Pixel 2 XL, iPhone X make taking vacation photos so easy

Going on a trip? Ditch that expensive DSLR and use the latest smartphone cameras on your next adventure.

James Martin Managing Editor, Photography
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
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James Martin
6 min read
James Martin

Some of our best experiences happen when we travel, and our best souvenirs are the visual memories we record.

For many of us, that means carrying around expensive and heavy cameras that often force us to swap lenses and change settings before we can even begin to capture the images we want. And while your DSLR or high-end mirrorless camera can help you take professional-quality photos, it's not exactly a slam dunk to use.

That's because such cameras require you to think about lighting, settings, shutter speeds, f-stops and lenses. This kind of logistical overhead makes it tough to get that perfect moment as it's happening in front of you. And these days, enjoying the moment also includes sharing the image practically as soon as we capture it. After all, what good's a great photo if no one sees it? 

That's where smartphone cameras enter the picture.

They produce terrific images you can easily share online. And many -- including those from Apple, Google and Samsung, to name a few -- now do much of the heavy lifting for you.

Depending on the phone, their features include built-in artificial intelligence that knows when to defocus the background in portrait shots, improved high dynamic range (HDR+) to capture greater detail in shadows and optical image stabilization to counter a shaky camera in dim light.

Many phones offer computational photography, overcoming the hardware limitations of small sensors and small lenses. The result is better sharpness, less noise, and richer colors and textures. They also offer different effects that help you push your inner artist without having to worry about shutter speed, aperture or lighting. Basically, it's compose and shoot.

Vacation photos shot on a phone

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And that's fantastic for travel. 

You can minimize your gear and while maximizing your flexibility, spontaneity and fun by just using your phone to shoot your next vacation adventure.

To prove my point, I grabbed a Google Pixel 2 XL and Apple's iPhone X -- two of the newest phones available when I wrote this -- and shot around Monterey, California, and on a family vacation in Tulum, Mexico. 

I used a phone to take pictures in the swimming pool, lounging on the beach and even kayaking in the ocean -- things I would never dream of doing casually with my DSLR. 

Portrait time

For a long time, stunning portrait shots have been largely left to the pros using telephoto lenses to create a shallow depth of field. The result blurs the background and focuses our attention on the subject. The effect is called a bokeh, Japanese for "blur."


A Portrait Mode image shot on iPhone X on the beach at sunset separates the subject from the background making a beautiful portrait.

James Martin

With their latest phones, Apple and Google have brought bokeh to the masses, making it surprisingly easy to take good portraits. The two companies go about it in different ways.

Google's Pixel 2 XL, which relies on single front and rear cameras, uses computational photography and machine learning to create a depth map and determine what to defocus.

Apple's iPhone X uses information from its two rear lenses to create a similar blurring effect.

Apple offers five Portrait Lighting modes that let you add professional lighting looks to your portraits. Frame your subject then choose from Natural Light (softer, less harsh), Studio Light (an even soft spread of light across the subject), Contour Light (adds contours to shadow the face), Stage Light (turns the background black) and Stage Light Mono (the same as Stage Light, but in black and white). My favorite is Studio Light, which mimics the soft warm light from a professional's gold reflector.

To get the most of that DSLR-like blur with Portrait Mode, make sure your subject is well-separated from the background (ideally, about 8 feet apart). I also recommend shooting where there's plenty of light and checking that the background is free from clutter or distracting elements.


A natural landscape still life featuring the Lion's Tail plant against the blues of the Monterey Bay. 

James Martin

I even used bokeh and the iPhone's Portrait Mode for the photo of the orange Lion's Tail plant against the blue Monterey Bay. I really love how the combination can make a still life stand out in a natural landscape.


The biggest new feature of the iPhone X is the front-facing TrueDepth camera system, which analyzes more than 30,000 dots to create a depth map of your face. With it, selfies get the portrait treatment, complete with Portrait Lighting effects. The Pixel 2 XL uses AI to create its own bokeh effect. Both phones let you turn the camera on the star of this vacation: you!

Again, you'll look your best in a well-lit area. Hold the camera just above eye level and angle it down a touch for the most flattering photos. Experiment with angles and backgrounds to get the best effect from the lighting and depth modes on the selfie camera.



The iPhone X camera's auto HDR is able to capture the varied tones, highlights and shadows at the marina in Monterrey, California.

James Martin

Photography is all about light, and both phones did great under what would have been challenging conditions for earlier phones -- producing images with a wider dynamic range and less noise.

Enlarge Image

Low noise in dim light shot on the Pixel 2 XL.

James Martin

Look at the photo of the Monterey Marina. The iPhone X camera's auto HDR makes sure the brightly lit distant mountains and the darker foreground get the right levels of exposure. Note the details in the rigging of the ship and the textures of the rocks, while the objects in shadow and sunlight are equally crisp and clean. I also used the iPhone's Vivid setting, which really added some punch to the colors.

The Pixel 2 XL did extremely well in dim light, thanks to its HDR capabilities and built-in computational smarts. Just look at the photo of my son engrossed by the shark swimming in its tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I was surprised by how smoothly it rendered the range of tones in such low light. There's basically zero noise in this image.

Simply put, you don't have to stop shooting when the sun goes down with today's phones.

Texture and detail


The fine details of my son's hair, the texture of his shirt and the folds of his jeans are remarkable.

James Martin

Light plays a factor in high-speed images, too.

Consider the above photo of my son captured midslide in Monterey's Dennis the Menace Park, which I shot using the telephoto lens on the iPhone X. The details are amazing: his hair, the texture of his shirt and the folds of his jeans. Again, note the balance of brights and darks.

I achieved similar results with the Pixel 2 XL, which captured the gorgeous detail and sharpness of a giant clam, shot in dim light inside the Monterey aquarium.


Sharp, gorgeous detail in this image of a giant clam, shot in dim light on Pixel 2 XL inside the Monterey aquarium.

James Martin

Helpful hints

You'll probably shoot all sorts of landscapes and street views on your vacation, but don't ignore the smaller details that surround you. An interesting doorknob, a close-up of a woven rug, vegetables at the central market -- all contribute to a locale's unique beauty and atmosphere.

Keep in mind the iPhone's Portrait Mode isn't just for people. Its shallow depth of field can make anything more interesting, from flowers and food to architectural details.


A memory of brunch with a Portrait Mode image of a Bloody Mary.

James Martin

Take advantage of built-in filters and third-party editing tools to make colors and textures pop. It takes just a second to improve your images with programs like Lightroom Mobile, Snapseed and Instagram.

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And be prepared. Free up space on your phone by deleting unwanted images before you go. Also, you can use a backup service like Apple's iCloud or Google Photos.

To capture a photo before that perfect moment disappears, I use burst mode to grab a series of shots in quick succession -- letting me freeze action and capture fast-moving subjects. Just hold down the shutter button to activate it.

Shoot the boring stuff, too: trains, airports, bus stops and hotel lobbies. I always appreciate these smaller moments years later -- memory-jogging elements that link the whole trip in my head.

Use your phone's special features. One feature I love is the ability to capture 360-degree photographs. Viewing a 360 photo is like being there, and it's a great way to relive the experience long after you get home.

The bottom line: Today's phones have terrific cameras that let you take some amazing photos. They may not be on par with the images you could take with your expensive DSLR -- yet-- but they come awfully close. So go out there and record those visual memories. Your friends and family will be impressed. 

This story appears in the spring 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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