Why I still carry a real camera instead of relying on my iPhone for vacation photos

Earlier in the week I was looking through some old vacation photos, and as recently as 2011, I noticed that many people in my snapshots are holding small point and shoot cameras as they’re out and about.

How quickly things have changed.

Stand alone point and shoots (abbreviated P&S for the remainder of this article) are getting increasingly more rare as cell phones have made the lower end models all but obsolete as phone camera technology has improved at a rapid pace.  I almost never see them anymore.

In my opinion, the watershed moment that changed everything was the release of the iPhone 4 back in the summer of 2010 (and the Verizon version that came out half a year later).  This was the first cellphone that had a respectable camera which, while still not quite as good as most dedicated P&S cameras at the time, was clearly good enough for the needs of most normal people.

Unlike almost everyone I know, I still own several stand alone P&S cameras and use them regularly.  In a previous post, I discussed some travel camera recommendations and made the mention at the time that all my cameras are small.  I briefly owned a DSLR for about a week and then promptly returned it for a refund because the thing was too damn big and a pain in the ass to carry.  When I’m on vacation, lugging around a big camera and a bag of heavy lenses does not sound like a good time.  What I look for in a camera is something that will ideally fit in my front pocket, but will still allow me to take significantly better quality photos than what I can get with my phone (currently an iPhone 6S).  [For those who are interested, a list of the cameras I currently own are at the bottom of this post.]

Why do I bother with the separate camera?

One reason:  I actually make prints of my photos.  Not all of them, but occasionally when I get a really good shot of a scene during my travels, I like to blow that thing up huge on some good quality paper and hang it on the wall either in my house or at the office.  If you don’t ever make prints, then keep shooting your iPhone, Pixel, or Samsung.  But if you ever have the desire to print your own pictures at reasonably large sizes, then the difference between a cell phone and a dedicated camera is significant.

Allow me to illustrate.

The following are a series of photos of my cat, Ginger, doing her best paperweight impression.  The first one is shot with my iPhone 6S using the native camera app, and the second one is shot with a first generation Sony RX100.

Shot with iPhone 6S.
Shot with Sony RX100.

Now let’s zoom in on both photos and view them at 100% magnification.  I scaled the RX100 photo down to 12 megapixels so both devices would match.

iPhone 100%
RX100 100%

A few observations.  First of all, in the first two comparison photos — the ones that aren’t zoomed in all the way — the iPhone picture is pretty good.  At small print sizes or viewing the pictures on a smartphone screen, you’re probably going to be hard pressed to find a big difference between the two.  So for most non-shutterbugs, the iPhone is going to be good enough for most situations.  For a device so small that is nearly always with you, all the iPhones released within the better part of the last decade are great cameras, provided you understand their limitations.

Second observation:  when you blow the pictures up real big, you can clearly see that the real camera has tons more detail.  This becomes relevant when you want to make medium to large sized prints.  For me, I can clearly see a difference in quality at around 11×14 and up.  It is in this one aspect that I believe iPhones have actually gotten worse over the years:  at the pixel level, the pictures look like smudged watercolor paintings, and it did not always used to be this way.

I blame Apple entirely for this.  Since the iPhone 6, they tweaked their photo processing algorithm and boosted up the noise reduction on the camera to a ridiculous level.  Here’s an old review of the iPhone 6 that illustrates this phenomenon; it’s about a third of the way down.  Here’s a discussion on Apple’s own site regarding this topic as well.  In practical terms, what this means is that details are a blotchy mess, and the color of people’s faces look strange.  This is entirely a software problem (which I will demonstrate later in this article), and could be fixed by Apple anytime they wish, but it’s been long ignored.  The phones prior to the iPhone 6 have not had this issue, but it has been present on every phone since then, including the newest iPhone X.  This is incredibly frustrating for me because there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old way the camera software handled photo processing.  They took something that was perfectly fine and ruined it for no good reason.

The good news is that there is a way around Apple’s over aggressive noise reduction, and this is to shoot RAW.  The ability to shoot RAW files is available from the iPhone 6S and newer (any model with a 12 megapixel sensor).  Unfortunately, you cannot simply adjust a setting in the normal camera app to do this; you need to download one of several third party camera apps that are able to access this function.  My favorite is Lightroom CC.  It’s free and easy to use.

The following comparison illustrates the difference between shooting a photo with the regular camera app versus shooting RAW.

Shot with iPhone using Lightroom in RAW mode.
Shot with regular camera app.

As you can see with the photo shot in RAW mode, it’s grainier in appearance due to the lack of any noise reduction, but it also clearly has more retained details in Ginger’s face and on the white pillow to her right.  For landscape photos especially, I’ve found that taking this added step makes a significant improvement in the appearance of my photographs, especially if I print them out for display.

If you’re unfamiliar with how to shoot RAW using your phone and would like to learn, here’s a brief tutorial using the Lightroom app.

Go ahead and open your app.  At the very top where it says “JPG”, hit that with your finger.

Now when the little menu pops up, change it over to DNG (short for Digital Negative).

This setting will stay saved this way until you go back and manually change it again.  Now that you’re in RAW mode, go ahead and take a sample photo.  Once you’ve got your picture, click on the little X at the bottom left of the screen to edit the photo that you just took.

This will bring up the following screen which shows all the pictures you took using the Lightroom app.  Pick the photo you want to edit.

This will then blow up the photo to be edited.  I usually don’t do much editing, as it’s not necessary for most pictures, so the next step is to hit the small icon at the very top of the screen that looks like a box with an arrow pointing straight up.  Once you do that, it will bring up a menu of options.  Click on Save to Camera Roll.

And finally, you can decide whether to export the file as a full 12 megapixel file or a smaller 3 megapixel file.  For snapshots that I don’t ever foresee printing, I usually go with the smaller file to save storage space, and because honestly 12 megapixels is overkill for something that’s only going to be viewed on a computer or phone screen.

And that’s it!  You’ll occasionally want to go into your Lightroom photo library as delete any DNG files you don’t need anymore, as they take up a lot of precious storage space.

Even shooting in RAW mode, the largest I feel I can print an iPhone photo without seriously compromising the final print is around 11×14, and that’s only if the photo was shot in good light and with steady hands.  But because I occasionally enjoy making large poster sized prints of my travel pictures, I still take at least one dedicated camera with me on nearly all my vacations.  For me, the minimal addition to my luggage is worth it.

Digital cameras I currently own as of November 2017:

  • Sony RX100
  • Ricoh GR
  • Nikon Coolpix A
  • Sony RX1 (This is my big gun.  It’s not exactly pocketable, but it’s a phenomenal camera and a fraction of the size and weight of a DSLR and can produce huge poster sized prints with ease).

All of the above are small and will fit in a front pocket except the RX1.  Perfect for the light traveler.

**Update October 2019:  The above list is still accurate.  I haven’t bought any new cameras except for the one on my iPhone XS.


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