It’s an age-old phenomena. At least as old as I am ;~).
Come spring and people start planning summer vacations. Of course, they want to document their vacation, so they look at their existing camera gear and consider whether they want to drag it around with them for a week, a fortnight, or a month.
I used the words “drag it around” for a reason: in most of this type of travel, photography isn’t the primary focus of the trip.
I get asked all the time whether someone should buy a mirrorless or DSLR camera, and that last clause in the previous paragraph is a key determinant. When photography is the primary focus of a trip, the type of photography tends to dictate the camera you should bring. With wildlife photography, for example, DSLRs still reign supreme. Even with landscape photography, it’s mostly DSLRs that you’d be looking at, though the 42mp Sony A7rII certainly is an extremely strong candidate, too.
It’s all those other photography trips plus the not-specifically-photography vacation where mirrorless starts to become the camera of choice these days. That’s assuming, of course, that a smartphone hasn’t risen to the level of your photographic needs.
In particular, what most people refer to as “travel photography” tends to be particularly well suited to mirrorless systems. Why? Because you can build a more compact and light kit that nets you the image quality you’re looking for.
Indeed, image quality is one of the things that comes up when you start thinking about travel photography. You may be shooting in wildly contrasty situations during the day, you may be shooting at night. You may be shooting interiors, or you may be shooting exteriors. Those interiors can be reasonably lit (e.g. museums) or hardly lit (e.g. many churches). Plus you want your photos to look better than the quick-and-dirty smartphone shots others are taking.
If you’re starting to think that versatility is an attribute needed in a travel camera, you’re on the right path. Indeed, versatility is one of the things that rules out the smartphone and even most compact cameras (though we’re seeing more and more 1” compact cameras addressing the needs of the travel shooter).
What kind of versatility? Here are the big pieces:
- Light. Capable of handling a wide dynamic range at mid-day, capable of dealing with interior and night low light situations without burying your subjects in noise.
- Perspective. If you shoot everything from afar (the old "working the zoom" thing), you’ll get a set of photos that have a fixed, eventually boring perspective. You need gear you don’t mind dragging right up to something, and you sometimes want to play voyeur and stand back. The is mostly about lens, but it’s also about intimidation. If you start approaching someone with a Canon 1Dx or Nikon D5 and a big lens, you get a different reaction than if you do so with an Olympus Pen-F or Sony A6300.
- Focal variety. This ties in with the previous item. There’s another important thing to note besides avoiding fixed perspective: sometimes in travel photography you are forced to shoot in a particular place due to railings or other obstructions (including other people). Sometimes that position is close to the subject you’re photographing, meaning you need a wide angle lens. Sometimes that position is far from the subject, meaning you need a telephoto lens. Sometimes the thing you’re photographing is small, meaning you may even need a macro or near macro lens.
- Position. Ever tried to photography the Mona Lisa? Good luck (see above). The crowd in that room at the Louvre is almost always huge. The best way to get a clear photograph is holding your camera over your head. At other exhibits in the Louvre I’ve wanted to put a particular background behind a sculpture. Turns out for that I needed the camera on or near the floor. In other words, you will often want to shoot at something other than eye level, something many mirrorless cameras can do well (tilting LCDs).
- Vulnerability. A Nikon D5 DSLR with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is an impressive beast. Big, heavy. But in tight spaces its size becomes a detriment, as in a crowd you can swing the camera and hit other people, or they’ll poke into the lens, too. Small is good to keep your camera from getting hit or jostled as you wander around any tourist destination.
- Fatigue. This is a big one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “well, I’ll leave the camera behind for this morning’s excursion” because they just didn’t want to deal with several pounds (kgs) of what might turn out to be dead weight (nothing strikes them to photograph). The bigger and heavier the gear is, the more this factor often becomes the most important one. Even just the act of leaving a lens behind at the hotel room is minimizing your photographic opportunities (see perspective, focal variety, and position, above).
Okay, we have some parameters we’re trying to maximize. What we’re looking for is:
- Good dynamic range.
- A lens set that lets us choose from 24-200mm without much compromise.
- Small and light as is possible without compromising the other factors.
DSLRs certainly can accomplish the first two bullets, but then they tend to fail at the last. Some mirrorless—Nikon 1, for example—clearly struggle with the first bullet. Others struggle with the second (Canon EOS M right now).
But the great thing is that there are several mirrorless choices that most certainly fall right in the travel photography wheelhouse. In particular I’m thinking of these three cameras:
- Fujifilm XT-10
- Olympus E-M10 Mark II (or Pen-F)
- Sony A6300
Why those three? We’re targeting small and light, but competent. Yes, I could have put higher end models in that list, but we’re looking for as much size and weight reduction so as to minimize the fatigue factor. If you’re walking around Europe for two weeks, the difference between dragging 2.2 pounds (1kg) and 4.4 pounds (2kg) very well might trigger some fatigue. What we want is something you’ll always carry with you.
