DSLR vs Smartphone: The Travel Photography Showdown

By Seth Mason

DSLR vs Smartphone: The Travel Photography Showdown [2017 Update]

Spend even a few minutes browsing Instagram or Facebook and you’ll see that anyone with a relatively new smartphone and the ability to frame a shot can produce what, only a few years ago, would have been considered a professional quality photograph. This increase in smartphone camera quality has been slowly killing the point-and-shoot market, so much so that there are really only two camera markets left: DSLR vs Smartphone.

While the battle between smartphones and point-and-shoots seems to have ended with a clear winner, few would argue that photo quality of a smartphone camera could come close to matching that of a DSLR. The wide range of tools and options on my Nikon will far outperform any Android or iPhone in any environment. Period. Yet, for my most recent trip, I still found myself facing a dilemma. Should I pack my DSLR or not? In terms of quality, my Nikon will destroy my iPhone. In terms of convenience, my iPhone will destroy my Nikon. So, that brings us to a new million-dollar question for today’s generation of travellers: Does the performance of a DSLR outweigh the convenience of a smartphone?

DSLR vs Smartphone: Quality or Convenience?

In most situations, anyone interested in taking great photographs would make sure their DSLR was one of the first items packed. But once convenience becomes a factor, the question isn’t so easy to answer. On a recent trip, a packed itinerary and limited time off meant that I wouldn’t be in any one location for more than a couple of days and there would be a lot of walking, bussing, and navigating train stations in between. In addition, my carry-on-only strategy meant that I would already have limited space to work with. Being that this was my first trip after purchasing my new DSLR, I decided I had no choice but to bring it along for the ride.

During my two-week trip to Europe, I managed to take thousands of photos. Granted, only a small fraction of those were decent (I’m still relatively new to this). I constantly found myself eyeing different shots and going far out of my way to get the best angle. This added a new element to my experience as I explored each city. I’ve always taken pictures, sure, but now I was taking the time to line up shots, fiddle with settings, and wait for the right moment when there was a break in the crowds of tourists.

Ok. That’s Great. But Should I Bring it or Not?

There are a lot of factors that go into the decision to pack your DSLR. A good way to start is by asking yourself a few basic questions:

Who are you traveling with? Are you traveling alone or with friends? Are your friends also bringing their cameras? Will they be bothered if you continuously stop to get those great shots?

Where are you going? Is the location going to offer some amazing scenery and challenging photo opportunities? Is it a location were you might become a target by wearing an expensive piece of equipment around your neck? (An unfortunate but very important question to ask.)

How are you traveling? Are you only taking a carry-on? Are you going to be moving around a lot? Will you have a base to store your stuff?

Part of the reason I brought my DSLR to Europe was because I wanted to answer some of these questions for myself. While there are many factors that will play into whether or not you pack your DSLR, I was able to gain some exposure – pun intended – on this trip. Based on my experience, here are some pros and cons you should consider when deciding whether or not to pack your DSLR.


Pros

Amazing Photo Quality

This is by far the most obvious reason to pack a DSLR, but it can’t go without mentioning. Not only is the photo quality on your DSLR going to be much better, but you’ll also be able to capture a wider variety of environments, including those hard-to-get night shots. Here’s a quick comparison from London. I’ve included a few more DSLR vs. iPhone comparisons below.

Nikon D3300, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2” shutter speed; iPhone 6, ISO 250, f/2.2, 1/15” shutter speed

Ability to Experiment

Your smartphone is forever stuck in “Auto” mode. With your DSLR handy and a decent knowledge of its features, you can create different effects that can bring a location to life. Hike up that F-Stop and lengthen your exposure time to show the effects of city movement. Switch over to aperture priority to blur the background and focus only on that one important scene. For me, having these creative capabilities was definitely worth the extra 3 pounds (~1.5 kg) of weight in my pack.

Nearly Endless Photo Time

On most new DSLRs, the time that you get out of the battery is impressive. If you are walking around taking an obscene amount of photos on your smartphone, you’ll quickly find yourself unable to check your email at the next coffee shop. On my most recent trip, I went days without needing to charge my camera battery, despite near constant use.

