Advice & Tips
Choosing a Road Trip Camera
So you're going on a road trip you want to get some rad photos. There’s an old adage that says the best camera to capture the moment is the one you have on you at the time. This series is intended to inform you on what cameras we've used on our many roadtrips.
What Kind of Photos do You Want to Take?
Are you wanting to do mostly landscape imagery throughout most of the day and/or do you want to also be able to capture the Milky Way over a Western mountain range? How about taking some underwater shots when you find that perfect swimming hole? Do you want to also capture video? What camera platforms exist that are affordable and will require the least trade offs to capture what you want? In Part One of this series, I want to go over the iPhone and the Moment Lens/Case (Androids, much of what I have to say is based on my experience with iPhones. However, the Moment Lens does work with many Samsung phones so skip down to read about that lens).
All photos above taken with iPhone 6S Plus and Moment Lens Wide // Edited in VSCO
Others have written extensive and amazing reviews comparing different iPhones and listing out their different features etc. I’m not doing that here. Instead, I want to point out that there ain’t no shame in using your the iPhone as your primary road trip camera. As a way of documenting travels, it’s easy to use, it’s accessible and the photo quality is remarkably good.
A Few Drawbacks
1. The iPhone doesn’t do well in wet environments.
If you want to take photographs in wetter environments like rain/drizzle or heavy mist (Niagara Falls for example) the iPhone, without a case like the LifeProof, may get damaged.
Using the LifeProof case opens up the possibility of shooting underwater though so it may be worth the investment.
Since the release of the iPhone 7 and a number of Androids, this is not as big an issue as it once was.
2. The ergonomics of the iPhone are lacking.
Holding an iPhone (or any smart phone) in a position to take photos can be awkward. Using the touch screen sometimes causes your phone to move meaning you lose your composition or you get a blurry shot. This is less of a problem with the iPhone 6S Plus (and the 7) and up as they have image stabilization for still photos. The volume button can also activate the shutter though that too can be awkward.
3. The iPhone does poorly in low light environments.
Even with the newer iPhone 6s Plus (and now iPhone 7), lowlight images aren’t great. Videos are worse. Low light images from the iPhone don’t capture many details in the darkest part of the image and videos turn out too grainy for my liking. Long exposure astro photography is a non-starter without some expensive add-ons, and getting crisp, non-grainy photos inside historical bars in New Orleans or Pittsburgh is going to be a challenge. Low light performance is still the domain of a good DSLR or Mirrorless camera.
All photos above taken on iPhone 6 and 6s Plus // No additional lens // Edits done in VSCO
4. The iPhone lens isn’t wide enough and sometimes has annoying lens flare.
While the iPhone does take pretty incredible photos with decent sharpness and good fidelity to the scene you’re shooting, sometimes I wish the lens was a little wider to capture more of the scene. There is also the that little green dot lens flare that shows up when shooting a scene with bright sunlight. It tends to ruin photos.
1. The iPhone has decent scene fidelity.
The iPhone does a decent job of capturing images as we see the scene. There are, of course, exceptions to this like when you are shooting into a backlit scene thus silhouetting the foreground. In those situations, use the HDR function on your iPhone. Unlike many HDR apps, the iPhone’s native HDR doesn’t make your image look like a ghastly, over saturated piece of crap. Even better, you can take your image into your favorite editor like VSCO or Snapseed and slightly increase the shadows to bring out some of the details lost in the silhouetted parts of your image. Or you can use the Moment’s app to get the lighting as close to accurate in camera before snapping a photo. More on this below.
All photos above taken on iPhone 6 and 6s Plus // No additional lens // Edits done in VSCO
2. You always have your iPhone on you.
The best camera is the one you have with you. I didn’t make that up, someone way smarter than me said that a long time ago and it is canonical knowledge amongst photographers. I try to live by it.
3. There are a ton photography apps for your iPhone.
Here are the apps I primarily use for editing: VSCO and Snapseed. I use VSCO because I like their film emulations. Snapseed is great because it offers even more fine tuning control over different aspects of your photo but also it allows you to use a healing tool. I use this most often when that awful little green dot lens flare the iPhone has gets in one of my shots.
The Moment Lens
Designed to allow photographers to capture wider shots without severe barrel distortion, the 18mm wide angle Moment Lens is by far the best add on lens system I’ve purchased for my iPhone. I was immediately impressed with the design, weight, feel and the simplicity of use. It comes with a mounting plate that is adhesive backed and attaches to the back of your iPhone over the camera optics. Attaching that plate is probably the hardest part about the Moment Lens as you have to ensure you apply it perfectly lest you get some unwanted vignetting in your photos. The Moment Lens does work with quite a few Samsung Android phones so check if yours is supported if you like the sound of the Moment Lens.
