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While photographers can (and do) travel with all sorts of cameras, it’s a welcome alternative to carry a lightweight model that incorporates features especially useful for travel photography. In compiling our list of travel D-SLRs, we used the following criteria:
Compact size. It’s easier to carry a light camera around all day than a heavy one, and it’s easier to fit a small one into your carry-on luggage.
Built-in flash. A built-in flash unit means you’ll always have enough light to photograph nearby subjects. Built-in flash units have ISO 100 guide numbers (GN) between 36 and 43, in feet; 43 is about a 2⁄3-stop more powerful than 36 (a high-end shoe-mount flash has an ISO 100 GN of maybe 190—nearly five stops more powerful than a GN 36 built-in flash). Built-in flash can be used as fill on a bright day with harsh shadows and can augment a powerful accessory unit.
Image stabilization. Stabilization allows you to get sharp, handheld images two to four shutter speeds slower than is possible without it. Several manufacturers offer in-camera sensor-shift stabilization, which works with any lens you attach to the camera (but stabilizes only the recorded image, not what you see in the SLR viewfinder). Others provide stabilizer lenses, which offer the advantage of stabilizing the viewfinder image as well as the recorded one, but you get stabilization only with those lenses.
Maximum ISO of 3200 or higher. A high ISO gives you leeway to be photographing in low light while still maintaining a reasonable shutter speed. High ISO films were a staple of National Geographic shooters who habitually work at the darker fringes of the day, which helped create a distinctive look. That’s one big advantage of digital imaging over roll film: You can make each shot at the ideal ISO setting.
Auto-bracketing. When traveling, you often encounter spur-of-the-moment photo ops that don’t give you time to adjust and fine-tune the exposure. Auto-bracketing makes it easy to get a good exposure of such scenes, even in tricky lighting. Set auto-bracketing, and the camera automatically shoots several exposures in rapid succession.
Modest appearance. Big, heavy D-SLRs attract attention, including that of potential thieves, local authorities and photo subjects who might react negatively to someone who looks too “pro.” More compact, mid-range models gather less attention and are less “threatening.”
Low price. For the cost of a top-end D-SLR, you can get a few mid-range ones, providing a second camera in case the first malfunctions. You generally can find these lower-priced models for sale in most cities, even airport electronics shops from Frankfurt to Singapore, should acquiring a replacement become necessary; pro models are available in far fewer places. Two lighter bodies weigh less than one top-level camera, too.
Anti-dust features. It’s not always possible to review photos regularly on the road, so you could take hundreds of photos without noticing dust spots until you get home. A good travel D-SLR will have built-in anti-dust features, including some that literally shake dust off the sensor assembly using ultrasonic vibrations.
Brand popularity. If you choose a popular camera brand, the chances are better that you might be able to borrow a needed wide-angle or telephoto lens from someone in your tour group.
There are other useful features for travel photographers. Scene modes quickly set the camera optimally for shooting popular subjects like people, landscapes, close-ups, action and night scenes. Live-view LCD monitors make composing in dim light or at odd angles easier. Extended dynamic-range features provide better detail in contrasty scenes. Weather resistance lets you shoot in fog and drizzle. If you really want to travel light, a wide-range zoom like an 18-200mm covers most travel-shooting situations. And remember to take plenty of memory cards and spare batteries for your camera(s).
Lineage: The K20D expands on the K10D concept, with a number of improvements over that fine weather-resistant, dustproof camera, including: 14.6 megapixels (vs. 10.2), a 2.7-inch LCD monitor with live-view capability (vs. 2.5-inch) and new Custom Image and Expanded Dynamic Range functions.
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Lineage: The A350 doesn’t really replace anything in Sony’s lineup; rather, it and the similar 10.2-megapixel A300 are new additions to the line. The tilting live-view monitor is a first for a Sony D-SLR.
* including 18-70mm zoom lens
Lineage: The D80 replaced the D70S in Nikon’s lineup in 2006, offering major improvements like a 67% increase in resolution, 11 AF points (vs. 5 in the D70S), a top ISO of 3200, quicker startup, a more powerful built-in flash, a 2.5-inch LCD monitor (vs. 2.0), in-camera retouching, including D-Lighting (see Cool Factor below), more shots per battery charge and a more compact size.
