In February 2019 I set out on a trip through Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica armed with a Pixel 3 and a Go Pro Hero 6. In the past I’ve always taken a DSLR or a film camera with me to mess about with and I was a little hesitant to not take something bigger and more trustworthy than a new phone. However, the ability to travel light and have less to worry about on the road was hugely appealing, as well as the fact I’d just invested in ‘the best camera phone on the market’ (citing basically everywhere in Dec 2018) and I wanted to put it through its paces.
Last time we visited this part of the world in 2009 we didn’t have a smartphone but did have an entry level Sony DSLR. Every week or two we’d settle into our local internet cafe, pop the Compact Flash card into my usb card reader and upload as many photos to Picasa/Flickr as my hour would allow me, whilst firing off emails with a few shots attached to emails to vaguely interested friend and family back home. Travelling in 2019, armed with a usb charger and Instagram is a bit of a different prospect.
We started our trip in Bogota, exploring this vast and busy city on predominantly on foot. If you are headed out onto the streets of Bogota, do be wary of post-downpour puddles and large vehicles. I learnt the hard way. The scale and vibrancy of city life was a huge part of our trip and capturing some of that to share with family and friends via WhatsApp when we were on the move was really important. Whilst the Pixel doesn’t have a wide angle lens on the main camera, we were in spots where it excelled in getting a lot of detail. A wider view on the view of Bogota or in the market for instance is something that other smartphones or a DSLR with the right lens wouldn’t have had a problem with, but the family still got a real sense of where we were. In bright environments the Pixel does really well, picking out lots of detail. Unsurprisingly, the HDR or Night Sight modes used when there’s a little less natural light also gets you through most situations. The times I found the exposure or colour to be off were usually when it was really overcast and you’d lose the clouds to a white blanket and it’d often throw the colour off a little. I quickly got used to processing the photos in Google’s Snapseed app, to offset these and edit these to match my mood at the time. It’s fair to say my photos got moodier the closer I got to coming home 😘
Exploring new and different landscapes was one of the reasons for taking this trip and we were not disappointed. Colombia’s natural beauty was unlike anything we’d seen before and it was great to see such a variety from the Cocora valley and coffee farms near Salento, to the man made lake near Guatape and it’s stunning beaches in the north. The Pixel did great with the mix of landscapes and often I felt shots needed very little processing, more often than not correcting for exposure given it was often so bright, or to address colour but often that’s down to my taste rather than it being necessary. I learnt to trust that the Pixel would pick out a huge amount of detail in landscapes (just look at the waterfall image below) - a really incredible amount given the size of the lens.
Portraits & Front Facing Camera
I’d not had a phone with a portrait mode before and given I normally travel with a DSLR and a 50mm 1.4 lens, it was something I’m most sceptical about on smartphones. And to be fair I’m still pretty sceptical but given my experience with the Pixel’s portrait mode, but it’s pretty unfair to compare a phone’s software performance against a DSLR lens. The shots are nice enough but the choice in what the Pixel decided to blur was often a little confusing but if there’s enough space behind the subject and it’s a fairly plain background it normally produces a nice enough image. Often it just felt a little too stark between focus and the blurred effect - something you can play with in the built in blur effect (in the built in camera editing software, not Snapseed). The front facing portrait mode was really impressive, just as much as the back camera with very little difference between the two when it was well lit. Given the wider angle of the front facing lens too you can create some fun effects with the slight distortion and warping too.
One of the most talked about features on the Pixel and as someone who often works in dark performance spaces, Night Sight was bit of a draw, although most of the work I’d do would involve movement - so not ideal for a longer exposure. I often used Night Sight in lower light situations; under a canopy or a lot of times outside of direct sunlight and always enjoyed the results.
Throughout the trip I predominantly edited on the go with Google’s Snapseed, often getting a bit more out of a photo and changing the image to suit the look I was going for. I had been used to editing with VSCO for quite a few years but there was more to play with in Snapseed given it has been optimised to make the most of Google’s camera and I preferred the results more often than not.
In hindsight there were very few times when I wished I had a DSLR to hand instead of the Pixel 3. Most of those times occurred when I wanted to get a wide angle shot of a landscape or location or play around with some long exposures. I had my Go Pro to capture a few timelapse videos and other video clips as the Pixel’s video mode feels a good way behind what I’d been used to with an iPhone’s always impressive video quality, even in comparison to my previous iPhone 7.
What most impressed me is what this camera can do with a single lens whilst most other competitors have multi-lens setups. More proof building on what iPhones have done so well for so long, knowing that the camera software is just as important as the hardware. The added security of knowing my photos were being backed up to google photos at full res (a free offer when I originally purchased the Pixel) was a real benefit. As long as I continued to find wifi strong enough to allow me to upload them. One. Photo. At. A. Time. Again, easier than the worry of losing an SD card on a local bus 🙈
Whilst it was liberating to just have a phone to hand for most moments I missed having the comfortable chunk of a camera attached to me and the lack of adaptability and experimentation to play with give the small amount of toying with settings you can do in stock camera apps.
Given the capabilities of the incredible phones we’re all likely to have in the future I’m much less likely to carry a stand alone camera with me on a trip, unless I plan to add to my licensed photography on PicFair. It’s safe to say I won’t be using a phone camera for professional performance work any time soon though.