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Buying a Camera? What to Look For…

Most of us travel on our holidays with a camera or two (or three). When the time comes to purchase the ultimate picture/video capturing device, the choices can be daunting.

Buying a camera, like with most things, is a process of asking yourself, “What do I need to get good results?” You would wish for a camera that performs well and one you are willing to haul around on your holidays.

People are always asking me what to buy. First I am not a “gear hound” and only study the market every time I buy. Camera equipment is just a tool, a means of capturing what you see. There is no one ultimate camera I could recommend anyway…it depends, as you will see…

Remember, the camera is not taking good pictures, you are, and it can only help you get there.

Certainly everyone wants ease of use and dependability in a camera, with sharp, accurate colour photos and videos. This leads me to having more than one camera on a trip. I use each one for specific tasks. Some can do double duty in a pinch, but I know the strength of the equipment for optimal results.

I typically have my Nikon DSLR with two lenses for most of the trip, for serious picture taking in RAW. Then my Olympus “pocket camera” is a waterproof rugged sports camera that I bring everywhere. A GoPro may also be handy for underwater use or attached to a bike or selfie pole. My phone has a camera that I may use mainly to email a few pix to family.

Once again I was shopping for a new camera, perhaps my 20th?! I go through the same mental checklist, research websites and visit stores to find the right one. Read on, this may be a good way of getting yourself the right camera too.

Here is a list of the main points I consider when looking for another shooting apparatus. This article is an overview to what could be a very long list. I am going to refrain from boring you with sensor sizes and pixel counts and stick with quick decisions you need to make, to focus in on a few models. From there, more info elsewhere online, can be found to sort through the specifications jungle.

Usagewhat are you going to use it for? What is your main purpose for this new camera? That will help narrow down your priorities to focus in on what matters. For no camera can be everything to all situations. Compromise and buy the camera that has the strengths you cannot live without.

Your voyage may take you backpacking, on a hike, or biking so you would want a small light camera. If you like snorkeling or riding a camel in the desert, a sport camera that is water and dust proof is a good choice. Say you like wide angle landscapes of the best quality or photographing lions with a zoom on a safari, or shooting sailing regattas, then a DSLR with a bag of lenses is your thing. Perhaps to be more agile and discreet with the locals, using a new camera phone will do.

Consider, are you going to shoot photographs or video of panoramic landscapes, candid street scenes, sports action, distant telephoto wildlife, up close macro flowers, underwater dives, long exposure night scenes, museums indoors without a tripod, time lapse or slow motion video? Does this camera need to be rugged or accept certain accessories – flash, other lenses, tripod, shutter remote, external mic…

Physical Dimensions – What is the weight, feel and size of your dream camera? Size does matter as portability when traveling is always desired. What you lose in pocket camera compactness may not work for you and you may need to opt for the features of a DSLR. Small cameras will have shortcomings with lens quality, battery life, sensor size, and advanced features.

Everyone likes small and portable, to a point. But then holding on and using the controls, pressing the buttons become tricky, especially with winter gloves or if you have big man hands. Lots of cool gear is handy but make sure you are truly willing to haul your dream camera around the world. This is the most important aspect: will it become a cherished travel companion or stay home in a drawer?

Lens – A good lens sends through it a sharp, undistorted, image with no colour shifts. To get this, a lens needs to be a certain size for the laws of light physics to work. Anything smaller and bad things start to happen. And yes you pay more for good glass, instead of plastic, but don’t pay too much either. Quality that you cannot see, depending on the size of the final output is just wasted away.

Optical Zooms are great. But don’t buy into those super zooms from ultra-wide to mega telephoto. It’s physics again and quality is going to suffer. Get a camera that favours one end or the other. If you might need both, then get two zoom lens: a wide zoom and a tele-zoom with perhaps a little overlap in the middle. And if it has a lens hood, even better.

Digital zooms can compromise photo quality, so beware if you use them.

Light Sensitivity – You may pay more for a fast lens with a wide F-stop for low light shooting but opt for a camera with a higher ISO sensor sensitivity. Every year it gets better, and soon traveling photographers can leave their tripods at home. High ISO is important if you like shooting city streets at night or museum and galleries indoors. I am absolutely amazed at how good it’s getting.

Note what reviews say about the loss of picture quality (graininess) as the ISO goes up. At some point you won’t like the look and you need to be aware when this gets unacceptable for you.

camera gear

Resolution – With megapixels, more is not always better. Most cameras have plenty, so don’t buy the hype. Anything over 8 MP is plenty for most of us. This will give you a nice looking 8×10 inch print and for your digital slide shows, videos and Facebook posts is much larger than needed. You are just filling your memory cards and hard drives with bloated files. With oversized video files it gets worse. Choose wisely; bigger files are not necessarily better. You also need a quality image sensor and good glass.

Scene Preview – There are two camps for previewing the scene before you shoot. The best is a viewfinder you put your eye to, and even better if it’s the real optical scene and not a tiny video screen.

