you decide to do this, and I’ll talk a little more about that in a bit.)
Image File Types: There are 2 main types of image files: RAW and JPEG. RAW files are larger, so they take up more room on your memory card and your computer. But the reason they’re bigger is because they keep all of the information in your photo, while JPEG images lose information because they get compressed by your camera and every time you edit on your computer and save the file. What this means is that it’s easier to “rescue” parts of a RAW file when you’re editing it (if the sky is way too bright, for example), so they are a little more forgiving.
Aside from the large file size, another downside to RAW is that you need special software to review and edit them. JPEG can be used straight out of the camera, which makes actually posting them easier. However, if you want to learn photography and take your photos to the next level, editing is an important step, and RAW files give you the best quality. I highly recommend Adobe Lightroom for editing RAW files, especially if you’ll be taking a lot of photos.
The good thing is, you don’t necessarily have to choose: most cameras that have RAW capability also shoot JPEG. So if you look for RAW shooting capability, you don’t have to use it right away but can grow into it at a later time.
Questions to Ask: Do you think you’ll ever want to learn the technical side of photography in the future as you grow and get more comfortable with your new camera? Is there a possibility that you will print or sell your images? If so, you should look for RAW capability, even if you don’t use it right away.
Megapixels (MP): This is an area that salespeople and camera manufacturers love to overemphasize. Or maybe it’s just stuck in our collective memory from 10 or 15 years ago when digital cameras were first hitting the scene. Either way, megapixels aren’t really as important as a lot of people think.
A megapixel is 1 million tiny dots. We were excited 10 years ago by cameras that had 5 or 7 megapixels, and now they’ve got 12, 18, 24, and some have a whopping 40+. Even smartphones have 8-12MP now!
It seems logical that the more dots you have, the sharper and better your image will be. In some respects, this is true. Having more megapixels is better when you have a bigger sensor size (like the full frame we talked about). BUT for the average person using photos online, making photo books, or printing enlargements that you don’t need to be billboard-sized, all those megapixels aren’t really that important. In fact, they make your file sizes a lot bigger, which means less photos per memory card and taking up more space on your computer.
Questions to Ask: Do you regularly want to print images larger than 16” x 24”? Will you be purchasing a full frame camera? If so, you might want to get a higher megapixel camera. Other than that, it doesn’t matter that much.
More megapixels aren’t necessarily better, and they don’t affect image quality as much as many people think. Most people who aren’t shooting professionally will be fine with cameras on the market that have 12+ MP.
Autofocus (AF) Performance: Most cameras on the market now will be good enough in this area, but some really excel with fast and accurate autofocus performance.
A couple of things to look for: the number of autofocus points the camera has, as well as what others have said in reviews in terms of accuracy and speed (once you’re at the Evaluate and Decide stage later in this workbook).
Some other terms you might hear tossed around refer to the type of autofocus system that a camera uses: phase detection (advantage: faster performance), contrast detection (advantage: more accurate performance), and hybrid (combines both systems and claims to be superior overall). Unless you love geeking out, I wouldn’t get too caught up in reading about this in depth as the actual mechanics are pretty complicated.
Frames Per Second (FPS): Another element that affects speed and fast action shooting is the number of frames per second that a camera can shoot continuously. When you hold down the shutter button, it will shoot these photos in rapid fire. This varies anywhere from 3 frames per second to 10 or 12 frames per second up to 60 frames per second (crazy!).
The average person usually wouldn’t even need 12 FPS, let alone 60, so this might be a “bell and whistle” for a lot of people. 60 FPS sounds fancy but isn’t really necessary. If you’re shooting sports, however, it could come in handy to capture a precise moment during fast action.
Questions to Ask: Will you be shooting fast action (like kids, pets, or sports), video, or in low light situation frequently?
Low Light Performance: Aside from sensor size and the autofocus system, another element that affects low light performance most is ISO.
If you have ever used a film camera, ISO is similar to film speed–the higher the number, the more sensitive to light the sensor is, which allows you to shoot in darker places. BUT the higher you set the ISO, the more noise and less detail you get. As technology improves, cameras are getting better and better at producing images without a lot of noise even at high ISOs.
