You are aware that things have changed quite a bit in the past few years in photography. Smartphone cameras are much more powerful than few years ago. We can even say that smartphones because of powerful cameras have taken over a solid share of point & shoot camera’s market. Also considering it much more people now has an interest about photography. Especially about travel photography. Social media have added significant boost as well.
Nowadays, it’s pretty easy to enter into travel photography, because everyone has a smartphone. All that you need is the will.
In this article you will learn when you should use your smartphone as a main travel camera, but when as a backup. We will cover all the advantages and disadvantages of using smartphones as a travel camera. Also we will through 3 most important things you should pay attention to when choosing your new smartphone with travel photography in mind.
In the end, we will present you smartphones that fits perfectly for travel photography.
Table of Contents
Smartphone as a Main Travel Camera or a Camera for Backup?
When it comes to usability, smartphones today are the perfect choice for any traveler who wants to have all-in-one photo + video gear. As we already said today’s smartphones are a lot more powerful than just a few years ago. A lot of them come with 2 or more cameras on board. Image processing and AI algorithms have improved a lot so today’s flagships can produce very good photos and high-quality videos.
A lot of professional photographers today use smartphones on private occasions (i.e. when traveling privately). Also, journalists sometimes use them even for professional occasions where it’s not suitable to have a “real” camera.
Let see when you should use a smartphone as a main travel camera, but when as a backup or support:
Smartphone as Your Main Travel Camera
There are a lot of travel types when a smartphone is an ideal travel camera. For example, if you go on a weekend break or a similar short trip. Especially if you are with family or friends. In these situations, you will take photos and videos faster than with any other camera.
Also if you like taking selfies – the smartphone is the king. Also whenever you go on a business trip a smartphone is a great choice to be a travel camera. Simply, you will carry your smartphone with you all the time. So, you can, during your lunch break, take some shots in a new city.
So, if you want to pack lightweight and don’t want to carry around a big camera and expensive lenses, smartphones are a jack of all trades.
Smartphone as Your Backup (or Support) Travel Camera
You are aware that smartphones can not replace your DSLR or mirrorless camera in all situations. And a lot of people use smartphones as a backup or support travel camera. We personally don’t like to carry a big camera all of the time on our travels. In all situations when we don’t carry big cameras, we use smartphones instead.
There are a lot of situations where smartphones will fit better: on a beach, in places where the big camera could make others feel uncomfortable when you don’t have a lot of time for preparation, when you are in a restaurant/nightclub, etc.
Don’t forget that Murphy never sleeps. Maybe on your next trip, your DSLR would stop working in the middle of nowhere. In this situation, a smartphone with powerful cameras is a game-changer.
Advantages of Smartphone Cameras
You will take “easy” shots
With a smartphone camera, you will take “easy” shots. What do we mean by “easy”? Simply, with a smartphone, you don’t need to prepare a lot. You just need to think about composition and take a shot. You don’t need to think if you use the right lens.
Also in many cases, auto mode on smartphones is more powerful than on DSLR or mirrorless cameras. When you take ”easy” shots, it’s an advantage.
You will share it in a few clicks
We live in a social media world. All of us use it. And also we like to share where we are. When you are traveling, no matter if you are a hobby or pro photographer, you will often use your smartphone for photos and videos you will post on social media.
You will keep the pack lightweight
When you don’t want to keep a bag or a backpack with your photo gear, you will use a smartphone. Guess what – in a lot of situations you will just do this “setup”.
You will be discreet
When you get around with a big camera it can influence that people pay attention to you and how they behave. In other words, with a big camera surrounding some people may feel discomfort. Let’s say when you are on a beach full of people you will look like a paparazzo with a big camera. In all these situations, using a smartphone camera will make things a lot more natural.
Disadvantages of Smartphone Cameras
Limited space for post-processing
As we already said, today’s smartphones come with very capable image processing. It means that you will get nice-looking photos directly from your camera. However, any additional editing could easily make things worse. Of course, some light post-processing is possible (i.e. to prepare photos for Instagram). The same is with footage. Some color correction is possible but not as close as with cameras that can produce flat color videos.
