Thoughts On Using My iPhone 11 Pro as My Primary Camera on a Recent Trip to Ireland

For as long as I’ve been traveling, I’ve always brought a ‘proper’ camera with me. First an SLR and for the last ten years, a Sony Nex-7 mirrorless camera. I’ve been happy with the quality of my pictures for this time. However, the camera is showing it’s age, and I cannot justify buying a new one (for now – a replacement will be about $2,000). Late last year, I succumbed to temptation and bought an iPhone 11 Pro.

Now, I was making the jokes the same as everyone else when it was announced with its three cameras that looked like a stovetop. But when I played with it in my local Apple Store, I was smitten. I quite liked having all the options the iPhone 11 cameras presented. I bought one shortly after that. I’m not going to review the phone in general other than to say, coming from the iPhone 6s, the 11 Pro is a revelation. I love it.

In December I went to Ireland for a business trip (as in my employer was brought me over for a head office visit). Normally, I would take my camera along with me. But this time, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t take my proper camera. First, it was a business trip; my primary purpose there was to work. So, while I would have a couple of days to explore and photograph things, it wasn’t my primary purpose there. I also wanted to travel light – I try to travel with a carry-on only. The camera would have taken up quite a bit of space in my suitcase or made my backpack heavier. When I used to go on trips for Anglotopia, the pictures and video I captured were a business asset, so it made sense to make room for the camera. This was a non-Anglotopia trip, so any pictures I took would be for fun. I simply didn’t need my big camera.

So, I left it at home.

Here’s a summary of my thoughts after using the phone heavily on my days off when I could take pictures.

Portrait Mode is Amazing

By far, the biggest strength of the iPhone 11 is portrait mode. It uses software and camera trickery to take amazing portrait photos with a perfectly blurred background. Great for both selfies and portraits of other people. However, it’s really annoying that Photos in MacOS doesn’t import the ‘portrait’ version, it just imports a flat version. This is infuriating.

The Three Lenses Give Options, too many options.

The three lenses are versatile, but you find yourself taking three versions of every picture, and why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t take much more time, and one of them is bound to look great. It would be nice if there was a setting to just take three versions from each lens all at once.

Holding Vertically becomes the standard

Hook Head Lighthouse

On a regular camera, the standard is horizontal aspect ratios when you take photos, and that’s how I generally do it. I hardly flip the camera. When you’re holding the iPhone 11 for pictures, it’s just natural to hold it vertically. It’s easier to keep a hold of, and the pictures are easy to compose that way. It takes more ‘work’ to flip the phone and compose a horizontal picture. This led to a weird unintended consequence in my photo library, where there were so many pictures in an unfamiliar aspect ratio.

Live Photos can be annoying still

When Live Photos came out, I thought they were a gimmick, and they still are. Are they a video or a picture? You can’t decide. And it’s weird, on your phone, they are live. In Photos on your computer, they are not live. It’s a weird user experience with no continuity. I’d rather they just keep videos and photos separate.

Night mode is incredible

Duckett’s Grove Ruin

In the original Apple demo, they were not lying about night mode. It is pretty incredible. I took some great pictures in low light conditions. BUT. It achieves this by simply amping up the ISO settings and using software to soften the noise. This is not perfect. Low light pictures still end up a bit muddy and grainy. While the pictures look all right on your phone, they will not look great if you print them. They are simply good enough.

It’s fast

Taking the phone out of your pocket and pressing the camera icon on the home screen is fast. I would argue a bit faster than picking up your camera, turning it on and composing then shooting. You also have quick versatility my taking three different shots in quick succession.

Good case is critical; you will be dropping it

When you’re traveling and moving quickly, you will drop this thing. Especially when you pull it out of your pocket too quickly without a good grip. You must have a good case – I use an Otterbox. I dropped my phone quite a few times, and it didn’t even get a scratch. There were also a few hairy situations in the wind. (especially at Hook Head Lighthouse) where a good case ensured I had a good grip on my phone and didn’t lose it in the sea.

Video is great too.

Videos are fine, just as all iPhone videos are fine. But I was so enamored with the still photos; I didn’t take much video.

