#434. The Day the Smartphone Overtook the Camera

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Dec 11
The Pharo, in Marseilles, in stormy weather. Photographed with a SamsungGalaxy S6.

A Storm is Brewing


After years of testing camera bodies and high-end lenses, I’ve finally settled for gear that I think will last me a very long time.

My Smartphone.


Hazy weather photograph with a Samsung Galaxy S6



Let’s face it, the Sony A7rII is a brilliant camera, but you actually need the time to walk around with it to take actual photographs. Time which, sadly, I do not have. Whereas I always have a Smartphone with me. Wherever I go.



Mucem panorama


And the odds of making a great photograph are incredibly higher when you have a camera with you. Even if this camera is only substandard compared to the higher-end body in the cupboard.

And substandard it has to be, right? I mean tiny sensor, only 8 Mpix, fixed lens …


Night in Provence, photographed with a Samsung Galaxy S6

Provence Dawn

Or, does it ?

Assemble photographs and you get huge panoramas as in the case of the Mucem museum in Marseilles, above.

Sensor technology has made enough progress to ensure that even low-light conditions produce great results, see above.

Auto-HDR ensures the dynamic range matches that of the heavier competitor, see below.

All this done in camera, while I give phone calls. No post-processing. No hassle. Just perfect results, time after time.

Smartphone technology has progressed so rapidly that we need to consider it the dominant player now. It really has become that good.


Sunset in Provence, photographed by a Samsung Galaxy S6.

Provence Dawn


How good ?

Better than reality, that’s how good!

So the heavy gear has to go. From now on, I will travel light, I will travel cheap, I will travel easy. Goodbye Sony, Goodbye Zeiss, Hello Samsung.


A Provence moutain and red tree in real life and photographed by a Smartphone

Better than life?


Oh but wait! I hear angry rumbling. Maybe this isn’t over!? Is that you, Philippe?


Philippe: The camera strikes back!

Tommyrot, I say. Poppycock! Gobbledigook! There are 4 dimensions to my indignation (somehow, without a 4th dimension, the obliteration wouldn’t feel quite complete).

One, of course, and the one to start with, is deeply personal. Impugning Pascal’s motives. The man finds his Otus 85 too heavy, methinks, and manual focus too irksome. Yes, he likes to flaunt his wide open shots taken with it, but he regrets having to schlepp it along, the grumbles of his wife and children when he breaks open his photo bag during family walks, and resents my taking 3 lenses with me at all times, when he only takes 2, in the best of cases. Taking the easy way out, are we, Pascal? And what about the old adage: “no pain, no gain!”?


Thomping Willow - Sony A7r & Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2

Thomping Willow – Sony A7r & Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2


So, clearly, his Samsung phone is his not-so-smart answer to all of this. Easy, light, always at hand. Pshaw! And to think the man would have you join him on photoseminars! [writer has to leave this theme as increasing levels of physical distress may lead to unsightly gestures with his middle finger and/or to barfing in public]

The second dimension is technical. Has the man no eyes, and can’t he see? Right on his first “storm brewing” picture, the highlights are clipped, and there is no information left. And colours: on his shot before last (“Provence dawn”), the clouds are a nice pink. The problem is, his whole picture looks pink. As though the Samsung has a pink-coloured filter to make the world look like a nicer, sweeter, warmer, friendlier place.

If that is what he desires deep down, ’tis not a camera that he needs, it is Prozac!

I am sure his wife would like that, so that he can stop agonizing over trivial detail, whether it is the quality of a picture or sonic performance from his audiophile setup. That would also stop him caring about the fact that his “haze” shot has no detail whatsoever, to the point of showing no information at all, just as the shadow of his first “Provence dawn” reveals none. Equalizing, standardizing, normalizing, no room left for any deviation, for anything extreme, rare, or spectacular.



Sheep near Llanberis


The third dimension relates to the connection between these oversimplified, rose-coloured pictures and the direction the world is moving towards.

