The Best Travel Camera Today is a Cheap, Old Digicam

The Best Travel Camera Today is a Cheap, Old Digicam

1650 2200 Sarah Rizzo

This year, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel internationally. I spent a full year researching, budgeting, and coordinating all the details to ensure I wouldn’t miss out on a single thing that I wanted to see. It was a whirlwind adventure: two weeks, four countries, six cities, and at least half a dozen security checks. Yup, you read that right, at least half a dozen security checks!

So? Who cares? Has Casual Photophile turned into a personal blog/travel influencer machine? Not quite. I won’t peddle travel hacks or tell the best time of day to see the Mona Lisa (in my opinion, don’t). Nope, I’m here to drag you along for the ride as I reflect on the existential question all photographers ask themselves before a trip – “What camera should I bring?”

One thing you need to know about me before we embark on this adventure is that I’m a self-proclaimed film girlie™. My first “serious” venture into photography was a high school darkroom class and while I’m a technical person who works with computers daily, I have never clicked with digital photography (horrible pun not intended). I have no rational justification for it. I just don’t like digital. It’s not as fun as shooting film.

Another thing you need to know about me is: I am but a lowly hobbyist photographer – if it’s not fun, I’m not doing it. Add all of this together and the answer to the original question, which camera should I bring, is obvious. Of course I’m taking a film camera with me on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, right?

Wrong.

I know, it’s crazy and makes absolutely no sense but, I left out some other key info: I’m the cheapest person I know and I’m also a certified X-ray technologist.

If you’re in the film community I’m sure you’ve seen at least one Reddit thread or Instagram story asking “My film was scanned in the airport – is it trashed?” These discussions are riddled with contradicting responses.

“If it’s less than 800 ISO you’re fine.”

“My film was x-rayed 25 times and now those photos are on the cover of Rolling Stone.”

“Why didn’t you just ask for a hand-check?”

I’ve even seen a few responders go as far as suggesting we all haul along powdered chemicals and develop our film at our destination. Insanity.

I’m not going to get into all the caveats regarding film and X-rays. Kodak and others have well-documented the issues seen with the new CT scanners in airports (which are x-ray tubes that spin in circles but deliver a much higher dosage of radiation). As an X-ray tech and the cheapest person I know – all I can tell you is this: I’m not putting a single roll through an X-ray, ever. It’s too expensive. There’s a chance the film will be fine, but there’s also a chance it won’t be. One roll of film can cost as much as $18 nowadays. Not to mention, the photos on the roll itself on a trip like this are priceless memories. I’m not risking it.

I love photography, but again I’m a hobbyist. I just want to take an amazing vacation and document the memories along the way. I don’t want to be anxious in the security line and spend my precious PTO arguing with a foreign agent that my film absolutely must be hand-checked because *mY qUaLiFiCaTiOnS*. I also don’t want to carry around a heavy digital camera worth a thousand, or even hundreds of dollars through cities I’m not familiar with. None of that sounds fun.

So what’s a girl to do? I say, bring on the digicams.

Digicams! They’re small, cheap, and unassuming. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “You trusted once-in-a-lifetime memories to a tiny sensor that’s 10+ years old?”
Yes. Yes, I did. And I don’t regret it.

In the winter, when I was deep in my “I don’t know what camera to bring” crisis, I stumbled across one of KingJvpes videos in which he and a friend walked around town and pitted a Ricoh GR III head-to-head against an old Canon S95. I initially thought all the same things you’re probably thinking – “These kids today. Why not just use your cell phone if you’re going to use a camera with such a crappy, old sensor?” But as I watched, my main takeaway wasn’t that the photos were indistinguishable between the two cameras – they were obviously very easy to tell apart. But I did realize that the old Canon S95 really held up much better than I thought it would and it was only $100.

As I did more research by endlessly scrolling through photo examples on Flickr, I found that the older pre-2010s digicams with their CCD sensors produced photos that had a unique look to them that I really liked. They felt a bit more “vintage” to my eye. I’d heard people in the photography community say that digicams “are the new film” and give a “film look.” I personally don’t think that’s true, but I do feel they provide a certain nostalgic look to photos that younger Millennials and Gen-Z would attribute to their childhood eras. It’s definitely a look that resonates with me more than the super crisp amazing digital sensors that are out there today.