* including 18-55mm VR zoom lens
Canon EOS 40D
Lineage: The EOS 40D improves on the EOS 30D in many ways. Among its features are 10.1 megapixels (vs. 8.2), a 3.0-inch live-view LCD monitor (vs. 2.5-inch LCD without live view), a maximum shooting rate of 6.5 fps (vs. 5 fps), a self-cleaning image sensor, a DIGIC III image processor and 14-bit A/D conversion.
Cool Factor: An intuitive thumb wheel and rear AE and AF control buttons make fast work of selecting the 9 cross-type AF points and controlling the meter.
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Lineage: The E-3 offers many improvements over the E-1 pro D-SLR (there was no E-2). Among its features are 10.1 megapixels (vs. 5), tilting/rotating 2.5-inch live-view LCD monitor (vs. a fixed 1.8-inch with no live view), maximum shooting rate of 5 fps (vs. 3 fps), built-in sensor-shift image stabilization that works with all lenses, improved image quality (especially at higher ISOs) and super-quick autofocusing with the new SWD lenses.
Other Notable Cameras For Travel
Here are a few cameras that didn’t fit in more than one of our criteria, but are terrific travel cameras nonetheless:
|Canon PowerShot G9. The G9 isn’t an SLR, but we like it for travel. This 12.1-megapixel compact features a 3-inch LCD monitor (live-view, of course), plus an optical zoom finder. You can shoot in RAW format and even RAW + JPEG. Built-in optical stabilization reduces the effects of camera shake, and the built-in 6x optical zoom lens (equivalent to 35-210mm on a 35mm camera) is ideal for most travel needs. It focuses down to 0.39 inches in macro mode. There’s even an ISO dial for a fast “analog” selection process—no menus to wade through.||Olympus E-420. The smallest D-SLR as of this writing, the 13.4-ounce E-420 is loaded with features, including a 10-megapixel sensor, 2.7-inch LCD monitor with live-view capability, sensor-dust remover and slots for both CompactFlash and xD-Picture cards. The Four Thirds System lenses it uses are compact for any given focal length, and the sensor’s 2x focal-length factor effectively doubles the focal length of any lens.|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1.
More ruggedly built than the L10, the 7.5-megapixel DMC-L1 is sold in a kit with a faster 14-50mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 Leica zoom. The 2.5-inch LCD monitor provides live-view capability, but doesn’t tilt or rotate like the L10’s. Seven film modes emulate the effects of switching film types for different looks. A sensor-dust remover and easy analog operation are additional assets.
|Sigma SD14. The SD14 is the only current D-SLR to feature the unique Foveon X3 “full-color” image sensor, which records all three primary colors of light at every pixel site. This results in image quality well beyond what one would expect for a given horizontal-by-vertical pixel count. Sigma offers more than 40 lenses for the SD14, from a 4.5mm circular fisheye to an 800mm supertelephoto; with the sensor’s 1.7x focal-length factor, that means 35mm-camera-equivalent focal lengths from 7.65mm to 1360mm are available.|
|Sigma DP1. Our other non-SLR entry, Sigma’s new DP1 is a compact digital camera featuring the same Foveon X3 image sensor used in the SD14 D-SLR. This sensor is 7x to 12x the size of sensors typically found in compact digital cameras, which means the pixels are much larger. Bigger pixels capture light more efficiently, producing better image quality. The DP1 features an SLR-quality lens designed especially for the DP1 and Foveon sensor. It’s equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm camera.|
|Camera||Resolution||Weight||Flash||Stabilization||Max. ISO||Auto-Bracketing||Est. Street Price|
|Canon PowerShot G9||12.1 MP||11.3 oz.||Yes||Optical||1600||Yes||$500|
|Olympus E-420||10 MP||13.4 oz.||ISO 100/GN 39, in feet||No||1600||Yes||$500|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1||7.5 MP||18.7 oz.||ISO 100/GN 35, in feet||With OIS lenses||1600||Yes||$1,500|
|Sigma SD14||4.7x3 MP||24.7 oz.||ISO 100/GN 36, in feet||With OS lenses||1600||Yes||$800|
|Sigma DP1||4.7x3 MP||8.8 oz.||ISO 100/GN 19.5, in feet||No||800||Yes||$800|