If you apply heavyweight editing to photos and videos from smartphones you will reach the limit quickly.
Not for pixel peepers
In short, if you want to get the best possible photo and video quality, stay away from smartphone cameras. Photos and videos from smartphones will look the best on a smartphone screen. On big screens, you will probably see that the pure photo/video quality won’t match those from DSLR or mirrorless.
In case you want to use photos for prints, maybe you should look elsewhere though.
3 Things Your Smartphone Should Have to be a Ideal Travel Camera
You probably won’t buy a smartphone only to be your travel camera. But we’d like to give you directions on how to choose your next smartphone if you have travel photography in mind.
1. Powerful Camera System
It’s a logical conclusion, isn’t it? If you want to use your smartphone as a great travel camera, try picking a model with the best possible camera system. A lot of today’s smartphones have 2 or more cameras.
If you can, choose a smartphone with at least 3 cameras on the rear (ultra-wide, normal, and telephoto) + a good selfie camera.
2. Ability to Shoot Great Video
You shouldn’t expect that videos from smartphones are on production level. But today’s smartphones are 100 miles ahead of older models in terms of video quality. Pay attention to the image stabilization quality – no one likes shaky videos.
Today’s smartphones usually have improved electronic image stabilization. Some of them are able to shoot videos with almost gimbal-like stabilization.
3. Good Battery Life
To be honest, nowadays it’s the hardest thing to match. Powerful processors and excellent screens are not matched with battery life. It means that if you use a camera often the battery will drain faster. In any case, you should aim for a phone with the highest battery capacity.
Also, the good practice is to have a power bank in your backpack. This will enable you to charge your smartphone when you don’t have access to power.
Which Smartphone To Choose For a Travel Camera?
If you are sure that a smartphone is an ideal travel camera for you, let us show you our favorites.
First, we want to uncover our methodology:
You will notice that we divided smartphones into 2 segments – Android and iPhone lovers, because it would be unfair if we favor any of the 2 most popular OSs.
In the end, we outlined our recommendations of the absolute best and budget-friendly flags. Namely, we wanted to give you at least 2 options for each category. So, you have the absolute best choices (where budget is secondary) and the budget-friendly choices (but not too expensive middleground solutions).
Image source: Samsung
If you prefer Android, this phone will probably become your best friend if we talk about photos and videos on the go.
We want to say that this smartphone has 4 cameras on its rear + 1 camera in front and the main camera with 108 Mpix, 2 telephoto cameras (standard and periscope) both with 10 Mpix, and an ultra-wide camera with 12 Mpix. The front camera is powered by a 40 Mpix sensor.
These 4 cameras work very well as a system and it’s an excellent alternative for a system that contains a big (DSLR or mirrorless) camera with 1 or 2 lenses to cover the same range as this smartphone camera does + an action camera to have an ultra-wide angle.
Of course, with this system, you will get more power, but it won’t fit in your pocket, which isn’t a problem for Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. It’s also capable of recording 8K videos (at 24 fps). 4K and 1080p can be recorded at both 30 and 60 fps. Besides that with 1080p you can also record slow-motion videos at 240 fps. If you are a slow-motion video lover you should also try the 960 fps mode for ultra slow-motion videos but it’s limited to 720p.
Also, there is a great stabilization system that is boosted with the electronic stabilization to make your videos look similar to gimbal videos. The front camera is also pretty powerful and it’s able to record 4K videos up to 60 fps. You can also choose between H.264 and H.265 compressions. So you can save some space with H.265 videos without losing quality.
The main camera is powered by a 1/1.33” sensor with 108 Mpix, and a lens with a focal length of 23 mm and a maximum aperture of f/1.8. The default resolution of photos is 12 Mpix. If you want to take photos at 108 Mpix it’s possible, but the files will be too big. So we recommend you to keep the default resolution of 12 Mpix. Also, there is a very precise laser autofocus and effective optical image stabilization.