So, off I went down the rabbit hole of DP Review’s camera feature search (kudos to onemonthtwocameras on Youtube for that gem) and filtered for cameras that had all the features I was looking for: RAW capabilities, “larger” 1/1.7 inch, 10-megapixel CCD sensor, and an optical zoom. I came away with two options that I was personally interested in: the Canon S90 and the Panasonic Lumix LX5. I cross-referenced prices on eBay and other used retailers and they were each around $100 at the time so, against my frugal heart, I bought them both and planned to sell whichever one I liked the least.

After testing for a few months before my vacation, I ultimately decided to bring both cameras along. Each camera had different ergonomics and I couldn’t decide which files I favored more. They’re both so small and light, they took up less space and weight in my bag than one of my 35mm SLRs would have anyway. In the event one of them got lost or broken, I’d have a backup. It was an easy decision.

I had the time of my life. I kept one of the digicams on me at all times during the trip. They easily stashed into my little travel purse. I never felt weighed down by my camera or felt the need to leave it back at the accommodation. I didn’t worry that someone was eyeing me up as a potential target for carrying a bunch of expensive camera gear. I never thought twice about plunking my bag up on the belt to be x-rayed a million times. I was carefree and living my best life. The digicams did exactly what I needed a camera to do for this trip – get out of the way and let me take photos.

Since I carried a camera with me everywhere, I got a lot of great shot opportunities that I might not have had if I’d opted to bring along a bigger camera. The RAW capabilities and manual settings made shooting feel more like actual photography than simply using my cell phone, which for me is not an enjoyable photographic experience. I’m very happy with the decision to use digicams for this trip and I’m confident that the 10-megapixel files will have plenty of detail to print the photos into a memory book.

With that said, I want to reiterate that this trip wasn’t an African safari, Paris fashion week, or a destination wedding that I was being paid to shoot. It wasn’t even a photography-focused leisure trip. I didn’t take the most ground-breaking, iconic photos ever. But what I did do is have an amazing time traveling and get to sneak in some fun, low-stress photography whenever it was convenient.

So, if you’re a frugal-to-a-fault hobbyist photographer with a love of film and all things vintage but don’t want to deal with the hassle of flying with film (or heavier, bulkier cameras) and you’re taking a trip that isn’t photography focused, I encourage you to give digicams a try. They’re great little companions. Lastly, thanks for making it to the end of this long-winded article – why are you still here? Just bring whatever camera you want. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. Happy shooting!

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Sarah Rizzo

Sarah Rizzo is a writer, photographer, and incessant research addict with too many hobbies and not enough time. Her earliest memory is taking photos in her childhood backyard on a 35mm spy camera. When she’s not taking photos, she can be found endlessly talking about old cameras to anyone who will listen.

All stories by:Sarah Rizzo
21 comments
  • I have had a Panasonic LX3 and sold it (my first digicam), and more recently replaced it with a used LX5, both CCD cameras, having bought the LX5, I hardly use it. That said, both are very small and nice to carry in a pocket or on a wrist during summer, when you are lightly clothed and don’t want to carry bags and whatnot. I have also looked at the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 phone with the 1″ sensor, but these are not and never were available in the UK.

    I prefer to use my Leica Q2 which I am minded to replace with the fatter Q3 (or sometimes my Sigma Quattro DP3), I think I like the tilty bit on the Q3, though not entirely convinced yet, if I want to get low, I can just kneel or lay down with the Q2.

    Should I want to achieve more ‘film like’ results (the Q2 is good for this anyway), I have found that FilmLab https://www.filmlabapp.com works a treat with digital files. Though it is designed for making digital camera scans of film negatives/positives look like film, it works well when running ‘virgin’ digital files through it, even though they were never initially captured with a film camera. You can test this by going to the Filmlab website.

    If I really want to go through the whole film palaver, I can use my Rolleiflex 3.5t (120) or my Rollei XF35 (35mm). The relatively small Rollei B types and its rellies could be used in the same way, I would imagine. When I had my B35 (my first camera), there was no such thing as a digital camera, apart from those Hasselblad/Kodak efforts that went to the moon in the same year.

    I am currently thinking seriously about buying the new Polaroid I-2 camera, for party type situations.

  • This is solid advice. I traveled to Denmark and Germany this year and brought my Nikon Df with a 28-200 zoom. I made some flat-out terrific images with that kit. But it took up a ton of room in transport, was incredibly conspicuous dangling off my shoulder, was in the way in tight spaces, and was fairly heavy. In 2016 I toured Ireland with my Canon S95, which tucked out of the way and out of sight in my back pocket when not in use. One strong advantage of the Df is that I got through two weeks without needing to charge the battery — with the S95 I traveled with a spare and charged both every night. Another strong advantage of my Df kit is that long zoom, which was damned useful. I’ve always wished the S95 zoomed deeper. But I still have and frequently use my S95. I’m sure sensors today are better than the one in that camera, but that sensor still acquits itself well.

