#524. Why your high-end camera also loves your Smartphone

By pascaljappy | How-To

Nov 04

During my recent vacation in and around London, and in order to stop pestering my friends and readers with enthusiastic updates of my Smartphone photography life, without a solid foundation for them, I conducted this simple experiment: use only my Smartphone for photography, unless the scene intuitively felt like it justified the use of a “better” camera. This is one of those scenes:


In my previous article (10 reasons to love your Smartphone camera!), you can see a tiny selection of the thousands of Smartphone photographs that result from this experiment. On this page, you can see a proportionally larger selection of the dozens of Sony-infused productions.


The whole purpose of the experiment was to find out more on the following points:

  • How much of quality difference exists between a good Smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S6) and a good camera (Sony A7rII)
  • What subjects most benefit from the Smartphone treatment and which suffer most
  • How to decide when to use one or the other
  • What differences in workflow the experiment induces (my vacation photography is family centered, which places heavy emphasis on speed and leaves little leeway to times of visit and ability to return to a location in better light)


What I found out is slightly different and probably even more interesting.


Nurturing dissolves craving

The first interesting discovery is that any compulsion to shoot shoot shoot any and every subject in front of me rapidly dissolved when I actually took time to frame properly with the Smartphone. The object of my previous article was to explain that Smartphone photography can be a good school for shooting discipline, due to the more restricted envelope. But the collateral effect is that the pleasure of going beyond the convenience aspect of the Smartphone put me in a creative mood, which also enabled me to be efficient with my Sony. I have almost as many keepers (from a much smaller collection) as during a Sony-only expedition.


A fun side effect is that I never chimped. I actually discovered my Sony photographs after returning to France and the contents of my card were a complete surprise to me.ย  The whole process of working slowly and deliberately on a photograph unconsciously eliminated the need to check results on the rear screen. All in all, a surprising and serene experience.

Also, my single 32Gb card came home 2/3 empty and one battery lasted the 10 days of my trip. Quite unusual.


Photographing the unexpected (analysis without a couch)

Having expected to find street photography on the phone pics and still life on the Sony’s, it came as a surprise to see the opposite in my respective image banks.

With hindsight, the use of a viewfinder to frame a scene quickly is much more pleasant than the use of a screen at arm’s length.

Why I chose to make more pictures of these street scenes, not my usual arena, isn’t quite clear. But I’m guessing my heightened creative juices where seeing interesting compositions where I usually notice nothing. There’s still some way to go before I’m Pentti Sammallahti, but the learning can begin ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Post-processing matters, a lot

As much as I want to steer clear of comparisons and of a statement of the obvious (yes, the Sony is a better camera than the Samsung), one clear difference between files from the two cameras is in their ability to sustain heavy post processing.

Leaving aside the notion of quality, let’s just say that if mood is a strong part of your photography, you need the larger sensor. To my eyes, this is where the greatest divide is. Use the Smartphone for literal renditions (a particularly beautifully lit object, for example) and the larger sensor when difficult light and corresponding processing play a major role in the mood you want to create. Nothing unexpected, but it becomes really obvious when you try both. Lesson learned.



Different tools for different looks

As mentioned on numerous occasions before, cameras that give you different looks are useful. The lowly phone isn’t simply inferior, it’s also different. Higher contrast, greater delineation at the expense of real detail … In some conditions, it shines. In others, the larger sensor’s more painterly look suits the scene better.

What do you think? Samsung above, Sony below. Both panoramas.


And again, in the same order.



Better than a lightmeter

Remember the good ol’ days of film when in camera meters either didn’t exist or were unreliably small and you had to move about with an external light meter? My Sekonic is still with me to this day.

Remember film makers and even some photographers with cardboard cutouts or external viewfinders used to previsualise a scene before reaching for the camera?

A Smartphone all that and more.


Sunrise/sunset almanac? Check. GPS? Check. Viewfinder? Check, with zoom. Filter or exposure previsualisation? Check. Site scouting? Check, with photo and metadata. The list goes on.

Not that you couldn’t do that without a phone, but the all-in-one capacity is addictive and nicely complements the phone abilities as a stand-alone camera.

