How to ensure you have the right equipment for stunning travel photos.

While many travellers are content to rely on their smartphones these days, despite their many advantages a smartphone could let you down if you want great photos of a once-in-a-lifetime trip. 

Smartphones are fine for taking snapshots to share with family and friends while you’re on a trip – but they can’t capture high-quality photographs for printing and archiving.

Today’s smartphones can provide high resolution plus support for 4K video recording. Many include complex processing and some have zoom capabilities. A few can record wide dynamic ranges and some support raw capture and processing. Replaceable microSD cards allow extended storage space and many phones have high-capacity batteries that can be charged from flat to 50% in as little as 30 minutes.

Ostensibly, a smartphone might be all you need. But appearances can be deceptive. 

Their physical design and the total reliance on the screen for framing shots and adjusting functions can make changing settings difficult. In bright sunlight, it can be difficult to frame scenes, leading you with point-and-guess shot composition. 

You need a ‘proper’ camera if you want great photos from an important trip.

But the major problem is that smartphone sensors are really small; typically between 4.8 x 3.6 mm (1/3-inch type) and 6.4 x 4.8 mm (1/2-inch type). Small sensors mean small photosites, which can struggle to capture enough photons to create a decent image. Realistically, you can’t expect a phone to match the quality of a ‘proper’ camera.

To put this into perspective, the table on page below shows the approximate surface areas of commonly-used image sensors, which we’ve colour coded to make it easy to group the various sensor sizes. We’ve also provided the same information in graphic form.

The relative sizes of popular camera and smartphone sensors.

Smartphone lenses are also very small and the combination of small sensor plus small lens means you can’t set a wide enough aperture to effectively blur out distracting backgrounds – even with what ‘looks’ like a fast f/1.4 aperture. The only way to blur-out backgrounds is with in-camera processing, which can be hit-and-miss.

For important photographs you want to keep, share and print, you need a ‘proper’ camera.

Choosing a camera

Choosing a camera for a holiday trip is a very personal matter; we all have individual preferences and experience different constraints, depending on the type of holiday we take. People staying in one place will want different equipment from those who are constantly moving. Those holidaying by the sea will require gear that can withstand salt spray and sand, while those going inland may have to provide dust protection for their equipment.

Travellers have plenty of options available for capturing and sharing still images and movie clips.

Today’s travellers have plenty of choices available and it should be easy to settle upon a camera and lens that will meet your needs. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How much weight am I prepared to carry?
2. What kinds of photography do I enjoy most?
3. How will I view and share my photos?
4. Do I want to record video?

We’ll deal with each question in order.

  1. The weight issue: Having to lug a heavy bag around wherever you go will tire you out, slow you down and may prevent you from reaching places you wanted to photograph. Keep your equipment light and simple. If you can take the trip with one camera and one lens and pack them in a lightweight, easy-to-carry bag you’ll see a lot more and have more fun than those with large and complex gear.

Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are usually lighter than DSLRs and will give you much more freedom of movement.

  1. The genre issue: Some people enjoy photographing scenery, while others prefer street photography. Many people travel to photograph wildlife, while some like visiting museums and galleries. Some shoot only stills, while others record a mixture of stills and video. Each of these genres has different requirements, which will influence your equipment choices.
  2. Post-capture issues: How you manage your photographs is also relevant. If you only view your images on a computer or TV screen there’s no reason to invest in high-performance equipment because, once the shots are reduced to screen resolution, they should look great regardless of the initial resolution of the camera or the size of its sensor. 

We have a few caveats associated with this advice. If you do a lot of shooting in low light levels, a camera with a larger sensor will provide noticeably better low-light performance. The same is true if most of your shooting will take place in bright, contrasty situations (such as beaches or in snow), where larger sensors – and, in particular, larger sensors with modest resolution – can record a wider range of tones

Cameras with larger sensors and fast lenses provide better image and video quality when shooting in dim lighting.

  1. Video: Shooting video with a DSLR can be difficult because you can’t use the optical viewfinder. Framing shots on an LCD monitor is frustrating when bright outdoor lighting overwhelms the screen’s brightness. With a mirrorless camera, you can see exactly what you are recording through the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and it’s not influenced by ambient lighting.

Electronic viewfinders make mirrorless cameras easy to use when shooting video movies. Make sure a hot-shoe and microphone port are available so you can add an external mic to ensure high-quality soundtrack recordings.  

