Which Camera to Get For Vacation?

A Southern California Photo Gallery


Background
Resolution - Only Somewhat Important
RAW Capture Mode
Small Sensor Portables
A Little Bit of Zoom
Choosing A Vacation Camera!
The Criteria
Choose Scenes Carefully
Absolute Minimum Camera
How The Camera Makers Operate
The Ultimate Vacation Camera List
Conclusion



Background

It's 2015 going toward 2016, and many people are on vacation at the time I write this.  Well, update this, but you get the idea.


I'll use some vacation photos from a while ago, partly because I don't go on vacations much. Also, these pictures help illustrate a certain point.  That is, what you think you need in a vacation camera might not be what you actually need.  And that works out in your favor, because it saves you money.

Now, to the point.  You want a vacation camera.  So let's talk about this. 


The Proving Ground

On this trip to California back in 2010, I didn't bring my film gear.  Instead I decided to use a pocket digicam that was already five years behind the curve at the time.   Why on earth?   Well, I won't get into that now, but "everyone" had been saying for years that megapixels were better than film. 

Well, I was to find out if this was true.

Do megapixels matter?  Does your camera matter?  Well, yes and no.  

Mostly "no", provided you use something halfway decent.

These are 2010 photographs with a 2005 camera:  a Canon Powershot A520, to be exact.  In 2005 there were not many choices in high-performance, affordable compact digital cameras. 

It would have been smarter by far to bring a Yashica Electro 35 or a Nikon 6006 loaded with slide film, but instead I brought this Powershot with a too-small memory card.  

I'm going to use this gallery to talk about choosing a good vacation camera.  Then, you won't be as dumb as I was in choosing what gear to bring on your next trip.  That's the value in bringing not-enough-camera on a vacation like this:  you become acutely aware of what you should have brought!!

One more thing.  These are not straight-from-camera images.  Pocket digicams, especially the earlier ones, tend to produce extremely dull-looking shots unless you do stuff to them.   Post-processing is the subject of a whole 'nother article, perhaps. 






Safari

Escondido, CA

Canon A520


Resolution - Only Somewhat Important

One thing I hope to convey in this gallery is that you might make your favorite works of art on almost any camera.  The primary limitation of the A520 was not so much overall picture quality, but resolution.   Four megapixels is simply not enough to render distant foliage on trees.  This is sort of the big giveaway area.   But it's okay, because those California desert hills sort of carry the picture here.  (Even though they, too, lack detail.)   To avoid the utterly dreadful look of high-acutance-low-detail that you get with low-MP digicams, I had to soften the above photo a bit. 

More megapixels, which you'll obviously be getting in any new camera, will remedy this for the most part.

I added a film grain effect, which might bother some people in a digital photo.  It doesn't bother me as much as over-sharp photos with low MP counts.  They just look wrong or fake.  I don't know how else to describe it.    Even eight megapixels would have done a lot better for these photos. 


Balloon Ride

Escondido, California

Canon A520


RAW Capture Mode

The photo of the balloon ride is mostly about color and composition.   But here, I would rather have a camera with RAW image capture, because there's a large expanse of sky.  (Learn why that's important, here.)   Now, some, but not all, of today's compact cameras have RAW image capture.  I don't always shoot RAW, but it's a nice feature to have.  Shoot your pics in "RAW + JPEG" mode and you'll have both. 

Shortly we'll see a list of cameras that offer RAW (most of them, anyway) and also have the other, key features that a "vaycay" camera should have. 


Small Sensor Portables

Many "vacation"-oriented digital cameras have small image sensors.

For daylight shots, a small sensor is not necessarily a deal-breaker. In fact, extremely long depth of field (DOF) can be a benefit.  Everything from a couple meters to infinity remains in focus, so landscape shots are easy.  Actually, to get this kind of DOF, photographers once had to use cameras with special front movements and very narrow apertures, like f/32 and f/64.   (Large format film still way outperforms digital in other respects, though.  And many photographers still use it.)