I initially thought of a phone as an alternative, with a lesser shooting envelope and a distinct drawing style but it’s also a great companion to your main camera. And I hope that, instead of trying to mimic the look of mainstream cameras and digitally compensate for small-sensor inadequacies,ย  phone manufacturers continue to push the differences, the ergonomic advantage and the complementarities.

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To recap, I ended up shooting far less but more creatively, with a much (much) higher keeper rate, less stress “on the road” and much less post-processing work back home. It was fun to discover a new workflow where my photographs remained “secret” until my return to base (not out of trendy preciosity, but naturally). And I may have learned a thing or two about myself along the way.


To call this a zero default experiment would be a lie. A Smartphone with no SD card soon fills up (the S7 successor has one,thankfully), for example, rendering the long-term feasibility quite difficult.

And it’s obvious I left quite a few opportunities on the table, choosing the Smartphone when the camera would have done a better job. But not that many, because I was more picky than usual about what goes into the Sony pile. The following photographs are a good illustration of this:

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Here,the Smartphone was clearly overwhelmed by the contrast of the scene, and the A7rII would have been much happier. But the place was so full of people, it was impossible to make a great wide-angle shot, even with a lot of perseverance. Thanks to the phone, those pictures are safe in my drive with accurate location info courtesy of Google, allowing me to return one morning or evening in the coming months or years.


Now all of this probably isn’t possible for photographers with a mission. The landscape photographer who sets up his tripod at 4.30 in a specific location and leaves 3 hours later won’t want to record the scene with his phone (although initial shots will give a great insight into contrast, quality of light and composition). A sports / wildlife photographer will miss the white 500mm. A fashion photographer will stick to the big guns, except for Instagram behind-the-scenes. … But for wandering travel photographers like me, there’s a lot to be said in favour of exploring a symbiotic relationship between your main camera and your phone.

This more or less concludes my Smartphone photography ramblings for now and I’ll not write about this anymore unless someone requests it.

What say you?


Email: subscribed: 4
  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    What should I say, Pascal? – that I shan’t request it? ๐Ÿ™‚
    Put simply – my attitude to this issue is “each to his own”. If someone’s happy with a smart phone, that’s THEIR “own”.
    Personally, I wouldn’t be even remotely interested in giving it a go. That’s MY “own”. It’s partly a history of my family’s and my involvement in photography over a period stretching back as far as 1850. At the moment, it’s largely a product of two things:
    1 – a large percentage of my photos demands a larger sensor than any cellphone has, a better lens than any cellphone has, more control over the triangle of shutter/aperture/film speed than any cellphone has, and control over depth of field which no cellphone offers – oh, and the ability to use a tripod, flash, remote controls, and a raft of other gear that won’t work on a cellphone
    2 – and a large percentage demands modern sensors, that enable me to jump the ISO up, to capture what I want to photograph under low lighting conditions
    I will concede that a cellphone would have one use – occasionally I need to access things like the photographer’s ephemerus or a raft of handy apps to fine tune calculations to get the settings right for the shot I’m taking – but most of the time I can deal with that on the computer and I’m really drowning already in techo stuff, without trying to come to grips with doing all that stuff on a cellphone.
    Not all the fault of the camera industry either, BTW – Microsoft has dumped a major nightmare on me, with a stuff up flowing from their introduction of Windows 10, which is going to rob me of several weeks of time I could more usefully spend catching up with the rest of the field, on the intricacies of digital photography. I am so annoyed with them, and their offhand attitude to a problem they admit to having created, that I am already planning to remove them from my premises, when I next upgrade my computer. I do not believe in throwing money at corporations that have already let me down, particularly when they haven’t the balls or the manners to apologise for the damage they are responsible for.
    And I wonder what people who were caught by the recent problems with the Samsung 7 smartphone are thinking, right now, about using cellphones for their photography. Some of them must have been travelling, hoping to take their travel shots on their Samsung, only to tbe told it wouldn’t be allowed on the aircraft – and left hight & dry with nothing at all to take photos with.
    One other point – I do quite a lot of post processing – in the old days, I ran my own dark room and did processing for several friends as well as my own stuff, these days it’s mostly mine but I do do post processing for several other people who have no idea how to do it. And I am often surprised at the results they produce.
    Not from cellphones, but from smaller cams. One in particular uses an aging Olympus compact, won’t part with it, loves it to bits – has an iPhone, but far prefers to use her Olympus to take photographs – and although it’s “demanding”, let’s say, to post process her photos for her, because of the limitations of the Olympus, it still impresses me with the quality of the images it produces. The same with another one, who shoots with a Canon half frame – also has an iPhone, but also won’t use it for photography ๐Ÿ™‚
    We both know that sales of “cameras” have plummeted in recent years. What I don’t know is, whether that’s a switch from compacts to cellphones in a purely amateur market, or whether the damage has impacted equally hard on “real” cameras. Writing this, I don’t have the figures in front of me. (I didn’t have too much confidence in them anyway – there were obvious statistical errors in the report I read last week).
    Reading through your comments, I am puzzled by one. Why is “chimping” such a terrible thing for a camera owner, when it is impossible to take a photo on a cellphone without chimping?
    Ignoring all of which, I do like your photos

