I’m too much of a light packer to be weighed down by a bunch of DSLR gear, so my camera of choice that works for both my travel writing career and family outings is a super-zoom point and shoot. With this kind of digital camera you get manual controls when you want them, a serious zoom for getting close-ups, and a bigger lens than on your pocket point-and-shoot. With something like this Fuji FinePix super-zoom I can shoot photos good enough for a magazine spread without bringing along a whole other bag of equipment.
Not all of these are created equal, however. Since I started the original version of this blog way back when, I’ve tried a short-lived Casio one, two Kodak ones (see a review here), and a Nikon Coolpix L120. The first three were all good, but that last one was so crappy I only used it a few months and eventually sold it on eBay.
This Fuji one is not perfect: I hate this trend to use AA batteries requiring a separate charger and the body is a bit bigger than I’d like. The controls are also not as intuitive as many others I’ve used.
I consider these rather minor inconveniences though because it does have a lot going for it that others don’t, including an optical viewfinder, which is really essential in bright sunlight or using the full zoom. It also has an impressive 24X zoom, which is enough to get facial shots from so far away the person doesn’t even know you’re there. In this picture to the left, for example, I was at least 30 meters away, across the road. The “noise” in the shot was so low I could have cropped down to her eyebrows and still had a clear photo.
This 14 megapixel camera takes terrific shots in the automatic setting, so I end up using that most of the time in good lighting. When I need to adjust, however, there are lots of preset modes that have become relatively standard across cameras: portrait, night shot, low light, snow, beach, sunset, fireworks, text, etc. There’s also an “SR Auto” mode that detects which of these is right for the situation and goes right to it—including smile detection. (There’s a blink detection mode too, though it seems to mostly come on when I’m photographing a statue…)
The time I go wishing for a little improvement is in the manual controls. You can go full manual, aperture adjustment, or shutter adjustment, with none of them being very quick or easy. Trying to figure out which buttons do what takes quite a bit of trial and error—and a few missed opportunities until you get the hang of it. Eventually, they work.
There are controls for the built-in flash, which has a manual button to release it. I like that because it doesn’t pop up every time the camera thinks the light is too low. One of the special modes allows you to take two shots at once, one with flash and one without, which is pretty cool. Keep the best one, ditch the other.
Other features I now consider essential are in place: good HD video with sound, the ability to shoot multiple photos in succession, and a timer that’s easy to get to. I don’t really use the panorama mode much, but it seems to work okay when I do. The three-inch display is bright and crisp and I can shoot for days without needing to recharge the four AA batteries. This camera also turns on fast (rated 1.8 seconds, but really faster in my tests) and there’s almost no shutter lag.
Rounding out the features are ways to tag your photos for Facebook before uploading, but this seems like a gimmick that few people will use. It’s faster just to do it online.
Overall, for a camera that generally retails for $160 to $200, this Fuji FinePix S4200 really outperforms and delivers more than you would expect. It’s about the size of a DSLR—partly because of the 24X zoom—but it’s worth the little extra weight and bulk to have this kind of versatility. I’ve published photos from this camera in magazine articles and on webzines, so it’s certainly going to be good enough for your travel shots.
Tim Leffel is founder of the Practical Travel Gear blog, as well as the Cheapest Destinations blog and the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel. He is the author of The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 4th edition), Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, and A Better Life for Half the Price.