Shopping for a new digital camera can be confusing, tiresome and frustrating. There are so many choices of point-and-shoot, ‘prosumer’, DSLR and hybrids from all manufacturers.

When people ask me which camera and lenses they should buy, especially for travel, I ask them three questions:

  • 1) How serious are you about learning photography?
  • 2) What’s your budget? and
  • 3) What do you like to take pictures of?

The answer to the first often tells me in advance what the second answer will be be, just from experience of asking these questions over and over. The third helps me determine which lenses to suggest.

The answers typically fall into three groups:

  • “I want a camera that’s easy to pack and simple to use,”
  • “I’d like to learn to take some cool shots and not just postcards,” and
  • “I plan on really diving into photography and want the best.”

I want a camera that’s easy to pack and simple to use

Easy-to-use DSLR

For this crowd I would suggest the entry-level of DLSR cameras. These are the ones that typically start around $500 for a camera and kit lens. For most heading out on a trip, this camera will work fine if you want something above a point-and-shoot.

Most kit lenses are in the 18-55mm range and my overall suggestion for travel is to get an 18-200mm range which will serve you well.

Suggested models:

Easy-to-use point-and-shoot

The most frustrating thing about the cheaper point-and-shoot cameras is battery life. You might save $60 by going with a particular model but might spend another $30 just for batteries on a trip! (Remember: AA batteries at tourist destinations are never as cheap as at home.) Go with a camera that has a rechargeable battery and at least a 4x optical zoom. Also pick a camera that feels good in your hands, as manufacturers are still fiddling with the grip on these small point-and-shoot units.

Suggested models:

camera for travel - photo from bridge
Photographing London from Lambeth Bridge

I’d like to learn to take some cool shots and not just postcards

Mid-range DSLR

If you think you want to stick with learning some photography and work past using the Auto mode, it might be a good idea to spend a bit more and get a higher-quality camera. Photography is thankfully one of those hobbies which sees a direct correlation between price and quality.

Mid-range is around $1000 for camera body, maybe up to $1500 depending on the disposability of your income. These cameras focus faster, shoot faster and generally meter light better than the entry-level units.

Lenses open a wide variety of options. I still suggest the 18-200mm

lens (either by the manufacturer or by Sigma) if the camera has a 1.6x crop sensor. Also an option is to purchase a couple of lenses to cover a wide range, especially if you plan to go to a specific place to shoot, like on safari in Africa. In that case I’d suggest a longer 100-400mm type lens
and a wide angle option, such as a 10-22mm
. An all around 24-135mm type lens
is handy as well if you only want to take one.

Suggested models:

High-range point-and-shoot

The cameras in this range get a bit bulkier than the simple point-and-shoots listed above. This is because they pack better optics and can even zoom to 12x and beyond.

Some have manual controls if you know enough to play around with shutter speed and aperture for certain effects. Others will record in RAW format to ensure maximum creative control when editing the image in a computer. Most will have video modes with some pretty advanced high-resolution options.

Expect to pay in the $200-$500 range for these types of cameras.

Suggested models:

professional travel photo camera setup

I plan on really diving into photography and want the best camera and lenses

This group of buyers need not bother with point and shoot options. Chances are money might even be burning holes in pockets! If that is the case, a high-end camera is in order. But more important than the camera body, is high-end lenses.

If you have the money and want the best, go for Canon’s L series of lens

and Nikon’s ED series
. These lenses can be very pricey but you get what you pay for.

While the top-of-the-line Canon and Nikon cameras might seem like the optimal choice, there is still a need to consider a couple of items.

Will you want video? Not all top-of-the-line cameras have it. Can you handle the bulk? These cameras tend to be large and heavy. Couple that with a heavy zoom lens (weight in camera gear often equates to quality) and the option might not look so tempting.

go pro - best camera for travel photography
Undoubtably the best camera for travel photography.
Moving back a few models to a version with more composites can make the difference between loving a camera, after a day of wandering and shooting, and hating it.

Suggested models:

But not to be ruled out:

Choosing from the myriad of camera options available on the market today can be perplexing. Armed with some of the options listed in this post, go forth and find the gear you need to bring back the pictures you want from your next trip. Happy shooting!

