Search for the Ultimate Travel Camera

Ahh, the mythical and often sought ultimate 'travel' camera. Is it a myth or reality? If you are ready to join me, I'm about to go down the rabbit hole in search of the best travel camera for my needs. And who knows, maybe your needs too as I happen to be in the market to replace my older Nikon P7000 and Sigma DP1s point & shoot cameras. The timing for this adventure in specs & details couldn't be better.

So why am I in the market for a new travel camera? As I've mentioned previously I'm an airline pilot and of course travel on a weekly basis. I usually keep one of the aforementioned smaller point & shoot cameras in my messenger bag for a general walk around camera as I'm exploring various locales each week. On trips where I intend to do more 'serious' shooting I'll of course bring the much more capable & amazing Fuji X-T1 along with the rest of my kit (tripod, filters, lenses, etc.) but I do enjoy having a high quality compact camera with me at all times.

The impetus to move forward with finding a new camera came a few weeks back from a licensing inquiry. Last year I snapped the image below with my much loved but also despised at times Sigma DP1s in Devils Lake, North Dakota. The client desired a larger version of the picture but I had already cropped it from the maximum file size that the DP1s produces (2652x1768 pixels). Thus the best I could do was upsize it in Photoshop with decent result. After that request I realized I needed a much more capable camera for my weekly travels as I do happen upon portfolio & large print worthy shots from time to time.

A cold sunset in Devils Lake, ND | Sigma DP1s

Travel Camera Defined

So before we proceed, we should define what exactly constitutes a 'travel' camera. Opinions will of course vary for many photographers, as anything from a larger DLSR to a mirrorless ILC to a smart phone might be the answer for some. For me a 'travel' camera is defined as a compact, fixed lens, high image quality capable camera that can be easily tossed in your daily bag or jacket pocket without trouble. If you are bringing multiple lenses or need a separate camera bag that defeats the purpose of a true travel camera. While budget constraints will affect the ultimate selection, I'm going for the higher end $700 - $1,200 point & shoot cameras that will meet my own performance, quality & printability needs. 

Along with my general description above, I'm also looking for the following key aspects in said camera: excellent image quality & large sensor, good ISO performance, wide'ish angle lens for landscapes, fast lens (f/2.8 or faster), tilt screen, rugged build, external controls, built in ND filter a plus, decent macro, and perhaps limited zoom though a single focal length is just fine. 

Things that I'm not looking for in my quest for the ultimate travel camera are as follows: mega zoom range (lame), interchangeable lenses, bulky design, fancy automated shooting modes (give me manual control!) or video capabilities. 

For comparison sake an image from the Nikon P7000 - Keeping an eye on the storm from 32,000 feet | Nikon Coolpix P7000

The Contenders

So, which cameras fit into my definition?

I'm currently researching five different cameras from 4 different manufacturers. The soon to be released Nikon DL 18-50, Fuji X70, Fuji X100T, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 and the Sony DSC-RX100 IV. Each camera has its strength & weaknesses which I'll attempt to briefly highlight below so as to not write a novel.

The 5 choices left to right - Nikon DL 18-50, Fuji X70, Fuji X100T, Lumix DMC-LX100 & Sony RX100 IV. Photo credits to respective manufactures.

Nikon DL 18-50 - MSRP $850 - as a current Nikon shooter (and former Nikon DSLR shooter) I'm actually quite excited about this camera. Although Nikon are a bit late to the game in introducing larger sensors in compact cameras, they seemingly have a great offering here. The DL 18-50 (uninspiring name btw) hasn't been released yet so I'm a bit hesitant to pull the trigger before some extensive reviews are out there. Or better yet, I get my own hands on it!

Pros: good zoom range without being ridiculous, wide aperture throughout focal length, 20.8 MP backlit sensor, image stabilization, good ISO performance, compact size, touch/tilt screen

Cons: new camera with limited reviews, Nikon smart phone app gets bad reviews, no flash or viewfinder

(quick note - to make matters even slightly more confusing I'm adding the Nikon DL 24-85 for consideration due to its macro capability, specs otherwise are the same as the DL 18-50 though of course not quite as wide)

Fuji X70 - MSRP $700 - as a current Fuji owner the immediate familiarity with this or the X100T make both cameras leading contenders. I absolutely love the images my X-T1 produces with that classic Fuji look and both cameras will produce great results with the X-Trans sensors. The compact size of the X70 makes it very attractive indeed. Though similar to the Nikons above, it is a new release as of February 2016 so not many reviews out there just yet. However I'll be renting one next week to see what I think.

