10 reasons to leave the DSLR at home when bike touring

  Oxararfoss, Iceland. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D750). 

Oxararfoss, Iceland. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D750). 

I enjoy photography. In particular, I enjoy good photography, which is to say images that are nice to look at for all the right reasons: a good subject and decent composition, but also a crisp picture and a high resolution.

I have a camera—a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera—that takes really crisp, high-resolution photographs. Camera folks regularly name it (a Nikon D750, if you're curious) camera of the year. It's a pleasure to work with: full-frame, articulating display, quick shutter speed. Paired with my lens of choice, a 28-300mm NIKKOR, it takes some really lovely photographs.

But, despite all the really gorgeous places our bike trip around the world is sure to take us, it won't be coming with me. Here's why.

First, though, a little context. I've taken a DSLR on a few bike tours (Iceland, Pittsburgh-DC) and a few multi-month trips (backpacking through Europe, scootering around North America, driving across South Africa and Namibia). I've left my DSLR at home (instead bringing a much smaller point-and-shoot) on one bike tour (Morocco) and some other trips (Nepal, India, Mexico). These thoughts—and the ultimate decision to leave the bulky DSLR at home—come from plenty of experience traveling with and without it. The photographs in this post are more or less a random sample of shots I've taken: neither the best nor the worst (and I myself am neither the best nor the worst photographer, so these certainly aren't the limits of any particular camera).

  Sidi Ifni, Morocco. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

Sidi Ifni, Morocco. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

[ 1 ] DSLRs are heavy.

The body of my Nikon weighs over a kilogram, and my telephoto lens weighs about the same. Smaller kits may be a little lighter, but are still going to add three or four pounds to a touring set-up that needs to be pedaled very long distances, occasionally up very steep hills with a very strong headwind. Heavier bikes lead to greater chain wear, increased fatigue, and a higher likelihood of broken spokes, pinch flats, and general-things-going-wrong.

[ 2 ] DSLRs are bulky.

On a bike, space is always at a premium. DSLRs don't really pack down well, and require a whole mess of parts to actually function. In addition to the body itself, there's of course the lens, but then also a lens cap and maybe a lens hood and also a battery charger (more on that below) and maybe a spare battery and camera strap and a mini-tripod (that has to be big and strong enough to hold the camera steady), and probably a padded case to fit all that stuff into. A phone or point-and-shoot can hide away in a little corner of a handlebar bag; on our bike ride around Iceland, the DSLR (and its bits and pieces) took up just about the entire handlebar bag (a Topeak Tourguide). 

Traveling with a handlebar bag (or some sort of front basket) is a good idea in any case, but with a DSLR it becomes something of a necessity (more bulk, more weight, and more things to worry about). I biked from Pittsburgh to the District of Columbia with my Nikon stuffed back in my rear pannier, and it was such a pain to stop, twist around or get off the bike, unbuckle the Ortlieb, fish out the camera, take the shot, and then do it all in reverse that I wound up not really using the camera at all. 

[ 3 ] DSLRs are too bulky to fit in a pocket.

Obviously. But this is important, because while newer mirrorless cameras are more compact than traditional DSLRs, they're still not pocket-sized. Off the bike, it's really nice to stash a camera in a pocket until it's needed, but with a DSLR of any size, one's stuck slinging it over the shoulder (and inevitably banging it into rocks or walls) or stuffing it into a backpack that has to be continually removed and unzipped when the camera is needed.

[ 4 ] All that weight and heft creates an obligation to use it.

I spent three months backpacking around Europe a few years ago. Except I wasn't really backpacking; I was carrying a little messenger bag slung over my shoulder that held a change of clothes and a few toiletries. Oh, and my DSLR. The DSLR occupied about half the bag and weighed more than everything else I needed for those three months put together. And so I felt like it'd be a great waste not to use it a whole bunch. I took more photos to justify bringing the camera along in the first place. I did this in Iceland, too—zipping and unzipping my handlebar bag a few dozen times a day (to be fair, Iceland is really, really beautiful)—whereas in Morocco, with only a point-and-shoot about the size of a deck of cards, I could just forget about taking pictures for long stretches of time.

