Photography is changing & I'm torn. Help!

I think I have an eye for how to compose a good photo and I've taken some great ones over the years, but I've never had a great camera. I'm also a dedicated light packer and a person who likes things as simple as possible. It seems to me that we now have three levels of photography led by the newcomer on the block, the smartphone (or similar device). Then you have pocket cameras and SLR's. The pocket camera has always been my choice (usually a better Canon), but they are getting challenged by better smartphone cameras. Since that device does so much else that makes travel easier, I love the idea of that being a decent camera, too. It appeals to my simpler-is-better side. Then you have SLR's that appeal to my artistic side since they have so much more potential for artistry. But all that potential comes at the cost of simplicity. The fact is, almost all of my favorite photos are only viewed and enjoyed on the screen of my computer. I've never printed a photo larger than 8x10 and don't expect to. The SLR seems like overkill under these circumstances. The only thing that seems certain to me is that my pocket-sized Canon is soon to be a dinosaur, made obsolete by continually improving smartphone cameras. It no longer feels like the right choice for me, but choosing an SLR would be a drastic change that might cramp my simpler-is-better style. Help!

Posted by Ellen
Centennial, CO, USA
1500 posts

Plenty of GREAT smaller digital cameras that offer lots more options that phone cameras. I use the Canon G11, fits in a pocket but lots of options for shots, plus a decent zoom. I take a few photos with my iphone, just to post on Facebook, but I don't think I'd ever give up a true digital camera for just a phone camera. I pack light, but the camera is one thing I won't give up. Photography on my travels is just too important to me. You can see lots of options for really good compact (almost like a DSLR) camera on this sight..Canon, Nikon, Sony. all have great models that are small but have a good/great lens.

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
8332 posts

My Spanish photographer friend uses Nikon SLRs exclusively. He does amazing things with them. I use a Nikon Coolpix, which is like a junior version of what he has (a "bridge" camera - in between a point-and-shoot and an SLR). I was in the same position as you when it was time to replace my point-and-shoot (which I had switched to when I wanted something more automatic than my 35mm). My friend loves the whole process, and being able to play with the images and adjust them later. I just want nice vacation pictures. On my trip with him this year, I found that I got the quality of image that I wanted without all of the "fussing", and even he admits that some of mine were better than his. In addition to my Coolpix, I also frequently used my smartphone camera, though the phone I have now doesn't have as nice a camera as my old one.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
21451 posts

Randy, While Smartphone Cameras have definitely improved, I don't agree that they'll eventually replace P&S Cameras. On my recent trip, I travelled with a dSLR, a P&S and a Smartphone, so I had an opportunity to try and compare all three types. While the Smartphone Cameras are capable of taking some good pictures (especially when they're enhanced by Apps), there are some conditions they don't handle well and focusing can be problematic at times. I found the P&S much quicker, more flexible and easier to use most of the time. I've seen the Sensor used on a Smartphone Camera, and there's no way that will equal the quality of my dSLR! The dSLR is absolutely the best option most of the time, as it provides the ability to get photos that aren't possible with other Cameras (ie: in difficult lighting or focusing conditions, wide angle photos, etc.). If I want to get the best quality the dSLR is the Camera I use, as RAW images provide a great deal of "creative" ability. Although the zoom range is limited and it's a tad expensive, a good compromise might be a Camera like the new Canon G15, which should be available this month. Two of the features that appeal to me are the ability to shoot RAW and an f1.8 Lens. I'll be anxious to see some reviews on it. Cheers!

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
954 posts

There is no phone camera that can come close to a Canon S100 or the newer S110. It will be a long time before they can make enough room inside a phone for the larger sensor that Canon uses inside those cameras. It's not about megapixles which are more marketing hype, it's about sensor size and lens quality.

