An iPhone, a second honeymoon, and Photography. Can they mix?

Vietnam sunrise with an iPhone

Sunset at Ha Long Bay, iPhone 4s, shot with pro HDR app

I'm a professional photographer, and I've just come back from two weeks in Vietnam shooting JUST with an iPhone. Nothing else. Just the phone.

"You'll never survive!" suggested my darling wife. "You'll be going cold-turkey from your big camera... it'll be like travelling with someone in rehab!” She had a point. I was already getting twitchy at the prospect of missing golden photos while I stabbed in frustration at apps. I knew the iPhone could get good results in the right conditions, but I also knew that there would be some photos that it simply couldn't take.

But this trip was to be our first time alone together in 8 years since the children came along, and I’d built-up a rather optimistic picture of a second honeymoon with a twist of photographic expedition thrown in. The big camera would have to stay at home (Sue calls it my “mistress”), so the iPhone it would be.

Surely a little iPhone wouldn't get in the way of a second honeymoon? Surely I'd get some nice pictures?

Here’s the story…

As we headed to the airport, we had that "Something missing" feeling. The bags seemed tiny for a 2 week trip. No children, no camera, no lenses. I'd packed pretty much every accessory that I could find for an iPhone, and it still took up no space in the luggage. I had the latest iPhone 4s with loads of apps, a small lightweight tripod with a Glif adaptor to mount the phone, a AU$45 phone case with a built-in battery as backup, and a new Olloclip lens that clips over the phone's camera to give different perspectives to pictures. I also packed an iPad (which I barely used).

We’d booked four nights in Hanoi, and nothing beyond that - we thought we'd make it up as we went along!

So can you have a holiday AND take pleasing photos with an iPhone? I’ll split the answer between the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t.

What's to like?

I saw more nice things than ever before

iPhone silhouette in Vietnam

Hoi An, iPhone 4s, shot with Camera+ app

iPhone abstract of an Asian fishing boat

Hoi An, iPhone 4s, shot with Camera+ app and edited with ToonPaint

Using a phone camera freed-up my head. No settings to fuss over, no gear to shepherd. It became about seeing pictures, rather than creating pictures. When I saw good things, I got good pictures. When I didn’t, there was no technical wizardry to save the day. I thought I'd be lost without settings to change, but it wasn't like shooting a camera on 'auto' - where you don't know what the camera will give you. I knew exactly what it was going to give me: unlike a camera, the phone has only one combination of settings for any given level of light, so I quickly learned its style. It became about finding things that suited its style of picture.

This made me realise two things: first, I saw how much I normally lean on my technical skills to make photographs rather than my (weaker) skills to see photos. Using the phone was like doing a visual 'workout' - exercising my 'seeing' muscle.

But it was the second realisation that changed the holiday: the more I looked, the more I saw. It sounds obvious, but there was more stuff in the holiday than I’d ever noticed before. Because I had the phone with me all the time, I started looking at things differently. Silhouettes of people, patterns in water, big things next to small things. Little visual treats everywhere.

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager in love? You could take pleasure from the sunlight on a coffee cup or the curve of a shoulder. I found myself LOOKING for those things more than ever before. Finding pleasure in little things. I’ve never used a camera that encourages this as much as the iPhone. I was smitten. Free with every iPhone: more nice stuff in every day! How good is that?

For a stronger man than I, it could have made me a more attentive and fun travel partner. Instead, it gave me all the self-awareness of that teenager in love. I had a new mistress. But more on that in the drawbacks below. On with the positives…

Good quality in good light

View from Sapa, Vietnam, taken with an iPhone

View from the hotel balcony, Sapa, Vietnam. iPhone 4s, shot with pro HDR app

In good light, the quality of the photos was good. Not “good for a phone”, but actually good. When I made 36-inch (90cm) enlargements of the pictures back home, I was surprised just how good they were. No, they’re not as crisp and detailed as from a big SLR camera, and they’re more speckly too. But they’re certainly good enough for me to blow-up and put on a canvas for the wall. They’re better than from many cheap compact cameras. I’d suggest that they’re easily good enough for most uses.