IMG_2477

The Battery is Incredible

I used my phone heavily while I traveled and with previous iPhones, I would struggle to keep it charged all day. I never had that issue with the 11 Pro. It never dipped below 50% even on days where I used it the most.

They Look Great on the Phone but…

And this is my biggest criticism. The iOS software is definitely designed to make the pictures look their best on the iPhone and to a certain extent, iPads. The resolution of the display makes them look great at all angles and is very forgiving to the flaws of the photographs. But when you load these images up on a proper computer and begin editing them… I found a lot of the pictures I thought were ‘good’ we’re just pretty meh. Low light images were muddy and grainy. Even pictures with plenty of light were a bit muddy and grainy. When you enlarge the images to the size of an iMac 5k Retina screen, most of them look like crap. The image resolution just isn’t there. I work a lot with print, and it’s infuriating that the iPhone still outputs pictures at 72 DPI when in print you need 300 DPI. The iPhone uses software trickery to give you the appearance of a good picture while a good camera uses optics to actually give you a good picture. The iPhone 11 very much relies on software here, the optics are just OK, and that’s the design compromise they make to fit three cameras into 1 square inch.

So, the iPhone 11 Pro is great for taking pictures as a bit of fun and for everyday picture taking. But would I completely replace my ‘proper’ camera and shoot exclusively on the iPhone? Hell no.

Here are some of my favorite pictures I took!

Inistioge Postbox
Duckett’s Grove Ruin – Great Example of Low Light
On the drive to Inistioge
Inistioge
Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle
Trinity Library Dublin
Trinity College Dublin
Temple Bar, Dublin
The Roman Door Outside of Carlow
Hook Head Lightouse
Tea at Hook Head
My favorite picture from the whole trip – through one of the windows at Hook Head lighthouse
Kilkenny
Trim Castle

Quitting Mailchimp and Moving My Small Business Email Marketing to Sendy For a Fraction of the Cost

Email is the most important marketing medium for businesses, especially in the age of declining free social media reach. Email is the only way to communicate with your customers directly, and they get to choose whether to interact with you or not.

For almost a decade, I’ve used Mailchimp for my email marketing at Anglotopia. I’ve generally been pretty happy. I accepted their regular prices rises in stride because my business was successful, and it could afford it. But what happens when the business is struggling and can no longer afford it? The almost $300 a month I was paying to Mailchimp began to really, really bite as Anglotopia has struggled over the last 18 months.

I also began to become disillusioned with the service. I always respected Mailchimp in that they were a bootstrapped startup that eschewed Venture Capital money and followed their own course, too much success. But Mailchimp had a shift in strategy recently – they want to become the center of all marketing for a business. They added feature after feature, features I didn’t really need or want to use. I didn’t need another way to pay for Facebook and Instagram ads. Then they started doing questionable things like funding original short-form content. I would be presented with the weirdest things when I hit the login interstitial screen.

All I could think was that my $300 a month was funding crap like this. Meanwhile, the email side of their business wasn’t really improving or innovating much. They didn’t really add new features to the drag and drop email builder. Email list management, by far their most important task, is, at this point, a nuts & bolts type of service that anyone can emulate.

Looking for a way to cut costs, I began to research the possibility of leaving Mailchimp. As someone whose business grew and was successful because of it, this was a hard decision to make. But I’d had enough. I needed a better way.

There are plenty of Mailchimp competitors, and I tried quite a few of them. But I kept coming back to one major problem – most of Mailchimp’s competitor’s pretty much match Mailchimp’s prices simply because they can. There isn’t really a much cheaper alternative. I felt trapped. I needed email marketing, but it’s just too expensive.

That’s when I started thinking about the fundamentals of email. What is the most important thing? List management is easy. Sign-up APIs are easy. Drop and drop email builders are pretty common, and there are many free ones. I came to the conclusion that the most important things to me was deliverability — the simple idea of being able to reach as many of my subscribers as possible. So, open rate and clicks were my most important metrics.

If I could safeguard those, then I didn’t really care which service I used.

I heard about Sendy earlier this year and dismissed it. It sounded too good to be true. Parroted by many of the marketing blogs – that have an affiliate interest in selling it – I didn’t think it would work for me. Sendy is a script that you can install on your own server to manage your email list and sending. It uses Amazon SES, which is a simple email sending service provided by Amazon Web Services (like Mandrill or Sendgrid). I’d never heard of it, frankly.

