Capturing photos and videos is one of the most essential activities during a vacation. As the growth of smartphones has exploded in the past decade, so has the use of phone cameras. Though as more people use their smartphone as their primary camera, many have asked, “what is the best travel camera?”
Until recently, most people would carry a dedicated camera when traveling. In fact, I remember carrying a large and heavy SLR in the late 90s when I traveled in Italy. It took incredible photos, but it was a bit of a pain carrying everywhere, especially while backpacking.
Since we carry our smartphones everywhere, many of us question whether it’s worth carrying another camera when traveling. The answer is obviously subjective, but I wanted to share our thoughts and provide some insights on the strengths and weaknesses of smartphone cameras. Keep in mind that I am not a professional or expert photographer. Most of my experience comes from capturing video for our site/channel.
Why Smartphone Cameras Are Great for Travel
Let’s start with the pros of using your smartphone.
1. Always accessible:
There’s an old saying in photography that “the best camera is the one that you have with you.” We are all accustomed to carrying and using our smartphones, so using it on your vacation seems like a convenient and natural thing to do.
2. High-resolution video and advanced features:
The latest smartphone cameras are capable of 4K video at 60 frames per second, which blows away my dedicated camera, the Canon PowerShot G7X Mark II. And the portrait mode photos on my iPhone X are arguably better than the ones that I am able to capture on my Canon G7X.
3. GPS logging and sharing options:
Many cameras have the ability to log your GPS location natively or by using your phone and transferring via wifi or Bluetooth. However, the process is so much easier on your smartphone. I can even share photos and videos to social media immediately, while it’s more of a process with my dedicated camera.
4. Less to carry:
Having fewer items to worry about when traveling is convenient, and it usually means one less charger to pack as well.
5. Water resistance:
I love that most newer phones are water resistant. This makes it perfect for traveling, especially when you might encounter rough weather conditions.
Drawbacks of Using a Smartphone Camera
Using your smartphone seems great, right? Well, there are some cons.
1. Limited low light performance:
The biggest drawback and limitation that you’ll find when using your smartphone is the performance in low-light conditions. This is primarily due to the size of the sensor. For example, my Canon G7X has a one-inch sensor, which allows it to capture a lot of a light, especially in low-light situations. Most smartphones, on the other hand, have a one-third to one-half inch sensor. You’ll notice that it struggles in low-light conditions and the image and video quality tends to be grainier. This is usually not a problem in normal daytime lighting, but more of an issue in the dark or indoors.
2. Limited optical stabilization:
3. Concerns over damaging or losing your phone:
Having a dedicated camera can be convenient, especially for situations like action sports. For example, we use a GoPro Hero 4 when filming in aquatic environments and situations where there is a high risk of potential damage. Breaking or losing our GoPro would be less costly than damaging our phone, which is a critical tool in our daily lives.
4. Limited storage space:
We all have had the experience of running out of storage space on our phone. This can be extremely annoying when traveling. Of course, it can happen to your dedicated camera too, but you generally have more options when it comes to memory cards.
5. Lower megapixels:
This is more of an issue if you plan to do professional work or create a large print of your image. My Canon PowerShot G7X Mark II, for example, is capable of 20.20 megapixels, while my iPhone X has 12 megapixels. For most people, this shouldn’t be an issue, but it’s something to keep in mind.
There are other technical limitations, like not being able to natively save in RAW format, adjust aperture and shutter speed settings, and swap lenses. But honestly, those are unlikely to be issues for the casual photographer and traveler, which is why I’m not including them in the list. Plus, there are some workarounds for these issues on the smartphone, like using a more featured camera app.
My personal opinion is that for most people, a good smartphone camera is all you need. While you might not get the best low-light performance, the convenience and day-time performance generally outweigh the cons. Unless you’re an enthusiast or professional who wants more options, controls and quality, I recommend using your smartphone as your primary camera when traveling.
In addition, here are some additional tips to consider.
Additional Tips and Considerations
1. Clean-up your photos and videos:
I recommend getting into the habit of reviewing your photos and videos every night and deleting ones that you don’t intend to keep. While digital photography allows you to capture as many images as you want, it can easily lead to digital clutter. Take the time to delete bad photos. You’ll not only be happier later when sharing your photos, but you’ll have more space on your phone.
2. Use Google Photos:
There are a ton of different photo management apps out there. I personally use and recommend Google Photos. I like that all my photos get off-loaded from my phone and stored in Google’s cloud. Google also has some pretty incredible intelligence around their photo recognition. For example, I can type “hiking”, and Google will find photos that meet the search criteria. I even use Google Photos with my iPhone.
While I like Apple Photos, I had a problem with my photos and videos not syncing across my devices. Also, I pay a little extra to have Google Photos retain the original file type and resolution, and even have it store a copy on my personal server.
I know some people are uncomfortable with the idea of Google having access to their photo data. While I understand their hesitation, I personally find the intelligence offered outweighs my privacy concerns.
3. Carry a spare battery pack:
Using your smartphone camera for photos, and especially videos, will drain your battery. I recommend carrying a spare battery. I’m a huge fan of Anker spare batteries and chargers. In fact, I carry their PowerCore Mini+ battery charger in my bag at all times, and its come in handy both on trips and in my daily life.
4. Consider using a gimbal:
If you really want to upgrade the quality of your smartphone videos, you might want to consider using a gimbal. There are a few on the market, like the DJI Osmo Mobile 2 and the Zhiyun Smooth. Just make sure to do your research before buying. For some reason, the optical stabilization on some of the newer phones can interfere with the gimbal, causing jittery video.
Do you carry a separate camera when traveling, or do you prefer to use your smartphone? Please let us know in the comment section below.