I get asked a lot what kind of camera gear I use for travel and the short answer is: it depends.
I use different cameras depending on the trip I am taking and what I expect to find. If I am going somewhere relatively urban, like Waco, TX or Chicago, I don’t pack a camera at all, just my iPhone. But if I am going somewhere with a lot of wildlife, like our fall trip to Montana, I take a full suite of camera gear. And, of course, there are always trips where you just don’t know what to expect.
I am going to spend a little time talking about my camera gear for travel and why. Hopefully, it will help you if you are looking to make a camera purchase now or in the future.
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Updated October 2023
Camera Gear Misconceptions and Considerations
But first, let me clear up some misconceptions:
- The camera does not make the photographer.
- There is no best camera, there is only the best camera for the moment.
- Megapixels are not the be-all, end-all of digital camera specs.
- There is always a compromise when it comes to cameras. Always.
- For my older readers: the camera on your new iPhone is better than the five-year-old point-and-shoot camera you bought on Black Friday for less than $100. It is. Recycle that thing.
The first thing you should consider when it comes to a camera for travel is what are you going to use it for? Are you looking to shoot large wildlife? Birds? Landscapes? Selfies in front of every landmark you visit?
Next, how do you travel? Are you a hard-core backpack around-the-world type? No checked luggage kinda person? Seventeen wheeled bags with your own personal porter? Do you road trip and have plenty of room for a full setup? How you travel and pack is a huge consideration in terms of camera selection.
If you are the kind of person who travels light, honestly, a phone is probably all you need. Modern cell phones have EXCELLENT cameras. Indeed, we have used the iPhone 12 Pro for the past three years and have gotten some great images with these cameras.
If you want something with more manual controls, more zoom or simply more capability as a camera, you should look at either a bridge camera or a compact mirrorless camera. If you are looking to push the limits, either zoom-wise or exposure-wise, a high-end mirrorless or full-frame digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is the way to go.
My DSLR and What I Recommend
I chose this camera as an upgrade over my old and broken Canon EOS 40D for several reasons.
One, the camera has GPS. I really like having a GPS record of where I took my shots. I know there are other devices that can accomplish the same thing, but why carry another device if you don’t have to?
Two, this camera is an upgrade in terms of all of the major specs of the camera over the 40D and its most recent successors. The shutter is faster, the sensor is better, the controls are better and more customizable and it has weatherproofing.
I use this camera when I am on road trips, shooting wildlife, or anything that requires a tripod. While I rarely fly with this camera, I do have a camera backpack that I can use in conjunction with other luggage. Basically, it means I pretty much have to check a bag with my clothes, etc., though.
The camera performs like a champ. It has three custom features, which I have set up for wildlife shots, high dynamic range photography and low light photography.
I typically buy my camera equipment from Amazon. One, they have an outstanding return policy and, two, as a Prime member, I get free shipping.
One piece of advice when purchasing electronics or other appliances: use a credit card that grants an extended warranty. That can save you a lot of money and heartache if something happens to your camera.
Disadvantages of a DSLR
The three big disadvantages of a DSLR, any DSLR, are cost, weight and amount of space the system takes up. DSLRs are expensive, costing at least $1,000 for a new, quality camera body, and the lenses just add on to the cost. Getting professional quality lenses adds significantly to the cost.
My advice: once you pick a system, camera-wise, stick with it. Reason? Lenses. Lenses cost thousands of dollars and are where your money is really invested. A good lens will last you a lot of camera bodies.
While lenses do retain some resale value, switching camera systems (going from Canon to Nikon or Sony) will cost you a lot in the long run.
Lenses I Carry in My Bag
The best part about a DSLR is that your lens selection is unlimited. You can pack whatever lenses you need for your specific purpose.
I typically carry a wide-angle lens, a mid-range or walk-around lens and a long telephoto lens for wildlife. Usually, I also carry a 50mm prime lens for low-light photography. If you are unsure about which lens to buy or if it will work for you, I highly suggest you rent the lens first before you buy it!