This sorry excuse for a picture is taken instantly, painlessly, transmitted instantaneously so that people may glance at it, one-click “like” it, and move on. Because that is pretty much all it is worth. No intent, no character, no personality. Just a “like”, 1/10th second’s worth of attention. Even the fact that these minute-sensored phones cannot show any bokeh is, in that perverted sense, appropriate. Everything is in focus, just as in our world nothing can be private anymore, let alone hidden or secret. There is always a phone in someone’s hand to expose every nook and cranny of your life for the world to see, and judge, and “like”. Which leads us to idolize those crafty enough to make a business out of it by flaunting it shamelessly, like the K family… And don’t get me started on the infamous “selfie”, the worst of the worst…


Aim for the sky - Sony A7rII & OTUS 85

Aim for the sky – Sony A7rII & OTUS 85


The fourth dimension: of course there are very good photographers who choose to use smartphones, some professionals even, and the results can be yummy. Yummy, not crummy, as above… But, let’s face it (not fake it, as above…), the vast majority of cellphone pics are crap. No care is taken when the shot is taken, the “spray and pray” method produces extraordinarily ordinary pictures. And such is the tsunami of such visual refuse that our eyes get used to this lowest possible level of photography that our visual taste buds lose both their acuity and their accutance. Could we appreciate the true excellence and infinite subtlety of a great meal if, day after day, we were force fed fast-food?


Lost in Iceland


Gawd, I am so pissed I am going to prepare a full post exposing the travesty that is the cell-phone-as-a-would-be-serious-camera, with real A/B comparisons! That’ll teach him a lesson, if he still cares to show his bleak face on his own Website! [writer stomps off to get properly sloshed]


Pascal squeals a conclusion

Ouch, now that’s what I call a good spanking πŸ˜‰ And a well deserved one because (1) well, that’s what you get for being provocative and (2) I lied. Not that I post-processed anything super wrongly (reference to this) but, in the photoΒ of my cell-phone, it was actually display a picture made with the Sony A7rII and the OTUS 85 πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

Still, for me, there are two take aways from this brief attempt at dethroning cameras.


It's all in the PP

It’s all in the PP (Sony A7r II, 2 horizontal-frame stitch, Zeiss C-Sonnar 50/1.5 ZM @ f/8, focus stakcing)


First of all, smartphones have come a very long way. Image quality, while not perfect as Philippe pointed out, is outstanding for such tiny and convenient devices. Today, I would either buy a high-end camera or a Smartphone. Never a compact camera.

Secondly, smartphones have an even longer way to go before they catch up with the best cameras out there. I’m not even talking Leica S7 or the ridiculously desirable Phase One IQ3. No, even the far more affordable Sony A7 series offer so much more in terms of controls and pure file handling capabilities that there is simply no possible comparison. I maybe wouldn’t be as severe as Philippe towards the (best) Smartphones but photographers often find solace in the creation of images from any subject (peppers, bedroom window views, cats …), simply working on the post processing. And for that, the Smartphone files are simply miles away. The best of the breed have become superficially brilliant, but there is no (bit) depth to them.

Smartphones still are for travelers, cameras still are for travel photographers. Phew, our investment is safe πŸ˜‰ And, spoiler alert, the next part of our online training will be entirely devoted to … Photography beyond the Smartphone.


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  • Ron Scheffler says:

    I don’t quite buy not being able to carry a camera around… Maybe it won’t be an a7RII and Otus, but I’m sure there’s got to be an APS-C compromise, or m43, where the body is small enough with a decent prime. Heck, being a Leica fanboy, my first thought was an M262 with a compact 28, 35 or 50… Or even ‘just’ a used M9. RX100?

