2016 Travel Camera of the Year: A Plane Ticket

Maybe you thought it was going to be something like the Sony RX1-R II, RX 100 Mk IV or Sony RX10 Mk IIILeica QPanasonic GX85; the newly-announced Canon M5; or maybe the iPhone 7 Plus. All of them -- and many more, most likely including whatever you already have -- are capable of exceptional imagery in the right hands. Use the money to get your learn on in the real world instead. Isn't that what travel's about? Video at end of post.

After returning from three weeks of foreign travel (Switzerland, Germany and Italy) and thinking back over 20 years, I've come to realize yet again that it's not about the gear, it's the people. More than that, experiencing life rather than capturing it is what "it" is all about. 

Spend the $1,000 - $4,500 you were thinking of applying to your next travel camera, and spend it instead on the travel itself. Buy a plane ticket, and if there's money left over, cover your lodging, food and a rental car too.

Your smartphone will be more than good enough.

Maybe even spring for the entrance fee for Giotto's Tower in Florence and climb all 432 claustrophobic steps for an incredible view of the Duomo.  Or, if you're of a different bent, get to the BMW Museum in Munich.

Late Summer, 2016

Which is exactly what I did this summer.

300 year old farmhouse Sinalunga, Italy - iPhone 6s Plus hand-held, ISO 25, f/2.2, 1/950

Siena - iPhone 6s Plus, hand-held, ISO 80, f/2.2, 1/17

Giotto's Bell Tower in Florence, Italy - iPhone 6s Plus, hand-held ISO 25, f/2.2, ISO 2747

Il Duomo in Florence - taken with an iPhone 6s Plus after climbing several hundred stone steps and fighting back a panic attack inside the Tower. Hand-held, ISO 25, f/2.2, 1/1972

BMW Museum, Munich Germany - taken with an iPhone 6s Plus, hand-held, ISO 32, f/2.2, 1/33

BMW Headquarters, Munich - iPhone 6s Plus, hand-held, ISO 25, f/2.2, 1/2024

Marienplatz, Munich - taken with an iPhone 6s Plus, pano, hand-held, ISO 25, f/2.2, 1/1789

NS Documentation Center, Munich - iPhone 6s Plus, front camera, hand-held,  ISO 32, 2.65mm (all other rear camera shots at 4.15mm), f/2.2, 1/606.

Let's get a little perspective.

Back at the Turn of the Century, 16 Years Ago

Circa July 2000. My travel camera back then (I lived in Europe from '98 - '01) was the same as my everything-else camera: a Canon EOS 3 35mm film camera, usually with Canon's EF 28-70mm f/2.8 L. It captured some of my favorite images of all time.

The EOS 3 sat just below the legendary EOS 1n. It was my last film camera. It had 45 AF points and eye control, which allowed the user to simply look at where he or she wanted the camera to focus, and it would recognize it. When you look at its specifications, it may strike you as thoroughly modern (including EF mount, E-TTL flash system and 1/8000 top shutter speed) except for the lack of a digital sensor and everything that comes with it. Mine also had a battery grip. All told, my "travel" setup weighed about a shade over 5 pounds (51 oz for the body, grip and batteries and another 31 oz. for the lens with hood). The body alone takes up about 1,389 cc's of space, give or take. I preferred Kodachrome slide film back in the day (ASA 25) or even Ektachrome (ASA 64). The closest thing to it today is Canon's 5D Mk IV, a vastly more capable image capture device with a price tag of $3,499 [B&H|Amazon] .

The EOS 3 sat just below the legendary EOS 1n. It was my last film camera. It had 45 AF points and eye control, which allowed the user to simply look at where he or she wanted the camera to focus, and it would recognize it. When you look at its specifications, it may strike you as thoroughly modern (including EF mount, E-TTL flash system and 1/8000 top shutter speed) except for the lack of a digital sensor and everything that comes with it. Mine also had a battery grip. All told, my "travel" setup weighed about a shade over 5 pounds (51 oz for the body, grip and batteries and another 31 oz. for the lens with hood). The body alone takes up about 1,389 cc's of space, give or take. I preferred Kodachrome slide film back in the day (ASA 25) or even Ektachrome (ASA 64). The closest thing to it today is Canon's 5D Mk IV, a vastly more capable image capture device with a price tag of $3,499 [B&H|Amazon] .

The Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L was the predecessor of Canon's 24-70mm f/2.8L II. Both remain legendary zoom lenses.

The Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L was the predecessor of Canon's 24-70mm f/2.8L II. Both remain legendary zoom lenses.

I replaced the EOS 3 in 2002 with the original Canon 1D, a 4 megapixel digital camera with a top shutter speed of 1/16,000 and a top ISO of 3200. The rear panel was 2" diagonally with 120,000 pixels. I loved it, but the digital merry-go-round began almost immediately thereafter: over the next years, I moved to the 10D and then 30D before settling on the 5D Mk II. Each one was my travel camera, coupled to the 28-70/2.8L. Today's equivalent, the 1 DX Mk II, is again a vastly superior camera, the only hybrid of which I'm aware that shoots 4K DCI at up to 60fps (oh, yeah: it also has a top ISO of 409,600 and 14fps in stills).