The crunchy images provided by a small sensor can actually be a blessing for vacation landscape shots.  They impart a punchy, crisp quality to the images.  I never thought I'd say it, but probably there are going to be a lot of people (including me) who someday get nostalgic for this look.  And looking back, holiday photos are all about nostalgia, aren't they?



View of the Ocean From the St. Regis

St. Regis Monarch Beach
Dana Point, CA

Canon A520


Nice hotel, not that I could ever afford it.  (I was the guy still using a 2005 digital camera in 2010, remember?)

Despite the abundant foliage, this picture is all about color and impression.  The basic Canon colors were there as a foundation.   With this one, I went with the saturation.  Straight-from-camera this was a pretty flat-looking picture that did not resemble what I saw that day.  Or at least what I remember seeing, anyway.  If you're going to make art with your snapshot camera-- and of course you are-- then you may find that straight-from-camera images are just too drab.  This is why I say, making a generalization, that artists do not display digital photos as-is.  The exception is if they use a DSLR where they tweaked all the saturation, contrast, sharpness, and white balance settings ahead of time.

As for the A520, its low megapixel count works OK in the St. Regis resort photo.  In an 800 or 900 pixel image you might not notice that there's detail lacking in the palms and other foliage. 





Denny's Classic Diner

Pacific Coast Highway
Dana Point, California
Canon A520

Once again, don't forget that I tweaked these photos a bit.
The images straight from the camera were a lot more drab.


Now, I can see obvious low-megapixel giveaways here, even at Web resolution, but casual viewers never seem to notice it.  The real focus of the picture is that restaurant, so it's all good.  The Canon A520 clipped the red color channel on the front of the Denny's building, which a larger-sensor camera probably wouldn't have done.  Then again, the processing in the newer small-sensor digicams is a bit better than 2005 tech.

The scene shown above resulted from a very typical situation:   You're walking back from the beach, where you didn't want to tote a heavy camera.  And probably, you're with friends or family who didn't want to wait around while you suited up with two large camera bags, a tripod, and your little dog, too.  If you don't have something portable enough, you won't take enough pictures.

And then, decades later, someone usually says:

"Huh, too bad we didn't take more pictures on that vacation."

"Huh, yeah, too bad."


A Little Bit of Zoom

Maybe you don't need a zoom lens for a vacation camera.  Many tourists carried rangefinder cameras with fixed lenses.  (I still use of these often, even if no vacay.)  With a fixed-lens camera you can still get a lot of great pictures. 

The thing is, it really is nice to have some zoom capability.  In the photo above, you couldn't really have walked closer to that diner without getting run over.  That's just one example of how a zoom lens can be useful.


Now, let's get to it: 

Choosing a Vacation Camera!


The Criteria

Here are my criteria, if I were to do this vacation over.  (Well, first I'd bring a 35mm film camera with a good zoom, or at least a 28mm and a 50mm prime lens.)   But the digital camera should have the following properties....

1.... 10 Megapixels, or preferably 12.  It's somewhere around 10 MP that "high acutance-low detail" stops being so obnoxious.  At around 12 MP, photos start to look more natural. 

2.... Compact & light-weight.

3.... Affordable.  What if you lose it at the beach or it gets ruined by salt spray?

4.... Viewfinder!!  Camera companies, listen up:   for daylight scenery, even an optical tunnel viewfinder is better than none.  The viewfinder on the Canon A520 is actually very good, for what it is.  The most important feature is image composition.  What you see in the viewfinder should establish the boundaries of what's in your picture.  Simple!  

5....  Low-Light Performance.  I would set the criterion this way:  it has to be able to use ISO 800 in average indoor lighting conditions, and yield a decent photo.  That's actually not very difficult, because many point & shoots can do that.    A camera with a CMOS sensor is more likely to do that than a camera with a CCD sensor.



Looking South From La Casa del Camino

Laguna Beach, California

Canon A520


Choosing Scenes

The early pocket digicams had very poor dynamic range, so you had to choose the scenes carefully.  That's still true to a large extent with small-sensor cameras.   Some types of scene, especially where there's foliage, will reveal the limitations of camera resolution, too. 

