I’m frequently asked both during and after my travels about my opinions on which camera is best for vacation photos. I’m a self proclaimed camera nerd and love taking pictures, so this is a subject I enjoy talking about.
The answer, like most things, is that it depends.
The following advice is specifically for normal folks who simply want to make some nice pictures of their vacations. If you’re an aspiring landscape photographer hoping to shoot for National Geographic one day, none of this applies to you, and you’ll get more relevant information from excellent sources like DPreview, Thom Hogan, Steve Huff, and Ming Thein’s websites. I shoot with many cameras ranging from a $30 all-plastic toy film camera to a top of the line Sony RX1, but the following is what I typically suggest for most people.
Question: Do you plan on printing your photos?
If no, then you’re probably fine using your iPhone or whatever smartphone you happen to already own. The camera modules on phones have gotten incredibly good over the last few years to the point that, for most regular people who take snapshots for memories and never make prints, the iPhone camera is Good Enough.
One of my tour mates in Southeast Asia a few years back shot all her pictures with her cell phone, and they were fantastic. Way better than the ones shot by other people who brought along their DSLRs and huge lenses. Why? Because she was an artist and knew how to properly compose a photo. She could have taken her pictures with a $5 disposable film camera, and her pictures would have still been awesome.
Even if you don’t plan on it, with good light and proper shot discipline, the iPhone is absolutely adequate to make medium sized prints if you happen to capture a stunning moment that you later decide to display on your wall. The best photo I ever took was shot with an iPhone 4S (it’s not the one pictured below if you’re wondering), and it looks incredible as an 11×14 print on the wall at my office – no one believes that I shot it with a phone. I was in the right place at the right time with the perfect light, and my cell was all that I had on me, so that’s what I used to capture the moment.
I’ve gone on several vacations where the only camera I purposely carried with me was my iPhone, and I can tell you that it’s a great camera. Everything from the 4S and newer is solid. So if you have a decent smartphone and you’re not intending to make huge prints, then you already have everything you need.
Now, if you want to step up your photography game a little bit and you do indeed plan on printing your photos on a regular basis, then get a Sony RX100.
There are several models at price points ranging from $400 to $1000, so find one that fits your budget and needs. I have the original RX100 that was released in 2012, and it’s still going strong after shooting thousands of photos for nearly 5 years on several different continents. I typically carry it without a case and don’t baby it, and this sturdy beast has held up like a champ. I haven’t felt compelled to upgrade to any of the newer models because the one I have still suits my needs.
The original model is also the thinnest and lightest one available; pocketability is of the utmost importance to me, and the latest versions of the camera have grown too thick and heavy for my tastes.
For me, if I can’t carry it comfortably in my pocket, I view the thing as a pain the ass and am far less likely to take it with me. This is why I have never owned a DSLR and likely never will.
The RX100 can easily print at 11×14, and under good conditions at base ISO, it can make a decent looking 16×20 poster as long as you aren’t inspecting it from 3 inches away. Be aware that the latest versions of this camera have progressively worse battery life, so if that is important to you (it certainly is for me), then you may want to consider one of the earlier models.
Here is a link to an excellent article about the RX100. It’s a few years old, but still very relevant today:
What about one of those waterproof, shockproof cameras like a GoPro or Olympus TG-5? If your trip calls for it, then getting one of these is fine. I have an old waterproof Canon D10 that I’ll bust out if I know I’m going to be spending lots of time in the water, but I usually avoid these types of cameras. The waterproof casing that covers the lens naturally leads to unavoidable optical compromises that degrade image quality, and since I like making large-ish prints routinely, this isn’t a trade-off I’m willing to make unless it’s the only realistic option. Plus, a lot of the newer phones are water resistant. As long as you don’t take them snorkeling, a few splashes of fresh water won’t do any harm.
*Please check the specifications on your individual phone before you decide to intentionally get it wet. Not all phones are water resistant.
For any readers who are interested at all in shooting film, I’ll have a separate article on that later on as it is way too much to cover here (link to Holga 120N). But if analog is something you’re interested in, then go for it! Film photography has made a bit of a resurgence over the last few years, and it can be a lot of fun.
I used to develop my own black and white film back in the day, but I’m mostly shooting color nowadays which is far easier to send off than to develop properly in one’s own bathroom. Plus, it’s nice no longer having large containers of harsh chemicals sitting around the house.
Whatever you decide to shoot with, remember that in 2018, few companies are making bad cameras. Including cell phone companies. The awesomeness of your photos will depend far more on the skill of the person behind the lens than on the equipment. So pick something, learn to use it well, and go out and practice!