COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

The merits of cellphones as travel cameras

I consider myself to be a good photographer, although sometimes I become more focused on the equipment than the results. Before vacations I obsess about which camera to take along. Should it be my prized Leica digital rangefinder, a pocket-sized Canon or Sony, or something in between, such as a Leica D-Lux 109, slightly larger than a compact camera?

On my recent vacation to Italy with my wife and daughter, I decided to travel light and take just the D-Lux, while my wife took the Sony RX100. But something unexpected happened during the trip. I used my iPhone 6+ to take more than half the pictures.

I suspect I’m late to the party, joining the masses that are using their phones instead of separate cameras. But based on my experience on this trip, phone cameras are a viable alternative to the best of cameras. In fact, a phone camera can take comparable images and even better video in some situations, and offers several advantages over conventional equipment.

Among the other half-dozen in our group, ranging in age from 30 to 81, there was just one other camera. Everyone else used their phone cameras, both iPhones and Androids. And there’s good reason for it, particularly on a trip like this. We were all able to immediately share our experiences through our photos with each other and with friends back home.

When it came to quality, the images from the phones were usually quite good, sometimes better than we got from our expensive cameras. While smartphone cameras don’t have the large zoom lenses, wide aperture or flexibility of settings that cameras do, they have other capabilities that cameras don’t have.

They have in-camera processing, using the power of a computer to improve the original images. And because of the lens’ smaller aperture, nearly everything is in focus. When set to “HDR,” they can make images that are multiple exposures superimposed on top of one another to bring out details in the dark shadows and the overexposed areas.

The phone cameras also excel for close-up images. We all took many pictures of wine labels, as well as the food we cooked or enjoyed out at a restaurant, images that did not focus well when using the other cameras.

The lack of adjustments means there’s no fiddling with settings; you simply pick up the camera and shoot. As a result, the pictures capture what you intended, closer to the moment.

When we returned home and examined the collection of images and videos under magnification, the iPhone images held up quite well. They didn’t beat the Sony or Leica for sharpness, but for color, snappiness and capturing the moment, they compared favorably. And unless you plan to make enlargements of 8-by-10 inches or more, resolution becomes less of an issue.

But even more important than capturing the images was what we were able to do after taking them. At the end of each day, we uploaded our phone images onto the Apple iCloud to create photo albums with everyone’s pictures together.

Apple’s new sharing of albums feature means you can create an album made up of everyone’s images and accessible to all. Many posted their images directly onto Facebook or Instagram to share them with friends. Android phone users were able to upload to iCloud using an app.

This is all enabled by the phone’s built-in wireless technology that lets you upload images using Wi-Fi or the cellular. Most avoided the cell because of cost, but I used it on my T-Mobile iPhone 6+, which has free data in most of the world.

The quality of the photos and video from the in-phone cameras on both the iPhone and Android phones were good.

While there’s no zoom lens on phone cameras, a similar effect can be accomplished by zooming in on the image, which, while lowering the resolution, lets you get a perfectly composed image.

However, the limitations of the smartphone camera begin to appear in very low light, where the lens has a smaller opening than the camera’s and the tiny sensor creates camera motion, underexposed and grainy results. But that tended to happen at the end of the day, after we were full of food and had several glasses of local wine, and few of us cared!

Using a smartphone camera offers a sense of liberation from using complex equipment, allowing you to pay attention to where you are at the moment. Taking a picture becomes a quick break.

I discussed my experience with Ken Rockwell, who runs one of the most popular websites covering camera equipment (www.kenrockwell.com). What’s his favorite compact camera for traveling? His iPhone 6+.

So now when I travel, the question will not be which camera I take, but whether I take one at all.

*****

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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