The point of this image gallery is not so much to show limitations, but to give hope.  If I can make pictures like these with an obsolete 4-MP pocket digicam, what could you do with something newer and better??


Absolute Minimum Camera

The cheapest digital camera I'd consider today would be the Canon Powershot A1400.  Now that it's discontinued, some sellers want a lot more than the $100 that it used to cost.  What I would do is just get a used one, through this link.  You might be able to get one for about $50 there.  Really there should be no need to pay more than $100 for this camera.  Remember that even though it has a viewfinder, the sensor is CCD.  That doesn't do as well in low-light scenes as a CMOS sensor would.

The 16-megapixel Powershot A1400 with its viewfinder meets all four of my main criteria for a portable camera. 

The A1400 also takes AA batteries, which I consider to be a major plus for a vacation camera.  Its 5X optical zoom may seem kind of anemic, but on this California trip, only rarely did I feel like I needed more zoom.  Probably, though, you'll find situations where you'd like just a bit more zoom.



Moonrise, South Coast Highway

Laguna Beach, CA

Canon A520
f/4 @ 1/2 second
braced on wooden railing


This image is clickable so you can see the full-size version.  I enhanced this a bit, but two things stand out to me... the lack of fine detail, and the noise.   CCD sensors are not known for their low-light performance.  The tiny CCD on the A520 got noisy very fast.  By the time you'd get to a one-second shot, the noise would be bad.  At two seconds or more, forget it.  I made a photo of the coastline, but it was so noisy that I won't even display it.  I think the shutter time was one second.

Almost any digital camera made today would do better than the A520 did.  (The A1400 is marginally better.  It has better processing, but its tiny CCD sensor is crowded with even more megapixels.)   It would be nice to be able to take night shots without having to brace your camera against something.  Maybe you're dining with a bunch of friends, enjoying the ocean breeze, you've watched the sun set... and now you want to capture a scene with all the pretty lights.  Just an offhanded shot, no tripod or anything.   This is where it helps to have a larger sensor.  If you're on a vacation, maybe you didn't feel like toting along a DSLR, but that's the easiest way to get a large sensor at an affordable price.


How The Camera Makers Operate

Here's what the camera companies have been doing with compacts.  They leave out key features in the realistic price range.  So, you could choose any two or three features from this list, but they'll never give you all the features unless you pay more money.  (High cost sort of defeats the purpose of a vacation camera, because what if you drop it or lose it?).  Here's the feature list...

- Compact size
- Viewfinder
- Large sensor
- Zoom lens

It wouldn't be a huge expense to put a tunnel viewfinder in these cameras, because even my $20 plastic commie camera from the 80's has one of those.  (And next time, if there is a next time, I'm bringin' it.)  But, for some reason the viewfinder is the first thing that gets left out.  At night it's not much of an issue, but for bright sunlight shots, the lack of viewfinder renders a camera all but unusable.

Srsly people, a compact vacation camera without a viewfinder is kind of dumb.

Anyway, at this point you have to ask whether you think you'll be doing mostly daylight shots or mostly night ones.  And also ask yourself how much you want to spend.  Shortly we'll look at some good choices, depending on your intended use and your budget.

That brings us to....


The (Sort Of) Ultimate Vacation Camera List


I said before that if I had to pick a "go-to camera" to bring on vacations, it would actually be a film camera... but I'd bring along a digital, too.  So, here's a list of digital cameras with sensible features.  Any one of these could serve well for a vacation, depending on what kind of shots you anticipate.  (Please help support my website by using these links to purchase your gear.  Much appreciated!)


Canon A1400...  this is the lowest-priced camera that I'd want to take along on holiday somewhere.  Really, this camera should be no more than a backup in case your more serious camera quits.  But if your budget is mostly spent on the vacation already, get the A1400 and at least you'll know it fills the main criteria for a vacay camera.    I would much rather have this on a vacation than a smartphone, even though the iPhone does take pretty nice pics.  (In low light the iPhone is actually better than the A1400...)     The A1400's CCD sensor is rather limiting if you want to use this camera in dim light.

