Can smartphone photography totally own it at Wally World? Yes. Yes it can.
So let’s get something out of the way right now. I’m done with my Nikon DSLR, and the romance is over between me and my Fujifilm mirrorless camera. For anything other than dedicated photo walks or maybe high speed action such as sports my iPhone XS Max is now my primary camera. A one-week trip to Disney World in Orlando convinced me that the future of photography is already sitting in our pockets. We live in a world now, today, not tomorrow, where your smartphone can even take the place of a mid-level DSLR for a family vacations or virtually any type of consumer (and even some pro-level) photography.
Getting ready for this trip I was seriously nervous. I’d never traveled without at least one dedicated camera and yet here I was, making the decision to leave my beloved FujiFilm X-T20 home. Trusting that all of my precious photos would only be shot on my smartphone was a serious leap of faith. Ireland was shot on Nikon, Norway on Olympus, and Canon was my wing-man through Mexico and a large chunk of mainland Europe. Dumping all of that gear and going solo on my iPhone was going to take more than nerves of steel, it was going to take some serious testing. I needed to build up some faith that the phone would perform up to a reasonable standard before I was willing to give it a go. So, as a test, I decided to use a family vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida to figure out if this was going to work long term. I justified things by telling myself that even if the photos were not perfect it would be ok because it was just a short family vacation. I could always go back and change my mind, but by the end of the trip I was totally stunned by the images I got from my iPhone XS Max.
At this point virtually everyone knows that smartphone cameras have amazing performance. Yet I still see tons of people using large dedicated cameras to shoot everything from major events to family vacations. Old habits die hard. There are lots of reasons why one might still rock a DSLR or Mirrorless camera but 99% of the time you really just don’t need one. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself as I packed up for my Disney trip. Typically, I would pack at least one bag with tech gear that included either my Nikon D7200 or Fujifilm X-T20 depending on what I expected to shoot. For Disney, I likely would have gone with the Fujifilm to save weight and bag space. Leaving both behind gave me an unexpected benefit, tons of free space in my backpack! Of course my wife made sure to let me know that this windfall would be used for all the souvenirs we would likely be brining home. Bummer.
A Need for Speed
Disney was fun, but there were times when the parks became somewhat annoying, a story I can save for another post. As for the photography, there is a serious story to tell that begins with something obvious. Unlike a dedicated camera, your smartphone lives in your pocket. I quickly found this to be incredibly liberating in that I was able to stop, take a shot, and then quickly place my phone back in my pocket faster than my son could manage to run too far ahead of me. Had I been attempting the same process using the Nikon it would have likely ended with my wife scolding me for holding up the show. Apple has significantly improved how fast you can open up the default camera app from the lock-screen, take a photo, and then re-lock the phone.
Another small detail that surprised me was how easy it was to compose my shots even in bright sunlight. In the past, screen visibility was a real drawback to smartphone photography, in bright sunlight you could go blind trying to compose a shot using a barely visible screen. Here I think the win can be attributed to the OLED screen on the iPhone XS Max being quite visible even in bright sunlight. I only had one or two situations where I had to adjust my viewing angle due to sunlight and that was because I was being blinded by the sun, not by looking at the phone itself.
So let’s stop here and talk about image quality. The majority of the time the main reason to shoot with a dedicate camera is closely tied to the need for higher image quality. Usually shots captured on smartphones suffer in this regard, sometimes significantly. A good example would be some of the photos I took on my iPhone 7 Plus while in Norway. The shots are awesome, amazing even, but at the end of the day if you zoomed in enough you could still tell they came from a smartphone vs. a dedicated camera. The main reason for this is two-fold; the level of detail that can be captured by the sensor itself, and the amount of dynamic range that can be captured by both the sensor and the whatever image processing that might be going on. Prior to the iPhone XS/XS Max/XR you saw images that were extremely good but still limited by both effective resolution and dynamic range. Apple’s latest iPhones are a whole new world in both those areas. On my iPhone XS Max the image quality I was getting throughout the trip was nothing short of amazing. You can line up shots side by side with a pro DSLR and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference, even zoomed in! Apple’s new sensor and computational photography engine (more on this below) is just that good.
