A Beginners’ Guide to Buying Your First Travel Camera

A Beginners' Guide to Choosing Your First Travel Camera

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Researching cameras online terrified me.

While I have an interest in travel photography and I’d love to progress from taking photos with my mobile phone, I couldn’t bear the thought of reading through hundreds of boring camera review articles online littered with words I didn’t understand!

However, I reckoned, if I was ever going to get over my anxiety and become someone who can wax lyrical about the benefits of one shutter speed over the other, I’d have to start with the basics!

I decided to sit down with a strong cup of tea, do my research and figure it all out.

So, if you’re like me and you’re embarrassed to stop your photographer friend halfway through their sentence and say ‘what the hell does DSLR stand for?’ (why do people assume we know?), then allow me to shed some light on the subject.

Choosing the best travel camera - where do you start?
Choosing the best travel camera – where do you start?

What are the 5 different types of camera?

1. What is an SLR Camera?

What does SLR stand for?

SLR stands for ‘Single-Lens Reflex camera’. In basic terms, a (non-digital) SLR camera is one that captures the image using old-fashioned ‘film’. These are becoming less common these days for good reason, i.e. it’s so much easier to capture thousands of photos digitally, rather than having to carry the films around with you.

SLR cameras use one lens, as the name suggests. There can be multiple glass elements inside that one lens, but in those cases, they still add up to one lens piece.

These are the interchangeable lenses which come in different types – like a fish-eye or a wide angle, standard or a telephoto etc. So at one time, you can use only one lens of any one type (of course you can stack lenses for macro photography – but it is still only one lens attached to the camera body in that case).

‘Reflex’ refers to the mirror present inside the camera body which reflects the light the lens captures when you aim at a subject and sends out the exact image to the optical viewfinder that is supposed to be captured when the film (negative in the case of analogue cameras) or the electronic image sensor (in case of the DSLRs) is exposed to capture the image. So let’s say, you are focusing on one element with a blurry background, you will see exactly that on your viewfinder (given you can focus right!).

2. What is a DSLR (Digital SLR) Camera?

DSLR is the digital version of an SLR – Digital Single Lens Reflex.

The mechanism is the same as that of the SLR, only the sensor is not a negative in this case, it is a digital sensor. These days, there are many advantages to using a DSLR and it’s crazy to remember back to a day where you had to ‘develop’ photos in a dark room. However, some people still love analog photography for arty reasons.

Not only do DSLR cameras mean that you don’t have to carry extra films, but they also make photo-editing a breeze. Upload your pictures to your computer and open them in any image-editing software like photoshop to tweak around to your heart’s content.  

The best thing about DSLR cameras for photographers is their flexibility. The variety of interchangeable lenses that are available for DSLR mean that you can be really creative with your photography, changing the lens for a specific style of type of photo. Even if you are just a beginner and you don’t know anything about lenses right now, investing in a DSLR from the very beginning will mean that you will have the freedom to adapt and evolve your photography in a variety of different ways as you learn.

Camera Lens
An interchangeable lens for a DSLR camera.

3. What’s a Mirrorless Camera?

Taking a step deeper into digitization, the latest technology has completely dropped the reflex mirror and the pentaprism of an SLR/DSLR. With the mirrorless camera, there is no optical viewfinder. Rather you can see the preview of your image on a rear LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder (also called an EVF just to get more acronyms in there).

SLR vs DSLR vs Mirrorless – Which is best?

Now let’s assume for a moment that the vast majority of you won’t want to be messing around with film, I imagine that your question here is – which is best out of the traditional DSLR and the new-fangled Mirrorless Cameras?

While image quality, features and manual controls are pretty similar for both types of camera, generally speaking, DSLRs are better for actual photography while mirrorless cameras are considered better for video. More advantages and disadvantages of each below…

Advantages of a Mirrorless Camera

  • Lighter and smaller than a DSLR – The benefit of a mirrorless camera over a DSLR camera for travellers, in particular, is that it is much lighter in terms of weight and much smaller to pack in your backpack. It’s like a DSLR on diet. 
  • Better for shooting video
  • Better for high speed fast and continuous shooting

Disadvantages of a Mirrorless Camera

  • Battery – The battery life sucks! Not great for intrepid travellers with minimal access to electricity to recharge batteries.
  • Cost – Mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders can be very expensive for a beginner travel photographer.
  • Fewer lens options – This won’t really affect you until you really get into photography, but mirrorless cameras tend to have fewer lens options.

