#755. In defense of smartphone photography, again ;)

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Aug 08

Not that it needs me, mind you. The crushing statistics would suggest traditional photography is the one in dire need of support. But I’d like to put in a few words in favour of photography done with a smartphone, rather than smartphone photography. A couple of days ago, Paul mentioned this opinion piece by Wim Wenders :



Now, there’s no way I can criticise the man who (1) brought us Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire and (2) makes a point of shooting photographs with one tool and shooting videos with another, much like a carpenter doesn’t hammer in a nail with a screwdriver.

And, from a technical standpoint, I have to agree with the Grandmaster that, if it isn’t printed, it isn’t photography. Graphé means drawing, after all.


Chased from the Garden of Eden


However, before we ban all smartphone photographers from the Garden of Eden (unless they are using Apple devices, of course. Who am I to discuss scriptures, right?) let’s examine the other half of photography’s etymology. Photo comes from the Greek word for light. No judgement is made of topic, subject, work methodology … Just sayin’.

More seriously, what I don’t get is how this photophony (sorry, just had to, and maybe Wim would accept this as an answer to his request for a new word) trend is a problem to traditional togs. I get that seeing a hundred people, all less interested in thorough image making than you, invading your field of view with selfie sticks in their hands can be a nuisance. But tourists of any kind are a nuisance to photographers, and they have just as much right to be there than we do. Maybe you can compose with them rather than without ?


These tourists made the shot


A very valid argument that co-author Philippe often makes to me when I send him my smartpics is that they would have been better served by a system with higher dynamic range and better control of depth of field. Agreed. Some photographs do look a lot better when made with a high-end system than with a phone, even a fairly recent one. This brings us into a territory I’m far more comfortable with : a proper tool for each task.

With the intense heat that’s been hitting us lately, and with the return to my usual camera feeling a little underwhelming after a 10 day flirt with a glorious Hasselblad X1D, I’ve been using my phone a lot lately. During a recent hike trip to the Alps, I shot at least 10x more with the phone than with the Sony / Zeiss gear. The scary part is that I enjoyed it and the resulting photographs a lot more … But that’s just me. And, as Philippe suggests, use the proper tool for every task.


Better with a Sony


There’s little doubt in my mind this would have been better served by an Otus than by whatever lens adorns my Galaxy S9. It doesn’t really matter to me for 2 reasons :

(1) With that sort of photograph that’s never going on my wall, I’m just training my eye. For this purpose, it’s a lot more intuitive to work with a phone than with a more complex system. So long as the photo conveys my intention, that’s me happy.

(2) I’m having a lot more fun with the phone. I’m sure Wim Wenders would appreciate the Polaroid-like instant feedback fun od a phone.

All this brings me to the subject of a soon to be published post about “dual speed photography” (using different systems for different end uses). But, if we get back to the original video, I think the most salient points being made are that :

  • no one sees the photographs, not even those who make them. That’s a real issue, one that affects all content production. The ease of creation has made content far more shallow and that’s a real problem. I wouldn’t limit this to phones. Just take a look at Flickrgram et al, the level of creativity and art is bafflingly low, even with people lugging by systems everywhere.
  • the less you have you more creative you have to become. This, to me, is the single most important point in favour of phones. At least old phones with one lens, one focal length, one … Manufacturers are rapidly following in the suicidal footsteps of mainstream camera manufacturers by making their products more elaborate and every more shitty to use. Simple is the key to freeing up the mind. But let’s face it, who wants to go to the pain and trouble of questioning their own creativity? That’s a tough path for anyone …
  • photography is no longer linked to the notion of truth anymore. GOOD !!!! Thank God for that. Why shackle ourselves when we can create ? Presets can make us lazy. And that’s no good. But why should the act of photography be restricted to before the act of clicking? Ansel Adams would shrivel at the thought, he who so passionately communicated that the negative (today, the file) is the score and the print (today the post processing) is the performance.