The overall quality of the photos is great. The colors and dynamic range of photos are very good in daylight conditions. Also, this camera excels in low light because of the fantastic night mode which we recommend you to always use in low light considering it improves the quality of photos significantly. We don’t mean just on capturing more details, but also on sharpness, colors and noise level.
The quality of 4K and 1080p videos are excellent. We can say that this camera is one of the best when it comes to video recording. The colors, dynamic range, and details are perfect.
On both resolutions, you are able to record 30 fps and 60 fps with a very good stabilization. Stabilization works well and it’s useful in almost all situations when you want to get a near-gimbal look of the image. Regarding 8K videos, it could be interesting to try out, but we recommend you keep videos at 4K or 1080p. 8K videos are simply not as good with a lot of artifacts plus the file size is too big. Also, there is an option for HDR10+ recording.
The ultra-wide camera is powered by a 1/2.55″ sensor with 12 Mpix and a lens with 13 mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.2. This camera is equipped with a dual pixel autofocus and this camera is used for macro photography as well. The overall quality of the photos is very good. It doesn’t match the quality of the main camera. So the colors are a bit more saturated and there are less details.
Like on the main camera, you can choose between 1080p and 4K and different frame rates. We especially liked the super steady stabilization which makes your videos have GoPro-like stabilization when you are walking.
The telephoto section is powered by 2 cameras using a 1/3.52″ sensor with 10 Mpix and with a dual pixel autofocus and optical image stabilization. One camera uses a lens of 70 mm in focal length (3x optical zoom) with a maximum aperture of f/2.4. The second camera is a periscope camera with a lens of 240 mm in focal length (10x optical zoom).
Photos taken with telephoto cameras are also excellent and the quality is just a bit lower than on the main camera. Regarding low light photos, we were very satisfied with the night mode quality. We recommend you to turn it on whenever possible because it dramatically improves the quality of night photos.
Like on the main and ultra-wide cameras, the overall video quality is very good. We especially like the transition between the main and zoom cameras while you use zoom because it’s smooth enough that you won’t see that the camera has switched. All resolutions except 8K are supported.
The front camera is one of the greatest surprises because the quality of photos has been significantly improved in comparison with old cameras. It’s powered by a 1/2.8” sensor with 40 Mpix and with a lens of 26 mm in focal length with a maximum aperture of f/2.2.
The quality of photos – the colors, dynamic range, skin color, and depth are excellent for a selfie camera if there is enough light. Of course, this camera won’t match the main camera in quality, but for a selfie camera, it excels.
Pros as a travel camera:
- All in one set of cameras that cover range 13-240 mm in a pocket-size – you get a very good 24 mm camera + 2 class-leading telephoto cameras (70-240 mm) + very good ultra-wide camera (13 mm);
- Very good low light quality of photos, thanks to the fantastic night mode;
Focus is very fast and precise even in low light;
- Video stabilization works perfectly;
- Overall image quality is excellent;
- 8K video capabilities;
Periscope telephoto camera which offers a smooth transition from main to the telephoto camera;
- Weather-sealed (IP68 rating).
Cons as a travel camera:
- No slot for SD cards, so you are limited to internal memory only;
- Low light photos without using night mode seem a bit soft.
This is new Google’s flagship phone and in this edition this smartphone can compete with Samsung & Apple’s flagships. Currently this is one of the best smartphones on the market with a fantastic triple camera setup. The main camera is powered by 50 Mpix sensors, with telephoto by 48 Mpix and ultrawide by 12 Mpix sensors.
The default resolution for photos is 12 Mpix which is standard for competitors as well. On the other hand, the front camera is powered by a sensor of 11.1 Mpix.
Google Pixel 6 Pro is also capable of making great videos. There is support for 4K videos at 30 and 60 fps, and 1080p up to 240 fps to create slow-motion videos.
Video stabilization is excellent. You can easily get a near-gimbal look if you use electronic stabilization as support for optical ones. Of course, you can use both H.264 and H.265 modes.
As we already mentioned, the main camera is powered by 50 Mpix sensor and a lens with a focal length of 25 mm with a maximum aperture of f/1.9. The main camera is also equipped with laser autofocus and optical image stabilization. Photos made in daylight are excellent in all parameters.
