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.