In addition to good ISO performance, the other feature to consider with low light shooting is image stabilization. Image stabilization reduces minor vibrations that occur in fractions of a second, and it helps produce sharper photos in low light. Some cameras have this built into the camera body itself, but most of the time it is in the lens.
Questions to Ask: Will you be shooting frequently in low light situations? If so, image stabilization and image quality at high ISOs are important features.
How the Camera is Built
Ergonomics: How a camera feels in your hands and how comfortable you are with where the dials are places is something that’s pretty subjective, and sometimes we don’t give this enough thought.
Especially if this is your first camera, shooting with it will take some getting used to, no matter what you choose. But a tiny camera for someone with large hands might be really hard to get comfortable with. And if you want to learn photography, having quick access to controls such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and others via external buttons is something that many photographers find more convenient than hunting through menu screens on the LCD.
Size and Weight: The portability of your camera is sometimes overlooked, but once you start lugging it around all day and your shoulders and neck are screaming at you, it suddenly becomes apparent that just a couple of pounds is significant. This is a factor that may be more important for some people, like travelers.
Questions to Ask: How accessible are the buttons and settings on the camera? How does it feel in my hands?
Is portability really important to me? Will I be traveling with this camera frequently? Do I want something that will fit in my pocket, am I okay with carrying a large camera bag around, or do I want something in between?
Weather Sealing: Weather sealing is incorporated into the design of the camera and lens in order to keep out water, dust, and sand. It’s very helpful if you’ll be shooting in extreme weather conditions or areas with a lot of water or sand because these things are mortal enemies of any camera.
Weather sealing probably isn’t that important if the camera is for everyday use, but for many travelers or outdoor lovers, it’s very helpful. Of course, you still need to exercise caution and protect your camera from the elements, but weather sealing adds some protection. The lens you use needs to be weather sealed in addition to the camera body to have the best protection.
Questions to Ask: Will I be shooting in humid places often? Will I be shooting outdoors frequently? Will I be shooting in areas with a lot of water, sand, or dust?
PRO TIP: Rent first!
If at all possible, I recommend renting the camera or trying it out in a store before purchasing. One of my favorite rental spots is Lens Rentals, and I have also rented from Borrow Lenses and Camera Lens Rentals. Some of these companies have programs to purchase a used item after you’ve rented it, and they’ll apply part of your rental fees to the purchase price. If you can’t afford renting, you can also head into a Best Buy or your local camera shop to try handling the camera you’re interested in. This will give you a feel for the ergonomics and is really helpful in the decision process.
LCD: A rotating LCD is a feature that can be helpful for shooting from unusual angles when you can’t look into the viewfinder (overhead, from the hip, or from a low perspective).
A touch screen LCD makes the menu easier to access, reviewing images easier, and allows you to tap to focus. For people used to shooting with smartphones, this may be a very comfortable transition. A major downside is that a touchscreen LCD eats up the battery faster. And if the LCD is the only way to make changes to the settings, it doesn’t allow for quick changes on dials as you’re shooting.
Viewfinder: Does it have a viewfinder? Some lower-end cameras only have an LCD, so this is a consideration if you’re looking at a camera that is more compact and inexpensive. Personally, I always use a viewfinder unless I’m shooting video. But similar to ergonomics, this is all about your preference and how you feel comfortable shooting.
Another question to ask about the viewfinder is whether it is an optical viewfinder (OVF) or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Without getting into too much nitty-gritty detail, an EVF is a helpful feature because it allows you to see the image as the camera will record it (how bright or dark it is based on the current settings). However, OVFs typically have better clarity and no delay in what you see in the viewfinder.
Interchangeable Lenses: A lot of people assume that they should get a dSLR with interchangeable lenses when they’re looking at buying a new camera. But as I’ve mentioned, the camera itself doesn’t make you a better photographer, so don’t feel like you need to have a camera with interchangeable lenses.
Benefits of interchangeable lenses:
- More flexibility in focal length (“zoom”).
- You can upgrade lenses as you continue to learn more about photography.
- Many interchangeable lenses produce higher quality images than lenses that are attached to point and shoot and bridge cameras.
Downsides of interchangeable lenses:
- For some people, having interchangeable lenses gives them too many options. Some people don’t want to have 2 or 3 lenses in their bag, always needing to choose which one to use and having to switch back and forth. They prefer having one lens that’s permanently attached and working within those parameters.