If you can budget it, you're much better off getting the next camera on this list, because it has a CMOS sensor.



Canon SX50 HS (purchase through this link)... another small-sensor camera, but much more capable than the A1400.  (And not as compact as the A1400.)   The SX50 is loaded with features, including some "pro" stuff like Custom slots on the mode dial.  It's not terribly expensive, it has great zoom, it has RAW mode, and it has the Canon colors. 

For scenery photos in daylight it's very good (click here for my Canon SX50 image gallery).  If you get good with RAW exporting and editing, you can produce some gorgeous pictures.  This is the camera for whale watching, zoo safaris, or other times you encounter wildlife that's not close. 

For outdoor photos of people it's not bad, but you'll want to keep it at low ISO.  Indoor photos, you'll either need the flash, or else your subjects will have to stand very still.

Canon SX710 HS  (purchase through this link)
Like the SX50, this also has a small sensor (1/2.3"), but the image quality is ever-so-slightly better. (The SX50 is already tough to beat.) It might simply be that the SX710's twenty megapixels look sharper when the image is downsampled to equal the size; I'm just going by what I've seen thus far.

I was hesitant to add the SX710 to the list, because it fails one of my criteria: namely, the SX710 has no viewfinder. Even so, it's such a handy size and form factor that I would make an exception. I had an SX120 for years and thought it was great for what it was; the SX710 is sort of the logical evolution of that camera. Unlike the SX120, though, the 710 has a CMOS sensor, which gives it an advantage for high ISO / low-light. None of these toy-sensor cameras is really meant for "serious" work, but then again, most vacation photos are not enlarged to greater than 8x10. And if you're that serious that you're doing photography work on a vacation, then you're probably bringing a DSLR anyway.

The SX710, being new, seems a little pricey for what it is; at this price point, I would probably go for a real bridge-camera and get the SX50 instead (because it also shoots RAW). That slight edge in image sharpness, and the semi-pocketability of the SX710 make it attractive, though. Another option is to get the Canon SX700 HS, which is the previous model and almost identical. Both have a CMOS sensor of the same dimensions; both have the same "movie button" to activate 1080p video; but the SX700 shoots 16MP photos instead of 20MP, and the typical online price is about $50 less.



Panasonic ZS50  (purchase through here): this pocket camera sports 12.1 megapixels and has an eye viewfinder. Together with its rather awesome (for a pocket camera) 30x zoom, this camera would seem to be the perfect vacation camera. Of course it has the rather tiny 1/2.3" sensor, and I'd like to have seen at least a 1/1.7" sensor in here. Even so, this camera is edging up toward the top of my favorites in terms of what it offers. Realistically we're not going to get a 1/1.7" sensor in a camera like this for $300 unless competition forces the issue, and I don't see that happening for a while. As it is, the ZS50 is a little expensive for what you get, but then again it might be a better deal than the Canon SX710. The viewfinder is rather important for a travel camera, as I keep saying.



Fuji X20 (black version here;  silver here)... beautiful rangefinder-style camera, somewhat better picture quality than the SX50 at base ISO, and it's highly portable.   Great for scenery photos in daylight.  It has RAW capability, too.  The X20 is beautiful to tote along when you don't want to carry a big, clunky camera.  This isn't as "serious" a camera as the other Fuji X-series, but it's smaller and costs less.  And for many types of vacation photos, it's not bad.  Just mind the short battery life.  It's not going to last you all day, probably, so get a spare.

The X20 will not provide the low-light image quality of the X100S or the Canon G1X.   However, it will outperform the A1400 and the SX50 in low-light conditions.  Even with better cameras out there, that X20 is a very tempting choice.  (And it costs considerably less than the X100S, XE-1, etc.)



