The need to capture pictures of a travel or vacation experience is almost universal. As travelers we will be uncertain of our subjects to a certain degree because even the most thoroughly planned travel itinerary can present unplanned photo opportunities. While any camera that takes good pictures is an asset on a trip, here are some features we would want to have on our travel cameras to make sure we come home with good pictures.
The first two key features are related to each other; the size of the camera and its zoom lens range. The relationship between these features is to a degree physical, a lens with a tremendous zoom range requires a camera body large enough to contain it. No other camera features will require compromise like these two will.
A camera body that fits in a pocket won’t have a 20X or longer zoom lens; at this time it just can’t be done. But do we really need that much zoom magnification on a travel camera? We have found that the wide angle end of the lens is more important than the telephoto end for the travel photographer. More often when we are on a trip we need to take pictures indoors or we need to capture a sweeping scenic vista. If the camera’s lens doesn’t have a wide angle setting equal to a 28mm view or wider we won’t capture the scope of the scene.
We have found that cameras with at least a 7X zoom lens starting at 28mm or wider are ideal for travel. The 7X power is ample if wildlife isn’t a big part of the photo mix. Cameras with zoom lenses of 4X and 5X are quite useable as long as the wide angle view is still 28mm or wider.
Cameras with zoom lens lengths under 20X are usually pocket sized and very portable. If size is less important than zoom range then the choices open up to include the larger body cameras with high powered zooms. Either way it is important that the zoom range start at least as wide as a 28mm view.
The next feature that we have found to be important is the ability to capture movies. While most photographers don’t shoot video while at home, the ability to capture video while traveling ranks pretty high on the “must-have” feature list. Every compact camera shoots some sort of video, what is important today is that the video should be high definition (HD) and the change from shooting stills to movies needs to be as easy as possible. The very best choices in HD-capable cameras will have dedicated movie start / stop buttons
Cameras with direct HDMI video connections will capture HD video that looks better on an HDTV than those cameras without the connection. It is perhaps a broad generalization, but HD video from cameras without an HDMI port tend to look better on YouTube than on an HDTV.
There isn’t a right and wrong choice here, all we need to be aware of is how we want to use the captured video. Knowing how we want to share our video helps us to decide the importance. For myself, 90% of the video I shoot will only be seen on a computer so an HDMI port isn’t a top priority.
Before we list some desirable options for travel cameras we should discuss one last key feature of the travel class – good low light capabilities. Often travelers will find themselves in museums or other locations that prohibit flash photography. Just as often the photo-op may be in a large space that our flashes couldn’t possibly fill. If our cameras don’t perform well in low light the traveler will miss important pictures.
Believe it or not the worst thing for good low light photography with a compact camera is a high megapixel image sensor. In fact the current megapixel sweet spot for high quality compact camera images is between 10MP and 14MP – no matter what light level we are shooting in.
Now a list of options we’d like to see on our travel cameras. Not all of these options will be found on any one camera, but a model that offers the right blend of options for your shooting style is likely the ideal camera for you:
• Panorama mode. An easy to use panoramic mode is a huge plus on a travel camera. Some models now offer “motion panorama” meaning that the photographer presses the shutter button and sweeps the camera around in a full circle. The camera then assembles the final panoramic image.
• The ability to use an infrared remote shutter release. This feature almost made the list of the key requirements of a travel camera. An IR remote allows the photographer to release the shutter of a tripod mounted camera from a distance. Remember, the photographer is on the vacation too and needs to get into the group shots!
• In-camera video compilations. A new feature that if selected also captures three to ten seconds of video every time still image is captured. At the end of the day the camera compiles the movie clips into a video of the day’s events.
• An eyelevel viewfinder. Much easier to use outside on a sunny day compared to an LCD view screen. Eyelevel viewfinders are so rare anymore that lacking one really isn’t a deal-breaker for a camera. But if your final choices include a camera with this option we’d strongly recommend that camera model.
• GPS geo-tagging. Kind of a ho-hum feature when shooting in your own town, but on the road geo-tagging is very useful. Geo-tagging inserts map coordinates into the image file’s information. Some online image services allow you to explore other photographer’s work from the same geo-location based on your image’s tag.
Summary: Photography is a great way to capture the experience of traveling to new locations. By its nature, travel photography presents new and unplanned photo opportunities that a capable camera can take advantage of. The best compact travel cameras will feature zoom lenses with wide angle views of 28mm or wider. While long and powerful zoom lenses are an option, they can also force the photographer into a bigger camera body sizes. The ability to capture HD video while traveling is another ‘must-have’ feature. Last, good low-light performance is important in a travel camera; especially in situations where flash photography is prohibited.
In addition to these key features there is a list of options that can be welcome additions to a travel camera: Panoramic mode, an infrared remote shutter release, in-camera video compilations, an eyelevel viewfinder, and GPS geo-tagging.