What Smartphones CAN’T Do When You Take Them on Vacation

Smartphones, notably the Apple iPhone 16 Pro Max, are photographic miracles. They can see in the dark and rise to nearly all photographic challenges. If you’re within 10-15 feet of your subject, the newest smartphones are almost infallible in their ability to provide a bright, sharp photo—even if you make no adjustments and press the red button on the screen. When you are this close to your subject, smartphones can rival larger, dedicated cameras in their ability to generate beautiful images—if you don’t enlarge them too much.

Smartphones are not at their best when shooting people or animals that are further away. The “telephoto lens” on the new Apple iPhone 16 Pro Max is only the equivalent of a 65mm lens, which doesn’t even qualify as a telephoto. Telephoto lenses start at about 105mm and go up to 1000mm.

If you’re shooting surfers from the beach, smartphones can’t create 24 photos each second. Their screens are almost useless in bright sun and glare. Smartphone also can’t automatically focus on their subject’s eyes as they come towards you on their boards. These weaknesses make smartphones a poor choice for shooting action sports or wildlife.

Smartphone sensors are sufficient to produce 5×7” snapshots and even 8×10” enlargements. But, if you try to create prints that you want to hang on a wall [16×20” or 20×30”] – you will likely be disappointed. The problems relate to something called sensor size. The website, PhotoSeek.com sums up the issues in a simple diagram.

  • The larger the sensor, the longer the lens must be for taking telephoto shots.
  • The smaller the sensor, the poorer the quality of the image will be.

A professional camera that a commercial travel photographer carries on assignment uses large full-frame sensors and telephoto lenses that cost upwards of $12,000 and weigh more than 9 pounds. What pros get from this setup are photos that can be the size of a 60” TV. Pros will also need at least two additional lenses to handle landscapes and groups. These add $4000+ to their total cost.

Even if you were willing to bear the cost, many of us would be unable to handle the weight of the pro telephoto combo for more than a few minutes. That’s why professional travel and sports photographers never go anywhere without their tripods.

For these reasons, I’ve decided “professional gear” is not for ordinary mortals. We’re better off sticking to cameras that won’t seriously damage our cruise budget, cause back problems, or lead to breakups when you try to get your partner to share the load. There’s nothing that looks as ridiculous as a couple staggering up the gangplank with 20-30 pounds of camera gear.

For at least my next few cruises, I’ve settled on a Sony RX10 Mk IV camera.

  • It uses Sony’s latest one-inch sensor. Sony sells less advanced sensors to many other camera manufacturers.
  • It has a Zeiss f2.4-f4 lens that extends from 24-600mm. Reviewers call it the best superzoom lens available today.
  • It can focus on people’s eyes or faces, shoot 24-shot a second, and refocus itself before every shot.
  • It can make marketable 16×20” or 16×24” enlargements, and its images meet Shutterstock’s quality standards for selling its photos online.
  • It has video capabilities that far exceed my understanding.
  • It’s “weatherproof,” but not waterproof. I’ve used weatherproof-rated cameras in driving rain and at sub-zero temperatures many times.
  • It weighs 2.5 pounds; a fraction of the weight of a full-frame camera with a 600mm lens, but four times the weight of your smartphone and twice the weight of a pocketable camera.
  • It costs $1650. It doesn’t require any accessories other than a UV filter, a few spare batteries, and maybe a camera sling. If you think this is expensive, compare it to what you’ll spend during the next three years on vacations.

This Sony RX10 Mk IV camera checks all the boxes of things that the Apple 16 Pro Max smartphone can’t do. On cruises, I’d expect to bring the Sony when I go ashore and when I’m shooting sunsets from the ship. I always carry my smartphone, and I’ll happily use it as my camera to remember the people and events that occur onboard for years to come.

Canon, Nikon, Leica, and Panasonic also make “bridge cameras,” as they are called. Most have smaller sensors than Sony’s. That limits their low-light capabilities and the size of the enlargements they can make. The bridge cameras with one-inch sensors are less expensive than Sony’s, but don’t match its optical performance, features, or weatherproofing.

Look at my photo at the top of the page. I took it last week at the Manhattan Beach Pier on AUTO, which means the camera did most of the work. The camera selected f4, which is the widest aperture setting available at 135mm. Few other cameras are programmed to shoot “wide open,” since this is the most challenging test of a camera’s focusing ability and lens. You can see the camera focused on the subject’s eye, since this is what it’s programmed to do. Also, see how accurately the colors of the American flag are reproduced a quarter mile down the beach.

My iPhone 16 Pro Max couldn’t have captured this image. The gentleman was about 35-40 feet away, and I shot it at about 135mm. This is twice the focal length of my iPhone 16 Pro Max when you set it to Telephoto. Moving any closer would have attracted the subject’s attention, causing him to face me and alter his expression. Remaining unnoticed is what travel photography is all about. If he saw me shooting his photo, his face would have turned into a big grin; I was using my red high-tech Nitro walker to help me walk on the pier.

So long as your subjects are in a public place and are adults, it’s unnecessary to ask for their consent. If they notice you, show them the photo that you’ve taken and offer to send them a copy. If you smile and show respect, they will always look at their image. In 65 years of shooting, I’ve never had a problem, but if anyone tells me not to photograph them or to delete their photo, I will promptly do so. Because my shots are “journalistic” and will not be used in advertisements, I don’t have to ask for a model release either.

When you buy a Sony RX10 Mk IV, Sony will offer to sell you a three-year extended warranty covering “drops & spills” and repairs for about $200. You must purchase it within 30 days of buying the camera. It’s a great buy and better than the insurance sold by camera stores.

Also, for less than $100 a year, I’ve purchased a rider on my homeowner’s insurance that covers the theft, loss, or “mysterious disappearance” of my camera equipment. Between that and the extended warranty, I’m not afraid to take my cameras anywhere. You can never tell where you’ll get a memorable shot, even if it’s only five miles from home.