Nikon One V1... now that you can conceivably get used ones for under $300 with a lens, I would consider one of these for sure. 10 megapixels is OK for a travel camera, though here it depends on your idea of travel photography. 1000-pixel Web images, no problem.  

The N1 V1 has a viewfinder, and its nominal "one inch" sensor is larger than that of the Fuji X20.  See my kitchen-table review of the Nikon One V1, or pick up a used N1 V1 through this link.  At that price, it fits all my criteria of a vacation camera.



Fuji X100S (available here)... another gorgeous rangefinder-style camera, this one with a much more serious, APS-C sized sensor.  The low-light performance is therefore much better than the X20, but the tradeoff is that you get a fixed wide-angle lens instead of a zoom.   For me that's a deal breaker in a digital camera... but mainly because the fixed focal length is not quite the one I'd choose.  For you it might not be an issue, though.   Some people love this camera;  I don't have one and have not tried one.  It sure looks cool, though.

(If you want the quality of the X100S but with variable focal lengths, go for an X-E1 or X-E2... see below.)  Also, the X100S is a bit expensive, but then again it has the quality to match.

     

Canon G1X (original version;  get it here).  The original G1X is not primarily for sports or action.  It's for landscapes and such.  The reason is its slow autofocus and slow write speed to the memory card. For capturing scenery this is not a problem, though.

Why bother with a G1X?  It's very compact, it has a large sensor, and it's got that Canon color rendition.  The almost-APS-C sensor offers low noise for low-light shots.  You can speed up the write time a bit by using JPG only.  Or, use the Burst HQ mode and capture up to six JPG's at over 4 fps. 

Why the G1X over the G1X Mark II?  Well, for vacations, a viewfinder-- even an optical tunnel-- is better than just an LCD, in my opinion.  Some people have complained about the G1X's optical tunnel viewfinder because you can see the lens in your field of view.  Actually, this is common on tunnel-viewfinder cameras made in the past sixty years.  

As for the Mark II, you can get an electronic viewfinder (expensive!).  The image quality on the G1X is near-identical to the G1X Mark II.  Actually, the G1X has slightly more detail for landscapes (14 MP vs. 12 MP). 

Is the G1X the absolute best in compact vacation cameras?  That's subjective.  Every camera has its drawbacks.  I can deal with this particular set of drawbacks, though, if it means having that Canon color rendition that I like so much.  Now, if only the G1X were about $200 less, it would make even more sense.


Konica C35  Hey, what kind of camera is that? I don't know of any digital cameras made by Konica! (You're right; it's not digital.)

These digital toys might be fun, but for any real vacation I'd be sure to bring at least one film camera. Read about the C35 here.



Olympus E-PM2 (white version on sale here;  black here;  red here)... a very advanced micro 4/3 sensor in a compact, inexpensive package.  (It was on sale for a while, but they raised the price again, last I checked.)  Has RAW capability.  Better than the Fuji X20 in terms of image quality, by far... but it doesn't have a viewfinder, and it lacks that "rangefinder chic" of the X20.  Oh well, if you just want good pictures and think you can deal with sun glare, get one of these without hesitation.  For an affordable, lightweight travel camera with serious performance, an E-PM2 is tough to beat.  Just realize that it's an interchangeable lens camera.  That means the kit lens will stick out farther than you may be used to on a compact camera.  One nice thing, though, is that you can always get a lower-profile lens to put on the camera.  The Micro Four-Thirds system has a large number of lenses available.



Sony RX10 (purchase here)... one of the two large-sensor bridge cameras currently on the market.   (Other one is the Panasonic FZ1000).  No need to change lenses, and it has a 1" sensor.  (For a bridge camera that's huge.)  That gives it (and the FZ1000) better low-light image quality than any other bridge camera on the market in 2014.  I would strongly consider an RX10 for that "one camera" to tote along on vacations.  But if you're smart (which I wasn't for this California trip), you'll bring a backup camera. 



