‘Have camera, will travel’ is an adage that many of us are familiar with. But just what kind of camera is best for traveling? Maybe just three to four years ago, the delineation would have been clear—the pros or serious hobbyists would opt for their trusty but bulky DSLRs while the amateurs and enthusiasts would bring along their lower-end counterparts or compact cameras. But with the advent of smarter and better technology, the lines in the digital divide have become blurred, especially when many big names in the industry began singing the praises of the much smaller mirrorless cameras.
In December of 2013 when Dariel and I had a chance to visit Japan for the first time, our first-timers’ excitement and adrenaline allowed us to lug around our too-heavy but reliably weather-sealed Canon 7Ds, an otherwise excellent all-around camera. I even insisted on bringing along an equally heavy Benro tripod, not realizing that many places in Tokyo did not allow it in their premises. Dariel had to constantly remind me to take care of my scoliotic back, bless him.
A year after to the day, we were back in Japan, but now to Osaka and Kyoto; only this time, we were determined to leave behind our heavy cameras and travel light by bringing smaller cameras—he with his Fujiko (the name he had given his beloved Fuji XT-1) and I with my Samsung phone and GoPro Hero3+. Talk about small and light. How much lighter could you get?
At first, it felt like a crazy plan—and my gear felt too light. But in the end, I shrugged off my initial misgivings and stuck determinedly to my original plan. My goal: to prove to myself that I could shoot good travel photos with just a camphone, although the adverb “just” does not anymore carry as much of a depreciative connotation in the warp-speed world of technology today. So off we went on our second trip to Japan, about five pounds lighter in gear and more spring in our steps.
So how did I fare? Your feedback would be most welcome.
Did it feel any differently because I was using a camphone? Sure, it has its limitations, but what camera doesn’t? It’s just knowing what subjects work best with it in what kind of light. With my Samsung as with almost any camera, it can deliver good pictures in a bright day; but an overcast day produced too blue a cast in auto mode and too orange a cast in daylight mode (never mind in cloudy mode) so that those photos needed some good tweaking in post-process. And in almost all outdoor photos in bright sunshine, I had to underexpose, some by as much as –2 to get more saturation.
The camphone did not also have the capability of remembering its last settings—except for Focus Mode, which is now always set to Macro to get some depth of field–so that it needed to be set each and every time I re-entered camera mode; not good at all when you have freezing fingers that just wanted to stay in the warmth of your jacket pocket if need be. But all that for a trade-off in traveling light and not feeling too tired after a day of constant walking, which wasn’t a bad deal altogether.
On a mental and aesthetic level, I approached it as I would any other personal assignment and no differently than if I had been using a DSLR. In the end, another old adage still held—’that the best camera is the one you have with you.’
A few notes about using a camphone in cold weather: Daytime temperatures in Kyoto where we spent most of our time averaged around 5 degrees Celsius and not much more in Osaka. I already had an inkling that my battery life would be compromised—I just didn’t expect by how much. My camphone drove me batty for the duration of our trip with its continuous switching on and off every two or so minutes and I am being generous. It would even do that after being turned off, like it was Freddy of Nightmare of Elm Street who just refused to stay dead. By the end of the second hour, I had to depend on my power bank to power me through the rest of the day. Thank goodness I packed one.