What’s the best camera for travel?
First I suggest you see my previous article on Why you should never travel with your DSLR
So let me start by saying that I am a Canon shooter. I pretty much always have been. I learned on a Canon and that’s probably why I find the handling to be so good. I have tried various Nikon’s and they make some great cameras for sure. But, for me, Canon handling and color fit the bill. It takes me less time to take and edit shots with a 5DMk3 than with any camera I have ever used. I have used several different cameras professionally. However, when the going got tough I always reached for my Canon. I have used them in some conditions which for sure should have killed them and they kept right on ticking. I have had them fall off of tripods into a waterfall. I have used them to break my fall sliding down a rocky mountain. Obviously, I have a high regard for their products. However, I don’t think they make the best travel camera. They have been slow to innovate into small form factor mirror-less cameras with wonderful full frame sensors and they haven’t been doing so hot on the dynamic range. When you control the conditions and lighting this isn’t such a big deal but when you’re on the go it makes a huge difference.
A travel camera needs to be small, light, tough and an all around good performer. It needs to not draw attention and it needs to give you joy while using it. It can’t encumber you with poor ergonomics that will distract from the vacation, or the children, or your spouse. For me that camera is the Sony A7RII and I will tell you why.
Size: The Sony is tiny, by DSLR standards, while giving you DSLR quality. I have seen arguments back and forth on this one. Most people’s arguments boil down to “It isn’t THAT much smaller/lighter especially with a lens that’s nearly equal to the size of a DSLR”. I’m not going to argue one way or the other on this. I will say that for me, the size is an enormous difference. From packing the camera in a small unassuming bag, to holding up something that doesn’t attract too much attention.
Weight: I know that the weight difference isn’t as large as the size difference. But, I for one feel a huge difference after an 8 hour day of chasing around the kids, walking, and taking the camera in and out of the bag. Heck even having it just dangle from my neck for several hours reveals a big difference. Small differences add up over time. Pick up a 5 lb weight and extend your shoulder straight out. It’s not heavy at first. Within a minute you will be crying. That’s the difference I feel between my 5DmkIII and the A7R2 after a long day.
Lens Selection for travel: This is extremely important and it’s also where most people get hung up. Avoid bringing more than one lens. Honestly, don’t bring a zoom for the “versatility” either. This is a red herring. You can zoom quite effectively in post with a 42 megapixel camera. What you can’t do is open the aperture for the light you really needed. For these reasons, as well as weight and size, I recommend a fast wide prime for travel. Primes are faster making them extremely versatile for travel activities that often have you walking into and out of buildings or from dark corridors to bright courtyards. This is extremely common when traveling, much more so than needing an extra 100mm of zoom.
As for my one-lens philosophy…Changing lenses is not a lot of fun for the family. “Hold on real quick guys!” Doesn’t cut it with kids every time you move from a dark to light.
As for the lens being wide…In my travels I have found that, universally, I take wider shots when I’m on vacation. Trying to get these old gothic style buildings in Europe into frame from a close distance takes a WIDE lens. The streets are crowded and space is at a premium. Most people don’t realize for instance that the great monuments of Rome are crowded with homes. You can’t back up away from the Trevi Fountain or the Pantheon as they are surrounded by busy street and tightly packed homes. Most other countries, especially old cities, don’t have the space to be running around with a zoom. The nice wide lens will allow you to stand close to your family in shots with architecture and great monuments. Distortion is easily corrected in post, nowadays, so this isn’t much of an issue with a wider lens. As a bonus you won’t have a river of people running between you and your family while taking the picture when you are standing close to them. Honestly, that still happens, but it is mitigated!
As an added bonus, a nice prime will force you to be more creative. It pushed me out of my comfort zone initially which made me uncomfortable. Within an hour I was having a lot more fun and got a lot more interesting shots with the one lens philosophy.
So my recommendation for a travel lens is the Sony 28mm f2.0. It’s tiny, light, sharp and, as camera lenses go, affordable. Mated with the A7R2 it’s also image stabilized!
Image Stabilization: the A7rII has in body image stabilization. This means that my tiny 28mm f2.0 becomes an image-stabilized lens. While this doesn’t stop motion when the kids are running around like wild animals in the Vatican, it does allow me to take some really nice blur free shots of the interior of old gothic buildings and in all kinds of other dark venues. For me, this is imperative. My hands shake a bit and when I’m tired from a long day they shake even more. The stabilization allows me to capture better photos with less stress and turns the A7RII into a low light dynamo. This is also why I like this particular camera better than, say, the RX1R or the newer mark 2 version of the same camera.
Toughness: I can’t speak to the overall durability of the Sony. I haven’t had it all that long and don’t use it professionally all that much. It terrifies me that it has no weather sealing AT ALL. I can say that it feels rugged enough in my hand. It also hasn’t burned up yet from some waterfall spray or rain. I do feel that the tradeoff in overall toughness for size is worth the risk for a travel camera, as my kids will have nothing to do with heavy rain or mud or anything of the sort.
