Have Smartphone, will Travel !!

No more does a travel photographer need to carry pounds and pounds of gear. Not all the time at least. There is a time and place for the DLSR and a choice lens but for most of us, it’s snapshot time, not NatGeo.  The newest generation of smartphones are amazingly good with travel photography. From street to candid to museums and more.

The image below was taken in Yosemite and shows El Capitan in the late winter light. The lake is really a large pound that forms when the snow melts and before it is absorbed by the ground around April.  We were driving back to our cabin when I saw the light in the rear view mirror and made a sudden stop. The family is used to this from me and I was able to get several shots before the light was gone for the day.

El Capitan shot with iPhone 5S

Here is the same shot but with the EXIF data showing I shot this with my iPhone and what settings were used and where I was based on the GPS. This image is a classic case of knowing how to override the “brain” in the camera to get what I wanted out of it. The image left it the camera’s own decision was way too light and the rock face would be blown out because the camera was trying to average the entire scene. Since most of it is in shadow, it kept trying to expose for the shadows which is not what I wanted.  The trick was to manually dial back the exposure to where the rock was exposed correctly. Remember, unlike film, when you blow the highlights, the digital value is 255 and there is nothing there anymore for detail. Just pure white. So you cannot afford to blow out the highlights unless you intentional want/need that.

IPhone EXIF data for El Capitan picture

I was in a museum at a Star Wars exibit and the guy next to me was chased out because he had a “professional” camera.. ie.. a DLSR while I had “just” a cellphone camera. I was left alone and I bet my shots rivaled the ejected photographer’s own images.  But since all I had was a “cellphone” and everybody knows they suck for photography, I was left alone. The smartphone is the best “secret weapon” for travel photography once you learn how to really use it effectively.

Star Wars Movie Prop – iPhone 5S

The default wide angle of most smartphones lenses makes for great landscapes. I was walking back to my car from a pitstop and saw this skyline. And since I carry my phone with me all the time, I had a camera handy.  How many people would have walked into a rest stop bathroom with a DSLR over their shoulder?  And this colorful sky was only there for about 2 minutes. Not nearly long enough to get back the car, get out the DSLR, get a lens on it and then run back to the treeline.

San Diego rest stop sunset

Now, is this smartphone photograph as good as a DSLR or mirrorless? It depends.. don’t you love definitive answers?  This shmaybe answer comes from a few limits in current smartphones such as low light noise and high ISO noise. The lack of optical zoom on most smartphones is a real PIA for anyone used to swapping out a lens for longer reach.  In this case, none of those reasons really apply so I think I could match a DSLR shot for shot in this case. And I could get it significantly faster!  There is also the 80/20 rule.. for 80% of the time, X is fine and in this case, for 80-90% of the time, the Smartphone camera is just fine.

The smartphone is also less intimidating to the subject than a cellphone.  Most street artists do not like a big ol’ DSLR in their face or being used around them. They feel that someone is taking “professional” images of them and/or their art without compensation.  But, pull out a smartphone, now you look like 95% of the population and everybody knows those pictures suck 🙂 So most of the time, I do not get any pushback for using my smartphone camera.

Chalk art artist at Disneyland

With travel photography, you want to show off where you were, how you got there, what happened while there and returning home. At least for most people, that is what they want.  They want to tell the story of their trip.  Get that action shot can really sell the story when you share it.  The image below has the story of where ( Disneyland), what ( getting wet) and how ( from the ride’s splash).  You do not need to explain anything to the audiance.

Action shot with iPhone 5S and Moment 60mm lens

For the travel blogger or author, things are different. You need to SELL the trip to the audiance. You want to make them desire to go where you were.  So along with wide angles and story shots, details can really sell the entire story. Looking at the burger, dont you just want to reach in and grab it ?

Burger from Burger Parlor in Orange, CA

For any travel photographer, getting environment photographs are key. These can set the tone of the story. You can share a lot of details about where you are in a single image.  The image below has the architecture of San Francisco, the hills, tourists with selfie sticks, skyline, bridges and of course, the zigzag sign of a famous street in the city.