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha! Pete, why am I not surprised? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      You make several interesting points. Some I agree with others not so much. For example, the Note 7 problem is serious, but I lost two expensive trips to Sony in the past so failures are not the exclusive domain of the phone.

      Chimping isn’t bad if it doesn’t get in the way of thoroughness, whatever the camera. In my case, it wasn’t a deliberate attempt not to chimp, only a post-shoot realisation that I didn’t. And it sure felt relaxing. You, of all people, can’t not be receptive to the fact that a phone led to a more relaxing shoot ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

      I think some of the older cameras you mention had a lower resolution that placed less stress at the pixel level. At base ISO, pixel for pixel, they were probably quite good. You must have a lot of fun with this.

      As for cellphones, I’m really not saying they are for everyone or that you should adopt them in your workflow. Only that they have their uses and that the usual way of thinking about them is unfair. Used as a substitute for cameras they’re irrelevant. As a complement, I’m getting to like mine a lot.

  • Jerry Ostrega says:

    If nobody hasn’t advised you, please note #523 unavailable in Canada. Just goes to getresponse. Please correct. Thanks

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    A couple of further points.

    Anyone who thinks you can’t get a reasonable quality photo with a smartphone of some description should have a look at this article:


    You’ll even see an example of a shot with a cellphone that has admirable depth of field control – a sharp image and a suitably blurred background – so the smartphone people are continuing to improve their product and beef up their competition for market share.

    That said – some people are happy with smartphones – others (including people who HAVE smartphones) have absolutely no interest whatsoever in using a smartphone to take photos. And beyond that, professionals & serious amateur photographers are wildly unlikely to head down that path.

    Where that takes the statistics is a game of “wait & see” for the manufacturers and the camera shops.

    As far as shops are concerned, places flogging smartphones are springing up everywhere, but of course a lot of that simply services people who want a phone, an internet connection, a status symbol (people actually buy the things like “glitter” & costume jewellery, to get one-up on their friends), a means of playing games & sending SMS messages – not everyone takes photos with them, they mostly seem to be used at dinners in restaurants to destroy any normal form of social intercourse during the meal, or to be irritating to other passengers on the Metro.

    But against that, my impression is that camera shops, as such, are holding their own and some seem to be expanding their business.

    For the manufacturers, the outlook seems gloomier. There’s been a definite and substantial drop in sales of “cameras” in recent years. I’d like to believe it’s mostly in crappy compact cameras, leaving “proper” cameras relatively unscathed, but the statistics I’ve seen don’t provide that kind of detail.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Breaking news ๐Ÿ™‚ (This would have made a great candid shot for my collection of photos of cellphone photographers!)

    Woman rams squad car while taking topless selfie: Police
    BRYAN, Texas โ€” Police say a 19-year-old Texas A&M University student who rear-ended a squad car told an officer she was taking a topless selfie.
    Miranda Kay Rader posted $200 bond after she was charged with drunken driving and possessing alcohol as a minor.
    A police report says an officer was checking a reported disturbance when he heard brakes squeal and an SUV slam into the patrol car behind him. Rader told the officer she was taking a topless selfie of herself to Snapchat to her boyfriend.
    Police say an open bottle of wine was in her console cup holder.

