Modern architecture abounds in Palm Springs, mid-century and otherwise.
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/1600 sec | F6.3 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

On the topic of "When will smartphones make most dedicated cameras obsolete?" I tend to be in the "We're pretty much there already" camp. In my own day-to-day photography, and even for some special occasions where I expect to take more than a few photos, I'll stick with my smartphone rather than bringing along a dedicated camera.

That wasn't the case on a recent trip to Palm Springs. I shot with both the Pixel 3 and a Micro Four Thirds camera (the Olympus Pen F, specifically). Here's where each of them shine, and why I'm glad I had a dedicated camera at my side.

My photographic priority in Palm Springs was the city's veritable smorgasbord of mid-century modern buildings. Banks, hotels, liquor stores – all housed in stunning modern buildings that are extremely Instagrammable. You know you've hit the architectural jackpot when you're excited to photograph the town BevMo!.

Literally the roof of a BevMo! liquor store.
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/800 sec | F5.6 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

There are obvious benefits to any smartphone, including of course the Pixel 3. It's always with you, even by the pool, photos are automatically backed up to your image library, everything is immediately shareable. But the Pixel 3 presents a few unique advantages: it handles high-contrast scenes particularly well, and the multi-shot Night Sight mode captures a level of detail well beyond what we're used to seeing from smartphones, even in the daytime.

The Pixel 3 does a fine job balancing scenes like this one, and its IP68 waterproof rating means it's safe poolside.
Google Pixel 3 XL ISO 59 | 28mm equiv. | F1.8

There are some disadvantages though, which figured into my decision to bring along the Olympus Pen F and 12mm lens. First, the Pixel's main camera wasn't quite wide enough for the kind of photography I wanted to do. Photographing mid-century modern buildings from the sidewalk along a busy road doesn't make it easy to just back up to get the whole thing in the shot.

Using panorama mode for a wider shot isn't a great option either – image quality is pretty poor. This year's smartphones are addressing this problem with wide-angle lenses, so if Google ever decides to add another rear camera, who knows what will be possible!

Stuff like this is just lying around everywhere in Palm Springs!
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/1250 sec | F4.5 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

Editing Pixel 3 Raws isn't my favorite experience at the moment, either. Editing Pen F files is familiar and comfortable to me, while handling Pixel Raw files seems to be a quirky process in its current state. When I use Camera Raw I start with a very flat, overexposed image (which seems to be unique to editing with ACR), and when I edit Raw photos in Snapseed I encounter a couple of bugs along the way (and don't love the small-screen edit experience). It's more than good enough for something I'll post on social media, but I wanted a little more control with my Palm Springs photos.

I also found myself taking advantage of a few Pen F features that were handy, if not necessarily must-haves. A viewfinder really came in handy under the bright mid-day sun. I also like a tilting LCD to compose shots from higher and lower angles. Also, the digital level was pretty huge for me, a person with (apparently) a crooked brain who is unable to keep horizons straight.

If every Bank of America looked like this I'd be a member tomorrow.
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/1250 sec | F4.5 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

To be sure, there are some third-party workarounds that would have adapted the Pixel 3 to my purposes better. I could have brought a wide-angle attachment lens along and used a camera app with a level. There are trade-offs when using either of these options, though.

I also prefer the anonymity of the Pixel 3. One morning I walked from the center of town a mile and a half to the visitor's center, a futuristic-looking building that used to be a gas station and is one of the most recognizable structures in town.

Roof of the Tramway Gas Station, currently home of the Palm Springs Visitor's Center.
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/1250 sec | F6.3 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

I was quite conspicuous on this journey for several reasons. For starters, nobody walks a mile to get anywhere in 80°+ heat if they can help it. I'm also incredibly pale and probably a danger to motorists walking under a beaming sun on the side of the road. I also had a Real Camera in my hand, and on top of that, am a lady.

Being a lady alone in public doing something out of the ordinary is, in my experience, an invitation for commentary, usually of the harmless "What are ya doin' there with that big ol' camera little missy??" variety. Well-meaning I'm sure, but my male colleagues don't quite experience the same interruptions.

Palm Springs: they aren't kidding about those palms.
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/1000 sec | F4.5 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

I wish I'd been shooting with the Pixel when I saw the Photo That Got Away. Traffic in the street was stopped at a red light, and I was walking parallel to a pickup truck towing a camper van with a majestic purple mountain on the side. Behind it was a backdrop of actual majestic mountains. It was perfect, except the driver was staring right at me staring at him.

Maybe I would have gotten away with it shooting with the phone. As it happened, it just felt too conspicuous, almost invasive, to pull the camera up to my eye and take a picture. The light turned green and I thought about that photo through the rest of the trip.

In any case, I made it to the visitor's center, which is a lovely building but I actually ended up taking my favorite picture around the back of it. Funny how that happens.

I walked a mile and a half through the desert to take this photo of a bench, I guess.
Olympus Pen F ISO 200 | 1/1250 sec | F6.3 | Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2.0

I liked the experience of carrying the Pen F at my side. It put me in a mindset of taking photos that's harder to get into when I'm using my phone. But I don't think we're far from a future where the Pixel 3 satisfies almost all of the photographic needs I had on a trip like that, and there are real benefits to shooting with the Pixel 3 that traditional cameras don't provide now. The Pixel automatically backed up all of the trip photos I took with it to my Photos library, where they were instantly shareable, searchable and photo-book-printable. The Pen F sure didn't do any of that.

When I can get 90% of the image quality from a smartphone that I would from a traditional camera, and the experience of using it as a photographic device – from capture through editing – is 90% as good, I'll be ready to leave the camera at home when I go on a trip like the one I just took. That day probably isn't far off at all.