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Traveling with Only a Smartphone Camera

I’m traveling in Chicago this week, and I decided to leave the heavy DSLR gear at home and shoot with only my iPhone.

Convenience versus quality.

Hancock Tower Signature Room

Dining on the 96th floor of the Hancock Building

Spring color in Chicago

Spring color in Chicago

Would I do this if my goal on this trip were primarily photography? Of course not.

Would I do this on my first trip to the city? Probably not. But I’ve been here many times and I’ve collected great shots on previous visits.

And if you’re anything like me, you occasionally reach a point where you just get tired of carrying heavy camera gear all the time. I reached that point (again) this week, and I was delighted to leave all the gear at home and travel with a camera that fits in my pocket.

Of course the iPhone is quite limited compared to a DSLR. There are many shots I see in my mind’s eye that I simply can’t get. And those that I do get are often noisy, blurry, or otherwise crappy.

But working occasionally with limited equipment makes photography an interesting challenge again. In many ways it’s refreshing.

The Olloclip 3-in-1 Clip-On Lens

To help expand the iPhone’s capabilities, I carry the Olloclip 3-in-1 Clip on Lens (check the price here on Amazon). You can read my full review of it here.

Thompson Center with Olloclip Fisheye

Thompson Center Atrium with Olloclip Fisheye

Thompson Center - Regular iPhone View

Thompson Center – Regular iPhone View

This little gadget slips onto the iPhone to provide a wide-angle, a fisheye, and a macro lens. The macro quality is great. The wide quality is OK. And the fisheye quality is so low that it’s really only useful as a fun gimmick (but hey, I often feel that way about fisheye shots in general).

You can see some examples and comparisons among the photos on this page.

Editing Photos on the Road

Another challenge of travel photography is how to download and edit your photos while on the road.

Since Lightroom is my tool of choice, I travel with Lightroom on my laptop, and I use it to download, organize, and edit my photos as I go.

But keeping my laptop’s Lightroom catalog synchronized with my Lightroom catalog back home takes careful planning and perfect execution. This is an important topic, so I’m going to make a free video for you in the next few weeks on how to use Lightroom on two computers. I’ll email you and I’ll link to it here when it’s finished. Stay tuned!

Chicago Cultural Center Dome

Chicago Cultural Center Dome with Olloclip Fisheye.

The Best Thing About Shooting with a Smartphone

Given adequate light, the iPhone camera itself is surprisingly good. However, in low or medium light the photos can get very noisy. But that often makes a great chance to create an “artsy” black-and-white shot in post-production.

Rookery Staircase

Staircase in Rookery building by Frank Lloyd Wright — Olloclip Wide Angle Lens

And of course the convenience when traveling can’t be beat. But I think the best thing about spending a week shooting with just the iPhone is the fact that its many limitations make me eager to get back to my DSLR and my fast glass.

Suddenly I don’t mind carrying the heavy camera again. And that rejuvenation of interest and enthusiasm for the DSLR is priceless.


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  1. I know that feeling about carrying heavy gear around. Recently I got a Fujifilm X Pro 1 and I have found it a delight to use, I am taking more photographs as a result. However I don’t want to fall out my DSLR! What are your thoughts on the Fujifilm X Pro 1?


  2. Phil Steele says:

    Roger, there are a number of new small cameras like your Fuju X Pro 1 that look really interesting. The Fuju X100s is another I’ve had my eye on. I’m quite eager to get one of these smaller cameras and try it out for travel. Possibly the best of both worlds in size and quality.

  3. Matt McCarel says:

    Next time you are in Chicago it would be nice to meet you in person if only for a half hour just meet the man behind the exceptional teaching videos. You got some nice shots there and make me realize I need to explorer downtown a little more. I live up in Buffalo Grove. Safe travels, Phil.
    Matt McCarel

  4. Phil Steele says:

    Matt, thanks for the kind words. My brother lives in the Lincoln Park area so I really enjoy the excuse to visit such a beautiful and interesting city.

