Best Camera for Travel – Interview a Pro

Posted: June 27th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Best Camera for Travel – Interview a Pro

I’m about to catch a flight to Copenhagen in a few hours, for a tremendously exciting trip around Europe.  The lady and I will be joining a few of our friends Denmark, then going our own way and checking out a few other countries while we’re over there.

Of course, as with any tourist, I am certain I’ll be capturing tons of pictures throughout our trip; primarily for sharing on social media or use in future posts. With this in mind, I reached out to professional photographer Marc Montez with a few questions about the type of camera I should take and what my expectations can be for usable images compared to convenience. What followed was an amazing windfall of knowledge and insight from Marc. It’s taken me a while to get this post ready to go live, but I’m excited to try out some things on this trip, and hopefully this can be a helpful resource for other in the future.

This post is pretty long, and a little light on images, so I recommend checking out Marc’s #sgnlunchtimeseries on either Instagram or his website. The image quality speaks for itself and lends a new angle to what we talk about below.


What are the key differences between Point-­and-­Shoot cameras and DSLRs?

There’s quite a few differences between the two cameras although as time goes forward P&S and DSLR are starting to assimilate certain features of the other to meet consumer demands. The main differences to the average person are the ability to change lenses, manual controls and lighting options.

P&S have a single lens and even though that lens may be a zoom lens it is limited in both focal length and aperture. For anyone reading who hasn’t studied photography at all, aperture refers to the amount of light allowed to pass through the lens. Think about the pupil of an eye. It can dilate and constrict adjusting to different lighting situations.

The reason you would want to control this, aside from exposure, is that by changing the aperture of a lens you are directly controlling how much of the photograph is in or out of focus. Most landscape photographs have a very deep depth of field where everything from the foreground to the background in the image is in focus. Conversely, portraits and other types of photographs generally have a more shallow depth of field where only the subject is in focus and the rest of the photograph is blurred out.

This is controlled by the aperture of the lens. With the DSLRs you can manually control this ability. The lenses on P&S cameras are generally set to have the entire scene be in focus. The advantage of this is that you don’t necessarily need to concentrate on focusing perfectly. This means that the photographs you take with a P&S will rarely be out of focus but it also means that they won’t look very artistic.

Lenses for DSLRs range in quality but the ability to use extremely high quality lenses gives you the ability to produce razor sharp images with very pleasant blur. Changing the aperture of a lens is one of the controls that the camera does automatically on a P&S that you can choose to take over when using a DSLR.

This is one area where the two different camera types are starting to merge together. Consumers want the quality that an SLR can produce but not the headache of trying to figure out exposure and the like so now most SLRs have a lot of automatic functionality and even scene modes. Likewise some consumers want to have the ability to control those aspects of the camera but don’t want to invest so much money in an SLR system so a lot of P&S have some manual controls as well though they’re usually difficult to access. When it comes to manual controls what we’re really talking about is the ability to take over controls of the camera for creative purposes.

The last major difference I’ll bring up is lighting. P&S cameras are extremely limited in this regard. The only strobe they have is usually a small built in flash that hardly ever produces a good result. There are a lot of reasons for why this is but they’re not important for this discussion. Just know that to use flash in creative ways it must be taken off of the camera and that’s the advantage a DSLR has.

Aside from flash lighting, DSLRs are generally much better at producing better images in a far greater range of lighting situations. They’re better at low­light since they have larger sensors and can manage noise better. They’re also generally better at being focused in challenging lighting, plus if the camera struggles with auto­focus you can manually focus.

Another small difference with a big impact is the ability to shoot RAW files instead of only JPEGs. If you’re serious about editing photos RAW affords you the most digital information to work with and is a big deal for professional photographers.

A DSLR is a superior camera in basically every way but it comes at a cost of a steeper learning curve, increased weight/size and of course a significant amount of money. Of course having a very capable tool is only as good as the person wielding that tool and I wouldn’t recommend investing in an SLR system without also investing in learning at least the basics of photography. Doing one without the other is essentially setting yourself up to use a very expensive much bigger point and shoot.

Does an interchangeable lens camera, such as Fuji X­M1 or Sony Alpha NEX series offer an intermediary step between Point-and-Shoots and DSLRs?

