This is a question I hear from photographers at all learning stages, and unfortunately I can’t give you a black and white answer. Travelling with or without your DSLR is a very personal choice, and you might make a different decision than I would. What I can do for you, however, is give you a list of questions that you’ll want to answer before you decide whether to pack up your DSLR or leave it at home.
Where am I going?
Your destination is going to be one of the most important factors in determining whether or not you bring your DSLR camera on your travels. The first thing you should take into account is the crime rate in the place you plan to visit, and more importantly, the number of annual incidents where tourists become the targets of crimes. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in a big city or in a foreign country where criminals are known to prey on tourists, you may want to leave your DSLR at home. A big camera is a target for crime—DSLRs are easy to spot, they have obvious value, and they’re bulky enough to grab but not so bulky that they’ll hinder escape. A small point-and-shoot camera, on the other hand, it's not going to call that kind of attention to you, and it’s going to be a lot tougher to steal.
Because criminals know that point-and-shoot cameras have limited value (there are some exceptions, but unless the thief knows a lot about individual models he isn’t likely to know that yours is worth more than the average tourists’), they may not think stealing one will be worth the time and effort. And you’re less likely to put down a point-and-shoot camera, too, which means there’s less opportunity to strike. For example, if you're carrying around a large, heavy bag, you're going to be compelled to take that bag off your shoulder from time to time. You might hang it over the back of your chair at dinner, you might put it down at your feet while you’re resting on a park bench—but a smaller, lighter point-and-shoot or micro 4/3rds camera is a lot more likely to remain on a strap around your neck.
Of course, crime isn’t the only destination-related factor you need to consider when deciding whether to bring your DSLR. Very cold places may also affect your decision, because of the special care you need to take with your equipment in cold temperatures. For example, when you shoot photographs outdoors on snowy days, you may have problems with condensation when you move between cold places and warm ones. Let’s say you’re visiting Yellowstone National Park in the winter—moving from a scenic outdoor place to the visitor center could be harmful to your camera, because as soon as the water that is naturally present in the air encounters a cold surface (the inside of your camera) it turns into condensation. And I don’t have to tell you that condensation and your camera’s internal surfaces don’t play well together.
Under ordinary circumstances, you can transfer your camera to a plastic bag and give it a couple of hours to warm up, but what if you want to take photos in the visitor center? A DSLR just might not be versatile enough for destinations where you’ll be moving frequently from cold places to warm ones.
If your destination is the ocean, leave your DSLR at home. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve seen lots of beautiful ocean scenes that were shot with DSLRs, so why can’t I take mine? Well the answer is that you can, but you need to take a lot of precautions and if your sole purpose for traveling isn’t taking photographs, you may find that those precautions are hindering the enjoyment of your travels. You can’t get sand anywhere near that DSLR, for example, and even if you don’t change lenses at the beach (never change lenses at the beach!) it’s still going to end up in those cracks and crevices between the buttons and your camera’s body, especially if the day is windy. And sand inside your camera (which is why you should never change lenses at the beach) can permanently damage your expensive DSLR, and by permanently I mean literally permanently.
For beach vacations I like to recommend a rugged class point-and-shoot camera instead of a DSLR—the quality of images shot with one of these cameras doesn’t really compare to the quality of a DSLR, but you can drop them in the sand or in the water and they will live to take another (or many more) photographs. And they're not vulnerable to extreme temperatures or to condensation, which makes them a great choice for cold destinations, too.
What are my goals?
The next question you need to ask yourself is why you’re traveling. If the sole purpose behind your trip is to capture photographs, then that’s a good case for why you should bring your DSLR. Now you will need to carefully consider which additional equipment to pack, but for the most part, you don't want to make any sacrifices in the quality of your camera if you're not willing to make any sacrifices in the quality of your images. So if you're traveling to Arches national Park in Utah and your goal is to get the most amazing photograph of the Delicate Arch that anyone has ever seen, bring your DSLR.
If you are mainly traveling for the purpose of experiencing the world with your family, you probably don’t need a DSLR. Traveling with a group means you won’t really be taking the time to take a lot of quality photographs anyway. Unless you have a very patient family, they're going to get annoyed with you if you’re stopping every 15 or 20 minutes to set up your tripod and camera, attach your graduated neutral density filter and take a series of bracketed shots in the name of getting the perfect photograph. And if you're with your family, you're probably not going to want to be carrying around a very heavy camera and a tripod anyway.
