Leaving my DSLR at home: An iPhone experiment
3 What's not to like?
What’s not to like
Bring spare batteries
The battery lasts for ages on the iPhone, and even longer on the latest iPhone 5. But if you take lots of pictures, it might not last the day. Add lots of editing with apps and you might only get a few hours from a full battery. This isn’t surprising – it’s basically a mini computer. But it left me nursing the battery and always having to think about when I could next charge it. It was like having a hungry baby with me; I had to plan the day around feeding it.
I’d brought along a battery case, and found it to be essential. It’s an iPhone case with a battery included, and it could recharge the phone from flat to about 80 percent -- almost doubling the battery life of the phone. It made all the difference.
Putting the phone into airplane mode helped too (this turns off all the wi-fi and network, so you can’t make or receive calls), especially when using the battery case. That’s because the phone thinks it’s plugged-in when using the case, so if it finds a wi-if connection, it sets about doing power-hungry things like trying to back itself up to the cloud and uploading photos to your photo stream if you have these features enabled.
My first priority on returning was finding a better battery solution, and now when I travel, I use the battery case, plus a little AU$80 plug-in rechargeable battery that gives me two full iPhone recharges, and much more freedom from plugs.
Missing the action
The iPhone is slow to focus compared to a DSLR, making it fairly slow to shoot. It’s no disgrace – I would rate it as sitting among the slow cameras, and that’s not bad for a phone. But – compared to a DSLR camera – I found it frustrating to shoot fleeting scenes with the iPhone.
Most of its delay lies in focusing, so there is a solution: you can pre-focus the camera and sit and wait for the perfect scene, and then snap it instantly (remember it shoots when you take your finger off the button). It works perfectly, but using that approach too often on holiday burned up quite a few Brownie points with Sue. “I'm just waiting for the right moment,” didn't make me the most exciting honeymooner.
The iPhone has a zoom, but the quality of pictures plummets if you use it. It's a "digital zoom," meaning it's the same as cropping the picture on the computer, and then enlarging what's left. If you want to make the most of its quality, I'd suggest zooming with your feet instead.
I'm normally a long-lens shooter, so I often noticed distant scenes (a person in a market, an expression), but couldn't shoot them with the phone. After a while, I got used to the phone's perspective, and to needing to be close to people to take their picture. This pushed me into different interaction with people, which might not be everyone's cup of tea. You can't be an introvert and hide and snipe pictures, you've got to be bold and up-front.
There is another option ... to be sneaky. If you shoot without looking, few people will ever realise that you're taking their picture. I even tried the whole spy thing and used the volume up button to shoot, so I just looked like a nerd, rather than a photographer. But it just didn't sit right with me. I felt dishonest, so I didn't enjoy the pictures I got that way.
Struggling in low light
While the iPhone gave good-quality pictures in bright light, holding its own against expensive cameras, I found that as the light dropped, so did the quality of the pictures compared with what you'd expect from a dedicated camera. In dim light – meaning indoors or darker -- the quality was behind most compact cameras and well behind any DSLR camera.
The problem was speckly pictures, and the chance of blurry pictures, caused respectively by the phone making itself more sensitive to light in dim conditions, and by it taking longer over the photo to let more light in. I've become spoilt by the quality of pictures from modern DSLR cameras – they can shoot things that are so dark I can barely see them.
I found the iPhone pictures to be surprisingly good for a phone, just not up to what modern cameras offer. Luckily, this was only a problem when shooting moving things. If you can hold the camera steady on a table or a tripod, an app called NightCap lets you get good-quality night scenes, particularly with the iPhone 4S. An iPhone on a tripod turns a few heads, but the results can be great.
The phone was quicker to use, easier, lighter and smaller than a DSLR. So it couldn't possibly get in the way of a holiday like a DSLR, could it? Well, actually, yes it could. The gorgeous light for photos was still at dawn or romantic dinner-o'clock. And it put a whole new set of temptations in front of me.
It was such a joy to be able to shoot, edit and post a photo on Facebook immediately, that I tended to shoot, edit and post on Facebook immediately. All those lovely breaks in the holiday when we could sit at a cafe and breathe and admire the view ... it took so much willpower not to check the morning's photos.
I acknowledge 100 percent that this is a failing of the user, not the iPhone. A stronger person than I would not have these problems.
So can you have a second honeymoon and get good pictures with an iPhone? I've come to realise that's the wrong question – it's too narrow and technical. In the narrow, technical sense, I found that iPhone can give fabulous pictures of lots of things – particularly landscapes, street-life and people in their own settings. You can get shots that are comparable to those from "real" cameras, and get them quicker and easier. If you'd like to get a full suite of classical pictures, including portraits, action and low-light, consider taking a dedicated camera as well. Dedicated cameras are built for these types of pictures, and do a better job than the phone.
Did it get in the way of the second honeymoon like a big camera? Despite being small and light, I still managed to make it as intrusive into couple time as a big camera, mainly through the temptation to play with the apps. My wife now thinks that I have two mistresses.
But the question misses the main point. I should also have asked “How much better can you make a holiday by bringing a camera?”
Shooting just with the iPhone changed the whole experience of the holiday in a way no dedicated camera could. It gave us better interactions with local people – their photos were given, rather than taken. It helped create better memories and experiences. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. I saw and experienced more in the holiday, because I was looking. It became a richer, more meaningful holiday, less touristy, more playful and more fun.
If I had to choose between the big camera and the iPhone for a family holiday, I'd choose the iPhone in a heartbeat – the holiday was better. Luckily, I don't have to choose: next time, I'll take both! Sorry, darling.
Heather Nova once sang “all we really need to do is see the world like lovers do.” I won't say that the iPhone alone will get you there, but it helped me to take my biggest stride in that direction for years.
Dean Holland is a professional photographer and educator, and director of Take Better Photos photography courses www.takebetterphotos.com.au based in Brisbane, Australia. He’s a passionate believer that photography should be a joy, and not a science test. You can follow him on Facebook.