Amazing ability to handle tricky light

The iPhone handled most tricky lighting well, because it could do lots of editing for me behind-the-scenes. It has a trick that's become common on the latest cameras: taking several photos in quick succession, changing settings between them, and then merging the best parts of each photo to make one great composite image.

Waterfall at Cat Cat, Vietnam, shot with iPhone 4S. Two camera apps used: one for the waterfall and one for the rest. Edited with Filterstorm, Photogene2, Snapseed and Image Blender apps.

Some apps put this feature on steroids, and one of them - Pro HDR - quickly became my most-used camera app for landscapes, giving gorgeous skies and rich detail - way better than is possible on any camera without the feature without resorting to Photoshop.

Puts most of Photoshop in your pocket

When I felt like spending time editing photos, the phone didn’t disappoint. With the right combination of apps, I had a sizeable portion of Photoshop's features right in my pocket.

But the apps were a lot more fun to learn and use! I ended up doing most of the editing in Snapseed – one of the more expensive apps at AU$5.50 ($4.99 U.S. in the App Store). It’s not as powerful as apps like Filterstorm or PhotoForge2, but I found Snapseed a pleasure to use, and the interface is perfectly suited to the tiny iPhone screen. With other apps, I had an urge to put my fingers through a pencil sharpener to help control the tiny buttons.

Cyclists at sunrise, Hoi An, Vietnam. Shot with iPhone 4S native camera app and processed in Snapseed and Filterstorm.

Before doing lots of editing, I’d suggest getting some photos printed, so you know if your phone's screen is too dark or bright. Unlike a computer monitor, there is no way to calibrate the whole display of the phone so that what you see is accurate. You can do it with an Datacolor Spyder4 or 3 device, but you'll only see the result within their SpyderGallery app, not while you're editing pictures.

Before leaving, I compared the same photos on my phone's screen to a calibrated accurate screen; my iPhone screen was close enough for non-critical work, but just fractionally brighter. That meant that if I edited photos to make them look perfect on the phone’s screen, they would print just a little too dark. The difference was slight enough that just remembering to make photos look a little brighter than normal on the phone's screen gave me prints that I was happy with.

Great depth, and great depth in focus

The lenses on the iPhone 4 and 4S are well-suited to landscapes and photojournalism. They give a fairly wide view that stretches depth in scenes, so you rarely get "flat photo" syndrome. They also achieve such a huge depth of focus that I found focusing became almost unnecessary. It was hard to miss!

Ladies in traditional dress collect rice seedlings ready for transplanting, Cat Cat, Vietnam. Shot with iPhone 4S, taken with Pro HDR app, processed with Filterstorm and Snapseed (which increased the grain).

This made for great landscapes – I could include the foreground right up close to me, and still keep the mountains in the background in focus. I could have done this with my DSLR, but only by using settings that forced me to use a tripod too. I could do it handheld with the iPhone.

Having lots in focus might not always be what you want – with portraits, you sometimes want to blur the background. The iPhone can't really do that by itself, but you can paint on the blur using apps afterwards.

A hidden treasure: the front camera

Toward the end of the trip, I discovered that the "front" camera -- the one that points at you -- can be a gem for photographing people. I've never before used a camera that helps to break the ice with people.

Picture this scene: You're on holiday and you're having a nice, smiley interaction with a local person, but you don't speak their language. You might be buying something at a market, or fending off a hoard of children at a local school. It's a wonderful moment, and you want to take their photo to capture it, but pulling out a camera would ruin the moment -- it would just be plain rude!

But pull out the phone, give it to them, and get them to take a picture of the two of you together, and then take their own photo, and a whole new relationship unfolds. You can probably email the picture to them on the spot. Now you’re both playing together with the camera as equals. You're not trapped behind it as a barrier, forced to play the role of rich tourist. The camera has helped to create a memorable moment, rather than getting in the way of one. Now you’ve got permission to take all kinds of photos with them, and you’ll probably both enjoy the process.

To me, this was a revelation. I’m used to employing all kinds of tricks to overcome the barrier that a camera creates. But this was just the opposite. They say that your camera can be a passport to meeting people. That front camera makes it way easier. I’ll emphasise that the front camera on the iPhone 4S gives fairly low-quality pictures. And, as I’ll discuss below, the main camera is not well-suited to taking flattering portraits of people. But again, if I was prepared to sacrifice some quality, I found that the phone could help me have experiences that were just not available with a big camera.