Posted by Adam
2923 posts

Randy, it's not clear what your issue is. If something works for you, use it until it no longer does, or until something better (for you) comes along. I have an aging Canon, and there is no way any phone touches it for quality or features. Maybe someday. (The old Canon controls are particularly good and SLR-like, with a complete manual mode.) If you'd like to up your game, though, do it! For you that might just mean a newer Canon. Or maybe upgrade to one of the large-sensor models. Don't need a zillion megapixels? Turn down the pixel-density setting.

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1525 posts

Adam, I understand that my question could seem a little like making a big deal out of nothing, but let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean; On my upcoming trip, the ability to take a good panoramic photo will be a real asset. Who has the most effective and easiest-to-use (simplest) panoramic photo-taking ability right now? From what I've seen, the answer is the new 5mp iPod Touch or 8mp iPhone just released. Not only is the quality of the photo shockingly good considering the size of the sensor and the history of little cameras like this, but the ease of use combined with the "smartness" of the electronics and programming is outstanding. Because of the way the process works, the resulting images could be 20+mp and if this or that color isn't as eye-popping as an SLR, that problem is solved with a couple of clicks in iPhoto or any better editing program. 98% of my photo viewing right now happens when I sit at my computer. Some of those photos are quite good and make my heart ache for a return to a favorite place. But the image dimensions on my screen are about 12% the size (in terms of pixels) of the original photo. Much of the asset of super-fine imagery that better cameras boast is lost here. And as for many other qualities; again, they are just a click away in any processing program. It strikes me as interesting that apps like "Instagram" are so popular now when they work by essentially obscuring all the detail that the best photographers aspire to and making the photos look "old-school". All that said, however, I am no photo fool. I know that an SLR is a much stronger camera. But it is so bulky (especially of you want to use more than one lens) that it's practically another piece of luggage. And even a truly pocketable P&S camera, while better than the newest iDevice, is no longer that much better.

Posted by Katie
Formerly Athens
72 posts

After reading your question I think traveling with a new point and shoot is your best option. I recently moved back to the States after living abroad for two years. Before I left I purchased a new dSLR camera to take with but also took a really REALLY old point and shoot camera. The point and shoot took such poor quality photos that I ended up putting it in a drawer where it sat the entire time I lived abroad, and the dSLR went on all of my travels. Before I left the States I found a bag that fit my travel style so for the most part I didn't mind carrying the dSLR around with me. BUT, there were inevitably moments where I wished for a good quality point and shoot, such as going out in the evening for dinner. I always felt a bit awkward walking into a restaurant with my messenger style dSLR bag across my shoulders. Now that I'm back home I am working on creating some of my own wall art by choosing a couple of photos from the 20,000 that I took and turning them into canvases. Talk about decisions! All that to say if you aren't interested in using the photos other than on the computer I think you will find all the options you want/need in a good point and shoot. I know you have used Canon in the past but I recently looked at the Nikon S9300 at the camera store (Canon has an equivalent) and it's definitely going on my Christmas list!

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
3248 posts

Randy... always an issue for me too. Traveling light gives you so much freedom, including creative freedom. I have gone from the 'old days' when I carried a barrage of equipment and film to wanting to have the least possible amount of stuff to haul around. As I am a professional I am still going to take my DSLR, but I also like to challenge myself to using smaller equipment to its fullest capabilities, so I have gone out with only my iphone, or only my infrared camera, or just a P&S. While you do need a decent camera... it's the photographer that makes the image, not the camera. If you are interested in panoramic photography there are a few cameras out there that are specifically for that and would be really fun. There is also a way in photoshop to 'stitch' your images together to make some amazing panoramic views. Should be a photoshop tutorial on that somewhere. If I were you, I would go for a P&S with the most zoom capabilities and the largest MP and just use your creativity. There is no reason for you to worry about RAW. I quit shooting RAW about 6 years ago when I realized that for me it was a waste of computer space, I did not need to go back to those raw files as my jpeg fine files were great unless I was way off on exposure, but you can still make adjustments on those files. More is not always's the results that count.