Canon has moved away from DSLR cameras and moved toward mirrorless. Those cameras are great, as are the lenses specifically made for them, but they still have full-frame camera bodies which take the EOS lenses.
Camera Bags for my DSLR
In terms of weight, you will quickly figure out that a DSLR plus lenses will occupy a lot of space in your bags and will weigh even more. That’s why I don’t backpack with my DSLR.
This Canon bag holds my DSLR and my waterproof camera, plus all of my other camera gear. It makes for a very convenient bag to grab and go. The backpack can take both my DSLR and my bridge camera (more on that below) but not all of the accessories. I use the backpack primarily for travel by airplane but it can also be used to hike gear into a remote spot.
Recommendations for Buying a DSLR
Honestly, if you are just getting into this game, I recommend investing in a mirrorless camera versus a DSLR. While full frame DSLRs will be around for a while to come, mirrorless cameras are the future. Eventually, I will migrate to mirrorless cameras for wildlife photography. I am just not looking forward to either having to replace my lenses or buy an adapter.
Alternatively, take a hard look at a bridge camera, which offers the best of both worlds and is better suited to travel. There’s a reason why I end up using my Sony RX10 more than my DSLR. While the sensor and my lenses for the DSLR are a little better, the bridge camera is still great!
My Bridge Cameras and What I Recommend
For international travel and for hiking, I used to use the Canon SX40HS, a bridge camera or superzoom. The camera is a hybrid between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR, with a fixed 35x power zoom lens. The newest model of the camera, the SX70HS, has a 65x zoom. Bear in mind, this is all-optical zoom. Digital zoom is a no-no.
Here is what I like about the form of the bridge camera: the controls are fairly familiar, it is very versatile for the cost and it is lightweight! The camera weighs less than 1.5 pounds, compared to nearly 2 pounds for the camera body alone on a DSLR. That makes it really easy to take on a long hike.
The zoom lens on the camera is a marvel of optics technology and gives great images. No, it is not as good as a professional lens, but it also doesn’t weigh or cost as much either. The image quality on the SX40HS is very good, not as good as the 7D MkII, but it does turn out some very nice shots.
My only other gripe is the electronic viewfinder… not a fan at all. I usually end up using the back screen as opposed to the viewfinder.
If you are just getting started and want a solid, lightweight camera, this is a great option.
Sony RX 10 Mk IV
I bought the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV back in 2020. Both the lens and sensor are a huge improvement over the SX40, even with the sacrifice of some of the zoom capability. That said, it weighs 68 percent more (39 oz vs 23 oz) and costs about $1,000 more.
This camera is amazing! To be honest, this is the best travel camera I have ever used. My DSLR now spends a lot more time in the bag because I can get just as good of images and only grab this one camera.
While this camera is certainly not cheap, it has been well worth it for me. If you were going to only get one camera, this is the one you should get. I cannot recommend this camera highly enough.
Camera Bag for the Bridge Camera
I would love to recommend a bag to you for the SX70HS or RX10, but sadly, Lowepro no longer makes the particular bag I have. The closest I can find is the Nova 180 AW II. I am looking at adding the Peak Design Small Camera Cube for travel, since I rarely use the camera bag for anything other than padded storage in my luggage. This cube looks like it will hold my RX10 plus chargers and straps fairly easily.
We got a waterproof camera a few years ago for a kayaking trip we didn’t end up taking. Since then, I have been looking for an excuse to use our Fuji FinePix XP120 (the newest model is the XP140). We finally got our chance in the Bahamas.
The camera has a 5x zoom lens in a waterproof up to 65 feet package. The camera is small, easy to pack and performs well. I am still getting the hang of it but the price is not bad at all.
We also got a waterproof float strap for it in case we dropped it in the water. The strap will keep the camera afloat.