  • bravo, Sarah….

    I loved the LX5 when I had one – just could not convince myself that it was sturdy enough for me…

    currently shooting with a Ricoh GXR digicam and loving it…

  • I feel you on the film hassles. Went to Heathrow earlier this spring on something of a trip of a lifetime, and although the new scanners weren’t in place where I was flying from, I was taking enough film to be nervous. There was no chance of getting what I needed where I was going, so I put it in my usual clear bag ready for inspection and double-checked with airport customer services to make sure there wouldn’t be any issues with the hand-check (I’m autistic so I tend to worry about things a lot in advance)

    Me: Hi, can I have a hand-check, please?
    Security: No, sorry, it’s against policy
    M: I’ve had a hand-check here before, and have some high speed films and several connections to make which make me worried about Xrays, so I’d really appreciate if you could.
    S: No, sorry, it’s against policy
    M: I emailed beforehand to ask if it was OK and brought film with me on that basis.
    S: Can I see the email? *reads email* OK, can I see the earlier emails in that chain?
    M: Um…
    S: I know it says there that we’re happy to do a hand-check, but I think they’re confused, I think they think all your films are high-speed.

    Email: Good morning, I can confirm we would be happy to hand-check your films. Have a pleasant flight.

    M: They say in the email it’s fine. Could you please hand-check my films?
    S: Sorry, we can’t.
    M: But the email…
    S: Sorry, it’s policy.
    M: I don’t mean to be rude or anything but in the time we’ve had this discussion you could have hand-checked them and now we’re holding up the queue.
    S: i do understand. But it’s the policy. *calls supervisor* Yeah, she has an email. Yeah, but I think it’s crossed wires even though it does say. Yeah, thought so..
    S: Sorry, it’s the policy. i can’t go beyond the policy. We can hand-check anything over 800….ok…ok…*picks up roll of 120* sorry, I can’t see where it says 800 on there so I can’t do that one…yeah, sorry, I can’t just take your word for it, we need to see it…ok, that one’s fine…we need to do the rest.

    I passed through seven other security checkpoints on that trip in two other countries, and the most hassle I had was being asked to switch on a camera with film loaded so that they knew it was real.

  • I had the same idea a couple of months back, I have 2 camera sets which are troublesome for everyday carry. I was out for a pocketable and capable camera with the following specs: ~ $100, interchangeable lenses, small size, RAW and manual controls.

    I settled with the discontinued Nikon 1 series, a Nikon 1 J2. It shoots useable RAW files and even if the controls are a bit quirky, I am super pleased with the results it produces and it’s pretty much in my bag all the time. The images have a film like aesthetic kinda straight out of camera which I prefer for the shooting I usually do.

    There are a lot of gems in this digicam category, with a huge variety. I’m keen on trying a new one while they are still affordable before the hype train hits. 🙂

  • Great article! There are a number of very good cameras available that fall into this category. I would add the NIkon P7800 to the list of cameras to consider. It has a good range (28mm-200mm), an aperture range of f2-f4, a 1/1.7″ sensor, and a sharp lens. It’s also built like a tank and it has great erognomics.

  • Until 2010 I travelled all over with film, I just didn’t have a digicam. Then, while traveling, I broke that af-Minolta, and got a digital camera. That’s the only one I own, and still use while traveling, everything else is with film more fun.
    The camera I got back then and still use: the Olympus om-d em5 (1st gen). I like that mFT is relatively compact. Depending on the destination, I bring 1-2 lenses: 14-150 Superzoom (still compact and light), the Panasonic 20mm pancake (super small, and great in the dark), or the 12-50 kit lens which is weatherproof (survived muddy caves in Laos…).
    And yeah, photos on phones are ok for snapshots, but not for having fun…

  • I love my S95. It was a very popular camera with professional photographers in its day.

    It’s a very capable camera for its size, I often run with mine as it fits in my trail shorts so easily.

    It’s also well thought out from a user interface perspective, not as good as a Ricoh GR but much cheaper.

