It passed the travel photography test

It’s official: The iPhone 14 Pro camera is now good enough for me to use it as my only travel camera – something I couldn’t have even imagined five years ago.

I’d already made the switch from a heavy and cumbersome pro-body DSLR system to a much lighter and more portable mirrorless camera when travelling, but switching to an iPhone had still felt like an enormous step.

Grab a coffee and buckle in: There are 2,738 words coming up!

I did try the travel camera experiment once before, with my iPhone 11 Pro back in 2019, but that was a special case. It was an intensive tango trip, and photography was a very low priority. If I’d been unhappy with my photos, I’d have shrugged and pledged to get them next trip.

But a trip to Atlanta posed a more realistic test, as I’m not expecting to visit the city again. Whatever photos I could get there would be it. The pressure was on my iPhone 14 Pro camera to deliver!

Unless otherwise stated, all shots are straight from camera, aside from cropping and resizing.

Let’s first address three pieces of bad news – none of which really qualify as “news,” as they are simply existing issues Apple hasn’t yet managed to resolve.

The long exposure limitation remains

There was one test I knew it couldn’t pass: long exposures. I’ve taken quite a few of those over the years, whether it’s waterfalls, or light trails. The iPhone night-shot 6-second capability can’t get the job done, as I’ve noted before.

For example, this was a 20-second exposure with my Sony ZV-1. The plan didn’t work anyway, as the bridge railings were positioned such that I couldn’t use my mini-tripod, and had to balance the camera on a rough surface. The camera moved slightly when the self-timed shutter was released, hence the fuzziness in the buildings. But you can still get the idea:

However, my favorite photo from this spot was that one taken half an hour earlier, on my iPhone (with my preferred crop, rather than the WordPress-imposed 2:1 version at the top):

Admittedly it was a particularly spectacular sunset with those god rays, but still a really impressive job by the iPhone 14 Pro camera.

Reviewing those two photos, I decided two things. First, a simple handheld phone shot beats setting up a timed manual exposure and mini-tripod for convenience. Second, there are only so many light-trail and fountain shots one man can shoot in his life, so I’m willing to forgo that feature. I mean, if Apple can get me 30-second exposures in some future model, it would be great to have, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

So too does the internal reflection problem

Most lenses have multiple elements, and that’s true even of the tiny ones in smartphones. You can sometimes get bright lights bouncing back and forth between elements, causing internal reflections – essentially a reflected image of bright lights appearing elsewhere in the image. Pro lens designers put a lot of work into minimizing this, but doing so in a tiny, inexpensive lens assembly is a whole other level of challenge.

Ironically, I believe it’s an unfortunate side-effect of higher-quality iPhone lenses in general, as I first noticed it as a significant issue with the iPhone 11 Pro. All other factors being equal, more elements allows for more sophisticated lenses, but there are trade-offs – and in the iPhone assemblies, internal reflections appear to be a major one. It has remained present in the 12 and 13, and it’s still there with the iPhone 14 Pro. 

Here’s a test shot I took, ensuring there was only one spotlight in frame. I’ve circled the internal reflection of the spotlight:

Internal reflection sample

Here’s an extreme example, again taken purely to illustrate the issue. Any lens will show halos when you shoot directly into very bright lights, but with the iPhone 14 Pro camera you can also see a very specific internal reflection:

(The cop here kindly turned his lights on for me to get this shot.)

For still photos, it’s generally not too difficult to clone out the internal reflections, but it’s beyond my video editing capabilities.

Still not there for portraits

If I’m taking (planned) portraits, I’m still going to use a standalone camera, with optical depth of field control. The iPhone’s Portrait mode has improved over time, and in particular it now manages quite convincing focus fall-off in some shots, rather than the binary version back when the feature was first introduced. All the same, it’s still a long way from being a substitute for the real thing.

But there are times when there’s an unexpected opportunity for either a candid or posed portrait. Whether or not Portrait mode shots pass my “anything that bothers me” test is somewhat unpredictable, and I simply don’t use it enough to offer a hit-rate. I would, though, note the old saying: The best camera is the one you have with you at the time. To have some kind of portrait capability in my pocket at all times is a great bonus.