There’s no wrong answer here–it’s a matter of preference.
Questions to Ask: Do you want more flexibility and the option to upgrade lenses at a later time? Or do you want the simplicity and portability of a camera without interchangeable lenses?
Flash: There are 2 things to think about with flash. Does it have a pop-up flash built in, and is there a hot shoe?
You really only need to ask the first question if you have a big budget because some of the higher end cameras do not come with a built in flash. But cameras on the professional end and aren’t the starting point for most people.
As for the second question…what in the world is a hot shoe? A hot shoe is a little metal opening on the top of the camera that allows an external flash (AKA, a “big fancy flash”), a video light, and a video mic to be attached. External flashes are great for photos of people and more pleasing indoor photos. Most dSLRs, many mirrorless, and some bridge cameras have hot shoes, while compact point and shoot cameras do not.
Questions to Ask: If you think you want to use your camera for portraits or video often, or you want to have the option to grow into more advanced techniques, consider looking for a camera that has a hot shoe.
Battery Life: We’ve all probably had moments of watching our phone battery slowly creep down towards 0%, praying that it will somehow hang on for those last few minutes. Last summer, I was shooting a timelapse video of a sunset while I was traveling, and I kept kicking myself for not charging my phone to 100% before shooting because it barely made it through the sunset.
Shooting video drains battery life substantially, as does keeping the LCD turned on all the time (another reason I love using the viewfinder to shoot). But some cameras have notoriously short battery life, so this is an element to consider. For me, if the camera excels in other areas, like autofocus and low light performance, I can overlook a short battery life because I can always buy several spares. Another workaround is that for some cameras, you can purchase a battery grip. However, this adds to the cost and weight.
Questions to Ask: Will you be using this camera for long periods of time when it would be very difficult to change batteries or carry extras? Will you be using this primarily to shoot video?
Wi-Fi Functionality: Some cameras have the ability to be controlled wirelessly by an app on your phone and/or to transmit photos wirelessly to your phone, computer, or a social media site. This is definitely an added convenience for a lot of people, and it’s becoming more of a standard feature. I’ve had someone tell me that Wi-Fi functionality is a necessity for her because she knows she would never upload and share her photos without it.
Others might consider this a “bell and whistle” because it’s not really necessary to the fundamentals of creating a great photograph, or because they’re already used to using a cord or card reader to load their photos onto their computer.
GPS Tagging: This feature allows you to geotag your images so that the exact location of where you were shooting is recorded in the image file. This could be helpful for travel or wildlife photographers, but for many people, it’s not a make-or-break feature.
Questions to Ask: Realistically, will I upload photos onto my computer via a cord or card reader? Will I be traveling places that have reliable Wi-Fi? Do I need to track the exact location of where my photos were taken with GPS tagging?
Video: If video is at all on your radar, there are a few important features to consider. Most cameras on the market at this point shoot HD resolution, but you may want to consider looking at 4K if getting the highest possible quality is important for you.
Aside from the resolution question, autofocus performance is crucial for on-the-go and everyday video shooting. DSLRs tend to struggle in this area due to their physical design, while many mirrorless cameras excel. If you want to explore videography more professionally or creatively, AF isn’t as important because you’ll need to utilize manual focus.
Image stabilization–either in camera or in the lens–is also helpful for everyday video when you may be shooting without a tripod.
Another question to ask is what length video clips you need to capture. Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras max out at around 20 minutes, and you’ll need to stop shooting and restart again. If you need continuous coverage, this is something to keep in mind.
If video is the main thing you’re purchasing the camera for, I recommend checking out some more in-depth resources. Since this guide is intended for photographers who may also want to explore video on the side, this is a brief overview.
Questions to Ask: Do I want to shoot video more professionally or have a lot of creative control? If so, a DSLR or mirrorless will be a great option. Or is video an “extra” feature that I might not use because I already have a smartphone for shooting casually?
Many people who are looking to improve their photography assume that they need the “big, fancy DSLR” in order to learn and get excellent quality images. But like I mentioned in the intro, you are the photographer, not your camera. I’m not assuming that a DSLR will be the best fit for everyone, and I don’t want you to assume that the biggest, most expensive camera is the best option for you. Here’s a quick breakdown of various camera systems to help you decide.