Each of you will have your own level of tolerance to size and weight, so substitute an X-Pro2 or an E-M1 or an A7rII if you want. But in my experience, almost everyone overestimates how much gear they’ll really tolerate carrying around for long periods of time, and by the end of trips a lot of gear is being left behind in the hotel room.
In the choices I’ve listed above, the Olympus is the most limited in very low light, the Sony the most limited in reasonable travel lens choices. Make of that what you will. I’ve traveled with all three of these systems, and I wouldn’t complain if you restricted me any of these three cameras. I’d just adjust a few things in my kit a bit. For example, I’d certainly include one small, fast prime when carrying the E-M10 (probably the 12mm f/2).
About the “kits” I’m about to describe: I wrote this article and decided on all products I was going to recommend first, and without outside influence. Once the article was complete, I realized that people might want to buy such kits from scratch, so I approached this site’s exclusive advertiser, B&H, to see if they’d be interested in putting the kits into a single item you could purchase. At no time did anything in what I’m about to describe come from or get suggested by B&H. They didn’t even know I was writing such an article until I approached them about making these kits into a purchasable item. I also required B&H to add something beyond what you could get by just going to their site and ordering the items separately (typically an additional B&H gift card).
The kits B&H are offering provide B&H’s best price for the products in the kit (e.g., the prices should track any manufacture or B&H promotions), plus an additional bonus that is only available via the links in this article.
This is an experiment on my part. Generally, I don’t like to cross so easily between the content/sales side. My goal here was to make things simple for you, plus net you a small reward should you decide to partake of any of my kit suggestions.
So let’s put together some full kits that fulfill what I’ve listed above and see what we get. First Fujifilm:
- Fujifilm X-T10 body. 13.4 ounces (381g)
- Fujifilm 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 6.9 ounces (195g)
- Fujifilm 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 lens. 13.2 ounces (375g)
Total weight: 33.5 ounces (951g)
A little over two pounds (about 1kg). Not bad. This kit has its pluses and minuses. The plus is the body. It’s highly competent and is going to do well in low light. It’s not as feature filled or as robust as the X-T2, but we’re trying to make a kit that won’t fatigue you, and I’m not trying to break the bank.
The drawback of making a Fujifilm kit targeted at being as light as possible is the lenses. We’re essentially using two kit lenses here. Optically, they’re pretty good, better than you’d typically expect for kit lenses. The problem is that in dark interiors we could find ourselves at very small apertures (f/5.6 or f/6.7). Thus, we’re giving back some of the low light goodness the body can achieve.
You can fix that by adding some heavier lenses, in particular I’d tend towards the 16-50mm f/2.8. But that is a 23.1 ounce (655g) lens, meaning we’d be adding 16.2 ounces (a pound, or 460g) to our carrying weight. If you’re willing to add weight, I’d also suggest a different approach: add a lens to the above kit! The 10-24mm f/4 is 14.5 ounces (410g) and gives you more wide angle capability in one of Fujifilm’s better optics. Indeed, the X-T10, 10-24mm, and 16-50mm is close to what I actually carry for travel (keep reading).
The nice thing about the Fujifilm kit is that it is a very standard, easy to learn camera with a fair degree of traditionality to its design. Of the three kits I describe, it’s the one that’s probably the quickest to master.
To purchase the Fujifilm kit use this B&H Fujifilm Kit Link. [Advertiser link] You’ll get an additional US$100 B&H Gift Card by purchasing this way.
Next, let’s tackle Olympus:
- Olympus E-M10 Mark II body. 14 ounces (390g)
- Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens. 10.8 ounces (305g)
- Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 lens. 12.7 ounces (360g)
Total weight: 37.5 ounces (1055g)
Surprised you, didn’t I? Those Panasonic lenses are in there for a reason: keep the kit as light as possible while giving us as much ability to do subject isolation and shoot in low light as possible with zooms. While we didn’t save any weight over the Fujifilm kit, at just over two pounds (~1kg) this is a very manageable travel combo, yet we’re not exposed much to the m4/3 sensor’s biggest weakness. If you want to use the Olympus Pen-F body instead, you’re adding a couple of ounces (~30g) and a bit of size, certainly still within the parameters I set out with.
We could, of course, use lighter kit-type lenses and make for an extremely light package. But I’d suggest avoiding that, if you can, as you’ll hit situations where you’re really pushing the Olympus’ sensor and starting to fight noise in your images (you could obviously stick a small, fast prime into your kit zoom package, but you’ll notice not only am I trying to keep these kits down in size and weight, but also trying to avoid making them a prime lens swap nightmare).