Amazing ability to handle tricky light

iPhone waterfall with long shutter blur, Cat Cat, Vietnam

Cat Cat, iPhone 4s, two layered photos - one for the waterfall, one for the rest

The iPhone handled most tricky lighting well, because it could do lots of editing for me behind-the-scenes on photos. 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. 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. 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.

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 visual way to calibrate the display of the phone so that what you see is more accurate. You can do it with an AU$240 Datacolor Spyder4 Pro device, but only within their app. So 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.

Sunrise at Ha Lon Bay, shot with iPhone 4s

Cat Cat, iPhone 4s, two layered photos - one for the waterfall, one for the rest

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 get such a huge depth in focus that I found focusing became almost unnecessary. It was hard to miss! This made for great landscapes – I could include foreground right up close to me, and still keep the mountains in the background in focus. I could have done this with the SLR, but only by using settings that forced me to use a tripod too. I could do it hand-held with the iPhone.

iPhone beach, Vietnam

Hoi An beach at sunrise, Vietnam. Shot with pro HDR app. Edited in Snapseed (which increased the grain)

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

Front camera shot with the iPhone 4s

Self-portraits, Hanoi. iPhone 4s, taken with the front camera, processed in ToonPaint

Towards 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 in 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 you have a whole new relationship unfolding. You can probably e-mail 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 having to use 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.

What’s not to like…

Bring spare batteries

The battery lasts for ages on the iPhone. But if you take lots of pictures, it might not last the day. If you add lots of editing with apps, 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% - almost doubling the 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-fi connection, it sets about doing power-hungry things like trying to back itself up to the cloud and uploading photos to the 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 an SLR, 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 an SLR 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.

Zoom woes

Portrait, iPhone 4s. Background blurred with Big Lens app

iPhone portrait in black and white, Vietnam 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 it's quality, I'd suggest zooming with your feet instead. I'm normally a long-lens shooter, so I often saw distant photos (a person in a market, an expression) but couldn't shoot them with the phone. After a while, I got used to its view, and got used to needing to be close to people to take their picture. This put me in different interaction with people, so it 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 on the headphones 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 SLR 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 SLR 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.

Hanoi silhouette with an iPhone 4s

Hanoi, Vietnam. iPhone 4s, shot with Camera+ app

A marriage-saver?

The phone was quicker to use, easier, lighter and smaller than an SLR. So it couldn't possibly get in the way of a holiday like an SLR, 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% 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 setting. 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.

iPhone silhouette, Hoi An, Vietnam. Retouched with Touch Retouch

Hoi An, Vietnam. Shot with Camera+ app. Edited with Snapseed and Touch Retouch

Addendum – travelling with an iPhone as a phone, not a camera

It had been over a decade since we'd been backpacking, and we weren't ready for how much the phone and constant internet availability could change things, all for a AU$5 local sim card. The former Bible of travel, the Lonely Planet guide ended up playing second-fiddle to, with its reviews that were just days old. The maps app meant that we could find our way around strange cities without problems. Hop on the train and call or e-mail ahead to a couple of hotels to book a room. All too easy. And we could call our kids back in Australia on Skype any time for a few pennies.

Our biggest realisation that we're in the 21st century came when we were walking through a rural village called Hau Thao. A barefoot group of children clustered around us to sell the local handicrafts. They were about the same age as our children, so we used the Skype app to video-call our kids, and passed the phone around. I was tearful seeing children 7,000km apart giggling and laughing and waving and showing their toys. No language, no barriers, just children being children together, all made possible by a smart phone. The World just shrunk.

Of course, the kids soon brought us back down to earth - "Mummy, can you buy me the red bracelet from the little boy? That's it - the shiny one. Oh, please, PLEASE!!". Some things never change.

What do you think? Is the iPhone a serious camera for photos or just a toy? Join our discussion on Facebook.

Want to learn how to take photos like these with an iPhone? Book a place on the World's only jargon-free iPhone Photography course.

All photos taken and edited on an iPhone 4s (one image had help from an iPad). Would these same findings apply to other smartphones? Let us know your experiences! Apple, iPhone and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. Take Better Photos does not claim any endorsement by Apple Inc. Photoshop is a registered trademark of Adobe Systems.