The best thing about using a smartphone camera is that you probably already own one, or you can get one for free or inexpensively with a cell phone plan in many places. And, it’s already in your pocket or purse when you’re out, so it’s not one more thing you have to carry around. Some of the newest smartphone cameras have relatively good low light performance, semi-automatic features, and decent resolution when compared to point and shoot cameras or older smartphones. There are also lens attachments you can purchase to have more options for lens focal lengths (“zoom”), and some smartphones shoot HD or 4K video. The downsides are that–although they’re getting larger–the sensors are still quite small, so the image quality won’t match higher-quality cameras. Another negative is that they have delayed shooting–once you press the button to take the photo, there is a slight delay. This fraction of a second can mean a missed moment.
Estimated Price: Free – $800 USD
Point and Shoot (P&S)
Point and shoot cameras (sometimes called compact cameras) offer simplicity and portability. They are the most affordable option, though the price and quality vary. They don’t have detachable lenses and often do not have manual controls. The ones that do offer manual control sometimes have the settings hidden within a menu instead of an external dial, so adjusting settings is more cumbersome. For many people, smartphones have replaced point and shoot cameras, but they’re still a relevant option for anyone on a tight budget.
Estimated Price: $100 – $500 USD
Bridge cameras are essentially advanced point and shoot cameras. They fill in the gap between lower-end P&S and DSLRs or mirrorless. They sometimes look and feel like a DSLR, though they’re smaller in size. They don’t have interchangeable lenses, but they usually have manual controls and other advanced features.
Estimated Price: $300 – $900 USD
Mirrorless cameras have exploded in popularity in recent years, especially for travelers, people who value both portability and image quality, and videographers. They offer interchangeable lenses and manual control like DSLRs, but the big difference is their small size. The reason they’re so small is that they don’t have the same internal design as DSLRs, which use a mirror to create the image. They’re very similar to DSLRs in terms of flexibility, price, and image quality, but they come in a much smaller package. You can find both crop sensor and full frame mirrorless cameras. Currently, the main drawback is that there isn’t as wide of a lens selection for some brands as what you can find for DSLRs, but with their popularity increasing, lens selections will likely expand.
Estimated Price: $500 – $800 for entry level // $800 – $1500 for mid-range // $1500+ for advanced
Digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) are what many people think of when they decide to invest in “a real camera.” These are what they see professionals using, so it makes sense that to achieve better photos, they would want to use something similar. Camera manufacturers have come out with many options for these–from entry level to “prosumer” to professional–because of this demand in the eyes of consumers. DSLRs offer interchangeable lenses, manual control, and great image quality that continues to improve. The main drawback, as you probably already guessed, is the weight and size. They can be very cumbersome, and a lot of people don’t want to have to lug one of these babies around everywhere they go.
Estimated Price: $500 – $800 for entry level // $800 – $1500 for mid-range // $1500+ for advanced
A Note About Specialty Cameras
There are other camera types that fall into something that I’d call specialty cameras–things like GoPro, drones, and waterproof cameras. I didn’t include them in this list because many of them aren’t great at all-purpose shooting. That being said, if you know that you have a specific need for one of these and already have your all-purpose needs met, you can still use the research process in this e-book. In fact, you can use it for any major purchase you want to make in the future–not just cameras.
Do you even need interchangeable lenses? As I mentioned in the Camera Features section, you might not necessarily need a camera with interchangeable lenses. Whatever you decide, this section will give you a little more information about lens features and types. Most of the information is relevant whether or not you have a camera with interchangeable lenses.
What Is Focal Length?
The focal length of a lens is basically the “zoom” or how close or far away something appears. Focal length is expressed in millimeters (mm).
General purpose lenses come in 3 lengths:
- Wide angle lenses (21-35mm) include a wide perspective in the image.
- Normal lenses (35-70mm) are similar to normal human eyesight.
- Telephoto/long lenses (70mm and up) act like binoculars to focus in close on your subject.
Types of Lenses
Aside from the focal length, there is one other important element that defines the lens, which is whether it is a fixed lens (sometimes called prime) or a zoom lens.
