#550. More on Smartphones as cameras – and the OnePlus 3

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Jan 22

4 !

Google “OnePlus 3” and the first answer you get is 4. Beyond the hilarious search engine quirk, I’d like to share a few photographs made using this Chinese phone to illustrate the continuing progress made by the Smartphone industry in the photo arena. These were made by Theo Grimeau, my daughter’s boyfriend, during a recent trip to London. Thanks for sharing, Theo !


(c) Theo Grimeau


Why am I showing these here?

Well, I spent a good past of the end of last year trying to convince at least a few readers that Smartphones shouldn’t be discarded as cheap substitutes for real cameras, intended only for the clueless tourist and lazy tog. Just because 80% of Smartphone end up defiling the memory of Susan Sontag at the end of plastic sticks doesn’t mean the other 20% aren’t up to a lot of good stuff.


(c) Theo Grimeau


Judging by some of the comments, it’s fair to say I wasn’tย entirely successful ๐Ÿ˜‰ So let me try again to explain what makes the Smartphone such a great proposition for real photographers. And, no, it’s not about platitudes such as the best camera is the one you have with you.

It’s really about creativity.


(c) Theo Grimeau


To restate my argument about the vital importance of multiple sensor sizes, forget about what the specs tell you and what marketing departments want to force down your throat.

Today, technology has advanced so much that you can produce excellent photographs with any sensor size. What really differentiates one from the other is the final look.

As this preview of the scrumptiolicious Fuji GFX demonstrates, larger formats excel at soft-looking, shallow depth-of-field painterly moods. And Smartphones are just brilliant as the opposite. That direct, raw and edgy look that you couldn’t replicate with an 80 grand Phase back and hours of ย post-processing to save your life.


(c) Theo Grimeau


The sort of look you see used as illustration on trendy websites.


(c) Theo Grimeau


So, here we have it. Theo has a very good eye. He walks around unscouted territory and brings back the goods.

His phone is the OnePlus 3, from the opening paragraph. Good phone, low DAS score, great looks and super affordable compared to Apple and Samsung royalty. I’d never heard about it, Theo introduced me to it.

What 400 bucks/quid/euros buys you is 16Mpix and a well executed bag of tricks such as HDR, panorama, a mix of both and, for those with ADD, video in the drool worthy format of the day. While common decency precludes video from entering these hallowed pages, here are a few examples of the other features.


(c) Theo Grimeau

(c) Theo Grimeau


Now, you may or may not like the look of HDR, the huge depth of field or any of the attributes of what this camera brings to the table. But it’s impossible not to admire the image-making capabilities of such a tiny and affordable (compared to the average camera) device.

Even when you keep things simple and go for a more traditional approach, Smartphones are able to deliver the goods. See below, for instance. I can think of quite a few camera / lens combos that would mess upย that sort of view with enthusiasm …


(c) Theo Grimeau


And, even in the traditional stronghold of larger formats, low light and high dynamic range, it’s possible to more than get away with it.


(c) Theo Grimeau

(c) Theo Grimeau


And the results really look different from what a 15-stop 16-bit camera would have produced. Inferior? Technically maybe but not aesthetically.

Anyone refusing to consider Smartphones as worthy cameras today is spending too much time on DxO or other lab test sites. The Leica M10 has a lot going for it (more on this tomorrow) but, for street photography, I’d take this phone over it any day. Beyond convenience and tranquility of mind, I think it’s really beneficial to every photographer to learn to recognise different looks and get their eye in. Just like it helps batsmen avoid copping a bouncer in the chops, and hit if for 6, it can open up new ways of seeing for sedate photographers.


(c) Theo Grimeau


You can find more of Theo’s photographs (and more samples made with that phone) on his Flicker page. What do you think? Still allergic?


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’m sure you saw this coming, when you posted this article, Pascal ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s not that – being an aging relic – I think women should be barefoot, pregnant & in the kitchen. It’s a question of what “I want”. I was interested to note the other day, while doing my Italian crosswords in “Settimane Enigmistica”, that Italians have an entirely different meaning for the word (in their language) “opinione”. It has little if anything in common with the meaning of the English word “opinion”. What it means, instead, is “a point of view”. I think that’s much nicer than a loaf of “opinion” that someone wants to bang over my head.

    As far as I’m concerned, anyone else is entirely free to do whatever pushes their buttons – or if they use Velcro instead, whatever floats their boat. I have only four uses for a cellphone – telephone calls and SMS messages – telling the time – and as a traveling alarm clock. If someone else wants to use them to take photos, that’s THEIR “point of view”.

    So – I’m sticking with cameras, because that’s where my interest in photography starts. And just to be completely incalcitrant, the photo doesn’t finish up as an appendix to an SMS – I still print mine.

    Speaking of which – I can’t compare a digital image of a cellphone photo with a print of a photo taken with one of my cameras. So I have no means of seeing whether cellphones do indeed capture “good images”. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Pete, I was kind of hoping you’d open the ball ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Two things:
      (1) “Whatever floats your boat”. I agree entirely. Because that’s open minded.
      (2) My guess is what *you* dislike in phones is more linked to ergonomics than image “quality”. Which, again, I can relate to. Not everyone likes pointing a flat bit of metal at a scene. Just like not everyone can get along with a rangefinder or a view cameras. Few things light my spirits more than a great viewfinder, for example. Except, maybe, the sound of a really great shutter.

