#506. “Are we there yet, Dad?” The smartphone photography revolution is near !

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Aug 23

So, are we there yet with Smartphone photography ?

Cave road, Western Australia. Samsung Galaxy Edge S6

Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: but the camera inside our phone is less and less the reason why.

Boranup. Smartphone photography.

Most of the photographs on this page are made with my Samsung Galaxy S6. An expensive Smartphone 18 months ago, now superseded by the S7 in the same stable and probably several others from LG, Huawei, Sony, Apple, OnePlus, and others.

Most of these phones cost around 800€ in my part of the world (and only half as much for the OnePlus 3). A couple of years ago, that seemed like a crazy high amount of money for a phone with a lousy camera strapped on and a few silly games added to sedate the commuting world.

Today, 800€ feels like a symmetrically crazy low amount of money for a very decent camera + book reader + an OK computer + super screen + payment tool + GPS + a music archive + a wealth of productivity tools and … oh, yes, a phone. Although, in civilized countries where the Internet is available in the streets, SnapChat, WeChat, Messenger and dozens of other apps make that last part redundant. Phones are only phones any more for third-world countries such as mine, where the Internet is still considered a luxury and/or a source of illegal misbehavior, not an elementΒ central to their economic development. So yes, for those countries, Smartphones also come with dials and contact phone numbers, at no added cost πŸ˜‰

And the perceived quality to price ratio will only get more favorable in years to come as :

(1) The phone market segments into more clear niches (6″ notebooks being a particularly interesting one for photographers, for instance).

(2) Prices for cameras continue to climb and accessory costs (disks, computer power …) to rocket, fueled by a pointless megapixel race.

(3) The already huge usability gap in favour of the phone continues to expand as cameras continue to be designed by gaming paddle specialists

Why cameras are still (vastly) better than Smartphones

Even in good light, image quality from a high-end camera blows that of any Smartphone I know into the distant weeds. Colours are better, noise is better, dynamic range is better.

Compare the photograph below to the second in the text, above.

DSC04697Highlights are not clipped here (full-frame sensor Sony A7rII), as they are in the Samsung image above. Textures are more natural as well, colours are richer …

When the sensor is larger, it collects more photons in a same exposure time (given equal lens aperture, of-course). This in turn means more data, better signal / noise and better image quality. Physics don’t care about market dynamics πŸ˜‰

At night, the size advantage becomes even greater. Compare this night scene in Doha (Sony A7rII)


… to this horror story in Aix-en-Provence (very similar lighting conditions, ugly composition to include the light and flare).


Not even close. Predictably.

But …

It may not last long that way and it doesn’t always matter

Let’s tackle the second part of my sentence first. Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter that image quality is inferior. Many of the world’s most icons photographs were made with lousy technology. And sometimes, the look straight out of a Smartphone is just what you want. For example, I wouldn’t want this harsh light to look any different:

Doha from the air. Smartphone PhotographyAnd in dull lighting, small sensors (with their higher contrast and greater depth of field) make scenes come alive in a way that might just need a lot of work on a “better” file.

20160814_210754 20160814_201436 20160814_195559

Digital processing can replace (some) optics

What are we missing with tiny sensors ?

  • Shallow Depth of field
  • Large photon counts
  • ???


Piggy Sew is here to tell you Smartphones are Smart enough to reconstruct shallow depth of field on the fly. The same mode on my Smartphone also lets you extend depth of field. And there are many other modes to enable weird and wonderful features. This bonanza comes with two limitations: (1) these modes are mutually incompatible. So it’s hard to do limited DoF and HDR at the same time. (2) Many are gimmicky and not likely to convert experienced photographers to the new world (not that experienced photographers are a target for mainstream Smartphone companies, mind you).