Nikon D3300, ISO 200, f/10, 1/40” shutter speed; iPhone 6, ISO 32, f/2.2, 1/198” Shutter Speed

Camera Bag / Daypack

I never thought this would be an advantage, but my camera bag made a very convenient addition to my trip. When I would go out during the day, I would remove the extra battery, cables, and battery charger, leaving quite a bit of space all of my essentials and some. Because of the way my bag was positioned and the effort required to open the zippers, I felt more secure with everything around my neck than I would carrying my wallet, passport etc. in my pocket.


Cons

Space

For me, space was really the primary factor in considering whether to bring a camera or not. If you are backpacking for a long period of time, every bit of space counts. And it’s not just the camera we are talking about. You’ll be carrying the lens[es], batteries, battery charger, and any accessories you find necessary.

Nikon D3300, ISO 100, f/8, 1/200” shutter speed; iPhone 6, ISO 32, f/2.2, 1/1582” shutter speed

Time

This is a huge argument for taking photos with your smartphone. During my two weeks, I spent almost as much time alone as I did with friends. What I noticed when I returned was that for each day I spent alone, I had nearly 3x or 4x the photos as the days I was with company. Lining up a decent shot on a smartphone takes seconds. Lining up that same shot on anything more than auto-mode with your DSLR will take time and attention. Unless your friends are as into photography as you are, you’ll be far less likely to spend long periods of time trying to get the perfect shot of that iconic landmark.

Looking Like a Tourist

Ok, maybe this one is just me, but I’ll mention it regardless. I enjoy exploring locations and looking like I know what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean throwing on a beret and brandishing my best accent. But, I will challenge myself to move fairly quickly, memorize the streets and metros, and try my best to see everything the city offers without looking lost and completely out of context. With a giant camera around your neck, however, this all kind of goes out the window. It’s basically a sign that says “tourist” and in some places, this also means, “sell me something”.

Laptop or Wait Until You’re Home

If you like to keep people back home updated on your travels and you didn’t bring a laptop, uploading those photos from your DSLR may be challenging. I made it a daily routine to sit down, transfer the photos from my SD card, and upload three or four of my favorite shots of the day. Had I not been carrying my laptop, I probably would have waited until I got home to do so, which would have resulted in quite a lot of sorting and selecting. With a smartphone, however, it’s as easy as finding a Wi-Fi connection.

Safety

This will largely depend on where and how you are traveling. Chances are, your DSLR is worth more than the rest of your pack put together. You should keep tabs on it the same way you would your passport. There are some places, unfortunately, that having a large camera strapped to your neck will make you a target, so use your discretion. When you are on the bus, for example, either keep the camera in your main pack, or have it around your neck.


Do you always bring your DSLR when you travel? Have you started to rely more on your smartphone? Let us know your DSLR vs Smartphone strategy in the comment section below. Still up in the air? You can view more DSLR vs Smartphone image comparisons here and here.


DSLR vs Smartphone Photography courtesy of Seth Mason. Header image courtesy of Tran Mau Tri Tam


Seth Mason
Seth currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina working in hospitality management. He has lived in El Salvador, Costa Rica, France, and South Korea. He lives by the motto "Work hard, play harder" and will take advantage of any time off to get out and notch another place off his list. Some of the things Seth enjoys most in life include soccer, languages, coffee shops, heights, perfectly cooked steak, and waking up to the sound of the ocean. When he grows up he plans to pursue his dream of opening a boutique hotel somewhere in the world.

13 Comments

  1. Laura 2 years ago

    i bought a DSLR for my trips but in all honesty, ever since I have an iPhone its use is pretty much null! I brought it on a trip to Mexico to get some shots (I’m no pro either) and it was almost a bag on its own. I have to agree with you with the con of “looking like a tourist” because I also like to blend in: today I’m pretty sure I was asked for some money because of the camera hanging on my neck. On the other hand, I pretty much never have battery on the iPhone so I still suffer the dilemma!!

  2. Kristien 2 years ago

    I’ve never really considered my smartphone as my main travel camera, mostly because of battery life. I would take the occasional shot that I thought would be nice to share on Instagram yes, but I still pretty much prefer the control I have with a DSLR. That being said, on my last trip I found it very annoying to schlep around with a heavy DSLR + lenses.