Ok, onto the good news …

I have all the lens flexibility I need

Back in my DSLR days, I typically carried three specialist lenses with me, and used them for a handful of shots:

  • 14mm ultra-wide
  • 50mm f/1.4, for wafer-thin depth of field
  • 90mm macro lens, for arty close-ups

But the lens which was attached to my camera 99% of the time was my trusty Nikkor 24-70/2.8. When I switched to a mirrorless camera, the kit lens offered the same range.

The iPhone 14 Pro camera offers the 35mm equivalent of 24-75mm: a little more than the range I used almost exclusively. It also offers a macro facility, though I have yet to test whether that is a real substitute – watch this space. But for 99% of shots, the iPhone offers the focal length I want.

Almost all night shots are now more than good enough

Ok, perhaps the “more than good enough” standard is partly me getting less fussy. There was a time when I made a bit of pocket-change from selling my travel photos through stock photography sites, which meant both quality and resolution requirements, but that long ceased being worth the effort.

These days my quality threshold is, “Is there anything about the photo that bugs me when I look at it?” The iPhone has long passed that test for daylight shots, and it’s now there with night shots, too.

I do take the occasional photo in complete darkness, but really those are just commemorative snaps – for example, of the view from a rooftop bar. If I want memorable shots, then I’ll shoot around sunset and the blue hour, when the light is more interesting. Here are a couple of typical examples for me, about half an hour after sunset:

There’s a little more noise in the red area than I’d ideally like, but really nothing to write home about, and it would be easy to remove in post.

No issue here – I’d recover a bit of the shadows, but the straight-from-camera shot as shown is fine.

But here’s the toughest case, in complete darkness. As I say, black sky shots don’t generally do anything for me, but from a technical viewpoint, it’s on a par with what you could expect from a mirrorless camera – with the added benefit that it was handheld.

Dynamic range is amazing!

Historically, small sensors have offered poor low-light performance and limited dynamic range. iPhones have been performing low-light miracles for several generations now, and more recently have been making huge strides with dynamic range. The iPhone 14 Pro is simply stunning in this respect!

What’s even more impressive is the automatic HDR processing. Shooting into the light, the camera already does a great job at balancing highlights and shadows. I’d honestly say this is now on a par with the latest mirrorless cameras, and outperforms those of two or three generations ago.

There are shots where, no matter what the camera, I expect to have to manually reduce highlights and boost shadows, but take a look at this shot. 

It’s not easy to tell from the photo, but the light coming from the skylight was extreme, as there was thin white cloud cover – meaning the sky was white, but extremely bright. Normally that light would have overpowered the interior, but the iPhone has handled this beautifully. I have pulled the highlights back 50%, but this was done on the spot in seconds, with the stock Photos app editor.

Sure, there’s less clarity on the upper floors, but the way the light falls off is very natural-looking, and for my tastes preferable to even lighting all the way up.

Shooting straight up, I was less happy with the result, but the shot I took with the Sony was no better, so I returned after dark to get that shot.

Video performance doesn’t lag much behind still photos

The other big shift we’re seeing in photography generally – both amateur and professional – is the increasingly large role played by video.

My personal view is that classic still photography is timeless, and it will still have a role a century from now. But I do also think video will continue to make in-roads, and certainly for my own travel memories, I’m shooting more and more video.

Even just a few years ago, there was a significant gap between the iPhone’s photo and video capabilities, especially in low light. But the iPhone 14 Pro has closed the gap even further. For a ride on the SkyView Ferris wheel in Atlanta, I took a few still photos, but mostly shot video (which I’ll show in a moment).

It was this ride that drove home a huge advantage of the iPhone over standalone cameras …

The small and discreet form-factor is a real benefit

Back in the days when I carried a DSLR, camera backpack, and travel tripod, it wasn’t unusual to be approached by security guards at popular locations, stating that professional photography wasn’t allowed. (The trick was to move quickly enough that you’d got your shot before they came to tell you that you can’t take it.)

Swap that for a mirrorless camera and a mini-tripod, and most of those issues go away. However, the iPhone offers the ultimate in discretion. While you could quite easily use it for some types of professional photography, no security guard is going to think so.

Additionally, the tiny form makes it practical to do things that would be tricky even with a mirrorless camera. On the SkyView ride, the cabins had only very slim ledges on all four sides, which would have made it impossible to balance even my exceedingly compact mirrorless camera. But the iPhone? No problem.

