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The Perfect Travel Camera

For years, there has been a rough decision for travelers to make. Invest the money in a high-end DSLR camera and resign yourself to carrying an expensive black hump on your body that draws unwanted attention to you as a tourist and target, or get a tiny pocketable camera that gives you a never ending string of almost-in-focus photos.

Without getting technical, the reason every decent camera was comically large was because of a large mirror-flipping mechanism in the middle to make sure what you saw through the viewfinder was actually what you took a picture of. Recently, two of the largest camera makers got together and realized that there is a massive screen on the back of the camera. They took out the entire giant mechanism and stopped forcing people to press their oily faces against the giant beautiful screen to peer through a tiny little hole. They left in all of the manual creative control and mystifyingly great quality, shrunk this amazing new camera down to the smallest possible size, gave it the coolest acronym they could think of, and started selling EVIL to the world.

The first group of cameras were dubbed “Micro Four Thirds” for reasons you shouldn’t care about, and did an amazing job of taking every other camera maker by surprise with how great they were. Since then, many other companies have made their own versions, but they have all taken the “quirky” angle, resulting in strange contraptions that look like the military reverse-engineered alien remote controls and hoped nobody would notice they didn’t know what most of the buttons did. Each ends up being a little island of technology, incompatible with anything but the two lenses made for it. In contrast, Micro Four Thirds can handle any lens you throw at it, from your dad’s old Canon and Nikon collection to those sweet Leica lenses you found at a garage sale.

Finally, a great camera that fits in a coat pocket that won’t draw the attention of every scammer and security guard with a Napoleon complex. No camera will make every picture you take a masterpiece, but the ability to have one with you at all times to practice will help you by leaps and bounds. If you are frustrated by your great pictures being ruined by low quality or having everything screech to a halt as you pull the behemoth out of your hump again, this is your solution.

There are two cameras to choose from, with variations. The Olympus E-P1 has a sleek retro look, metal build, and image stabilization to kill last-second-jostle blur. The Panasonic GF1 has a more modern look and adds a flash, at the expense of image stabilization. In addition, Olympus has put out the E-P2, which you only need if you are old school professional or have piles of cash sitting around, and the E-PL1, which is slightly smaller, lighter, and less expensive, adding a flash at the expense of a sturdy metal body.

Red Trees in ShanghaiPersonally, I like the vibrant colors and shaky-blur-killing of the E-P1, as well as how it looks. It never hurts to think something you want on you at all times is beautiful. The E-PL1 is tempting to be even lighter, but after having my camera tumble out of my pocket onto the concrete sidewalks of Shanghai during an evasive dance maneuver only to take some of my favorite pictures of the trip minutes later (without a scratch), I wouldn’t go back.

Every picture on my Flickr (aside from the film ones) is from my E-P1, and as an added bonus, it shoots full 720p HD video. It’s like someone took the list of everything that was wrong with cameras on the market and issued the perfect camera in response.

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  1. Chris Dame says:

    Hooray! Let me know what you think.

  2. […] yes, that really is everything, aside from the camera I took the photo with. Which means I was completely… er… nevermind. Let’s move […]

  3. Sara Goldstein says:

    I’d love to see an update of this post if you get a chance — are you still using the E-P1? Quite a few interesting Micro Four-Thirds have come out in the last couple of years.

    I’ve been lugging a Canon 1000D and 2-3 heavy lenses for the last five months’ travel, plus my old G10 for all the times I can’t be bothered lugging the heavier camera for the day, and I’m so ready to ditch it for something lighter!

  4. Chris Dame says:

    As a matter of fact, I am still using the same camera and lens. A lot of new cameras have come out since then, but honestly, nothing has really changed. The new cameras are great if you want something lightweight and plastic, but I prefer the durability of the E-P1. I know a lot of people who have switched once they saw me using mine, and every one of them is glad they did.

  5. Sara Goldstein says:

    Good to know. One of my favourite things about the G10 is the metal body & general build quality (far higher than that of the bottom-of-the-line Canon DSLRs); I just find that when I use it, I miss shots because it takes so long to start up. Is your E-P1 fast? Like if you spot a great shot just walking down the street, can you get the picture in a second or two, or would you still be waiting for the camera to get started?

    I’m yet to find a smaller, lighter camera that’s faster than my 1000D, and decisive moment photography is one of my interests so it’s a big deal to me. But the main delay with compact cameras is the time it takes for the lens to slide out of the body before they can take any shots, which I imagine wouldn’t be a problem with a smaller interchangeable-lens camera?

  6. Chris Dame says:

    I mostly use my camera for street and travel photography, so speed is important to me, too. And yes, it’s fast. When it was first released it was a little slower, but they released a software update that made it twice as fast. Welcome to the future.

    Now I usually just have a polarizing filter instead of a lenscap, because it lets me take photos much more quickly. Pull it out while hitting the power button, snap, snap, snap, back in.

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