Not long ago it was a given you'd take a camera on vacation. But in 2016, your smartphone may well be the best camera you've ever owned. So, do you still need a separate shooter for your vacation, or should you leave it at home and just use your smartphone? Read on as we look at the case for both sides.
First things first, it's worth considering exactly what's meant by a dedicated camera. Our pick of the best holiday cameras a couple of years ago contained mirrorless cameras, an enthusiast-focused compact, and a rugged camera. Truth is, there are plenty of types of cameras, so taking one on holiday doesn't have to mean lumbering a DSLR and a heavy bag full of lenses around with you.
Smartphone cameras can also range greatly in their photographic prowess, but for the purpose of this article we'll assume you're not a dumb-phone stalwart, and carry a reasonably recent smartphone with a competent camera. Some of our current favorite smartphone cameras include the Samsung Galaxy S7, the iPhone 6s Plus, and the Huawei P9.
Also, while you can get smartphone camera accessories to up the photographic game of your device, we will generally be referring to shooting with a naked smartphone. The reason for this is that many people who use their smartphone over a camera do so to travel light, which you soon lose if using an array of add-on lenses, lights, grips and stabilizers.
Reasons to take a dedicated camera on holiday
Smartphone cameras still can't rival most dedicated devices in terms of image quality. Better lenses and bigger sensors generally give cameras the edge in terms of things like dynamic range. While this might not matter too much if you're just taking a quick snap of the kids on a beach, you probably don't want to rely on an iPhone to capture a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or a picture you want to have printed and hang on your wall.
Just as cameras come in all shapes and sizes, so do their lenses. This means that you can pick the right camera (or lens on an interchangeable lens system) to shoot your subject in the way you want. This could be using an ultra-wide, a long telephoto optic, or a zoom lens which offers both. By comparison, the vast majority of smartphone cameras come with just a wide-angle lens which limits their versatility. For example, a compact Canon G7X Mark II was able to give us a much better and closer view of this lifeboat demo compared to the iPhone SE we also had on hand.
Also, while smartphones can often offer a digital zoom, this is normally the same as just cropping the resulting photo, and will give a poorer overall quality image compared to the optical zoom found on most cameras.
We've long since moved on from the days of smartphones having ridiculously slow focusing, and newer devices are far better in this regard. However, the autofocus systems on many cameras still mean they will focus faster (particularly in low light) and track moving subjects better. This is handy if photographing kids running on the beach, or any other moving subject.
Smartphone cameras still struggle when working in less that optimal lighting conditions, even with fast aperture lenses and optical image stabilization. Shots from a camera are likely to be much better, and that's before you consider the difference between a Xenon camera flash and the LED offering on most smartphones. Given your vacation doesn't end when the sun goes down, a dedicated camera might let you capture more usable shots.
Many cameras have controls which let you tinker with settings such as ISO, aperture and shutter speed. This lets you gain more control over your images, and achieve the look you are aiming for, in a way that many smartphone cameras don't allow (though that is changing). The ability to shoot post-processing-friendly RAW files as well as JPEGs is also more common on cameras than smartphones.
As a recent Google Photos advert pointed out, no-one likes going to take a photograph only to be told they've run out of storage space. With most cameras you can pop in a spare memory card if you are running out of storage. Unfortunately it's not always so easy on a smartphone camera as they can lack a memory card slot. Also, if you're on holiday, offloading images and videos to the cloud isn't as easy as if you were at home.
The battery life of most smartphones is pretty dire on typical days, let alone ones when you're snapping loads of images and shooting video. Digital cameras will have more stamina and keep you shooting longer, and if the battery does run out, you can normally pop in a pre-charged spare.
Admittedly, not all cameras have a viewfinder. However, you're still more likely to have one on a camera than your smartphone. While some see them as the preserve of old-fogy photographers, viewfinders can be great when shooting in bright light, where the glare on a screen can otherwise leave you hoping you are focusing on the right thing.
Reasons to use your smartphone camera on holiday
Chances are you're already carrying your smartphone around with you all holiday, so it can feel like a no-brainer to use it as your vacation camera. Not only will this allow more space in your suitcase for other holiday essentials, but it means you don't have to lug a separate camera around with you.
Enjoy the moment
A smartphone camera doesn't require the same amount of attention as a dedicated shooter, which leaves you with more time to enjoy the moment. You can have your smartphone out of your pocket and have taken a photo before a DSLR-wielder has even got their camera out of their backpack. Fellow travelers may also appreciate you not being constantly behind a viewfinder. Shockingly, not everyone wants to feel like they are on a photo safari every time they go out.
While we've already used quality as a reason to opt for a camera rather than a smartphone, it would be remiss of us not to point out that modern smartphone cameras are able to deliver image quality which will be good enough for most people, most of the time. Indeed, smartphone cameras like the Samsung Galaxy S7 are arguably better cameras than many compacts from a couple of years ago, and even this Galaxy S6 did a great job of capturing this sunset.
Special shooting modes
Smartphone cameras are loaded with special shooting modes, including panoramas which see you spin the smartphone around, time-lapse or slow-motion videos. While some of these features are available on some cameras, it's less likely, and all too often not implemented quite as well.
Hardly anyone still sends postcards from their holiday, a stream of Facebook updates and Instagram images are far more likely. Doing this from a phone is a breeze. You can already be getting likes on your photo of that cafe view, before your espresso has even arrived at your table. Though many new cameras also offer wireless connectivity and the ability to share images, it's still much easier on your phone.
Smartphones are great for editing your images on the go, whether processing them in Snapseed like this shot from an iPhone SE, or adding filters in Instagram. Within seconds you can add a filter to make a dull day on the beach look a bit brighter, and the image is ready to share on Facebook. Some cameras do offer in-camera image editing features, but it's generally not as comprehensive or intuitive as on your smartphone.
Video features were slow to arrive on many digital cameras, and even now can lag behind some smartphones in terms of resolution. While you will generally get better quality video from a DSLR or mirrorless camera, for the sort of thing you're likely to be shooting while on vacation, a smartphone is a good option, especially if it has optical image stabilization. Again, the ability to edit and share straight from the phone is a big advantage.
Obviously, there's no right answer to whether you should take a dedicated camera or smartphone camera on holiday with you. But hopefully this article has helped you identify what's important to you, and why you might want to opt for one or the other.
For some, a camera will always be a must-have holiday accessory, as you'll want to capture the best possible quality images you can, and don't mind the drawbacks of carrying it around, and having it eat into holiday time. However, for a growing number of people, smartphone cameras are becoming good enough, and they are only going to get better.