Advantages of a DSLR Camera

  • Lens options – DSLR cameras win when it comes to lenses. If you want to get shoot macro-photography (get up close and personal) or shoot wildlife from a distance, you’ll want flexibility when it comes to being able to use a variety of different lenses.
  • Optical Viewfinder – Gives a more accurate ‘realistic’ view of what your finished photo will look like than the electronic viewfinders of mirrorless cameras.
  • Better in low light – The electronic viewfinders of most mirrorless cameras just doesn’t match up to the optical viewfinder of a DSLR camera in poor lighting.
  • Battery – Battery life of DSLRs is much better than mirrorless cameras.
  • Cost – It is much cheaper to get an entry-level DSLR at a cheap price than it is to get an entry-level mirrorless camera.

Disadvantages of a DSLR Camera

  • Size and weight – DSLR cameras can be much heavier and bulkier than mirrorless cameras, so not great for a backpacker watching their (cabin) weight!
  • Slower shooting speed for fast continuous shooting
  • Not as good at shooting video

Still unsure? Check out this video from TechRadar that really helped me to get to grips with the key differences between DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras…

4. Wait! So what’s a point and shoot camera? (compact)

A point and shoot camera is the simplest form of camera that requires the least photography skill. It is also known as a compact camera. For this reason, some photographer snobs out there don’t consider “point and shoots” to be ‘real cameras’ at all! Basically, the camera that’s on your phone right now is a point and shoot and it does exactly what its name suggests!

Advantages of a point and shoot

  • Size and Weight – The advantage of a point and shoot camera for the traveller is that they are highly portable, lightweight and low-cost! 
  • User-friendly and super fast – If you don’t want to miss those split-second photo opportunities while you’re adjusting the settings on your DSLR then a point and shoot is the way to go. They have a very user-friendly mechanism and are near-instantaneous to get ready when you need to take a picture in a hurry.
  • Cheap – Point and shoot cameras are the cheapest cameras out there.
  • The quality is improving – Today, point and shoot cameras on mobile phones can take spectacular photos, and teamed with editing software, it means you don’t need a DSLR to create great shots. You just need to be a little more creative.

Disadvantages of a point and shoot

  • Image quality – The image sensor of point and shoot is much smaller than that of the DSLR and the resultant picture might contain a lot more noise or graininess in comparison with a DSLR.
  • Less to learn – As everything is done automatically, many people believe that a point and shoot takes a lot of the fun out of learning the skill of photography.
A Sony point and shoot camera
A simple Sony point and shoot camera.

5. And Finally… What’s a bridge camera?

Many people confuse bridge cameras with DSLR cameras and even go as far as to walk into a store and buy themselves a bridge camera thinking they’ve just bought a DSLR. This is because a bridge camera looks very similar to a DSLR camera… but they are not the same!

The main difference between a bridge camera and a DSLR is that a bridge camera, unlike a DSLR, does not have the ability to use interchangeable lenses. The lens is permanently attached to the camera and cannot be removed.

Why? Because in a bridge camera, a variety of lenses are already inside the camera itself! The camera remains small and compact whilst having a range of super powerful zoom lenses built into the camera.

So, is this a good option for a travel photography beginner? Yes! In fact, many travel photographers absolutely love this camera. Having a bridge camera means that you don’t have to carry around heavy lenses with you and when it comes to catching that perfect photo, you won’t be fumbling around trying to find the best lens – you never have to change the lens at all!

Advantages of a bridge camera

  • Size and Weight – Smaller and lighter to carry around than a DSLR.
  • Cost – A bridge camera is slightly less expensive than a DSLR which could be the tipping point for many photography beginners (especially when you add in the cost of all those lenses!).
  • Massive zoom – The zoom on bridge cameras is pretty impressive compared with its price, great for taking up close wildlife shots or even shooting the moon!
  • Portability – There’s a huge benefit to not having to carry around loads of special lenses with you. In the bridge camera, you have your portrait, macro, telephoto, wide angle etc. in one!
  • Fast action shots – A bridge camera wins over a DSLR for taking fast continuous photography.

