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How to Select a Camera for Travel

What makes a good camera for travel? After over 11 years of traveling the world and taking photos, I have isolated three main attributes that make a camera good for travel: 1) Photo quality, 2) Reaction time, 3) Durability. In point, taking a photo means nothing if it comes out blurry, a good quality photo [...]

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What makes a good camera for travel?

After over 11 years of traveling the world and taking photos, I have isolated three main attributes that make a camera good for travel: 1) Photo quality, 2) Reaction time, 3) Durability. In point, taking a photo means nothing if it comes out blurry, a good quality photo means little if the camera takes so long to turn on that the prospective subject is long gone or has completed the key action, and the above two factors mean absolutely nothing if the camera is broken. A good travel camera will satisfy the above three credentials in full — if it is lacking any one of these attributes then it is unsuited for documenting life on the open road.

Photo quality for travel photography

Photo quality is, quite obviously, one of the most important element when choosing a camera to take traveling. I cannot say how many inferior digital cameras I have tried to use in my travels. Few things that I have experienced top the charts of minor annoyances quite like setting up a great travel photo and having it come out a mess of color swirls, double images, and opaque blurs. Frustration often comes when something will not do what you want it to no matter what you do to it. Humans are natural problem solvers, but for a camera that takes shitty photos there is but one solution: leave it on a restaurant table, turn your back on it, and hope someone helps himself.

Canon d10 camera

There are often ways to make a digital camera take acceptable photos, but this often comes after a long duration tests of trial and error, and, even still, you are going to muck up a lot of otherwise good photos with muck, double images, and blurry swirls. Long exposure burred photos were a trend of the 90’s, now there is nothing artsy about a bad photograph: a traveler needs to capture what they see as they see it, a camera that takes good photos is a necessity.

What is even more challenging about travel photography is that a traveler lives in a moving world. You are often in motion as you take a shot, the subject is often animate and not standing still, or, at the very least, has moving elements around it. The travel photographer is a documenter of real life, and real life moves. Whether the subject is a sunset, a beach, a market, person, building, or yourself there will often be elements of motion in it: life rarely sits still, a traveler needs a camera that can capture life as it moves without blemish.

Reaction time important feature of a camera for travel

Reaction time is perhaps the biggest challenge I have had to face when searching for a good digital camera for travel. Today, many cameras take photos of adequate quality to use in travel, but all too often have a very slow reaction time. By “reaction time” I am talking about the waiting period between turning the camera on and when it is ready to take a photo, the amount of time between shooting one photo and being ready to take another, and, if using the battery saver function, how long the camera takes to wake up and be ready to capture an image.

[adsense]I generally have my camera in a breast pocket, in my hand, or in the front pocket of my pants when out in the streets. I am always on the look out for something to document with a photograph, and I take pictures all day long. In point, I am always at ready to whip out my camera and shoot, my gun is a device that captures light waves rather than one that expels a projectile. It is only a pity that my cameras are sometimes not able to keep up. I have missed MANY photos because of slow camera reaction times. The camera that I currently got stuck with using take a full 10 seconds between pushing the on button and it being ready to take a photo. 10 seconds is a lifetime in travel photography, and all too often by the time my camera is ready to photograph a subject the scene is all ready dead and gone and the opportunity lost. I have no Quick Draw when using this camera, and my ability to document the world that I move through with images has suffered greatly because of it: I almost lose as many shots as I nail, the slow poke photographer is the bird that misses the worm.

Durability is #1 attribute for a travel camera

Durability is the true deciding factor as to whether a camera is good for travel. In point, you can battle through using a camera that tends to take poor quality images, and a camera that has a slow reaction time still, ultimately, takes photos, but a camera that is broken is completely useless. I have probably had a dozen cameras break on me throughout my travels. During one infamous stretch of travel through the southern cone of South America I lost four cameras to breakage. In point, I arrived at a point where I realized that photo quality and reaction time mean little when compared to durability, and I now select cameras that may lack these first to attributes in exchange for being able to drop it, take it under water, sweat all over it, and use under hostile circumstances. Some of the best photos in travel come only after feats of endurance and my camera needs to be as tough as the road I walk.

It is a real let down to climb up to a mountain’s summit only to realize that you can’t photograph the view because your camera did not make the journey intact. It really sucks to unsheathe your camera to take a picture of a beautiful vista, girl, or building just to find that it shakes like a maraca with no chance of turning on again. I know how disappointing it is to turned off your digital camera just to have the lens get stuck on its withdraw into the body to remain as such for evermore. I have also felt the anger of having an “underwater camera” break from being taken underwater. I have had many cameras break on me in my travels — usually they just stop turning on with no other sign of damage — and I know that it often costs nearly as much to repair a camera than it does to just buy a new one. In point, durability is the prime attribute to test for when evaluating a camera for travel: a broken camera is a moot point.