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2193 posts

When I'm on vacation and want memorable shots, I use my old Nikon COOLPIX (circa 2004). I have yet to meet the smartphone camera that can match the photos I take with my Nikon, and I have a really good camera in my phone right now. Someone mentioned lens's pretty hard to beat Nikon on lenses. I use my phone when the photo isn't as important and I want to capture an image quickly (maybe just to quickly e-mail it to someone). But when I have time and want a better photo, it's the Nikon. It fits in a shirt pocket when out of its small case, and two good double AAs last a long time. I'm not into photography, so anything beyond my small Nikon wouldn't interest me. If my phone had as high a quality lens as my camera, along with all of the other features, I would probably just use the phone for simplicity, but I really don't see that happening real soon. Until your Canon actually becomes a dinosaur, eclipsed by a better smartphone option, why fret about it? You already said you don't want a more professional camera...can't blame you there...just stick with what works for now. Plus, you don't have to buy anything new. The reason I have never upgraded to a newer Nikon with more megapixels is because my old one still takes photos that rival most of what I see taken with much more expensive equipment (in my non-professional opinion anyway), and I haven't had to spend a dime on a good camera since 2004. Save the extra money for your trip. If you're eligible for a phone upgrade right now and want/need a new phone, then you could get the new iPhone and try it out before your trip. If you like what it can do, just take the new iPhone with you.

Posted by Nadine
Austin, TX, USA
492 posts

Hubby wants a camera he can drop in his shirt pocket, point and shoots are great for him. I carry a Nikon D200, but for simplicity when traveling only take my 18-200 lens which works well for me. We also use our smartphones for quick and easy shots. Smartphones can NOT do what larger lens cameras can, they can do a lot though. What you choose to use needs to be what will work best for you. Just be proficient with whichever option you choose and enjoy it for what it is.

Posted by Nicole P
Truro, NS, Canada
1239 posts

I've been using Fuji for a few years now - have had 2 point and shoot, and one of the 'bridge' cameras with tons of zoom. They have a great panoramic option - very simple sweep of the camera...some, like Canon, will take some individual shots and stitch them together...the Fuji superzoom I have (the HS20, now replaced with the HS30) has great pano options - 120, 180 or full 360, as well as up and down. I used my ipod 4 for some covert pics in 'don't take pics here' spots, but they are not good at all in low light, and if you had an awesome shot that you wanted to make bigger then about a 5x7, you probably wouldn't like the result. (One word of warning, my HS20 does not do good video - focusing is an issue, but that's what I used my ipod for!)

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7870 posts

It's all about lens quality. I suppose someday Iphone will partner with Carl Zeiss and develop a quality camera option. Until then, I'll stick with either a Canon or Nikon with plenty of optical zoom, image stabilization, low-light capability, HD video, a large view screen, and removable memory cards that's small enough to put in a pocket.

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1525 posts

Thanks for the helpful responses. I wanted to keep the question phrased generally so that it might be relevant to someone else as well. But my specific situation involves hiking for 2-3 days at a time in some supposedly pretty amazing scenery. Staying lightweight is critical, but so is taking some good photos. I know I will be bringing with me the newest iPod Touch with the 5mp camera, simply because it will me my entertainment/media device and it's incredibly slim and only 3 1/2 oz. It has a fantastic screen and now a passible camera (the previous generation was awful). Those of you who suggest sticking with my decent Canon sd4000 camera are probably correct that it's worth bringing along. It just irks me that the iPod will have almost the same photo capability by itself. And if I am going to go to the trouble to bring an additional camera-specific device along (and battery charger), I'm willing to go out and get a better one. The Canon sd4000 has taken some fantastic shots when the conditions were right and you can't beat the slim form factor, but it has also taken some disappointing shots, too. I would be interested in giving SLR's a try if it didn't feel like I was carrying a cantaloupe with me everywhere I went.