Pros: compact size, budget friendly, same 16.3MP APS-C X-Trans sensor as more expensive Fuji options, touch/tilt screen, 18.5mm lens (28mm equiv) is great for landscapes, actual aperture/shutter/EV dials, digital crop feature to increase reach of lens (unsure of quality though), hybrid autofocus

Cons: no image stabilization, no built in ND filter, no optical viewfinder, 2nd smallest resolution size of the five, max aperture of f/2.8 not the widest but overall good

Fuji X100T - MSRP $1,300 - honestly this is probably the leading contender right now, though the price tag is higher than I was hoping to spend for a walk around/travel camera. The X100T has many features I'm looking for and yet it isn't the equivalent of my X-T1 nor is it 'too much' as the XPRO-2 would be for my weekly travel needs. With the rumored Fuji X-T2 also coming out in the fall, I shouldn't go overboard for a travel camera either as I'll be picking up the X-T2.

Pros: basically an XT-10 (not quite X-T1) wrapped in a compact body, great ISO range, fast lens with quality Fuji optics, built in ND filter, good resolution, 35mm focal length

Cons: largest camera among the five, no image stabilization, rumored replacement forthcoming in the fall (see below for thoughts), no tilting LCD screen, expensive but currently around $1,000USD

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 - MSRP $800 - this camera has been a favorite among many photographers and offers many great characteristics. My main hesitation in purchasing it is that most likely Panasonic will release a new version this fall. I don't want buyer's remorse later on, especially after a likely price drop after the replacement is announced.

Pros: good image quality, zoom range, 24-75mm, large sensor, good autofocus, good battery life, manual controls, good deals to be had right now

Cons: replacement due fairly soon, reported lens flare issues, no tilting LCD screen, smallest max resolution of the five

Sony DSC-RX100 IV - MSRP $950 - another fan favorite, the Mark IV RX100 has won over many photographers. Its very compact size with respect to image quality is enticing to be sure. Though it lacks the external controls for quick adjustments which is a turn off. And while I don't need a camera to look 'sexy' it lacks the retro look that so many others have launched of late that I am honestly smitten with.

Pros: Zeiss f/1.8-2.8 lens, 20.1 MP 'stacked' sensor, tilting LCD, built in ND filter, responsive, truly pocketable

Cons: lacks the retro look & no external dials for quick adjustments, very particular about SD card type (bad when traveling perhaps if other cards fail), short battery life

Ok, So Now What?

One final option would be to simply purchase the Fuji 18mm f/2.0 pancake lens, slap it on my X-T1 and always have that with me. Though there are a handful of issues with that approach:

  • I prefer having a good camera for my wife to shoot with when we travel together. She has captured some amazing images, so having a good camera in her capable hands is always smart.
  • I don't want my primary camera to get unnecessary wear & tear each week.
  • I'll also bring two cameras when out by myself in case one fails or the other is busy doing a time-lapse for instance.
  • Slapping the 18mm on and calling it a day with would defeat the entire purpose of this post ;)

So there you have it! Over the next month or two I'm going to do a handful of rentals, hit the camera store and attempt to find my ultimate travel camera. Though I realize there is probably no such thing, I believe one of these will be a very good fit with few compromises. I'll plan to report back with my choice and will give a full breakdown of its performance.

So what do you think? Am I on the right track? Have you shot or do you own any of these cameras? Did I miss any? Please feel free to comment below on what you think might be your choice for ultimate travel camera.


Which Camera Should I Buy? (Part III)

Welcome back for the third and final installment in my 'Which Camera Should I Buy?" series.  Previously we covered camera basics and higher end SLRs.  This time we'll focus on the 'middle road' of cameras, which are the more advanced point & shoots. If you are…somewhere between the two worlds I mentioned in my previous posts, you probably need an advanced point & shoot.  This style of camera is a great mix between the SLR and more basic point & shoot.  Portable, advanced, and ability to produce sharp pictures make this relatively newer entrant to the market excellent candidates for a wide range of photographers .  There are two subcategories that we'll discuss: some still have interchangeable lenses for even greater creativity while others rely on a fixed lens with digital zoom.

The 'Fixed' Lens Compact This is what I carry on each of my trips when I'm flying for the airline each week.  In fact, it rarely leaves my messenger bag just in case I find something noteworthy in my travels whenever I have my bag (which is quite often).  For the last few years I've been using two different advanced compacts that I love for different reasons.  One of my two is the beloved Sigma DP1, which has no zoom, a slow start up time, slow shutter speeds and mediocre low light performance.  Why do I love it then?  The Foveon sensor contained within the camera is utterly amazing.  The color production, hues, saturation and sharpness this little camera produces are unparalleled in cameras this size.  Case in point from a courtyard in Guatemala:

This camera is more for the landscape and street art photographer who wants to take the time to compose images and make beautiful shots.  While I won't recommend this camera for everyone, a camera of it's quality just might be worth your investment down the road.

