Should You Ditch Your DSLR and Use a Compact Camera for Travel Photography?

Photo Tips, Street Photography

Like many people, when I first became interested in photography, I went out and bought a boxy DSLR and equipped it with a big-ass 28-300 lens. This setup worked well at first, as it allowed me to take photos of everything from landscapes to wildlife with one lens. That camera served me well until the F-Bomb Heard Around the World, but that is a different story altogether.

Anyways, I shot with big cameras for 10 years, but before going to Mexico in late 2015, I decided to buy a Fuji X100t to use on the streets. I thought I’d use it maybe 10% of the time, but now I use it 100% of the time for street photography and almost exclusively while traveling. In addition, it has totally changed the way I take photos. My DSLR is still useful when shooting wildlife in Alaska, and has benefits when shooting sports, but if I had to pick one or the other, I’d take the small camera hands down. I love it. Let me tell you why.

5 Benefits of a Mirrorless Camera

Compact Cameras are Discreet

Kissing couple in Mexico

A big camera is intimidating; it makes you look like a professional photojournalist or rich tourist. A small camera may not go unnoticed, but it doesn’t usually cause people to change their behavior if they see it. As a result, I can get much closer with the small camera without drawing attention to myself. In the photo above, I saw this amorous couple in a park in Morelia, Mexico, held up my small camera and snapped a couple quick shots. They had no idea I was there, of course, they were quite oblivious to the world in general.


Mirrorless Cameras Are Silent (or Very Quiet)

cat with monks

One awesome feature of the Fuji X100 is that it is totally silent, and most mirrorless cameras are very quiet compared to DSLRs. In the photo above, I was initially drawn into the temple by the beautiful singing of the monks, but I saw this orange cat wandering around and I decided to wait and see if anything interesting happened. I didn’t want to be intrusive, so I sat behind the monks and took photos silently. A local Thai lady then came in and starting clicking photos with a camera phone that had a loud artificial shutter sound. It was obnoxious. I doubt I’d have taken this picture with a DSLR and if I had, I might have distracted from the moment.

Mirrorless Cameras are Light and Small

Family inside the circle train.

I am more likely to throw it over my shoulder when I go places and much more likely to bust it out and use it. I have to carefully pack my DSLR and lenses in my backpack while traveling, but this camera is small enough I can put it over my shoulder and take shots in buses, trains, cars, etc. In the photo above, taken on the Circle Train in Yangon, I was able to take photos inside the wobbly train. I doubt I’d have done this with a large and cumbersome DSLR.

Mirrorless Cameras Have All the Manual Controls of a DSLR

Asoke Bangkok

Want to blur the background on a portrait, capture motion with panning, or create rivers of light with a long exposure of a city? No problem. The manual controls are actually easier to use on many of these small cameras because the knobs are on body, meaning the camera settings can be changed by hand vs. going into a menu on a screen.

The Picture Quality is Superb

Guanajuato from El Pipila

Guanajuato from El Pipila

The new generation of small cameras take photos that are just as good as, or even better than, the big cameras. For a hobbyist or serious photography enthusiast, the images taken with a compact camera will still look great when blown up on a wall or when shared on the web. Look at the above images from Guanajuato, Mexico. Can you tell which one I shot with the compact camera and which one I took with the DSLR?

As you can tell, I am now an evangelist for compact cameras. It has totally changed the way I go about taking photos. Although I love my Fuji, there are many excellent models out there. Here is a buying guide for new mirrorless cameras from Tech Radar.

I’d like to hear from you – What type of camera do you use?

Does your camera influence the way you shoot photos?

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

66 thoughts on “Should You Ditch Your DSLR and Use a Compact Camera for Travel Photography?”

  1. This is good. I don’t consider myself a photographer, but I have a big DSLR because it makes me feel like I look like I know what I’m doing. It is big and heavy though and because of that sometimes I leave it at home. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like with a smaller camera…

    • I never thought I’d *love* the small camera, but it really changed everything for me. The big and heavy part has caused me to leave mine home too often too, but now I take my camera with me almost everywhere.

      Thank you for sharing!

