A couple of years ago life was simple. Just get a full frame DSLR plus the three pro-zooms: 16-35, 24-70 (or 24-105) and 70-200 plus a lightweight tripod. Done! Today it’s much more complicated.
But even back in the DSLR days those who need to hike a lot decided to save some weight. One option was to choose f4 zooms instead of f2.8. The other option was to leave out either the 16-35 or the 24-70 depending on subjects and shooting style. One of the best travel photographers used to shoot with nothing but the 2.8/24-70 to keep things simple. But a full frame DSLR plus a 2.8/24-70 is still anything but compact and light.
Today there are many more options to save weight. Here they are:
DSLR with APS-C sensor:
Sensors improved a lot within the last couple of years. Resolution is the same as with full frame and the lenses can be smaller. A Nikon D7100 or a Canon 70D are great cameras for travel photography. There is only one thing: There are not a lot of small, high quality lenses for DSLRs with APS-C sensors. Wide angle and standard zooms are covered but there are no dedicated APS-C tele-zooms. The high quality tele zooms are designed for full frame sensors. Both, the Nikon D7100 and the Canon 70D, are practicable the same weight as the Canon 6D.
So camera bodies and tele zooms lenses have exactly the same weight. The only way to save a little is with the standard zooms but if you are interested in a little higher quality or shallow depth of field you may end with the excellent Sigma 1.8/18-35 DC HSM lens which is even 5 grams heavier than the fantastic Canon 2.8/24-70 II. And the Canon has the by far better range: 24-70 compared to 27-52.
So if you plan to use high quality lenses you better get a full frame DSLR. The only way to save some weight with an APS-C DSLRs setup is to use smaller cameras and consumer lenses. To really save weight you need to go mirror-less.
Top picks: Canon 70D or Nikon D7100 depending on the lenses you own or one of the entry level DSLRs if you want to save weight.
Mirrorless Cameras with m43 sensors:
Olympus was a top brand SLR in the 70s but missed the transition to AF and fell behind Canon and Nikon. When they decided to go digital they had no customer base to loose so they invented a new system optimized for digital, the Fourthirds system. Back then it made perfect sense. Computer and TV screens had a 4:3 ratio and the lenses were easier to design too. With the introduction of Micro43 the system took off.
When they started they partnered with Panasonic and created a new standard. Now you can put Olympus lenses on Panasonic cameras and the other way around. A very nice idea. And because of the small sensor the lenses are really small.
This could be the perfect camera gear for travel photography and for many people it is but of course there are some disadvantages:
1. The 4:3 sensor ratio makes no sense anymore. There is a big chance that you will display your shots on a computer or TV screen and unless you live in the past these devices will feature a 16:9 aspect ratio. Say hello to massive black bars on both sides of your picture. Of course you can change to the standard 3:2 ratio but this way you are trowing away pixels.
2. While noise performance and dynamic has been improved there is one thing that can’t be changed: Depth of field is huge. A very nice thing for close up photography and group shots. Not so good for portraits or every time when you want to play with selective sharpness. Sometimes you just want to blur your background to make your subject stand out. With m43 this is more difficult. There are some some very exotic, very expensive, super fast primes but they are big and heavy.
Let’s have a look at the zoom options. The Olympus 2.8/12-40 ED is a great lens. It is compact and light compared to the Canon 2.8/24-70 II (382g vs 805g) and it even has a slightly longer reach but it can’t do what the 24-70 II can do on a full frame camera. Regarding depth of field the Olympus acts more like a 5.6/24-80. You can’t blur the background like you can with the Canon.
The same is true for the other pro zoom the 2.8/40-150 Pro. Half the weight and size of the Canon 2.8/70-200 IS II and more reach but it is hardly the same. It acts more like a 5.6/80-300 lens on a full frame. Not too impressive! You get slightly better DOF control when you put Canons 4/70-200 IS on a APS-C camera like the 70D or the cheap but excellent Tamron 70-300VC on a full frame camera.
So while I have no doubt that these two Olympus lenses are great performers, when it comes to DOF control they are no better than consumer zooms on a full frame DSLR.
You can save a lot of weight on lenses but you pay a very high price for it: You loose the option to play with selective sharpness. And there is one more thing: If you have large hands you need to get the Olympus EM-1 which is as big and heavy as larger sensor mirror less cameras.