Sensor and Resolution: This I wasn’t actually too pleased with initially. I saw no need to bump the resolution of this camera up to 42MP. I would have rather had better noise performance, in a travel camera, than resolution. For me, 20ish megapixels has been the sweet spot. It’s enough to do some cropping, when necessary, and allows for large enough pixels to have good noise characteristics. I am, of course, speaking of full frame sensors here. I was also very skeptical of the noise performance I had heard about on the 42mp BSI sensor before my purchase. I am happy to say I was completely wrong. The noise is very manageable and the resolution is amazing. I’m talking AMAZING! This sensor has fantastic Dynamic range. It’s got enough dynamic range that I can create an HDR from a single photo. It’s really incredible. This kind of dynamic range, coupled with good High ISO performance, a fast prime and image stabilization makes this camera a dream to travel with. You can quit worrying about the ISO, camera shake, tripods and pretty much everything. With 42 MP to crop from you don’t even “really” need a zoom.
Handling: It’s definitely not second nature. It is, however, fine once you get used to it. I like having the dial on top for instant exposure compensation without menus, especially since the menus are not really intuitive. I wasn’t a fan of the Electronic Viewfinder initially. I didn’t like that using certain settings cause the viewfinder to refresh slowly. I also hated that I couldn’t have the preview on the back of the camera without having my viewfinder also show the preview and obstruct my view of the subject. Moreover, didn’t enjoy looking at the tiny monitor instead of my kids. But, I found that staring at the actual sensor readout instead of the optical viewfinder cured me of chimping. For the uninitiated chimping is looking at your screen after every shot to make sure your settings were correct. I no longer needed to look at the photo after it was taken to make sure I hadn’t bumped a dial or changed a setting with my face without noticing. This is because with an EVF you are looking at what the picture is going to be instead of what the reality actually is. If I bump the exposure knob and it’s all out of whack I’ll know in the viewfinder because it will be too dark or too light. The same goes for all other setting including depth of field. The EVF is an instant representation of the photo. I have grown to love it.
I also love the screen that flips down or up. This camera is so light I can climb things or jump or lean over or whatever and one hand the camera for a picture. This has really improved my creativity. I can do things with this camera my joints or back would never let me do with the 5D3.
Another nice feature of the tiny little camera is being able to take along a tiny little tripod for taking great pictures of fountains or waterfalls or the river Thames. Having a camera so light that a tiny plastic tripod can get you by is something truly special.
Sony Play Apps: Every so often I like to set the camera down and use the Sony “Play Apps” feature which allows me to use my Iphone as a camera trigger. Actually it’s better than that. I can see the sensor readout from the camera through my phone and adjust the focus point, and various other settings from the phone! This is amazing when you’re a photographer who’s been absent from the family photos for the last decade. Finally I can be in the pictures! Now I have REAL family pictures!
Picture Quality: The picture quality is of course subjective. Lots of people have all kinds of measurements all over the internet in an attempt to qualitatively proof the picture quality of this sensor over that sensor. I’m not going to bet that guy. I can say this however; I haven’t met anyone that can look at a print and tell you what camera was used. I’m not saying that person doesn’t exist. Maybe they do, but I sure as heck haven’t met them.
We all know nothing is perfect and everything has a trade-off somewhere… So here are my niggling issues with the Sony.
There is no weather sealing to speak of and the battery life is abysmal. The battery life is worse now that there is uncompressed RAW. I get 100 to 150 shots out of a battery. God help you if you use the 4k video. I currently carry 4 batteries and I’m considering upping that to 6. I see a lot of comments about how this negates the size and weight advantage of the Sony. I disagree. There’s a big difference between a few batteries in your jacket pocket and all that extra weight in one hand that’s over your head to get a shot over a crowd.
The big issue for me is the color. As a Canon shooter I’m used to nice warm photos with good saturation right out of the camera. The Sony has a much cooler look to their files with great blues and yellowish greens. A lot of people love this. I am not one of them. To my eye, the color is a bit de-saturated. Skin tones look pale and lifeless right out of the camera and greens look too yellow for my taste. However, this can be easily fixed in post so it isn’t really that big of a deal. In fact, here is a post on how to get canon color from your Sony.
Aside from these few issues with handling and color the Sony A7RII is my travel camera of the year. It’s fantastic in low light hand held situations and is light and fun to use. It stays out of my way as a photographer. It doesn’t attract a lot of attention but gives me great prints. Most of all it allows my family to enjoy me, and me to enjoy them without the constant interruption that too much photography gear can bring. There really aren’t any higher accolades I can give to a camera than these.
If you decide to purchase this camera I recommend purchasing from Adorama, B&H photo or if you want to help support this site purchase it from Amazon using this link.