    I also love my fujifilm f10 which I bought when my daughter was born. It has lovely colours , which I guess you come to expect from Fujifilm!

    https://shadowscape.co.uk/fujifilm-f10-a-digicam-relived

  • I accidentally left two films in hold luggage on my return from holiday this year but I asked the processor (Bayeux, London – recommended) to push them both an extra stop and, to my eye, both were absolutely fine.

  • You’re too young to call a two-week trip to Europe the trip of a lifetime. May you enjoy many more trips like it.

  • Solid advice. For an upgrade, grab a Ricoh GRIII or IIIx – pro camera in a digicam disguise.

  • You did wonderfully, Sarah! I also love CCD sensors… and not only for their “look.” At the time, they were somewhat “higher-end” because they loaded and processed images all at once, rather than a line at a time. So “Rolling Shutter” didn’t distort moving subjects. And though you targeted some worthy 10MP cameras, I’ll also add a plug for the superb 8MP Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom. While its compact bridge-camera body isn’t pocketable, it has a Zuiko-quality 5x zoom that an image-quality friend of mine used to create 16×20 exhibition prints (until he turned pro-videographer, and sold the camera to me). The 8080WZ is a marvelous travel companion. Another advantage of vintage digicams is that they can squeeze more files onto memory cards!

    • Very cool. I took a two-week trip to Ireland earlier this month and really struggled with what gear to take. My A7R4 was beckoning me, with a Metabones adapter and a couple Canon EF lenses. I loaded everything into my bag and carried it with me all day like I’d be doing on the trip, and realized that wasn’t going to be much fun. I scaled back to my Leica M240, three M lenses, and my trusty Ricoh GRII. I was happy with that kit but I think I’d have been just as happy with your choices.

  • Clement A Lescale October 2, 2023 at 12:02 pm

    I have had a Canon G 15 since it came out. It has and is my go to camera for cruises. I took it to Australia and New Zealand for 38 days and it was great. I have two Canon full frames for weddings and portraits and they stay home when we travel.

  • Francisco Aguilera October 5, 2023 at 1:23 am

    I found a Canon SD1000 at a flea market for $10 and it has continuously been the camera I reach for as of late. It gets even more use the my Ricoh GR, I think the cheapness of the camera makes me feel more at ease. It not something I have to baby, I just grab it and go. And the photos turn out great, such a joy to use 🙂

  • Great advice! I bought an LX7 new years ago. Such a cool little over-engineered camera. Wonderful short zoom lens, RAW capability, SD card storage, scene presets, easy to carry, fun to use. Sadly, I lost the battery and charger somewhere along the way. A few months ago I stumbled upon a battery site that manufactures a compatible replacement. I ordered two plus the charger and fired it up for a concert this summer where ‘detachable lens’ cameras were prohibited. Other than some very slight auto-focus lag, it performed like a champ. I got a bunch of keepers and had a blast using it with zero camera fatigue at the end of the night.

  • Jay Dann Walker in Australia January 18, 2024 at 3:33 am

    Now for an opinionated old duffer’s advice.

    First, my disclaimer. My film days are long over. I went digital in 2009, and altho I’ve kept all my lovely old film cameras, at my age I’ve no wish to go back to my analogue days. Been there, done that, now long gone. Goodbye, not missed.

    Brutal, I know. But.

    Okay. Now my (entirely personal) recommendations.

    Log into your EBucket account and find either (1) a Panasonic Lumix GF1 (12 MP, an inexpensive optional electronic viewfinder) with the 14-41 or (2) a Nikon D90 (12.something MP, optical viewfinder) with the 18-55.

    Either will cost you less than $100 (IF you are really lucky) or more likely, about half as much again, usually with a lens or (in the case of that GF1) an electronic viewfinder, rather a piece of c*ap but it does what it’s meant to do and if it comes with the camera, well and good).

    With any of these digi-babes in your travel bag, you will never, ever look back again. Trust me on this, I’m old enough to be one of your ancestors…

    As a far-off (3) choice if you have a bit more dosh to tspend, a Fuji XE2 (16 MP, electronic viewfinder, many Fujnon lenses, more expensive but a top-end digi-camera) and get the legendary Fujinon 18-55. Or alternatively an 18/2.0. My zoom cost me $125 and the 18 was $200, expensive yeh but a real prize for what it does.

