Robert Young Pelton is the reporter war correspondents wish they could be. If he says a phone is ideal for shooting a war, well, then it is. Illustration: Wes Siler
Gone are the days when I disappeared into dirty wars with just my assault pack and ten rolls of 35mm film. Armed only with my trusty Leica M rangefinder, I hoped to god my pics didn’t get nuked by customs, ruined by heat, or messed up in the lab. Back then, the highest-tech tool I carried was a Polaroid that I used to great advantage at stubborn checkpoints by handing out snaps of laughing soldiers.
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Now we live in a digital world, where smartphone-wielding citizen journalists—not subject to the same restrictions (or entry costs) as professional photographers—are now stealing the pros’ latte money. Amateur snaps and videos of breaking news quickly populate Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds, even from remote parts of Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Even publishing has changed: lots of photos need merely fit the technical requirements of websites—72 dpi by 1280 pixels.
The trick now is a low-profile, fast, connected tool that still allows the user to control image quality. What’s the best photo gear for this new age of real-time, run-and-gun, snap-and-post journalism?
Smartphones that can hide in your breast pocket now have GPS, massive storage, and the ability to edit a diverse array of file types, but they haven’t really focused on creating pro-level images. They’re just fine for selfies but don’t offer the professional the ability to adjust exposure, white balance, focus, and file quality.
Over the years, I’ve been continuously downsizing my gear. Bulky Hasselblads and the Linhof Technorama 617 gave way to neck-breaking Nikons, and then the trim but full-frame Sony A7R. That camera is genre changing, thanks to its five-axis sensor stabilization and ability to hammer out 80MB RAW files or 4K video using my scalpel-sharp Leica wide-aperture rangefinder lenses. But even with that relatively tiny Sony, I still found myself turning to my often-dropped iPhone instead. So long as I had a stranger’s email address and stolen WiFi, the iPhone’s poor-quality images could only be, at best, my poor man’s Polaroid. I still had to carry the big camera.
But after trashing thousands of dollars of high-end bodies and delicate glass bouncing across South Sudan in the back of a pickup, I was ready for something new. On my way back from visiting some old warlord friends in Afghanistan for Christmas, I finally found the perfect professional camera: a relatively cheap Chinese phone.
The Huawei (pronounced “wow-why”) P10 is an unlocked, high-performance, multiband smartphone. Huawei is an unabashed producer of knockoff phones, which I discovered when I lost my iPhone 7 Plus while connecting in Bangkok. At BKK, this Android-based knockoff costs about $400 less than its Apple competitor, so I picked one up.
The P10 unseats Apple’s photo-quality dominance. It has a similar two-lens setup as the iPhone 7 Plus, but a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor augments the same 12MP color sensor used by the iPhone. This phone also has a host of features that make it ideal for the international traveler.
Most smartphones share the same or similar photo hardware, then tweak the hell out of the files to make colors snap and images sharp. The Huawei is no different when shooting JPEGs: it’s in RAW format where this phone shines. That pairing of a superior sensor with the iPhone’s sensor creates a lot more room inside the Huawei’s image data for sharpening, opening shadow areas, and other artsy-fartsy editing techniques.
Although Huawei co-brands the phone as a Leica all the way down to the box design and fonts, don’t be fooled. The sensors are actually made by the less fancy-sounding Ningbo Sunny Optical Technology of China, which is the largest provider of cellphone optic sensors in the world. What Leica does lend to the phone is a software suite that mimics the color tweaks and controls of a fancy German digital camera. If you’re used to shooting on one of those, you’ll feel at home shooting, and editing, on the Huawei.
With the Huawai P10, you get all the phone stuff you’d expect from an unlocked 256GB iPhone 7 Plus for about $400 less and with much better editing interfaces and file quality. The P10 shoots and processes faster than the iPhone. It also gives you a larger 3,200 mAH battery (versus the 7’s 1,960 mAH nonremovable pack) and is a few grams heavier as a result. In the real world, I’m seeing 75 hours of operation out of it.
The P10 is available to American buyers for around $800 on Amazon, but isn't officially sold here by Huawei. International travelers can probably pick one up for close to the $540 I paid on their next foreign connection.
One feature alone makes the P10 vastly superior to the iPhone: you can insert a 256GB micro-SD storage chip in the second SIM slot, effectively making its storage capacity unlimited. And removable.
Also unlike the iPhone, the P10 has a headphone jack, which allows you to use audio monitoring and recording equipment. And it can handle Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) files, which are vastly higher-quality than MP3s and more compressed than WAV. You can plug a pro-quality Rode lavalier mic straight into the P10’s headphone jack.
But forget the geek stuff. The P10 just works perfectly as a take-anywhere camera. It goes directly into photo mode with one swipe or click on the side button. It can perform a mild telephoto zoom in 12MP mode, has simple manual controls for camera settings, and works extremely well in low light.
If you want to be a solo journalist (a concept I pioneered at ABC News), a cellphone-based camera with cellular data can turn you into a one-man content machine. This phone can handle two social media accounts at once and enables you to upload via NFC, Bluetooth, and WiFi connections. Even better, you can easily pop that 256GB micro-SD card out of the phone and put your huge files directly onto a computer, which is even faster. 256GB is about 12 hours of 4K video.
If you’re shooting video, you can use the phone straight out of the box. But I’d suggest downloading some pro video-control software like Filmic Pro, which will double your quality to 50 Mbps. The P10 can also shoot slow motion at 240 fps. Now you are suddenly a no-shit, Sundance Film Festival–quality auteur. Pair the P10 with a $300 stabilization platform like the DJI Osmo, and you just became an unpaid, nonunion Steadicam operator.
No, the image and video quality of the P10 are not going to surpass that of the Leica lenses on my Sony A7 shooting full-frame at 4K. But it’s good enough. In the rules of journalism and Hollywood, if it’s not on tape, it didn’t happen. And you’ll be able to get the P10 out of your pocket and start shooting much faster than you would be if you’re fumbling with lenses on the Sony. And when some pissed-off rebel commander stomps your new P10 into the dust, you can just wait a bit, slide out your spare, and shoot a little more carefully next time.