That fact enabled me to simply lay the camera against the glass, one side per rotation, set it recording and then sit back to enjoy the ride – rather than having to view the experience through a viewfinder or screen. (The curved windows meant I couldn’t get it quite flat with the glass, so we do see a little sunset reflection in some shots.)

The freedom factor

The other huge thing with an iPhone as my only camera was the freedom of being able to wander around in jeans and shirt sleeves: no jacket, no bag. (Technically, my ZV-1 is small enough to fit into a jeans pocket, but it’s not exactly comfortable.)

Having a super-pocketable camera also provides peace-of-mind benefits. I’m a big fan of wandering the back-streets of a city, in which the risk of robbery is always in the back of your mind. Sure, everyone carries a phone, so a mugger could always approach and demand it. But it does feel less provocative to be walking around without a valuable piece of consumer electronics in plain sight.

I felt the next three were undersaturated as a result of the very overcast day, so boosted saturation – and also bumped up the shadows a bit. I’d expect to have to do both on a day with such flat skies, no matter what camera was used:

Grafitti shot

Nothing done to this one:

There are also times when I see an opportunity for a shot, but it wouldn’t be compelling enough for me to get a camera out of a bag. But when I can slip my phone out of my pocket in seconds, why not?

One example was this impressive row of self-service, beer-on-demand taps, but it raised a smile, and taking a photo to share with beer-loving friends took seconds.

Beer taps

Plus, how could I not photograph the best-tasting (and biggest!) fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life? Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Both shots untouched.

The “important photos” test

One of the things I was keen to do while visiting Atlanta was visiting Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial, and his birth home. 

I found the visit surprisingly moving. MLK was far removed from me in both time and distance, but while standing in both locations, sharing the moment with a few other visitors, it made him feel like a very real person. I somehow had a very visceral sense of the courage it must have taken to do what he did, and the incredible strength and integrity it must have required to face such vitriolic hate, and yet respond with love.

I didn’t know the visit was going to evoke such strong feelings of renewed respect and admiration, and I wanted photos which would remind me of that. I’d left the Sony at the hotel, but it was only a few blocks away, so I could easily have returned with it to take photos if I felt the need.

But I didn’t. For me, the iPhone did the job.

48MP samples and 100% crops to follow

Google punishes slow-loading pages, so I haven’t embedded the full-res versions of the photos here.

Also, I didn’t take any 48MP photos – I’ve noted before that I’m unlikely to use this capability personally – but I will take some test shots for a future piece. I will also include some 100% crops for both 12MP and 48MP shots.

Conclusions

I said it right at the start: The iPhone 14 Pro camera is now good enough for me to use it as my only travel camera.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the camera is now on a par with mirrorless cameras. I’ve noted the three biggest limitations or issues I noticed so far, and I may yet discover others. But when I look at the photos and videos I shot on my Atlanta trip, I’m very happy with them. All have passed the “nothing which bugs me” test.

That being the case, the sheer convenience of the iPhone wins the day. The freedom of having all the camera I need in my pocket is just a joy. 

Another bonus is automatic backups. As another old saying goes, there are only two types of people in the world: those who have suffered a data loss, and those who are going to suffer a data loss. I’ve always been paranoid about backups, so in my DSLR days shot with a pro body which automatically wrote photos to two separate cards. In my mirrorless days, I would use periodic coffee shop stops to wirelessly transfer images to my phone. It’s great peace of mind that the iPhone automatically backs up all my photos to iCloud, and, in my paranoid case, to Google Photos, too.

We are into an era of largely incremental smartphone improvements, and the iPhone 14 Pro is no exception. If you’re using an iPhone 13 Pro, and none of the new iPhone 14 Pro camera features grab you, then there’s really no need to upgrade. For some, the same will be true of the iPhone 12 Pro or even iPhone 11 Pro. So your mileage may very well vary from mine.

But, as always, I apply my monthly cost of ownership equation. I can sell last year’s camera for roughly half the cost of the replacement, so in US currency terms, an annual upgrade costs me about $50 per month. Given the pleasure I get from having a decent camera with me all the time, that’s an easy sell for me. Now that I’m at the point of happily taking my next trip with the iPhone 14 as my only camera, I consider it a bargain.

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Kenneth Proto

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