    It my age (let’s agree on “69 and all that”) I no longer want to carry heavy cameras My days of lugging a Nikon D700 or D800 are done with. I once took leave of my senses and went to Asia for six weeks with a Nikkormat EL and four Nikkors, a Rollei TLR and a Linhof 6×9 with two film backs and three lenses. Also a Linhof tripod. I’m amazed my back held up the trip. I used the NIkkormats 90%, the Rollei 9%,and Linhof for the rest. The latter was sold the week after I got home and never missed. A gorgeous piece of period German engineering, but. But.

    My choices when I set off to Singapore, Malaysia, Sarawak and Brunei next month, will be tmyNikon D90, an 18-55 and a 40/2.8 micro. I bought the D90 for AUD $80, kit lens included. Seller threw in a Hoya UV, a Hoya circular polarizer, a Toshiba 32 GB USB stick made from REAL METAL, three used Sandisk 32GB cards and a nifty Hama GS31 table top tripod. Yes, I know, there are living saints out there. I lucked onto one. Bless him a gazillion times for his generosity and kindness. (Since you asked, the 40/2.8 micro cost AUD $225.)

    The Lumix)was given to me by a friend. Like the D90, it’s a ‘prosumer’ of its time (IRRC both date to around 2009) and has plenty of bells and whistles to amuse me. I’ve used mostly the 14-42. The 45-whatever zoomie I got with it stays in my bag. If I meet an orang-outan in Sarawak next month I may take it out and do a few portraits of it.

    I won’t go into the virtues of the XE2. They speak for themselves. Very few are available used online, most people who have one usually won’t part with them. XE2s, XE3, lots. XE4, don’t go there. Expensive, not as good as. XE1s, maybe. I’ve not used one, so I’ll give it a “maybe'”

    Of this trio, for ‘keepers’ good enough to be potentially sold (which to be honest is more about the abilities of the photographer than the equipment) the D90 scores highest for me. I’ve sold architectural images taken with this and the 18-55 to book and magazine publishers. (I no longer do stock imagery for reasons I’ll write about in a future article fhere, if people are interested.)

    The Lumix CAN make salable quality images with some effort and a little common sense applied to one’s photography, but I reckon it’s best at online postings. For full page magazine spreads, the D90 is your baby.

    The XE2, well, most Fuji cameras don’t suit me, excepting this beaut little XE2. Optically, the Fujinon lenses are nothing less than superb. The cameras, well, tfor me he jury’s out on those. Especially the XT range. But I’m digressing. A thousand pardons…

    Enough said. Opinionated? Who, moi? Maybe. Old enough to be. Voice of experience and all that. Disagree with me if you want to, we may get into some interesting conversations between ourselves this way. But please, clearly state your reasons. Information is what it’s all about…

    DANN in Australia.

  • Sarah, you had only two weeks to travel? I am sorry for you. I know an American girl who had a penmate in Germany, after many years of writing letters, she cam to Germany, met her penmate and married him. By the way, the penmate, that’s me. We traveled together into 19 European countries, found even the origins of her ancestors in two different countries. We were very happy! May be you should find a German penmate, marry him and continue your travels. – But now, let me be serious (my story is true, but my suppgestion might not be what you need). The cameras you chose are shurely the best real compact vintage cameras! In analog times, I collected cameras, I wrote articles for a photo magazin, in digital times I bought a system camera. I found out that I don’t really need it, I like to travel without a big camera. I even don’t need a “premium” compact. I use a Lumix LF1, that’s the same level and sensor size like your cameras and good enough even for big prints. – Thank you for your report! — Volker in Germay

  • great article! I’m planning for trip to italy and just got my lx5 back from my gen z son in college who didn’t even use it.
    I’m still trying to decide if I should bring my Nikon slr. I just don’t know if I am so bold yet. I am much more confident with my nikon slr, but it is admittedly more bulky than I’d like. Am thinking that I’ll bring both cameras and perhaps the slr will stay in the hotel and serve as my backup.

  • Good advice. I used to travel with film, put the canisters in an x-ray proof bag and everything. Never had any problems at the airport so it wasn’t too much of a hassle, but nothing beats the convenience and simplicity of using my old Panasonic GX1 with a Panasonic pancake 20mm (40mm equivalent) lens. Beautiful pictures, more than enough controls and features, diminutive size, and relatively cheap if anything were to happen.

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Sarah Rizzo

Sarah Rizzo is a writer, photographer, and incessant research addict with too many hobbies and not enough time. Her earliest memory is taking photos in her childhood backyard on a 35mm spy camera. When she’s not taking photos, she can be found endlessly talking about old cameras to anyone who will listen.

All stories by:Sarah Rizzo