    But a smartphone certainly is always with you and the photo quality is getting better. You can even have Zeiss optics in some of those Nokia, err, I mean Microsoft phones. I guess it would mean a Windows phone OS… not sure if that’s good or bad. But, Lumina 950 @ 20MP with Zeiss optics.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ron, this was really an exaggeration, a provocation, on my side. I wrote the first part of the article and sent it to Philippe. He is a far braver man than I and always (and I mean, ALWAYS) has his camera and best lenses with him. Whereas I often forget my gear home, or leave with a empty battery or (ouch) just the phone. I just thought it would be fun to post Philippe’s spontaneous reaction and try to conclude intelligently.

      The way I see it, smartphones have made tremendous progress, particularly in the software area. My S6 has a focus mode that artificially creates superb bokeh, the HDR works really well and I often find myself having to work hard to process a photo better from a Sony file. But they still fall (very) short in two areas: file quality and creative freedom. My S6 has a meanu that gives me access to aperture, speed, exposure comp, white balance … but it still is very limited compared to what comes naturally to me with a trad camera.

      Some (younger) photographers are creating great photographs using phone cameras. It will be interesting to see them rise in quality and popularity.

  • pete guaron says:

    I have three comments on this topic.

    1 – Would owners of smartphones kindly stop waving them in my face while I’m trying to take a REAL photograph?

    2 – I agree with Pascal on one point – the WORST outcome is to be caught without a camera of any description, and miss the shot of a lifetime – however I have learned my lesson and never go anywhere, now, without a compact camera that slips into my pocket (and takes surprisingly good photos, to be truthful – forgetting a few minor details like pixels, how big an enlargement is possible, and so on)

    3 – One thing that smartphones will NEVER be able to overcome is their absurdly short focal length – which makes all those interesting things like soft backgrounds (or foregrounds), bokeh and so on utterly impossible. Well not just one – how do they arrange “bounce flash”? – wide angle or tele or zoom? – video?

    I will admit they’re better than making a daguerreotype, though.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, yeah, better indeed that the daguerreotype πŸ˜‰

      I think you make the right point when you mention bounce flash and other creative bolt-ons. We regularly see add-on for smartphones that are meant to make them “more like real cameras”. But those add weight and size so that, in the end, they’re not more practical than a conventional camera. I really think it boils down to whether you’re a photographer (someone who enjoys crafting photographs) or a visitor (someone who enjoys the sites and grabs a few memories on the fly).

      These days, smartphones have become great grabbing tools, but are still a long way away from the crafting qualities of “real” cameras.

  • Yeahhh says:

    When have you guys become to snooty about gear? And to me, you both totally missed the point with iPhoneography (or Mobile Photography as I just read today), but Philippe named it with dimension 1. No one argues about image quality when it comes to smartphones. And if the vast majority of smarthone shots is infinite careless fastfood, what do you think, a large format film shooter thinks about you digital 35mm junkies?

    It’s all a matter of perspective. We, as committed photographers, should rather embrace our enthusiasm for good photography then rant about gear. (don’t mistake a good talk and discussion about gear!)

    So, we all know this case: Gear is to heavy, trouser pockets are not large enough for MILC, wife is pissed about us dragging behind, kids want action-daddy, eye-vision was better … Why not just take the smartphone with you? Why is it too easy? (actually a very good point!) What could be a solution? Why do I need to resist?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Yeahhh, sorry about that It was actually all very tongue-in-cheek. As I explain in another reply, Philippe and I have been talking about how good smartphones have become and I sent him the set of photographs you see on this page a few days ago, then wrote the fist part of the article for him to write a (pretendedly) angry reply. All in good spirit. DS is the last place you’ll see gear snobs. Although we all own a variety of lenses, cheap or expensive, price and exoticism have never been part of the buying equation. And there’s nothing I dislike more than ‘gurus’ giving lessons to the rest of the world. I’m lazy and some days will take my phone instead of my camera, which drives Philippe nuts. The dialogue here is just meant to highltight the two different attitudes found in the photo world today. Our conclusions are serious, though. Smartphones have made tremendous progress, but high end gear also has and in even greater leaps and bounds.

