Travel Tips: Why Your Smartphone Makes a Crappy Travel Camera
Chances are, when planning for a big trip, a lot of you don't think about what kind of camera to bring. Or at lease not to the extent that I do.
Wow, bet those photos are all going to come out great. Precious memories, right?
Chances are, most of you will just take your smartphone with you on your adventures. And honestly, that makes sense. It's reasonably sized, it's something you're familiar with, it's got a "wide" angle of view (approximately 28 degrees on a full frame camera) and it takes pictures.
OK, honestly, I'm not a fan. Despite all that Apple, Samsung, and the others will do to convince you that that tiny camera in your pocket is the most amazing camera ever, your smartphone camera just sucks. It sucks out loud.
Which is funny, because despite being an amazing, pocketable super computer, most of the advertising that you will see for smartphones is based around the thing that they do the absolute worst: take pictures.
This kind of advertisement makes the camera in a smartphone look pretty complex... unless you compare it to an actual camera lens.
Let's start with the basics: The lenses on most smartphones cost about 5 cents to make. (The entire camera operation, sensor and everything only sets back Apple about 26 bucks according to PetaPixel- https://petapixel.com/2016/10/22/iphone-7s-camera-parts-cost-26-9-5-phone/. MUCH less than what goes into a decent compact camera.) Not only is the lens cheap, but it's also tiny, meaning it's probably not the best at filtering light. The sensor that modicum of light hits is tiny. It mean, it's really small! Here is a nifty chart to show you just how small and pathetic the sensor in your phone is:
See that tiny, little itty bitty sensor size way down in the bottom right hand corner? That small, dark blue one? Yeah, that's your phone. The two in the upper right hand corner, the dim orange and dark yellow one, those are the sizes of sensors in most moderately priced, decent travel cameras. For comparison sake, the bright orange one is the same size as your standard 35mm film negative.
"But my camera is 16 megapixels, just like that APS-C Camera! What's the difference?"
Megapixels, for the uninformed, are not all created equal. Smaller ones, for example, get exposed to much less light which means that things like detail, shadows, color saturation, depth, and a whole lot of other things are affected. Also, the smaller and more cramped your sensor is, the more "noisy" your image will be. The end result: flat, boring, undynamic pictures that do absolutely no justice to the amazing experience you are about to have.
You've seen these pictures online. Pictures of your friends trips to amazing places. But when you look at the pictures, they.... kiiiiind of don't make it look that amazing. I mean, like you can kind of imagine what it looks like in your head, but those pictures do absolutely nothing to help.
On top of the technical details, think about how most people treat their cell phone cameras. When was the last time you saw someone check the lens of their smartphone camera to see if it was free of dust, fingerprints, scratches, or oils? Also, your smartphone camera lens is probably the only camera lens in the whole world you would feel comfortable sticking unexposed in your pocket. Or in a purse with a bunch of rattly secret lady bits shaking around on top of it. No one would do this with ANY other camera lens. Even the cheapest little compact digital cameras are usually kept in their own nice little protective nylon pouch thingie and a lens that escapes back into the body of the camera.
The reason you wouldn't do this to a normal camera is because it would destroy that lens and ruin all your pictures. The reason you don't have to worry about this with a cell phone is because the lens is covered by a this protective layer on top of the camera lens that protects it. It also lowers picture quality. And yes, you could compare this layer to using a UV filter (which I don't use), but you wouldn't expose your UV filter to all the dust, fingerprints, scratches, or oils that you expose your phone to either.
Not only that but that giant glowing screen you're looking through to take your pictures is absolutely KILLING the ambiance or wherever you're at for other people. A good camera will give you the ability to compose your shots through an eye piece without ruining areas for other travelers.
The ambiance of the amazing lantern temple in Nara, Japan was utterly ruined once people walked in with their bright cell phones.
Now, I know what you're thinking. "I don't have money for a brand new travel camera!" And I don't blame you. I never -NEVER- buy my cameras new. Figure out what suits your needs, and then by a "newer" used version of it online. My personal favorite is the Fujifilm X100S. It's a beautiful camera that feels great in hand, has a sturdy magnesium alloy build, and a brilliant 23mm f2 lens with a large APS-C sized sensor. And since it's been on the market for a while, you can pick them up pretty cheap on Craigslist. The same goes for many of the other Fuji X cameras. (Which admittedly, are my favorite digital cameras, though I prefer film cameras in general. The Ricoh GR ii is an excellent camera as well.)
Digital cameras go for a fraction of what they initially sold for due to how quickly their value drops after new cameras come out. This perceived "obsoletion" is your gain! Just use a bit of common sense when buying: if it looks like crap (ie: covered in scratches, dents, or the lens is weird looking), it probably wasn't treated well. If it looks practically new, you'll probably have a great camera for years to come!
I've bought all my cameras using this simple common sense method of just looking at the camera, and I've never got a dud. And if you simply can't afford one, ask to borrow a friends.
I'm not saying that my photos are the best either, per se. My point is that travel, whether it's your local national park or an epic overseas adventure, is going to cost a ton of money and you should be carrying along an amazing camera so you can relive that experience again and again.
Getting a good photo isn't just a vanity thing. It's a thing that shapes how you remember and perceive that experience. And the better you remember your trip being, the more likely you are to value it and want to go on more trips. Also, shooting with a good camera is just fun! Capturing the perfect moment, a cool angle, some amazing lighting- it gives you a feeling of euphoria. Knowing you just caught something that you can put up on your wall at home, that guests will compliment, and being able to say, "Thanks! I took that. That was on my trip to..." It's a great feeling. And a great conversation starter!
Lastly, whether you take photo's on your phone or a nicer camera, enjoy the moment. Don't get so distracted by your camera that it distracts from your experience. Be present. If you're in a museum or you're watching a beautiful exotic sunset or wherever, take a breath, look at the thing that's in front of you, and take it in. Because no matter how good your camera is, nothing will be as good as just actually being there.
But after you do that, take a good picture. :)
Or take a bad picture, like this one. Just go crazy.