Digital Cameras

Should you take a camera on holiday, or just use your smartphone?

New Atlas looks at the reasons to take a dedicated camera on your vacation, and the reasons to just use your phone
New Atlas looks at the reasons to take a dedicated camera on your vacation, and the reasons to just use your phone
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Which of the above devices would you like to carry around all holiday? More people are choosing to travel light and use their smartphone as a camera
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Which of the above devices would you like to carry around all holiday? More people are choosing to travel light and use their smartphone as a camera
No one likes running out of storage space, especially if you are trying to take a photo. This can be an issue on devices like a 16GB iPhone
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No one likes running out of storage space, especially if you are trying to take a photo. This can be an issue on devices like a 16GB iPhone
Built-in zoom lenses, or interchangeable lenses mean than dedicated cameras are not stuck with a wide angle view. The image on the left was shot with an iPhone SE, while the shot on the right was taken with an Canon G7 X II
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Built-in zoom lenses, or interchangeable lenses mean than dedicated cameras are not stuck with a wide angle view. The image on the left was shot with an iPhone SE, while the shot on the right was taken with an Canon G7 X II
Once light starts to fade, the generally larger sensors of cameras will give them the edge over smartphone cameras
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Once light starts to fade, the generally larger sensors of cameras will give them the edge over smartphone cameras
Your smartphone is more likely to have special shooting modes such as panoramas and time-lapse than your camera, especially if the camera is a couple of years old
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Your smartphone is more likely to have special shooting modes such as panoramas and time-lapse than your camera, especially if the camera is a couple of years old
In a shootout between a dedicated camera and a smartphone, the chances are the camera will produce the better quality image
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In a shootout between a dedicated camera and a smartphone, the chances are the camera will produce the better quality image
The autofocus systems on cameras are generally more capable than those on smartphones, and can track moving subjects better
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The autofocus systems on cameras are generally more capable than those on smartphones, and can track moving subjects better
If you want to share images quickly, your smartphone camera is the way to go
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If you want to share images quickly, your smartphone camera is the way to go
Smartphone cameras can be great for capturing moments quickly, and are not as intrusive as getting a DSLR out
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Smartphone cameras can be great for capturing moments quickly, and are not as intrusive as getting a DSLR out
The quality of image you can now get with a smartphone camera is more than good enough for most people, and it’s only going to get better
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The quality of image you can now get with a smartphone camera is more than good enough for most people, and it’s only going to get better
Editing images on your phone is quick and easy, whereas with a camera you normally have to transfer images onto your computer or tablet first
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Editing images on your phone is quick and easy, whereas with a camera you normally have to transfer images onto your computer or tablet first
Smartphones can shoot great video, especially if they have OIS
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Smartphones can shoot great video, especially if they have OIS
Viewfinders can make it much easier to shoot photos or video in sunny situations, otherwise you can be left struggling with glare on your screen
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Viewfinders can make it much easier to shoot photos or video in sunny situations, otherwise you can be left struggling with glare on your screen
The battery life of a camera will often keep you shooting into the night and, if not, you can normally pop in a spare battery. The same can’t be said of many phones
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The battery life of a camera will often keep you shooting into the night and, if not, you can normally pop in a spare battery. The same can’t be said of many phones
Manual settings are typically easier to access on traditional digital cameras, meaning users can adjust settings depending on the photo they want to take
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Manual settings are typically easier to access on traditional digital cameras, meaning users can adjust settings depending on the photo they want to take
New Atlas looks at the reasons to take a dedicated camera on your vacation, and the reasons to just use your phone
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New Atlas looks at the reasons to take a dedicated camera on your vacation, and the reasons to just use your phone

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

Image Quality

In a shootout between a dedicated camera and a smartphone, the chances are the camera will produce the better quality image
In a shootout between a dedicated camera and a smartphone, the chances are the camera will produce the better quality image

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.

Lenses

Built-in zoom lenses, or interchangeable lenses mean than dedicated cameras are not stuck with a wide angle view. The image on the left was shot with an iPhone SE, while the shot on the right was taken with an Canon G7 X II
Built-in zoom lenses, or interchangeable lenses mean than dedicated cameras are not stuck with a wide angle view. The image on the left was shot with an iPhone SE, while the shot on the right was taken with an Canon G7 X II

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.

Autofocus Speed

The autofocus systems on cameras are generally more capable than those on smartphones, and can track moving subjects better
The autofocus systems on cameras are generally more capable than those on smartphones, and can track moving subjects better

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.

Low Light

Once light starts to fade, the generally larger sensors of cameras will give them the edge over smartphone cameras
Once light starts to fade, the generally larger sensors of cameras will give them the edge over smartphone cameras

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.

Manual Controls

Manual settings are typically easier to access on traditional digital cameras, meaning users can adjust settings depending on the photo they want to take
Manual settings are typically easier to access on traditional digital cameras, meaning users can adjust settings depending on the photo they want to take

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.

Memory

No one likes running out of storage space, especially if you are trying to take a photo. This can be an issue on devices like a 16GB iPhone
No one likes running out of storage space, especially if you are trying to take a photo. This can be an issue on devices like a 16GB iPhone

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.