But it’s not hard to imagine the possibilities if someone gets their mind to it:

  • Adjustable DoF (using a slider)
  • Adjustable bokeh (contrast & style)
  • Long exposure simulations (smoothing water, star trails, …)
  • Long exposures (better dynamic range, lower noise …)
  • Stitching for wider angles and higher pixel count
  • Stabilisation & pixel shifting (assuming the sensor’s pixels aren’t stupidly small already)
  • Multiple apps, plugins, film packs

all from a tiny box costing 75% less than my current camera.


And the list of arguments in favour of Smartphones just keeps getting bigger.

Think usability. You’re hiking in the afternoon. You take photographs, post to your blog or Instagram, edit on the fly. You come home and your photos are already downloaded, backed-up on Google Drive and ready for use when you sit down with your carrot cake in front of your widescreen TV for a quick inspection. All you need is an Internet connection. We take that for granted, but it’s just plain wonderful (particularly compared to the back-up systems some describe in my earlier post on the topic).

Think ergonomics: A friend handed me his OnePlus 3 the other day. I was taking pictures within seconds. Contrast this with the endless misery of unfathomable menu systems, heinous custom buttons, physical placement of main dials and buttons that point to mental disorder and the battle seems ever uphill for the camera.


Think rear screen. Articulated ? Well, only if your hand is. Solid ? Well, within a week of losing its rear cover, my Sony’s rear screen is knackered beyond repair (scratched, strange watery traces in every corner). In 18 months of riveted jeans back pockets and falls on concrete my Samsung screen is just peachy, thank you very much. Readable in sunlight ? Another major victory for the Smartphone. Tactile ? Need we discuss ? Okay, I’ll stop digressing, the Smartphone is a screen with stuff around it. And a really good screen at that. Camera manufacturers ? They just don’t seem to get why that’s important. Apparently, it’s so much wiser to pepper random custom buttons all over the place.

The New Camera Design Ethos (over my dead body)

The New Camera Design Ethos (over my dead body)


Smartphone photography is still lacking significantly, though …

And that’s the thing. In many ways, Smartphones are simply better cameras than traditional cameras.

The sensor is smaller, which leads to greater depth of field (you need to be more careful with your composition) and (much) lower image quality. I’m pretty sure software will help more and more in the future.

No, what’s really missing isn’t (only) quality, but a system.


Just like traditional camera manufacturers (yes, a Sony A7rII feels painfully traditional after a Smartphone πŸ˜‰ ) are too proud / stuck-up / blind to improve their screens and ergonomics, Smartphone manufacturers probably aren’t interested enough in photographers to think of their products as anything else than complete (as opposed to part of a system).


A team is stronger than a lone ranger.


What a Smartphone needs to walk away with the market …

… is a team. A system.

Yes, start with the sensors. Much better sensors ! However much help software may provide, the better off we start the better off we will end up. Just a doubling of the diagonal would quadruple the quality. Yes, that would require a doubling of the camera thickness. Who cares. A 6″ screen won’t get into your pocket anyway. And the extra battery space would come in handy. Make that a curved sensor for simplified lens design. Make that 2 for two different focal lengths (who’s counting πŸ˜‰ ?)



Better mobile software. As more and more phones let you access their raw files (which no one wants to export or transfer) the rather limited feature set of mobile software (preset filters and basic adjustments, basically) needs to expand significantly and make full use of the touchscreen capacities.

Better use of gyroscopes. Better stabilisation, better handling of panoramas and stitching …

A minimal set of accessories. Filters …

Dedicated external lenses. Zeiss’ ExoLenses come to mind. But without proper attachment system, all these systems seem a little clumsy. And they are sold as accessories not an essential part of the system (that said, if anyone at Zeiss is reading, I’l love to review these ExoLenses πŸ˜‰ ) Instead, if phone manufacturers provided a proper thread or bolting mechanism, these optical add-ons would be a lot more useful.


But why not go a BIG step further, by optimizing the whole system?