  2. There are a couple of inconveniences traveling with a DSLR camera. First, of course, the size — it usually takes a few seconds from getting my camera ready to the moment I press the shutter button. Then the sound — I always want to be as discreet as I possibly can. I’ve been pondering over the idea of getting myself a compact camera, and I think at one point in the future I’ll end up buying one.

    • Good point on the size. I’ve gotten used to holding my small camera just under my chin. I only have to lift it about 6 inches to my eye. My arm would fall off after a half day of holding a DSLR like that.

      What lenses do you use the most?

      • I use a 35-270 mm lens now. I have two other lenses which I never use since two years ago.

    • I think that is a common concern. I also don’t take it out sometimes in areas that are a little sketchy – I don’t enjoy being robbed. 🙂

  3. Evangelina07 says:

    I shoot only with my DSLR and love it dearly. I can put a 35 mm lens on it and shoot discrete or change the sound settings so it doesn’t click as loud.
    I think everybody is different and you have to figure out what works best for you and what you want to achieve with your photography.
    For me my DSLR works perfectly.

    • I have a little lightweight 50mmm but on my crop sensor camera it is like a little telephoto lens. I don’t use it much anymore, but it does make it lighter as you say. Thank you for the comment and your feedback!

  4. You are preaching to the converted, Jeff! I went mirrorless a couple of years ago due to my health – I just couldn’t lift, never mind carry, my big Nikon anymore. Really pleased I made the move, and am most impressed by the capability of my little Olynmpus.!

    • Those Olympus cameras are really beautiful and small. I with my Fuji was just a touch smaller, but I guess there are always tracebacks.

      Does having a small camera change the way you take photos?

      • I’m not familiar with the Fuji – presumably it has interchangeable lenses? I love my Fuji for street photos…portable and unobtrusive

      • The version I have does not have interchangeable lenses and has a fixed 35mm focal length. I really like it that way – I zoom with my feet and it has made me more creative.

      • OK…I guess I work similarly, because I use a 14mm prime, and a 45mm prime, almost exclusively, and I, too, zoom with my less capable feet! I love the DOF capabilities of primes, and the street uses of the wideangle

  5. I’m a DSLR person myself, though I mostly use small prime lenses, partly in order to reduce the size and weight. But I definitely see the appeal of the new Fujis. I’ve been thinking about getting an x100, so that I can have a camera that i can always, or nearly always, have with me. Hmmm, food for thought…

    • Your street portraits are amazing, some of the best I’ve seen. You clearly have a way of getting people to relax in front of a DSLR! The Fuji has a 35mm equivalent which isn’t very good for portraits, but I love the focal length for everything else.

  6. When traipsing up and down river banks fishing, I have my little Olympus Tough along…take great shots and the macro is amazing, a bit too much wide angle at times. I still love the DSLR/lens, but the little is always along too.

    • Not a bad way to go – take both. I should clarify that when I head back to Alaska this summer I’ll be taking my DSLR and 300mm lens around because the little camera just can’t get photos of eagles or bears!

  7. Very interesting post! Your photos are amazing. I’m nowhere near a professional, but I felt I just had to have a DSLR and bought one, and loved learning how to use it. But I also have a compact camera, a Nikon Coolpix 9600 with built in wifi. It has a brilliant zoom, and loads of features. I take it everywhere and hardly use the DSLR. I even had a photo that I took with the compact Nikon on the front of a sailing magazine, plus a six page spread inside.

    • Very cool! It is good to see the little camera get a magazine cover. I have certainly enjoyed learning all the manual stuff and using different lenses with the DSLR, but I like the simplicity now. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I have a DSLR, but find it too heavy and cumbersome. I have just bought a Panasonic Lumix, I am enjoying it’s small size and it does takes great pictures. But often I just use the camera on my Galaxy Note mobile phone which is so easy to carry around and the photos are not too bad either.

    • Camera phones have gotten so good that they are a great option too. I know a lot of journalists are using them, especially in sensitive areas, because they are discreet. Those Lumix’s are good looking cameras.

    • I’m thinking of getting a Panasonic Lumix myself, and have also grown tired of the bulk, weight and hassle of my DSLR 📷📸😩

  9. Going Global: An International Adventure Series... says:

    I got a little camera to take on cycling trips. I’m a beginning photographer so when the the picture quality was about the same as my big camera, I wasn’t surprised!! Lol! However I rarely use the big camera now unless I want to try something really technical.

