Travelcam: the perfect camera?

Perfect camera

Canberra
Australian Capital Territory
18 Jul 2017

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.

Perfect camera• 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.

My kit

Perfect cameraFor 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 #2

Perfect cameraLeica #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.

perfect cameraThe 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

Perfect cameraMy favourite feature in the Typ 109, apart from the excellent lens, is the way it is controlled.

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.

perfect cameraOr you can over-ride the camera’s smarts entirely and select whatever settings you think will get the shot.

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.

Perfect camera• Size. I can fit this in my belt pouch, carrying it with me on a plane, or just walking about.

• 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.

Perfect camera• 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.

What’s yours?

Perfect cameraI 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?

Pete

Perfect camera

16 Comments

  1. For the longest time my travel camera was a DSLR and a single zoom lens. Initially a Canon 50D crop sensor with an 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Tamron lens to cover most every situation. I’d leave my prime lenses at home. Then I switched to the Canon 5D mk III with a 24-105mm f/4L. Again a single lens setup. Primarily because I don’t like switching lenses outdoors, especially in places like the beach where there’s sand and salt spray, etc. Both of these are rather heavy/bulky. Then I got a Leica M-P and again traveled with a single lens setup, this time a 35mm, f/2.0. I don’t really miss the zoom, I just take different pictures.

    Most recently the US TSA was threatening to widen a laptop/electronics ban from airplane cabins to possibly all international flights so rather than risk having to check my gear, I got a pocketable Canon PowerShot G9 X with built-in 28-84mm equiv, f/2-4.9. A wonderful little camera. And I always have my iPhone. Quoting Chase Jarvis, the best camera is the one that’s with you.

    1. I’m starting to think the best travel camera is a phone!

      Yeah, I always get the jitters when changing lenses. A gust of wind, a sneeze, a wayward cat, and that’s a camera ruined.

      I’m going to find my Q a challenge, with just one focal length, and that a very wide one.

      Give you joy of your G9X. It’s amazing what these tiny things can do, and if they do implement a stricter in-flight electronics regime, I suspect we’ll see this market sector expand. Nobody wants to have an expensive piece of kit bouncing around in the luggage system, yet leaving photography to the iphone grates more than a little.

  2. I like the sound of the Leica, but I’m a little skeptical of small digital cameras taking the same quality photos as a DLSR camera, like my Canon 600D. I would be willing to try it, because the downside of my Canon is that it can be heavy and bulky to carry.

    1. I had a 550D, 650D, and 70D with some good lenses. I got rid of my canon kit, and went mirrorless. Because of the size and weight thing. Never looked back.

      Try the Canon M5. That’s got the innards of a 750D without the mirror. Same sensor, same processor. The M-series lens range has some good ones. There’s a fast 20mm, and the 55-200mm zoom is excellent. Existing EF and EF-S Canon lenses may be used with an adaptor.

    2. Flickr used to have a camera finder feature to that let you find photos taken with a given camera. Looks like along with the various changing of hands and updates to the interface this has stopped working (newer cameras not found). You can still search by tags. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/g9x/ will find lots of pictures that have been tagged presumably because they were taken with a Canon G9 X. That will give you an idea of the types of photos the camera can produce.

          1. Yes please. I think it is on two of my comments. Looks like below the submit button there’s an option to uncheck this image inclusion. If you don’t it puts the link in.

          2. Looks like a CommentLuv thing. Just swipes an URL off your computer and displays it. I might have to dig deeper to remove them.

      1. Thanks for the Flickr link. I see what you mean. Some camera links work, some don’t. What is pretty clear is that excellent travel images can be taken with just about any camera, and it’s more about the photographer’s eye – and skill – than it is about the camera.

        Having said that, practical considerations are important. A smaller and lighter camera is easier to travel with. A good lens helps get good shots, especially in low light or HDR situations. Being able to shoot in RAW can make a huge difference.

        And for me, the controls are pretty important. Leica’s approach is very good (T and TL aside), where you can use the physical controls to do everything important, and (mostly) you can see what value they are set to. This is where the 109 (and Q) stand out.

        I discovered that my Canon M6 will shoot at a variety of ratios (1:1, 4:3, 16:9 etc.) but you have to dive deep into the menus to do it. On the 109, it’s right there on the lens.

  3. P.S. Pete: you seem to have some kind of an advertisement on the right hand side of this page that is constantly reloading and occasionally displaying a video with audio.

    1. That’s a Google thing. I have no control over the content. I use an ad-blocker, so I never see it.

      Thanks.

  4. I swear by my Sony mirrorless. I’ve had it quite a few years now and I’ve been thinking of upgrading to a Sony A6000. Small and light enough to take on my travels but very powerful and you have a wide choice of lenses too. Thanks for sharing your views 🙂

    1. It was a Sony mirrorless that shifted me away from the big DSLR mindset. A friend had one – it may have been the A6000 or similar – and showed off its features.

      The only reason I went Olympus rather than Sony was that there was a special on the EM5 which did the same sort of things.

  5. I’ve got a Cannon Rebel Ti. I love that thing. I beat the ever loving crap out of it traveling through the backcountry, and despite it’s weight (a big deal when you have to carry everything, including your shelter, for days on end) I still can’t get enough. Of course, I’m not the best at using it, but I’m getting better.
    I feel that drones could use some work. I would LOVE a drone that was lightweight, compact, was easy to pack, and could easily follow you around. I spend a LOT of time in nature, far from people, and I would love to see the bird’s eye view of where I am. One day technology will catch up, but I’m with you, just like cameras there won’t be a perfect drone.

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