These days, we’re relying on afocal photography to add external devices on our phones. Afocal photography is simple and beautiful. For example, place your camera behind another optical system such as a pair of binoculars and hey, presto. This is what my 12 year-old friend DanaΓ© Girardo did below in a recent safari in Tanzania. Try that without a 6Kg lens !


Bravo DanaΓ© !

A brilliant idea from someone so young and one that astrophotographers use a lot. It relies on placing a camera (often focused at infinity) behind the eyepiece of an optical system in focus. Basically, you’re photographing what comes out of the eyepiece. It allows both items (the camera and the microscope, for example) to work perfectly as standalones.

But, rather than make the phone’s lens standalone, why not make it the rear element of a wide range of front elements with secure physical mounting? Bulging fisheye, stubby tele, mahussive long-lens, miniature tilt-shift anyone ?

What I’m describing here is what I believe cameras should have evolved into: intelligent and well-sorted digital backs. They haven’t and won’t (well .. that XD-1 seems to come close, but at what cost πŸ˜‰ ) However, maybe Smartphones can, from another direction?Β  In this day and age of crowd-everything and modular phones, so much is possible.

A 6″ screen, 1/2″ thick, larger spherical sensor with permanently mounted super high quality optical rear element, proper software and a set of (equally high quality) tiny bolt-on front elements ranging from 12mm to 85mm. I’d buy that πŸ˜‰

What say you? What configuration would you chose ?


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  • Sean Tomlinson says:

    Blasphemy! Actually, what an interesting idea. I like the exolenses idea but it’s yet more to carry around. A small baggie in your pocket maybe? I photograph my toddler and there’s much against my galaxy note 4 when my subject is moving. But the smart phone is still coming canikon, ready or not.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, blasphemy πŸ˜‰ The exolenses are unnecessarily clumsy. If the notion of lens mounts became mainstream, we’d have a couple of tiny cylinders lying around in a pocket to use as interchangeable lenses. AF on my S6 isn’t the fastest but it’s as good as most A lenses I’ve used on my Sony. There’s a lot let glass to move around, it could be made a lot faster, presumably. Cheers.

  • Eolake says:

    The main thing I really want on my phone is a second lens built in, 100 mm equivalent.

  • Eolake says:

    Yes, good point, the focusing speed really needs to be improved yet. But they must be close.

  • NMc says:

    Be careful what you wish for! What you are proposing by suggesting system ecosystem is introducing complexity, one of the good things about phone cams is the simplicity.

    There is almost no way a manufacturer could introduce more models, variants with options of system accessories without a significant increase in price due to lower turnover for each model and accessory, even if total sales increase.

    A wi-fi connected separate compact camera may well be better for price, image quality and perceived amount of gear and clutter to carry around, and it will work with almost any phone, tablet or computer.

    So to answer your question, my preferred variant is simply to have two camera modules 28mm & 50mm equivalents. I am happy to go without a selfie cam to get this, however that may be worse than blasphemy for camera marketing πŸ˜‰

    Final question, why the dead roo photo? (4th photo bottom right corner) Once seen it becomes the subject.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi there, yes, we must always be careful what we wish for. And making phone photography more complex would defeat the point. But in this instance, I’m not adding anything very complex. Better software and small lenses that one can or cannot interchange (you could leave the same one on all your life) don’t profoundly change the complexity while adding a lot to the experience of the advanced user. The selfie cam has its uses for work purposes, I guess. I use it regularly for distant meetings using WeChat, for instance. 28 & 50 make perfect sense. None of this is likely to happen, so we might as well dream on πŸ˜‰ Cheers, Pascal

  • John says:

    I thought the next big thing in phone cameras was multiple sensors/lenses that take pictures simultaneously, then merge them with complex software to reproduce what one lens/sensor currently requires big lens elements to accomplish, like actual shallow depth of field.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    This is heresey! I feel besieged by Cathars! Where’s Simon de Montfort? LOL

    A factor which might edge this closer, Pascal, is the invention of ultra thin lenses. Of course the main application for such a creation is likely to be medicine, where it’s of interest to float mini-cameras through someone’s body, photographing internal areas that are otherwise inaccessible. That will quite likely provide the impetus, the lenses will be there for use by one & all, and lenses beyond the frontiers of our current knowledge will be used in things like cellphone cameras. Who knows? – maybe even “kit zooms” – and maybe it will be possible, some day, to control depth of field in these contraptions. Or bokeh.