  5. Bob Dumon says:

    I dumped big cameras a while back and am shooting now with a Sony NEX-6, which I totally love, ESPECIALLY that gorgeous built-in EVF. Of course the gadget bag is still full, with my HVL-53AM flash, the 55-210mm and other lenses, batteries, etc. Still, when I want I can just go with the camera and the 16mm-50mm power zoom and it does a decent job. Even the little built-in flash can do fairly well in an emergency. Of course the 6 is no where near as small as an iPhone, so this was a very interesting article. Thanks….

  6. Huat says:

    Nice photos with just an iPhone.
    I like to travel light. Few years ago when I went to for my holiday, I had packed my DSLR for the trip. At the last minutes when I was able to leave home to the airport, I decided to leave my DSLR at home and travel with just my Canon S90 (I bought it few months after it was launched for the trip, still using it now). Although the photos taken most properly not that great if taken using a DSLR, but it acceptable to me and I enjoy the trip with light weight. It also easier to operate the camera with just one hand.
    For future trip, may bring my mirrorless camera for the trip.

    And looking forward to the video on how to use Lightroom on two computers, as I am now worrying how to do it when I need to bring my smaller laptop for my shooting assignment/trip.

  7. A Perez says:

    Hello Phil,
    Greetings from across the pond.
    I think the iPhone should be treated as an emergency backup. I must say though that the images you’ve produced here are striking , and although they may not be up to the quality of DSLR standards as regards detail, they are still useful captures and show the emergency label tag I’ve put on my iPhone. Give it another 10 to 20 years and we will be able just to look at a scene and take a picture with our minds eye…now there’s a thought? When is the Live venue video due? I can’t wait to sign up to that one.

  8. Rob Wing says:

    As a “newbie” to the DSLR (I have the Nikon D3100 and D5100), I also have the iPhone 4S. I know what you are talking about when it comes to limitations of the iPhone vs. the DSLR. I found your blog to be really interesting and I just wanted to thank you for your comparisons. I find my iPhone produces a lot of noise that is sometimes difficult to manage in post-processing. For myself, if I just want a “snapshot” of something, the iPhone works great; however, if I want a good quality “photo,” the DSLR is far better.

    Thank you for your comparisons. Now I know I’m not alone with the comparison.

  9. James Carney says:

    I specifically opted for my current mobile phone specifically because of its camera. The Nokia N8 has a 12MP camera with a Carl Zeiss lens and the results are pretty impressive, particularly is you keep the zoom to a minimum. As something to carry about for everyday shots, it’s ideal.

  10. Mike Shrout says:

    I too do not like to carry the big DLSR sometimes so I bought a Canon S100. The main reasons: It is small enough to fit in my pocket and the most important thing is it shoots in RAW.

  11. Lucien H. Chin A Foeng says:

    Interesting experiment, Phil, using her iPhone as your only travel camera!Thank heavens you didn’t live in California when Ansel Adams was roaming the place! Alone too! It only goes to show that in the final analysis it’s still the driver, not the car! Your ‘Lightroom made easy’ online course is in a class all of its own! Keep up the good work, man!

  12. james says:

    I was about to ask what was you thinking, but now i’m asking myself why did i buy my DSLR after i seen your Iphone pic….! Great pic’s

  13. Gladys says:

    Hello! Thanks for this post, it’s very interesting!
    I received a Nikon D7100 gift and I took it (without knowing its use) travel to Mexico. Actually whenever I look at photos sour me, because none went very well.
    The weight of the camera is important and this makes me the stability of the image.
    I am thinking in a compact but with better options for travel. Do you think about the Nikon Coolpix P520?.
    I hope someday can take a photo of so excellent quality as every one of yours!
    A hug!

  14. Allan Ogilvie says:

    I like to my Canon ELPH 300 as a point-and-shoot camera. Have it in a case on my belt.