I did a bit of research and was put off by blog posts that said Sendy required a complicated sever install that you would probably have to hire someone to do. So, another cost. Then you’d have to go through the sign-up process with Amazon and be approved to send (which can be tricky).

Sendy would control your email sending; Amazon SES would send the actual emails.

The cost of this? Sendy costs $59.99 to license for a single user/website. Amazon charges $.10 per 1000 emails sent. It simply sounds too good to be true.

Surely, deliverability would be an issue. Would Amazon have deliverability that’s just as good as Mailchimp, a trusted email sender? Looking back, it’s a stupid question to ask oneself – of course; Amazon has good email deliverability. It’s bloody Amazon.

Anyway, there was enough iffiness to put me off of giving it a try mostly because I was too cheap to spend the money on the software and hire a developer while still pay Mailchimp’s inflated prices. I went back to researching alternatives. I did not find one. And I continued to stick with Mailchimp and watched the price rise again recently.

I’d had enough.

There was also a big unanswered question of how I would build my emails every week. The Mailchimp builder was good enough. Sendy doesn’t have an email builder, you just paste the raw HTML code, and that’s it. Of all the alternative services I tried, I actually really liked the email builder that Mailerlite uses – its RSS integration is much nicer and flexible than Mailchimp’s. I really struggled to find an email builder I could use with Sendy; the only one people talked about in searches was defunct.

A few months went by, and I finally decided to research Sendy some more. I looked at their documentation on the website and read through the installation process and realized it wasn’t actually that hard. It was something I could easily do within my skill level (it’s very similar to installing WordPress). I even had a server I could throw it on. More searches on building emails taught me that I could actually keep using the Mailchimp builder for free, and just cut and paste the email code into Sendy. It was a Eureka moment.

So, I pulled the trigger and bought the software, figuring a $60 investment would save me more in the long run. I downloaded the software right away and had it up and running on my server in less than an hour. I signed up for Amazon SES and waited for approval, requesting 75,000 email sends a day (I have about 60,000 subscribers across all my lists and figured this would do).

I did a few tests to familiarize myself with Sendy, and it worked flawlessly. I waited a day and was approved for sending by Amazon at a rate of 50,000 emails a day at 14/emails a second. I figured this would be plenty. I followed the directions to link Sendy with Amazon SES, and everything was set up in an afternoon.

I decided to test initially with one of my smaller lists to get the hang of things. The list had 9,000 subscribers. I exported from Mailchimp, which was easy. Importing into Sendy was a little troublesome. No matter how I formatted the CSV file, the importer would not take it. In the end, I just cut and pasted the list in batches of a couple of thousand address at a time into the importer box.

I had no issues getting my newsletter template/code from Mailchimp (all you have to do is go to ‘view source’ in your browser when the test preview is open). My old newsletter looked fine. But it was, in the end, my ‘old’ newsletter. I remember Mailerlite and really liked the idea of overhauling my newsletters. So, I built a new template there and used that for my first newsletter send. It looked a lot better. I had to make a few minor changes to the code to update the ‘View in Browser’ and ‘Unsubscribe’ links, so they didn’t go to Mailerlite but to my Sendy site.

The real test would be deliverability, open rate, and clicks. After doing many, many tests to make sure things were just right. I hit send on my first deployment of the Londontopia newsletter to 9,000 subscribers, sending from my own server.

You can see what it looks like here.

Sending was slow. It took 5 hours to deploy to 9,000 subscribers. This was intolerable and was practically a deal-breaker. I need the emails to go out fast. Deliverability must be fast. Mailchimp is fast; it has that going for it. Turns out, after poking around the settings, that I’d set it up wrong. Amazon was allowing me to send at 14 emails a second, Sendy was set to send at 1 email a second. Spoiler, when I deployed the next Londontopia newsletter, it sent in less than 30 minutes (but I ran into other issues, which I’ll share later on).

