As if packing outfits for travel isn’t hard enough, I’m also usually debating whether or not to bring my DSLR camera or just my smartphone for photos. I mean, smartphone cameras are getting so good, is it even necessary to use a DSLR anymore?
Can you guess if the photo above is from a smartphone or DSLR? The answer is at the bottom of the post!
When I backpacked in Colombia for 3 weeks I chose to leave the DSLR behind (you can check out my smartphone travel images in this post on my 11 favorite experiences in Colombia), but I recently took the DSLR on a trip to Arizona and love the shots I got with it on our day trips. So how do you decide?
I’m going to talk about 5 factors to consider when deciding whether to take your DSLR or just your smartphone as your travel camera.
Now let me get a few disclaimers out here up front. Number one: I am NOT a professional photographer. I learned about photography and using manual settings on my DSLR for blogging…which means a lot of trial and error. Sometimes I have hits, sometimes I have misses. We’ll talk about that more in this post.
The second thing I want to tell you is that all of the photos in this post (from both my phone and DSLR) were edited in Lightroom with a VSCO filter, and then adjusted for exposure and a few other elements. So these are not straight from either device, but are not heavily edited either.
And lastly let me talk about my devices. My smartphone photos are taken with a Google Pixel 2XL, which is arguable one of the best smartphone cameras on the market today. My DSLR photos are taken with a Canon Rebel T5i with a 35mm lens. The Canon Rebel is an entry level camera, but the 35mm is a nicer prime lens. I’ll touch more on the importance of your equipment, including lenses, in the post.
Now that those are out of the way, let’s talk about travel photography!
Things to Consider When Choosing a Smartphone Camera or DSLR for Travel
In the photo comparisons all the phone photos will be on the left and the DSLR photos on the right. All the shots in this post were taken on trips to Tubac and Tombstone, Arizona.
This one is going to start a little obvious. Your smartphone is probably smaller than your DSLR. Which makes it more portable. And you always have it with you anyway.
BUT there’s more than just this!
Do you have a kit lens on your DSLR? Meaning a big zoom lens that came with your camera when you bought it? If so, I bet your camera is quite large. If you have a prime or fixed lens, it’s probably smaller and easier to take around with you. You can’t zoom with a prime lens, so if you’re trying to take a variety of shots from one place, you’re going to have a harder time, but it might be somewhat portable.
Some other things to consider are the type of travel you’re doing. Are you walking around a big touristy city all day? Holding on to your camera and carting it through museums and restaurants and shopping is a pain. Or are you on a small half day trip, where you’re driving to do a few hour hike and then returning home? Carrying a DSLR might not be so bad then.
Ask yourself if you really want to be carrying your DSLR in addition to what you normally travel with all day, or if the pictures are worth the pain.
The biggest hazards I can think of when it comes to cameras are water, theft, and blunt physical damage from dropping your device.
If the forecast calls for rain all day, you can bet I’m leaving my DSLR at home (unless you’re taking inside photos of course). During the Lost City trek on my Colombia trip we had to do several river crossings. And not just a babbling brook type of crossing, but a swift, water-up-to-your-waist type of river crossing. One of our guides had a DSLR camera around her neck and it got about halfway submerged in water during the crossing. Fortunately after several hours of letting it dry out it still worked, but our guide was so upset about possibly ruining one of her costly possessions.
I find it easier to use my smartphone when there are water hazards because you can easily stow it in your purse or pocket, and if you’re really going crazy you can get a waterproof pouch.
Now about theft…which is an easier target, a smartphone or DSLR?
When we were on a walking tour of MedellÍn, our guide specifically told us in certain areas to be aware of how we were taking photos with our smartphones. If you hold it away from you horizontally with a light grip to catch your shot, that’s making it easy for someone to grab it right out of your hands. Now a DSLR on a strap over your head? I’d say that’s a little less easy to nab.
In regards to dropping either your smartphone or DSLR, I have one question: how many times have you dropped your phone?
For me, it’s a good amount.
If you’re a serial phone dropper like me (I’ve had to replace a broken phone screen at least 3 times), I suggest getting a Popsocket. It’s inexpensive and makes it so much easier to take selfies 😉
How many times have I dropped my DSLR? Never (knock on wood). I carry it around with a strap around my neck, so it just doesn’t have as many opportunities to be dropped as my smartphone. Not sure if you do the same, but it obviously helps.