Downtown San Francisco from a cable car

You can get some cool travel shots even while getting to the destination or coming home. Most airlines will frown on you with the big DSLR up against the window in the airplane, but the smartphone is so unobtrusive that up to now, I have never been asked to stop and put it away. This has not been the case with my DSLR. I got this photograph of the snow-covered Rockies leaving Colorado on my way home. The trick is not to put the phone right on the glass. Hold it just off the glass or use your hand to isolate the smartphone from the vibrations in the window.

Rocky Mountains at 35,000 feet using iPhone 5S through a window

One of the best ways to really sell your travel photography is to use color. Use contrasting colors, use lighting, neon, paint or whatever you find. The photograph below shows that the iPhone can take excellent pictures at night and coupled with some basic understanding of photography like using slow shutters to your advantage can result in really good photographs. In this case, I manually adjust the ISO to 100 and used 1/6 of a second shutter using 3rd party application called “Manual Cam” . The low ISO makes for a high-quality image and for nice blacks while the slooow shutter lets the water fuzz nicely.

Disney’s Water Color Show iPhone 7 Manual Cam  app

I’ll be covering travel photography in much more detail in later posts. This is just an overview and not a definitive guide.

Revisiting Moment Lenses for the iPhone

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”

Yousuf Karsh

While Yousuf is correct with his thoughts, good glass doesn’t hurt the process 🙂 And with the itty bitty lenses on most smartphones, trying to enhance the lens can be a trying experience.  Most are junk and some are fair but one maker has really set the bar for an accessory lens for the iPhone and Android smartphone and that is Moment.

Original Style Moment Lens set with stick-on mount

I bought my first set of Moment lenses when they were a Kickstarter project back in 2014. Moment raised almost a half million dollars to fund their project to make a set of real glass accessory lenses for the iPhone.  When I bought my first set, my family and many friends thought I was crazy for paying what I did for a pair of iPhone add-on lenses. These were not the normal rinky-dink plastic clip-on but real metal and glass lenses.  They looked serious because they were not small, they were pretty big on the phone. They weighed a lot for an accessory lens and they were costly. That is a lot of marks against something right up front.

These lenses kick butt on my iPhone 5S and when I bought my iPhone 7, I decided to upgrade. Moment has improved the mounting moving away from the stick on mount and using a case with a built-in mount.

Moment Case for iPhone Xr showing lens mount

I had an email exchange with one of the folks at Moment and he was telling me that they completely re-engineered the telephoto lens from 60mm on the older iPhones to 58mm on the newer phones like the 7/8/X because the sensor chips have changed size. I had noticed my 60mm has a lot of distortion on the edges when used with the iPhone 7 and had written to them about it.  I ended up with a new battery case/mount plus a new 58mm lens. The 18mm wide-angle lens works fine with both versions of the sensor chip. I also picked up their small two lens belt case because these lenses are made from metal and glass are a bit too bulky and heavy to go into a pocket. Also, the opening on the back of the lens is SMALL so you need to keep them out of a dusty pocket or you will be looking for a cotton swab to clean the lens before you mount it.

This is a good time to talk about the battery case. I’ve had mixed results with it over the past year. The case itself is a nice design and holds up well. I do not like the big silver button on the side because that happens to be where I reset a finger so I’m also pressing the damn thing when I don’t want to.  It will charge a phone but it seems flaky about it. I don’t think it’s a problem with the case but a problem with the software on the case. The last Moment update helped some but it’s still not as robust as it should be. I have had my phone plugged in while in the case and it refuses to charge until I remove the case and charge the phone then put it all back together and it seems to work again.

Source Moment website

This is a problem because when you are traveling and using the camera heavily as I do, the phone battery doesn’t last nearly as long as it should. So you either carry a brick of some kind or you use a battery case. And with the Moment lens, you have two choices, brick or their case.  I hope Moment refines their case firmware a bit more soon because that is a pain point to using their entire system. Now that I’m done bashing on the base, I will say the case for protection is very good with the material able to absorb impacts well and it’s grippy even when damp.