These cameras have been around for a while. It seems as though they are indeed trying to fill a market gap between the two big categories of camera. The advantage these cameras have over P&S are similar to those a DSLR has. They have larger sensors typically, manual controls, the addition of a hot­shoe for external flashes and of course the ability to change lenses.

They still fall a little short however when compared to DSLRs. While these cameras typically can change lenses a lot of the systems use lenses specifically designed for that camera. That means that if you buy something like the Nikon­1 you get the ability to change lenses but it’s from a set of 3 different lenses designed for the camera. You don’t get access to the entire repetoir of Nikon lenses like you would with a DSLR.

The advantages that these cameras have over DSLRs are similar to the advantages P&S have. They’re typically smaller, they’re more automatic and they’re less expensive.

While they do fall into an in­between category I wouldn’t recommend using them as a stepping stone to an SLR. The reason being that SLRs have gone down in price so much that for not very much more money you could buy into an SLR system. Even the lowest end SLR camera will get you into a system where you have access to the entire lens line­up and flash line­up. You could get a $400 SLR and invest your money in high quality lenses and then when you’re ready you can upgrade to a better SLR with more features and take all your lenses with you.

Not so with the compact SLRs. Any accessories or peripherals you buy for this particular camera are specific to this camera with the exception of flashes. The biggest selling point for these cameras are their size and portability. I think I might even remember a campaign where women were literally throwing them in their purses and that’s really kind of the idea. “You don’t need a giant camera bag full of gear, you can get just as good a quality from this camera you toss in your shoulder bag.”

As a photographer I can honestly say there have been trips where I was going somewhere and wanted to take photos but didn’t want to carry around my heavy camera everywhere I went. In those situations it seems like there’s no winning. Either I don’t take the camera and wish I had, or I take it and resent having it because my neck hurts and I constantly have to keep an eye on it and make sure it’s ok. These camera may offer a solution to that problem.

Is there an image quality difference between the different kinds of digital cameras, or does the equipment only impact zoom­level and composition capabilities?

There is absolutely a quality difference. Quality in digital images goes like this: the bigger the pixels and the more of them the better quality the image.

One myth I would like to dispel is that more megapixels means better quality. While more megapixels means more digital information, if each pixel is microscopic then you actually sacrifice color quality, sharpness and run into a whole other list of problems like digital noise. You want as many megapixels as you can get but you also want each individual pixel to be as large as you can get.

A full frame sensor (that means the sensor is the same size as a 35mm film negative would be) that has 16MP will always have the ability to take a better quality image than a APS­C sized sensor (that means the sensor is the same size as APS film, smaller than 35mm) that has 20MP. Sure the APS sensor has 4 million more pixels making up the image, but those pixels are crammed into a smaller area than the full frame sensor. The only way to do that is to make each individual pixel smaller. P&S cameras have much, much smaller sensors than SLRs.

Besides the size of the sensor there’s lens quality. Remember the lens that’s built into your P&S is all you get. DSLRs open up a vast library of lenses. Some of them are junk and not even comparable to the P&S but others are as good as it gets as far as glass quality and functionality and even the cheapest DSLR is able to use them.

As far as zoom and composition those things aren’t really dependent on the camera. You should always practice good composition no matter what kind of camera you’re using. Many P&S cameras actually have a wider range of zoom in their single lens than you can find in an interchangeable. My mom has a P&S that goes from 28­-600mm. They don’t even make a lens like that for an SLR. However there’s the issue of quality.

Something you might consider about quality is this. What are you planning to do with the images? If you want snapshots, and you don’t plan on editing the images really and their final output destination is social media then you’re looking at image sizes that are so small digitally speaking that a 20MP file is truly overkill. If however you want to make poster-sized prints, do any kind of editing beyond brightness/contrast or display them anywhere besides a monitor then you want as much high quality digital information as you can get.

marc montez travel photo tips

How about the camera that everyone has with them already; their smart phone? If the main intent is to publish the images online (either a blog or sharing via social media), is there a noticeable difference?

Interesting question. I’ve actually spent quite a lot of time on this topic and I even have a series dedicated to trying to make good images with nothing but a cell phone camera.

The answer to your question is yes there is a noticeable difference.