In Namibia, I brought along my 300mm telephoto lens, which was well-suited to photographing the country's amazing wildlife—springbok, giraffes, wildebeest, kudus, lions—from afar. And because I could photograph that wildlife, I did. Sure, I got some really lovely pictures out of it, but all that time shooting left less time for just watching, for admiring. Sometimes it's good for a camera to have limits.

  Etosha National Park, Namibia. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D750). 

Etosha National Park, Namibia. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D750). 

[ 5 ] DSLRs look expensive.

Riding around on a bike for fun is generally a privilege. Touring bikes and touring gear can look flashy in many parts of the world: an inadvertently ostentatious show of wealth, a traveling circus of consumerism. Of course, a pair of touring Westerners aren't going to blend seamlessly into the streetscape of rural Kazakhstan or the quiet villages of Sudan no matter how they're outfitted, but wagging a two- or three-thousand-dollar camera over one's shoulder while haggling over a kilo of rice at the market is a scene best avoided.

The world isn't nearly as dangerous as many folks think, but yes, pickpockets and thieves and bandits do exist, and a DSLR is often difficult to hide. Point-and-shoots can be expensive, but they're assumed to be cheap; DSLRs can be cheap, but they're assumed to be expensive. Enticing an opportunist—and losing a bunch of really nice photos in the process—is an unlikely risk, but definitely a greater one than getting a small point-and-shoot nicked.

[ 6 ] DSLRs are more likely to break.

On a bike tour, as in life, things go wrong. Things bump and things break, and it's probably better if one of those things weren't a really pricey camera to ruin one's week (or trip) over. DSLRs simply have more mechanical components than electronic point-and-shoots: mirrors and switches and maybe a half-dozen glass panels in a telephoto lens. These types of components don't really do well on a set of wheels that's bound to fall over, crash, and rattle a whole bunch, at least compared to a phone or camera that can be wedged between a few items of clothing. A cracked lens or busted image sensor isn't the easiest thing to repair (or replace) in many parts of the world, and replacing a DSLR outright can dig deep into a bike tour budget.

  Jodhpur, India. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

Jodhpur, India. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

[ 7 ] DSLRs aren't USB-rechargeable.

Maybe there are a few newer cameras that are (maybe not), but in general DSLR batteries need to be plugged into a wall socket to recharge. Sometimes—say, a week camping on the beach or playing in the canyons—a wall socket is hard to find. Phones and point-and-shoots can be easily powered up with a solar panel, dynamo hub, or battery bank. And the batteries are much smaller and cheaper, so you can carry more of them to begin with.

For folks biking from hostel to hotel to inn, or folks carrying a few extra batteries, this may not be too big a deal. But being able to recharge all of our gadgets—phones, bike lights, camera, Kindles—with the same (replaceable) USB cable, from a (replaceable) battery bank with enough juice for a few weeks of life, is really nice.

[ 8 ] Resolution isn't always that important.

For professional photographers, or those photographing with some ultimate purpose in mind (of which I am neither), dozens of megapixels makes a lot of sense. But for hobbyists (even those who really enjoy photography, like me), a giant pixel count isn't all that necessary.

Resolution is the actual size of a photograph, or how many pixels of data are contained in the image. Our devices—phones, laptops, computers—have maximum resolutions, an upper limit of how many pixels they can display. There is simply no need for an image on a phone screen to contain twenty-four or thirty-six megapixels; indeed, a two-megapixel image will appear exactly the same. 

Even lower-end modern smartphones can take photos of about twelve megapixels. A twelve-megapixel photo can be turned into a large 11" x 14" print without any distortion. A twenty-four-megapixel photo (say, from a decent DSLR) has enough detail to make a 40" x 60" print with pretty good detail. That's awesome; it's just that most folks don't typically go about printing 40" x 60" posters from their travel shots. For the purposes of Instagram, Facebook, the general internet, and little framed photos around the house, DSLR-quality resolution just isn't required.