    • I think the photo quality is often seen when the photos are blown up very large, or in low light situations. For a cycling trip around Min Buri the small camera has a lot of advantages!

  10. Eleazar says:

    Thanks very much for all the information, that was very useful and learnt a lot from it! 🙂

  11. Steve C says:

    You really know how to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the works don’t you? I too have the big Nikon DSLR w/ 18-300mm lens. I bought it specifically for traveling since I retired a few years ago. I’ve had many SLR’s with multiple lenses over the years for traveling. This time, I wanted to travel with only one lens, so as not to be changing lenses constantly. Did you say you have a Canon? If so, they are the heaviest of all and I can see why you changed.
    Recently, I’ve adopted the mantra of questioning all my assumptions. Your decision to change to a smaller camera hits me hard. I love my zoom. It allows me to take shots from a distance, thereby not missing shots having to sneak up closer to get the right frame or angle. As for the sound, it doesn’t make any difference from a distance. As for the weight, so far it’s not a problem.
    I’m embarking on a six month trip to Southeast Asia next month and don’t get me going on buying any more equipment. I’m shopped out and going with what I’ve got!
    Ask me again when I get back. Who knows, maybe I’ll be in your frame of mind by then. If you’re still in Bangkok when I stumble through there, we’ll discuss it at length over a Chang, or two. 🙂

    • You have a huge range with the 18-300mm lens. You won’t have to mess around with changing. There are some limitations with my small camera – at 35mm I certainly can’t take wildlife photos or zoom in on distant details on a temple. But, on the streets, I am rarely far away from my subject and the wide angle challenges me to get close to people. It is just a totally different style.

      I should note that over the summer when I’m in Alaska I will my DSLR with my 70-300mm or 10-22mm lens almost all the time. It is still king when shooting wildlife, and the super wide angle is perfect for AK landscapes.

      I’ll be in SE Asia until late April then returning late Sept. That would be great to discuss over a Chang!

      • Steve C says:

        Jeff, we’re gonna hafta keep those Changs on ice until next trip. I’m flying into Saigon and plan on a couple months in Vietnam. That’s my number 1 focus as it’s been 47 years since I was there last. I promised lots of photos of where we were to the guys in our unit at our next reunion. I was in a helicopter gunship company in Central Vietnam 70-71. I don’t think I can make it to Bangkok before the end of April then I’ll be back in the States in August.
        I’ve always been too self conscious to walk up to people on the street to get a good wide-angle closeup without asking their permission first. It’s kind of hard when you don’t speak their language. My street shots of people are usually a hundred feet away or more so they never know they’ve been photographed. Like you said, it’s just a different style.
        Like I said above, I love my super zoom lens. I also spent the extra bucks to get the Nikkor lens with the extra f stop: 1:3.5-5.6 Boy, what a difference that makes in low light conditions!
        I enjoy your “Travel” blog as you like to interact with your followers. Lots of bloggers like to just talk about: me, me me. Maybe when you become so famous, as in 500,000 followers, you won’t have time to reply to everyone anymore. 😦
        This won’t be my last trip to Southeast Asia as Bangkok is just about my most favorite city in the whole world, (except San Francisco or course 🙂 )

  12. I have a Nikon D3100. Takes great pictures, but really bulky! I’ve been looking for something more compact that I can just slip into my bag while traveling. I do take pictures with my iPhone, but I haven’t quite figured out how to make shots look clear and professional with it. I don’t think I’d like to use it for travel photography anyway, as the camera function drains the battery and I never seem to have enough space for all the pictures.

    Thanks for providing the resources to find a mirrorless camera! Hoping to get a good one for summer vacation. -Shirley

    • iPhones can be very challenging, but just fine in situations with lots of light and color. The mirrorless camera bridges the gap. If you get a small camera I’d be interested to know which one you use more.

  13. And I meant to add that yes, my camera certainly does influence how I shoot photos. I feel like a weirdo with my DSLR in places that aren’t really touristy…I just want to take the picture and get out of everyone’s way, but if I rush, I may not get a good shot. Ahh!