The low light environment is also a battlefield where Google Pixel 6 Pro dominates especially with the main camera and fantastic night mode. By default, night mode is enabled and camera will decide if low light photos will be shot with night mode. We recommend you put night mode on auto to maximize quality of low light photos.
Video quality is not worse. We can say it’s excellent no matter if you shot at 4K or 1080p, in 30 fps or 60 fps. Video stabilization is also fantastic in all resolutions. You can forget about gimbals or tripods with this phone.
When it comes to the ultra-wide camera we should mention that it’s powered by a 12 Mpix. The lens is 17 mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.2. But we need to stress that ultra-wide camera doesn’t have autofocus system. However, photos in daylight are very good, just one step behind the main camera.
Low-light photos are excellent, especially with the night mode. However, you should count on a bit more processed images which means that colors are a bit more saturated than on the main camera, but we like it.
The overall quality of video on ultra-wide cameras is pretty good. There is also an effective video stabilization.
For telephoto, you will use a periscope camera powered by a 1/2” sensor with 48 Mpix and a lens with 104 mm focal length (4x optical zoom) and a maximum aperture of f/3.5. Of course, this camera also uses phase detection autofocus technology and optical image stabilization. Although it’s a step below the main camera, the quality of the image is excellent in the world of smartphones with telephoto cameras.
The video quality matches the other 2 rear cameras, so there is nothing to complain about. We are also very satisfied with how video stabilization works on telephoto cameras.
The front camera is less advanced compared to the main camera. It’s powered by 11.1 Mpix sensor, a lens with 20 mm, and a maximum aperture of f/2.2. However, it’s still very good in term of quality of photos and videos, so it produces selfies better than many other competitors.
Regardless it’s not extremely important, but we need to stress that 4K videos are limited to 30 fps on front camera, so if you want to vlog in 60 fps you need to use 1080 resolution.
Pros as a travel camera:
- Camera set that covers range 17-105 mm;
- Excellent image quality on all 3 rear cameras;
- Excellent night mode;
- Video stabilization is superb;
- Weather-sealed (IP68 rating).
Cons as a travel camera:
- Ultra-wide camera doesn’t have autofocus;
- Slightly cooler color balance on main camera.
Without any doubt, this is the best camera system for iPhones by far. What to say more except that this phone is capable of using all cameras at once considering its great hardware support.
iPhone 13 Pro Max has 3 cameras on the rear (+ additional TOF camera) and 1 front camera. All 4 cameras have 12 Mpix sensors and are capable of shooting 4K 60 fps video.
The stabilization system is a bit different than on other flagship models – the main camera uses IBIS stabilization which is essentially stabilization of a moving sensor (as on many mirrorless and DSLR cameras) instead of optical, while telephoto camera use optical image stabilization. Ultra-wide camera doesn’t have optical stabilization, nor IBIS and rely on EIS.
The best thing about iPhone 13 Pro Max is the quality of photos and videos. We can say that it’s excellent on all cameras and all resolutions. We didn’t notice any difference in colors, dynamic range, sharpness between 60 and 30 fps.
We need to stress out that video stabilization is also boosted with electronic image stabilization (EIS) and this will give you a gimbal-like stabilization. Also, there is an option to record Dolby Vision dynamic HDR videos. So, if your screen and player support Dolby Vision, you will get videos with an even better dynamic range and colors without any additional post-processing.
There is also new Cinematic mode (only in 1080p @30 fps)
We like crops outside of the frame feature because it enables you to create a better composition later. What does it mean? Simply, if you use the main camera, iPhone will use other cameras to automatically capture outside of the frame, and later you can adjust the picture. This feature is available for video as well.
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to use this feature check this Macworld article.
The main camera is powered by a 12 Mpix sensor and offers a standard 26 mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.5, dual-pixel autofocus, and sensor-shift image stabilization. The image quality is very good. Some users complain about color accuracy, but based on our taste, the colors are well represented and match the reality.