Battery Life

The battery life of a camera will often keep you shooting into the night and, if not, you can normally pop in a spare battery. The same can’t be said of many phones
The battery life of a camera will often keep you shooting into the night and, if not, you can normally pop in a spare battery. The same can’t be said of many phones

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.

Viewfinder

Viewfinders can make it much easier to shoot photos or video in sunny situations, otherwise you can be left struggling with glare on your screen
Viewfinders can make it much easier to shoot photos or video in sunny situations, otherwise you can be left struggling with glare on your screen

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

Travel light

Which of the above devices would you like to carry around all holiday? More people are choosing to travel light and use their smartphone as a camera
Which of the above devices would you like to carry around all holiday? More people are choosing to travel light and use their smartphone as a camera

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

Smartphone cameras can be great for capturing moments quickly, and are not as intrusive as getting a DSLR out
Smartphone cameras can be great for capturing moments quickly, and are not as intrusive as getting a DSLR out

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.

Quality

The quality of image you can now get with a smartphone camera is more than good enough for most people, and it’s only going to get better
The quality of image you can now get with a smartphone camera is more than good enough for most people, and it’s only going to get better

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

Your smartphone is more likely to have special shooting modes such as panoramas and time-lapse than your camera, especially if the camera is a couple of years old
Your smartphone is more likely to have special shooting modes such as panoramas and time-lapse than your camera, especially if the camera is a couple of years old

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.

Speedy Sharing

If you want to share images quickly, your smartphone camera is the way to go
If you want to share images quickly, your smartphone camera is the way to go

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.

Easy Editing

Editing images on your phone is quick and easy, whereas with a camera you normally have to transfer images onto your computer or tablet first
Editing images on your phone is quick and easy, whereas with a camera you normally have to transfer images onto your computer or tablet first

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

Smartphones can shoot great video, especially if they have OIS
Smartphones can shoot great video, especially if they have OIS

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.

Summary

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.

Let us know what photographic gear you will be taking on your next vacation.

13 comments
SnoopyManiac
I fall firmly into the smartphone is good enough for me on vacation category, but I did make one purchase that is not mentioned in this article. A "tough" camera. Having a camera that is waterproof and sandproof is a must for any vacation with either of said features. My personal choice is the Olympus (TG-3 when I bought it, now TG-4), its been amazing, but there are a number of options to choose from.
RobWeaver
Two things that a good compact camera has that no current smartphone has are the clincher for taking both for me - tilting viewfinder (great for low or high angle shots) and an optical zoom.
Suzanne Bradley
I shall take my Canon 700D with me, my 'smartphone' is just that, a phone.
Dave Mikulec
Growing up, just about everyone in my family carried instamatic cameras and took "snapshots". Today's smartphone based cameras are a million times better than those instamatics ever were and they do the job they were intended to do, capture a moment, quickly with a minimal amount of fuss. And I say that as the owner of a digital SLR which is just too much of a pain in the behind to lug around and set up for a shot. ;-)
Tanstar
SnoopyManiac beat me to it! The number one reason to take a dedicated camera is so you can take it into the ocean, on a zipline, or over rapids. For views of my beach cabana I'll use my G4. When I go snorkeling on the coral reef I'll use my GoPro clone.
Omen
I may have the best answer: I take My Panasonic DMC FZ70 with a lens that goes from 20mm to 1200mm and take high quality photos. It is also comparatively light, does RAW and has a full range of manual controls. I'd post an exemplar, but there doesn't seem to be a means.
EdwardUrsine
On a month long trip to the States last year, to visit mainly American Civil War sites, I found both my Lumix camera and my Galaxy Note essential. They were very much a complementary pair, with the wide angle and video recording of the Note useful in capturing certain sites, along with its "speed into action". However the quality of the Lumix shots were far superior in the main, and so for a lot of the time the versatility of the camera won the day. Carrying both is not a problem given their size and weight, so I do not miss the weight and bulk of my previous Nikon F4 set up!
Calson
Sales of Canon and Nikon compact cameras are down by more than 40% and responsible for the decline in both company's profits. Smartphones have replaced the pocket cameras. The article shows the alternative to be a digital SLR camera and so is very misleading as the best alternative or step up from a smartphone or a compact camera is a mirrorless camera like the ones from Olympus and Fuji which have internal image stabilization and interchangeable lenses and can use an external flash device. The Olympus and Fuji cameras and lenses are half the size and half the weight for traveling of the DSLR cameras and their lenses. Because the lenses are smaller they are also less expensive to manufacture. Something not mentioned is that these mirrorless cameras have lenses that let through 4 to 6 times as much light to the sensor and so work better with low light situations or when a higher shutter speed is needed to stop action with subjects that are moving.
slippast
Every time I take just a cell phone on a trip I regret it. Photos are dull and samey - boring. So I bought a little Olympus M4/3 a while back. Now the bag I carry is about the size of half a loaf of bread and in it I have the body, four lenses, filter kits, tripod, spare batteries and cards. I'm covered from 14mm to 200mm, including two fast primes. The entire kit cost around $400, weighs practically nothing and allows me to do anything from long daylight exposures to low-light street photography at night. If I'm making a stereotypical shot of a waterfall and some other guy is there with his big SLR rig I can get setup, get a dozen photos and be on my way by the time he's putting his camera on his tripod. And at the end of the day the shots we get probably aren't any different (except for the wider angle on the bigger camera).