Moment battery case for iPhone 7 showing mount, crease where to bend the case to install the case and lighting plug

I added one of their lanyards and I love the extra safety having the wrist lanyard in place when I’m taking shots that requirement to be dangling over water or from a high elevation. Or from a rollercoaster at speed. Losing your grip on the phone and then dropping it is a terrible and costly feeling.

Moment lanyard attached to battery case

I have a gallery of shots below that I took with my 5S and 7 using both the 18mm, 60mm and 58mm Moment lenses over the past few years.  Complaints aside of the case, I love the lenses and the new case mount vs the old stick on.



My wish for Moment is to add filter threads to the telephoto lens at least. It would help prevent me from hacking my filters onto the lens using gaffer tape 🙂  It’s not pretty but it works to put an ND filter or IR filter on my phone.

Using gaffer tape to put a ND filter on the 18mm wide angle moment lens

Why I would do such a thing will be a new blog post in the coming weeks. I had all of this in my book on iTunes but the book stopped at the 5S and IOS 7 so some of it is outdated now.  How to Create Amazing  iPhone Photographs


When people ask me what equipment I use – I tell them my eyes

This is the second time I’ve tried to start the Smartphonegeek website. The first time, my poor site languished and was ignored by me for things like soccer games, traveling, restoring vintage audio gear and not least of all, work.

So in rebooting this site, I have also made the choice to shut down my Michael Sweeney Media photography site because trying to make a living with photography today is in my opinion, just about impossible and I don’t need the website now.  I think we have come in a complete circle with the advent of Smartphone photography.  The photographer today has quite a bit in common with our ancestors with cameras. They were folks that had day jobs or patrons that funded this “hobby” of photography in their spare or not so spare time. Now, with smartphones decimating the professional market, we are back to working day jobs to fund our photography passion.  In truth, it is very hard to make a good living, put money in savings, raise kids and be middle class as a professional photographer.  At some point, the fun leaves and it becomes a job.  A secondary pressure on pros is we used to make good money from prints and picture albums. Now with everything online, that revenue stream has become severely limited. Even with weddings which were the bread and butter of a good many photographers has suffered a contraction in money earned vs the number of photographers. Between Craigs list low prices and the lack of print sales of any kind, it has become a challenge to make a living. Notice, I say a living and not beer money.

In my case, this has been a slow realization that started some years ago when I got laid off from my job and I went to go “pro”. But within a year I saw the handwriting on the wall after writing a book on iPhone photography and really experienced just how good these smartphones are in trained hands or even not so capable hands.  I went back to my day job which pays the bills, puts food on the table and so on while I use all my “real camera” full frame stuff for personal projects and getting awesome sports shots of my kids and the odd job.

Before and After Editing iPhone 7 image

What has taken the place of shooting with 20lbs of camera and lenses, is my iPhone.  I take it everywhere and I’ve spent a lot of time really learning how to push the limits of the iPhone and I still think I have a ways to go. The newest software is truly amazing with what it can do now. Apple and other vendors have finally gotten the message that glass counts too and are starting to innovate with lens design and using multiple lenses to get better results.

Now we have battery cases that work, real glass lenses designed to augment the smartphone built-in lens, awesome software for BOTH the camera AND post-processing, better screens and more.

Propaganda Russian Style from iPhone

This really came home to a few weeks ago when I took a trip with the family to San Francisco and did not bring my DLSR. Not one body, not any of it. I shot the entire trip on my iPhone with my Moment lens set and battery pack.  That is the future of photography.  The DSLR manufacturers have finally thrown in the towel and admitted as much publically.

So I will happily create art with my smartphone on one hand and mourn the loss of the skills that a real camera makes you use. But in all truth, it’s not the gear that makes the artist, it’s the person and how they translate their vision with the gear they have. I still have my “real” camera and I still shoot film for a few different reasons so in the end, I think it will all work out.

Sara and Jeanne on a Cable Car in San Francisco. Moment 58mm Lens