  15. David says:

    Enjoyed your blog. One time I found myself leaving a mtg And saw this beautiful sunset right over a barn. I took the picture and lo and behold it came out pretty good. I played with it in LR. Submitted it to a juried exhibition and it was accepted.
    I am happy to have had my phone with me at that time. Thank you Steve Jobs.

  16. Leong says:

    Hey Phil,
    I’m doing exactly the same this weekend. I’m in Sydney and the D800 and fast glass is at home. I come here at least once a year from New Zealand and already have lots of pics I’m happy with so I’m traveling only with the iPhone 5. Sydney’s “Vivid” light show is on after dark at the moment and I’ve experimented with rotating the phone during the slow exposure and got some interesting results. Their a bit noisy but with a little work I’m hoping to get at least one printable shot. It is so good not having the heavy backpack on all the time – cos you never know when that photo opportunity might present itself!

  17. Dave says:

    Greetings from NZ. An interesting article and look forward to the video on LR. Lighter weight multi range zooms help reduce space and weight issues.
    Looking forward to more great articles.

  18. Andrew says:

    Really enjoy your posts Phil! Thanks for the great tips!

  19. DaniLew says:

    I recently traveled with family and only took the iPhone with me. And yes, it was tough being limited but I’m glad I didn’t bring the big camera.

    by the way, impressive shots!

  20. Peter Grifoni says:

    I guess it depends on how anal you are about the images you will take while on your trip/holiday.
    Sometimes its not about the technical side of the photo and getting the best possible image, but it’s more about the experience of where you are that is paramount.
    This where devices like camera phones are ideal. Having said, that I tend to agree with most other comments here in relation to the smaller cameras like the NEX’s and X100s and x20. These definitely offer the best of both worlds and may just be the right camera to produce a very special image.
    One thing for sure, as times goes on the devices to capture images will definitely get smaller and better.

  21. Richard Battilana says:

    My Olympus OM-D is small enough and great pictures. – NOT HEAVY! I didn’t use it for church’s Memorial Day Fair because no one takes you seriously as The Cathedral Photographer with a point and shoot.

  22. Ed-Law says:

    Lots of quality in your images. Phil. iPhone 5? Took mine to PSW, Orlando this year as I am approaching 89 the weight of my DSLRs wear me out if away from a place to stash the gear and rest.

    BTW. enjoyed reading all the comments. You attract a great group.

    Ed .. with one years experience 76 times including wet darkroom at age 13.

  23. Jim Dopkus says:

    Last year I traveled to Ghana, Africa with 2 friends for 23 days. We were on the move quite a bit, moving from one location to the next. I brought 2 cameras, my old standby Minolta 7d (heavy) and a recently bought Nikon Coolpix AW100 point & shoot (waterproof & shockprooof). The Nikon is sooooooooooo cool and does amazing photos and videos and does not attract any attention (this sometimes can be a problem in a 3rd world country). I wasn’t on a photoshoot, just wanted to document the trip, but still got some great shots. Depending on how tight the next trip is (and that will be 2 days in Reno & 2 days in Vegas) the Nikon is all I need!

  24. david says:

    It will come!!and only a matter of time. A device that will be as good , able to to what is required and still be convenient. How long for the DLSR……………….?
    I have a DLSR, an Olympus waterproof compact and an iphone and have taken them away with me ..What a “Nerd” I think to myself . Can’t wait for the next step…………………

  25. Rita says:

    Have you downloaded the new App 645 Pro yet? and would you recommend it?

  26. John Wirth says:

    Phil, you are the man. I always enjoy your videos and stories. My wife and I travel the world and we both have Canon DSLRs along with pocket Canons. We can never understand why so many people pay big bucks to go on nice vacations and ONLY take photos with their phones or iPads. We wonder what they do with their photos once they get back home. I’ll bet they are shown a few times on their phones and then erased. I put as many as I can on Flickr and also make DVDs with either Power Director or ProShow Producer. The quality of the DSLR makes all the difference, why record a precious photo on anything other than the best.

