Real life one bag travel: choosing a camera for one bag travel

Hi Frugalistas!  Regular readers will know that I recently upgraded my camera. Choosing a new one left me with a dilemma – how do I buy a camera with the functionality I was craving, without foregoing one bag travel? I knew it was a difficult balancing act. Numerous readers had posted on my packing posts about the difficulties of balancing packing light combined with a serious photography habit. So what have I learned about buying (and packing) a camera for one bag travel?

discoloured leaves

Up close and personal with some foliage I found on a walk yesterday

Do you really need a camera?

Cameras on mobile (cell) phones are so good these days that I know even some bloggers don’t bother to carry a camera. They buy a phone with a good quality camera and stick to that.

If that isn’t going to work for you, is a compact point and shoot good enough? If you are only going to be taking a few happy snaps as mementos of your trip, do you need to lug a big camera?

Think outside the box and research options

stained glass window in Saint Chapelle Paris ofa man and a woman

A camera that coped well with low light was important for me

I’d started and run my blog armed only with a tiny point and shoot Canon IXUS for a number of years. Not being any sort of photography nerd or expert I had no idea where to start to look for a replacement. I assumed I was headed down the trail most travel bloggers seem to follow – a Canon 6 or 700D (they have different names in North America). Great photos, but not compatible with one bag travel – I’d seen those monsters round too many necks on my travels to know it just wasn’t going to suit me, regardless of how good a quality shots they took.

Then a friend showed me his Lytro, and how easily he could manipulate the images to create fab shots that really did look like they’d been taken by a DSLR costing far more. Was a Lytro what I needed?

Researching my options I saw the world was my oyster. It was possible to buy a compact camera with DSLR performance and quality. In fact there were so many options, it was almost overwhelming!

Choosing the perfect camera for me

I very quickly realised that I didn’t need a DSLR camera. What I also realised was that I could upgrade my little Canon and spend anywhere between $350 and $4000 (I kid you not!)

Setting a budget was therefore key.

Next I needed to work out the key features I was looking for. I decided I wanted DSLR performance in a compact body. I didn’t need, or want, to change lenses, so a semi-compact camera that took DSLR lenses wasn’t going to work for me. Because of my blog, I wanted a good allrounder, that also handled low light well (one of the real frustrations I was having with the little Canon). I also wanted a camera with the best specs for my budget. It needed to be light, and be small enough to fit in my coat pocket or handbag. I also wanted wifi so I could link to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and my other social media accounts easily.

black shoulder bag opened to show inside

Whatever I bought still needed to fit into my handbag

I hit the net for some serious research, and came up with a short list that I was interested in, courtesy of a great website I found called Photography Blog. Then it was time to head to a specialty camera shop for some further investigation.

When I got to the shop, I spent a lot of time questioning the salesman about the various merits of each of my choices. Which one was best in low light? Was there any difference in skin tone? Given I was going to be using the photos for my blog was there any difference in the sharpness of focus or colour between my options? How long was the battery life? (important for long days out and about). Because I travel solo much of the time I wanted one that made selfies easy – so I could get some photos of myself for a change!

Jo Karnaghan wearing a purple cardigan and purple scarf standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

I want selfies!

What did I learn about buying a camera for one bag travel?

Sony RX100 MIII

My compact camera. it fits in my coat pocket and in my handbag

My key message is that it is possible to buy a camera that will shoot DSLR quality photos without having to spend the money, or buy a big camera that will weight you down and take up space in your carry on bag.

When I started to look initially the choice was over whelming, so I spent a lot of time reading, and getting clear in my own mind what the most important features were for me. I think that is absolutely key.

The price range is significant, so again having a budget, and understanding what you get for that budget is important. I realised that once they got over about $1000 most cameras started to get much bigger and heavier. That was a relief financially, but also got me to focus a lot more on size and weight.

Go and talk to an expert rather than just reading reviews and specifications. Ask questions about the relative merits of your short list. Then go away and research some more. Then go back to the shop and ask more questions.

Handle the cameras. Feel the weight in your hand, in your bag and in your pocket. Compare the weight in your hands between the different ones you are considering – even though there was only a few grams difference on paper, I found they did “feel” different, and heavier/lighter in the hand.

How to pack a DSLR camera for one bag travel

I know there are some people who love their DSLR cameras. I have a friend who is a serious hiker who wouldn’t be caught dead without hers when she travels. That’s OK. The ambition of this post isn’t to denigrate the DSLR camera or dismiss those who love them.

packing cubes in a suitcase

take advantage of whatever space you have in your bag

But how to pack a DSLR camera, so you still pack light?

Firstly, don’t assume you need to take every lens you own. Think about your itinerary, and the types of photos you are likely to be taking. As with other one bag packing strategies, don’t pack things “just in case”.

