Since I discovered photography, I have always had a camera nearby. Even if “the best camera is the one that’s with you”, I often have to think about what camera to carry. I don’t always need a professional body and lens to capture life around me. Ideally the camera for everyday carry is small, lightweight, yet capable of shooting photos with great image quality.
I don’t claim to be the best iPhoneographer, nor do I want to anger the Android crowd, I’m sure the shooting experience would be similar on the latest flagship Android phone. I just never got to own one, sorry. This is my journey from the very first iPhone to the latest iPhone X.
For a long time, the camera that’s always with me was a compact, and that is how I started with digital photography. On my first attempt to travel alone, I got myself a Casio compact camera and it has served me well. Then came the crop sensor DSLRs. While the image quality was leaps and bounds better than compact cameras, I have always thought they were still too big and too heavy to comfortably hike with. Finally, I jumped onto the crop sensor mirrorless hype train when the Micro Four Thirds system matured. These mirrorless cameras solved all of my previous issues, they were small, lightweight and shot great photos in all lighting conditions. I travelled a lot with an Olympus OM-D and I miss shooting with it.
I think the iPhone X is the first smartphone that one should look at as a serious alternative camera for travel photography. I was an early adopter of mobile photography. My first real camera phone was a Sony Ericsson K790. It was the best camera phone of the pre-smartphone era. It wasn’t a great camera but the ability to take snapshot in the moment without having to reach for a real camera was a revelation.
In 2007, I imported an iPhone from the US. The original iPhone was never released in Canada, but I had to try it. However, the iPhone camera also sucked and was no better than the K790 before it. When iPhone 3G was released a year later, I decided to upgrade. I was tired of jailbreaking the iPhone just to be jailed again after an update. I had fallen in love with Apple’s design. In hindsight, I should have been patient and skip the iPhone and patiently waited for the official Canadian launch of iPhone 3G. Apple’s App Store was so much better than the community supported Cydia, and official updates put my mind at ease. But…the camera was unchanged…so it still sucked.
My discovery of the iPhone 4’s superior phone camera was pure accident. Steve Jobs said a bunch of clever things during the iPhone 4 release keynote. But I was skeptical, I wasn’t going to fall for the hype again. My wife and I travelled to Asia in the fall of 2010 with my trusted DSLR. It was going to be an epic trip, our itinerary included many exotic destinations. But after the first leg in Thailand, I discovered that the humid weather caused a malfunction with my camera. I had to resort to using the only other camera that we had with us: my wife’s iPhone 4. To my surprise however, it took great photos.
When it came to my turn to get a new phone, I opted to wait a few months so I can get the newest iPhone at release. Securing an iPhone 5 in the fall of 2012 in Canada was nearly impossible. A lot of people lined up for hours in front of the Apple Store just to be told that there were no stock available. The Apple hype has reached its peak. I was one of these people, only I lined up at my carrier’s store instead. By the end of lunch hour on release day, I walked out with an iPhone 5 in hand. I shot a lot of photos with the iPhone 5. But despite how much better the phone camera technology was in 2012, it was still not as good as a real camera.
I probably would have been happy with the iPhone 5 longer than the typical upgrade cycle. But for some reason, a bit of nasty dust have snuck under the front lens element. It showed up on every photo I took shortly after the expiration of the warranty. You can see it on my wife’s neck above. I was disheartened, but by now I was locked into the Apple ecosystem. There was no going back. When iPhone 6 released, I waited a few months for the hype to die down and ordered it on Boxing Day.
The iPhone 6 generation was when I decided that the image quality gap between phones and real cameras have really narrowed. There were times when I left the real camera at home without even thinking about it. However, I wish the iPhone 5’s camera did not malfunction so early in its lifecycle. Because when I found out that the iPhone 6S was able to shoot RAW, I regretted buying the iPhone 6 generation. The ability to post process a RAW image is very important to me as a professional photographer. This was the last must-have feature that I desperately wanted in a camera that fits in my pocket. Until I was able to shoot RAW on my iPhone, I geared myself with a mirrorless camera system for travel.
Purchasing iPhone X was the turning point, it has lead to me selling the entire mirrorless kit. The sale was a major endeavour, because by now I had a full system of body, lenses, and accessories. I quickly found that I can confidently travel lightly with an iPhone X and not miss a beat. With the ability to shoot RAW, it was time to let go of the redundant mirrorless camera system. The new dual lens camera is also very versatile. The 50 mm equivalent field of view is great for portraits and the 28 mm is perfect for street photography. iPhone X is perhaps the perfect travel camera, especially for street photography. Using a smartphone defuses any awkward situation that I normally find myself in. People would dismiss you as you get closer, nobody around me would feel intimidated by this tiny and common gadget.
My next purchase will be a clip that would allow me to mount the iPhone X onto a tripod. The live photo mode can be used to simulate a long exposure, but I think with a small Gorillapod, the results would be even better. I also need to dedicate some hours to post processing iPhone X RAW files and get to know its limitations. Until something better comes along, I believe the iPhone X is a great option for one to travel with.