Video quality is excellent no matter in which mode you record (4K or 1080p) or which frame rate (30 or 60 fps) you use. Focus is fast, stabilization is excellent, color, dynamics, contrast, and sharpness are perfect. There are no compression artifacts on any resolution or mode.
The second camera is ultra-wide. It’s powered by a 12 Mpix sensor. The lens is 13 mm which enables a great field of view, plus the maximum aperture is f/1.8. Image quality is just a bit worse than on the main camera. But the only real disadvantage is that the ultra-wide camera doesn’t have optical/IBIS image stabilization.
On ultra-wide cameras, you also don’t need to worry about video stabilization because Apple knows what it’s doing so there is a very good EIS – electronic image stabilization, so your videos will get a gimbal-like look.
The iPhone offers a bit shorter zoom compared to some Android flagships but it is still enough for solid zoom photos. It’s a 77 mm camera with a f/2.8 and optical image stabilization. The overall photo quality is almost the same as that of the main camera.
The quality of videos is the same as on the main camera no matter if it’s a 4K or a 1080p video, or if it’s recorded on 30 or 60 fps. In short, the video is brilliant.
The front camera on iPhone 13 Pro Max is powered by another 12 Mpix sensor with a 23 mm lens that has a maximum aperture of f/2.2. Also, this camera is supported by a TOF snapper which enables the virtual depth of field and DSLR-like portraits. There is also an option for excellent HDR which moves selfies from this camera to the upper level. The overall quality of the photos is very close to that of the main camera.
Pros as a travel camera:
- All in one set of cameras that cover a 13-77 mm range in a pocket-size;
- Excellent image quality;
- One of the best selfie cameras on the market;
- Amazing video quality (probably the best smartphone camera for videos at the moment) with an amazing optical and electronic stabilization, and ability to record Dolby vision HDR videos which look amazing;
- Very good night mode;
- Very good HDR;
- Crop outside frame for photos and videos.
Cons as a travel camera:
- No optical stabilization or IBIS on ultra-wide camera.
We’d say that the days when only flagships had great cameras have passed. In other words, today, you can even buy a middle-range smartphone and have a camera capable of producing very good photos (for a smartphone).
One of these cameras is Google Pixel 5a. This model is a budget version of Pixel 5. There are 2 cameras on the rear and a single camera at the front.
The main camera is equipped with a 12.2 Mpix sensor (1/2.55” in size) with a maximum aperture of f/1.7, equivalent to 27 mm. It means that you will get the usual field of view for a regular wide camera. Autofocus is very precise due to dual pixel phase detection with an option for focus tracking (a very useful option) for moving subjects. Also, there is an optical image stabilization and a dual-LED flash.
In addition, there is an ultra-wide camera with 16 Mpix sensor and maximum aperture of f/2.2.
Video capabilities are good for a smartphone in the mid-price range. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the quality you would get on flagships. But you will be able to record solid 4K video (up to 60 fps). There is also an option for slow-motion videos up to 120 fps on 1080p, or up to 240 fps on 720p.
One feature that is rare among middle-price smartphones is a very good HDR directly from the camera.
The photo quality of this camera is very good. Of course, it’s not the class you will get on flagships but it’s only one class below. Dynamic range, color reproduction, and noise levels are good. When there is not enough light, the camera on Pixel 5a still performs well. There is also support with Night Sight mode for dark scenes but you need to hold your hand if you want to avoid blurry photos. The final result looks very well and doesn’t seem unnatural.
The quality of 4K video is very good especially on 30 fps. 60 fps video doesn’t match the quality of the 30 fps no matter if you recorded in 4K or 1080p. There is optical and electronic image stabilization, but you need to be aware that you will get cropped images.
We are pretty surprised with the quality of its ultra-wide camera. It performs nothing worse than main camera in daylight. However, in low light quality drops and then it’s better to use main camera.
On the other hand videos produced on ultra-wide camera are worse than on main camera. When we say worse, we mean on relatively soft image, especially in low light.
The front camera is powered by an 8 Mpix sensor, f/2.0 aperture with a 24 mm lens. The quality of photos is average. It also supports video recording in 1080p but only at 30 fps.