Disadvantages of a bridge camera

  • Battery life – Like a mirrorless camera, the battery in a bridge camera is not as good as a DSLR so you will need to carry around back-up.
  • Image Variety and Quality – While the bridge cameras are improving in terms of image quality, they can’t match the DSLR, especially in terms of the variety of photographs that can be achieved. Portrait photographers prefer DSLR. 
  • Poor image quality in low light – A DSLR will seriously outperform a bridge camera in poor light conditions. (Smaller MB).
  • Less flexibility – If you get really into your photography and you want to try out a fish-eye lens or an extreme wide-angle lens, it’s not going to be possible with a bridge camera. With a DSLR you can choose your lens to specifically suit the type of photograph that you want to take.

So which camera is best for you?

Personally, after reading all the information and watching loads of videos on YouTube about the different types of cameras, I would opt for a DSLR camera. The main thing that excites me about getting into travel photography is where it may take me.

I want to have the option (one day) to take really creative images, to try out different styles and perhaps different lenses and I don’t want to be limited by what type of camera I have bought at the beginning.

I also want to be able to take photographs in low light, and in the dark, so that I can capture festivals, nightlife when I travel etc. I’m also much more interested in photographs than videos at the moment. But that’s just me!

5 things to consider when buying a camera for travel

If you’re thinking of buying a camera and getting into travel photography, I’d encourage you to watch all the videos, read all of the articles and ask yourself the following questions…

  1. What’s your budget?
  2. How much weight do you want to carry with you when travelling?
  3. What do you want to use the camera for?
  4. Do you want to shoot video?
  5. Do you want the flexibility to add to or upgrade your gear in the future?

As a guidance, if you want to pursue photography seriously, invest in a DSLR. If you just want to take good pictures of the incredible places you visit, invest in a point and shoot. If you want to reap the benefits of a DSLR and the portability of a point and shoot, think of getting a mirrorless camera or a bridge camera. Let’s expand on the questions below…

1. What’s Your Budget?

Cameras can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars!

  • Point and Shoot (Compact) Price Range – A typical compact point and shoot will set you back by let’s say $90 to $900.
  • Mirrorless Camera Price Range – A mirrorless camera starts somewhere from the range of $350 and climbs all the way up to $2,300.
  • Bridge Camera Price Range – Similar to the mirrorless camera, a bridge camera starts around $200 and goes up to around $2,000. 
  • DSLR Camera Price Range – DSLRs are the prime property of the photography world and would cost anywhere from $400 to $7,000.
  • DSLR Lenses – For DSLRs, lenses are some the most expensive pieces of equipment around. And boy, are they expensive, costing up to $10,000 US.

2. Size and weight 

Don’t want to be carrying around something too bulky and heavy? The DSLRs can be cumbersome to lug, especially with all the different lenses. The body itself weighs somewhere around 800 gm (Canon 5D Mark IV) to 1235 gm (Nikon D5). And add to that, lenses which may vary from 390 gm (Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 SF Telephoto prime lens Canon EF) to 5370 gm (Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM Telephoto prime lens Canon EF). 

But that’s the fun in progressing technology. Take for instance the latest GoPro HERO4 Black, it just weighs 88 gm without the housing! Point and shoot cameras also weigh below 300 gm making it easy to grip with just one hand and fit in your purse or pocket. Consider your travel style, which part of the world you are going and how much you can reasonably tout around.

3. What do you want to shoot?

Are you most interested in wildlife photography? Can you see yourself getting into portrait photography? Do you want to be able to shoot high-quality photos during the night time? (Remember that budget cameras tend to perform worst at taking night photos.)

A man takes a photo of a dog with a DSLR camera.
Deciding what type of photo you want to take is the first step.

Here are some suggestions for the best cameras for each purpose. See below for more detailed information about individual cameras…

WildlifeDSLR (Nikon D5 is best for wildlife and bird photography with Canon 1DX Mark II coming close after)
Portrait Compact camera (Sony Cybershot DSC-RX1) and DSLR (Canon EOS 5DSr)
AstrophotographyDSLR (Canon 60D and Nikon D810)
Night timeDSLR (Nikon D8D50, Canon 7D Mark II APS-C DSLR)
LandscapeDSLR (Canon EOS 5DS R, Nikon D810) Full frame mirrorless camera (Sony a7R II, Fujifilm X-T2)
Street PhotographyDSLR (Sony Alpha 6000), Compact Camera (Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III)

4. Do you want to make video?

If creating video with your camera is your primary goal, then you will seriously want to look into buying a mirrorless or DSLR camera that have HD video shooting options. Point and shoots also have at least a shooting option of minimum 1280 X 720 or up. Check the camera specs to know more.

