You can travel with a big DSLR kit that requires its own backpack of equipment and get professional level photographs if you know what you’re doing. Or you can travel with nothing but your smart phone and get a lot of darn good shots. There’s an in-between option though that bridges the gap well for most situations: a superzoom point and shoot.
I’ve got a long history with photography. I took courses when I was young and was the yearbook photography editor at my high school. My mom had a darkroom. When I took my three trips around the world and started travel writing, film was still the thing. Then we all transitioned to digital, so I’ve probably been through 12-15 cameras over the years, not including phone ones.
For the past decade, my camera of choice has been a superzoom one that will do nearly everything I need it to do. The name comes from the fact that you have the kind of zoom you can never get with a phone, the kind that you normally need a lens the length of your forearm to achieve. They also shoot video, have manual overrides (usually), and a flash. While you can easily spend a grand or two on a DSLR (regular or mirrorless), these simpler cameras will usually run between $200 and $450.
Advantages of a Superzoom Camera
These cameras are like the Swiss Army Knife of photography. No one tool is best in class, but it gets nearly everything done that you need it to do in any situation. You can:
– shoot in automatic and get photos that are good enough for a two-page magazine spread (done that).
– shoot in HDR, portrait flash fill, panorama, or other automated settings with a flick of a switch.
– use manual overrides to do long exposures or open up the aperture.
– record hi-def video that looks good on a big screen
– save everything to SD memory cards with high capacity
Why does a zoom lens matter so much? Well there are some shots you simply can’t get with a phone or regular DSLR lens because you can’t get close enough. I took this shot yesterday in Argentina from far enough away that I didn’t spook the owl. Probably about 40 meters.
Then there are other times when you don’t want to get close enough. In many cultures, it’s incredibly rude to get right up in someone’s face and start snapping away. Sometimes you don’t want to be seen. Or sometimes you want to crop out something unsightly while taking the shot—instead of having to take several minutes to do it in the editing later.
You can also get shots that are technically tough to capture without a zoom. This one below was one of six that Global Traveler magazine used in a story on Turks & Caicos. The dining tables are elevated from the pool area, so the only way to capture this was from a balcony in the hotel itself. That was a long way away, but with a small travel tripod and a zoom I could make it work.
Disadvantages of a Superzoom Camera
You do give up a few things with these cameras, though I obviously think they’re worth the trade-off. Unlike a phone, these won’t fit in your pocket. To get 60X zoom like I have on mine, you need some space for the lens to retract.
For a related reason, they also won’t perform as well, especially in low light. The lens on these cameras is much bigger than it is on a phone, but it’s not nearly as big as one on a DSLR. That zooming capability means you have to have sort of a “one lens fits all” set-up. The laws of physics don’t like to compromise. I’d say in 90% to 95% of situations you encounter as a regular traveler, it’s not going to matter. Where I run into trouble is in the realm that professional photographers rule: food photos in low light, night sky shots, dark building interiors, or fast action shots. I can get partway there by doing a lot of manual adjustments, but you need a professional camera for the truly professional shots. (You don’t see sports photographers beside the basketball court with any kind of point-and-shoot, nor do you see that when a food magazine rolls into a restaurant to photograph the meals.)
Also, the manual controls are somewhat limited. I can’t do a slower shutter speed than 8 seconds for instance, which is just not enough for some night shots. So I leave those to the pros.
Which Brand of Superzoom Camera is the Best?
I had purchased at least one model from Canon, Nikon, Fuji, and Kodak before I got my current Panasonic Lumix one and said, “Done!” I don’t have any kind of relationship with the company, but a guide I had in the jungle in Ecuador had one he was raving about and showed me some terrific video he had shot with it. One of the first things I did when I got home was order it on Amazon. If this one dies, I’ll buy the same model again—it’s that good.
The problems I ran into with the others were varied, but the main ones were video that would go out of focus for a second or two or pictures that were just not cutting it in low light. The Nikon was the worst for this, actually. After three months I sold it on eBay.
My particular one is the FZ70, which is a few years old now but is still a best-seller. Part of that is the unbelievable price. It retails for $299, but you can usually find it for $249 on Amazon or elsewhere. The specs are great for something at such a low price point: 60X zoom, 16mp, Dolby shielded mic, 1080/60i video, and on and on. I bought a spare battery to have because sometimes I’m out in nature for days, but I can usually go two or three days on one charge.
If you shoot a lot of video and do real editing, you might want to pay another $120 and step up to the FZ80 model instead. That has similar specs, but slightly more megapixels and 4K video shooting.
The brand I had the next-best results from was Fuji, but it wouldn’t stay in focus when I zoomed during video shooting and seemed to get confused on the video focus sometimes even when I wasn’t zooming. For camera shots though, it was almost as good as this Lumix one. They may have fixed all of my issues with newer models. Always invest some time reading the reviews—both professional and customer ones—to see what people love and hate about a particular model. If everyone is complaining about the same thing, there’s a good chance you will find it annoying too.