Pros as a travel camera:
- Overall very good quality of photos (dynamic range, exposure, colors);
- Fast autofocus with tracking subject feature;
- Solid night mode;
- Very good stabilization for smooth videos.
Cons as a travel camera:
- No telephoto camera.
Apple iPhone SE (for iPhone lovers)
If you want to have an iPhone capable of taking great photos but do not want to damage your budget, instead of buying an old iPhone 8 you can buy a 2020s iPhone SE.
iPhone SE is equipped with a 12 Mpix camera with a 28 mm equivalent lens and an f/1.8 aperture. There is a very good optical image stabilization and a phase detection autofocus. Furthermore, this camera is equipped with a quad-LED dual-tone flash. Video capabilities are very good. 4K and 1080p modes are supported by 60 or 30 fps.
Unfortunately, it is a single-camera phone, which means that there are no additional ultra-wide or telephoto cameras.
The overall image quality is pretty close to the iPhone 11 main camera. Colors on screen match natural colors in saturation and intensity, dynamic range is very good and noise level is low. Night mode exists but is an old generation one. So the quality is not excellent but good enough to use it from time to time. Also, there is artificial bokeh in portrait mode which is available with the main camera.
iPhone SE is capable of recording 4K and 1080p videos in 30 and 60 fps. There is optical and electronic image stabilization. The quality of the video is very good regardless of the resolution and frame rate. The standard dynamic range of video is very good. There is also a Smart HDR feature which makes things even better.
The front camera is supported by a standard 7 Mpix sensor that’s used in old iPhones. The overall quality is very good and matches or even exceeds the quality of selfie cameras on more expensive smartphones. As on the rear camera, there is an artificial simulation of bokeh and the end quality of these photos is very good and they do not look unnatural.
Pros as a travel camera:
- The very good overall quality of photos;
- The fantastic selfie camera and very good portrait mode with an artificial bokeh that looks natural;
- Excellent quality of 4K and 1080p videos in all resolutions;
- One of the best image stabilization (optical & electronic).
Cons as a travel camera:
- No ultra-wide or telephoto camera;
- Average night mode if we compare it with night mode in more expensive smartphones.
P.S. Considering that we focused these short overviews on things important to travel photographers, if you want to find out more about these smartphones we recommend you read the following reviews:
Travel Accessories for Smartphones
When you start using your smartphone as a travel camera you should consider few accessories in order to leverage smartphone camera as a pro.
If you want to shoot great selfies, selfie sticks are a must. Nowadays, you can buy very cheap selfie sticks (for a few bucks), but if you want better quality it will cost a little bit more. We recommend you selfie sticks with a bluetooth connection for easy use.
Some selfie sticks have additional legs to transform into compact tripod. But if you want a more advanced solution you should look to tripods for a smartphone. Of course, in order not to make your travel setup bulky, you should look at ultra-compact tripods.
Gimbal (If You Want Perfectly Stabilized Videos)
For more advanced users, who want perfectly stabilized videos, gimbal is another gear that they need to have. Gimbal will enable you to shoot smooth videos no matter how stabilization on your smartphone works.
Another important gear for travelers is a power bank. There are a lot of power banks in the market today. You should pay attention to their capacity and buy one which can recharge your smartphone to the full minimum 2 times.
We are pretty sure that you got the answer to when and which you should use your smartphone as a travel camera. As we previously stated, one option is that the smartphone becomes your main travel camera. Another option is that it’s your backup camera.
The most important things regarding smartphones are that you got a camera for “easy” and “natural” photos. In plenty of situations, you will be able to catch the real atmosphere. Also, you will be able to share moments on social media with a few clicks. Last, but not least important, it’s the lightest possible way to take photos while traveling. There are no big lenses, you do not need backpacks with a lot of other accessories.
Today it’s easy to find a smartphone with a powerful camera system that enables you not just to take great photos, but also to make great videos.
The last thing is to evaluate if your current smartphone allows you to take to boost your creativity or you need to buy a new one.
What’s your ideal smartphone camera for traveling? Can you share your tips regarding mobile photography with us? Is there anything else we forgot to mention?