The drawback to using the two Panasonic lenses is that they’re priced higher than kit lenses. Still, f/2.8 constant aperture zooms give you a minimum of a half stop and often two stops improvement over the kit zooms as you’re shooting, and will even allow you to get some focus isolation compared to the kit lenses. And these are two really good lenses, too.
I should warn you about one thing: the Olympus menus and naming conventions can be a bit difficult to understand at first. There’s a lot of capability built into this camera, but that also means the menus are dense with a lot of options. That said, once you get the E-M10 set up the way you want, it handles quite like a traditional camera.
To purchase the Olympus kit use this B&H Olympus Kit Link. [Advertiser link] You’ll get an additional US$100 B&H Gift Card by purchasing this way.
Moving on to Sony:
- Sony A6300 body. 11.5 ounces (325g)
- Sony 16-70mm f/4 lens. 10.9 ounces (308g)
- Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 lens. 12.1 ounces (345g)
Total weight: 34.5 ounces (978g)
I’ll admit right up front that while I currently am using the Sony A6300 as my travel camera (doing so even as I write this), this is not the exact kit I carry. Instead of the longer telephoto lens, I carry the 10-18mm f/4 instead. That saves 4 ounces (95g). I do that because I tend to be an “in close” shooter not a “far away” shooter, and I like shooting interiors a lot, so the extra wide angle capability is far more useful to me than more telephoto. The 70mm on the main zoom is already 105mm equivalent, which is often enough telephoto for me. If not, I’m using a 24mp camera in this kit—the others I’ve described are 16mp—so I’d just crop some.
The 10-18mm is a great lens, the 55-210mm in the kit I defined above, somewhat less so. The 16-70mm in the middle is a solid performer. So go 10-70mm and have a very nice lens set that’s a little distance challenged but can open up a tight interior space, or go 16-210mm and have a slightly less nice lens set that’s better at isolating far details.
The Sony is somewhere between the Fujifilm and Olympus in terms of approachability for the new-to-the-brand user: Sony has spawning menus and lots of options, though they’re relatively understandable. Still, you’ll need to spend some time studying your options to get the camera configured, and it’s not quite as traditional in terms of shooting controls as the other two.
To purchase the Sony kit with the telephoto option use this B&H Sony Kit Link. [Advertiser link] You’ll get an additional US$100 B&H Gift Card by purchasing this way.
To purchase the exact kit I’ve been traveling with—wide angle option instead of telephoto, plus some extra recommended accessories—use this B&H Extended Sony Kit Link. [Advertiser link] You’ll get a third lens, extra batteries, a better charger, and more, plus an additional US$150 B&H Gift Card by purchasing this way.
What I’ve just described are four mirrorless camera kits that I’d be happy to shoot basic travel photography with, even at a professional level. Indeed, I’ve been using one of those to do just that, including covering the NAB Convention in Las Vegas recently.
All three come in around two pounds (1kg) and are relatively compact. Compact enough that I often just carry the second lens in a jacket or vest pocket. I’ll have a little tabletop tripod in my other pocket with some extra cards and batteries. And I’ll bet you that you wouldn’t be fatigued by carrying these kits around for two weeks on vacation.
I can’t really duplicate the versatility, size, and weight of the above packages with DSLRs. The lightest Nikon DSLR is 16 ounces (455g), which isn’t bad, and I could use kit lenses to almost match the mirrorless kits I’ve suggested above. But the problem is size. If you’re not careful you’re bulking up the size of your kit, and that can be as big a problem as weight, as once the size is too big you’re either walking around with a dead weight around your neck via a traditional strap or you’ve tucked the camera into a carrying bag where it isn’t readily available.
Indeed, that’s the reason why I carry the 10-18mm and 16-70mm f/4 lenses with the Sony A6300: they don’t make too large a package to carry. If I’ve got a small backpack on as I usually do, the Sony is usually clipped to a shoulder strap using a Peak Design CapturePro clip [advertiser link], which keeps it ready to shoot.
Moreover, the lightest and smallest DSLRs are always the most compromised models in terms of features in the Canon/Nikon world. All three cameras I’ve used in my examples, above, have what I’d call a better feature set than the Nikon D3300. They all have tilting LCDs, for one thing (remember holding that camera over your head to shoot the Mona Lisa?).
So I’m very comfortable in recommending the three kits I describe above as a good performance, reliable, fully featured, yet small and light travel camera package. Go ahead and substitute a body or lens in those kits, if you wish, but just make sure you’re not then violating any of the precepts that I set forth at the beginning of the article.
See ‘ya on the road.