Is it enough to replace your camera?

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If you’re still determined to pack two fun and adventure trips into your first summer getaway after the COVID summer, then maybe it’s time to assess whether your smartphone will do justice to the two-year worth of vacation memories you are about to create.

I did. When we set off on our epic island hopping adventure in the British Virgin Islands earlier this summer, I brought the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G “Call camera” with me and I left my premium DSLR camera at home. And I came back happy.

I like to take good photos. But I want the camera to do the job. So I never take the time to learn pro features, whether with my DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera and its many lenses or my smartphone. I just leave it in autofocus.

Truth be told, I only have this fancy, high-end DSLR for shooting videos, which I sometimes have to do for work. And since I bought it, I take it with me on vacation because it turns out that it takes very nice photos.

If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your smartphone before embarking on your first vacation in almost two years and wondering if it can do the job of your “real” camera, read on.

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The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has five cameras: four on the back, including a dual telephoto lens, and one on the front.

There are three reasons why I decided to only take a flagship smartphone like the S21 Ultra to the BVI:

Lots of lenses: Lenses that are flat enough to fit in a smartphone aren’t as flexible as camera lenses, which take advantage of their length for zooming. Smartphone makers have therefore bridged the gap by building specialist lens teams to take quality photos in different conditions. The S21 Ultra has four rear cameras: wide, ultra-wide and two telephoto lenses. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max has three, giving up the second telephoto lens.

Night mode: The S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are much better for low-light photography, which has been a challenge for smartphones. Both have a specialized night mode, which allows for better images, but also takes longer to focus.

Night mode takes impressive photos in the dark, but it takes a while to focus.  So do not plan many action plans.

AI performance: It’s one thing to tuck all of those lenses into the rear camera bump of a skinny smartphone. It’s another to be able to switch lenses on the fly – and even combine two for better zoom. And today’s flagship smartphones are quite capable.

In fairness to my Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 camera, it’s four years old and the S21 Ultra is barely halfway through its first birthday. Additionally, I cripple the GH5 with my stubborn insistence on automatic mode – which is particularly detrimental in low-light situations – as well as my lonely 5x zoom lens, with its admittedly pedestrian focal length of 12-60mm. For comparison, the S21 Ultra’s super telephoto lens has an equivalent focal length of 240mm.

The slight sway of the boat made it difficult to focus some shots.

With plenty of daylight and for subjects within range, I sometimes take richer, more detailed photos with the GH5 than with the S21 Ultra. The GH5 would obviously be more competitive if I carried more lenses – and in the hands of a better photographer. But that’s the whole point here, isn’t it? I am not a better photographer. And I will no longer carry lenses. Unless they fit in my pocket.

So how did I do it?

With such beautiful Caribbean subjects, breathtaking Devil’s Bay on Virgin Gorda to secluded expanses of remote beach Island of Anégada, everyone came back with pictures to cherish. But as the only one who owns a flagship phone, I was able to get more great photos in more situations.

The ultra-wide lens of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G made this photo of Anegada Island.  possible.

I most often gained oohs and ahs from my boat mates when comparing long distance photos and looking at photos taken in low light conditions. There was also a more subtle advantage: My photos often had more detail than even those from a two-year-old high-end smartphone. It gave me more flexibility to crop the photos later.

I took a few photos in night mode which came out blurry. The boat’s slight sway and long night mode focus time clearly conspired against me on these.

The S21 managed to get some great sunset photos over Leverick Bay.

What has to be done?

You’ll notice a big improvement in the number of scenes and situations you can capture with a current high-end smartphone like the S21 Ultra, even if your smartphone is less than four years old.

On the other hand, you will probably be happy with the photos you take with your current phone, as long as you don’t invite anyone who takes photos with the latest technology.


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