Zoom lenses cover a range of focal lengths, making them flexible and convenient. Some zooms cover just a small focal range (like 16-35mm) and some cover a wide range (like 24-105mm). The drawback of zooms is that they don’t offer the same image quality for the money you’d spend on a fixed lens. Also, they usually don’t have as wide of an aperture, which means they don’t let in as much light (for shooting in low light) and you can’t get as blurry of a background.
Fixed (prime) lenses do not zoom at all and are fixed at a single focal length. One of the most popular is the 50mm lens, nicknamed the “nifty fifty.” Fixed lenses sometimes come in smaller packages, which offers you the ability to be more discreet when shooting. They produce superior image quality when compared to a zoom lens at the same price. The downside to fixed length lenses is that they aren’t as convenient–you have to physically move if you want to “zoom.” However, some photographers see this constraint as a good thing because it challenges them to be more creative. Another downside to fixed lenses is that you might have to switch them more often, and you might need to carry more lenses in your bag.
A Note About Specialty Lenses
There are several types of specialty lenses, and some are more practical than others. Macro lenses let you focus on something extremely close, allowing you to get a very detailed photo of a flower or insect, for example. They can be zoom lenses, though the highest quality ones tend to be fixed. They typically come in either standard or telephoto focal lengths. My favorite lens is my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L because it’s not only great at detail shots, but it also makes a gorgeous portrait lens.
A couple of other specialty lenses with more limited use are fisheye and tilt-shift lenses. Fisheye lenses are extremely wide angle, and the photos have a kind of fish bowl or snow globe effect. Tilt-shift lenses are intended to prevent wide angle distortion when shooting architecture, but they’re also used for creative effects in portrait, food, and other types of photography.
Again, these are specialty lenses, so they might not be a starting point for you, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future.
What Is Maximum Aperture?
One of the most important parts of a lens is called the aperture. You have probably seen this mentioned and might have wondered what it meant: f/1.8 or f/2.8 or some similar decimal number. It can be a little challenging to wrap your head around, but very basically, aperture is how wide the opening of a lens gets when you click the shutter button to take the photo. A wide aperture lets a lot of light in, which is good for low light shooting, and a narrow aperture lets in very little light.
Here’s where it gets a little counterintuitive–the lower the number, the wider the aperture and the more light it lets in. Wider apertures also produce a blurrier background, which is really great for photos of people. The maximum aperture of any lens tells you the widest aperture you’ll be able to achieve with that lens.
What does all this mean when you’re looking at lenses (or cameras with lenses attached)? I recommend looking for lenses with a wider maximum aperture (a lower number)–something under 3 or 4 would be great, and in the 1’s or 2’s would be even better.
Zoom lenses often show this number in a range (like f/4.5 – f/8 or f/1.8 – f/2.8) because the widest aperture they can shoot at changes as you zoom in and out. Higher quality and more expensive zoom lenses will not show a range because they can maintain the same aperture no matter what focal length you are shooting at.
Image stabilization helps you shoot in low light because it reduces vibrations. You can’t feel this minor shaking because it happens in a fraction of a second, but it can ruin a photo.
Sometimes image stabilization is built into the camera body itself, but most of the time, it is a feature of the lens. Image stabilization is an extremely helpful feature for both video and still photography, and it’s especially recommended for longer telephoto lenses.
Some brands call it by different names such as: vibration reduction (VR), optical stabilization (OS), vibration compensation (VC), or shake reduction (SR).
Do I Have to Use the Same Name Brand Lens as the Brand of My Camera?
This is a great question and one that can be confusing for beginners. The answer is both yes and no. You can’t take a Nikon lens and throw it on a Canon camera. And you can’t just put a Canon lens on a Sony camera. They each have different mounts, which is where you mount the lens onto the camera body. So you’ll hear terms like Sony’s E-Mount system or Canon’s EF or EF-S systems*.
But, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can only buy Nikon lenses for Nikon cameras. There are 3rd party lens manufacturers that make excellent quality lenses for better prices–like Sigma or Tamron. If you’re looking at Sigma, for example, simply search Sigma lenses for a Canon EF mount camera. The other option is to buy an adapter, which is something that goes between your lens and camera, so you could use a Canon lens on a Sony camera body. This option isn’t ideal and is mostly for people who already own a lot of lenses and want to use them on a different camera body.
