Smartphone cameras deserve a lot more love than they are getting from the amateur photographer community.
The typical comment today is either “a handy visual notebook” or “a camera that trades quality for convenience”. And while the latter is partially true, Smartphones still deserve to be treated as valid photographic tools. In my point of view, they are even one of the more honest cameras out there. Much like shooting Velvia imposed a certain technical competence, so the Smartphone requires of the photographer a little effort to obtain half-decent shots.
During the past 10 days in and around London, my Samsung Galaxy S6 was used as my main photographic tool. This was an experiment, and I’ll write about my conclusions in a later post. But, for now, here are 10 reasons why you really shouldn’t dismiss phones too quickly ! And convenience ain’t even one of them, although finding all my photographs neatly and automatically arranged in Google Drive every evening was a distinct high point.
Guilty as charged. With lenses such as the Otus 85, it’s very tempting to simplify every composition by leaving only the subject sharp and sending all distractions into creamy oblivion. This bokeh everything can soon bring us to an evolutionary wall and make us lazy, just like zooms often do.
Smartphones are wonderful antidotes to that. More or less everything is in focus and your photograph can rapidly lose all meaning if not treated with the attention the scene requires. More specifically …
So, yeah, with great depth of field, everything in a complex scene will play a role in the final image. If that image doesn’t tell a story or relies on subject isolation only to be comprehensible, it will be weak and uninteresting with the Smartphone. Only by thinking intentionally about how to assemble the parts will you be able to produce a coherent whole. Wonderful training, even if you do return to larger format afterwards.
And also …
The low dynamic range of the tiny sensor mean that you are soon into black or white territory (black shadows and burned highlights) if you do not pay careful attention to lighting. While this can be put to great creative use, for most of us, it’s back to the good old days of controlled light. The Smartphone makes you pay a lot more attention to the quality of the light and to the ambient contrast.
The silver lining of this is …
In the right light, that is.
Generally speaking, the smaller the sensor, the greater the contrast and depth of field. And this doesn’t fit every subject or everyone’s tastes. But it’s also a look that’s super difficult to replicate with larger format gear, which shouldn’t be sniffed at.
Combine this look to the great depth of field and ability to fame impossible angles and you can create images that would make wielders of posh cameras scratch their head.
And they also shine because …
“Hell is paved with good intentions” Old Klingon proverb, which applies really well to Oskar Barnack and the 3:2 format most of us have to use. In the days where resolution was at a premium and most photographic revenue came from magazines, it really made sense to create a camera and film format homothetic to the full-page Graal.
In this age of multi-deca-megapixels and web publication, however, the limitation is more irksome. The 3:2 format feels like a compromise between the painterly, almost noble 4:3 or (even better) 6×7 or the (sublime) square format and the pano. Neither really dynamic nor really stately, it fails to inspire me. The 16:9 format of phones is a lot more fun and stimulating to play with, both in vertical
and in horizontal orientations. This guides the viewer unambiguously and creates interest in what would be boring in 3:2.
And it gets better …
Panoramas are one thing. Although not technically perfect, they can sometime WOW you, while being super easy to produce.
But other modes such as selective focus to simulate (yes) shallow depth of field are also equally nice to enhance the illusion of depth or create an atmosphere. Much of the post-processing filters tend to be crude and gimmicky, but the image manipulation modes (HDR, eg) are really fun and efficient.
Nice, but that’s not all …
Granted, the amount of post-processing you can do with your Smartphone is very limited. Maybe apps go beyond the basic controls but that seems to go against the “Instamatic” nature of Smartphone photography.
And yes, you could argue that this on-device PP falls under the “convenience” category I promised not to mention, but my point is mostly that this also changes the nature of your workflow by bringing a continuity to your process. Which is also a way of thinking outside the box and breaking the mold you (I, at least) may occasionally feel trapped in.
Ok, that’s easy to do with a wide-angle lens of huge depth of field. But who cares why it works so long that it does. AF, in spite of my constant ranting, is a wonderful aid to photography. But, on my cameras of the past few years, it has mostly been utter crap, proving more of a frustrating hindrance than a creative help.
On a Smartphone, AF is snappy and true, helping that impression of freedom to concentrate on your composition. A single lens, AF, prime goes a long-way towards liberating creativity.
Yes, that falls partly in the convenience slot. But it’s more than that. Who enjoys removing dust spots on hundreds of images?
The fixed lens nature of the typical Smartphone camera ensures spotless imaging and this again contributes to the freeing feeling that contributes to the ethos of Smartphone photography.
Every new generation of cameras comes with is plus and minuses.
Think how puny the early Leicas must have seemed to large format users such as Ansel Adams. And think about (1) the realms of creative uses they opened up and (2) how much they have improved since the early models.
Smartphones represent change. We don’t have to love them or use them permanently. But it feels sad to ignore the completely on the basis of lesser performance.
So yes, Smartphone cameras deserve a lot more love than they are getting from the amateur photographer community. Many pros and artists have no problem using them extensively but we amatogs seem much less open to letting them challenge our expensive bodies and lenses. Our loss.
A good camera is one that enables you to create good photographs. A good photograph has good enough technical quality no to deter from the author’s intention, in the author’s intended final format. Those with a style incompatible with the natural rendering of Smartphones and/or an A2 printer are excused. Others really should take note.
