One of the greatest joys in life is travel, and one of the greatest joys in travel is taking pictures. Whether you’re looking to populate an album with touristy shots of famous landmarks, or taking the time to compose artistic shots of eclectic locales, travel photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding disciplines of the hobby.
That’s not to say vacation shooting is always heavenly. Many travelers make the mistake of lugging around far more gear than they’ll ever need. Carrying all that weight quickly becomes tedious and annoying. Any excitement and joy has been bled from both photography, and the vacation. With an aching neck and a sense of lost opportunity, the overloaded traveler stows his camera bag in the hotel safe and spends the rest of the trip happy, but photographically unfulfilled.
So what’s the best way to avoid missing out on potential once-in-a-lifetime shots? Bring a camera that fits the trip. Here are five machines that are absolutely perfect for any vacation, the reasons why, and where you can pick them up for yourself.
To begin our list of the five best traveling cameras we’ll start with one of the finest point-and-shoots out there. Renowned for its outstanding lens and user-friendly controls, the Contax T2 is an excellent camera in any situation, but its small size makes it especially well-suited for vacations. The Carl Zeiss T* Sonnar 38mm ƒ/2.8 is one of the sharpest lenses found on a point-and-shoot, and features the somewhat rare inclusion of an aperture ring. This aperture ring allows the user to shoot in aperture-priority AE mode, which is useful because it gives the photographer artistic control over depth-of-field. If you’re looking for straight point-and-shoot action, switch to Program mode and fire away like a maniac. Also notable is the ability to switch from auto-focus to manual-focus using a thumbwheel.
Beyond wonderful ergonomics and excellent optics, what else makes this camera so great for traveling? In a word, durability. This is a camera that can take substantial abuse and keep shooting. Used models often come replete with dents and dings, but still work perfectly. If you’re looking for a camera to take into the crater of an active volcano, look no further than the T2.
These machines are cult-classics, and many pro shooters swear by them. The price is reflective of the quality, and you get what you pay for. Expect prices to be around $350.
Two other fantastic options for lightweight and compact point-and-shoots are the Nikon 35Ti and 28Ti. These two cameras offer similar packages to the Contax, but give the shooter a wider focal length. Manufactured from rugged titanium, the 28Ti and 35Ti feature extremely high quality optics in 28mm and 35mm focal lengths (respectively). Both use ƒ/2.8 Nikkor lenses with Nikon’s integrated coating and ED (extra low dispersion) glass. Focusing is handled by an infrared autofocus system, or the camera can be switched to manual focus. The 28 in particular is a fantastic choice for travelers who might find themselves in dense and cramped cities.
Beyond the wider lenses, what sets these machines apart from the Contax is their interesting analog display positioned on the top plate. This mechanism shows the focusing distance and aperture, exposure compensation and the frame-indicator. It’s a visually striking design element, and something that will set these machines apart from everything else that’s out there. The 35Ti and 28Ti are a couple of must-owns for Nikon fans.
These were made in limited numbers for discerning customers. As such, the price remains high, but fair. Expect to pay around $300 for the 35Ti and $400 for the 28Ti.
If your trip is taking you to extremely wet locales, or if you expect to take a swim with your camera, a good choice is the Canon SureShot WP-1. This machine was the smallest and lightest underwater camera when it was released in 1994. Its fully automated design is perfect for snorkeling or watersports where careful composition and artistic flair are less important. Find some fish, point, and shoot.
It uses a Canon 32mm ƒ/3.5 lens that, while not optically exceptional, will get the job done. Rubber O-rings, autoexposure, autofocus, and a large, bright viewfinder all work together in a machine perfect for capturing memories underwater. On land the WP-1 functions just as well, though if you’re not taking this machine diving you’re better off packing a more optically endowed camera.
Expect to pay very little for a perfect example. We’re talking under $30; a real bargain for the ability to shoot beneath the waves.
If the chief priority is full artistic control of every aspect of photography including shutter speed, aperture, and focal length, then one of the best options for traveling is the Minolta CLE. Known in the longhand as the Compact Leica Electronic, the CLE was developed by Minolta during that company’s partnership with Leica. Using the older Leica CL as inspiration, Minolta created an amazing rangefinder camera that would be far smaller and technically superior to Leica’s machines for a very long time. Beyond the incredibly compact size, notable improvements made over its German contemporaries are the inclusion of aperture priority auto-exposure shooting, and advanced TTL (through the lens) metering.
The CLE uses the Leica M mount, allowing mounting of any number of outstanding Leica, Zeiss, or Voigtlander lenses. Additionally Minolta manufactured three lenses themselves that are in many ways superior to Leica’s own lenses. These come as a 28mm ƒ/2.8, a 40mm ƒ/2, and a 90mm ƒ/4. Couple these lenses with the CLE and you’ve got a machine capable of taking masterful vacation shots. Take your time, contemplate your light and composition, and come home with an album full of prints that will make people wonder why you’re not a professional photographer.
This is one of the very best electronic rangefinders in the world, and it’s surprisingly inexpensive at the moment. Expect to pay around $700 for a body and lens package.
If portability is your ultimate concern, then look no further than the Canon Canonet. This diminutive rangefinder is one of the best compact shooters out there. It’s also one of the most prolific. This thing was made for a very long time in a variety of configurations, so there’s a Canonet for every taste. The models fitted with an ƒ/1.7 lens are perfect for city vacations and street photography, while the slower apertured 2.8s will be slightly better suited for landscapes and country getaways. This is the machine that best bridges the gap between point-and-shoots and more artistically relevant cameras.
The top-of-the-line model is the G-III QL17. It’s a more full-featured machine capable of shutter-priority auto-exposure, as well as full manual shooting. This camera will allow similar artistic control to the previously-mentioned CLE, albeit with less precision, at a far lower price. Build quality isn’t as high as the CLE and the lens is fixed, but the camera feels nice enough in the hands and the 40mm focal length will work in most situations. Optically the lens is capable enough, and certainly will do the job on a pleasure trip.
With stressless film loading and readily available batteries, the Canonet is a perfectly logical choice. Prices will vary depending on condition, color, and model, but expect to pay a reasonable price; between $50 and $100.
Vacations are all about fun, so if you’re looking to just relax and not worry so much about optical fidelity, collectibility, and exclusivity, what better way to document a trip than with instant photos. Polaroid SX-70 or 600 series cameras are, in many ways, the perfect vacation camera. They’re cheap, require no batteries (these are in the film cartridges), and will let you create instant mementos anywhere in the world.
Use black and white, or colorfully framed film packs from Impossible Project to further enhance your shots. Pose in front of the Louvre and in 30 seconds you’ve got a souvenir. Whenever something fun happens, take a shot. If you want to remember something small that strikes your fancy, click a picture and write a fun note on the photo’s built in frame. You can also use these cameras to effectively bridge the gaps between you and the people you meet in your travels. It’s amazing how quickly a Polaroid camera can eliminate cultural and language barriers, helping to create meaningful and memorable experiences with strangers.
Expect to pay between $20 and $40 for a perfect point-and-shoot Polaroid, more if you’re looking for the higher-end SX-70 land camera, or iconic rainbow-stripe machine. Film is reasonable, though much more expensive than 35mm.
So there you have it. There’s no right answer in photography, but the machines covered here will work for many people on many different trips. Whatever camera you choose, whether covered here or not, the important thing is to have fun and travel light. By using a small and capable camera you’re all but guaranteed to make vibrant memories and come home with equally fantastic captures.
If your favorite traveling camera wasn’t listed, let us know about it in the comments, and check in again soon for a list of the five best digital cameras for travel.