Both Apple and Google have been doing astounding work taking these tiny sensors and extracting more and more detail and dynamic range. 2018 is the year I think they have finally reached the level where it truly is on par with dedicated pro-level gear. Maybe not for every possible situation, but for the vast majority of the photography people are doing, these devices are hitting it out of the park.
During my Disney trip we had just about every type of lighting condition; bright sunlight, sunrise, sunset, golden hour, hazy light, and extreme darkness. The iPhone XS Max owned them all. This was something new as my old iPhone X was wonderful in good lighting conditions but struggled as the level of light dropped. I usually compensated for this by underexposing shots a bit but I knew there were limits. Throughout my trip and kept pushing those same limits with the iPhone XS Max and was constantly rewarded with quality shots, even when the lighting was particularly poor. The level of detail captured by Apple’s new sensor (used for the wide-angle lens) was seriously impressive while keeping image noise well under control. In good to great lighting conditions the shots were completely in the same league with my Fujifilm X-T20 which is really saying something. The level of detail captured was simply stunning. In the right hands with the right lens I think the Fujifilm would ultimately win the low-light fight but the iPhone was not going to go quietly.
Going beyond sensors, Apple has implemented some computational photography magic they call Smart HDR. You can read up on all of the technical details here. But details aside, the technology really works. The photos come right out of the camera app looking nearly perfect. Smart HDR does far more than simply increase the dynamic range, it adapts to the lighting conditions in such a way as to produce images that look simply amazing. Unlike Google’s version of this technology where the images look somewhat artificial or overdone, Apple is producing output that looks very balanced while still keeping colors that pop and tons of awesome detail in the shadows. I could go on and on about how much of a real-world difference this makes in your shots but I won’t. Instead I’ll just show you some more examples!
He’s going the distance…
As any true photographer knows, it is not always about how good the image quality is. The best image quality is worthless if you are caught flat-footed with a dead battery. It’s here where the iPhone really surprised me. I fully expected I would need to use my portable charger at some point during the day as taking photos would use up my battery more quickly. However, despite taking hundreds of photos, I was still only getting down to under 50% by late afternoon! Granted, I am one of those folks who has virtually no background apps running and notifications turned off for all but a handful of apps. Despite that, I would still have expected worse performance from all the photos I took. Perhaps the smaller iPhone XS would have not fared as well but the XS Max was a total champ for battery life.
The Bad News
To be fair, all is not completely perfect in smartphone photography world. In particular, the iPhone XS Max does have some notable shortcomings, especially when you are shooting with the built in 2x zoom lens. The lens is fantastic in good lighting conditions but image quality degrades quickly when the light goes down. This is due to the sensor and lens combination being essentially the same as last year’s iPhone X. I suspect Apple held back on making that upgrade so they would have something to offer up next year. With iPhone sales slowing I can’t really blame them but it is a total bummer as this year’s upgraded wide-angle (1x) lens and sensor are so damn good.
The Final Verdict
By the end of trip I was a believer. The power of having the same image quality you can get from a dedicated camera in a device you already carry everywhere was just too much. You can hate me for falling to the siren call of the smartphone but I just can’t see a future without it now. I’ve always been a forward-looking type of person so I knew this day would arrive at some point but I don’t think I was mentally prepared for how soon. After pixel-peeping my shots taken on the iPhone and then comparing them to past shots on both my Nikon D7200 and Fujifilm X-T20 I just don’t see the need to lug that gear on trips anymore. Instead, I will likely invest in some accessories for my iPhone that will address some of the (surprisingly minor) shortcomings I noted above.
In the character shot comparison earlier in this post the left-hand shot was taking using my iPhone XS Max and the shot on the right was taken using a Nikon D700 DSLR.