Since the revolution of digital photography, the choice we have often faced when buying a camera has been “Do I need an SLR with changeable lenses, or will a compact camera suffice?”.

The game has changed in recent years, and as phones and tablets continue to develop at the speed of light, people are finding themselves asking whether they need to take a compact camera on their travels, or whether your phone will do the job.

On the surface, this may look like a debate around the quality of image that the cameras are able to shoot. Actually, quality is not the issue here. For instance, recent generations the iPhone have cameras which can shoot up to 12 megapixel images (not to mention 4k video). To put this into context, it means that you can print iPhone images onto good sized canvases and see no loss in quality. This isn’t specific to the iPhone either, and many other brands of phone are making handsets offering quality that a decade or two ago was hard to find even in a DSLR.

So we know that phones can do the job in terms of creating high-resolution files. Why is there even a debate to be had? The truth is, there definitely is a debate to be had, and as phones have grown in quality, so have compact cameras. Taking one on your travels shouldn’t be discounted just because the camera in your pocket is doing such a great job.

A quick look at offerings from the top camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon will show you that their compact cameras have upped their game to try and stay ahead of phones. For instance, the Canon Powershot G9. This is a lightweight camera which will fit in your pocket or a small bag whilst on your travels. It offers an incredible 20 megapixel sensor, and offers features such as continuous shooting to capture those moments that can seem to pass in an instant. The G9 is also equipped for the 21st century, and offers wifi connectivity for directly uploading your images, and bluetooth connectivity meaning you can even control this from your phone (irony noted). On top of this, an easy-to-use touchscreen interface is an added bonus. All of this adds up to a very powerful camera, and it isn’t alone, competitors such as Nikon and other electronics brands aren’t far behind either with their own offerings.

Memory and Storage

Here is where things get a little complicated, and the pros and cons of compact vs phone cameras start to become evident. Many of us encounter the problem of running out of space on our phones. There are so many apps and countless images, videos and songs which end up clogging up the space on our phones, and some phones aren’t easy to add storage via SD cards. On the contrary, shooting to a camera will usually allow you to store a huge amount of images on multiple SD cards. Flash storage isn’t cheap, and a few memory cards will keep you going for thousands of images.

The counterargument for storage is the fact that shooting to a smartphone will mean easy access to cloud storage via dropbox or iCloud, for instance. You can backup your images to the cloud whenever you’re online. The main thing to consider is whether you will have internet access at all times. You don’t want to go shooting in an amazing setting with no wifi and only have space for 10 or 20 images on your phone.

Image of a lot of memory card for cameras

Memory cards for cameras

Apps

Another big pro for phones is the instantaneous nature with which images can be shot, edited and uploaded. Of course, it should be said that you can do all of this with images shot on your compact camera, but the process is more long-winded. You can take a photo on your phone, edit it in a mobile version of Photoshop or other editing software and have it on your social networks in a matter of minutes.

If you are shooting on a camera, even a compact one, you will probably find it easiest to edit on a laptop. For a lot of travelers, this isn’t the best way to do things and you may not have a laptop with you, nor do you want to wait until you get home to get that winning shot on Instagram! If you have bluetooth or wifi connectivity such as on the G9, it may be a different story, but these are high cost toys that not all of us have the luxury of, especially backpackers and students.

image of a bunch of apps

A bunch of apps

Mirrorless Cameras – A Game Changer?

One of many recent advancements is the mirrorless camera. Without getting too technical, this is a model of camera which can do most of what a DSLR can, and crucially can change lenses, but is much smaller than most DSLRs. If the question you are asking is whether to take a mirrorless camera or a phone, I would argue that the mirrorless is going to win that battle in most scenarios due to its superior quality, and ability to add different lenses. If you’re going to take landscape images, you can use a wide-angle lens, you can take a zoom lens for nature and wildlife.

Of course, we’re also now back in the realms of having to carry equipment around, potentially missing the point of needing something ‘compact’. These come at a hefty price tag too, and aren’t the best solution for traveling cheaply, or for traveling light.

A comparison of DSLR camera versus mirrorless camera

DSLR x Mirrorless

The Cost of Great Images

Another consideration that the vast majority of us have to take into account is cost. We don’t have bottomless pits of money and much as we would all love to spend a lot of money on camera gear, it isn’t always an option.

To put things in perspective, I would say that a camera you buy for $50 isn’t going to be worth it if you have a newer generation phone. To greatly overtake the quality of these phone images, you are going to have to spend on a very high quality compact camera. If you have an iPhone X, it is probably time to retire that 8 MP compact camera you bought four years ago.

Conclusion

As you’ve probably established by now, there is no single answer to the question of whether you need a separate camera for traveling. It comes down to an individual choice. What we do know is that smartphone images don’t leave you at a huge disadvantage. As a great photographer once said, the best camera is the one that is on you, and this was proved in 2016 when an image taken on an iPhone 6S got to the final of a National Geographic photography contest.

If you can afford a camera which is an upgrade on your phone, and has other features you are looking for such as bluetooth and wifi uploading, then by all means consider this as an option. If you have the space and money for a mirrorless camera, this could be a way to upgrade your traveling camera gear, but if all you have to shoot with is a phone, you can still capture memories of your travels to last a lifetime.