Searching for the Perfect Travel Camera
We love to travel and we love to take photos. And that is a problem! To take really good photos, you need a really good camera, which generally is a dSLR. Unfortunately, dSLR’s are bulky, heavy, and a pain in the butt to travel with. They also get noticed more, which can lead to theft, and are rather expensive if you buy an assortment of quality lenses, flash unit, filters, and of course a really large bag to carry everything in. But we want to take really good photos so buying a dSLR is the only option, right? Maybe not.
The cameras we currently use for travel are a Nikon Coolpix P80 and an Olympus Stylus Tough 3000. Are they easy to travel with? Yes. Do they take excellent photos? Not really. The Nikon P80 has an 18x optical zoom, which is good for such a compact camera, but the photos come out mediocre, and not WOW! The Olympus was purchased for its ability to be used underwater and its tough design. We can use it for snorkeling, rafting, kayaking, or in the rain. It can also be dropped, which a lot of cameras will simply not tolerate. It doesn’t take the best photos, nor is it the fastest camera, but the Olympus serves its purpose and we like it. The other thing we use our cameras for is taking video. The Olympus has 720p HD video, but we rarely have that camera in our hand when taking video. Instead, most of our video has been shot with our Nikon P80, which is not high definition and looks a bit fuzzy (check out our Youtube videos to see what I mean.) So while we are happy with our waterproof Olympus for basic photos and its versatility, we are definitely looking at the different options for a replacement of our main travel camera.
So why don’t we just buy a dSLR? We have owned film SLR’s in the past and had traveled with them. We did not like lugging them around everywhere and actually broke one while trying to cross a stream in the Mexican jungle (water, rocks, and a camera do not mix). I use a Nikon D90 dSLR at work, and while I love that camera, there is no way I would want to lug that beast and it’s insanely heavy lenses and other gear all over the world. Camera manufacturers are now coming out with smaller dSLR’s, like the Pentax K-k, for people that want a dSLR in a smaller package. But, after buying a few quality lenses, that is still a lot of weight and bulky. We could just purchase a single all purpose Nikon 18-200mm lens, but that would still be heavy and bulky carrying around all day. We could use a quality prime lens for most of our shots, which would keep the weight and size down, but we would not have the ability to zoom. So what other camera options are out there?
A step down from the dSLR are the digital interchangeable lens cameras (DILC’s or micro four-thirds), which have the ability to change lenses and are smaller due to not having a mirror and viewfinder like the dSLR’s do. DILC’s are so new to the market that there are not a lot of lens options for them and their prices are the same as entry level DSLR’s, or even higher. From the ones I had seen at the big box stores, I was not too impressed. But, it seems most of the big camera makers are coming out with DILC’s, so it will be interesting to see where it goes. These could be a possibility, but only with more quality lenses.
So that leaves us with the point and shoot and compact cameras. Those would never work would they? Our current Nikon P80 with its excellent reviews and fine pedigree is in that category, but the quality is just not there. So maybe it was time to think outside the box store and look for quality over all else. So, when you think of quality in cameras one brand comes to mind that causes the hearts of photography enthusiasts to beat a little faster when mentioned; Leica. Like a beautiful Porsche, Leica is a German masterpiece that deserves respect for their quality. But like a Porsche, not many people can afford one. Leica M9 rangefinder camera is beautiful and takes amazing photos, or so I’ve heard, but at a price tag of $7000, a bit too steep for us. But still much cheaper than Leica’s S2 dSLR that costs $28,000. But Leica also offers compact cameras with quality optics and sensors that could be what we are looking for, and at a price we could afford.
So, it was time to head down to the local Leica dealer and to look at these highly prized cameras with the red dots. You can sit around all day reading reviews and looking at beautiful sample photos, but nothing is better at seeing if a camera is right for you than getting a camera in your hand and to just start taking photos. Upon arriving I found the case behind the counter which housed the Leicas and saw the beautiful Leica M9 with its $7000 price tag, but next to it were the Leica X1 and the D-Lux 5, Leicas that the common person could afford. The salesman handed me the Leica D-LUX 5 and I took a couple of photos. It was the size of a point and shoot and did not feel right. Next was the Leica X1 with its fixed 35mm Leica lens. It was cool, in a retro way, but did not feel right for just taking snapshots. It had no zoom, no interchangeable lenses, and at $2000, was more than I wanted to spend. It would be a great camera for artistic street shots, but would not fit our needs as a travel camera. I had told myself to not even look at it, but since I was here… I asked if I could see the Leica M9. The first thing I noticed was the weight. It felt like a brick. I would love to have one, but the price puts it out of our budget. But the amazing street photos I could take with this beautiful camera… The salesman then mentioned the Panasonics. Panasonic? He then explained that the Panasonic Lumix cameras use Leica lenses on some of their models and manufacture the lenses for the other Lumix cameras in their factory to Leica’s standards. Basically, cheaper Leicas. I scanned the Panasonic case with the compacts, the G1, the G2, but what really caught my eye was the Panasonic Lumix GF1 with the 20mm pancake lens. A small micro four thirds camera that came with a quality prime, had 720p HD video, and was affordable. Plus, it had interchangeable lenses with an assortment of available lenses that would be easy to travel with. I may have seen this camera online or in magazines but never paid much attention to it. It just does not stand out, which would be perfect for travelling. I asked to see it and was impressed with how it felt and how fast it could take photos. The controls were basic and well placed. I tried it with a telephoto lens and it did not feel too heavy. I think I had found our perfect camera for travel. I went home and read all of the online reviews for the Panasonic GF1. It seems that this little camera has quit the following and everyone that has tried it is really impressed with the professional quality images and the ease of use. But there are rumors of a Panasonic GF2 coming out that will have a rangefinder styled EVF. So now is the hard part; wait for the next model, or jump on the hard to find current one while they are still available. And the even harder part; convincing the wife that we need a new camera.
UPDATE: To see what I ended up purchasing, read this follow up post There is No Perfect Travel Camera