I replaced the EOS 3 in 2002 with the original Canon 1D, a 4 megapixel digital camera with a top shutter speed of 1/16,000 and a top ISO of 3200. The rear panel was 2" diagonally with 120,000 pixels. I loved it, but the digital merry-go-round began almost immediately thereafter: over the next years, I moved to the 10D and then 30D before settling on the 5D Mk II. Each one was my travel camera, coupled to the 28-70/2.8L. Today's equivalent, the 1 DX Mk II, is again a vastly superior camera, the only hybrid of which I'm aware that shoots 4K DCI at up to 60fps (oh, yeah: it also has a top ISO of 409,600 and 14fps in stills).

Put simply: cameras have improved massively since then, but they were fine back then. Today's cameras, however, are dramatically smaller, more capable, and more expensive. Do you really think you couldn't get great shots with the gear above even now?

Runners-Up for Best Travel Cameras, 2016

I'd thought about getting my hands on each of these cameras to take with me, but in the end logistics, cash flow and a recognition that I wanted to experience more than I wanted to capture led me to make do with what I already had. I brought my trusty Sony a6300 with me, but I almost never used it.  When you want to travel as lightly as possible, you really can't beat a smartphone.

Sony RX 100 IV

The Sony RX100 IV has a built-in Zeiss zoom with an equivalent reach and field of view as the 28-70/2.8L; sports a 20.1mp sensor with ISO range up to 12,800; records 4K video; and weighs 11 oz with battery and memory card. It takes up about 250 cc's. We're talking something  about 1/5th the weight and size of what was state of the art a decade and a half ago. It costs $998 [B&H|Amazon]. You can't beat it for size, image quality and functionality, but I returned mine after I grew tired of having to pull out and then push in the viewfinder every time I popped it up.

Sony RX10 III

The RX10 Mk III is a massively accomplished all-in camera for $1,498 with a full frame equivalent built-in 24-600mm zoom. At $1,498 [B&H|Amazon] it's not cheap, but I think it's unmatched at the price for flexibility including 4K recording. If I had to bring one camera to cover the widest possible range of contingencies, this would be it. But I'd miss the shallow depth of field that only prime lenses -- for now -- can give you.

The RX10 Mk III is a massively accomplished all-in camera for $1,498 with a full frame equivalent built-in 24-600mm zoom. At $1,498 [B&H|Amazon] it's not cheap, but I think it's unmatched at the price for flexibility including 4K recording. If I had to bring one camera to cover the widest possible range of contingencies, this would be it. But I'd miss the shallow depth of field that only prime lenses -- for now -- can give you.

Panasonic FZ2000

The FZ2000 was announced at Photokina, and on first blush it seems to be Panasonic's version of Sony's RX 10 Mk III updated with those things we'd want in a Mark IV: built-in ND, 10-bit, 4:2:2 4K via external recorder; and full articulating touch screen. Yowza. It has a 20.1 mp 1" sensor (you have to wonder if it's the same one in the Sony). Looks like it's going to be a couple of hundred bucks cheaper, too - but it's not yet listed on the B&H site.

The FZ2000 was announced at Photokina, and on first blush it seems to be Panasonic's version of Sony's RX 10 Mk III updated with those things we'd want in a Mark IV: built-in ND, 10-bit, 4:2:2 4K via external recorder; and full articulating touch screen. Yowza. It has a 20.1 mp 1" sensor (you have to wonder if it's the same one in the Sony). Looks like it's going to be a couple of hundred bucks cheaper, too - but it's not yet listed on the B&H site.

 

Panasonic GX85

For just under $800 with kit zoom lens [B&H|Amazon] , this little brother to Panasonic's GX8 offers interchangeable lenses, 4K recording and Panny's 16mp micro-four-thirds sensor. The sensor doesn't wow me (although it's better than any smartphone's), I don't love the Panny zoom lenses (but better than any smartphone's), it doesn't have a headphone or a microphone jack, but it's petite and less expensive than my go-to camera these days the Sony a6300, it has in-body image stabilization, it doesn't overheat - and if you want to buy better lenses for it, you can.

For just under $800 with kit zoom lens [B&H|Amazon] , this little brother to Panasonic's GX8 offers interchangeable lenses, 4K recording and Panny's 16mp micro-four-thirds sensor. The sensor doesn't wow me (although it's better than any smartphone's), I don't love the Panny zoom lenses (but better than any smartphone's), it doesn't have a headphone or a microphone jack, but it's petite and less expensive than my go-to camera these days the Sony a6300, it has in-body image stabilization, it doesn't overheat - and if you want to buy better lenses for it, you can.

Canon M5

I haven't gone hands-on with it yet, but the M5 is an intriguing camera, perhaps Canon's first serious entry into the mirrorless space. At just under $1,000 for the body only  [B&H|Amazon] ($!,497 with an EF-M 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens, 28-240mm full frame equivalent), it's still missing 4K recording and I'm not-yet-quite-sure-what-else (how good is that electronic in-body image stabilization, for example?), but with the sensor of an 80D, a newer Digic 7 processor, physical controls and a touch interface which just might be lovely -- and an adapter allowing it to take any EF mount lens including a wonderful selection of primes, it just might be a hit.