The horror of presets. Agreed, kind of.


Photophony, live long and prosper ! (all pics on this page made with my Galaxy S9)


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  • Brad Hawks says:

    How about “Phodultry”

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Breaking news! PCMag Australia just published a comparative of a iPhone and a Pen E. Here’s the summary of the result:

    What the tests reveal is that although the iPhone’s onboard software (or firmware) does an exceptional job of mimicking features like shallow DOF, it can’t completely compensate for what it captures in low-light settings, and it will inevitably introduce noise. And a large, more expensive lens paired with a large sensor captures more visual information than a small lens and tiny phone sensor can.

    Nevertheless, for the most part, the iPhone 8 Plus did a good job of keeping up with the Olympus PEN in tonal quality, color, and dynamic range. And of course, it’s the kind of camera most people are likely to have with them when unexpected photo ops present themselves. That fact alone brings this contest closer to a tie.

    See? – it’s easy! – EVERYONE is right! (That’s the best possible way of putting an end to this topic, as an “argument”! At my age, I’m fed up with people who “argue”. I much prefer it when everyone is nice to each other, and there’s simply a “discussion” or a “conversation”. Who knows? – maybe that will lead to everyone actually learning something!)

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Re-reading that last paragraph, I didn’t mean to cause offense. Just to suggest that perhaps we can now all agree on this one, because the evidence available suggests that everyone is “right”. So Paul and Adrian can keep using an Olympus, I can keep using my PowerShot (or my compact), Pascal doesn’t have to abandon his cellphone, and we can all heave a sigh of relief.

      Since I have the page to myself for a few more minutes, I will add this – I use the two smaller cams for a couple of reasons. One, to make sure I am not caught short, with NO camera. Two, to take exploratory shots when planning a serious photograph. And three, because I love taking candid shots (street stuff, pets, people, whatever), and they’re great for that. Ignoring pixels, though – there is one major downside – these small things take a lot more effort in PP. As long as the images stay digital, it doesn’t make a huge difference – but sometimes it gets a bit heavy, when you want to print them. I much prefer doing PP on images from cams in the HF & FF range – the 1″ sensor in the PowerShot just doesn’t always clear the bar, on that one, and I often find difficulty during PP, with some of the ones off compact cams (mine or other people’s).

      • pascaljappy says:

        Aha, that’s exactly what I mean by “dual speed” photography (dual intent would probably be a better wording for it). You’re absolutely right, post processing from tiny sensor cameras is a chore, so phones and tiny compacts are largely for sooc work or minor preset selection, in my mind.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yup. It’s much better when people talk … Clans have never brought anything but misery.

  • Robert Kruger says:

    Ironically, Wim Wenders took most of his photographs with a Polaroid instant camera, which was the Smartphone equivalent of its day.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly ! The difference was scarcity, because the printing process was expensive. So he probably shot a few frames a day, not a few hundred. That probably made him me selective. But there’s nothing to stop phone users being careful and diligent as well. I think the real issue is that easy technology reveals our laziest tendancies, like social media and series binging. But we’re the ones to blame, not the tool at our disposal. I think people interested in actual photography will make great photographs with phones and people who aren’t will make crappy photographs with more complex gear. It’s the thought process, not the camera.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        As Ansel said, it’s the person holding it that/who/whatever takes the photo, not the camera. A poor workman always blames his tools. 🙂

  • NMc says:

    Perhaps the dot point “the less you have you more creative you have to become” should be “the less automation you have the more creative (or perhaps involved) you can be”. At least removing automation, as opposed to simplification, requires some application and choices or decisions to be made, and maybe even some thought! In the case of all digital output it is the automation of the editing and distribution, not necessarily the creation, that is the problem.

