What’s The Best Camera for Travel: DSLR or iPhone?

Jessie Beck

As our little group of hikers paused at a vista in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, Jun, a Tokyoite who worked for Nikon, stood back from the group, crouching, then standing, then crouching again, to get the best shots with his massive DSLR camera. Then, he swung it around on his back and pulled out an iPhone to capture one last shot before moving on.

“It’s my back up,” he said to me. “And actually, the iPhone camera quality is quite good. I heard one of the biggest updates on the iPhone 6 will be better night shots. They’re putting a lot of effort into it.” Immediately, my opinion on iPhone cameras changed.

Although I loved (and still love) my Nikon DSLR, it’s not always the easiest to travel with. Until then, I thought I needed it to get a decent shot, but if an expert in the camera industry approved of iPhone camera quality, what would this mean for an amateur photographer like myself? Would this change the equipment I traveled with? It was the first time I really asked the question:

What’s the best camera for travel: a DSLR or an iPhone?

Pros and Cons of the DSLR

There are some pretty obvious benefits and tradeoffs of traveling with a DSLR — most of which I know from first hand experience:

Reasons to Travel With a DSLR

On the one hand, it takes wonderful shots, has a wider range of settings to apply, and the battery lasts far longer than an iPhone. Even with a kit lens (the lens it comes with) it gets me the higher quality photos I want to use to showcase my travels on my blog or to submit alongside a freelance piece. Even with iPhone advancements coming close to DSLR shots, there are still some differences in quality. Take a look at these two shots:

Shot with a DSLR

DSLR shot of the Golden Gate Bridge

iPhone 6 photo of Golden Gate bridge

iPhone 6 shot of the Golden Gate Bridge

The two shots as is are pretty comparable, actually, but where DSLRs really shine, in comparison to iPhones, in photo quality is with motion shots, distance shots with zoom, and shots in low lighting.

Reasons Not to Travel With a DSLR

Photo quality aside, DSLRs are bulky, heavy, and — quite frankly — a pain in the butt to drag around town all day when you’re schlepping it from site to site on a trip.

I also don’t like that I feel like more of a target/tourist with one wrapped around my neck (usually I keep it in a tote bag that I can easily whip it in and out of, to stay discreet) and I’m constantly worried about it getting stolen or broken (then again… ditto for my iPhone, so that’s not much of a differentiator).

Furthermore, if you’ve never worked with a DSLR before, there’s a bit of a learning curve to figure out what all of those settings (like shutter speed, aperture, etc.) mean.

With an iPhone, they take a lot of the thought out of that — autocorrecting, focusing, or adjusting to lighting as you shoot. In the end, you have to have at least a basic understanding of photography to really get the most out of using a DSLR.

Reaching a Compromise With DSLRs

There is a compromise, though. The technology for mirrorless cameras — which literally take the mirror out of a DSLR to make the body and lens of the camera smaller than a DSLR — has finally caught up to DSLR quality.

It’s much lighter in weight than a DSLR while still having similar photo quality and control — perfect for those of us who need semi-professional shots. Though I haven’t yet made the investment, I’m seriously considering switching over.

Pros and Cons of the iPhone Camera

Great phone camera quality is one of Apple’s main marketing schticks. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now one of their “shot with an iPhone 6” billboards or magazine print outs. Admittedly, the quality is good — very good. Nikon-expert-approved good.

Nonetheless, you won’t find a professional photographer using an iPhone as her main camera — though, I did find a professional photographer who used it as his only camera on a vacation to Vietnam, and had surprisingly positive things to say about the experiment.

Reasons Not to Rely on Your iPhone Camera

Thing is, even with the great quality of iPhone photo shots, it still doesn’t offer the same quick shutter speed or range of manual controls as a DSLR, which is why it’s harder to get great action, night, and distance shots. As Jun said, “It’s a back up”.

Then the next main downside would be the battery life — while my camera can last me two weeks of occasional use, my iPhone might only last two days.

Reasons to Travel With an iPhone as Your Camera

At the end of the day though, an iPhone is lighter weight and easier to travel with. If you’re an obsessively light packer (like I am) then it means reducing the amount of electronics you bring — even if you end up bringing a few iPhone camera accessories.

Furthermore, for most of us, the quality of a professional photographer’s back up shots is perfectly fine — I’ve even submitted iPhone shots for freelance pieces and used them on my own blog.

Not to mention, it’s a dummy-proof camera to shoot with, since the iPhone camera will automatically adjust to lighting, focusing, etc. for you, instead of you having to manually do so with the DSLR.

Ways to Make Your iPhone Shots Pop

olloclipAlthough no equipment decision will ever give you the magical power of having a good visual eye, there are a few ways you can get your iPhone photography to the next level.

One of the best resources out there is iPhone Photography school, which I can easily spend hours getting lost in, but some quick tips:

Download apps to help you edit and shoot better:

Invest in basic iPhone camera accessories:

Then, just in case you weren’t aware of them, there are a couple of other tricks you can do without the extra accessories and apps:

TL;DR

For most travelers, an iPhone will be enough to get the shots you want and need, while also being much easier to travel with. To up your photo game, think about mini lenses you can attach to your iPhone, editing apps, and a portable tripod.

However, a DSLR will still get higher resolution photos, and has the ability to capture distance shots, motion shots, and alter aperture and shutter speed better. For bloggers or anyone who might use these photos professionally, a DSLR is often (though still not always) worth the weight.

Personally, I still travel with my DSLR and bring my iPhone as backup, but as technology for iPhone cameras changes and improves, I might just transfer over completely, eventually.

Image: Jan Vašek (Stocksnap)