It’s one of the first questions that budding travel photographers ask…but one of the hardest ones to answer. “What’s the best camera for beginning travel photographers like me?”
That’s like trying to answer the question “How long is a string?” There’s no good answer, and without some good selection criteria you’ll quickly get overwhelmed in the selection process. Amazon.com’s Camera, Photo & Video Store has literally thousands of choices for gear and accessories.
So how do you narrow down the possible choices to pick the best camera for you? The answer depends on multiple factors, all of which we’ll explore in this article. If you want to know our top recommendations for beginning travel photographers you can go to the end of this post.
Criteria for Picking the Best Camera for Beginning Travel Photographers
Beginning travel photographers will want to evaluate a few key criteria when choosing the best camera for their needs. Some factors to consider:
- What is your budget?
- What type of camera systems are available?
- What features do I need?
- Do I have any weight or size requirements?
Travel photographers can spend anywhere from $100 to $7,500 or more for a camera and a full set of gear to go with it. For all camera types except point-and-shoot cameras, lenses are optional and cost extra. You’ll have to factor this into your purchasing decision…don’t spend all your money on just the body! Here are a few other things you’ll need to budget for when selecting a travel photography camera:
- Camera bag ($50-$250)
- Tripod ($50-$500)
- Lenses ($100-$1,500 each)
- Spare batteries and memory cards ($50-$75)
If you’re interested in what I pack in my camera bag, check out this page on my travel essentials.
What Type of Camera Systems Are Available?
Once you have an idea of your budget, you can evaluate the different types of camera systems available. This is quite possibly the most important decision of all, as it will inform other choices you need to make when acquiring your camera gear. The list below won’t provide you with the pros and cons of every camera on the market today – that list would be far too extensive. However, knowing what types of camera bodies or systems are available will help you select the best camera for beginning travel photographers.
- Full frame cameras: A “full frame” camera is one where the sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame. Full frame cameras tend to be higher-end equipment and can be packed with lots of features. If you choose to bring a full-frame camera, make sure you spend significant time learning how to operate the functions and when to use them. I’ve written about bird photography in Tanzania in a previous post, and I used a full-frame camera for this trip.
- Examples: Nikon D810, Canon EOS 5D Mark VI, Sony A7S II
- Cost Range: $2500 – $5,000
- Higher image quality – the larger in size your camera’s sensor is, the better image quality you can get. The individual cells on the sensor (picture elements, or pixels) are larger in full-frame cameras which gives you a more detailed image overall.
- Better low-light photos – because the pixels are larger, each one captures more light. This allows your camera to produce better quality images in low light than a camera with a smaller frame.
- More features – full-frame cameras are generally used by professional photographers or serious amateurs. These photographers expect lots of features in their cameras, and the market has raced to adapt to consumer demand. There’s a downside to all the features, though – see the “Cons” below.
- Higher cost – Because full frame cameras contain more complex electronics, they generally tend to cost more. Full-frame cameras also require lenses that have different optics from those needed for other cameras, which means full-frame camera lenses are also generally more expensive.
- Larger body and lenses – In general, full-frame cameras are larger and bulkier than crop-frame or mirrorless camera formats. The lenses are also generally larger and bulkier as well. The notable exception to this rule is the new generation of mirrorless full frame bodies like the Sony A7S II or the Nikon Z6. These are newer generation cameras but they seem to compete well with other full-frame bodies.
- More complex to use – All the added features typically found in a full-frame camera make it more complex to use. Not only do you have to know how to set all the dials, levers, buttons and menu choices mean, but you also have to have a good understanding of what each feature does.
- Crop-frame cameras: A “crop-frame” (or APS-C) camera has a smaller sensor than a full frame camera – the size varies by manufacturer, but crop-frame sensors are generally 70%-80% of the size of a full-frame camera. The smaller sensor gives you a smaller portion of an image relative to a full-frame camera. The effect is the same as cropping an image from a full-frame camera, hence the name. Crop-frame cameras are geared toward anyone from amateur/intermediate-level photographers all the way to beginning professionals.
- Examples: Nikon D500, Canon EOS 7D Mark II
- Cost Range: $500 – $2,000
- Smaller and lighter – Crop frame cameras are generally smaller than full-frame cameras. This is largely due to the smaller sensor, and the electronics surrounding it. However, some crop-frame cameras can be just as bulky as their full-frame equivalents, so check it out first.