    I have quite a different take on the “photography is no longer linked to the notion of truth anymore”. It is the expectation that what is presented in photographs, from Instagram worthy tourist locations to dating app profile pictures are nothing like the reality, and are all enhanced beyond truth to make them better. People do not trust themselves with less than perfect, well trigger warning folks, there is no such thing a perfect so go and find something you actually like instead!. People are not just enhancing or even simply lying, they are conforming to an algorithm generated optimum (opium?) that becomes a plastic homogenous norm through a feedback loop, all automated to the correct taste for your convenience. This is not just an absence of creativity; it is outsourcing the very basis of human experience to a computer.

    I probably should go and have a nice hot cup of tea and a good lie down now.
    Regards Noel

    • pascaljappy says:

      Noel !!! Some thought ? You want people to think ? How evil of you ! The great liberators have slaved over technology so we would have to focus, measure light, compose properly, worry about colour, post process and you would have us make decisions ? Beware, this line is not secure.

      You might be interested in this : https://phys.org/news/2018-01-secret-history-facebook-depression.html. It’s about Facebook but applies equally well to most social media. Online, people take on a fake representation. They idealise themselves (and feel inadequate for failing to meet the standards they, themselves, have set). Ideally fake is the new black.

      Enjoy the tea. I’d have one myself if they took off my straightjacket 😉

      • NMc says:

        Thanks Pascal that article has a quite interesting idea with regard to how people struggle by being required to behave in a uniform way for every situation/group identity you interact with. However it is not a good explanation of why someone would be false/fake for every one of the groups, rather than modify your behaviour to be suitable for both Grandma and the boss. The expectation to behave in a civil way in a small part of your existence is hardly a repression or oppression. Vanity, narcissism and attention seeking behaviour still seem to be the most obvious motivation or corruption, the depression happens when they realise that people, particularly people worth impressing, can recognise a fake.

  • pascaljappy says:

    That’s the billion dollar quastion. It’s probably just easier that way. Facing yourself is that hardest thing and nobody teaches us to do that.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    …but beware of the
    Galaxy Note 9 !

    “It tells you when you took a bad photo.”

    ( Aargh…)

    ” While there’s no new hardware to speak of, the Note 9 camera boasts some new AI. A feature called ‘Flaw detection’ can be toggled on and off in the camera settings menu, and presents the user with an on-screen indication when it detects a photo is too blurry, backlit or a subject is blinking. In our quick test the feature worked as advertised, and the notification isn’t too obtrusive.”
    [ https://m.dpreview.com/articles/7747286457/five-things-to-know-about-the-samsung-galaxy-note-9-s-camera ]

    And of the he Huawei P20 Pro that

    ( Grrr ! )

    ” uses a Master AI system … including AI-Assisted Composition (suggestions for framing group and landscape photos).”
    [ https://petapixel.com/2018/03/27/huawei-p20-pro-leica-triple-camera-iso-102400-dxomark-score-of-106/ ]

    Now where are we coming to…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh wow. All these “cool” life-enhancing features I’m missing out on with my old, 6-month old phone. I really most upgrade to one with AI, you are right 😀

      But all hope is not lost. Months, and months, ago, I ordered an Arsenal to test it (they wouldn’t loan me one …) It’s since been delayed and it is apparently now lost somewhere in Singapore. And it’s rumoured not to play well with Sony bodies. But if, against all odds, it one day functions on my A7r2, I’ll be happy to report how exquisite all that AI technology is working for me 😉

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Good luck Pascal!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:


        I read a bit about the Arsenal and it does seem to have some really useful features.
        And the included AI might make better SOOC JPGs for instant delivery if it also can influence the camera’s RAW to JPG settings or do its own RAW processing.

        It would be interesting to hear your views on it sometime!

        • pascaljappy says:

          I’ll review it as soon as it arrives. It’s been stuck in Singapore for over 2 weeks now, but there’s hope still I guess … The AI part might have a few nice tricks up its sleeve but what really decided me is the timelapse, pano … features that come in a phone app rather than through one of Sony unfathomable apps. I hope it serves as an integrated toolkit. If the post ever gets it here, we’ll know !

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