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OK – I’ll play – I have been recalcitrant about them – they are an obnoxious form of low life – but they exist, I cannot deny it. So instead of fighting a futile battle, I’ll join in.
I won’t actually buy one – I have no interest in or need for one – my trusty old “tradesman’s phone” is all the mobile phone I need or want.
But I will do this instead. I will add another “project” to my list.
I will stalk cellphones, and iPads, and any similar devices these techo weirdos use to take their snapshots (woops – forgetting myself – I promised I’d behave, didn’t I). I will descend on flocks of selfie sticks. I will capture the image when they foolishly hand their toys to a complete stranger, to take photos of them – only to see the stranger disappear around the corner, without handing back their thousand dollar phone or tablet. I will even try to focus on the disappearing stranger, to capture an action shot of the disappearing trick. Who knows? – I might even give up trying to fight my way through a thicket of these creatures, to take my own photos.
It could turn out to be a whole new field of street photography and photo journalism. I may even become famous! 🙂
That sounds like a fun project, actually 🙂
Thanks once again for an erudite opinion. Many of us get caught up in the nuances of gear, often mistaking better technology with the pursuit of a bette quality finished photo. My friend, Michael Mariant of High Sierra Workshops, California, often reminds all of us that a camera is simply a structure with a lens and a photosensitive receptor that captures images. The winning photo for the Portland, Oregon Newspaper, The Oregonian, several years ago was taken with a simple disposable camera of schooner in moderate weather, through a porthole of a ship passing by. Ninety percent of photography is being there with a camera, smart phone or not.
My main frustration, though limited, is that because the sensor is so small, it is nearly impossible to print much of an image without expensive enlargement tools, thus ruling out home printing, or even local printing.
Hi David, you’re quite right, printing large isn’t much of an option, unfortunately. And the small sensor also makes high-contrast situations a no go. So the shooting envelope is really far smaller than with high-end cameras. But that’s part of the fun. And a real learning opportunity. Our very easy to use gear tends to make us forget all about the quality of light and the importance of composition. We can push shadow sliders and crop all we want. It’s actually a lot of fun to go back to those limitations and learn to work in a more constrained context 😉 All the best, Pascal
Pascal, I don’t want to be contrary but…..
Your arguments can also be used to argue for compact (non smart) cameras.
For me however if I have a “proper camera” to pull out I find I pay more attention to all the photographic points you raised, even a simple compact camera. The smart phone seems to makes me stupid (yes that is all my own fault). I suspect it is some feeling of more deliberate and thoughtful activity, where as smart phones are just a bit hit and giggle.
True – “real” ‘togs rail at people who buy a DSLR or similar with a kit zoom, and then use the zoom to compose the shot, instead of using their photographic skills to select the right focal length for the shot and THEN position themselves (and the camera, of course) where they ought to be, to take the “right” shot.
And then going beyond that, all the reasons for choosing a particular shutter speed, or a particular ISO level, or a particular f-stop.
None of which – or very little of which – is possible with a cellphone.
Yes they take nice snaps – probably vastly better than most non-photographers would ever take, if they got hold of a “proper camera”. But why should that mean that people who DO want to be photographers should let go of their junk and just pull out the cellphone? Why should it lead to the extinction of SLRs or mirrorless cams?
I tried a “compact” and gave up on it – the sensor was too small to produce the image quality I wanted, and I’d agree that a cellphone might have produced “better” shots, but it still wouldn’t have the versatility the compact gave me.
Beyond that, no. One thing I can do with the cam I use instead of the compact is, I can get past “back lighting” issues that interfere with the view on the screen – I can attach a small EVF to the top of it, instead. Another is the tilt screen it has – nobody has ever produced a cellphone with a tilt screen, and tilt screens can be incredibly useful. But of course that’s just for openers – the list is endless.
So – in case anyone thought I was seriously penitent when I said I’d join the lemmings & go “cellphone” – I’m sticking to “cameras”, to take “photographs”. BTW – try looking up “photograph” in a dictionary – I don’t think it mentions JPEGs or emails or websites – couldn’t resist adding that, because I just upgraded my printer yesterday and it should be ready to fire up this afternoon or tomorrow.
Sorry Pete, I am not sure I am following your points.
Good luck with your new printer. Will you be doing an article, a non technical/non instructional “10 reasons to love your photo printer” sounds like a good title 😉
I’d be interested in that too! Printers really are a device for which I can find no love … Some people seem to find a way, a breakthrough. I just cannot be bothered. A real shame as printing was 90% of the pleasure for me, in the pre-digital years.
Congrats on the new printer 🙂 You’re a braver man than I.
I sure hope SLRs and other high-end cameras don’t disappear. But the market goes where demand takes it. If manufacturers can keep interest high for a large enough portion of the population, we’ll continue to enjoy large sensors in the foreseeable future. If not, we’ll all be stuck with convenience-over-quality. It won’t happen overnight and the expansion of the compact medium format world actually suggests it won’t at all 🙂
In the mean time, some people either can’t afford photo gear or haven’t been taught how to use it and I think proper use of Smartphones can produce interesting results. To me, that’s very positive 🙂
You’re right, all of this applies to real cameras as well. My main point is that some good can come of using a Smartphone with intent. In some situations, a minority, the look is really very pleasing. In others, larger sensors win hands down. More to come on this soon 🙂