The best phones for travel photography

I’m fairly technically minded and I hope this provides a bit of information you might not have heard of or considered. I have researched most Android, iOS and Windows phones extensively.

Travel photography with a mirrorless camera

If you take photographs solely with your phone, this article isn’t for you. This is geared more towards the travel photographer that brings a dedicated camera e.g. a Sony a7rII. A few, much heavier, DSLR cameras come with dual card slots and there are a few mirrorless crop cameras, e.g. those made by Fujifilm, that come with dual card slots too.

Sony, in my opinion, are the best manufacturer at the moment in regards to travel photography. Most of their current generation mirrorless cameras allow an external USB power source to be used not only for charging but also to power the unit. This applies to the Sony a6500 and the Sony a7sII or the Sony a7rII. Without meaning to delve too deep into Sony cameras, this article assumes your camera only has one memory card slot. If your camera has two card slots, this changes my argument entirely.

There are various features found within phones that a travel photographer, whether professional or amateur, will find useful on long hikes such as the Pacific Crest Trail:

  • GPS navigational and Geotagging features
  • Water Resistance
  • USB-OTG (On-The-Go), to connect external devices and backup data
  • High Speed USB-OTG, i.e. USB 3.0 or USB 3.1, note, some USB-C phones are essentially USB 2.0 with a pretty port
  • Blood oxygen meter can be useful when hiking high altitudes–for most healthy people, this won’t be very important
  • Iris scanner
  • Paperless notes
  • Torch

The above list is in no particular order.

GPS Features

GPS features are found within nearly every smartphone currently on the market, whether that’s an Android, Apple or Windows based phone. For Geotagging photographs, I actually recommend something like a Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire watch the Garmin Fenix 5x is an even better GPS navigation device but more expensive. Both watches are lighter weight than a phone and are more efficient with electricity; they’re a highly useful device all around. Nonetheless, I think redundancy is important and a phone screen is definitely better for viewing maps.

Water Resistance

I think even if you’re only interested in hiking somewhere dry, like the Californian section of the Pacific Crest Trail, water resistance shouldn’t be overlooked. You can always put your phone in a sealed bag, but a water resistant phone gives you reassurance; in my opinion, it is inexcusable for a company not to include IP-68 water resistance, at this point in time. For river crossings, the less items you have to worry about getting wet, the better–for storms, too.

High Speed USB-OTG and backing up data

This is one of the more important features found within a phone, if you’re a travel photographer. Most phones support USB-OTG and unfortunately there are very, very few phone reviewers who analyse the throughput speed of the USB port. In a real world scenario, you may wish to clone data from one SD card to a microSD card or to another SD card. The Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire watch only allows you to record about 20MB of log files, which is fine if you’re hiking for a week or two, but if you are through-hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail, you’ll need to move the data from the watch. The Garmin Fenix 5x has enough storage that you can hike for weeks at a time, but it’s always a bad idea to store all your eggs in one basket. The log files of a Garmin Fenix 5x are not very large and as such, a standard USB-OTG phone with USB 2.0 speeds will be fine, but if you are using a Sony a7rII and you want to backup your RAW photographs, which are about 82MB in size, you may consume several gigabytes of data in one day. This is where a high speed USB-OTG port is borderline essential.

Even if you have a camera with dual card slots, you may wish to access those photographs on the phone or make another backup to a microSD card, so you can post it to your friends, family or even workplace. Needless to say, I’m fairly disgusted with all the manufacturers that still insist on using slow ports! At the moment, the Samsung Galaxy S8, Sony Xperia XZ Premium (not the small version) and the Google Pixel are worth considering; however, I don’t like the Google Pixel due to its lack of water resistance.

Blood Oxygen

Blood Oxygen meters are not found within many phones and most of the time, it’s pretty much a gimmick. However, it is useful at telling you roughly how much oxygen is in the air, and at high altitudes, this can be useful–especially if you have a heart condition. Overall, I would rate this feature as not that important. It’s nice to have but it’s not worth making a purchasing decision over.

Iris Scanner

This feature is worth making a purchasing decision over, as it’s extremely useful. It allows you to unlock your phone with gloves on, and this is especially useful at night if you are cold. It works better in cold environments as the camera uses a form of thermal imaging. Despite saying this is worth making a purchasing decision over, there is only one phone with a decent Iris Scanner–the Samsung Galaxy S8. If you can afford to wait, I’d advise waiting for the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.

Paperless Notes

Writing down ideas, whether that’s a shopping list for a re-supply or a specific point of interest you wish to visit, is important. Every phone on the market has this feature and you don’t need to give it too much thought. What you may wish to consider is the applications available for writing notes and the way in which you write a note (again, more about that later on.)

Torch

Nearly every modern phone has a torch, and it provides a useful creative opportunity. For example, you can illuminate your tent and photograph it from the outside.

The various phones available

The ill fated Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the ideal unit for those looking to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, in my opinion. It had a fully functional iris scanner, a high speed USB-OTG port, a blood oxygen meter and more; it was also waterproof and the pen was a great tool to make notes, especially if you were wearing gloves. This device is worth researching to look at the kind of specs you’ll find useful. One huge negative was the glass front and pack–it’s not very durable. The screen was also curved, making it difficult to find a suitable case. Ideally, a travel photographer should look to avoid curved screens, in my opinion. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is virtually identical except it doesn’t have a pen; however, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is extremely different–even though many reviewers will state otherwise–as the USB 2.0 port is vastly slower.

Not everyone will buy a phone purely for the Pacific Crest Trail or a specific adventure, so you have to decide for yourself whether you wish to make sacrifices.

The Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL

The Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL. Both have a high speed USB-OTG port but they lack features to make it really stand out: there is no iris scanner, a blood oxygen level meter, a pen, water resistance or even a microSD card slot. The microSD card slot isn’t a deal breaker if you plan to bring a typical SD memory card reader, providing the memory card reader can read an SD and a microSD card at the same time which MOST MEMORY CARD READERS CANNOT do. As a side note, I wrote an article about various memory card readers and my suggestion would be to buy the Kingston Mobilelite G4 memory card reader; you’ll need a large USB-A port to USB-C adaptor, but these are often included with phones that have a USB-C port; however, the Google Pixel does not come with a USB-A charger; therefore, you’ll need to look at USB chargers should you wish to charge all of your devices from the one charger, as buying USB-C to USB-A wires is unreasonable at the moment (most devices are not USB-C, and most leads for cameras are USB-A to a micro USB plug).

It seems like I am slating the Google Pixel, and perhaps I am. Even if we exclude its high price point, it’s a pretty lacklustre device. There’s nothing outside of software to really excite you. That said, it’s primarily made by HTC and that should mean something–they make great devices. It’s extremely lightweight and it’s a solid device. What it does do, it does well. The operating system is likely the best on the market right now and it can achieve the primary objective, to clone SD cards. Now that the Samsung Galaxy S8 has been announced, it’s hard to recommend the Google Pixel or the Google Pixel XL.

I’m pretty tired of spending money on electrical items for them to get recalled, break two weeks after the 12 month guarantee period or whatever sodomy seems to happen. For that reason, the Google Pixel is not to be ignored completely. If it had water resistance and Gorilla Glass 5, it would really sweeten the deal. I find it disappointing that it doesn’t have these features, but one advantage to the non curved display is that you can put a glass screen protector on the front.

I’m a huge fan of OLED technology and if you pick a black background, you can save a lot of battery life. Unlike an IPS LCD screen, an OLED pixel simply doesn’t illuminate when it shows black; whereas an IPS LCD still illuminates when showing black–thereby drawing more current.

Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe and the Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe Special

The Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe and the Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe Special both have high speed USB-OTG ports; the standard Asus Zenfone 3 and the Asus ZenFone 3 Max have USB-C ports but they are the slower USB 2.0 standard.

They all have microSD card slots; they have fast processors; the software isn’t too bad but it could be better; the screens are worthy contenders too. The biggest reason to consider Asus is the fact they’re slightly cheaper (unlike the majority of their PC components) than the competition. Their phones are really well priced but I don’t trust them. The build quality doesn’t look as good and I have this nagging feeling the software will not be that reliable after a few months of use–this is somewhat judging from the various comments I have read.

Again, this device doesn’t have any water resistance. Therefore, you’re trading better software for the microSD card slot; the Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe and the Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe Special both have 6GB of ram but I doubt you’ll notice the difference.

HTC 10

This is a great device. As with the other phones, it’s got a high speed USB-C, USB-OTG port, it has a 3.5mm headphone jack–unlike Apple, cough–and a microSD card slot (unlike the Google Pixel). Again, it’s not water resistant (well, technically both this and the Google Pixel have some form of water resistance, but they’re not IP-68 certified; you cannot submerge them fully). This is a slightly older device and the software is still better than what you’ll get with 99% of the phones out there.

My biggest dislike for this device is that it’s got an IPS LCD screen. I simply don’t like them after using an AMOLED display. There’s a rumoured HTC 10 Pro or HTC 10 Bolt (I don’t know the exact name they’ll use) and it’ll likely have an OMLED screen; however, it’s rumoured to dump the 3.5mm headphone jack.

It seems some companies giveth purely to taketh away, lol.

The iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, Huawei Nova, and the Sony Xperia XZ

You can find plenty of devices with USB-C ports or a lightning port; again, it doesn’t mean anything. The iPhone 7 sticks with USB 2.0 speeds, as does the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (that doesn’t have a USB-C port), the Huawei Nova, and the Sony Xperia XZ.

Sony Xperia XZ

The Sony Xperia XZ is a great phone, it has IP-68 water resistance, it has a microSD card slot and it does a lot of things right. Even the software is very good. If you wish to stray from a high speed USB port, I would look at this device. It does everything else quite well.

My only criticism outside of the lousy USB 2.0 port is that it has an IPS screen. That said, it’s an extremely under-rated device.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

This should be a great phone, and it has USB 3.1. It has been officially announced by Sony but it’s not on the market yet. My only complaints are that it’s slightly heavy and it doesn’t have an OLED screen.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge phone is a worthy contender if you wish to forsake a high speed USB-port and go against my recommendation. There’s a few new software updates, such as the always on display, which are extremely nice. It’s water resistant and it has a blood oxygen meter. There’s a few features to make you happy, but it’s certainly no replacement for its fiery brother.

Samsung Galaxy S8

The Samsung Galaxy S8 has a high speed USB-port and in my opinion, it’s the best phone on the market at this point in time.

Conclusion

None of the Apple iPhones have high speed USB-OTG capability, for that reason I have ignored them from the get go. A few windows phones do have a USB-C port with high speed USB-OTG capability but the software leaves little to be desired, the phones are rarely water resistant and there’s very few apps available.

It seems like I’ve listed a lot of devices, but when you look for a device with a microSD card slot, water resistance, and a high speed USB-OTG port, you’ll be disappointed. My advice is to wait for a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 if you can, failing that, get a Samsung Galaxy S8 or a Sony Xperia XZ Premium–in that order. I think hiking the Pacific Crest Trail without a way to backup SD card data is extremely reckless. I know the Google Pixel will have zero software issues, and I can put it in a ziplock bag most of the time but for me, there’s little reason to consider it now that the Samsung Galaxy S8 has been announced.

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