No one buys a motorhome just to park it in the driveway. Nope, the main reason to get a motorhome is to go out and travel—to visit beautiful places, enjoy the scenery and to pack in as many unique and exciting experiences as possible. And the best way to remember all of your travels is with a camera. But what’s the best camera to have when you’re traveling in an RV? Well, that depends on how much time, money and space you’re willing to devote to your new hobby. So, to help you make up your mind, I’m going to tell you about all of the types of cameras available today.
Point and shoot or “compact” cameras can cost as little as $75, though there are some that cost as much as $500. They are easy to use and small enough to fit in a pocket or purse. They take reasonably good pictures if you have plenty of light and your subject stays relatively still. If your RV storage space is already jam-packed with necessities, a compact camera won’t take up any more room than a deck of playing cards.
Larger than the compact cameras, a new breed of super-zoom cameras, called “bridge” cameras, cross the divide between compact cameras and large DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras. Having a smallish, affordable camera with a built-in lens that can reach out far enough to capture birds and wildlife is enticing, but there are drawbacks to bridge cameras. The biggest drawback is that most use the same tiny image sensor as their itty-bitty point and shoot cousins. If you’re only going to post your photos online, the quality is more than adequate. But if you plan on making larger prints, you’re going to be disappointed.
If you’re a novice to photography and you don’t want to invest the time it takes to learn about advanced controls and techniques, a compact or a bridge camera might be perfect for your needs. The same holds true with your actual investment of money too. You can find a great compact camera for under $150, and a fantastic bridge camera for less than $400.
You may have heard about the next classification, mirrorless cameras, already but weren’t sure what “mirrorless” actually meant. Don’t worry; you’re not the first to be confused by camera industry technology. To understand mirrorless, you first need to know about cameras that still use a mirror, the DSLRs.
The mirror has been used in cameras for a hundred years and it’s pretty easy to describe. A camera works by capturing light and transferring the images created by that light onto an image sensor. A small mirror sits in-between the lens and the sensor and diverts the light to the viewfinder so you can see through the lens. When you take a photograph, the mirror rises up and out of the way so the light can reach the sensor.
Mirrorless cameras don’t use this technology. The image is sent directly to the sensor, and an electronic version of the image is sent to the LCD or viewfinder on the back of the camera. The main benefit of a mirrorless camera over a DSLR is size. The mirror assembly in DSLRs is big, and mirrorless cameras tend to have fewer control buttons and dials than DSLRs.
I wish I could just leave it at that, but I can’t. There are now more “flavors” of mirrorless cameras than there are of ice cream, with variations in sensor size, lens type and other features. Mirrorless cameras can cost anywhere from $500 to over $2,000 and that doesn’t include additional lenses, a larger flash, SD cards, tripod, bag…and the list goes on. And while the camera and its lenses are considerably smaller than with a DSLR, you’re still going to have to devote some real space in your motorhome for your new camera gear.
If you thought there were a lot of choices in mirrorless cameras, you’ll be shocked at how many choices you’ll have if you decide to buy a DSLR. Not only are there plenty of DSLR manufacturers, but each one offers a multitude of products at price points that start at less than $1,000 and top out at more than $5,000.
I’ve known more than a few photographers who start off their hobby with an inexpensive DSLR. I understand the attraction. Just walking into a Costco, or browsing on Amazon, you’re overwhelmed with enticing offers on DSLR equipment. You can get a camera from a well-known brand, plus a couple of lenses, for less than $1,000. That sounds good, until you realize your brand-new camera is actually a couple of generations behind the times, and the lenses that came with it are “kit” lenses that won’t satisfy you for long. Many people who buy these types of cameras end up upgrading everything they own in just a year or two. And those upgrades don’t come cheap. If you decide to move up to a full-frame model, everything goes up—the price, the size, and the investment in time it takes to learn how to take advantage of all of the high-end features.
A full-frame camera, just to clear up any confusion you might have, is a type of DSLR with a sensor that is the same size as a 35mm film negative. Regular DSLRs have a smaller sensor, sometimes called a “cropped” sensor. Full-frame cameras do produce exceptional images, but I believe the extra cost and size of these professional-level cameras can only really be justified if you’re making and selling very large prints.
Don’t get me wrong. High-end mirrorless and DSLR cameras can capture wonderful photographs. And if you’re willing to spend the money, devote the space and take the time to learn how to use them, you’ll have photographs even a pro would be proud to call their own.
So here are my recommendations. If you’re looking for an easy, inexpensive way to capture some great “on-the-road” memories and you want to share your photos on-line, you’ll be very happy with a compact, point-and-shoot camera. If you find yourself taking photos of birds and animals and events (things that are rather far away), then you’ll love a super-zoom bridge camera. If you’re looking to develop your photographic skills, and you’d like to take total control over the entire photographic process, than you can choose either a mirrorless camera or a larger DSLR. But keep in mind the available, accessible room you have in your RV when you’re making the decision between a smaller mirrorless camera and a DSLR.
A final note: I’ve stayed away from mentioning specific brands or models in this article because I believe you can’t go very far wrong with any current camera. So don’t stress yourself trying to decide if you want a Nikon or a Canon or a Sony or an Olympus—they’re all great. Just make sure that you’re buying a camera that you’re going to be happy bringing with you and using on every wonderful RV vacation.
Kevin Reilly is an RVer and photographer who lives in the Sierra foothills of California. His black-and-white photographs are award winners and can be seen at his website, roadshooters.com, where he shares his photographic expertise with other RVers.