  27. Richard shirk says:

    I am just just beginning to see the difference between things. I used my back up camera(Panasonic Lumix SZ-02) to do some pictures. I wanted to see the difference between shots with my DSLR and this camera. Aside from the differences in shutter size and lackof control over images, my small camera is just fine. I did not care for the picture quality on my android phone, so I probably wont be using it. If I travel light, I will be using my point and shoot. Also, I believe any camera can take good or great pictures. It is the matter of the Photographer and his or her skill. I consider my DSLR my “work” camera and my Panasonic my “fun camera”. It is good to change up cameras to perfect and accept your limitaions. As with any camera, if you know your camera, you will shoot quality pictures at any point in time.

  28. Bob Summerville says:

    I use a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7inch as my portable computer, phone and everything else. There are a couple of camera apps that work well enough, but never as good as the ‘fast glass’ on my DSLR. But, as the guru says, the best camera to have is the one you’ve got with you….. even if I cannot see the LCD screen in daylight. I wouldn’t have the courage to go travelling without my DSLR.

  29. Ely Ryder says:

    I’m traveling in Europe and enjoying the convenience of my Sony NEX-7,using mostly the Sony 16-50SEL. I find I leave the 55-210SEL in the hotel. It’s rather slow processing RAW, so I shoot JPEG, but the images seem fine. I have an iPAD, so I will have to wait unti I return to use Lightroom. I don’t envy the other tourists with their giant Canons.

  30. kyra sido says:

    Phil, Do NEX 7 and Xpro-1 produce high quality 18/24 prints for clients? Other options for street/travel (Asia) portraits? Leica 9 is too expensive for me and the nikon d700 is sometimes too obtrusive. thank you

  31. Ari says:

    Nice article, no doubt these small easy to carry cameras or smart phone can take photos but I wonder those who are saying these are great among them how many are professional photographers and have you ever thought to enlarge your prints?

    No matter what these small cameras do but could not beat DSLR that is why there is a demand and supply otherwise production might have stopped. My Nikon P7100 was small easy to carry and full of features same as DSLR but I still need DSLR.

    In short it all depends on one need.

  32. André Hôte says:

    Thanks for account, reminder & challenge, Phil! Your topics usually stick to reality. Besides your interesting comments, I find the necessity to drop entirely one’s favorite heavier gear for awhile is a must to step out of routine and get used to what one has in one’s pocket. Without this step, it is difficult to round up the possibilities of pocket gear and become handy with it. Past the accompanying initial frustrations this keeps up grumbling but alive and happy to have made the step.

  33. Tom hall - Dartford uk says:

    Thanks for this. I am heading in the other direction. I have a fuji x100 following a long break from dslr use. I love that camera but I can see a 5d or 6d on the horizon. Your suggestion of ‘first time, take everything , second and subsequent times , travel lighter’ chimes with me. In some ways I am glad the iPhone camera community can’t get ‘pro’ standard photos. If they could, we’d all be going the way of ham radio!

  34. Patricia Solano says:

    iPhones are great, especially the 5. Took it w me as an extra on my trip to the Galapagos and got some great shots with it. I use the Snapseed app on my iPhone to improve pics in camera..or “in phone” It’s an amazing app! Made by the same people who made Nik software. Also, I like the ProCamera app as well. Got both after reading an ebook on iPhone photography.
    Really looking forward to your syncing the two computers w Lightroom.
    Awesome job you’re doing. We all appreciate it.
    I’m a Chicago girl as well enjoy our city.

  35. Michael Moscrip says:

    I spent 3 months in Medellin ,Colombia this winter, and found the iPhone to be a viable option camera in an environment where a DSLR was like painting a target on my back. I had my Nikon 7000 with me and was able to use it ion many occasions, but when wandering the streets and for street photography, combined with CameraPro, I got many shots I would have had to pass up otherwise. Granted, I stayed in Comuna 13, Pablo Escobar’s old stomping grounds, probably the toughest section of the city. Colombia is beautiful, the people warm and accepting, and should not be passed up. Like any third world country, common sense is advised.