Editor’s note: We’ve attempted to match Peter’s recommendations with links to Amazon.com for ease of further research and purchasing. Especially when buying lenses, double-check the lens works with your model of camera. Indie Travel Podcast gets a commission if you buy through these links, and we like that.

For more recommendations on how to improve your travel photography check out Indie Travel Podcast’s travel photography resource centre.

Your thoughts on "Buying a new digital camera for travel"

  • Just wondering about the panasonic Lumix FT3 waterproof shockproof? I've been using the FT1 and thinking about upgrading? I kind of like the idea of having something bombproof especially since I do a lot of fishing and kayaking.

    on April 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm Reply
    • We've never had a play with that one, John. Hopefully someone who has can chip in.

      on April 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm Reply
  • What an AMAZING resource this article is for anyone looking to buy a new digital camera. You've done a terrific job of outlining the difference between the various options out there. I agree, the market is over-saturated with options these days and it's really hard to make a decision. While I am primarily a DSLR (Sony A700) user. I just put up a review about a new point and shoot Sony is releasing this month that is a great buy for someone who has a $200 budget, but wants to take great photos. I've had so much fun playing with my new gadget that I've neglected my A700! haha Here is a link to the post if anyone is interested in checking out the WX9: http://www.wayfaringwanderer.com/2011/04/10-reasons-why-you-want-to-win-sony-wx9.html

    on April 13, 2011 at 11:37 am Reply
  • For a higher-end point and shoot I'd also recommend the Canon S90 or Canon S95. I bought my S90 last year and have been extremely happy with it. When I was shopping I debated between it and the Canon G12. Even though the G12 has some really neat features I finally went with the S90 because I wanted something that would fit easily in my pocket. I also have a DSLR so I wanted this to be my second pocket/everyday camera for when I don't feel like carrying around the big one. If I am with non-photographers who won't want to wait around for me to do any serious photography it's perfect and the image quality is fantastic. I am planning some extreme light-weight backpacking in the next year in some areas where I don't want to be carrying much gear (or worrying about it being stolen). This little camera packs enough of a punch that (other than missing my wide-angle and telephoto lenses) I will be fine with leaving my DSLR at home.

    on April 14, 2011 at 1:26 am Reply
  • We looked closely at the S95 as well (there's a forum thread about it somewhere). It's a great looking camera. We were downsold (how often does that happen!) to the Sony HX5v, mainly on the basis of it's GPS and sweep panorama mode ... Plus the sensor -- the thing Craig was most concerned about -- was nice and large, meaning our low-light capabilities have really improved.

    on April 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm Reply
  • Extending the "buying" process one step further, can buying duty free at the destination make for better prices? What's the best way to check on that. We're heading to KL in December and thought a good camera might be cheaper there than in Oz.

    on April 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm Reply
  • Good thought, and it's really hard to figure out! We ended up buying our camera in Australia, at a cheaper price than we could get it for in Bangkok. We then came down to NZ and got our ~10% GST refunded at the border, so that definitely helped too. I guess there are two issues to consider: a) How important is it to have a camera immediately? / Do you have time to shop for a camera when you arrive?, and b) What do you do if prices are the same or higher when you arrive? Often Aussie stores will have significant discounts on loss-leader cameras, designed to get people into the store using the advertising campaigns: these cameras can be cheaper than buying duty free. Duty Free shops almost never offer discounts on the RRP, so the total price could be higher. In New Zealand the duty free stores have websites and numbers one can use to research. If you know what camera model(s) you are after, you could try finding contact details for the Duty Free stores in KL and see what you find.

    on April 19, 2011 at 7:16 pm Reply
  • Fantastic cameras! I wish I have the money to buy one of those cameras. I only use our point-and-shoot camera to capture special moments when traveling. Our smartphones serve as digital cameras too.

    on February 24, 2013 at 10:34 pm Reply
    • Yes, it's nice to see the phones getting good enough for snapshots during the day. I still find myself reaching for the camera over the phone, but if I'm just heading out for a short walk with nothing in mind, I'll leave it behind these days.

      on February 26, 2013 at 6:04 am Reply

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