Best Camera for Traveling? GoPro vs DSLR (Updated)
If you are debating which camera is best for your travels – look no further. We got you.
While our phones are increasingly improving in their ability to capture quality images, they can only do so much. You want more. This is NomadsNation recommendation for the best camera for traveling.
Free PDF of this article!
I made a point of this in my Lessons Learned While Traveling blog post – but quickly realized it deserved it’s own post.
I’m a decent travel-photographer. There are far better. There are far worse. I’ve traveled with a DSLR, I’ve traveled with a GoPro. Both have their pros, and both have their cons. To make the decision, you need to evaluate your personal style of travel, and see which camera best complements it.
But regardless of each’s strengths and weaknesses, for me, the choice between the two, is simple.
If you are considering traveling, and not sure which camera to invest in, I emphatically endorse GoPro!
I don’t work for GoPro, I’m not getting any incentive to endorse them – after five years of traveling it’s just my genuine preference.
But first, a quick moment of respect for the DSLR.
Quality of Image
The first point I wish to make. If you’re number one goal as a travel-photographer is to capture the highest quality photos possible – go with a DSLR. A lot of the top travel bloggers around the world rock a DSLR, myself included at one point!
My first backpacking extravaganza was accompanied by the universally adored Canon Rebel T3i. This affordable, dependable, and high quality piece of equipment accompanied me through five weeks of -> Portugal->Spain->Thailand->Cambodia->Hong Kong.
In that time I was able to capture some truly beautiful images, which showcases the indistinguishable attribute the DSLR has over the GoPro, and frankly any of it’s competition.
In terms of quality of image, the DSLR isn’t just the best type of camera for traveling, it’s the best type of camera, period.
If you want the best photographs possible, the DSLR is for you. Larger image sensors, pixel size, superior ISO and shutter speeds, and an enviable depth of field makes the DSLR king of the world of image quality. Look at this
This is a photograph I took in Cambodia. It’s a really good photograph if I may say. But what takes this photograph to the next level is the depth of field. What is depth of field? According to Wikipedia, DOF “is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image”.
Basically it’s the ratio of what is out of focus (Angkor Wat in the background) and what is in focus (the introspective monkey).
If I were to take this with my phone or GoPro, while it still would have been a great picture, it never would have turned out anything like it did with the DSLR.
Let’s look at more examples.
Again, another nice photo from Bangkok – highlighted by the DSLR’s impressive depth of field. Add in a little editing, and BOOM. You’ll feel like a professional travel photographer. More.
DSLR’s are going to be able to handle landscapes (or waterscapes?) way better than a GoPro can.
My personal favorite travel-photograph I’ve ever taken. Don’t expect your iPhone or GoPro photos to possess this “National Geographic” look.
The reason I show these pictures is to emphasize, that while I 100% prefer the GoPro, it’s because it suits my travel style. My number one priorities are priorities that are best suited by the GoPro.
If the number one priority for your camera is to have the best quality of image? Stop right here, and get yourself a DSLR. You will not regret it.
Now. Having paid fair tribute to the DSLR and all of it’s quality, let’s move on to my recommendation. The GoPro, and why it’s the best camera for traveling.
While the GoPro best suits my travel style across the board, this is probably the most influential factor. When I travel, I travel as light as possible. I cut the fat, don’t take more than I need, knowing that if there is anything else I need I can always pick it up on the way.
DSLR’s are big, clunky, and heavy.
GoPro’s are compact, manageable and light.
This is a really, really close second for me. When I travel, I prefer to be as low key as possible. I try to blend in, mind my business, and most importantly, not attract too much attention to myself. Yes. At the end of the day I am a tourist and won’t sacrifice my experience just to ‘blend in’, but I’ll take whatever efforts I can to keep myself out of the spotlight.
And sometimes, dragging around a shiny, expensive looking DSLR, can point a big old spotlight right on you.
While not the highest quality photograph, it was taken with a DSLR in Bangkok, and I think definitely sums up the lack of discretion that the camera just is. It’s a big, expensive piece of equipment, and like the gentlemen on this bus in Bangkok, people take notice.
I’m definitely not trying to make you fear traveling with a DSLR. Don’t be afraid! But it is a point worth making, and an important one for my personal travel preference – being stress free.
Now this is where it gets exciting. The whole discretion-thing works two ways. Not only are you attracting less attention to yourself, but the GoPro’s petite structure enables you to go incognito and capture shots that would have otherwise been much more challenging.