(This isn't to say that DSLRs won't take better photos in varying conditions; they will. Image quality is just more affected by lens quality, image sensor size, shutter speed, handling in low-light conditions, image stabilization technology, and more.)

  Canyonlands National Park (Needles District), Utah. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D7000). 

Canyonlands National Park (Needles District), Utah. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D7000). 

[ 9 ] Someone has already taken a better photograph.

Whatever's being photographed, chances are someone has already photographed it better. Folks who sell their photos may well need to travel the world with a giant camera and a giant tripod to get their marvelous shots. But for the purposes of documenting a bike trip, remembering it later, and maybe having a few good-looking pictures to show off, a DSLR is just overkill. It's more trouble than what's needed, but not enough trouble that it's going to take the very best photograph of the Grand Canyon or the very clearest photograph of that wild animal off in the distance. Good photographers use DSLRs, but they don't need a DSLR to take a good photograph.

  Varanasi, India. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

Varanasi, India. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

[ 10 ] It's difficult to experience and document something at the same time.

Consider this the other half of #4—less about obligation, more about temptation. To bike into the world with a DSLR is, in some ways, to bike into the world as a traveling photographer. To be a traveling photographer is to document and chronicle and make art and make pretty pictures from what one encounters—all really, really respectable goals—but not necessarily to experience the world, as intimately as possible, through those encounters.

We live in a time where it's really difficult to do that—to just be—without letting others know that we're being, to show others just how we're being, and to take pride in our being not even needing a filter right now. There are some truly amazing bike tourers who share some truly amazing photographs and videos from their travels: shots of them biking into the distance, time-lapses of their progress up a steep pass, clips of them candidly lounging, admiring the view, talking with a stranger, or slogging along.

These are terrific for folks like me who are living a little vicariously through those images for the moment, but they're not actually candid. The beautiful images I see are a sacrifice on the part of whoever's sharing them, whether they know it or not. Shots like these have to be staged, which means putting a camera on a tripod and setting some dials and biking off into the distance, just far enough, and then retracing one's tireprints and going to grab the camera and review the footage. No judgment here: it makes for great film, and helps hone one's photography or videography skills plenty, and not everyone needs to be traveling the world exclusively to experience it.

Nor are DSLRs the only type of camera used for this. They're just a bigger temptation, an appealing proposition, a conflation of the can and the should. I can bike around the world and come back with good photographs and great in-the-moment memories, or I can bike around the world and come back with great photographs and good in-the-moment memories. I'm all for leaning toward the former, of just putting the camera away every now and then and living it. (Of course, maybe I just have less self-control than your average DSLR-toting bike tourer.)

  A photograph of people taking a photograph of a photograph of the Hagia Sophia in the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D7000).

A photograph of people taking a photograph of a photograph of the Hagia Sophia in the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey. Shot on DSLR (Nikon D7000).

Here's the camera I will be bringing.

It's a Sony RX100M3. It weighs 287 grams, is about the size of a deck of cards, takes twenty-megapixel (RAW) shots, sports an impressive image sensor, shoots HD video, offers manual controls and an articulating display, comes with a pop-up flash and a really fun pop-up viewfinder, and can be loaded with some apps that are totally unnecessary but can helpful in some shooting scenarios.

This is not an advertisement for the Sony. There are other good cameras much smaller than a DSLR. I just really like this one. It a bit expensive—as an older model, between $500 and $800 depending who's stocking it—but feels plenty worth it.

It's a compromise between bulk and no weight, between all and nothing, between amazing shots and blurrier phone snaps. It's something that caused less headache for me in Morocco than my DSLR did in Iceland. And it's just that—what worked for me—so if you're here 'cause you're debating whether to bring a DSLR of your own (if you're not here for that, you've read down way too far and must be pretty bored by now), consider these just a few things to think about, a few matters to prioritize. Or not. 

For photographs of our trip (that totally won't be taken by a DSLR), click here.

  Kathmandu, Nepal. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).

Kathmandu, Nepal. Shot on point-and-shoot (Sony RX100M3).