In recent years the camera market has been changing as mirrorless cameras replace DSLRs and manufacturers install larger sensors and longer zoom lenses in compact, fixed-lens cameras. It’s worth looking carefully at camera specifications to ensure the one you choose will meet your needs.

Choosing between mirrorless and DSLR in the APS-C and ‘full frame’ (36 x 24mm sensor) categories can present challenges. Mirrorless camera tend to be slightly more compact than their DSLR equivalents because they don’t have a bulky reflex mirror box, although the sizes and weights of available lenses are usually the same.

The choice of lenses is currently less for mirrorless cameras than DSLRs, although adapters will enable DSLR lenses to be used on a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras are easier to use when shooting video and normally have better recording capabilities.

Compact, super-zoom cameras do a great job and won’t weigh active photographers down when they’re enjoying adventure holidays.

Compact cameras with super-zoom lenses will suit travellers who mostly view their photos on screens. Image quality is good enough for prints up to A4 size, particularly from cameras that support raw file capture.

Should you buy a new camera?

Chances are you already have a camera but may be thinking of replacing it for a special trip – particularly if you’re going overseas. 

If unsure that your current camera will meet your needs, first check the manufacturer’s website (Support page) to see whether new firmware has been released for your camera; the improvements you want may be provided free of charge in the latest update.

Features that can make a new camera worthwhile include:

  • A larger sensor will provide a wider ISO range and be capable of recording more detail in shadows and highlights. This may mean a heavier camera.
  • A longer lens will allow you to magnify distant subjects and is a real advantage on wildlife safaris, provided it’s not too big and heavy for you to carry.
  • More rugged build quality will make the equipment better able to withstand the rigours of travelling. 
  • Weatherproofing will make it more resistant to dust, spray and light rain showers.
  • Image stabilisation in the camera body and/or the lens will provide the best camera shake correction when shooting hand-held.
  • A bigger buffer memory will provide more space for recording bursts of shots and is useful when you photograph action or wildlife.
  • Faster autofocusing means fewer missed shots. Phase-detection AF is often faster than contrast-detection AF, particularly in dim lighting and with long lenses. Hybrid systems provide both options.
  • 4K video recording provides better video quality plus more scope for frame grabs from video clips. Single frames can be saved as 8-megapixel JPEG images for printing at up to A3 size.
  • Look for special features like multi-shot modes for increasing depth of focus, time-lapse recording and slow-motion video for frame-by-frame motion analysis. (Some of these may be added via firmware updates.)

Other equipment

While we strongly recommend keeping your equipment load as light as possible, a lightweight tripod might be useful, although if your camera has effective stabilisation you may not need one. Carbon fibre tripods are the lightest, but also the most expensive.

Many places ban tripods and they can be a nuisance when photographing in crowded places. There’s less weight to carry if your tripod remains at home.

A tripod can be handy for location shooting, particularly when you can work close to your vehicle.

Flash is best avoided – with the possible exception of fill-in flash for backlit shots. Many places ban flash and modern cameras with good stabilisation and decent high-sensitivity performance can cover almost all situations when shooting with available light. This is another piece of gear you can leave at home.

One piece of equipment you will need is a suitable camera bag. Camera bags come in many styles and sizes. Make sure you can carry your bag comfortably over the distances and terrain you plan to cross.

Backpacks are favoured by many outdoor photographers as they can hold a lot of gear and are usually comfortable to carry. Sling-type bags that can be easily rotated to the front of your body make equipment easier to access.

A sling-type bag and a compact, super-zoom camera with good stabilisation make a lightweight, versatile travel kit.

Satchels can be useful in urban environments since they provide a high degree of security and don’t look as if they contain expensive gear. Waterproof bags and cases are available for photographers working in aquatic environments.

Make sure you also take enough memory cards and one or two spare batteries. Spare batteries are important for compact, fixed-lens cameras and mirrorless cameras because their capacity is much lower than DSLRs. Camera manufacturers tend to fit smaller batteries into compact cameras, while mirrorless cameras require power for their EVFs. 

Make sure you have enough capacity to power a full day’s shooting and recharge your batteries each evening when you return to your accommodation. Take a power plug adapter when travelling in places with different plug designs. 

Useful links

The benefits of firmware updates: www.bit.ly/pg30-3

AC power plugs and sockets: www.bit.ly/pg30-1 

Photo gear reviews: www.bit.ly/pg30-2 

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Travel Photography 3rd Edition

Sponsor: Canon