Top picks: Olympus EM-10 or Panasonic GM-5 or if size isn’t that important Olympus OM-1. But if size isn’t very important I recommend a bigger sensor.
Mirrorless Cameras with APS-C:
There are many options when you choose a mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor but two manufacturers stick out: Sony and Fuji. Sony was first with when the introduced their first NEX camera. The NEX 5 – a truly great product. Super small but good to hold and with great image quality. Meanwhile they dropped the brand name NEX but the cameras are still great. The problem is still the lack of high quality lenses. That’s why I switched to Fuji X when Fuji introduced the Fuji X Pro-1.
What makes the Fuji X system so attractive? First of all the fact that it is a real system. It is young but there are already a bunch of lenses. There are surprisingly good zooms and even better primes. There is something for everybody. There is even a very good travel zoom because Fuji decided to limit its focal length: The 18-135 which is optically impressive and fully weather sealed. For some a Fuji X-T1 plus this lens could be all that they will ever need. But even the standard kit zoom is good quality and just a little faster and a little better than the average kit zoom. There is a top quality ultra wide angle zoom with image stabilization: 4/10-24 OIS. And three tele zooms from super light but slow to fast but big and heavy. There is a new 2.8/16-55 on its way but it lacks IS and I think it is too big and too heavy for what it is.
But the best part are the primes. The 2.8/14, the 1.4/23, the 1.4/35 and the 1.2/56 are simply outstanding lenses. The 2/18 and 2.8/27 pancake are super compact and lightweight and the 2.4/60 Macro is excellent too.
Fast primes in combination with the rather big APS-C sensor is what makes the Fuji X system so special. It can produce images that look like full frame shots. Today I think this combination is hard to beat. The upcoming 1.4/16 and 2/90 will be great lenses I just hope that Fuji manages to keep weight as low as possible. I’m less positive regarding the zooms. The new f2.8 zooms are monsters. I know it is constant f2.8 but they are designed for the smaller APS-C sensor. I think they are heavier and bigger than necessary. It seems that those lenses were designed with the wedding and portrait shooter in mind. They are too bulky and too short for travel photography. Especially the XF 2.8/16-55 WR looks excessive to me. I’m sure that Fuji engineers wanted to make the lens as good as possible at all cost. But the cost is too high. They dropped image stabilization and they made the lens 77mm filter site to avoid vignetting but today IS is very important for a lot of people and it is very easy to deal with some vignetting in Lightroom.
This is what I would have preferred instead of the f2.8 lenses: a Fuji XF 4/16-70 OIS WR and a Fuji XF 4/70-200 OIS WR. Beside the full frame sensor on the Canon 5D the 4/24-105 IS and the 4/70-200 IS were the main reasons that make me switch to Canon 8 years ago.
Top picks: Fuji X-T1 or Sony A6000 if you have to cover action.
Mirrorless Cameras with Full frame sensors:
Of course full frame has still some advantages and one that should not be underestimated is peace of mind. If you look at camera forums the picture is always the same. Users of smaller formats try to defend their camera choice and claim that today full frame is not necessary at all. m43 shooters seem to be the loudest. Of course they are wrong. If sensor format would’t be important we all would take our images with our smartphones. They are much lighter and more convenient to carry around. The reason why will still burden ourself with camera equipment is that the image quality of camera phones still suck because of the tiny sensor.
So full frame would give you the peace of mind to own the theoretically perfect format for travel photography while mirror less keeps the weight and size manageable. Why is not everybody shooting full frame mirror less than? Main reason is the lack of choice. Today there are only two options. One is the very nice but excessively priced Leica M system. That fact that there is no AF wouldn’t bother me but the idea to carry around very expensive equipment would. It’s like wearing a golden Rolex. In some places in the world this means asking for problems.
The second option are the Sony A7 cameras. Honestly I think they are great. I would prefer a shutter dial over the shooting mode selector but beside that I can’t see many drawbacks except one: lenses! Sony has a poor reputation when it comes to lenses. When they created the NEX system I was one of the first who got one. I was amazed. Two years later I switched to Fuji X because Sony missed to bring out some lenses. It is better today but still far from good.
