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What To Look For When Buying a Digital Camera for Travel

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/30/2009

Fancier isn't always better when it comes to cameras to take traveling, both for budget and practicality concerns. Here are tips on what to look for when buying a digital camera for travel purposes.

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    Just because you have the money to travel... doesn't mean you have the money to spend on one of those pricey DSLR cameras. Nor is a DSLR necessarily the answer to your travel needs. Buying compact may very well be the best purchase you can make for that next trip.

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    If you can bear to sacrifice that telephoto lens, there's a lot of benefits to carrying a smaller, more compact camera—other than just the cheaper prices.

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    Nothing screams “tourist” like one of those bulky DSLRs strapped around the neck. Smaller cameras that can slip easily in and out of a pocket or bag are best if you plan on mixing with the natives. A different and arguably truer travel experience is available for those who can blend a bit better with the crowd. Without just conspicuous displays of money, you're also less likely to be targeted for a mugging, and if you do get robbed, it's less of a loss than if you had the latest Leica. Less weight also means you can travel lighter—not having to lug external flashes or extra lenses makes you significantly more mobile, able to cover more ground and get the most out of your travel experience.

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    Admittedly, with smaller size also comes fewer features. The losses aren't as severe as you might think, however:

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    A powerful lens is the first thing to go with a decrease in size. This isn't entirely unfortunate if you're in an urban environment, however, where “far away” usually translates as across the street and thus really not requiring of anything above 3x. Many compact cameras offer manual focus, where an exquisite macro just requires a little bit of patience.

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    If you're doing great outdoors and trying to catch that lone bighorn sheep on the next ridge over then you're pretty much out of luck. On the other hand, whipping it out while scrambling up some scree is made a lot more manageable.

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    One of the best things about getting a smaller camera is that they require less power, and so use fewer batteries. Batteries are often expensive and difficult to buy while abroad—and if you're trying to recharge them when the outlet style changes from country to country, good luck!

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    There's a misperception that smaller cameras are more cheaply built and less durable. Though it's true that your standard point-in-shoot probably isn't going to survive a tiger trap, their small size is a definite advantage in many situations common to travelers. Smaller LCD screens are less likely to get scratched in the first place, and not having protruding lenses means they're less likely to get rubbed against in crowded situations, like subways. It isn't going to compare to the professional grade, but these aren't going to fall apart at the first jolt of the bus either.

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    Buying durable also means that you're going to have to buy cameras with less frequency. It might be really tempting to always buy the latest and greatest, but that could just as well be one less ticket to New York.

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    Good news: the latest cameras don't sacrifice too many megapixels in their compact forms.

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    More good news: what losses you do happen to suffer in megapixels aren't going to make a whole lot of difference. Unless you're printing out wallpaper for the parlor from your travel shots, even just 8mp will probably do. If you think about it, the 18-inch print many compact cameras manage is still pretty sizable. Megapixels doesn't always spell increased sensitivity either.

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    Camera Features & Software

    Many of the bells and whistles of DSLRs aren't mechanical, but rather programming—and those are slowly filtering down to their less elaborate cousins. Nifty little features that automatically decrease shadow/sun contrast, focus on multiple faces—just about anything that sounds like it could come in handy for taking a good picture—are being integrated into these cameras, making it easier and easier to take great looking pictures without dishing out a lot of cash.

    Photo editing software, such as Paint Shop Pro, has evolved so much that it's quick and easy to enhance your photos after the fact, too! If you don't want to shell out money on software, there are several free image editing programs available, like the popular GIMP.

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    When it comes down to it, what makes a shot great isn't whether it's made up of a ridiculous amount of megapixels, or whether it was taken with a top-of-the-line super expensive wide-angle lens, but rather the composition of the image. There's a tendency to associate better pictures with better cameras, and though a professional may certainly want those special features, if you're just a traveler who wants to take good pictures then almost any camera would do, once you've got the bases covered.

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    Further Reading

    If you'd like to learn travel photography tips from the pros, check out this interview with Jim and Lisa Engelbrecht.