    And of course other things will be invented too, from time to time.

    It reminds me of the “first computer” – a monstrosity that I couldn’t get through the front door of my house, which had less computing power than a smart phone.

    Thankfully, I shall be able to live out my remaining time on this planet, safe in the knowledge that the lead time for achieving this will not expire until after I do, and I can play with my “proper” cameras, ignoring this pestilence. I am happy to be & remain a complete luddite.

    The only time I ever used the cellphone cam was to take a shot of the price tags on some French cheese that an idiot in the supermarket had mislabeled, so that I could force the store to sell me half a kilo of brie for a twentieth of the price it was supposed to be. Legislation in this country obliges them to suffer the consequences, if their price tags are wrong, and I took fiendish delight in using the camera to prevent them doing something to hide the evidence.

    Anyone caught undervaluing French cheese deserves to be made to suffer the consequences – even if I had to resort to using a cellphone camera to do it!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ouch, the Aussie crusader threatens πŸ˜‰ If the lenses exist in some scientific domains and are financially realistic for mass production, we can count on the big boys to bring them to us eventually. If your Smartphone got you cheap brie, you owe it a chance to wow your eyes as much as your palate πŸ˜‰ Cellphone photography is happening whether we like it or not. I just hope our collective amateur photographer voices amount to enough pico-percents of the global market to influence decision making somewhat. Once can dream πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      You need to know that Philippe is a great lover of cheeses, much like me, and I am still feasting on emmental, cheddar and truffle pecorino from his last visit. Ooooh that’s so lovely πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        In the australian gergot, every racial group scores a nickname – the english are poms, the germans used to be krauts (in the wake of WW2) – you’ve probably found out we’re frogs, but I’ve opted for an alternative soubriquet and describe myself as a fromage. When in France, sooner or later my wife will find me standing in front of a fromagerie, going into raptures, and wanting to try so many different cheeses – if she’s feeling unkind, she takes satirical snapshots of me, transfixed, staring at all the cheeses.

        My favourite is a brebis – a mix of sheep and goat cheese – until my source of supply here dried up, I used to buy half a wheel of it, at a time. OneTik makes it, but the one I was buying originally is far tastier than theirs.

        OK – cellphones. I have one, because that’s the world we live in. Mine is a basic one, barely capable of anything much more than phone calls or SMS, although snapshots are possible. I am quite sure they will continue to improve – the cameras in them are a major selling point, for a whole raft of reasons. A modern substitute for the old Kodak Box Brownie, I guess. The fact I have no interest in using them for “photography” is no reason for me to suggest other people shouldn’t – they’re free to do as they please. And they can – and do – produce some good photos.

        At the moment, though, they have numerous drawbacks. Eg:
        1 – Pixellation sets in as soon as you start magnifying the images – they can barely compete with pocket compacts, and by the time you swing them against half or full frames, they can’t keep up. This is of no relevance to someone who only wants to send a copy of the photo to someone else’s cellphone – it’s a major drawback for me, because I print photos – anything up to A3
        2 – I’m too ancient to crawl around on the floor – or worse, lie on my stomach – to position myself for a shot, and without a tilt screen, cellphones won’t let me size up a lot of my shots. My full frame & half frame don’t either, but my Canon PowerShot takes it from there.
        3 – I like the control over depth of field that comes with a longer focal length lens – I have yet to see how cellphones could ever create those effects, because of their ultra short focal length lenses. Science may prove me wrong
        4 – Bokeh, ditto
        5 – Star effects, ditto
        And I’m addicted to “real” cams – I’ve been fooling around with them for well over 60 years, so it’s too late for me to make the change. If I had the financial resources to go that way, I’d get the latest Hasselblad, too. I am totally impenitent about this.