      All of that’s personal and acceptable. It’s the IQ brigade that drives me nuts … Lower dynamic range capabilities just mean more contrast, hence a different look. And that a good thing, not a bad one, as lab rats would have us believe.

      Printing ! Yes. My pet project of the moment (which has not made great progress because of a lack of time and – more importantly – space) is contact printing directly from a phone. As soon as a big chunk of my only dark place in the house gets freed up, I’m buying back some of that old darkroom gear and lying my phone flat on Azo / Lodima or similar paper for a few tests. We’ll see how that turns out. Lousy, probably ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        My “dislike” is aimed more at the owners than the object of their pride.

        I have a dislike of bad manners, and it is bad manners to jump in front of someone else’s camera with a cellphone, to take a cellphone snapshot – especially without even bothering to say “excuse me” or “shan’t be a minute”.

        I loath seeing a forest of them waving around in the air on the top of a “selfie stick” – and no I am not jealous, I have no interest whatsoever in seeing if it is possible to put $10 grand’s worth of camera on the end of a broom stick and wave it around above my head.

        And yes, you are quite right – the ergonomics do play an important part, for me. Example – for shots where there is strong lighting on the subject, coming from behind me, a screen is often useless for composing the picture; cameras generally either have a viewfinder, or offer an optional plug in one. Also, there’s no way of putting a tilt screen on a cellphone (so far), but it can be very important to me, in taking photos – I am not “spring chicken” and crawling around on my stomach is not going to happen any longer, so I often take advantage of the tilt screen on one of my cams to put the cam down to a level where this aging carcass won’t go. Etc.

        I love making use of DOF, which is controllable with a “camera” – can they do that yet, with cellphones?

        I couldn’t be bothered engaging on other IQ issues – the cellphone people seem to have them under control, or in their sights, and mostly those arguments end up like a farrier telling a chaff merchant not to worry – those noisy smelly automobiles are just a passing craze.

        Someone has now produced a lens less than a millimetre thick – forgotten how thin, but it’s tiny – the research money is there, because a cam using this technology would revolutionise exploratory medicine – a tiny cam could pass all over the place inside the body, relaying info to the medical team, and get retrieved with no damage to the patient – and a LOT less trouble than taking biopsies, or many other tests & examinations currently in use. And the cellphone industry will get the full benefit of that research, enabling them to miniaturise components in their lenses that will enable future cellphones to produce undreamed of performance.

        As to sensors, dynamic range etc – I think the cellphone people have made their point already. I’ve mentioned a Panasonic that I ditch – there was also a Nikon point & shoot – neither of them could match the sensors or dynamic range of current cellphones. That argument is already deceased – it seems indecent not to inter the remains and to keep flaunting the decaying corpse, instead.

        Printing – WATCH THIS SPACE – I’ll be back to you on that, in a week or two – I’m chasing another rabbit down its burrow, and might shortly have something of interest to anyone who still prints their photos.

        • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

          “. . . a Panasonic that I ditched . . .” Sorry – cross cultural mental block sometimes assassinates my English.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Yeah, some people are just rude and uneducated … I remember this one guy in an arboretum, hogging a fantastic red tree for ages while others queued up to photograph it. He’d set up medium format gear on a tripod in a way that no one else could photograph the tree without having him in the frame. He probably felt his time was more precious than the time of others, because his camera cost more. The same goes with the hordes of tourists using full automatic devices, who have no idea what it means to compose a shot for the lovers of the craft. They just want the millionth view of their face in front of something pretty or – preferably – famous, whatever the cost to the location or other visitors. Some people are just like that …

          Most phones do enable some form of dept of field management. My Galaxy S6 has been doing it for 18 months and others probably offered the feature before that. Though, if the marketing mumbo jumbo, the iPhone 7 invented it very recently ๐Ÿ˜‰ Still, those are just apps combining multiple frames and don’t feel anything like setting the aperture on a proper lens ring.

          I look forward to your printing investigations ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    IMHO if we thought of the device as a tool rather than defining it as a phone half the issue would resolve itself. The images ( note: not “pictures” ) are interesting, well composed and more visually satisfying than 90% (conservative!) of the “photos” appearing on webhosts like flickr and the like.

    The device may not meet our personal criteria for cameras but it is a very effective means of capturing a moment. In the right hands it can be amazing.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hear hear. Actual phone calls are probably a minority use of those devices anyway. My kids are always using Internet apps to make calls, and the rest of the device’s up time is split into music, photo/video and messaging. Phone? 5-10% of the time.

  • John Wilson says:

    I first encountered the cell phone as “camera” in Cuba a few years ago. What startled me the “point of view” it had. The small size and no protruding lens meant you could get it into all sorts of positions that would be harder to do with an SLR and the very short focus lens meant oodles of depth of field. I’ve exhibited 10×15 prints from the cell phone, point and shoot and my DSLR at the same time and no one can consistently tell the difference. The most I’ve gotten from the CP is 12×18 and that’s really pushing it; but my CP is now 4 years old, so the newer ones may do better.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Well, 10×15 is already a very decent size. Most prints by someone like Michael Kenna are 8″ square and they are real joys to look at. And ,yes, a different tool with a different look and different handing is bound to be interesting. Not to all people, for sure. But in the hands of those who benefit from that “close quarters” approach and from the greater contrast, we can expect great things.

  • Steve Mallett says:

    When looking at a painting I tend not to wonder what brushes were used. But then I’m not a painter. I love Theo’s images; end of.

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