By the way, the Sony RX10 is somewhat smaller than the smallest DSLR (Canon Rebel SL1), but the SL1 is better in low-light scenes.  And you can change lenses on it, if that's important to you.  The SL1 with kit lens is much more affordable than the RX10, but it doesn't have nearly as much of a zoom range.  For landscapes with the finest details, an SL1 with a prime lens would be a great choice.   You could just pick up the SL1 kit and grab this lens and this lens, and your whole kit would still cost less than a Sony RX10.



Sony RX100 M III
(order yours here).  A very compact, pocketable camera with a so-called 1" sensor. I would get the Mk III instead of the Mk IV because of the lower price; I'd get the Mk III instead of the Mk II because the II doesn't have a pop-up EVF.  You know how important it is to have a viewfinder in the bright California sun.

Also, the RX100 III has a better lens than the II... f/1.8 to 2.8 versus the f/1.8 to 4.9 on the RX100 II.  This is a pretty major improvement for low-light situations.   f/2.8 at 70mm equivalent puts it a full two stops brighter than your typical DSLR kit lens.  Since the 1" sensor is typically one stop behind a DSLR in terms of low-light performance, the RX100 III comes out ahead by a stop. 



Sony NEX-6 (get one through this link) may seem like one of the most practical choices.  It has an APS-C sensor (16 megapixels), an electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 100% coverage of the scene, and good autofocus, thanks to a hybrid system.   The major drawback is that its optical image stabilization has been said to be rather inadequate.  I have been considering a NEX-6 as an all-around compact, but this might actually be enough to make me skip it.  That's because the kit lens with the NEX-6 is not that fast (i.e., its maximum aperture is not that wide).  So, any presence of poor image stabilization would be a problem here.   To fix this problem you'd have to pick up an additional, expensive "fast lens" such as this one.   By that time, I'd be more ready to buy a Fuji X-E1.




Canon Rebel T5... this is a DSLR, but it's small enough to bring on a trip.  Get your T5 with kit lens here.  Want an even smaller, more portable DSLR?  Get one of these straight away.  These little Canon DSLR's are so good that it undermines the case for a compact, even if not completely. 


Fuji X-E1 (get it here) or X-E2 (get here)... these, along with the X-T1 (here) are probably the most practical, capable choices out of anything currently made.  (Unless you consider a DSLR, which I still think is the most practical of all.)  They can do low-light / high-ISO very well.  Image quality rivals full-frame cameras under many conditions.  If you have to pick just one camera to take on vacations, I wouldn't hesitate to make it one of these.  If you need someone to help you decide X-E1 vs. X-E2, I say just get the X-E1 because it costs less and has virtually identical image quality.  (If you can budget it, go for the X-T1, because it's weather-proof.)  Will you find the Fuji color rendition not to your liking?   I don't know;  I think it's OK, except for the green, which is a bit "digital" looking.   For those shots worth making into a personal vacation calendar (or whatever), I'd use RAW exports and define your own colors anyway.  Or just shoot JPG and don't fix the colors at all, because some people prefer Fuji color rendition. 

Any way you look at it, the Fuji X-series are superb cameras.

    

So there we are: some good choices for a vacation camera. I'm sure you noticed that many of them are previous-generation digital cameras, mainly because they cost less while still having great performance. Here again, if you lose the camera in the sand or something, it won't be as bad as if you'd dropped that brand-new Fuji X-100T or something. In fact, another reason for picking cheaper cameras is that it allows more people to bring two cameras. There's nothing like being out there, nowhere near a camera shop, and having your only camera quit. 

Conclusion

Don't be that person who goes on a dream vacation only to bring an inadequate camera. 

You may go somewhere you'll never visit again, so take the best pictures possible while you're there.  

If you don't think it's practical to tote a DSLR and lenses (and it may not be), then try a good compact camera like any of the ones I've mentioned above.  It doesn't have to be mega-expensive.  I've outlined some reasonable choices here;  hopefully you'll find them helpful.

If you've found this article to be informative or even just entertaining, please help me keep this website going by purchasing your stuff through any of the links on here. Your support is greatly appreciated.




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