Likewise, if you're going to be active on your trip, you also don’t want to bring a DSLR, because it will become a hindrance. Imagine hiking for five or six hours with a giant camera bag slung over your shoulder. Imagine being on a sailboat and worrying constantly that a big wave is going to destroy your precious equipment. Sure, you could just leave your gear in the car or your hotel on those days when you’re going to be particularly active—but remember that in high crime areas (and even low crime areas) there’s always the possibility that your unattended vehicle or empty hotel room could become a target for crime.
Waterproof/rugged cameras are the way to go for destinations where you're going to be active. Not only do they stand up to water, sand and temperatures, they’re also light and easy to carry around. And as a bonus, you can drop them and not worry too much that they might break.
What will I be doing?
If you're going to be doing a lot of walking, and you're not used to carrying around heavy equipment, then you may want to opt for a lighter camera. I like to bring my micro 4/3rds mirrorless camera on trips where I'm going to be doing a lot of walking—it’s nice and light, but I also have the option to switch lenses if I feel like I need more zoom or a wider angle. And believe me, you might think you’ll be okay walking around with your heavy DSLR on your shoulder for several hours a day, but unless you know that for sure you might want to test yourself before you leave home. Try spending a Saturday with your DSLR and camera bag and then ask yourself if you’d really be OK carrying all that stuff around with you on vacation. If it’s going to bother you, leave your DSLR at home. You will be happier if you do.
What should I take?
If you do take your DSLR, consider packing light. If you’re going to spend a lot of time outdoors in scenic locations, you may not need much more than a wide angle lens. I like to bring a midrange zoom on most trips, because even if landscapes are my priority, there are certainly going to be times when I want to take photos of my friends and family or other interesting things I encounter. If you're going to be doing a little bit of everything, a midrange zoom is a good idea. You can shoot landscapes and architecture at the wider end, and portraits at the longer end.
If you’re going on a wildlife excursion like an African safari (or even a zoo), consider a telephoto lens of at least 200mm (preferably 300 to 400mm). You’ll need a lot more range if you’re going to be photographing animals.
If you’re planning to shoot nightlife or indoors in low light, consider bringing a 50mm prime lens. A 50mm prime lens typically has a maximum aperture of around f/1.8, which means you’ll be able to photograph people in low light at faster shutter speeds (that will prevent motion blurred subjects).
If you are going to be shooting a lot of landscapes, make sure you bring a tripod. When you’re shooting landscapes you’re typically going to be selecting narrower apertures, and narrow apertures mean slow shutter speeds. You’ll also find that tripod handy if you plan to shoot city scenes after dark—without one, you run the risk of letting camera shake destroy your travel photos.
And finally, a tripod is indispensible if you’re thinking about shooting in HDR—HDR photography requires that you shoot a series of images at different exposures and combine them in post processing. To do that, they need to line up exactly—and the best way to ensure that they line up exactly is to use a tripod.
If you're going to be spending a lot of time indoors, consider bringing an external flash. External flashes are great for adding light to a poorly-lit room, as long as you use them with care. Don’t resort to using your popup flash because popup flash is too direct, and you’ll get side effects like redeye, glare and black shadows. Instead, use your external flash to bounce light off the ceiling or another large, white surface such as a wall. When you bounce light it scatters, which makes it softer and more even.
In short, make sure you think carefully about all the things that you're likely to do, and the types of photographs that you want to come away with. If your goal is to simply chronicle the experience you had with your family, a point-and-shoot really might be the way to go. But if your purpose is photography in and of itself, you may want to consider bringing that DSLR. Just think very carefully about what sorts of activities you're likely to engage in, and whether you can tolerate carrying that heavy camera around for an entire day. If the answer is no, you may want to bring your DSLR, but also have a point-and-shoot stashed in your purse or glove box in case you know you're not going to be able to tolerate a long day with a heavy camera (again, consider how safe your camera will be when you’re not with it). Whatever you decide to do, the good news is that modern point-and-shoot cameras can take some pretty high quality photos, so you won't have to sacrifice too much if you do decide to leave your expensive DSLR safely at home.
- What to think about
- Where am I going?
- What are my goals?
- What will I be doing?
- What should I take?
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