The other more common is the flat screens on phones and the back of the camera. These are difficult to view on a sunny day, as we know, and can cause blurry pix with our arms extended.

The other not so popular option (I wish it still was) is the rangefinder. Here you have a small lens to quickly look through to frame the subject, without distractions or even turning on the camera.

Features – So again what do you need? Today’s cameras have all the basic functions at hand but for your purposes you may need other special options. Camera phones can download apps that improve and add new settings and effects to expand taking stills or video.

Look for cameras that save files with the least amount of quality loss. There can be a lot of compression and noise processing in the picture/video files, even at the manufacturer’s Fine, or High Quality setting. If you can afford a camera with a RAW format, it will not be an issue.

Are you a control freak or easy going “Auto everything” kind of travel photog? There are cameras that feature time delay, time lapse and slow motion capabilities. Some offer great macro settings, underwater colour correction, etc.

How is the menu system designed? Can you figure it out and find things without reaching for the manual yet again? Are the settings you seek out, easy to find and not buried below layers of menus or defaulting back every time you turn on the camera?

It is hard to know all the working details before you buy, but read up on user pet peeves and see if they might end up being one of yours.You can even view the pdf of the owners  manual from the camera company website to check all operations before you buy.

Video – Some of us travelers shoot little to no video on our trips and others plenty to the point of bringing a separate video camera. Video capture is a slightly different discipline and if it is important to you then seek out good specs. Most cheap still cameras (< $400) have a poor video quality, noisy zooms and horrible microphones but in a pinch you can shoot a few clips and cut it into your better still pictures and not even use the audio track.

Most of us will be satisfied with HD or move up to Full HD resolutions, and going 4K is getting serious on all levels. Again if you are concerned find out what kind of compression standards the camera saves your file in, since video creates huge amounts of data that has to be stored efficiently.

As far as video formats, it gets technical, for the average globetrotter, just check that this new camera will save files in a format your favorite editing software can read.

Wi- Fi & GPS – You don’t need these features but they sure do help at times. Wi-Fi bridges the gap that the convenience of a camera phone gives to send and receive content. Check the apps that your phone or tablet can use to control your camera too.

GPS can tag your photo locations to help sort out where and when all those shots come from years later. Both extras will eat up battery life if left on.

Battery – Without power you have a BIG problem. Check the claimed run times on batteries with an understanding that they are exaggerated somewhat. Can you shoot all day on one charge? Can you buy extra batteries cheaply; does it come with a charger? Having one battery that charges only while in the camera spells trouble.

Performance – on two fronts; how fast does the camera wake up and take a fleeting shot? And can it take a burst of images if you need to? Not meeting these requirements means you will not bother to pull out your camera to capture a quick snap of the action, and it will stay in your pocket or camera bag.

Price $$ – The final important part to making a choice is what are you willing to pay? If you have a set budget, that may lead to compromises or save up for later. Price is an issue for most and for some the main one that limits us.

Have a budget to start with but don’t buy too cheap or you may be unhappy and leave your camera at home. And don’t over buy, as this gets you a camera with features you never use and too much gear to haul on your trip.

There you go. Just a few points to reflect on, as you move to the next step to research what is out there currently. Equipment trends are changing again, and better smart phone cameras have reduced equivalent pocket camera choices. The video quality on DSLRs and smart phones have cut into video camera sales. View finder cameras are not in style while fixed super zooms are.

So the first step is to narrow down your choices by thinking through what you need this camera to do for you. Once you have decided, look up online that certain category – Camera Phone, Pocket Point and Shoot, Superzooms, Sports, DSLR…

Find camera review sites (a few sources are listed below) and go to the manufacturer’s home site too. As always, take care in what to believe and what is hype to get you to buy. Reading visitors comments helps in getting feedback.

Once you have 3 or 4 models in mind, visit camera stores and feel the weight and size of each model you are considering. Play with the controls, does it feel right, intuitive, and respond well? Can it take the knocks and environment you are going into? Test the cameras or even rent one.

Find what fits for you and bring back some great content to build that great adventure slide show, wherever you travel.

And what new camera did I eventually buy? An Olympus TG-4 sport model. It claims to be rugged, you can do shallow dives with it and nice macros. It has a fast lens and shoots RAW files. This replaces my other similar Olympus which just didn’t cut it and eventually was left at home. I just had to pay more to get what I wanted and you may have to as well.

And please don’t be like me and buy at the last minute and read the manual on the plane!  lol

Camera Gear Research Links:

Camera Manufacturer Sites:

About Dan Roitner

I love traveling, and have been doing slideshows and video home movies of my trips for decades. As a pro photographer, instructor and multimedia artist I hope to teach you the many aspects to develop an artist style and improve the quality of your own travelogue projects.As the owner of this site, may the resources here, help you improve your skills to create holiday memories worth sharing.

One comment

  1. Great overview Dan to an often confusing camera market. This has help me sort it out a bit better.

    Your right there is no one camera that suits everyone.

    ps – I am now on your email list

    Jean

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