I haven't gone hands-on with it yet, but the M5 is an intriguing camera, perhaps Canon's first serious entry into the mirrorless space. At just under $1,000 for the body only  [B&H|Amazon] ($!,497 with an EF-M 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens, 28-240mm full frame equivalent), it's still missing 4K recording and I'm not-yet-quite-sure-what-else (how good is that electronic in-body image stabilization, for example?), but with the sensor of an 80D, a newer Digic 7 processor, physical controls and a touch interface which just might be lovely -- and an adapter allowing it to take any EF mount lens including a wonderful selection of primes, it just might be a hit.

Sony RX1-R II

I played with the diminutive RX1-R II at a Sony press conference, and with the 42mp sensor from the a7r II and a built-in 35mm f/2, it was enticing: keep it simple, work with what you've got, and whatever images you do end up liking, you can put them up as murals. But at almost $4,000 for a niche product [B&H|Amazon] it's very expensive: you could buy trans-atlantic tickets (economy class) for three people -- or rent a Tuscan villa -- with the same money.

I played with the diminutive RX1-R II at a Sony press conference, and with the 42mp sensor from the a7r II and a built-in 35mm f/2, it was enticing: keep it simple, work with what you've got, and whatever images you do end up liking, you can put them up as murals. But at almost $4,000 for a niche product [B&H|Amazon] it's very expensive: you could buy trans-atlantic tickets (economy class) for three people -- or rent a Tuscan villa -- with the same money.

Leica Q

At $4,250 [B&H|Amazon , the Leica Q is an even greater object of lust even as it is more constrained than the Sony - it's also a full-frame, fixed lens camera, but with a 24mp sensor which no doubt yields lovely results at enlargements up to maybe even A3, you still can't enlarge the final image as much as you can with the Sony. For the same dough you could buy a beater and road trip across the entire U.S. You might not be comfortable, but you could do it. Route 66, anyone?

At $4,250 [B&H|Amazon , the Leica Q is an even greater object of lust even as it is more constrained than the Sony - it's also a full-frame, fixed lens camera, but with a 24mp sensor which no doubt yields lovely results at enlargements up to maybe even A3, you still can't enlarge the final image as much as you can with the Sony. For the same dough you could buy a beater and road trip across the entire U.S. You might not be comfortable, but you could do it. Route 66, anyone?

iPhone 7 Plus

Apple's latest iPhone 7 Plus sports two lens/12mp sensor units which are full frame equivalents of about 28mm f/11 and 56mm f/12. This already gives it more flexibility than the RX1-R II or Leica Q for field of view, but both blow it out of the water for depth of field control - unless the new software which Apple promises will simulate bokeh works really, really, really well. The iPhone 7 Plus is dramatically smaller and lighter than everything else here, and since it doubles as a phone and pretty impressive computer. I want one (I'm getting one). But I don't need it because I already have the 6s Plus. If Cartier-Bresson could capture iconic images with a Leica III and a 35mm or 50mm (his usual combo) back when even ISO 400 was exotic, how can we complain about just about any camera we have today?

Apple's latest iPhone 7 Plus sports two lens/12mp sensor units which are full frame equivalents of about 28mm f/11 and 56mm f/12. This already gives it more flexibility than the RX1-R II or Leica Q for field of view, but both blow it out of the water for depth of field control - unless the new software which Apple promises will simulate bokeh works really, really, really well. The iPhone 7 Plus is dramatically smaller and lighter than everything else here, and since it doubles as a phone and pretty impressive computer. I want one (I'm getting one). But I don't need it because I already have the 6s Plus. If Cartier-Bresson could capture iconic images with a Leica III and a 35mm or 50mm (his usual combo) back when even ISO 400 was exotic, how can we complain about just about any camera we have today?

Summing It Up

I think travel is about gaining perspective and growing through experience. Go get it. Enjoy it when you can, learn new lessons when you can't.

And if you get to Munich, visit the NS Documentation Center. It will open your eyes wider than any piece of gear.

One More Thing

Three, actually:

  1. No, I'm not sponsored by Apple in any way shape or form (though I am the author of Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution, available -- and the irony is not lost on me -- on Amazon).
  2. I didn't miss shallow depth of field or telephoto reach nearly as much as I thought I would.
  3. If you don't think a smartphone can ever be used for professional level photos -- especially travel photos -- I beg to differ. 

The Eye Witness series of travel books is just about the best in the business. Here's the well-worn cover of the one we used while in Italy (cover shot hand-held with a Sony a6300 with Sony E 50mm f/1.8 at ISO 400, 1/160 f/3.2; very slightly cropped left and right).

And here's the image from the beginning of this post on the left, with the Eye Witness cover on the right, side by side in Lightroom, zoomed in equally

What do YOU see?