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Choosing a Digital Travel Camera: Part 1

Written by Jessica on March 1, 2012

Photographers on a cruiseshipBefore I jump into the how-tos of camera buying, let me make one thing very clear: Buying a good camera will not make you a good photographer. If you do not know what a fancy gadget-enhanced multi-million pixel camera does, it won’t help you.

The best way to take better pictures is to take more pictures. If you really want to improve your photography skills invest at least 40 solid hours into taking pictures, talking to a photographer, taking a class, or reading a book.

Minimalist Photography 101 will give you plenty of reasons why you don’t need to upgrade. Every salesperson and their sister will give you reasons why you should. I’m here to explain your options.

SLR or Compact Camera?

Canon and SLR camerasThe first decision you need to make is whether you need an SLR (Single Lense Reflex) or a compact camera. SLRs have lenses that come off. They are big, bulky and expensive. They also provide exceptional optical quality and plenty of manual controls. Compact cameras (also called point and shoot) are all-in-one cameras. Their lenses don’t come off and they come in a variety of sizes, usually about the size of a pack of cigarettes.

SLR Cameras

When you buy an SLR you also have to buy a lens (or two or three or six). This substantially increases the price. A good SLR lens will cost at least the same as the camera body. That said, you get what you pay for...if you know how to use it.


  • Ability to swap lenses and control zoom. Additional lenses also give you the option for a larger aperture range, making it easier to shoot in low light situations.
  • Manual overrides for shutter speed and aperture. Some compact cameras have this, and some SLR cameras don’t. This means you can create motion blurs, and control the amount of objects in focus (depth of field).
  • Ability to mount your camera to a tripod.
  • Ability to add filters. Important for correcting colors, removing haze and shooting in infrared.
  • Faster imaging processing time, usually.
  • More manual controls for self-timers, frequency of image capture and depth of field preview. If you don’t know what these things are, you don’t need them.


  • They are big.
  • They are heavy.
  • They are expensive.
  • You have to buy lenses.

Compact (Point and Shoot) Cameras


  • Small and compact. Durr.
  • Cheap, compared to SLRs.
  • Quality and quantity of manual controls are improving.
  • You can take a picture without someone else noticing.
  • Did I mention they are small?
  • Do you want to lug around 30lbs of camera gear?
  • Are you more likely to bring your camera, or take a picture? If you chose the former, point and shoot.


  • You can’t increase your zoom ability without sacrificing quality.
  • Often there are no manual controls for exposure (shutter speed and aperture). This makes it difficult to obtain good photos in abnormal lighting situations.
  • You don’t look nearly as professional as that dude with the giant camera.

The Bottom Line

For SLR Cameras

I shoot with a Canon 40D. Nikon’s D7000 is equivalent quality. Wars are waged over which brand is better. I’m not choosing sides. Any of the SLRs made by either of these manufacturers are a great place to start. Both of these SLR bodies will run between $800-$1000.

If you’re considering advancing from the cheapest line of SLRs, make sure you know what you are are paying for. Most of the additional features you gain by upgrading to a Canon 7D or Mark III, or to a Nikon D300, are not worth the extra expense unless you are a professional.

Three camera lensesLenses

I carry 3 lenses. Standard, wide angle and telephoto. I’ve gradually upgraded over the last 15 years to high quality lenses. Start with a cheaper standard zoom (about a 24mm-80mm), and telephoto lens (100-300mm) and upgrade as your budget and knowledge improve.

Anything made by Canon and Nikon are highly recommended. Cheaper brands may work as you start out, but for a long term investment, stick with the name brands. Here is a full list of my camera gear, for your reference.

Compact Cameras

If you’re serious about taking some awesome photos, but don’t want the bulk of an SLR, here are the best of the best of compact cameras: Canon PowerShot S95 (or newer S120), Nikon CoolPix S8000 (or newer Coolpix A), and the Olympus XZ-1. Most are in the $300-500 range, and have the controls of an SLR camera without all the extra bulk. Models change all the time, so check manufacture sites and use an independent retailer (like B&H) to compare different models across brands.

For more information about specific features to look for in a camera and reasons to ignore meaningless marketing hype like "megapixels" and "digital zoom", check out Part 2 of Buying a Digital Camera.


David Etter
#3 David Etter 2013-11-28 14:20
Retired now, over 100,000 kms. in small camper vans from Panama to Alaska and every State and Province and Territory in between over the last 30 years, including BurningMan. Semi-pro photog and still confused as which to take on which trip. If you are expecting to publish then take an SLR, if just for friends and family and personal use take a good compact, waterproof, dustproof camera. The picture quality with todays compacts is astounding. Large cameras attract attention, usually bad. Be polite - ask first and be unobtrusive in actions and dress. Via con Dios
#2 JessicaM 2012-03-02 00:31
No kidding about that sponsorship. I still can't part with my SLR and lenses, although I'm shooting more and more with my husbands compact camera. Just can't be bothered to haul the things around with me. Although I know my telephoto is going to come in handy when we go in search of the rare Quetzals. I am determined to see one!
#1 James 2012-03-01 15:27
Canon S90 crew reporting in! Great camera but sometimes I long for a SLR. I need Canon to sponsor us.

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