Now that I told you about a camera that I won't recommend for everyone, I'll move on to the my current camera that is my go to choice for this category.  For the last couple of years, the trusty Nikon P7000 has been the 'daily driver' that fits my needs for a true travel-friendly compact camera.  It does everything my beloved Sigma doesn't.   The newer version is the Nikon P7700 which has been upgraded from my current model in several areas.  Portability, great zoom capability, good ISO performance (low light capability), shooting in RAW file format and wide angle format are some of my favorite features of this camera.  Of course, the portablity factor is huge for outdoor action sports capability.  I can strap the camera case on my backpack when mountain biking for instance and be able to create great images on the fly.  Case in point this shot from Horsethief Bench Trail near Fruita, Colorado:

Definitely check it out and consider purchasing one in the near future!  Other options in this category include:

Canon Powershot G12 Sigma Merrill DP1

Interchangeable Lens Compact This is a category that allows for switching lenses on the go and a wider variety of creative options.  However, the trade off is you might carry more gear along thus it won't be quite as an all-in-one as a 'fixed' lens compact.  This category contains the hot up & coming mirrorless cameras that offer some distinct advantages to their predecessors.  While I don't own one of these yet, the Nikon 1 J2 is high on my list to be a partner to my other compacts.  This trend of compact cameras with interchangeable lenses does seem to be gaining strength, so if you want the best of both worlds between portability and creative options with lenses definitely consider this category.  Two other options which have garnered rave reviews are:

Olympus Pen E-P3Panasonic Lumix GF5K

I hope this series has helped narrow down where you should start your search and what kind of camera to look for.  Remember, always head to your local camera store and try before you buy.  And of course, being local-minded as I am - support local business and buy it from the store!  The support & knowledge that your local camera store will offer will pay dividends down the road as you embark on your photographic journey.

Which Camera Should I Buy? (Part II)

Last time we covered the basics of camera buying and simple point & shoot options.  This time we'll focus on the high end of my recommendations in this three part series. If you are…wanting the challenge of stepping up to an SLR with interchangeable lenses, feel your old point & shoot just doesn't do it anymore, desire to shoot sports of any kind, want to expand your artistic eye, and don't mind carting around bigger equipment: then it's time for an SLR!  This will be the high end of my recommendations so be prepared for perhaps a little sticker shock.  While I won't recommend the SLR that the guy from Sports Illustrated uses, there are plenty of more entry level priced SLRs that pack a serious punch in both quality and features.  And of course the ability to change lenses pushes your creative senses to new heights!

There is a saying in photography to spend the money on the glass (lens) and not so much on the camera body.  In my opinion it is a very accurate statement.  One of my favorite images I've ever taken came from my 'lowly' Nikon D40X which at the time was an entry level digital SLR.  I had a very nice lens that I had rented which certainly made a huge difference.  See below for my testimony to this belief.

Zebras - Madikwe, South Africa

With that said, you can feel good about buying an SLR camera body on the lower end of the spectrum even if you plan to step up your game down the road.  Whichever camera you choose, you'll be on solid footing as you begin to explore the creative possibilities of owning an SLR.

Nikon D3200

My recommendation?  The Nikon D3200.  This is Nikon's latest entrant in the do-it-all SLR category.  HD video?  No problem!  Low light?  No problem!  Fast shutter speeds?  No problem!  I think you get the point.  At $700 MSRP (lens included) it might be a little bit of sticker shock for the new entrant into higher-end cameras, but believe me that price is worth it.  One of Nikon's perpetual strengths is the quality of the image sensor in their camera bodies, even the lower end cameras as evidenced above in my Zebra image offer excellent output.  The sensor found in most SLRs will make or break the image quality and Nikon simply gets it right.

Most DSLR camera kits come with one or two lenses, often a 18-55mm lens is common.  It gives a good range to start with a decent wide angle option at 18mm and a bit of zoom on the other end at 55mm.  Just enough range and quality to get you started on your adventure and education in photography.

Also consider:

Canon EOS Rebel T2i Sigma SD15 Sony a57 DSLR

Whichever camera you choose, be sure to test it out at your local camera store and ask lots of questions.  Be sure to check back soon for the final part of my 'which camera to buy' series!