#447. A 35mm f1.4 iPhone sounds like a plan

By Paul Perton | Opinion

Jan 19

Fuji’s long awaited X-Pro2 finally emerged just a few days ago, while Sony are imminently expected to make a slew of new announcements, including a new mirrorless camera(s).


So, what’s not to like?


Not much really. I’ve certainly got my eye on an X-Pro2 and I’m sure there are tens of thousands of other photographers doubtless equally eagerly awaiting this week’s news – whatever it turns out to be.


I can only speak for me, but my Fuji experience has been so good that suddenly I own an X100T, an X-Pro1 and three (16mm, 35mm and 90mm) lenses. The arrival of an X-Pro2 will probably see me use my large store of Nikon equipment even less than I do now.


That’s quite a lot of investment and I wouldn’t be writing this post if DS-regular Leonard Norwitz hadn’t sent Pascal and I “a not half bad iPhone pan”.


He’s right. It isn’t bad. With it’s 12mp sensor and hi tech lens, it can deliver fantastic results. Even 4k video. With a user base generally more interested in the here and now, the phone camera pushes boundaries in almost every direction, compromising only in resolution to deliver sparkling screen-based images. Even printing is OK, providing you don’t plan on anything much bigger than postcard.


It’s brilliant. Just what today’s on-screen, must have it now society yearns and even changes brands for.


As a photographer, I’ve watched John Paul Caponigro shoot with his phone and several other luminaries use theirs for scouting locations and as a visual notebook. Following their example, I’ve done likewise. And yes, JPC did use those images commercially, but most are content to have memories and ideas in their pocket, instead of reliance on an increasingly unreliable, age-dulled memory.


It’s an idea I use quite a lot, especially when an important scene, or multiple facts are to be remembered. That was until Leonard’s mail arrived this morning.


The fact is that it won’t be long before the carry around cameras we use so much today will be supplanted by a phone cam, designed to add the image quality we’ve come to demand of our Fujis, Leicas and Sonys, all in much the same package we already have in our pockets,


Well, almost.


I could live with a fixed focal length lens – somewhere between (equivalent field of view) 28mm and 35mm – and without digital zoom technology. And, as it’s probably fair to anticipate the current 12mp sensor to approach 16mp soon – that’s plenty, as many M43 and other small cameras like the Fuji have amply demonstrated.


The software is probably pretty much already in place. Between Apple’s Photos and a raft of similar products, including a hobbled version of Lightroom, most of the utility you regard as important in the now, is available.


What else do I want?


Mainly, I want a form factor that is less finger-problem-inducing than the flat, rounded edge puck we have today. I know it’s a great shape for a phone and reading device, but it’s the pits for photography. Holding it around the edges is awkward, the touch screen is invariably at an uncomfortable angle for tapping the controls, all of which have tiny buttons and are way too easy to miss and get video or worse, HDR instead of a single vanilla-plain shot.


When I do finally get the shot I want lined up, it often takes several seconds to work out why I’ve got a big black blob in one corner. It’s one of those damned fingers again, this time over the lens. Hopefully, my nicely lined up masterpiece hasn’t got bored and wandered off by the time my poor retirement age brain has worked out the problem.


On the iPhone, there’s also LivePhoto, which constantly takes disposable images such that when you do trip the shutter, there’s already 1.5s in the buffer before you shoot. The 1.5s that’s added after your shot completes the image and delivers some interesting semi-video memories.


But, I don’t want that and while it’s easy to switch it off, it’s just as easy to switch it back on again by mistake.


I want RAW images. I know they take up storage space, but my iPhone has 128Gb of RAM. For me, that’s usually plenty for a brace of Nikons and a week in the Scottish Highlands, or several days at Angkor Wat. Giving us RAW will be a wrangle though, as most of the phone’s camera magic seems to get baked-in by the software. The JPG that results is optimised in almost every way, except the ways us photogs might want.


So, will this all happen? I doubt it. The annual carry everywhere camera market is probably not worth much more than a few hours of iPhone sales. Unless you can add the kind of real functionality we want without much additional capital expenditure in design and manufacture, the chances are slim.


So, how about going the other route; a carry around camera with a phone in it? There have been a couple of attempts at incorporating the Android OS into a camera already and the very fact that I’m having to scratch my head for the name of the manufacturer who thought that one up speaks volumes for it’s success – or lack thereof.


I’ll confess to middle age and being the butt of some harsh jibes about my odd ways, but somehow, I just can’t imagine talking with a next gen Sony against my ear.


