Blog single

Should I buy a camera for my next trip?

As a trav­el pho­tog­ra­ph­er, one of the most com­mon ques­tions I get is about cam­eras. Should I buy a cam­era for my trip, or is my cell phone good enough?” It’s a good ques­tion and it gets hard­er and hard­er to answer as mobile devices seem to be on an expo­nen­tial path of improve­ment in the con­text of imag­ing. In fact, when we talk about upgrad­ing our phones these days, it often reflects a sim­ple desire to upgrade our camera….since oth­er than the cam­eras, mobile devices are (arguably) not real­ly evolv­ing in mean­ing­ful ways. Dur­ing a recent trip to Lis­bon, I met a pro­fes­sion­al that does a major­i­ty of his work on an iPhone (and not a new mod­el). So, what sep­a­rates your phone from a ded­i­cat­ed cam­era these days? Why would you want to spend the extra mon­ey or car­ry the extra weight?

When I use the term ded­i­cat­ed cam­era, I am refer­ring to what we call an Inter­change­able Lens Cam­era” (ILC). These cam­eras have two com­po­nents: the body and the lens. With an ILC, you change the lens­es depend­ing on what kind of shot you are tak­ing. Per­haps you would use a macro lens to take pic­tures of an insect, or a tele­pho­to lens to cap­ture an image of a dis­tant bird. Below, I will dis­cuss cer­tain sit­u­a­tions in which an ILC is supe­ri­or to a phone cam­era. Hope­ful­ly, this can help you decide if car­ry­ing an ILC on your next vaca­tion makes sense for you. 

  1. Image qual­i­ty. Let me start with the good news. If I took your cell phone and a $5000 Leica Cam­era into your back­yard and took a pho­to of your house on a sun­ny day, you would be hard-pressed to tell the dif­fer­ence between the two images. In most cas­es, the ILC will have a high­er res­o­lu­tion then your phone, but this only comes into play if you intend to blow the image up or print it at an excep­tion­al­ly large size. Most of us are just shar­ing our pho­tos online. So in this con­text, why would you need an ILC? One of the main rea­sons you might want to con­sid­er an ILC is if you plan to take a lot of pho­tos in low light. The small image sen­sors in phones pro­duce what we call noise” in low light. It’s a bit like grain” back in the film days. Although mod­ern phones use built-in soft­ware to smooth out the images, the smooth­ing itself can cause you to lose detail. Now that you know this, you have to ask your­self if you care. Pho­to nerds like me are often pix­el peep­ers”, mean­ing that we obsess over any fault in the final ren­der­ing of the image. We are a bit odd. You don’t need to be like us.
  2. Flex­i­bil­i­ty. In my opin­ion, this is prob­a­bly the main issue for most peo­ple. For an ILC pho­tog­ra­ph­er, lens­es are tools, and every job needs the right tool. As I men­tioned above, if you are tak­ing a pho­to of a but­ter­fly, a macro (close-up) lens might be the cor­rect tool. With a cell phone of course, you are stuck with the lens(es) inte­grat­ed into your phone. Just how much of a lim­i­ta­tion is this? Well, recent phones from the major man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Apple and Sam­sung have addressed this by inte­grat­ing mul­ti­ple lens­es into the phone. The lat­est iPhone, for exam­ple, pro­vides a stun­ning built-in wide-angle lens, as well as a mod­est tele­pho­to lens for mag­ni­fy­ing more dis­tant sub­jects. In oth­er words, cell phones con­tin­ue to nar­row this gap, pro­vid­ing users with a wider array of built-in optics”. So why would you want an ILC in this con­text? One of the main rea­sons would be if you want to do ded­i­cat­ed tele­pho­to work, pho­tograph­ing sub­jects at a dis­tance. This could be wildlife or sports. You might even be in an urban envi­ron­ment where you want to cap­ture a scene tak­ing place at a dis­tance. Cell phone users can often zoom in dig­i­tal­ly” to get the shot, but the image will suf­fer a notice­able loss of res­o­lu­tion. If you want to do long-dis­tance work, a ded­i­cat­ed tele­pho­to lens is still much supe­ri­or. I must say that the cell phone com­pa­nies know that this is a weak­ness and are mak­ing extra­or­di­nary advances with both soft­ware and optics to close the gap. Anoth­er rea­son that ILC sys­tems have been supe­ri­or in the past is their abil­i­ty to iso­late” sub­jects. Do you know what I mean? Its nice to see a por­trait of some­one where the sub­ject is in focus, but the back­ground is blurred out. Although ILC’s still have the advan­tage here, most cell phones have intro­duced a por­trait mode” that repli­cates the look of an expen­sive ILC por­trait lens. To con­clude this top­ic, I will say that if you are will­ing to car­ry a full array of lens­es with you, the ILC is much more flex­i­ble then a cell phone. The cell phone is a jack­knife. The ILC is a set of Gin­sus. Do you real­ly need a Gin­su to cut that string?
  3. Aut­o­fo­cus. If I am tak­ing a pho­to of your house, aut­o­fo­cus speed is not real­ly an issue. There’s no real advan­tage to hav­ing an ILC cam­era in this case. That being said, cap­tur­ing a crisp image of a run­ning dog is a very dif­fer­ent process. In fact, even the best ILC bod­ies and lens­es are chal­lenged by fast-mov­ing sub­jects, and even more so in low light. This one is pret­ty sim­ple. If you are head­ing to Pam­plona to pho­to­graph The Run­ning of the Bulls, bring an ILC
  4. Pho­tog­ra­phy. What do I mean here? Well, I mean to say that if your intent is sim­ply to cap­ture an image, then your cell phone may be the best device. How­ev­er, if the process of cap­tur­ing the image is impor­tant to you, then an ILC is supe­ri­or. In no means do I want to imply that you need to appre­ci­ate the process of pho­tog­ra­phy. Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy allows us to cap­ture great images by sim­ply press­ing a but­ton, and pho­to geeks like me spend way too much time and mon­ey to cap­ture images that may be 10% bet­ter than the one you get on your phone. And in the end, it’s the pho­to that lasts. So every­one is going to have a dif­fer­ent approach to this. I’m OK. You’re OK

If you are a pho­to nerd read­ing this, you’ll have plen­ty of things to add. Things that ILC’s do bet­ter, or new smart­phone fea­tures that are mak­ing my points above less rel­e­vant. The sit­u­a­tion real­ly is flu­id and I don’t pre­tend to have all the answers. Let me con­clude this post by pro­vid­ing a few rea­sons that might jus­ti­fy you rely­ing sole­ly on your phone for your next vacation:

  • Pho­tog­ra­phy is not the pri­ma­ry pur­pose of your vaca­tion. It is just a way of cap­tur­ing and shar­ing memories. 
  • You intend to do a major­i­ty of your pho­tog­ra­phy out­doors dur­ing the day. 
  • You don’t intend to shoot a lot of sports/​wildlife/​or oth­er dis­tant subjects.
  • The pri­ma­ry pur­pose of your pho­tog­ra­phy is to share on-line. 

If this is you, con­sid­er car­ry­ing only your phone. Your back will thank you, and you’ll get some great pho­tos. In future posts, I’ll talk about how to get the most of your phone’s cam­era, as well as how to edit and share your mem­o­ries. And one more thing. No mat­ter what you use to take pho­tos, the best way to get bet­ter is to: a) under­stand your tool (yes, even read the instruc­tions) and b) prac­tice! Have fun!

Normal Width Image

Taken in Lisbon with iPhone X