Travel Camera for available light photography
I'm in the process of shopping for a new camera. Oh yes, another one of those threads.
When I'm packing my SLR, my favorite type of photography to do is in the class of what many would classify as available light. Sunsets. Star Fields. Long exposures of streams/waterfalls (thank you ND filter). When the sun goes down (or almost down), magic happens for me, at least when I'm able to spend the time and have my SLR (T3i) with.
I travel via plane a fair bit. As I travel I keep coming across scenes that I really would love to be able to capture. A night shot out the window of the plane when it's really clear and you have the cool pattern of lights and streets all over the ground. A sunset over the ocean. City lights. Occasionally a starfield. And so on. Unfortunately, packing a SLR kit isn't something I want to do when I travel this way, and usually the compact point and shoot or more recently the amazingly not-all-that bad built in camera on my Galaxy Note 3 just isn't up to the task. I don't think I've once thought 'I wish I had my bulky SLR' - instead it's been 'I wish I had a camera I had a chance of capturing this with'.
Over the next couple of years it looks like my travel is going to be increasing, not shrinking, and a lot of the places I'm likely to end up are ones which are considered quite photogenic. I still don't want to pack my SLR with me, but I DO want to have a chance to capture some of these scenes... so I'm looking for that perfect pocketable (or almost pocketable) camera for this purpose.
So to summarize what I think I'm looking for feature-wise, not all are 100% required, but it would be nice.
1) Compact. Something you'd be able to keep in at least a jacket pocket. I have a Canon SX40HS that I use when I go to an event where I need extended zoom ranges (aka a concert), but don't/can't pack the entire lens set of a SLR. This is way too big. My fiance has the physically smaller version of it (SX160 perhaps?) and it also is too big. I'm more thinking about thickness than the other dimensions though.
2) Painless exposure settings. Often I'm wanting to go far more extreme than a couple of stops. Or more accurately, I just need to ignore the on-camera metering and be able to set aperture and shutter speed manually (along with effective ISO). Some of the point and shoots just plain are clunky this way.
3) Switchable Manual focus. Sometimes things are so dark that the on-board autofocus can't find anything to focus on, or it chooses the wrong thing. Most of the time this isn't a big issue, but, when it is, it is. I keep hoping to find something which lets me work the way I work with a Canon EF lens - aka, let the camera autofocus, then switch the lens to manual and just leave it there. Or if it won't focus at all, be able to do it manually.
4) Longish exposures. Ok, I know that a 120+ second exposure is probably asking way too much (and is likely to be horribly noisy), but I definitely would like something with a fairly long exposure time.
5) HDR compatible (aka bracketing). I'd really love to be able to capture appropriate HDR sets within a reasonable set of stops without a lot of pain and suffering. Although I guess I can do that manually too.
6) In-camera niceties/scene settings are nice. One of my favorite features of the SX40 is the handheld night shot mode, where it takes several underexposed very short exposures and adds them together to give you a perfectly crisp shot which looks like you used a tripod. Other similar features are a plus.
7) Reasonable ruggedness. Did I mention I'm traveling with this? It may also find it's way into a backpack in the backcountry as well. So extremely fragile cameras need not apply.
Some things I don't care about:
1) Flash. I hate flash photography. Ok, I admit occasionally it's nice as a fill when you have something close which isn't lit well, but honestly, I can't think of very many times I've actually used a flash in recent history.
2) Extreme precision optical quality. I want this to look nice, but I really don't care if there is a bit of chromatic aberration or minor barrel distortion, or, well, you get the idea.
I think that's probably it - or at least what I can think of right now. I'm also not completely stuck on one brand or another, although I tend to gravitate toward Canon just because of my familiarity with canon cameras. I'm also not all that price sensitive - a few/several hundred dollars doesn't scare me.
Thank you all for your input.