Travel photography with an iPhone, does it stand up against a DLSR?

Normally, when I travel, I take quite a bit of gear to shoot the photos I want to shoot. Last year, I walked 210 km through the Nepal Himalaya, carrying about 19 kg of stuff. Admittedly, most of it was for survival (clothing, sleeping bag etc.), but still I had 8 kg of camera equipment and paraphernalia with me.


For last month’s 335 km walk along the Camino Primitivo in Spain, I thought I’d reduce the photography gear to a minimum: an iPhone 7, a mix between a selfie-stick and a mini-tripod, and a polarizing filter. A total weight of 350 g! As a camera app, I used ProCam 5  that allowed me to shoot raw files (DNG) with my phone.


Being used to all the settings I can change on my Nikon cameras, the iPhone 7 has some limitations: a fixed 28 mm (full frame equivalent) lens, an aperture fixed at 1.8 and (since the sensor is only 1/3 inch) a very large depth of focus. But, unlike the standard camera app on the iPhone, with ProCam 5 I can explicitly set shutter speed or ISO priority, exposure compensation, white balance and view the JPG histogram.

So how did I fare, comparing this arrangement with my DSLR?

What I liked about it most was the ease of operation: very little weight and very easy to whip out your camera at every occasion. There was none of this ‘OMG, someone is going to take a photo’. No, you can quite easily blend in with the other tourists with their phones.


The camera is always in your pocket and ready for action, and I would take photos at moments or with perspectives that were more difficult with a DSLR. It was also easy to find my way around the menus of the ProCam 5 app; it’s very well organized and clear in its instructions. Unlike some other camera apps, the interface does not interfere (too much) with the preview of your photo on the screen.

On some occasions, I used the 77 mm (OK, bit of an overkill) polarizing filter to create deeper colors in the sky by just holding it in front of my phone. It was important to prevent any stray light from coming between the filter and the lens of the phone, to prevent reflections in the polarizing filter.


In practice, I often found judging the composition and photo by the display alone difficult. The glass on the iPhone reflects a lot of ambient light and the glare is massive, particularly when the sun is out. A viewfinder, like the one on a DLSR, allows me to concentrate much more on the scene to be photographed.

The climate in northern Spain is quite humid, and taking the phone out of my pocket to make a photo often resulted in a slight degree of fogging over of the lens, so that images were not quite as sharp as they could have been. However, most of the photos looked great on the phone itself, with its incredible pixel density and its high-contrast, saturated colors, and that was a real pleasure.

Then, I started processing the DNG’s in Lightroom; that took some getting used too. With my DLSR, the basic Lightroom settings often result in a reasonable starting point for further processing. With some of my iPhone 7 photos, a lot of work basic needed to be done. In general, I found both the contrast and saturation to be quite flat on the DNG files, making that my first point of interest in post-processing. Here is an example where I try to make the unprocessed DNG look like something I remembered:


The JPG that comes out of the phone has had a lot done to it ‘in camera’ ‘in phone’. We can see this when I try to mimic the processing of the JPG with the DNG as a starting point: look at the considerable changes in processing settings for exposure, contrast etc.


Secondly, I noticed that a lot of the images had considerable noise in them, even when the ISO was the lowest the phone could handle: 20. Have a look at the examples of noise with ISO 20, 100 and 800:




The high noise level is caused by noise in the electronics of the phone, and two factors make its effect stronger than on a DSLR: 1) the size of the sensor and 2) the temperature of the phone.

The sensor on the iPhone 7 has 12 megapixels on a 4.8 mm x 3.6 mm sensor. A D800 has 36 megapixels on a 24×36 mm sensor, which makes its individual pixels about 16 times as large as those of the iPhone and therefore it will be collecting much more light than noise!

The temperature of the phone can sometimes become quite high. When the ProCam 5 app is running in the background, it is engaging the display and heating up the phone. The warmer the phone, the more noise it will produce. In addition, having the phone in my pocket also warms it up, which makes the noise problem even worse. Apple applies quite heavy duty noise suppression to its camera’s photos, which make them palatable on the iPhone’s display, but they do not look great on a large monitor.


As I photographed my way around the Camino Primitivo, my camera filled up fast as each photo was stored threefold: the DNG file, the JPG of the DNG file and a JPG when the selected aspect ratio was different than the iPhone’s native 4:3. Traveling light, I did not bring a backup facility and photographed (and edited) until my phone was full.

Overall, I enjoyed this lightweight travel photography experiment, but apart from the technical quality of the images, I realized what I missed about my DSLR: the ability to zoom in, the shallow depth of field and the viewfinder. The next time when I am photographing with my camera among those who only take photos take their phones, I know why I carry all that gear ;-)

To enjoy a selection of photos taken on this trip, head over to my website.


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