Sure, you will be noticed here and there, but you will be ten times more surreptitious, which will enable you to get better photographs, like our handsome-but-stern Police Officer in Rome pictured above (who also kindof looks like a younger version of the Captain from the film ‘Titanic’, right?). Or our talented street musician on the edge of the Hong Kong harbor pictured below (also Hong Kong being one of our top travel recs this year).
This doesn’t just work well while traveling in Hong Kong and Rome – it works well everywhere!
To get these photos, one must master the art of the “hip shot”. Keep the GoPro accessible, preferably in a pocket of some sort (hoodie pockets work the best), and any time a visual strikes your fancy, keep the GoPro hip-level, aim, and start snapping away. No set ups, no viewfinders, no natural poses… just capturing the world as it happens.
50% of the “Hip-shot-photos” will be blurry messes, 30% of them will be crap, but the other 20% will be amazing photographs that were captured in an incognito-ninja-like-fashion.
DSLR’s size make it so obvious when you’re trying to photograph something or someone. To me, it ruins everything. IMO, GoPro is a preferable solution.
Obviously the GoPro wins here. While DSLR’s can be surprisingly durable, they are high tech, professional equipment, and are quite fragile. They are not meant to be dropped.
But your GoPro??? Have your way with it. These things were intended to be bounced around like a beach ball at a Nickelback concert. I know this bc in my research for this piece, I came across a plethora of videos testing just how durable the GoPro actually is. You can watch a GoPro get dropped from 100 feet, boiled in a pot of water, get whacked by a nine iron golf club, and get run over by a car. And if you were wondering to yourself, “But I was really hoping for a video of a GoPro being shoved into an enormous nest of vicious wasps”, don’t worry, I got you.
The GoPro’s durability is a gift to backpackers, ESPECIALLY when you put one the protective cases on. Speaking of which…
The newest GoPro (Hero 5) doesn’t require a case to go underwater, the older models do.
There are two housing (case) options for the GoPro 1) Standard 2) Waterproof.
The standard housing is a protective case that can NOT go underwater.
The Waterproof housing is a protective case that can obviously go underwater. But, one thing to keep in mind; The waterproof housing is meant to be airtight, meaning nothing gets in, and nothing gets out. This includes sound. So don’t expect much from the audio when using the waterproof housing. This is why you should have one of each, just in case.
Being able to take videos and photographs underwater is just… amazing. Some of my personal favorite travel (and life in general) memories involve the ocean, and it’s very special to have pictures to help reminisce.
While not initially intended for video, DSLR’s have incredible video features, and have become a favorite for budget DIY filmmakers. But for the traveler, the GoPro’s video capabilities are as good as it gets. You won’t need anything else. Whether walking through the streets of Copenhagen or swimming through the waters of Indonesia, the GoPro will amaze you. Watch the Intro Video on the homepage of the site. Half of the video is Go-Pro shot. And that’s all I have to say about that.
The final, and arguably coolest aspect that separates the GoPro, is all of the neat features the camera possesses. Including, but not limited to; burst photo, continuos photo, built in wi-fi, night photo, auto image rotation, and much more.
But my favorite?
Time lapse with your GoPro means you can place it somewhere, and it will take photographs every .5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds, depending how you set it. What is commonly then done, is the images are put together, and sped up, to create the facade of time moving faster. For example, below is a montage of every timelapse used in all five seasons of Breaking Bad.
Personally, I’ve yet to stitch my time-lapses together to create something this awesome, but even without putting the images together, the images themselves can be badass.
Like this one time in the Philippines. Nomads Nation contributor (and dearest friend) Bernie and I set up the GoPro on time lapse and starting performing a series of acrobatic stunts and maneuvers. We just let that baby roll as we threw our bodies around like sugar-induced kids bouncing on a trampoline. The results were quite cool.
Pretty cool right?
And if you don’t feel like tapping into your inner Simon Biles, just set up the GoPro on time lapse anyways. I travel hacked and hiked Machu Pichu solo and wanted some pics. So I wedged the GoPro into one of the stone walls, enabled the time-lapse, and let it work it’s magic while I stood there and tried to cope in the majesty of my surroundings.
There’s no right or wrong answer for which camera to travel with. Traveling with just your phone is more than sufficient. But if you want to step up your photography, there are plenty of options.
Just evaluate your personal needs and style of travel, and see which piece of equipment best caters to that.
For me, it’s undoubtedly the GoPro. Are the images as great as a DSLR? No way. But it’s the best camera for my traveling style and will be my go-to for the foreseeable future.