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Why a separate article on choosing a travel camera? Any photographic situation
you might encounter when traveling would be better covered in a specialized
article about specialized equipment. Getting a good picture of bears in Alaska
presents mostly the same challenges as getting a good picture of bears in the
local zoo. Getting a perspective-correct image of a church in Paris is the same
problem as getting a perspective-correct image of the local Kwik-E-Mart.
What then separates travel photography from home-based photography? You can
probably get your 300/2.8 lens down to the zoo. You can probably get your view
camera down to the Kwik-E-Mart. But you certainly can't get the right camera for
every potential situation into one backpack and carry it around the world.
Picking equipment for a trip is therefore a process of deciding what kinds of
images are most important to you and making a conscious decision that you'll
leave the rest for another trip.
What Kind of a Trip?
Is a primary purpose of your trip photographic? Or are you going to be gone
only a few days with just a few hours in between business meetings? If you're not
going to have time to concentrate on photography, then you'll probably get the
best results by simply carrying
If you're going to spend an hour or more per day trying to achieve some
artistic objectives or seriously documenting your journey, only then is it worth
considering taking a camera that won't fit into your shirt pocket.
What Kind of a Point and Shoot Camera?
Suppose that you're really just on a business trip. Read
my buying guide to point-and-shoot cameras and
pick one. The one additional caveat I have to offer is that P&S cameras
aren't very reliable. This isn't such a big problem if you're at home and can
just pick up another camera. If I had to rely on a shirt-pocket camera, I'd pick
something as simple and expensive as possible. So the fixed-lens Yashica T4 Super
or Ricoh GR1 would be reasonable choices.
What Kind of Serious Camera?
First, bring a P&S camera. There will be portions of your trip when you'll
be too tired to carry the real camera but ought to be prepared in case an
exceptional situation arises.
Second, resist the temptation to bring more than one serious camera system.
Sometimes I go away for a few days and take a Canon EOS single-lens-reflex system
(plus some 35mm film), a Fuji 617 panoramic camera (plus some 120 film), and a
view camera (plus some 4x5 film). This is insanity and, on a short trip, I almost
always end up taking 99% of my pictures with the 35mm SLR.
Does that mean a 35mm SLR is right for you? Probably. It works for
professional photojournalists. But if what you truly hope to come back with are a
few exceptional landscapes then a folding view camera or a medium-format
rangefinder camera might be a better choice.
What Lenses for a 35mm SLR System?
If you pick a 35mm SLR, you've got yourself a reliable and comfortable-to-use
body. However, you now have to figure out which lenses to buy/bring. Canon makes
50 lenses for its EOS bodies; Nikon makes nearly 100 lenses for its F-mount
bodies. You probably can't carry more than 3 or 4.
A tempting decision is to get a single wide-range zoom lens such as Canon's
24-85 or Nikon's 24-120. I'm not a big fan of cheap slow zoom lenses for
home-based photography and I'm not convinced that they work so great for travel
photography either. What you are trying to capture in that exotic foreign land is
the exotic foreign light. If the maximum aperture on your lens is f/4 then you'll
be forced to use electronic flash far too often. The light from an electronic
flash is the same in Paris and Peoria.
Is your goal to get great portraits? Take an 85/1.8. It is compact and admits
more than four times as much light as a mid-price zoom lens. Is your goal to
cover some of the cracks in your wall with scenery? Take
a 24/2.8. The sharpness in 16x20 enlargements will
be acceptable. Want photos taken inside museums where the lighting is subdued?
a 50/1.4 (works in 1/8th the light of
a mid-price zoom lens).
Is your goal to get photos of buildings without converging vertical lines?
Take a perspective correction lens (explaining their use is beyond the scope of
Is your goal to get some great photos of
the Katmai bears? Take a 300/2.8 lens. Can't
afford the $4500 or weight/size given that you're only going to be in Katmai for
two days out of a one-year round-the-world trip? Enjoy the bears and buy a
postcard. You must make some photographic compromises and expect to walk away
from at least 5% of the great photo opportunities.
Oh yes, which brand and model of body? I don't think it makes much difference.
I've written about the
Canon v. Nikon
choice and also try to keep current with a few models in
my camera buying tutorial. Just don't
get a Nikon N90 and 28-200 zoom lens.
a longish piece about film. One item
that I'll add for a long trip: stick to one or two emulsions. If you know that
you'll want to do a big slide show at the end, then take only slide film. If you
think you'll be doing only a Web site then consider color negative film, ISO 400
for everyday use and ISO 800 for low-light. If you're on an artistic black &
white inner journey, then limit yourself to Ilford Delta 100 and Delta 400 (for
The X-ray machines for carry-on luggage are safe. The X-ray machines for
check-through luggage are not safe. Keep all of your film in your carry-on
luggage and ask for hand inspection where possible but don't freak out in
airports like Heathrow where this is not an option.
What about Digital?
What about a digital camera? You could replace either the point and shoot or
the "one serious camera" with a digital camera. Then you wouldn't have to worry
about film and X-rays. Also, whenever you can find Internet connectivity, you can
share your images with friends.
The main problem with a digital camera circa 2001 is that it will most likely
force you into carrying a laptop computer, laptop computer battery, laptop
computer battery charger, laptop computer carry case, etc. Instead of shopping
for AA batteries in the pulperia and stuffing exposed rolls of film in
your pocket for processing and examination back home in Des Moines, you're
constantly looking for places to recharge your traveling technology circus and
spending evenings editing photos instead of enjoying the nightlife.
If your trip requires you to carry a laptop anyway, a digital camera may make
sense. A pocketable like
the Canon S100 or
Sony DSC-P1 makes a lot of sense. As a travel camera, the bulky "full-size" point
and shoot digitals like the Nikon 990 and Canon G1 don't make sense. They are
sort of like the gargantuan 38-140 zoom point and shoot film cameras. Too large
to put in your pocket and carry at all times; too limited, slow, and cumbersome
for creative photography. Most of the single-lens reflex (SLR) digital cameras
don't make sense for travel either. Cameras like the Nikon D1 and Canon D30
require you to pack lenses designed for 35mm film cameras. Given the small size
of the image sensor in these digital cameras, that is sort of like carrying
around a set of Hasselblad lenses for use with a Nikon. It works but why would
you want to incur the extra weight, bulk, and expense of lenses designed to cover
a much larger negative? Either get an Olympus E-10 with its built-in
purpose-built zoom lens or wait until camera companies manufacture complete
compact digital SLR systems, with their own lenses.
Trust but verify...
Whatever camera you buy, make sure that you test it before you leave! Expose a
roll of color slide film using all the various different exposure, autofocus, and
flash modes. Take it to a professional photo lab for 3-hour development. Ask them
to look at the slides and tell you whether or not you and your new camera are
working together properly.