A buffalo combs the beach at Hoi An, Vietnam. Taken with an iPhone 4S using Pro HDR, and processed with Snapseed (which also increased the grain). All images by Dean Holland.

An iPhone, a second honeymoon and photography: Can they mix? 

I'm a professional photographer, and I recently spent two weeks in Vietnam shooting just with an iPhone. Nothing else. Just the phone.

"You'll never survive!" suggested my darling wife. "You'll be going cold-turkey from your big camera ... it'll be like travelling with someone in rehab!”

She had a point. I was already getting twitchy at the prospect of missing golden photos while I stabbed in frustration at apps. I knew the iPhone could get good results in the right conditions, but I also knew that there would be some photos that it simply couldn't take.

But this trip was to be our first time alone together in eight years since the children came along, and I’d built-up a rather optimistic picture of a second honeymoon with a twist of photographic expedition thrown in. The big camera would have to stay at home (Sue calls it my “mistress”), so the iPhone it would be. We’d booked four nights in Hanoi, and nothing beyond that -- we thought we'd make it up as we went along. 

Surely a little iPhone wouldn't get in the way of a second honeymoon? Surely I'd get some nice pictures?

As we headed to the airport, we had that "Something missing" feeling. The bags seemed tiny for a two-week trip. No children, no camera, no lenses. I'd packed pretty much every accessory that I could find for an iPhone, and it still took up no space in the luggage. I had the iPhone 4S (I've since upgraded to the iPhone 5) with loads of apps, a small lightweight tripod with a Glif adaptor to mount the phone, a phone case with a built-in battery as backup, and a new Olloclip lens that clips over the phone's camera to give different perspectives to pictures. I also packed an iPad (which I barely used). 

So can you have a holiday AND take pleasing photos with an iPhone? I’ll split the answer between the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t.

What's to like?

Less gear means more eye

Using a phone camera freed-up my head. No settings to fuss over, no gear to shepherd. It became about seeing pictures, rather than creating pictures. When I saw good things, I got good pictures. When I didn’t, there was no technical wizardry to save the day.

Silhouette on the Japanese Bridge, Hoi An, Vietnam, shot with iPhone 4S using Camera+ app, edited with Snapseed.

I thought I'd be lost without settings to change, but it wasn't like shooting a camera on auto,  not knowing what the camera will give you. I knew exactly what it was going to give me: unlike a camera, the phone has only one combination of settings for any given level of light, so I quickly learned its style. It became about finding things that suited its style of picture.

This made me realise two things: first, I saw how much I normally lean on my technical skills to make photographs rather than my (weaker) skills to see photos. Using the phone was like doing a visual "workout" by exercising my "seeing" muscle.

But it was my second realisation that really changed things: the more I looked, the more I saw. It sounds obvious, but because I had the phone with me all the time, I started looking at things differently. Silhouettes of people, patterns in water, big things next to small things. Little visual treats everywhere.

Stairwell in a Hanoi restaurant, Vietnam. Shot with iPhone 4S native camera app and processed with Snapseed, filterstorm and Photogene2.

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager in love? You could take pleasure from the sunlight on a coffee cup or the curve of a shoulder. I found myself LOOKING for those things more than ever before. Finding pleasure in little things. I’ve never used a camera that encourages this as much as the iPhone. I was smitten. Free with every iPhone: more nice stuff in every day! How good is that?

For a stronger man than I, it could have made me a more attentive and fun travel partner. Instead, it gave me all the self-awareness of that teenager in love. I had a new mistress. But more on that in the drawbacks below. On with the positives ...

Good quality in good light 

In good light, the quality of the photos was good. Not “good for a phone”, but actually good.

Tourist boats meet a fishing junk at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Shot with iPhone 4S, taken with Bracket Mode app, and processed with Snapseed and Image Blender.

When I made 36-inch (90cm) enlargements of the pictures back home, I was surprised just how good they were. No, they’re not as crisp and detailed as from a big DSLR camera, and they’re more speckly too. But they’re certainly good enough for me to blow-up and put on a canvas for the wall. They’re better than from many cheap compact cameras. I’d suggest that they’re easily good enough for most uses.