- Longer effective focal length – This is possibly one of the best features of a crop-frame camera. Due to the optical properties of a smaller sensor, your lenses have a longer effective focal length. This varies based on the size of the sensor, but a good rule of thumb is a 1.4x to 1.6x conversion factor. A 4oomm focal length on my Nikon D300 body ends up with a focal length of 520mm. This extra reach can help a photographer really get close to birds, animals, etc., that are farther away.
- Have many of the same features as full-frame cameras – Camera manufacturers develop features and software for full-frame bodies first, and then these trickle down to smaller cameras. Due to intense competition in the market, many crop-frame cameras have just as many features as full-frame cameras do.
- Lower image quality in low-light situations – Since the sensors on crop-frame cameras are smaller, each pixel has less space to capture light. This means that images taken with a crop-frame camera will generally have more digital noise than a full-frame camera at the same settings.
- Longer effective focal length – Wait…wasn’t this a “pro” of using a crop-frame sensor? It actually applies to both. The downside of crop-frame optics is that ALL lens focal lengths are multiplied. This means that smaller focal lengths don’t provide as wide of a field of view as you’d have on a full-frame camera. A full-frame camera with a 14mm lens gives you a field of view around 100º. The same lens on a crop-frame gives you a 72º field of view.
- May be missing some features of full-frame cameras – It was noted previously that crop-frame cameras are now filled with many of the features in full-frame cameras. However, this may not always be the case – especially for higher-end professional features like extended low-ISO range, etc.
- Mirrorless cameras: These cameras typically have a smaller sensor than the APS-C format. However, Nikon, Canon and Sony have all released mirrorless cameras with full-frame sensors. Mirrorless cameras also use electronic viewfinder (EVF) technology. This allows manufacturers to create smaller and lighter cameras because they do not use prism technology like full- or crop-frame digital SLRs. Image quality for most mirrorless cameras is equivalent to that of APS-C sensors, and in some cases are even better.
- Examples: Panasonic LUMIX GX8, Nikon Z6, Canon EOS R
- Cost Range: $750 – $2,500 (and above for full-frame mirrorless cameras)
- Small and light – As the name implies, mirrorless cameras have no internal mirror or prism system to allow you to view through the lens. This means the entire body is devoted to the electronics and software that make the camera run, which in turn implies a much smaller overall package. This is really helpful when you’re trying to pack light for a long trip.
- Gives a longer effective focal length – the same “pro” applies for mirrorless cameras (except those with full-frame sensors) as it does for crop-frame cameras. The optics of the sensor means that lenses appear to be ‘longer’ than they would be on a full-frame camera. A 400mm lens on a Panasonic LUMIX GX8 equates to an 800mm on a full-frame camera.
- Easier to use for street photography – Many mirrorless cameras have a “flip and fold” view screen on their back, meaning a photographer can see their composed image without holding the camera to their eye. This makes it easier and less noticeable when doing street photography or candid shots.
- Battery life – Mirrorless cameras are notorious for short battery lives. A typical mirrorless camera battery will power the camera through 300-400 shots, whereas a full-frame camera might get 1000+ shots off the same battery power.
- Lower image quality in some circumstances – Mirrorless cameras generally don’t do well in low-light conditions, or at the extreme end of the focal length for a given lens. Close in and landscape shots are generally pin-sharp, but mid-range telephoto shots (birds, etc.) may show less detail than an equivalent full-frame setup. Note that this doesn’t apply to full-frame mirrorless cameras.
- Wide variety of price points and features – Because mirrorless cameras are becoming so popular, the number of choices can be overwhelming. There are a wide variety of mirrorless cameras at all price points, so it’s important to know what features you need in your camera so you can make the best choice.
- Point-and-shoot cameras: Once the only real alternative to a digital SLR, point-and-shoot cameras are being eclipsed in the market by other choices that are better buys for consumers. As the name implies, point-and-shoot cameras are generally pretty simple – you point it at a scene and shoot the image. These cameras are generally better optimized for snapshots and fun photos as opposed to serious photography. That said, they do have their place.
- Examples: Canon PowerShot ELPH 180, Sony CyberShot DSC-W800
- Cost Range: $100 – $500
- Smallest and lightest of all – The only camera form factors smaller than point-and-shoots are cell phone cameras. Most point-and-shoot cameras are designed to fit easily into a pocket or purse.
- Easy to use – There’s virtually no learning curve with most point and shoots. Pure beginners can charge up a point and shoot and start making travel photos within minutes.
- Lowest cost option – If you’re not sure you want to get into travel photography, or don’t have a huge budget, this is the place to start. You can always upgrade later if you want.
