When to Use Your Smartphone or DSLR Camera While Studying Abroad

Whether it’s hiking in the mountains, spending a relaxing day at the beach with friends, or even a night out exploring a new city, we’ve all had that moment where we stop and ask ourselves, “should I bring my camera?”

The short answer to this question is always yes! You’ll find that when you study abroad, you’ll want to capture every moment so that you have something awesome to look back on when you return home, or down the line several years later.  

Choosing the best kind of camera for your study abroad adventure? Now, that’s a whole other question.

When I studied abroad in Australia for example, I found myself wanting to take high-quality photos with my DSLR, but not wanting to particularly carry it with me during hikes, when carrying my smartphone would be significantly lighter and more portable.

On the other hand, if I wanted to bring my smartphone, I would have to go through the process of actively deleting photos on my phone for the sake of storage; however, I was able to store thousands of photos on my DSLR, not having to worry about running out of room.

Decisions, decisions.

As my semester abroad progressed, I figured out  which camera to bring and when to use it. I ended up incredibly happy with the way I documented my experience through these photographs. Read on to see which camera I preferred for certain activities, subjects, occasions, and why!

1) Portraits (DSLR)


Portrait photography has been my favorite style of photography since I picked up my first point and shoot camera as a child. There’s something intimate and incredibly unique about each and every portrait – you get an idea of who someone is, learn more about their personality, etc.

I knew I would encounter many people (even animals) along my journey in Australia, so I mainly used my DSLR, knowing the high-quality, deeply-focused photographs they produced. There are some smartphones that are starting to implement “portrait” functions into their camera abilities; however, I thoroughly enjoyed the comfort of my DSLR and my close up lens to photograph my subjects in the best way possible.

2) Food (Smartphone)

I noticed that I had been taking a lot of aerial food shots of Australian cuisine to send to my friends and family back home. I am by no means a food photographer, so these quick shots on my phone were more than enough for me!

In terms of weight, I was definitely more concerned of dropping my DSLR on top of my food compared to using my smartphone. On top of this, I was able to use several photo editing applications on my phone to make quick fixes, and then share with my friends and family.  For quick editing and convenience, I highly suggest using a smartphone to capture those mouth-watering food shots.

3) Landscapes (Both!)

I loved shooting landscapes on my DSLR for the sole purpose of collecting RAW files. RAW files are high-quality images that most DSLR cameras can produce. Most people, however, are familiar with cameras that take images in JPEG format. Shooting in JPEG compresses your image, and allows for more storage on a memory card, but results in lost image information making it more difficult to edit in the long run. For serious landscape photographers who want a lot of room for editing capabilities in post-production, a DSLR camera is the way to go!

Sometimes, you either can’t fit a nice DSLR camera and the appropriate lenses into your hiking gear, or get worried that inclement weather might damage them. If that’s the case, a smartphone can easily fix that worry! Pictured here is a photo my friend took of me during a long and strenuous hike in New Zealand.

Some higher-end smartphones allow for RAW and HDR image processing. HDR, or “high dynamic range”, simply means your phone will take several images of the subject that you are photographing and produce one final image that balances both highlights and shadows of the subject. This is especially great for landscape photography.

Another great thing about using smartphones when it comes to landscape photography, is the portability of attachable lenses. To produce this photograph, I simply placed a small wide-angle lens fit specifically for my smartphone. A wide-angle lens, whether if it’s for your DSLR or smartphone, will allow you to capture more of the surrounding area of the subject you are photographing.  While the quality of the image is not as great as a DSLR camera, I think it definitely gets the job done.

4) Architecture / Landmarks (DSLR)

Like landscapes, I always preferred to use my DSLR camera when it came to taking photos of architecture or landmarks. The best thing about using a DSLR is the ability to play with the exposure of a photograph. Typically, smartphones have difficulty capturing photos in low light settings (outside at night for example). DSLR cameras give you the option of figuring out what exposure setting works well to get the best photographs, especially while you’re photographing at night.

For example, the middle photo above of the Sydney Opera House could have easily been taken on my smartphone, however, even with adjusting some of my settings I would only be able to see the Opera House against the black background of the sky – which is absolutely fine if that’s what you’re going for! With a DSLR, I was able to find the perfect exposure that not only produced a great image of the opera house, but highlighted some of the more minor details: the ripples in the water, the lights of the city in the background, and even some of the blue of the sky post-sunset that a smartphone would not have been able to capture.

Are you an architecture or landmark buff when it comes to photography? Try out your DSLR to bring out some of the details you might not have noticed before!

5) Friends (Smartphone)

Nothing better than a good ol’ #selfie. I loved having the option of using a front-facing camera on my smartphone. It made taking group shots like the ones pictured above incredible easy because I was able to include everyone in the photo.

Additionally, I found myself using my smartphone to document more candid moments with my friends: jumping photos in front of the Sydney Opera House, photos of my friends and I with our collection of Tim Tams, and quick videos to remind me what it was like to study abroad in such an incredible country. My smartphone always came in handy to quickly document an awesome time with friends.

The solution to the DSLR or Smartphone question? Choose whichever you feel the most comfortable using. After all, it’s YOUR study abroad/intern experience – you have the power to choose how you’ll want to remember these moments for the future.  

Follow the hashtag #IESabroad on Instagram for more mobile content – photos taken with both DSLR and smartphone cameras – from our students!

Marlowe Padilla, Ambassador Program Coordinator

Marlowe knows the exciting nature of study abroad as an alumnus of the Sydney Direct Enrollment – University of Sydney Program. In his free time, Marlowe enjoys running, finding the best donuts in Chicago, and creative writing. Read more about Marlowe’s study abroad experience in Australia, by reading his student blog!

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