Posted by Lane
Mansfield, GA
848 posts

Randy, you may want to check out some of the mirrorless cameras. They do have interchangeable lens but because they do not have a mirror as the regular DSLR's do they are smaller. Sony, Nikon, Canon and others make them. Image quality from these cameras is very good and I have read from one photographer who thinks they will eventually replace the DSLR mirror cameras. Remains to be seen. Most come with a kit lens or two but not a lot of zoom on some of the kit lens if that is what you are looking for. I like the wide angle but do carry one long reaching lens with my DSLR. The good: small camera with excellent image quality. The bad: Some can get expensive especially as or if you add accessories. I will get one of the Nikons, probably V1 or the rumored V2 to be announced soon for my wife. I will continue to take my larger DSLR but for much of the walking around will probably borrow her smaller one when she isn't looking.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3180 posts

Keep in mind that differences in cameras is a whole lot more than pixels. For most people, it doesn't matter how big you want to print or view the images. The main factors to consider are lense quality and zoom capability. Phone and IPad cameras are nowhere near the quality of most point and shoot cameras on both fronts. Look for optical zoom lense capability. Digital zoom doesn't cut it and I never bother to use it if I can avoid it. And the times I do use digital zoom, the results are really obvious. And while most people don't understand this, the diameter of the lense plays a big role in quality. You are pretty limited in quality with a tiny lense compared to larger P&S cameras and even larger DSLR lenses. Unless you get exceedingly high quality lenses which don't come with phones. The other thing, related to lense size, is light quality. My DSLR will take fantastic, clear photos in dark churches. A P&S is either blurry or noisy. My IPad camera cannot deal with sharp light contrasts at all. So my recommendation: Always skip the phone if quality is at all important to you. A quick snapshot at dinner is fine, but memory photos should be taken with a decent camera. If you really want high quality or zooming ability, move on to a lower end DSLR. You can get a lense that ranges from wide to good zoom and never have to change it. You can also run it on auto too and rarely have to worry about settings.

Posted by Laurie Beth
Was MN, now TX
646 posts

Randy, I have been having similar thoughts-must be a MN thing. I know of several people who no longer carry a camera when they travel-they just use their phones. I am looking for a new P & S, but my Android phone has more megapixels than my current Canon.

Posted by Becca
Provo, UT
169 posts

It's always a headache to commit to a camera, in my opinion. I currently shoot with a Canon 7D, upgraded from an XSi. I have not taken either to Europe, my last trip was before I had a DSLR. But, I am so excited to take my 7D on my next trip (fingers crossed for next year!). First, because I'm looking to focus more on photography on that trip, and may even consider signing up for a photography workshop. I've found that's a really important component of my traveling and I'm looking forward to that. Second, because I know that I treat photography differently based on the viewfinder I'm looking through. When I have my DSLR, I'm more likely to squat down to get the right angle and spend more time composing a shot than I am if I have a simple point and shoot, or worse, my phone. With that said, I took a point and shoot on both of my other trips to Europe and have some photos I adore, and I do hate carrying it around, especially if I've got an extra lens in my bag. If neither of those things applied to me, I would probably look for a high-powered point and shoot, and it sounds like that might suit your needs. Good luck!

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
954 posts

There are a lot of posters here that don't understand new camera technology.

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1525 posts

Richard, You might be right, but it would be useful if you would elaborate a little. I'm quite sure that I have a lot to learn. I do know that good photo taking has to do with a lot more than having lots of megapixels at your disposal. I can frame a photo. I have an eye. Lots of people don't. They can't frame a photo to save their lives. That's one of the reasons why I wonder how valuable all the bells and whistles in fancy cameras are in real life. Some of the most interesting photography I've seen recently has involved heavy use of photoshop effects. Although I haven't done much of that myself yet, it seems to me that most of the artistry is in the original choice of subject, the framing of the photo, and all of the decisions about what to do with the photo effects afterwards. Unless I am mistaken, all this seems to suggest the microscopic details of the original photo in cases like this are less important than people think. Of course, there are many cases when a super-crisp, vibrant color original photo is exactly what you want to have and leave as-is, without effects.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
21451 posts

@Richard, "There are a lot of posters here that don't understand new camera technology." I agree with Randy - it would help if you could provide some explanation for that statement. Cheers!