However that doesn’t necessarily mean that a cell phone camera or a P&S for that matter can’t take a good picture. It just means that you’re limited by the capabilities of the camera. This isn’t typically too big of an issue if you learn some basic photography.

When I say basic photography I mean fundamentals like composition, visual elements and a basic understanding of lighting. If you’re armed with the fundamentals then you can make a good image regardless of the camera.

That being said I would never pretend that any image I made with a cell phone camera couldn’t be taken at a much higher quality with a higher end camera. It goes back to the difference in quality. Cell camera sensors are tiny.

Look at the lens on your camera’s phone. See how tiny that thing is? The sensor is even smaller. If you happen to have any 35mm negatives lying around pull one out and look at how big the negative for an image is. That’s the size difference we’re talking about here between a cell phone camera and a full frame DSLR camera. It doesn’t matter that the phone camera has 18MP because those 18 million dots are crammed into an area so tiny you couldn’t even see them with the naked eye. In fact, it’s kind of amazing the quality that can be produced by a cell phone camera when you think about how tiny the camera actually is.

If the output is the internet we’re probably talking images that are around 1000 pixels tall to be able to fit on the screen without having to scroll. At that size a cell phone image will probably look just fine. The larger the sensor the better quality the image though, and you can tell even that small. Higher end cameras have more dynamic range and much higher quality digital information to work with.

Another thing about cell phone cameras and most P&S is that they are processed in the camera to come out brighter and more contrasty. The camera software automatically bumps up the brightness, bumps up the contrast and over saturates the colors. That doesn’t sound bad, and it isn’t if you’re happy with the result, but you can’t ever UNdo that. Shooting in RAW means the image comes out exactly as the sensor recorded it, every single pixel of information is there.

You can use a food analogy here and think of a RAW file as something that needs to be cooked. So if we go along with this analogy cell cameras shooting in highly processed JPEGs are kind of like microwave dinners. They’re easy, quick and often times taste just fine. An SLR shooting a RAW file however is more like a delicate cut of Kobe beef. It takes effort, knowledge and a little bit of talent to cook the thing but when it’s done it sure blows that microwave crap out of the water. That doesn’t mean every image gets cooked well every time but the potential is alway there.

It’s all about application. Is this a personal social media profile or is this a professional business website? The image sizes are probably pretty similar but the quality of the images probably matter as well.

What are the main things someone needs to consider when selecting the “right” camera to travel with?

I love this question since I plan on traveling in the near future and of course want to take amazing photographs. It’s also a difficult question because there’s a lot to consider.

Let’s just assume you’re always going to have at least one camera, that being your cell phone. Knowing that your cell phone is pretty limited in its capability though you want to take a “nicer” camera with you as well. In that case, the major things to consider are size/portability and flexibility. Just exactly how important each of those things are depends on where you’re traveling and what you’re doing.

There are various ideal pack­outs for various trips but when I travel I’m all about mobility. If the trip was a video game we’re talking scout/archer/recon/stealth class here. I want to be able to move in and out quickly and quietly but still be able to hold my own in a fight. I don’t want to clank around in heavy armor and slow everyone down but I also don’t want to be so light that I have no protection and no serious weapon. That means I only take the equipment that is necessary to get the images I want but it’s still good equipment.

That’s an important thing too; there should be some planning involved in choosing what the ‘right’ camera is. You should take a second and look at your itinerary and at least think about the kinds of shots if not specific shots you want and try to pack for that.

Relevant Wit Marc Montez Photo quote

My advice is to set up like a stealth fighter. If you’re taking your SLR then take the camera, take one lens, and take one flash.

If the lens is a wide to tele zoom lens then you can cover a huge variety of images. Having such a small set up is lighter and smaller and that’s important to me when I’m walking around from place to place all day. I want a set up that I can put in a messenger bag with whatever else I’m carrying.

An SLR with a lens attached and a strobe might even be too big for a lot of people. No one would argue with you if you opted to leave your beast of a camera at home and instead take a P&S based on size alone. Every time I’ve done this though I’ve regretted it. I found myself in situations thinking ‘man I wish I had my REAL camera’. I always take an SLR with me, I’ve just been burned too many times by the limitations of a P&S when I’m in amazing places.

I just accept that my shoulder is going to be sore from carrying the heavier camera but that it’s worth it to get the images I’m after.

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