After a couple of whitewater rafting trips with this camera, we are considering getting a GoPro Hero as both a waterproof camera and something for action shots. The newer GoPro Heros have excellent image quality, amazing stabilization and some cool features for video and still photography. The only thing holding us back is the restrictions in national parks on taking video for a commercial business.
The Camera on Your Phone
The last camera I have is my iPhone. We make a point to keep our iPhones relatively up-to-date. Why? Because I always have it with me. Out to dinner with Bonnie? I have my phone. On a hike? The same.
Pro Tip: One of the best pieces of advice when it comes to cameras: the best camera is the one you have with you.
I have found the iPhone to be one of the better landscape cameras you can carry, especially when you consider the panoramic mode. Add in a plethora of camera apps and even lens attachments which expand the capabilities of the device further.
The addition of a telephoto lens to the newer iPhone models has made it even more versatile. For the past three years, we have used the iPhone 12 Pro and it has a 2x zoom as well as a regular lens and a wide-angle lens. We are able to get great portraits and really nice wildflower shots with it, not to mention being able to zoom in on a subject with a phone.
After three years with the iPhone 12 Pro, we are now upgrading to the iPhone 15 Pro. More on that after we have had a chance to play around with it.
While the iPhone (or most high-end smartphones) is highly convenient and lightweight, the lack of versatility and the lack of dedicated physical controls prevent it from being a true camera replacement for wildlife or advanced photography.
Once you get a camera, you will need a few things to get the most out of your new toy. Here are a few camera accessories I use regularly.
I prefer sling straps to normal camera straps. I would much rather place the weight of the camera on my shoulder rather than my neck. For my DSLR, I have the waka Sling Strap. This strap is comfy, easily adjustable on the fly, and has a zippered pocket for additional memory cards.
For my bridge camera, I use a Cotton Carrier Sling Belt. This system is perfect for hiking and travel. The belt has a locking cam system that holds the camera on the belt when you aren’t using it. When you take it off the belt, the sling strap provides drop protection while taking a picture.
I have done a lot of hikes with this system and it is quite comfortable over long distances. I highly recommend this system. If you decide to pick one up, be sure to use the code WANDERFILLED to get 10% off.
Even if you aren’t hiking, this system is excellent for travel, both in terms of securing your camera against thieves and in terms of comfort while walking around. I have used this system on the streets of Athens and London and love it.
Monopods and Tripods
I use a great monopod for steadying my shots with my DSLR. This is essential for wildlife photography with a long zoom lens. I also have an excellent Neewer tripod. It is light, easy to use, inexpensive and steady… what more could I ask? I added a matching ball head to my monopod to the quick-release plates match.
For my bridge camera, use a collapsible hiking staff as a lightweight monopod, along with a GorillaPod as a compact tripod. I use the GorillaPod ball head on the hiking staff to make sure the quick-release plates are the same.
While a lot of folks turn up their nose at selfie sticks as the tool of the vain, they are quite useful if you get the right one. We use one that links via Bluetooth to our iPhone, meaning we can use it as a camera remote as well. It also has tripod feet at the bottom, which allows for some creative shots.
Final Thoughts on Camera Gear
Finding the right camera gear for travel is always a very personal decision. My first suggestion is to make sure you get a good camera on your phone.
Seriously, you will end up taking more pictures with your phone than any other camera because it is the one you have with you! Indeed, some of the best photos we have taken have been with our iPhones. Google and Samsung make perfectly great camera systems as well.
If you are ready to take the next step, then I suggest looking at a bridge camera. A good bridge camera will give you a LOT of flexibility for not a lot of money. At that point, most travel photographers will be happy with their capabilities versus the space and weight.
That said, if you are constantly pushing the capabilities of your camera and can’t quite get the shots you want, it might be time to upgrade to a more robust mirrorless or DSLR system, especially if your focus is wildlife photography.
Whatever level you end up with, get out there and have fun!
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We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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