Are iPhones the best camera for travel?

Is an iPhone Really the Best Camera for Travel?

Zegrahm Contributor|October 14, 2015|Blog Post

One of our favorite parts of traveling is looking through all of the photos once we’ve returned home. Sharing images of our adventures with family and friends, realizing we caught a whale fluke at exactly the right time, or seeing a frigatebird spread his wings on film, offers a great thrill.

Since photography is such an important part of our adventures, we often receive questions from guests: Is it really okay to use an iPhone? What’s the best camera for travel? How do I take photos of the locals we meet along the way? That’s why we’re introducing our Photography Tips from the Field Staff series. From the best way to photograph wildlife, to how to choose the best camera for travel, we’re asking our illustrious field staff the big (and small!) questions on photography.

We’re beginning our series with expedition leader, ornithologist, and photographer extraordinaire, Mark Brazil. Mark has not-so-recently discovered the benefits of using his iPhone camera for travel photos, and let us pick his brain about how he made the leap to iPhone photography, his favorite apps, and his absolute must-have accessory. Do you have any questions about photography, either iPhone or otherwise? Let us know! Email info@zegrahm.com.

What is the best camera for travel?
I actually use two cameras for travel; I primarily use a bridge camera—it’s a super-zoom with no interchangeable lenses, but zooms to 60x from wide angle—and I also use an iPhone. I use the bridge camera when I want to shoot wildlife, which works okay—the quality doesn’t compare with a DSLR, especially in low light, with very high speed action or birds in flight, but it makes up for it with its lightness, its compactness, and when used with a sling (I prefer BlackRapid), it is almost always on my hip. 

Switching from a pocket or point-and-shoot camera to an iPhone was as easy as suddenly realizing that I simply didn’t need to carry both. Plus, the iPhone holds my address book, calendar, books, field guides, documents, audio books, music, and of course my e-mail!

Was there a turning point, an incredible image you took on your iPhone, when you realized some images might be better taken with a non-traditional camera?
I first appreciated the true power of the iPhone when I needed a large horizontal banner (over six feet wide) for the Japan stand at the British Birdfair. I had nothing of suitable dimensions taken with any of my previous cameras, but I did have a panorama of Lake Mashu taken with my iPhone. I was astounded that it could be blown up to such dimensions and still be a clear and exciting image. That was what first raised my appreciation of the iPhone camera and especially of the panorama function.

What are some examples of times when it’s better to use an iPhone?
• Anytime you want to grab a quick or impromptu shot, especially around people—the camera in your pocket is always the quickest and easiest to use. 
• When it’s raining! Larger format cameras are prone to getting raindrops on the lenses, but the iPhone lens is so small, the chances of it being hit by a rain drop is slim.
• Depending on what you’re shooting, you may wish to switch between stills and video, panorama, slow-motion; there are so many options with an iPhone camera, and they are always available almost instantly. Remember, the camera is accessible directly from the lock-screen—there’s no need to punch in a security code to open up the phone itself.

Are there specific expeditions you would recommend bringing only an iPhone OR only a full camera?
Serious photographers will always want to carry their DSLR, despite the weight of all the lenses, but I would never travel now without my iPhone as a camera. It is literally always at hand and perfect for impromptu and candid shots.

So then, can guests get away with bringing just an iPhone as their camera?
Anyone who has previously traveled only with a point-and-shoot can leave that at home in favor of their iPhone. Otherwise the iPhone is an adjunct to a DSLR—it’s the wide angle, video-capable camera in your pocket—and in combination, they really make the best cameras for travel.

You lead a lot of trips that have the option of night safaris and walk-abouts; do you have any specific recommendations for shooting with an iPhone at night?
I prefer guests not to be taking flash photos at night because of the impact on wildlife; that said the iPhone has quite a good flash, but only for close range use. 

Are your recommendations specific to an iPhone, or would they work for other smart phones?
All of the latest generation smart phones have great cameras and share very similar functions. I just happen to be a Mac fan and only have direct experience with the iPhone.

Do you recommend any accessories?
A smartphone is an incredibly useful (and valuable!) tool. I would never, ever, take one out in the field without a case. Many companies make simple covers, but when traveling it isn’t about looking cool—it’s about ensuring that your iPhone, or camera, can weather, dust, rain, water, snow, etc. 

Personally, I use a LifeProof case that’s waterproof, drop-proof, and dust proof. Believe me, I have tested it many times—though, not deliberately! Within the LifeProof case, my phone has bounced on concrete; it has gotten accidentally soaked while I’ve been on Zodiac duty; and it has been exposed to desert dust in Ladakh, India—all without my iPhone or camera suffering. It bears repeating—never, ever take your iPhone or iPad out on a trip without a protective case. I have seen too many unprotected phones and pads on too many trips; some have even gone overboard!

Do you recommend any apps for enhancement?
Truthfully, I am not a huge fan of post-production when it comes to photos, as I simply don’t have the time to do anything other than cropping. However, there is great software called Image Capture that allows you to download and delete photos from the iPhone, and put them in exactly the folder you want. (I don’t use the Apple Photo app because I like to control where and how I store my photos.) I’ve also been using GraphicConverter for over a decade; it’s easy to use and does everything I need, like a mini Lightroom or Photoshop, while leaving my photos in exactly the same place I put them.

Are there any downsides to iPhone photography?
The only one I can really think of is the zoom option—as it is digital, the quality is lost when zooming on the iPhone. It’s a much better option to take the photo optically, and then crop to enlarge the image later.

Learn more about Mark and his upcoming adventures