Deployment was successful, and I watched my analytics and watched the stats provided by Sendy. Open rate was off to a strong start. I would need a couple of days to judge the stats. So, I continued to check things several times a day over several days. Eventually, my open rate matched and even exceeded what it was with Mailchimp. Sendy provides basic stats: open rate, location opened, and what was clicked. I liked this, Mailchimp basically tracks a user across the web, Sendy just tracks the basics. Much less creepy. There’s the usual data on bounce rate, unsubscribes, etc. That was at the same rates as they were in Mailchimp, so nothing of concern there. I run clean lists.

Here’s an example of the stats page:

I really liked that the email is hosted on my own server. You really have complete control of everything. I decided to register my brand’s .email domain and use that for email sending. I worried this might also affect deliverability, but it didn’t appear to. Click rate was a little lower than I would have liked, but I chalked that to the new design. Engagement was still strong. It cost a total of $.80 in Amazon SES to deploy all the emails. $.80. That’s it.

So, after this one test, I was pretty reassured that this was the direction to go in. For the first time in a long time, I was very excited about a business move. I would be saving almost $4000 a year – enough to pay for a trip to Britain for two. So, with the next monthly bill from Mailchimp due in a few days, I moved quickly to move my data from one service to the other. Mailchimp, to their credit, makes this very easy. It’s just an export of a few CSV files. It didn’t take long at all to get them into Sendy.

I created a new email template for my main newsletter in Mailerlite and also created some new eCommerce email templates for my online store list. Everything went smoothly, and I was really proud of the new designs and how slick everything looks. I would be giving up a lot of commerce tracking, but honestly, that data in Mailchimp isn’t that useful when Google Analytics provided better and more accurate data on this anyway.

Here’s a sample of the main Anglotopia Newsletter.

My second week with Sendy was about getting used to it, learning its quirks and deploying all my emails for the whole week with it. It was a little time consuming, but open rates stayed the same. Still, though, click rates were a little lower. But the response from my readers was good. And people still continued to buy things.

There was one major issue – by increasing the send rate to 14 emails a second, this overloaded my cheap shared hosting (I don’t use this hosting account for my main websites). The server kept hitting its resource limits and going offline. This was slightly annoying, so I upgraded the server to the next tier, but again I still had the same problem. I reduced the send rate and it only overloaded on large email sends. This is a short term solution. I will need a more permanent server solution that won’t go down when sending. Thankfully, Sendy keeps sending until the whole list is deployed, so if the server exceeds its resources, it just resumes when it comes back online. I will likely need to get a VPS or cloud hosting, which can be done affordably and I need new hosting anyway (my next problem to tackle is finding a new, cheaper hosting for all my websites, I have someone in mind).

After looking at the data and becoming used to Sendy as a platform, I made the final decision to ditch Mailchimp. There was one hiccup – I’d forgotten that I was using Mandrill, which got acquired by Mailchimp, for all my transactional emails and WordPress emails. This had an easy solution – I could actually use Amazon SES for all of this, I just had to install a new plugin to send all those emails with SMTP. Problem sorted. This took about an hour to sort out.

I also needed to update all my subscription forms and website popup sign-ups. The major ones have been done, but I’m still in the process of doing this across all my sites. Sendy has an API that most of the major services talk to. It’s just a matter of going through and updating everything. But as of two weeks ago, all my new email subscribers are going directly into Sendy. I also need to work on the email messages that go to new subscribers and brand everything. In addition, I want to create some automations (which Sendy supports).

I could make a clean break from Mailchimp.

So, I went into my account settings and ‘paused’ my account. I would not be billed for this month. I could continue to monitor everything, and if I don’t like what I see, I can simply reactivate my account. That’s fine for now. If everything is fine by the end of the year, I’ll go in and clear out all my data and say goodbye to Mailchimp for good.

This solution is not ideal for everyone; you do need a bit of techy knowledge to get this setup. But once you do, you have complete control of your emails for a much lower price. I’ve gone from spending almost $300 a month on email marketing to less than $25. It felt pretty good this week to not get charged by Mailchimp. It’s one less thing I had to stress about and figure out how to cover. I’m very happy with Sendy so far. I hope anyone considering ditching Mailchimp finds this useful. It was very hard to find something like this when I was doing research, so I hope an unbiased look (I’m not trying to sell anything here), is useful to anyone else looking to make this change.

Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments below.