    • True. Since getting the mirrorless, I feel like I’m taking a rocket launcher with me when I shoot with the DSLR. 🙂

  14. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    I have used my SLR exactly 3 times in the past 3.5 years. Mirrorless is the future. I love mine for all the reasons you list.

    • Three whole times! I think I’ve used mine like 3 times this winter, but I know I’ll use it this summer in Glacier Bay.

      • Adventures in Kevin's World says:

        I use it for whale watching, that’s it. If I returned to AK I would use it again

  15. Great post and great thoughts! Although I use my DSLR most of time (wildlife and scenery in Alaska), my little Panasonic Lumix compact is my go-to on the streets, for all the reasons you listed! Unfortunately its quality has started to degrade really noticeably in the last couple of years. How has yours lasted? Any idea if degrading over time is normal?
    Thanks again for a great post! (I was especially interested as you’ve answered one of my “Sunshine Blogger Award” questions for you!)

    • I have heard that some cameras, the Ricoh for example, have a tendency to break, but I’ve not heard anything about them degrading. My first lens that I owned got very soft and totally lacked contrast after a few years.

      You might contact Lumix to see what could be going wrong with it. I’ve had my Fuji for only 18 months so no issues yet.

  16. A few treks ago, as my DSLR clanked against rock walls, weighed me down, and made me stop constantly to change lenses, I decided to only take my smaller camera on hiking trips. Then I realized how freeing this was and started only taking the smaller one on ALL my trips. Then the iPhone camera got so good, especially in certain situations (low light, for example) that I even got lazy about the small camera! I do still carry it and use it, but that poor Nikon DSLR is snoozing away these days.

    • I don’t own a phone so I’ve never been tempted to go full iPhone for photos, but I can see the appeal. You can put it in your pocket! Taking the big camera is a pain when going on a hike. I still use my DSLR in Alaska because I want the long lens for animals and the super-wide lens for landscapes.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  17. Thanks Jeff. This is helpful info for when the time comes that I grow up and get a real camera again. Of course using my ipad as I do gets inferior digital quality, sucks for close ups and night shooting but definitely allows me to interact with people in a way I would not be able to do with a regular camera. There is nothing more obnoxious than those tourists with their huge cameras and mostly their oblivion and insensitivity to their subjects. Arrghhh you touched on one of my pet peeves


    • The little camera, with all the old school buttons and controls, has really been a joy to shoot with and caused me to take more photos. If you go back to a real camera, test one out! I think you’ll love it.

      I suppose it isn’t so much the camera but the attitude of the tourists. They can really invade people’s space and sort of spoil the moment at times.

  18. We bought a mirrorless camera about 18 months ago and love it! We use a Sony a6000. Easy to carry discreetly which I love.

  19. Great post, and fabulous Mexico photo. I’m really loving my little retro-style Olympus OM-D. Your comments struck a chord as I recall just a few days ago the disgusting display of big camera/flash photography during the morning alms procession of the monks in Luang Prabang.

    Sorry I didn’t connect with you in Bangkok. It was a whirlwind and I had a terrible cold. Add Bangkok traffic, heat, jet-lag and a massive nose bleed at the weekend market…best you didn’t meet me in this state. Still managed to see lots and went on to have great time in Cambodia/Laos. Lots of posts to come after sorting through the photos.

    • I really like the look of those Olympus cameras. They are very similar to my Fuji. About 10 years ago when I was in LP for the first time, people were getting very close to monks with big cameras but it wasn’t bad yet. I can only imagine now.

      No problems about Bangkok – it can be a difficult introduction to SE Asia. The traffic, heat and jet-lag can be in intense. Glad you enjoyed your time in Asia!

  20. Pingback: In lumina

    • James, that is hilarious! A comment all the way from 2013. At that time I could not have imagined using a small camera, now I’m a convert.

      I just reread your post – that 25mm-500mm zoom is impressive and a nice way to go. It looks like you can put that in your pocket too.

