The perfect camera for travel
I’ll be honest.
It doesn’t exist.
No camera is perfect, especially not when looking for a camera to travel with. There are four considerations that govern all:
• Size: at some stage you will be sitting in a cramped airline or bus seat, counting every last centimetre of space. If something amazing happens outside your window – or on your meal tray – you want to have a camera to record the moment. The smaller, the better.
• Weight: carry-on limits are increasingly being enforced, and you don’t want to consign expensive or fragile equipment to checked baggage. If you’ve only got seven kilos, a big DSLR from Canon and a couple of lenses will fill that up pretty quick. Likewise, if you are hiking all day or walking around a new city. Do you really want to carry a couple of extra kilos of expensive gear?
• Cost: the top of the line stuff can cost a fortune. Money perhaps better spent on travel. No sense having the best camera to record your amazing journeys if you can’t afford to leave town.
• Quality: Just how many megapixels is good enough? Do you want your shots bright and clear? Do you want to be forever fiddling with knobs and dials and menus, or actually enjoying your travel? On the other hand, do you want all your shots to be grainy and fuzzy?
There is nothing, nothing, nothing that ticks all the boxes. What comes closest is a phone camera, perhaps with a couple of clip-on lenses. Small, cheap, ubiquitous, easily connected to the internet, and capable of pretty good results. But when your combined lens and sensor is about as big as a pea, there are limits to how good it’s going to get, just from having to deal with the laws of physics.
For years, I’ve travelled with an Olympus OMD EM-1 mirrorless camera. (on the right in the comparison image.) It’s a step down in size from the big DSLRs from Canon, Nikon and others, it has a Micro Four-Thirds sensor and mount, meaning it’s not bad for image quality, and there are dozens of lenses available.
It’s served me very well, especially with the amazing 12-40mm ƒ2.8 lens, and its five-axis in-body image stabilisation. The lens lets in a fair amount of light, and the camera handles the inevitable wobbles and shakes, especially if I need to take a shot longer than an eyeblink.
However, it’s too big to take with me into an economy seat. It goes in my carry-on bag, out of reach. Instead, I take a belt pouch with something smaller, usually a Canon M with a spare lens.
Leica #1 came and went. Great little camera, let down by a couple of details.
I jumped two spots along the Leica D-Lux line and came up with the Leica Typ 109, a rebadged and rebuilt Panasonic LX100. A smidge bigger than the D-Lux 5, this model has a far better screen, an electronic viewfinder built in, a better lens, and better physical controls.
This one, I could love. I could see that Leica’s German design ethos had had a major input. For a start, it’s solid in feel, elegant in execution, and just feels great in the hand. And to look at.
The body is subtly rounded on the ends, evoking Leica’s pared-down shape to accommodate film spools. There’s also that classic “break” in the top deck, cutting away the straight edge to keep the control wheels and shutter release from protruding. It doesn’t look anything like a 1950s film camera, as one reviewer suggested, but there’s more than a nod to classic design cues.
The lens telescopes out in use, much like a typical point-and-shoot. It looks quite awkward when the far end of the telephoto range is selected, which you do by moving a lever on the shutter release left or right, another point-and-shoot feature.
The rear face has a standard four-way control wheel, four buttons above the fixed screen, a protruding eyepiece for the EVF, and a tiny square thumb-grip. My second-hand example featured a custom Richard Franiec grip on the front, a far better solution than Leica’s own chunky grip, which screws into the tripod attachment and adds significantly to the height.
This is not a camera to slide into your jeans, but it will sit comfortably in a jacket pocket, or in my little black Crumpler belt pouch.
A camera for photographers
Instead of the usual “PASM” mode dial, Leica has provided a shutter speed dial, ranging from 1/4000 to 1 second. This can be taken higher or lower through the menu, and there is an “A” (for automatic) setting.
The aperture ring on the lens mirrors this. You set the aperture physically, and again, you can select “A” for automatic.
This is brilliant. set both dials to “A”, and the camera will choose an appropriate aperture and shutter speed. You may manually select one or the other ring to an appropriate setting (say, a slow speed to capture the motion blur of passing traffic, or a wide aperture to blur the background) and the camera will set the other control appropriately.
Other buttons control the wi-fi and 4K video recording. This is an extremely powerful and capable camera, and I don’t have space to list all the features. It’s sufficient to say that whatever sort of photography you are into, this camera will let you do it, and do it well.
Or just press the “A” button on the top deck and it goes into snapshot mode, making all the decisions for you.
Quite the thing
I love it. This camera has a similar capability to the much bigger Olympus I’ve been using as my main travel camera. I can now leave that at home – along with its charger, spare batteries, alternate lenses and so on.
• Weight. Approximately 400 grams. That’s never going to be a problem for a traveller.
• Cost. From about $AU 700 second hand (going by eBay sales) to twice that new. So, not as cheap as some, but fair in the range for quality cameras. The Panasonic Lumix LX100 is virtually the same camera, but the Leica comes with a longer warranty and Adobe Lightroom as standard. There’s a Leica Explorer special edition, with a red cotton carrying strap and an automatic lens cap. It looks cool, but for $1 600, you’d have to be keen.
• Quality. The camera delivers clear, sharp, bright images. The lens is excellent and covers a good range in both focal length and aperture. Good for street photography, landscape, portrait, and food. The camera has more functions than you can poke a stick at, it is aimed at photography enthusiasts (but still accessible via Auto and Snapshot modes to novices.) And for those who shoot video, it does 4K, though there’s no external microphone capacity.
And there’s that undeniable red dot Leica cachet. This is a cool camera.
This is pretty close to the perfect travel camera, in my opinion.
I regard a camera as an indispensable travel accessory. I’ve tried everything from phones on up to a serious DSLR. My priorities are: small size, great lens, good control, wifi. The Leica D-Lux ticks all my boxes for the perfect travel camera.
I’m heading off to Greece in a couple of weeks. I’ll see how this works out. My week or so of having this camera as my “everyday carry” has given me the chance to test it in a variety of settings.
What’s your perfect travel camera?