Yes, you can take some wonderful night shots with a tripod, but is that worth taking a tripod for? I’m not saying don’t, I’m saying decide whether it is worth using up valuable carry space for something you may not use. If a tripod is a must, what is the smallest, lightest one that will do the job? Buy one that can fold up and fit into your bag – if you use a wheelie bag pack it in between the tracks of the carry handles so you don’t waste space, or slide it down the side of the case between the side of the case and a packing cube.

Can you store your camera gear in multitasking bags? Is that fancy carry case, that you can’t put anything else in worth it? A camera bag you can also use as a day bag/pack still fits the one bag travel model.

I’m definitely no great photographer, nor do I know everything about cameras, but I do know that is possible to find a fantastic camera, that will take brilliant photos, and that will fit in your one tiny carry on bag!

Author’s note:

All prices are in Australian dollars. At the time of writing AUD1.00=USD0.93. Yes, I know, cameras are expensive in Australia…..

I paid for my camera myself. I ended up buying a Sony RX100 MIII, and I’m very happy with it.

I have no commercial relationship with I found it a genuinely helpful website particularly since I don’t really know much about photography and cameras.


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11 Comments on “Real life one bag travel: choosing a camera for one bag travel”

  1. Nina 31/08/2014 at 5:09 pm #

    Hi Jo,
    I’ve got the same problem with you, and been thinking of ‘down sizing’ my camera from full frame camera to a mirrorless camera, which as you said, very compact but still able to use the interchangeable lenses that I use with the full frame DSLR camera. Up to now, after 6 month of research, I haven’t decided to buy the smaller camera. And when I as the camera shop keepers if anyone downsizing their camera, that is from full frame to mirrorless camera, they said no body do that.
    So, I am still not convince to downsizing…


    • frugalfirstclasstravel 31/08/2014 at 5:47 pm #

      When I was looking I was shown a semi-compact – a compact body, but with the capacity to change lenses. I think it is a variable option for those who want to downsize but still have flexibility with lenses. I decided against it for two reasons – the legs it came with as standard was nowhere near as good as the one on the compact I bought, plus I just didn’t want to fiddle with lenses. Being really clear about what you are trying to and why is really important

  2. James RK 02/09/2014 at 9:34 pm #


    I used to travel with a Canon 5D11 with a 24-70 lens and after switching to a mirrorless I can honestly say it provides more than enough image sharpness and resolution for pro level shots, which I have used for publishing, and weights almost 2kgs less!

    If I said the brand it would seem like I am plugging them, but there is many interchangeable lens cameras for around $1000 AU (body) that are comparable to “pro” level cameras in image quality and they are so much more convenient.

    Depending on ones requirement, I would almost always advise to get the smallest camera possible as another world is opened up to you when you don’t have a massive camera hanging around your neck.


    • frugalfirstclasstravel 03/09/2014 at 6:00 am #

      My point exactly James. Get the smallest one that suits your purpose. Personally I can’t imagine how people get around all day with one of those huge ones round their neck

  3. ladyofthezoos 06/09/2014 at 10:15 pm #

    I’ve always had large cameras and last year was thinking of upgrading to a DSLR….Then I really thought about all the excess, the weight, the extra bag and I realized I just simply couldn’t do it. I like to travel like and simple and I choose a compact Sony Cyber-Shot, made friends with picmonkey and love it!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 07/09/2014 at 6:59 am #

      Yes, the question really is whether you want to carry a big camera, and to understand the other options you have

  4. Carmen (CarmensTravelTips) 07/09/2014 at 2:10 am #

    I just bought the same camera a month ago, and love it. It’s small enough to fit in my purse. The zoom is better good. I really like that it has the WiFi feature too. Great choice!

  5. sarahandcraigtravel 14/09/2014 at 2:56 am #

    I’m at the same dilemma. I would love to blog all of my travel and add great photos, and I love my DSLR for that, but when I go places, I try to travel as light as I possibly can, and I often decide to leave the DSLR at home in favor of my iPhone. And I always regret it because the picture quality can never be as great as what I get with my camera.

    Thanks for the tips on downsizing the camera, I’ll have to do some more research before deciding to get one.

    My biggest issue is that I love to edit my photos a ton before letting anyone else see them, and that generally means shooting in .RAW. Shooting in .JPG means that I lose most of my editing power and I feel like I have to settle for lower quality images. Have you battled that with a P&S?

  6. Fiona Grose 20/09/2014 at 7:33 am #

    Hi, I have been in this quandary myself, ie love photography but don’t want to lug my big camera on a cycling holiday. The Sony sounds great but have you found the small zoom a frustration? Love to get your perspective on this.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 20/09/2014 at 8:17 am #

      Still fiddling with the settings Fiona, but I have noticed the zoom isn’t as good as my old P&S. Still the quality of the photos is so good it’s a compromise I’m happy to work around

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