How to select a camera for travel

Selecting an all purpose camera for travel is one of the biggest chores of the profession. Outright, I can only recommend one camera — the Canon D10 — but I can wholly unrecommend dozens.

The less moving parts the better — this is my motto when looking for an all purpose travel camera, but this often means selecting a device that is deficient in photo quality and, possible reaction time. I have a prejudice against cameras that have a lens that moves in and out of its body like a turtle’s head going in and out of its shell. I have seen too many of these cameras break.

I also do not recommend cameras that are not water and shock proof. A simple role in a hammock with a standard camera in your pocket is often enough render it broken. Likewise, if a non-specialty camera makes only the slightest contact with water, sand, heat, cold or many other pernicious elements it stands a good chance of conking out. A good all purpose travel camera should have the continence of a rock — if it doesn’t look elsewhere. As an additional note, if a camera has “Olympus Stylus Tough” written on the outside of it, leave it on the shelf where it is — do not buy it, this camera is awful and, although it is durable, it does not meet the other two criteria.


In terms of testing a camera, I recommend doing so in person. Buying a camera before testing it yourself is a recipe for disappointment. Even though you can often get a better deal on a camera online than in a shop it is a good strategy to at least test it out in a store before ordering.

I also recommend testing out a camera under various light settings. Maybe you could ask to take it into a backroom of a store to shoot off a few photos in a darker indoor environment than most showrooms provide. It is perilous to shoot off a bunch of photos in a bright, florescent lit store to your satisfaction only to realize that the photos come out in streaks of blur in a standard indoor environment.

Most importantly, perhaps, when testing out a camera make sure you test the reaction time. Count the seconds between pressing the on button and when the camera is ready to shoot a photo. Do the same for the time between shooting one picture and when the camera is ready to take another, as well as how long it takes to wake up from sleep mode. Also be sure to test the reaction time between pressing the shutter button and the moment when the photo is actually captured in the camera’s various settings. If any of the above scenarios have a reaction time greater than 3 seconds, chuck the camera and look for another.

Two camera strategy for travel photography

A two camera strategy for travel is what I ultimately recommend for the traveler who wants to make something of their photos. I do not follow this method as I have no desire to dump any more money than I have to into photography, but traveling with one nice dSLR and one portable, cheap, and durable all-purpose camera is probably the best method for successful travel photography. This method means having a really high quality camera for the easy days of travel where you are just strolling around a town under a sunny sky, and a tough little durable camera for the days when you are out hiking, climbing, or in transit between destinations (where the going could get a little rough). I want to be able to take photos in all settings, but I would not dare take an expensive camera out on a hike in a rain storm, up a mountain, or in the bush when camping. Therefore I opt for the little all weather/ shock proof cameras, but I know that these devices all too often do not take very high quality photos. If I had the funds, I would pick up a dSLR and use it when the using was good and keep it locked up when the road ahead looks a little rough. Switching out these two types of cameras means being able to photograph in all situations while still having the option to take high quality photos when circumstance allows.

How to select a good travel camera conclusion

There are some dweebs who set up photos and do photo shoots abroad who call themselves “travel photographers.” They are not, they are just folks with a little too much art school in their blood and dollar signs in their eyes. Travel photography means documenting reality while producing something that is aesthetically pleasing: by taking out the reality — by paying models to dress up in local garb, show their tits, or act exotic for your f’cking postcard images — is to turn travel photography into a fiction. Travel writing and travel photography work hand in hand in that they should cut through the fat and document life as it is at a certain time in a certain place. Without this, the work has no meat to chew on. Given this, a good travel camera will take quality photos under “live” circumstances, it will have a quick reaction time, and be able to stand up to the rigors of the open road.

What do you think? What is your criteria for selecting a camera for travel?

Filed under: Photography, Travel Gear, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • baron March 20, 2011, 10:30 am


    You and Andy have railed on travel writers occasionally, and now photographers.

    This idea just clicked in my mind as I was reading your summary here. I think there’s a difference between what a travel writer/photographer does compared to you two. A travel writer presents a story, a STORY, based on fact for someone to live vicariously through, and the travel photographer illustrates that story. They manufacture a product just as a fiction writer or film maker does. And the reader/viewer of these products allows their own suspension of disbelief. And that’s all ok.

    What you, Andy, and others like you do, is not story telling. Not exactly anyway. You all are more like documentarians , or old school journalist (before news organization sensationalized the news).

    I think that’s a huge difference. Maybe you would be better served if you didn’t think of yourself as a travel writer, or a traveler who writes, and start thinking of yourself as a documentarian instead.

    What do you think?

    Take care.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 21, 2011, 10:38 am

      Hello Baron,

      Good comment. I am going to start a new entry to respond to this.


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