    • philberphoto says:

      Hi Yeahhh. Guilty as charged. I am, as you say, snotty. But, hopefully, about IQ more than about gear. And I pay the price for it, both litterally and in carrying a not inconsiderable weight with me at all times. That doesn’t mean that I am, in some way “right” and that all others are “wrong”. Just, it works for me. What I rant against is the loss of photographic culture that comes with the mostly mindless use of smartphones in lieu of cameras. But, for those who treasure lightness, compactness and ease of use above all else, then the smartphone is fine by me. That said, there may be a solution that suits both of us just around the corner. I was a big fan of the concept behind the ground-breaking Sony Qx, but it bombed. Now it is born again as the DxO One. I haven’t played with one yet, but, if it delivers on its promise, it could well be small enough for you, and good enough for me. And, if not, the next attempt, or the next, will eventually break that barrier…

    • Yeahhh says:

      I totally got you both. There’re two things about phoneography:

      1. Using your smartphone to take decent photos is very convenient. As such attracts more and new people to the game. Of course, it doesn’t improve on general quality at all. The same happened when 35mm film has been invented, rangefinder, SLRs, point&shot, first digital cameras … There’re people who can make incredible images with smartphones and enrich the photographic community. And there’re people who waste my bandwidth and monitor pixels with their photographic waste from an Canon 5D. Gear doesn’t matter, as well as image quality doesn’t (look at the old masters or photojournalism (especially war photography)).

      2. But making good images with an smartphone is very difficult because the device is so much limiting. That’s why Philippe’s dimension 1 was so right: It’s a too simple solution. With family and kids and limited time and stuff, just grabbing your phone is easy. But in the end, you’ll feel unsatisfied. You capture the shot but more often end up with an lousy photo. Life’s a compromise. To me, a smartphone in general is too much of an compromise and other options fit better to me.

      10 years back, nearly everybody I knew had an DSLR (mostly entry-level Canon/Nikon with kit lens). Today, most of them only use their smartphones. In my environment, smartphones took users from entry-level DSLRs. However, more people got into photography – and then some stick and upgrade from smartphone to mirrorless or advanced compacts. I’m sure, some of the young film photographers may also came/come the way of smartphone > DSLR/MILC > film.

      There’s no reason to be afraid of phoneography. Just make your own evaluation right. Just because a smartphone is always with you, it doesn’t mean it’s the perfect solution for everyone looking for a compact photo-device.

  • richard warren says:

    Each to his own – but having said that, I cannot accept smart phones as a substitute for a camera. My preference for something that I can simply slip into my pocket is a compact – something that still enables me to have some control over focal length (important for controlling the blur in my photos, and bokeh), shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

    And with an electronic viewfinder. Screen viewfinders have a purpose and a use too, but they are hopeless where there is strong backlighting. And backlighting is more common than any other light sources. Unfortunately, smart phones can ONLY have a screen.

    There is one other feature that is lacking in smart phones – the owners who use them to take pictures have no consideration for others, and wave a forest of smart phones in the air, often clouting innocent bystanders over the head with “selfie sticks”. It reminds me of concerts where there was a continuous flickering of lights all over the place, as the ignorant tried to capture the moment with a Kodak Instamatic and, of course, the inevitable flash light – as if the flash on a Kodak Instamatic would produce enough light to record the scene!

  • Mark says:

    For me the fourth dimension as Philippe calls it, is the most important part. The typical smart phone picture won’t disturb your family trip and to capture a moment it might be all you need.
    However a good picture usually takes some effort, planing etc. Restricting yourself gearwise on a photo trip can have its merrits, but once you take ‘proper’ pictures it’s no longer a product of convinience and it disturbs your other activities anyhow (e.g. family, hiking,… trip). If you’re willing to make this sacrifice and want to actively take pictures I don’t see any benefits in using a smart phone anymore. If a focal length around ~28mm is all you need and want something really compact I’d consider something such as a Leica Q (which is really lovely to take on a trip and you don’t get tempted to bring a long all the extra gear like a interchangable lens gamera does).

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