Top 5 Smartphones to Document Your Travels
With 2016 (thankfully) coming to a close, it’s time we moved on from our collective retrospection on the year that was and look forward to the next one, and all the (mis)adventures it will bring. Odds are you’re going to be documenting and sharing those new experiences as we have all increasingly have been wont to do, with our ever-ready and (usually) connected smartphones.
Now, our handy digital devices have come a long way since Steve Jobs (RIP) walked onstage at San Francisco’s Moscone Center nearly a decade ago and introduced the smartphone as we now know it, but the past few generations have reached a bit of a plateau in development. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the relative sameness makes it difficult to choose what’s best. Viewed from a distance, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the latest lineup of smartphones from one another, being mostly five to six-inch slabs of sleek glass and aluminum. On the software side, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems now offer more or less the same services, making the choice between them mostly a matter of preference. Under the hood, manufacturers boast of an ever-growing number of pixels in the display, processor cores and gigabytes of RAM, that, to the average user, don’t really mean anything except when it comes to how well those specs improve one thing—mobile photography, particularly travel photography.
At this stage in the development of smartphones, what truly sets one apart from the rest is its ability to do justice to that glowing tropical sunset, awesome mountain view or sparkling city skyline, which is why we’ve rounded up the top five (in no particular order) smartphones for travel photography in 2017.
Apple iPhone 7 Plus
Technology pundits the world over bemoaned the rather incremental differences between the iPhone 7 and the 6th generation model it replaced but photographers and photography enthusiasts lauded the advances made in the 7 Plus model in particular. On top of the optical image stabilizer (read: less blur from shaky hands) it inherits from the 6 Plus and 6S Plus, it also has a dual-camera system that allows for true optical zoom up to 2.0x, as opposed to digital zoom of iPhones past (which basically meant cropping the image as you take it). To achieve this, Apple engineers put two cameras side by side, one with a wide lens and another with a longer one, and rigged them to work as one. This allows the camera to be more flexible while maintaining size and image quality. Another new feature found on the 7 Plus is Portrait Mode, which digitally blurs the backgrounds in selected photos, an effect usually achieved only with bigger cameras.
Bonus feature: The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are the first officially water resistant iPhones
Google Pixel/Pixel XL
In late 2016, Google announced the Pixel and Pixel XL, the first ever smartphones designed, marketed and sold by Google itself and not through a hardware partner, like the Nexus series before it. Now, the finer points of the Pixel could fill a whole article, but for our purposes, the name itself will give you a hint as to why it made our list. The Pixel and the Pixel XL both have the same 12-megapixel camera unit, which benefits greatly from the phone’s top-of-the-line silicone. Its capricious 4GB of RAM and zippy Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 Quad-core processor means the Pixel has zero shutter lag; snapping frames without any noticeable delay and with HDR+ (High Dynamic Range Plus) to boot, a feature which combines multiple exposures to ensure every element in the image is evenly lit, adding plenty of depth and pop.
Bonus feature: Unlimited online photo backup (at full resolution) via Google Photos
While the iPhone 7 Plus is famous for having a dual-camera system, it wasn't the first smartphone to sport one. That distinction belongs to the Huawei P9, which features one co-engineered with legendary camera maker Leica of Germany. While Apple’s engineers decided to use their system to add optical zoom to the iPhone, Huawei focused on image quality, by pairing a color image sensor with a black and white one, both at 12-megapixels each. It sounds counterintuitive, but the second, black and white camera actually records more detail than the color one, as it concerns itself only with how much light hits it and not what color that light happens to be. The image data from both cameras is then crunched quickly by Huawei’s beefy proprietary Kirin chipset and combined to create a higher quality photo than one taken with a single camera system.
Bonus feature: Professional Mode, which allows you to take full manual control of the dual-camera system
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
Despite the debacle that was its bigger sibling, the Galaxy Note 7, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge remains to be one of the best smartphones out of 2016, thanks in no small measure, to its well-balanced camera, which garnered the second-highest rating on DxOMark, the global reference for technical photography reviews. Crucial to its performance is its f/1.7 aperture or opening. To clarify, the smaller the f-number, the bigger the opening, and therefore more light. This is compared to f/1.8 for the Apple iPhone 7 Plus and f/2.0 and higher for most flagship smartphones. Capturing all that light is a new 12-megapixel image sensor which actually has a lower resolution than the 16-megapixel unit in previous Galaxy flagships. This isn’t actually a downgrade though. Besides the fact that those 12 million pixels are plenty for photos shared online and in the rare occasion of an actual print, the pixels on the S7 Edge are 56% bigger than before. These bigger pixels, plus the wider aperture means less image noise in dimly lit speakeasys or twilight views of some exotic skyline.
Bonus feature: Phase-detection autofocus across the entire image sensor, usually found only in DSLRs, makes for DSLR-level focusing speed
Sony Xperia X Performance
By now, most people are familiar with Sony as a camera company, thanks to the popularity of its mirrorless Alpha series. It is a little-known fact though that even before that business took off, Sony had been supplying image sensors for Apple’s iPhone (including the 7 and 7 Plus) and even high-end Nikon DSLRs. Fortunately, all that engineering experience made its way down to the company’s smartphones as well, culminating in 2016 with the Xperia X Performance. It features the highest resolution camera in this list at 23 megapixels (which is already DSLR territory) and can be pushed to ISO 12,800 without too much noise. Having better noise performance means the camera can get away with having a smaller f/2.0 aperture and the high megapixel count means you can crop images without losing as much resolution as other smartphones.
Bonus feature: Predictive Hybrid Autofocus—another technology more commonly seen in DSLRs, which allows you to tap on a subject to focus and will then track the subject as it moves in the frame.