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Phone Cameras for the Trail: Pros and Cons

For those wrestling with whether or not a smartphone camera is sufficient to capture your hiking adventures, here are some things to consider.

Story and photo by Doug Diekema

Recent advances in smartphone camera technology are nothing short of amazing, in many cases matching and even surpassing the image quality of expensive DSLR cameras from 10 years ago. Outdoor enthusiasts are increasingly choosing not to carry (or even buy) a dedicated camera while enjoying the outdoors, a decision that makes sense for most people. For those wrestling with whether or not a smartphone camera is sufficient, here are some things to consider.

Robin Lake. Photo by Doug Diekema.jpg

Advantages of the smartphone camera

Smartphone cameras, under the right conditions, are capable of producing images that rival those from more expensive dedicated cameras. Today’s smartphone cameras offer some significant advantages over bigger and heavier DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, not least of which is their simplicity. Almost everyone carries a phone, and the camera is easy to use, doesn’t require additional weight or space, and stores the images for easy review and sharing.

High-contrast situations have always posed a technical challenge for photographers — preserving the shadow detail while not “blowing out” the sky. High-dynamic-range (HDR) photography using a dedicated camera requires more effort than many of us want to expend. Done right, it requires a tripod for shooting and an investment in time and software on the back end. Most smartphones include integrated HDR, which can produce great photos with good exposure in those high-contrast situations — all without additional time and effort. Similarly, the panoramic option makes high-resolution panoramic photos far easier than stitching a series of photos together on the computer.

For those who don’t want to spend time doing extensive post-processing, smartphones can produce lovely images that require only minimal editing. For landscapes, smartphones more easily achieve focus in both the foreground and background without requiring the use of a tripod. Finally, close-up photography on a smartphone — with or without portrait mode — can produce amazing images. Full-frame photos of wildflowers often look spectacular and have amazing detail.

Marmot at Peggy's Pond. Photo by Doug Diekema.

Where the phone comes up short

For users who crave greater control, seek to maximize creative options, require a telephoto lens or use their work professionally, dedicated cameras retain advantages over smartphones. Perhaps the biggest deficit of smartphones is their lack of a true telephoto lens. For example, the newest iPhone has three amazing lenses with focal length equivalents of 13mm, 26mm and 52mm. That means its “telephoto” is really a normal lens — not sufficient for wildlife photography. While you can take a picture of a bear 200 feet away with a smartphone and then crop it to make it “bigger,” the image quality will be inadequate for anything other than remembering that you saw a bear. Furthermore, I love the background compression that I get when shooting an animal, a person or a landscape feature against an expansive landscape with a true telephoto — the main subject stands out, but the pleasingly blurred background appears to be much closer to the subject than it actually is. A smartphone cannot do that.

Dedicated cameras generally offer more flexibility and control than a phone. While they won’t convert your smartphone to a DSLR or mirrorless camera, there are camera apps (Lightroom CC, ProCamera, VSCO, Camera+2, ProCam7) that allow the user to operate the smartphone camera like a dedicated camera and control things like white balance.

Finally, there are some technical advantages of dedicated cameras that will be important for a small number of users. First, the histogram is an invaluable tool for optimizing exposures in tricky lighting situations, and I miss having one readily available on my smartphone. Second, dedicated cameras offer higher-resolution images, important only if you’re publishing your work in high-quality print publications or making large prints. The resolution of today’s smartphones is more than adequate for display on social media and internet sites, and for prints as large as 16 by 20 inches. Third, dedicated cameras have superior battery life, and frequent use of the camera eats up a smartphone’s battery. A day hike won’t be a problem, but without a way to recharge, your smartphone camera won’t function through a multiday trip.

Sunset at Sahale. Photo by Doug Diekema.

The bottom line is that a smartphone camera will be sufficient in the vast majority of situations for most users. To those for whom photography is a serious avocation, a smartphone will feel limiting at times. In either case, pay careful attention to exposure and get to know the features of your camera apps.

With a little effort, the smartphone experience can be as rich and creative as shooting with a dedicated camera.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.