  36. Jack Kennard says:

    My next camera is a Canon g15, point and shoot with raw capabilities. I think a dlsr can be a little confronting in a restaurant or with friends.

  37. Ted Newman says:

    Hi Phil, I love taking pictures and always carry some sort of camera with me everywhere I go but I do like to get a break from carrying my Nikon D3x or D3 with a 70-200mm F2.8 or 28-300mm F3.5/F5.6 attached, so on family days out I usually take my Panasonic TZ10 as it is small and convenient for those spontaneous shots. I recently purchased a Nikon Coolpix P7700 which has ‘nearly all’ the functions of my DSLR’s except that it goes from F2 to F8 so you loose the larger D of F you get with a DSLR, but you do gain on the other side with a faster max aperture than the equivalent 70-200mm at the 70mm end and of course it’s a heck of a lot lighter! It will be ideal for carrying at my son’s upcoming wedding until the reception when the DSLR’s will be out in force alongside it.

  38. Larry Areaux says:

    hey Phil
    I’m 52 years old and I to have also gone through my stages I’ve been photographing since I was 10 years old my first 35 mm when I was 12 and back long before digital Photography was even thought of I used to carry two large aluminum suitcases full of camera equipment Nikon F2’s and F3’s/ motor drives & lenses that ranged from Nikon 8 mm fisheye to the monster Tamron SP 300 mm and just about every lens in between. I got burn out after while and everything went in the closet in there it sat. In the mId 90’s I got Into the COOLPIX serIes cameras I even design and manufacture the Rx flashbracket for the Coolpix camera series. got burned out again and it was the iphone they got me back into photography again. I now have the samsung galaxy note 8 megapixel and has twice the features of the iPhone I’m very happy with it
    oh yeah I’m also back into the DSLR’s but I won’t leave home without them. anyway thanks for your training programs I love them! they have truly been a great help.

  39. Glen Weaver says:

    Great post! Thanks. We all look forward to your Lr tutorial with many computers and/or multiple external hard-drives. Please also address external hard drives and storing/syncing catalogues. I use the D800/D4 (huge file sizes) and travel to africa with a few external hard drives and keeping the catalogues straight is a challenge.
    Kind Regards, glen

  40. Phil Steele says:

    I just want to say thanks to everyone for all the high-quality, interesting comments here. What a great group of students (and teachers!) I have in all of you. You make my day. — Phil

  41. Chuck Hafferman says:

    I decided to stop lugging my DSLR and gear on my business trips and got a Canon G1 X to take along last year. I’ve shot lots of good quality photos in manual mode with the G1 X and it’s made me a better photographer.

    For those rare times when I don’t have the G1X or my DSLR then my iPhone is the go to camera for those unexpected photo opps!

  42. Quite a challenge Phil!
    I know how you feel about your heavy SLRs – this was the very reason I invested in a Canon S100 which goes with me everywhere.
    Unlike the iPhone, the S100 has all the same controls that my Canon DSLRs have which is convenient and the quality difference (on websie-sized images) is marginal.
    Keep up the good work

  43. Brad Brooks says:

    Another option for comparing the two would be to take BOTH smartphone and DSLR on a trip. For any given shot, use each camera as you would if it were the only camera you had, then compare the end result. It might reveal other limitations/capabilities. This is a great post but it leaves me thinking what could the images have been IF he had the DSLR? The only way to know is to take those shots too.

  44. HMPHOTOUK says:

    I love my iphone4s and have taken many a good shot using it. Was fortunate to travel for a bit, so really handy to have a small camera (phone) to capture the magic at short notice and without being too obvious. Have bought a few lens but not taken them for a spin….INSPIRED NOW:-)

  45. Ken Byrne says:

    Great stuff as usual Phil. Thanks

    I’m very keen to see the video on linking a laptop with a desktop

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