- No ability to change lenses – All the camera body types listed above give a photographer the ability to change lenses from wide angle to telephoto/zoom, and anything else in between. Not so with point-and-shoot cameras – you’re stuck with what the manufacturer wants you to have. Many have digital zoom capabilities built in, but these features seriously degrade image quality and are better off not being used.
- Mediocre image quality – Point-and-shoot sensors are small – often less than 1/3rd the size of a full-frame sensor. This allows for a smaller camera, but the trade off is that images are nowhere near as detailed or as rich as other types of cameras.
- Lack of features – Point-and-shoot manufacturers are adding lots of features for portraits and group shots, but other key features present in mirrorless and larger cameras are often missing. The cameras are made simpler and less feature-rich to make them less complicated to operate.
- Smartphone cameras: If that array of choices isn’t enough, there’s one other option to consider: using the camera that’s built into your smartphone. Smartphone cameras are small, light and easy to use. These days nearly everyone has one with them. There’s an old saying in photography: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Taking a once-in-a-lifetime shot with a smartphone camera is a way better option than missing it because you left your fancy full-frame camera in the trunk of your rental car.
Back when all travel photography was done on film, the list of features available was very limited. Since the advent of digital cameras, the list of available features has grown rapidly to meet market demand. The following list shows some of the most popular features you may want to look for in your next travel photography camera:
- In-camera editing: allows photographers to lighten or darken photos, turn them into black and white, produce high-dynamic range (HDR) images, and so on. Most of these features used to require a computer and a dedicated program. Having these features in-camera means you can edit and modify photos while shooting.
- Enhanced low-light performance: If you plan to do night photography, you’ll want to look for a camera with enhanced low-light performance. A camera’s sensitivity to light is expressed in an ISO number – a measurement borrowed from the days of film. Generally, the lower the ISO range for a camera goes, the more sensitive it is to low light. Make sure to check the image quality, though – as some cameras give better low-light performance but at lower image quality.
- WiFi and/or Bluetooth support: These make it easier to transfer images from your camera to a computer, smartphone or connected device. Many cameras also offer smartphone apps that let you control the camera remotely without having to use wires or cords to connect.
- Video: Videography is rapidly becoming one of the fastest-growing areas in travel. Video capabilities allow you to do on-camera interviews and to express scenes in a way that still images can’t. Look for 1080p/1080i or 4K video capabilities in a camera, as these will give you the best images.
- Time-lapse capability: Time lapse videography allows you to capture a slow-moving scene and compress it down to a few minutes or seconds of videos. When executed properly, the effect can be stunning.
- Exposure bracketing: Exposure bracketing is useful in a scene with a broad dynamic range (imagine a very bright sky and a very dark foreground). This feature allows you to capture multiple images that are optimized for various parts of the dynamic range. These can be combined later into an HDR (High-Dynamic Range) photo that provides a much more lifelike view of a scene.
I vividly remember a trip we took to Iceland several years ago. I really wanted to explore the island and so I brought five (yes…FIVE) cameras with me, in addition to lenses, tripods, etc. I brought back some great images, but I also brought back an awful backache!
These days, I’m a huge fan of traveling light and carrying my luggage on anywhere I can. I have both a full-frame camera system as well as a mirrorless camera. If I’m trying to pack as light as possible, I’ll choose the mirrorless system. If it’s feasible for me to carry on a heavier bag and check the rest of my luggage, I’ll go with the full-frame camera.
I know several people who have switched from full-frame to mirrorless systems because they don’t like carrying around all the extra weight. This becomes especially important when you’re hiking, or for photographers with back problems.
Photographers who are physically handicapped may need to consider the weight of a camera and a lens when doing travel photography as well.
What Do We Recommend?
See…I told you the range of choices was dizzying! In 20+ years of amateur travel photography, I’ve used all the different camera systems mentioned above. For those starting out, we recommend the following type of gear for travel photography:
- A crop-frame or mirrorless camera body
- Three lenses:
- A wide-angle lens (12-24mm focal length)
- An “all-purpose lens” (28-80mm focal length)
- A telephoto/zoom lens (80-300mm focal length)
- Padded camera bag
- Lots of spare batteries (2-3 spares for crop-frame systems, 3-5 for mirrorless)
- Lots of spare memory cards (I plan on filling up a card every 1-2 days)
- A travel tripod for night photography, panoramic photos, etc.
Depending on the exact camera system, manufacturer and model you’re buying, you are looking at somewhere between $1,000 to $3,000 for new equipment. Don’t buy everything all at once – just start with a camera body and an all-purpose lens, and add the rest as you grow in your love of travel photography.
Got questions about picking the best camera for beginning travel photographers? Leave me a comment in the notes below!