Most digital cameras will have a dedicated ‘Video Mode’ and in a compact camera look for a tilting LCD screen because it will make it easier for you to see what exactly are you shooting however much you rotate your camera.

5. Do you want the flexibility to add to or upgrade your gear in the future?

When it comes to flexibility, the DSLR camera reigns supreme. With hundreds of different lenses to attach to your camera, for your future career as a travel photographer, you’ll gain the most freedom if you purchase a DSLR camera from day one. 

The Best Cameras for Beginner Travel Photographers

Here are some of the best cameras available for beginners. These cameras have been carefully selected for being budget-friendly, whilst retaining quality. I’m going to buy the D3500 when I get the chance!

The Best DSLR Camera for a Beginner – Under $500 US

Nikon D3500 – From $450 US

If you’re looking at a lower budget camera, you’re not going to get much better than the entry-level Nikon D3500. This has been dubbed as the best DSLR for a beginner for many reasons. With amazing image quality, flexibility and beginner-friendly controls, this camera is living proof that you don’t have to spend thousands to make photography your newest hobbies. Also, unlike the mirrorless cameras, Nikon D3500 has an amazing battery life. Out for long excursion in remote areas with no facility of recharging your batteries, this can make or break your photography experience.

  • Pros: Amazing price. The body is user-friendly. Excellent overall performance at this price bracket. Sharp APS-C sensors. 
  • ConsOptical viewfinder does not give 100% viewfinder coverage. Autofocus is not as spectacular as other more expensive DSLRs.

Another Good Choice? Canon SL2 / 200D – From $500 US

Pocket-friendly and lightweight, you’re probably thinking that there will be a sacrifice in the quality. Though the image quality is certainly impressive, the look of the body might disappoint you a little bit. It is a good mix of beginner and advanced features and has interesting filters and great presets.

  • Pros: World’s lightest DSLR. Guided user interface for a handy experience for the beginners.
  • Cons: Cannot record video is 4K. Only 9AF points for viewfinder shooting.

The Best Mirrorless Camera for a Beginner – Under $500 US

Sony A6000 – From $500 US

A perfect threesome of weight, cost and image quality is very important for a backpacker. And therefore, the mirrorless Sony A6000 camera makes for such a great choice! More so if you have a wildlife expedition planned during your trip (it gets 11 frames per second continuous shooting). Though it sports a cropped sensor, yet you cannot overlook the features of interchangeable lenses and its quality performance in the low light image capturing area.

  • Pros: Sturdy build. WiFi connectivity
  • ConsThe LCD screen is not a touchscreen. Weather sealing can be bettered.

Another Great Choice? Sony A7 – From $800 US

This is a compact and full-frame mirrorless camera that will easily give your DSLRs a run for their money! If you are a regular backpacker looking to pack light, then look no more. This will definitely help you to pack less without bumping your bag weight. There are different models in theA7 range – A7 II (entry level greenhorns), A7RII (more megapixels) and A7S II (great for video shooting but with fewer megapixels and more ISO sensitivity).

  • ProsGapless sensors technology lets the sensor capture more light than others. Electronic viewfinder has excellent resolution.
  • ConsThe LCD screen doesn’t rotate 360 degrees for selfies or self-video shooting. Short battery life.

The Best Point and Shoot Camera for a Beginner

Sony RX100 – From $400 US

One of the best point and shoot! Armed with an extra large sensor and a high-quality Carl Zeiss lens, the latest model of RX100 V gives you excellent image quality. Though this is a pricey model it’s original model RX 100(which comes at half of the price of RX100 V) gives equally great photo but with no inbuilt WiFi or 4K video output.

  • ProsFull manual control. Great noise performance.
  • ConsExpensive. Red-eye problem.

Another Great Choice? Canon Powershot SX730 – From $350 US

If you are looking for the best point and shoot at a low budget then Canon Powershot SX730 is the choice to make. You will never miss the details of a subject at a distance with its 40X optical zoom. The 24mm wide-angle lens is apt for photographing landscapes. It has WiFi and NFC, so connectivity is a breeze.

  • ProsAmazing battery life. Optimum storage space
  • ConsNo 4k video shooting ability. Noise at low light

The Best Bridge Camera for a Beginner

Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 – From $470 US

A bridge camera that creates fantastic image quality, the Panasonic Lumix is a great choice for the travel photographer, especially for those who don’t want to compromise when it comes to capturing photographs in low light. The electronic viewfinder is awesome and the built-in image stabiliser will help you to take less blurred photos minimising camera shake.