I take into consideration all three of these hazards when deciding to take either my smartphone or DSLR out and about.
What kind of stuff are you working with? Do you have a Motorola Razr from 2005? If so, I suggest taking a DSLR…the Razr just isn’t going to cut it for photos nowadays!
But seriously, if you have an older smartphone, maybe you need your nicer DSLR to take great photos.
Another thing you should consider is this: are you wanting to also do video? With my DSLR video takes up a lot of room on my memory card and drains the battery really fast. Smartphones make video a lot easier.
Do you want selfies? Take a smartphone and selfie stick. Are you going to ask people to take photos of you? Give them your smartphone. Have you ever given your DSLR to someone for a photo and it turned out as nicely as you imagined? No. It just doesn’t happen.
Also, do you have a kit lens or prime lens on your camera? A generic zoom lens on your DSLR isn’t optimized for any one setting, so it doesn’t excel across the whole range of capabilities. A prime lens can give you better quality photos. Again, I’m not a photographer, so you can read more about the differences between prime and zoom lenses here, and take that into consideration.
The capabilities of your smartphone and DSLR, as well as other equipment you may have can make a big difference.
4. Desired Quality and Use of Photos
Depending on what you’re actually doing with your photos will have a huge impact on whether or not you should bring a DSLR.
Smartphone cameras are getting more and more impressive. Portrait mode, panorama mode, and even cool video settings like time lapse make for really cool products. And if you’re posting to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or just sending a photograph to your friend, smartphone photos are great.
But here’s my issue with smartphone photos: you can’t get the level of detail and bokeh (the quality of the blur in the out-of-focus parts of your image) with them as you can with a DSLR.
See the photo of the quail pottery above for an example. On the left is the phone photo, and on the right is the DSLR photo. Everything in the smartphone photo is in focus, which is nice. But the blur behind the bird in the DSLR shot makes for a much better detailed image.
You can use portrait mode to get bokeh with smartphone, but it’s a less professional version and always detectable between a real DSLR shot.
If you plan on using your images for a gallery wall or large photo album to commemorate your trip, DSLR photos are going to give you a much professional product.
Give me a call when a wedding photographer starts showing up with only a smartphone to take pictures…at the end of the day, DSLR photos are going to give you quality, enlargeable images for professional level products. If that’s what you want.
5. Skill Level
Taking a photo with a smartphone isn’t that hard. I wouldn’t say it actually requires that much skill, although some do it better than others I guess.
And even if the shot is overexposed, shadowy, or dull, you can fix it quickly with all sorts of free photo-editing apps and filters right on your smartphone.
But getting used to manual settings on a DSLR takes time. If you just bought one and are new to photography, I wouldn’t depend on it for photos from your trip; manual photography certainly has a learning curve (although it is VERY rewarding to finally get some great shots!).
And when you finally upload the images to your computer, you may notice that you didn’t get exposure just right, and need to make some adjustments. I use Lightroom for all of my photo editing, but the program costs money and takes more time than manipulating an image on my phone.
As you practice manual photography this factor won’t affect your decision making as much, but amateur photographers need to take this into account.
Now that I’ve talked about all 5 factors (portability, hazards, desired quality/use of photos, equipment, and skill level), let me ask you a question:
What differences did you notice in the smartphone and DSLR photo comparisons throughout the post? Did you prefer the photos on the left or right? Again, smartphone photos were on the left, DSLR images on the right.
If you preferred one over the other then that should help you decide as well.
Did you think the first photo in the post was from a smartphone or DSLR?
The answer is…smartphone! And below is the corresponding shot with a DSLR. The DSLR shot has more bokeh in the foreground pots, and is more zoomed in because I used a prime lens. I happen to like both photos in their own way.
For my travel photos I’ve started using my DSLR only for smaller day trips where I want to focus on photography, and taking my smartphone for general travel photos on longer trips. So on my trip to Colombia where I was having all sorts of different experiences and visiting various places, my smartphone camera was perfect. But for my trip to Arizona I left the DSLR at the Airbnb most days, and took it out for special trips where I knew I wanted to get into photography more (Tombstone and Tubac).
What do you do when you travel? Do you use both smartphone cameras and DSLRs? Or have you ventured into mirrorless cameras, which I’ve heard fantastic things about?
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