Ewan McDonald answers your travel questions in the First-timer’s Guide. This week, should you pack a real camera as well as your phone for this year’s summer holidays?
Q. I’ve always been a keen photographer on our travels but I’m wondering whether there’s any point in packing a camera as well as my quality smartphone these days. Your thoughts?
A. Short answer: I still take both and use them for different purposes. And now for the long answer, comparing each tool’s strengths and possible weaknesses.
The most important part of any camera is its sensor and generally the rule is, the bigger the better for high-quality imagery. Many smartphones have multiple cameras on the back, so multiple sensors in one device, but there’s no room for any to be particularly large. It’s the same reason why the sound from the speakers on your modern, thin-screen TV is so tinny and I have fitted a soundbar to mine.
Cameras have much more room to install a dedicated sensor. Even relatively small, compact cameras have a sensor several times larger than a smartphone, so its image quality is better.
Does this matter? If you’re only looking to post sunshiny shots outside the White House on Instagram, your smartphone will deliver. But as you say you’re a keen photographer and want to shoot in low light, want detailed images, or want to make large prints for the living room wall, the camera wins out.
For me, a good autofocus system is non-negotiable. Smartphones have come a long way in the last few iterations – but so have cameras, many of which now use AI-powered subject-detection autofocus, which can automatically recognise specific subjects such as humans, animals, vehicles and keep the focus firmly locked on them. Again, no contest (we will get to the advantages of smartphones soon).
Most smartphones have two or three lenses, with quad-lens on flagship models. This gives you the flexibility to capture images in different focal lengths. Compact cameras will have one lens, but usually, this is an optical zoom lens that covers a variety of different focal lengths. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses, meaning there are dozens of different options, depending on what you want to shoot, and toys like macro lenses for shooting close-up images inside flowers, ultra-wide angles, and so on.
Trade-off: do you want to lug a bag full of different lenses and shoot much higher quality images, or snap a photo with your phone?
Most dedicated cameras have semi-automatic and manual controls, giving greater scope to change any setting you want. On the other hand, the smartphone is refreshingly simple to operate (note, I did not descend to writing “point and click” there).
Smartphones are great for video, mainly due to that simplicity and the range of tools to produce different styles of moving pictures. Lots of smartphones offer video editing as a native app, and there are hundreds of apps you can download to do that for you.
Digital cameras are also excellent for video, but it’s fair to say that they require a little more specialist knowledge to get the best from them. Maybe it’s operator ignorance or impatience but I’d probably prefer to hand the footage over to a third-party video editor and pay them to froufrou it.
Almost all modern cameras have built-in Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, so you can connect them to your smartphone and immediately share images online or via email and social media. Some are easy to use while (grumpy operator again) others are fiddly and don’t always work the first time.
We’re well into the big wins for the smartphone now, and this is another: it has the connections baked in with even-an-idiot-can-do-this prompts built into the apps, so the kids in Christchurch will know where you are and what you’re doing even before the gelato has dripped on to your T-shirt in Florence, assuming you’ve remembered which social media platforms they follow and haven’t posted to Facebook.
Looking at the scoreboard, it’s safe to say that the “real” camera is still Numero Uno when it comes to image quality. However, the smartphone is best for those who don’t want to be weighed down with heavy and cumbersome gear.
Digital cameras give you more flexibility when it comes to lenses and accessories, but smartphones are much better for quickly sharing your images and video online.
So the answer to your question is that good old, “How long is a piece of string?” It depends on you and what you want to do with the photos/videos when you get home. For the average photographer, which is how you picture yourself, I’d suggest you still need a dedicated camera. For more casual snappers, the smartphone will likely do the job perfectly well.
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