All decisions about what to shove into a travel bag relate to your choice of camera. For most photographers, the camera is their most expensive and most important purchase. These days there are only two practical choices for the travel photographera point-and-shoot or a single lens reflex (SLR) (Figure 1.2).
Figure 1.2. Compact cameras (also called point-and-shoot cameras) have the advantage of small size. The larger SLR cameras offer more capability, but are also more expensive and heavier. (Photo by Bill Durrence)
The term point-and-shoot is a misleadingit's used to refer to any compact camera without interchangeable lenses. An SLR camera is distinguishable from the point-and-shoot because it has interchangeable lenses. (Although some companies now make SLR cameras with a fixed lens and screw-on attachment lenses.) SLR cameras and specifically the cameras I'll talk about in this book are increasingly based on a digital sensor instead of film, making them dSLR cameras.
Point and Buy
Many first-time travel photographers, in fact many first-time digital photographers, opt for point-and-shoot (aka "compact"). Compact digitals are lighter and smaller than their dSLR counterparts, they don't have the hassle of interchangeable lenses, and they're often seen as less intrusive (Figure 1.3).
Figure 1.3. Compact cameras make it easy to shoot photos, like these buffalo along the road in Custer State Park. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Cameras come in a variety of styles for three categories of users. A large, solidly built camera designed for the professional photographer is, not surprisingly, called a professional camera. On the other end of the spectrum are cameras that are less expensive, less durable, and often with fewer bells and whistles. These are called "consumer" cameras.
In the middle lies a group of photographers who want some of the features of a professional camera (faster shooting speed, improved durability, a few bells, some whistles) but don't want to shell out for features they don't need. These shooters are often referred to as "prosumers," a horrible mashing of words that just means "a nonprofessional who wants some pro features."
Pull out a big prosumer SLR (Figure 1.4) with a long lens, and chances are heads are going to turn But take out a compact camera, even in remote parts of the world, and you're going to attract a lot less attention.
Figure 1.4. You won't be inconspicuous if you're using a big lens to take photos. (Photo by Corey Rich)
The biggest issue with point-and-shoots is their lack of flexibility. There's less room to grow as a photographer with them since you can't work your way up to better lenses and fewer accessories are available. A digital SLR often has interchangeable viewfinders, specialty lenses (such as macros and ultra-wide angles), lens-hoods, accessory strobes, and more. With a point-and-shoot, if you decide you want a wider-angle lens, or maybe a telephoto, you're stuck with what you've got, and you'll need to buy a new camera if you want greater flexibility.
Most digital point-and-shoots are equipped with a 3x zoom, providing a focal length equivalent to about 35-105mm. (See "Choosing a Lens" later in this chapter.) That's not too shabby, but it leaves you without a wide-angle lens or a long telephoto lens, meaning you can't capture wide landscapes or zoom in on a distant scene. Some models offer screw-on adapter lenses, but they are likely to produce photographs that are less sharp than ones taken with a single specialty lens.
Compact digitals are often slower than SLR cameras and are known to have a greater lag time, which is a measure of how long it takes between pressing the shutter release and having the camera actually capture a picture.
With a long lag time you're more likely to miss the perfect portrait shot as your subject moves, or capture a moving subject just a bit…too…late.
For the cost-conscious consumer, though, a top-of-the-line compact digital can be had for $600 to $1000, while a good digital SLR starts around that price. It's best to choose a full featured point-and-shoot rather than a shirt-pocket sized camera, as those are mostly designed for convenience not image quality.
If you're serious about getting good travel shots and opt for a point-and-shoot, you'll want to make sure it has at a minimum these features:
There are some wonderful point-and-shoot cameras on the market, and most professional photographers I know wouldn't be caught dead without at least a quality compact digital camera in their pocket, and they always have one for a backup when on the road. If you're traveling with a point-and-shoot, you can still grab great pictures (Figure 1.5).
Figure 1.5. This photo of Opatija, Croatia was taken while walking back to the hotel after dinner, using a small point-and-shoot digital camera. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Some of the most familiar names in photographyNikon, Canon, Minolta, Olympus, Pentax, and othersmake incredibly powerful point-and-shoot cameras, but some lesser known companies also offer great bargains. Don't be afraid to look for cameras from Sony, Panasonic, Kodak, Casio, Samsung, or from any company that's better known for making things like microwaves and radios than camera gear. The technology used inside a digital camera is remarkably similar to that used in an MP3 player or any other bit of electronics, so some newcomers to photography are making a name for themselves.