No. The coming phones will deliver more and better image quality and perhaps, more edit-ability for the photo wonks like us that demand post production in our work. For the countless other billions of phone photographers, they’re already quite happy with the IQ they get and will likely only become more delirious with what’s coming down the ‘pike.

  • artuk says:

    It’s come and gone already. Nokias Lumia 1020 had a 42mp sensor that could down sample to excellent lower resolution high iso shots, Microsoft’s camera app allows full manual control. The phone came with an optional case with a proper grip, second battery, and shutter release on the top like a proper camera. It shot raw.

    • paulperton says:

      I remembered that while I was writing this piece. Great idea, long before its time. So long that it was a new product that no-one knew they even wanted.

      It was also driven my Microsoft. Remember them? That’s the company that gave you (I’ve been a Mac user since 1995) Windows and as if those years of frustration and cost weren’t enough, then went and bought Nokia. ’nuff said?

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Paul, the devil’s going to arrive at work on ice skates before I consider a telephone as a substitute for a camera. Spent yesterday taking macro shots – stackshots, actually – and I don’t care a toss WHAT Apple or Samsung or the rest of them get up to, there is no possible way they can take photos like that with their ear pieces.

    Other things “cameras” give to my photos:
    1 – depth of field
    2 – bokeh
    3 – the ability to make prints large enough to frame and hang on the wall
    4 – detail, contrast, color saturation etc that make 3 possible

    I can see that people with little or no knowledge of photography may be satisfied to take a “snap” and SMS it to their friends – or print a postcard size snap. They also seem to delight in waving their horrible toys in everyone’s face, or poke their eyes out, by putting those contraptions on “selfie sticks”, which seems to keep them happily occupied being annoying to everyone else.

    But the trail ends there.

    • paulperton says:

      I hear you and share many of your opinions. I also clearly remember seeing the first iPod and wondering why I needed several thousand songs in my pocket.

      Good call. Hah!

      I got that wrong because I didn’t understand the technology. I also have no clue why I want 4k video in my phone, but I’m keeping an open mind about the it. There are billions of users out there, a significant portion of which takes snaps exactly as you say.

      It won’t take many of them to pressure the handset makers to deliver a bit more quality (or print-ability) and the innovation cycle is off and running. It’s frantically competitive out there, especially for Android users – they’ve only got price as a product differentiator and new camera functionality will temporarily give them an edge, at least until the rest of the industry catches up.

      I reckon that in five years you might not have the same reservations.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        “Never say never”?

        I defy them to load a flash unit into those contraptions, that fires a distance over 25 metres up a dark street – and there’s no possibility of depth of field or bokeh – DOF, because by the very nature of the beast their lenses have a focal length about as long as a match head, and bokeh because they don’t have diaphragms. As for stackshots – have fun taking 300 shots of a bee’s face, with a phone hung off the end of one of those selfie sticks!

        I wonder how they’re going to hang a 600 mm lens on them, to do sport or wildlife photography? Or a tilt-shift, for architectural work?

        OK – people talked like this about the future of horses, when automobiles started to appear on the roads. But they also told us in the 1950s that we’d have nuclear powered vacuum cleaners in the house within 10 years . . . .

        • Steve says:

          Flash I don’t know about. But DOF and bokeh I think they can solve with multiple lenses and software. Like this bad boy – https://light.co.

          In the end though a phone just don’t feel right! As Paul points out, ergonomically its all wrong. For me photography is a tactile, feeling experience. In spite of my ever increasing use of the LCD on my E-M1 I’m not going to give up jamming the camera up against my eye and squinting through the viewfinder, my arm and elbow tight against my body and knees flexed for stability. Holding a phone out at arm’s length I just feel like an unbalanced dickhead! (I can already hear the comments!)

  • Bob Pierce says:

    The App “ProCamera” for the iPhone uses tiff as a raw format. No compression, but I don’t know if it is much better than a jpeg.

  • Yeahhh says:

    The problem with smartphone cameras is sensor and lens size. I doubt we’ll ever see a 35mm F1.4 equivalent because that would be huge and no longer a phone. Android and iOS can save photos in RAW format but it doesn’t get any better with that. Still very mushy and flat.

    It’s reasonable to expect faster lenses, higher res sensors, improved DR and NR … but overall not that quantum leap. And I’m not afraid of it. I like devices for dedicated purposes and see my phone as a support device.

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