Ask LH: Is My iPhone Enough As A Travel Camera?

Ask LH: Is My iPhone Enough As A Travel Camera?

Hi Lifehacker, I am going on holiday to the US in a couple of months and was wondering whether I should take a normal point-and-shoot camera or use my iPhone (4S). The only benefit I see in using a point and shoot is that it has optical zoom; however the iPhone is far more convenient in that I would only need to take one device. I don’t intend on visiting any great landmarks, it will be mostly be shots of me and my friends. Thanks, Shutterbugged

Picture by Jeff Turner

Dear Shutterbugged,

The iPhone 4S has an excellent camera, so on that level there’s no reason not to save yourself some luggage space and simply take it along with you, especially if you’re not aiming to take super-fancy shots or use zooming options a lot. You can also enhance the experience by adding photography apps to enhance your work.

So for the sake of compact packing, I’d definitely consider just taking the phone. With that said, there’s a few things you should bear in mind.

Keep an eye on battery life. If you’re using your iPhone for games, apps or messaging, you can easily run down the battery and then find yourself unable to take a shot at the crucial time. While you’ll probably want to avoid making a lot of calls because of roaming charges and thus might use it a bit less than usual, this can still be an issue. Make sure you plug it in to charge overnight.

Remember you have limited storage. The big downside of the iPhone as a camera is that you can’t easily swap in additional storage if you take a lot of photos, and you’ll need to connect the phone to a laptop or upload the photos online. We’ve covered this issue in some detail before, but the big lesson is this: make sure you aren’t wasting space with unwanted apps, and only email or sync your photos when you’re using a free Wi-Fi connection. There’s plenty of free Wi-Fi in the US, so you’ll have some options.

Don’t accidentally sync all your photos. iOS 5 can automatically sync every photo as you take it, but you absolutely don’t want to do this in the US, as you’ll pay a ridiculous amount in roaming charges on the phone, and there’s no way to selectively use the feature — it’s an all or nothing option. So make sure you switch it off. Go to Settings –> iCloud –> Photo Stream and make sure it is switched to Off. While you’re at it, go to Settings –> Network –> Data Roaming and switch that off too.

If readers have any other iPhone travel photography tips to share, we’re all ears in the comments.


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  • My 5 year old Canon P&S kills iP4S effortlessly in all photography tasks. BUT it’s a truism that “the best camera in the world is the one you have with you”.

    If you typically carry a handbag or satchel, a good P&S doesn’t take up much space and will give better results far more consistently. But if you’re not taking your bag with you when you go out I would say that phones with good cameras (like the iP4S) are better than many super-cheap P&S cameras for casual social shots.

  • Angus, iCloud photo stream only syncs pictures when connected to wifi, which it actually says in the screenshot you posted. Turning it off will just make you lose an easy backup option.

    Even if that weren’t the case, disabling photostream and then data roaming would be double handling: With data roaming off you cant incur those charges, so why turn off app-level settings as well?

    • First off: Battery saving.
      Second: You often have to pay for bandwidth when travelling. At the very least you should leave photo sync turned off until you’re sure you have some of them good wifis.

  • Since you’re going to the US, it’s alright. But never ever ever use an iPhone 4s or any smartphone in countries like the Philippines or other 3rd world countries. Speaking from experience, the moment you take out your iPhone or Galaxy Nexus, you’ve become a target to the thieves.

  • The quality of the camera on iPhone will only get better, not to mention a whole sweep of photo editing tools in the App Store. bundle it with a great travel app like Instagram or TripColor then it will be perfect.

  • My 4s has proven great for an always on you camera. That being said I do end up with multiple shots all the time because someone has moved slightly and is blurred. For special events I always take my 3 year old point and shoot which is still more reliable overall.

  • Get a Mifi when you get off the plane if your going for more than 2 weeks. $100 from a best buy kioki comes with 3gb of data – slide it in your pocket 4 hours of charge.

    Most useful.

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