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The dilemma of choosing a travel camera. Top things to consider and how I made my decision.

It’s almost a year since I started out on my photography journey and my first dilemma at that time was which camera to buy. I did a lot of research and opted for an entry level Nikon DSLR, mainly because of the generally good reviews and because it seemed best suited to my needs. During the year I have supplemented the kit lens with a zoom lens, a prime lens and a more general type lens, which turned out to be very heavy! These have served me well and, in addition to my smartphone camera, have managed to do all I have needed to do.

I know we don’t improve as photographers simply by investing in better cameras, and I have no illusions on that score. However, it is also true that the best camera is the one we have with us, so a DSLR with its heavy lenses is not a portable solution for making the most of daily photo opportunities. For this reason I have started to think about getting a camera that I could carry everywhere with me but would still give me acceptable images. In other words, I wanted something that could match the image quality of the larger sensor DSLR but without the bulk, and something that would give more creative choice than the smartphone camera, which is OK to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity for a shot but doesn’t give much in terms of creativity and improving at photography. So I went back into research mode to look for the ’perfect’ travel camera.

I should say first off – the perfect camera doesn’t exist, or at least not at my price point! However, I did narrow down my choice by making a list of my requirements:

1. Portability

If I was going to take a second camera with me it needed to be lightweight and portable, otherwise it would have no advantage over the DSLR

2. Viewfinder

One of the disadvantages of the phone camera is the difficulty in seeing the screen in bright sunlight. I didn’t want to invest in a camera only to be faced with the same problem, and since it is primarily intended to be a travel camera a viewfinder was a must!

3. Price

As I am still essentially a novice photographer, and certainly not making any money from my craft, I was reluctant to spend a lot of money on a very advanced compact camera, despite all the bells and whistles they claim to offer! My main aim is to improve in the art of photography and to become more creative, rather than investing in a camera that will take most of the creative control away from me

4. Image quality

Although I don’t print at large sizes I do still like to capture a fairly good photograph that can be enlarged without becoming pixelated. I have encountered this problem with phone camera images and wanted a camera that would produce at least something better than my phone camera can produce, otherwise why bother getting an extra camera to carry around?

5. Ability to shoot in RAW

One of the aspects of photography that I have particularly enjoyed recently is post-production, therefore I have started shooting in RAW and working on my images in Photoshop or Lightroom to bring out the very best image. While smartphone camera images can be edited to some degree, the editing that can be done is very limited so on my wish list was a camera that can shoot in RAW, which, I discovered, only tends to be a feature of more advanced compact cameras.

Research and outcome

By doing this research I received some unexpected bonuses in terms of photography development. I learned a lot about the significance of sensor size, about the value of in-camera stabilization on a travel camera (since I won't be carrying a tripod!) and about the various features offered by different camera types. I also learned about matching camera features to particular photography styles. For example, while I admire the amazing zoom feature offered by many bridge cameras this is not what I generally look for in a camera so the large zoom does not compensate for the smaller sensor in these cameras, in my opinion. Similarly, the regular point and shoot cameras with small sensors did not appear to offer any real advantage over my phone camera.

The lack of optical zoom in my phone camera is an obvious disadvantage at times.

My research then led me to advanced compact cameras. These generally have a one inch sensor which will most likely produce better images than the phone camera but there tend to be trade-offs in terms of features in the lower price range. To find a camera with the features that I was looking for, particularly a viewfinder, was bringing me beyond my budget. I was drawn back several times to the Panasonic Lumix LX100, which seems to meet many of my requirements and has generally good reviews. One drawback, however, is that reviews repeatedly refer to the fact that this camera is now quite old and has been superseded by the Lumix LX100 Mark 2, which is quite a lot more advanced but with a correspondingly high price tag.

Eventually my search took me to Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras where I found some fairly feature-rich compact cameras with interchangeable lenses which are still quite portable. The main attraction with these cameras was the possibility of adding lenses in the future while still having a competent portable device for daily photography, one which also gives creative possibilities rather than simply being a point and shoot. The compromise made for now is that the kit lenses are not the greatest lenses but I can live with that. After much deliberation I came down to two camera makes, Olympus and Panasonic. Since they share lenses I reckoned either would be a good choice. The Panasonics offered more in the way of features – 'nice to haves' rather than 'must haves' – but tended to be more expensive as well. In the end I opted for a July offer on an Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark 2 with two lenses. Hopefully it will meet my needs and become my travel camera of choice well into the future. Time will tell!

Images from Cuilcagh Mountain Trail, Co. Fermanagh, taken with Samsung Galaxy S9+

Although the phone camera may not take the best image I do like to have a camera with me for those 'once in a lifetime' moments.

I look forward to having an everyday camera to take with me on mountain walks, although I have been glad of my phone camera when a DSLR would have been too heavy to carry.

Field of purple heather, Sugar Loaf mountain, Co. Wicklow.


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