Other wide angle lenses I’ve tried for the iPhone had a lot of softness and blurriness around the edges. Not so with the Moment. It rocked my face clean off in this respect. It also does a passable job of reducing that awful green lens flare dot that the iPhone has. Shooting into a sunset or using the lens with the sun somewhere in the scene yields beautiful results if you expose the scene properly. The Moment Lens seems to soften a scene that has a lot of sun in it leaving the photograph looking surreal without appearing completely unnatural.
Moment also sells a Tele lens and a Macro lens. Give those a gander if you think they may be of use.
Moment Lens Drawbacks
1. The Moment mounting plate means you can’t protect your iPhone with a case.
With the mounting plate on the back of the phone, putting my phone into any protective case became impossible. Given how utterly clumsy I am/how damn slippery iPhones are and how easily they break, this drawback quickly turned into an expensive screen repair for my iPhone.
2. The Moment lens sticks out pretty far.
The Moment Lens itself sticks pretty far out and so, if your lens is attached and you’re going about your daily business, the lens tends to hit things and bends the plastic in the mounting plate that holds the lens in place. This drawback is easily avoided by removing the lens.
The Moment Case
The Moment Case does a good job of remedying some of the iPhones’ drawbacks. Android users, Moment does not currently make a case for you. Maybe one day (they do have a case for the Google Pixel)? Paired via Bluetooth with the Moment app, it features a DSLR like shutter button that when depressed half way it locks focus and when fully depressed it snaps a photo. The ergonomics are fantastic as well. While holding the case doesn’t exactly mimic the ergonomics of a DSLR or a digital point-and-shoot, it does make it easier to comfortably hold the phone. The case has a rubbery exterior that makes the grip much better than the slippery naked iPhone, and your phone is in a case to boot. Lastly, the cases Moment makes are beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing making for a system that is functional, easy to use and beautiful.
The Moment App
The app works seamlessly with the case, the lens and your iPhone. In the menu, select the lens you’re shooting with and it will save the lens you used in the metadata of the photo. The app allows you to fine tune your images’ exposure, temperature and the focus before even taking the photo. You can also opt to capture your images in a TIFF format (on the iPhone 7 you can capture raw) which means you get a file that has more editable details and increased sharpness over the standard iPhone app camera. If you’re wanting to print out your photos later, this is a great feature.
A Brief Nod to Footage
The Moment app even lets you shoot video at multiple frame rates and resolutions.
24fps/720p, 1080p, 4K
30fps/720p, 1080p, 4K
Video is something I haven’t discussed much thus far but I do want to point out that using the iPhone (really most modern smart phones) for video is a no brainer. In an age where an award winning feature length film is shot all on iPhone, it seems pretty obvious that using our iPhones for capturing beautiful scenery or moments through video is great way to create complimentary content to your photography. Are you in a scene where there is a lot of commotion like a busy city street in New York or around a flock of breeding birds on the Oregon Coast or in front of huge crashing waves in Big Sur? Use slow motion to capture some of these scenes and you’ll be left with some truly incredible pieces of footage to supplement your memories of the place.
A couple drawbacks are that you still have a lens that sticks out pretty far and can get caught on stuff. It happened to me and it bent the metal mounting grooves in the case. Another niggling drawback is that even though your phone is in a case, it doesn’t do much to protect your screen if you drop it on its face. Investing in a strap from Moment is one way to prevent any clumsy accidents. And finally, the app does not allow for time-lapse photography as far as I can tell nor does it (or can it) remedy the iPhones’ poor low light performance.
The iPhone on its own is a good platform to use as your road trip camera. Not only can you take pictures and video with it but you can also use it for navigation via the RoadTripper app and for seamlessly sharing your trip photos on Facebook or Instagram. Paired with the wide angle Moment lens, your iPhonography will benefit from wider shots with minimal barrel distortion in the image, and if you use the Moment app, getting settings right in your composition will yield cleaner results. Add to this the Moment Case and now you have great form factor, an easy to hold case, and a functional add-on piece of hardware that works seamlessly with the lens and app. The folks at Moment really have done a fine job of creating a system that works well together and is functional for people looking to have a great camera system with them on their roadtrip.