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Choosing a Digital Travel Camera : Part 2

Written by Jessica on March 6, 2012

Taking photos in cape townIn Part 1 of this article, I covered how to choose between and SLR or a compact digital camera, and gave you a few ideas on the best models available. And if that wasn’t enough information, here’s part 2!

I’ll cover the details of technical digital photography speak, most of which is just marketing BS anyway. Hopefully I can shed some light on all the features camera manufactures like to promote. Happy shooting!



Ahhhhh, megapixels. A whole lots of mumbo-jumbo wrapped around pretty little pixels. I could write an entire post about the myth of megapixels, but let me be brief. You need about 5. 10 is ok, 12 is ok too, and you can probably get away with 4 if you want. These days all cameras (SLR and compact) have such a huge count of pixels that it won’t matter what you buy.

If you are comparing two camera models there are much more important considerations than the difference in megapixels. Concentrate on taking good quality, in focus images, and don’t worry so much about all those damn pixels. The NYT published a great article explaining the Myth of MegaPixels.

Camera zoomZoom and Lenses

Compact cameras measure zoom with a magical X number. SLR lenses use millimeters. It’s not simple. Best thing to do when comparing is go to a store and look through the lens.

Compact Cameras Zoom-ability

There is no easy way to understand zoom on a compact camera. And there is no easy way to compare it to other cameras. 10x on one camera may be much less zoom than 10x on another camera. Compact cameras figure the multiplication based on the starting lens focal point. If one camera starts a wide angle, 10x is a lot less than a camera that starts a normal focal length. Ignore the X!

If possible look for a zoom range in 35mm equivalents (don’t be confused, 35mm in this case refers to the size of the film- 135mm- it has nothing to do with focal lengths). Most major camera manufactures post these specs on their websites. These numbers can be compared across cameras and brands. 50mm is normal / life size focal length.

Beware of digital zoom! It doesn’t actually zoom, it is simply cropping your picture. If you zoom too far it will degrade the quality of your image. Don’t use digital zoom as a consideration when purchasing a camera.

Focal lengthSLR Lens Focal Lengths

There are hundreds of lens options available for SLR cameras. Prices range from a hundred dollars to several thousand. Research thoroughly before you buy. B&H photo is a great place to shop, and their customer service is excellent if you need some advice.

Know that SLR lenses are more than just a focal length (mm rating). The lenses also include an aperture, which controls the amount of light that hits your cameras sensor. High quality lenses allow for larger apertures, meaning you can take better photos in low light situations. The lower the f/stop number the more you can expect to pay for the lens. Some high end lenses also have features like image stabilization.

Exposure Controls

An automatic camera works by adjusting controls to allow the correct amount of light to hit its sensor. If too much light is let it you photos will be white (over exposed). If not enough light gets in, your photos will be dark (under exposed). Your camera has two ways to control the exposure (amount of light it lets in). I explain the controls below, but when buying a camera what is important is the ability to manually control your exposures.


The aperture is simply a hole that can adjust its size. It is measured in stops, usually called f/stops. The smaller the hole the less light that hits the sensor. If you want to take photos in low light situations (in a room without flash, at sunset, etc) it is important to use the largest aperture possible.

However a larger opening means a bigger lens is required. Bigger lens, means more glass, which means more cost. Lenses with better apertures are always bigger, heavier and more expensive. This is true for both compact cameras and SLR lenses. High end compact cameras (like the Olympus zx-1) have an aperture down to f/1.8. Which by compact camera standards, is pretty amazing. Of course that means it is quite a bit bigger and more expensive than your average point and shoot camera.

depth of fieldApertures also control the depth of field. Ever notice how the foreground of a photo will be perfectly sharp, but everything behind it is out of focus? That is depth of field. If you want everything in focus you have to use a tiny aperture. For example if you are standing in front of the leaning tower of Pisa and you want both yourself and the tower in focus you need a small aperture. If your camera doesn’t have the ability to manually override aperture settings you will never be able to control the depth of field in your pictures.

Shutter Speed

The second way a camera controls exposure is by regulating the amount of time the light is allowed to hit the sensor. This is measured in fractions of a second. Most cameras use the fastest shutter speed possible for the current light conditions. If the shutter is left open too long, your picture will be blurry. Generally anything slower than 1/60th  of a second will look blurry because your hand cannot hold a camera that steady. This is where tripods are handy.

Star blur at nightBut if you want a nice motion blur photo of the stars, plan on leaving your shutter open for a few hours. (Again, you’re going to need a manual override to do this). Higher end cameras allow for ridiculously fast shutter speed for capturing super-fast wildlife and athletes. Realistically, anything more than 1/1000th of a second isn’t worth paying for.

ISO (Film Speed)

There is one other way to adjust your cameras exposures. And, it’s a bit trixy. Back in the day, film was made with different sensitivities (ISO ratings). The higher the number the less light it took to make a proper exposure. Unfortunately the higher the number the more grain (or noise) was found in the final image. Having a wide range of ISO available can help in a jam, when adjusting both aperture and shutter speed isn’t quite enough. The rest of the time, just leave it on the lowest number!


Do you want to be able to shoot video with your camera too? Both compact and SLR cameras have this capability. But there are quality, length and sound quality limitations. If you are serious about wanting good video, consider a video camera instead.

View screen on a digital cameraViewing screen vs. Viewfinder

A perk of most SLRs is the existence of a traditional viewfinder to look through when taking pictures. I know, how old school. But, I prefer it. Also, it saves on a TON of battery power.

Batteries & Chargers

Check out the battery life for your camera. (Make sure to read independent reviews). Number of images and flashes varies wildly between cameras. Nothing stinks more than a dead battery in the middle of a perfectly beautiful sunset photo opportunity.

Compact cameras also now come with a variety of charging options. Pay attention the the amount of plug, adapters, cables, and docks your camera needs. The best models will charge through a standard USB. The worst require a big dock and a long cable to charge.


The most important part about buying a camera is to have easy access to lots of manual controls. And to have something that you’ll want to use while traveling. If its bulky and heavy, you won’t want to carry it with you.

If you have other questions, leave a comment below!


Win Harrison
#3 Win Harrison 2012-03-31 11:29
Great stuff. The education bounds from your southern climes to my mind. As of 3/29/2012 the Northwest rain is pouring and truly pouring. Really pouring, a weird blizzard of rain. Even stranger, It's the 100th anniversary of Captain Scott's last diary entry when he perished in the Antarctic from scurvy cold & hunger. He failed to reach the South Pole first (beaten by Norwegians), he and his crew marched 550 miles back, got caught by a blizzard 11 miles from his next food route/depot. He likely died 100 years ago today, and wrote in his journal, "It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more."

Seattle weather has reminded me of that lately. Cheap shot, I know, but Captain Scott is here and kicking, the idea and sacrifice very much here.
#2 JessicaM 2012-03-10 17:42
You got it. Will trade camera lessons for cheap Nicaraguan beer.
#1 James 2012-03-07 03:27
AUTO-mode for life!

:( I need one of you guys to show me how to use my camera por favor

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