        It’s like religion – I am perfectly happy to admit that I haven’t the least idea whether or not there’s a God or, for that matter, which one – but I BELIEVE in the christian God, and Christ – because I’ve been brainwashed about it ever since the day I was first sprinkled with holy water. I played cowboys and indians on our tennis court, with the local priest – I helped the Franciscan brothers pick apricots from our trees – I sang in the church choir till I was in my 40s and my voice went (cigarettes! – damn things!) – I went to a college run by the church – what’s left?

        I DID tell my priest I could never bring myself to do “all that missionary stuff”, because I couldn’t reconcile that with loving others – it struck me as showing NO respect for other people to go about the place saying “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t stop it, you’ll fry in hell”. I can’t do it to cellphone fanatics either – although I must admit, it IS tempting – LOL.

        But it’s reciprocal – cellphone fanatics haven’t the right to tell me I’m wrong, either – and for the same reasons I can’t do it to them.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Thanks, Pete. Very interesting.

          In no particular order, some thoughts.
          Fromage does do us a lot more credit than frogs. Frog eating French are rare and getting rarer. Whereas our collective grasp on cheese quality is second to none in the known galaxy. I’d be willing to eliminate a great many foods from my diet for health reasons. Cheese would be far more difficult.

          That Hasselblad. Hate to admit it, but I’d get my paws all over it if money allowed, too πŸ˜‰

          Software. I think that’s THE key with cellphone photography. Software wizardry is already replacing more traditional technology. My S6 does a pretty fine job of creating multiple shots to simulate shallow depth of field. That’s just the beginning. The big caveat with all this is that software can go in any direction and lead to *a lot* of crap features. Whether created with a view camera or a cellphone, the rules that define what a good photograph are unchanged. And I just hope there’s enough interest in cellphone photography from the people who defend and uphold those rules, to ensure they are put to good use when they wipe out traditional cameras from the face of the Earth (and they probably will sooner rather than later). What we’re seeing is the opposite of a bell curve. The middle class has all but disappeared in photography. There are more expensive cameras and there are cellphones. The rest is going belly up faster than I can type. I hope the creativity and talent come from both ends of the depleted bell when all that’s left are the extremes.

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Pondering that, for a while. There’ll inevitably be a fall off in research and in new product development, if that happens – and some of the well known “popular” cam manufacturers would disappear under those conditions. High end stuff would become more expensive – and what are new photographers supposed to practice on, to develop their skills? A cellphone won’t do it, any more than my Box Brownie did (I soon had to go to the second hand market and buy things like folding cameras, till I could afford my first SLR). And hardly anyone will be able to start with a ‘Blad or whatever.

            • pascaljappy says:

              Well I’m not saying it will happen overnight and it may not happen at all (I’m no industry analyst of photography, after all πŸ˜‰ ). But take a look at any tourist hotspot and you’ll notice Smartphones and tablets already outnumber traditional cameras significantly. And the market for DSLRs is really crumbling badly. The compact is dead (and rightly so, as it combines the horrific ergonomics of cameras and horrific image quality of last year’s phone). So it appears people still buying cameras are those who enjoy photography as a hobby, no longer the tourist. Hopefully, there will always be cameras for those who love photography. But since the manufacturers have thrown decades-old ergonomics to the pigs to force a digital process on their bodies, I’d really like if they too a cue from the leading phone makers. The older I get, the less patient I am for the slow and clunky and even less tolerant for the multiple niggles that plague even very expensive cameras. It seems to me a healthy does of “less is more” would cure both the ergonomic distress and the bug epidemics πŸ˜‰

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