NOTE: Remember when I mentioned the possibility of upgrading your crop sensor camera to a full frame in the future? Some brands have special lenses that are designed only for crop sensor camera bodies, which means you won’t be able to use them on a full frame. However, the full frame lenses work on either the full frame or the crop sensor bodies. For example, Canon’s EF lenses work on any of their camera bodies, but their EF-S lenses only work on crop sensor bodies. This is a factor to keep in mind if you are investing in higher quality lenses.
Attachments for Smartphones
Lastly, keep in mind that if you’re choosing to use a smartphone as your main (or “on-the-go”) camera, you can expand its flexibility with lens attachments. These are quite small and are usually attached with a small magnet that you apply to the lens and to your phone–making it easy to put on or take off.
Although the quality may not be excellent, using a telephoto lens attachment is a better option than “zooming” on your phone’s screen because this method decreases the quality of your image.
Pro Lens Buying Tip
The world of lenses adds another big element to choosing a camera, and it can be overwhelming at first. Here are 3 options for you as you decide about lenses.
If you don’t want to dig too deep yet or if your budget is very limited, go with the lens that comes with your camera (called a kit lens). While the quality of most kit lenses is not the best, it will be enough to get you started.
**Beyond the Kit Lens**
If you have a little extra in your budget, get the kit lens and add a “nifty fifty” (50mm fixed lens). Most brands have 2 or 3 versions of this lens, ranging in price from under $100 – over $1000. The build quality of the cheapest $100 version isn’t great, but the value you get for the money can’t be beat when it comes to lenses. Starting with the kit lens and the nifty fifty will let you get a feel for the difference between zooms and primes. The nifty fifty is inexpensive and a great introduction to fixed lenses. Once you start to learn more about photography, you’ll understand what to research for future lens investments.
**Invest from the Beginning**
If you know you want the best quality from the start and don’t mind some additional research, you can use the process outlined in Sections 2-4 to research one or two lenses once you’ve decided on a camera. To save money, you can buy the camera body without the kit lens and put that money towards a different lens. Lenses last longer, are a better investment, and affect image quality more than the camera body itself, so you can consider purchasing a slightly older camera model in order to purchase a better lens.
A Note About Budget
Your travel camera budget is your starting point, and it’s important to be realistic. Remember that you’ll probably also want a few accessories like a comfortable camera bag, an extra battery or two, and memory cards, and you may want to invest in editing software like Adobe Lightroom.
The budget question is always the first one I ask people when they ask me for recommendations. While you could spend hours researching your dream camera, there’s no point if you can’t afford it. You want to research the camera that fits your needs and preferences best within your budget.
Put It All Together
Now it’s time to start researching! Well, almost. I want to you take a minute to answer these quick questions to lay the groundwork. This is an important step in the camera buying process because it’s important for you to identify your needs and preferences–there really isn’t ONE perfect travel camera out there.
1. What is my budget?
2. What do I want to use this camera for a majority of the time?
3. What features are most important to me? (Choose 3-5 features that are “must-have,” and choose 3-5 that “would be nice.”)
Narrow the Options
Time to start looking at actual cameras! This is the fun part, but it can also take forever if you let it. If you know you’re an over-researcher, challenge yourself to not dig in too deep just yet. This step is all about basic research.
We’re going to use what we did in the previous step to do some basic research. As you’re in this browse stage, all I want you to do is look over the information briefly–resist the urge to spend a lot of time looking at any one camera.
STEP ONE: Based on your budget, intended use, must-have, and “would be nice” lists from the last step, which camera system are you leaning toward?
STEP TWO: Head to Amazon and browse by camera system:
Note: If you’re debating between two camera systems, just browse through both of those sections. Also remember that bridge cameras are advanced point and shoots, so they don’t have their own section on Amazon. Look under point and shoot cameras for these.
STEP THREE: As you browse, narrow your search by your price range, as well as any features that were non-negotiable for you and that are listed under “refine by” on the left. You can also look at the Bestseller section on each of these pages to find good options.
By now, you should have a list of 3 or 4 cameras you feel good about. If you still have a bigger list, spend a few minutes narrowing it down to your top choices by looking at your “must-have” and “would be nice” criteria.