    I’m considering taking a high end point-and-shoot with me on my next trip. I still have a Canon G12 laying around here somewhere, so hopefully that will give me enough control to fiddle around with aperture and shutter speed without the heaviness of a DSLR. I’m a little bit worried about it not performing very well in low light settings but you can’t have everything I guess :)

  3. Justin 2 years ago

    You need to treat your camera like your phone or you’ll never be happy. Stick to one focal length (a small lite “normal” prime like the 35mm 1.8 on the d3300) and ditch the laptop and use your phone to edit and upload using either eyefi or camera connection kit. There’s no reason you need to carry around a huge kit to get great photos especially when the alternitive is a camera with a fixed prime lens but with a tiny sensor (your phone) anyway.

    • sheel rakesh shah 9 months ago

      Hey man I’m sorry to say, but the control and flexibility you get with a dslr is just not there with a smart phone. Agreed, even if I use a 35mm prime, I still get aperture control which is really important to control things like sharpness, depth of field, etc. The phone as of today cannot replace a dslr. If u want a cheaper and 90% as good as a dslr alternative, go for a bridge camera

  4. Elen 2 years ago

    I couldn’t imagine travelling without my camera! I’m not a pro (in fact, I really need to learn to work my DSLR properly!) but the main reason I have it is so I can take good photos when I travel. So, I think there’s still a major place for taking a camera when travelling.

  5. Tyler 2 years ago

    Last time I traveled around India I brought my dslr and never used it. I did however have a huge lens that got in my way. Ended up using my phone.
    But canon just came out with the 24mm pancake for crop sensor lens, giving it the same focal length as the iPhone.
    I’m in Raleigh too btw near NCSU

  6. Connie 1 year ago

    I am going to India for a month and have always traveled with my Olympus DSLR and three lens. Now I have an
    iPhone6s+ and am considering only taking it. My husband will have his camera and we think we will get quality
    photos with these two and less weight. Am I wrong?

  7. Shawn 9 months ago

    Hi Seth,

    I like your article – instead of just laying out the stats like so many other articles I’ve been reading, you focus more on the practicality of it. I also thoroughly enjoyed playing with the sliders.

    You definitely bring up a few great considerations, but after spending a few days with just my iPhone I realized how badly I missed my DSLR. I’m not doing any air travel, but I am traveling with my wife and two young children. There are just so many things the DSLR can do better or faster than my iPhone. One thing actually is convenience: having my DSLR slung over my shoulder on a very sturdy high quality strap makes it far more convenient to use than my phone. Not only that but the settings on my DSLR are still easier to set and more reliable (when I set them they stay that way, they don’t reset after a few seconds). Also I find my phone is harder to handle and frequently misses shots or I get blurry ones where my DSLR wouldn’t. I think the phone is just not the right platform for a serious camera, it’s not designed to be held sturdy and enable you to press the shutter at the same time.

    If I had to summarize, I would say my DSLR is still faster, more reliable, and easier to handle than my iPhone. I have more details about my experience on my site: http://www.practicallyperfectphotography.com/2016/09/can-smartphone-replace-dedicated-camera.html

  8. Leonardo Claudio 4 months ago

    I just finished a 6 week 11 country binge through Europe. I run a photography company so needless to say photography is life. It does become bulky, but with the right bag, it becomes seamless. I was able to get incredible shots that my iPhone just couldn’t keep up with, but yes you do become a target in certain areas.

    I am currently creating the Better Bag so travelers can travel and do quick excursions more seamless with their camera gear and essentials. I would love to hear from others who have traveled with their DSLR camera. Feel free to contact me to tell me your story and what you would like to see in a bag. My team and I are always looking for insight. Leographicphotography@gmail.com

  9. melissa alvarez 2 months ago

    Great article, thanks!

Pingbacks

  1. […] DSLR vs Smarphone (click on the title to be redirected to the blog post) […]

  2. […] a smartphone for travel photography. Smartphone photos have improved considerably and there is a debate over smartphone and DSLR travel photography. But while the photos are excellent, the limitations of a smartphone (lack of manual control, fixed […]

  3. […] Check out this one for a better list of Pros and Cons of a DSLR […]

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Send this to a friend