Sony’s A7 cameras look great. Especially the new Sony A7 II and the low light monster Sony A7S. Just perfect cameras for traveling. But when you look at the lenses you can not help to be disappointed. They have finally covered the zoom basics 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200 all in constant f4 and with image stabilization. I think f4 makes perfect sense to keep size and weight down but the lenses get mixed reviews. But you can’t always trust reviews. What really bothers me is the lack of primes. There is a super small but slow 2.8/35 and a 1.8/55. Both lenses seem to be very good but they are hardly exciting. The Fuji X 1.4/23 gives a two stop advantage in low light and shallower depth of field! Now Sony announced a 1.4/35 which looks excellent but also big and heavy. Sometimes I don’t get it. The whole point of the A7 cameras is that they are small and light. If you combine it with big and heavy lenses they handling gets awkward and more important the whole idea of a small camera gets lost.
A 55mm lens is easy to build but hardly something you really need. There is no real wide angle: no 21mm, no 24mm or 28mm. There is no portrait lens like a 1.8/85. I think these are the prime lenses Sony should bring out:
All small and light. I think those lenses would attract a lot of people.
Sony created some amazing cameras the last couple of years. Now they need to make some lenses available. They should also be more open regarding their future plans and put a lens road map on their website to show that they are committed to the new format. It’s what Fuji did and I think it’s a smart move. Nobody expects a system to be complete at launch but Sony already starts to update camera bodies before they address their lens gaps.
Top picks: Sony A7 II or Sony A7S depending on the amount of pictures you gonna take in low light.
Cameras with an integrated lens:
Above I wrote a lot about lenses but that’s because I think they are more important than the cameras. Lenses make a camera system a system. But there is one radical approach to forget about lenses. Just get a camera with an integrated lens. Done! No need to study lens roadmaps again and wait for lens releases.
And of course much more important: No need to think about the best lens for each shot. You just have one!
There are a couple of cameras to choose from. Here they are in alphabetical order: Fuji X100, Leica X, Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, Sigma DP. They all have APS-C sized sensors in surprisingly small packages and offer either 28mm or 35mm lenses (in full frame terms). Sony even managed to squeeze a full frame sensor in their RX cameras plus a rather fast 2.0/35 lens.
I know that this is personal again but I think two cameras stand out: The Fuji X100 series cameras and the Ricoh GR. Two very different cameras but truly great designs.
The Fuji X100 is all its camera design: aperture dial, shutter speed dial, a quiet central shutter, a fast 2.0/23 (or 35mm in FF) plus the excellent hybrid viewfinder. It is easy yo see why it won so many photographers. It is an inspiring camera!
The Ricoh GR is a completely different animal. It lacks the viewfinder, the aperture ring and the shutter dial but it is still far away from a simple point and shoot. It has an APS-C sized sensor without low pass filter and a super sharp 2.8/28 (in FF) lens but it is also super small, thin and light. But what makes it stand out are its cool features. The two most important ones are snap focus and Ricoh’s KAV-mode. The snap focus feature simple allows you to set focus manually in steps: 0,5m, 1m, 1,5, 2,5 and infinity. The KAV mode allows you to select aperture and shutter speed while the camera selects the ISO setting. And now comes the best part: exposure compensation still works! I can’t do that with my Fuji X-T1. These two features combined make the Ricoh GR a street photographers dream camera.
Top picks: Fuji X100T or Ricoh GR depending on you shooting style.
1. No need for speed: There is a lot of discussion about the fact that AF is too slow on mirrorless cameras. I don’t think it is an issue for travel photography. You are not going to chase the Eiffel tower.
2. Lenses make a system. The lens makes the picture.
3. Weight isn’t always the most important thing. If you travel by car i.e. in the USA you stop at the location. The best viewpoint is just a couple of steps away from your car. Two DSLRs, one with a wide angle or standard zoom the other one with a tele zoom make perfect sense. If you walk around all day in a city it’s a different story.
4. Less is more. Sometimes it makes perfect sense to bring nothing but a Fuji X100. It is a great thing to restrict yourself to one focal length.
5. There is no need for flash.
PS: If you ask yourself why I have chosen those images taken a couple of years ago with Canon DSLRs here is the answer: I took them in 2010. The year when I got my first mirrorless camera, the brilliant Sony NEX 5, right before my first trip to the USA. A lot has changed since then. I have been at Monument Valley again last year but I saw far more smartphones than tripods. I think today you can live without a tripod but I still recommend to use anything but a smartphone to record your memories.