  • Yeahhh says:

    I was in the same boat. I used my iPhone next to my camera on vacation/travel for quite some time. I found it most suitable for “action” shots and it was a lot of fun.

    Finally, I ended this habit because most of these snaps ended up in the trash. There’re two reasons: 1) I strife for a consistent output. And using two completely different camera systems, lenses, files … becomes a nightmare in post-production. 2) For me, there’re two sides of a photograph; the artistically and the technically. While one can obviously do great artistically work with any smartphone (as with any camera), it totally lacks in technical terms: DR, ISO, compression, (micro)-contrast, sharpness, details … They just look flat and overprocessed – period. When I took images side by side the smartphone image went straight to the trash. When I only had the smartphone image, I was annoyed that I hadn’t take it with a dedicated camera. For what it’s worth, I surely took some very good images with my iPhone. But many more with my dedicated camera. And many of my favorite iPhone shots would have been much better if I had used a real camera.

    I stopped using my iPhone soon after I got my A6000. Maybe, if you have a big(ger) camera kit, a small second camera a more of a suitable idea. But if you already have a small primary camera, there’s not much need for a smartphone – rather then it’s the camera you always have with you. But then again, if you have a big(ger) camera kit, I argue buying a small secondary kit (like the Ricoh GR or some rangefinder-like MILCs) is the smarter choice.

    In general, I don’t get the latest trend here on DS: Not long ago, you where the defenders for optical quality over everything (eg. Otus). Now we read several pro-smartphone articles in a row. Why’s that?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks ๐Ÿ˜‰ Don’t worry it’s not a trend, just a few articles I wrote and it’s not a shared opinion: others in the team don’t feel the same way.

      What I’m saying is that people shouldn’t discard Smartphones. If you can’t afford a high-price camera, you can still make good photographs. And they’re a good learning tool. And to prove that, I tried to do so for a week. The consequences on what I did with the Sony main camera were quite interesting and unexpected so I wrote about that too. But that’s it, not much more to say about this topic for now. Except that I hope phone manufacturers don’t try to catch up with mainstream cameras but, on the contrary, push the other way, to set them apart and make them complementary.

      To me, the greatest nuisance is the different post-processing workflow. Which is why I won’t pursue this. It’s OK to be out with one or the other, but mixing the two is a little complicated in terms of final consistency.

      And we’re still very much in love with our best lenses. But I don’t want super expensive gear to be the nexus of this blog. We need to be able to make good pictures with all sorts of stuff.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I’m eating crow, this week, Pascal – just finished post processing my wife’s shots from a recent trip she made to London. She’s your classic amateur – shoots with an Olympus ยต720SW compact – hasn’t looked at the manual in years – about 8 years, I suspect ๐Ÿ™‚ – with a 1/2.3″ sensor rated at only 7 MP. That’s enough to shock my audience, I know. And I do admit that it lacks a lot in colour saturation – in fact, I don’t really think it has a full colour palate. All of which is manageable, after a fashion – well enough to suit the needs of my amateur photographer “customer”, anyway – who can’t even download her shots, and thinks my efforts at post processing are magic.

        Ignoring all that – the usual argument is over pixels. Well – at 7 MP with a 1/2.3″ sensor, you’d expect ANYTHING to beat it over the head with a baseball bat. Not so – I’ve just been reading typewritten labels on items in a shop window that were perfectly clear and legible. I did have a Panasonic Lumix with a 4/3 sensor for a while, and it was incapable of matching her Olympus, except on colour saturation – it might have been as sharp as the Olympus but only on a “good day” – and on its “days off”, it was way off – the noise level killed it, which s why I got rid of the thing.

        And one of my other amateur friends just sent me a swag of shots of a couple of frogs she found in an empty dog drinking bowl, in her back garden – she couldn’t be bothered going inside to get her Canon, so she snapped a few shots with her cellphone – and they look great, in terms of colour, saturation, sharpness, DoF, noise levels (bearing in mind she shot them at night).

        I’m so “over” raging about pixel counts. There’s much more than that, to creating a good photograph.

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