  21. This really gets me thinking! When I travel, my camera gear takes up more luggage space than my clothes and everything else combines. 2 Canon bodies 3 or 4 lenses, tripod, cable release, flash, 3 complete sets of batteries, chargers and so on. Sometimes only to be disappointed when you can’t take a “professional” camera into a place (the Vatican, for example)I’d never get rid of the Canons, but adding a mirrorless just might be in the future! Great post. Loved all the comments, some really good points!

    • I don’t see myself getting rid of my DSLR, tripod and zoom lenses because I live in Alaska in the summer. If and when we make the move to Asia full time, I’ll probably sell off all the lenses and gear. It is liberating to walk around with one camera with a fixed lens.

      If you are traveling with that much gear, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll enjoy a mirrorless or compact camera as a companion.

  22. Marilyn says:

    Loved all the pictures. Enjoyed all the comments. I travel with you via your pictures and stories and now I know what camera to purchase. Thanks Jeff!

  23. Agreed, I take my Fuji everywhere! I initially bought a zoom but quickly swapped it for a fast 16mm prime, after realizing that I shot 90% of the time at the widest focal length. Another thing I like about it is that I can use old lenses with it via an inexpensive adapter, and retain all the cool manual focus assist modes. – Verne

    • I am a huge fan of prime lenses, which could be a post all on its own. I never thought that not having a zoom would be a good thing. A 16mm prime on a crop sensor would be 28mm. That is a nice focal length for just about everything you could want.

  24. When I got my last upgrade I was going for a mirrorless and actually bought an olympus with a zoom lens (forgotten the dimensions – maybe 25 to 150, something like that). I played with it for a couple of weeks then exchanged it (for the Panasonic FZ1000) when the lens wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do (specifically focus on the particular object I was zooming in on). I’d been wanting a smaller lighter camera and ended up with a bigger heavier one. Facepalm! What do you do about zooming? I get so many shots by zooming in on them, and frequently use Don as a shield and the LCD screen rather than the viewfinder so I’m not holding the camera up to my face but have it down around my waist. I’m ready for another upgrade but there are still so many features of the panasonic that I love.

    • There are so many good cameras nowadays, from Panasonic to Sony to Olympus, but I really love my Fuji. They make a whole range of compact cameras – you should take a look at what they have.

      I have learned to zoom with my feet. Before I started shooting with this style, I could never have imagined shooting without a zoom. I am getting better at getting close to people, but I want to learn to get closer. The thing is, when you get close to someone with a 35mm lens they usually think you are shooting something behind them! In Asia, 99% of the people don’t care that I took their photo. I just smile afterwards and sometimes I end up talking with them, but we usually exchange smiles and I thank them.

  25. Ahah! Jeff, I guess here I found the next post I wanted to write myself on my blog: and you did a great job describing how one feels when moving from DSLR to mirrorless! After almost 2 years with a XT-1 and a few more with a 5D I have matured a balanced idea of pros and cons of mirrorless and DSLR… My idea so far: better to have both!

    • I still have a DSLR that I will use this summer when I live in Alaska. I will use my 300mm lens to photograph animals and my 10mm lens for landscapes. DSLR’s are awesome for that type of photography.

      I have had my eye on the XT-1 and now the XT-2. What lens do you usually use?

      • I use 23mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/2. I want to keep the Fuji for the street so I won’t invest on the very much desired 56mm f/1.2…. As you can read on my blog I am an (ex)addicted… 🙂

  26. that traveling nurse says:

    This was preaching to me! Perfect timing. In my last few trips, I have been too lazy to use my big cam and leave it at the hotel on purpose. I have my cellphone with me all the time anyway so thats what I have been using along with my nikon coolpix which we originally bought because it is waterproof and shockproof. Much, much handier than the DSLR which you can’t drop nor can you take it in the water with you unless you have a special waterproof case. So, with this, I will look at your suggestions so I can fully make the switch. I hate to say goodbye to my DSLR but I think it is time to be more practical. Though I may still use it on certain rare occasions. Thanks for this post!

    • A waterproof and shockproof camera is a whole other level of travel camera. I really think simplicity is the key to enjoying travel photography. The number one question is “will you take it with you?” The number two question is “will you pull it out and shoot?” Some people don’t mind lugging around a DSLR and shooting anywhere with it, but for most of us smaller and lighter is better.

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