  • Pros: 1-inch sensor gives awesome image quality.
  • Cons: Quite large and bulky for a bridge camera. It does not have a touch-sensitive screen.

Another Good Choice? Canon Powershot SX70 HS – From $500 US

At the top of the Canon’s bridge camera range is the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS with excellent image quality, great electronic viewfinder and unbelievable zoom power. The camera offers full manual control while behaving extremely well on automatic mode. The image stabilisation system and autofocus help to keep images sharp and the built in WIFI is a bonus for when you want to upload your images to your laptop for editing.

  • Pros: 65 X optical zoom is incredible.
  • Cons: It does not have a touch-sensitive screen. Some people have commented on the build quality not being as good as other similarly priced models from other brands.

Where can you buy cameras in Southeast Asia?

Langkawi, Malaysia

Buying any electronic goods in Malaysia is tax-free and a DSLR might cost you around $400 US. Plus, you might get some complimentary goody like a camera bag. Though prices might look tempting because of it being duty-free the current exchange rates are really not that helpful to save you a truckload of money.

The place where everybody takes a bit to ponder is when it comes to warranty because international guarantees are worthless out of Malaysia in most cases. Also, people have discovered items from purchase mysteriously missing from the box, so check the box at the shop and verify if all the items promised to you is inside or not!

Low Yat Plaza at KL, Malaysia

All the techie stuff under one roof! Go to a few shops and get the price range. Once you have a range then start bargaining! Always ask for a discount or ask if the camera comes with any free gifts. A friend of ours bought a Canon Powershot SX730 in KL in May and was satisfied with their purchase. However, the international warranty is a thing that makes any tourist wary.

Pantip Plaza – Bangkok, Thailand

This Bangkok electronics mall just brims with digital cameras of all kinds. This mother of all things electronic is the Mecca for the countrywide retailers to crowd in for their bulk supply from! Go there for its unbeatable bargains and the cheap techies if you need a repair or upgrade. If the seller doesn’t give in to your art of negotiation, ask him to pack in a few complimentary items in that price. But a word of caution: it has recently gained a not-so-great reputation of selling counterfeit items.

Sim Lim Square, Singapore

Holy Grail of the competitive price! Due to Singapore’s stringent steps towards scammers, the fear of being looted here is very slim. Pro shoppers suggest if you are looking for premium brands like Artisan, Peak Design visit the Song Brothers shop on the ground floor. For lenses from Sigma, Tamron etc visit the first-floor shop of Nuphoto. There you will also get China made gimbals and stabilizers at a very good cost.

Traveller Tip! Claim your VAT Back – If you make any purchase which is more than $100, you can claim a refund of 7% GST at the airport on your way out of the country. (3-same-day purchase from a shop bearing the same GST registration number making a total of $100) 

Could you get a second-hand camera?

Advantages

  1.    Buying a used digital camera gives you a chance to test the product before purchase.
  2.    It can be a cost-effective deal if you have done proper research before purchase.

Disadvantages

  1. Avoid a used camera which has visible rust on it because it either indicates that the camera has been exposed to moisture during its use or is a result of a battery leakage.
  2. Check the sensor chip whether it is soiled or damage because it is a costly replacement later.
  3. Older professional cameras can look like a steal deal but a newer camera at the same cost or even a little high might pack in latest features.
  4. Minimize risk by purchasing second-hand cameras from a trusted source and not random online portals like eBay.
  5. Check shutter limit before buying a DSLR. Like cars come with a ‘mileage’ limit, a camera comes with a specific number of shots it can take during its lifetime.
  6. As a standard rule: don’t buy cameras which are older than four or five years.

So, there you have it. Whether you decide that you want a DSLR, a mirrorless or a point and shoot camera, travel photography is one of the most exciting pastimes with endless opportunities for unique creation. We can’t wait to see the results!

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    Nikki Scott is the founder & editor of South East Asia Backpacker. A traveller-turned-entrepreneur, she left the UK in 2009 and after 6 months on the road, she started a bi-monthly print magazine about backpacking in Asia. South America Backpacker soon followed and today she runs her backpacking enterprise from her base in Spain. Her honest and fascinating book, Backpacker Business, tells the story of her success in the face of adversity.