For many people, they are happy with their smartphone, but as convenient as a smartphone is, it does have severe limitations on your travel photography and knowing these limitations may make it easier for you to determine what you need to take to supplement it.
For example, the iPhone 6S has a fixed optical focal length of around 35mm with the ability to digital zoom in albeit with loss of image quality. It has very limited ability to isolate the subject by blurring the background. It is difficult to take control of the exposure and manual settings. You can’t use an external bounce flash to take nice portraits. The image quality in low light indoors or outdoors at night is pretty awful unless you resort to the built in flash and then you have the on-camera flash issues. No RAW output for high quality post-processing. No high quality 16-20 megapixel resolution images. ISO limitations such as ISO 500 on the iPhone 6 Plus. Fixed default tone mappings to create the jpegs, for example the iPhone 6 Plus is renown for creating poor skin tones. Limited burst rates. Image stabilisation not as good. Fastest shutter speeds for freezing motion is probably around 1/500th sec despite the phone suggesting otherwise. Poor ergonomics.
But most modern smartphones do take serviceable shots in bright light conditions as long as you are happy with the 35mm focal length field of view and the lack of high quality RAW images, and the 1080 HD video and Slow-Mo video are not too bad in good light.
What then do we need?
- preferably the camera and lenses coming in at under 3kg to comfortably allow other goodies in cabin luggage and still stay under the weight limit, plus it is not fun carrying around heavy gear everywhere – and if you are feeling exhausted, you won’t be feeling inspired to take great creative imagery!
- ideally, the camera and at least one of the lenses should fit in a jacket pocket
- the camera kit should not scream out wealth – it is not only insulting to people in poorer cultures when your camera is worth a year’s salary, but it may also place your life at risk!
- a camera with:
- a viewfinder
- fast, accurate autofocus
- full manual controls when needed
- ability to wirelessly transfer images to smartphones without needing a computer
- good image quality at least to ISO 1600
- excellent image stabilisation to allow long exposure wide angle flowing water waterfalls, rivers and seascapes without needing a tripod
- weathersealed would be nice
- a wide angle lens to take in the epic scenes of our travels or the massive buildings
- a bit more usable telephoto if possible, preferably with some ability to blur backgrounds and emphasize your subject
- a kit for walking the streets at night for hand held urban night shots but discrete enough that it can be placed in a jacket pocket for safety
- a kit capable of nice indoor shots (and if you are really keen, add in bounce flash for flattering portraits – no more need for those ghastly Instagram filters to plasticize everyone’s features out)
- if you are super keen, then perhaps ability to use a tripod for night shots, or for long exposure flowing water shots with a ND100 filter during the day time.
- unless you are shooting wildlife, you probably don’t need a long telephoto lens
- unless you are going for a long time and are bored, you probably don’t need a dedicated macro lens
What options do we have?
Fixed lens compact cameras:
- these are great, particularly if image quality is not as high a priority as having an ultra-compact 3x zoom camera or a relatively compact super-zoom
- they are not usually weathersealed and they generally have a small sensor which does not perform well for low light situations without a tripod, or for blurring the background
- some of these do have larger sensors for better image quality and low light capabilities but they generally only have a 3x zoom, but these are worth considering such as the Panasonic LX100 or the Sony RX series
Digital SLRs or full frame mirrorless:
- these will do the trick but are a bit too big, heavy, noisy (dSLRs), and obtrusive, and certainly not jacket pocketable when the thugs start tailing you.
- the larger, heavier lenses also can impact your airline cabin baggage weight limits.
- BUT if you are prepared to accept the many problems of carrying full frame cameras and their large lenses, they can potentially take the best quality images, especially if you are shooting high dynamic range scenes or you need to shoot at ISO 6400 and higher – not sure why you would want to do that while traveling!
- if I was going to go full frame, then the Sony a7II (or Sony a7RII if you can afford it) would be reasonable options but you do miss out of the fun, feature set and the much less burden of carrying the Olympus cameras, and it does really force you to take a big, heavy tripod for those waterfalls, etc, and then you may as well bring along large ND gradient filter sets and the mandatory large, heavy , expensive lenses – then you need to work out how to stop them getting stolen in checked baggage on airlines – good luck with that – and don’t be thinking travel insurance will cover it!
Micro Four Thirds mirrorless:
- for me, the Micro Four Thirds system is the ideal compromise in terms of compact size, weight, image quality and versatility, and unlike the Fuji and Sony mirrorless systems, it has an enormous range of lenses to satisfy your needs.
- the ideal compact travel camera is something like the Olympus OM-D E-M10 mark II, Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II or the Panasonic GX-85, but if you want something more substantial with built-in grip, then the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark I or II (if you want bell’s and whistles!)
- if you don’t already own a zoom and you have plenty of budget to pay for a pro 8x zoom lens then the new Olympus mZD 12-100mm f/4 OIS lens will serve most of your needs in the one lens, if this is too expensive, then there are many cheaper super zoom options, or you can resort to a 3x pro f/2.8 zoom lens such as the Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 and mate this with either the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 or Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 for awesome portraits and background blurring in a short telephoto lens
- for walking the streets at night or shooting indoors, I would recommend a compact, wide aperture wide angle lens (but you could potentially get away with an f/2.8 3x zoom lens) such as:
- Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 but this is expensive
- Panasonic 15mm f/1.7
- Olympus mZD 17mm f/1.8
- Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens
- if you are an ultra-wide angle fan, then consider the Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 or perhaps even the Olympus mZD 7mm f/1.8 fisheye
- if you really need a bit more telephoto and don’t mind a bit of extra weight and bulk, then the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens can come in handy
My choice kits for best image quality but still relatively compact:
- Panasonic GX85 + Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 + Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens (for jacket pocketability)
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II + Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 + Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II pancake lens (for jacket pocketability)
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark I or II + Olympus mZD 12-100mm f/4 OIS lens plus perhaps Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 or Panasonic 15mm f/1.7
If you are budget conscious and can skip the smartphone WiFi transfer functionality, then a smart move would be to buy an Olympus OM-D E-M5 original version second hand ($AUS300 for body only or $AUS450 with a kit lens or two) for the same price as a entry level dSLR and you will have a far better camera in almost every regard, and the lenses will be smaller.
Disclaimer: I don’t work for the photography industry nor do I receive any incentives from them, but I do own Olympus OM-D E-M5, E-M1, E-M1II, Sony A7II, and a Canon 1D Mark III pro dSLR – the latter two cameras will NOT be coming with me on my overseas trips!