#786. Am I going crazy? (Using an inexpensive phone)

By Adrian | Opinion

Nov 14

Dear Susan member Pascal has written before about the rise of the camera phone and his appreciation for it’s simplicity. They have certainly captured the imagination of the consumer market, and have essentially killed off low end pocket cameras, leaving camera makers like Panasonic and Sony moving increasingly upmarket with ultra wide range zooms and enthusiast models that cost more than an entry level DSLR. Clearly the rise of the camera phone has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media, and their always-on internet connectivity has clearly been a major part of their appeal.


Park Ventures Ecoplex, Bangkok


Obviously, Dear Susan contributors are enthusiast photographers and esoteric lens lovers, and must therefore be mostly exempt from the appeal of the camera phone – I say mostly due to dear Pascal’s love of his Korean fancy, in spite of his greater love for all things Otus. I too thought I was exempt from the lure of them until last year when private conversion amongst Dear Susan’s members led me to dig out what few pictures I hadn’t taken with my phone. I was surprised and a little impressed at the snaps it took.


Atlas Bar, Singapore, HDR mode


Being a maverick/outsider/weirdo (I let you delete as appropriate), I’ve been using handsets running Microsoft’s Windows Phone since Windows 7. My most recent phone was a Microsoft Lumia 640XL running Windows 10, bought for around £130 because of it’s large screen and long battery life. It turned out it’s camera was surprisingly good for such a modest phone.


Chiang Mai temple, HDR mode


Since Microsoft announced their withdrawal from the mobile phone market it’s days have been numbered, as new features and app support dwindled. I had become quite attached to it during a career break around 3 years ago, when it proved it’s worth during many months of travel. So it was that I wanted to give it a last outing on a recent holiday and see what it’s camera could do.


Evening prayers, HDR mode


The camera module was fairly standard for it’s time, with a 13Mp 1/3″ sensor behind a Zeiss branded 28mm f2 lens. Whatever the actual origins of its design, the lens seems surprisingly good, recording as much detail as the sensor seems to allow.  The Microsoft camera app with Windows 10 has full auto and manual modes, with an interesting HDR mode that captures multiple exposures and then allows them to be blended using a slider when reviewing the photo later.


Moody Hills


My use on this trip didn’t typify most consumers, as the in-camera jpegs were edited with Adobe Elements for Windows Phone, and the phone was sometimes clamped to a MeFOTO travel tripod, which came with a phone adapter for it’s ball head. Tripod purists would dislike the Me FOTO models as they are lightweight and therefore not very sturdy, but for smaller cameras such as mirrorless, and with my bag as ballast on a clip beneath the centre column, it’s good enough and very small and light for travelling.


Palm tree sky


As a result of other challenges life has thrown up, I haven’t picked up a camera for any serious photography for over a year. Although I had taken “proper” cameras on my trip, they didn’t get a great deal of use as my holiday was more for relaxation than for busying myself with photography. As a result, the camera often stayed at the hotel whilst my phone went with me.


Distant storm I


Distant Storm II


One of the interesting challenges of composing photographs with a phone was the native aspect ratio of 4:3. Users of m43rds cameras will be quite comfortable with it, and I know many prefer it to the more common 3:2 ratio of 35mm format, but having almost exclusively used the latter, 4:3 took a little time to get used to how use the frame. I often found it easier to compose in a cropped 16:9 format that fills the screen, but that may have been because it happened to suit some of my subjects more. In the end, I shot in native 4:3 and then cropped as needed afterwards, feeling quite unconstrained by any particular format.


Flowers study




Burberry check, HDR mode


As anyone who has ever used a small sensor camera will know, they work well at low ISO values, where the small sensor and large fixed aperture create a large depth of field that can be used to minimise the ISO required. However, where they generally do less well is in harsh or poor light, where limited dynamic range can cause clipped highlights.  Using such a modest camera at times became an exercise in creativity, as the weather conditions weren’t always great, cloudy skies challenging the ideal of sunny south east Asia.


Abstract Roofline I


Ascent/Descent I


Ascent/Descent II


Abstract Roofline II, HDR mode


Cricket, HDR mode


I think my phone was sulking as it had already been replaced with a newer model and had only come along for the ride. at times a real problem child, and had to be reset when it’s camera decided to only write thumbnails rather than full size jpegs. It soldiered on for the last few days to Singapore, where it seemed to come into it’s own – one day my photos and their edits came to almost 2Gb, and my experimentation and creativity blossomed. The pictures probably wouldn’t suit serious landscape or architectural photographers, but they made me feel happy.


Ion I, HDR mode


Ion II, HDR mode


Ion III, HDR mode


As enthusiasts we often become obsessed with resolution, lens MTF charts, sensor dynamic range, and all things esoteric and expensive, and in doing so we perhaps lose sight of what photography should probably be about – story telling or art and creativity. I found a tremendous sense of freedom using my phone with its 28mm f2 lens to try all sorts of things that I thought wouldn’t work, editing them on the phone, and being happy and often surprised by the results.


Bridge, HDR mode


Fountain of wealth


Ascent/Descent III


It made me me question what photography really is about. We forget how spoilt we have become by modern digital cameras, and that not many years ago some photographers were using slide film with its limited dynamic range and no chance to see the result until days or weeks later. My cheap phone seemed to have taken me full circle back to a simpler type of photography, where a fixed lens and the limitations of the media weren’t seen as problems, merely something to be worked with.


Porthole, HDR mode


Ascent/Descent IV


The eye, HDR mode


Ascent/Descent V, HDR mode


I know many of the pictures here have clipped highlights, lots of noise reduction, are over cooked, too saturated and probably have a host of other issues – but I don’t really care. Using my phone as a camera had been fun, had promoted experimentation and creativity, and created a lot of memories along the way.


Singapore Skyline I


Singspore Skyline II, HDR mode


It felt like a fitting end for my Lumia, snapping the skyscrapers and the reflections on the water. It was somewhat ironic that having mostly ignored it’s camera during the time of ownership, now that it had come to the end of its useful life as a phone, I grown rather attached to it as a camera. I may well keep snapping with it in the future, just for the sake of it.


Note that this article and all the photos were created and edited on a phone.  I haven’t viewed any of the photos on a larger screen, so if their technical quality offends anyone I can only apologise.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Chacun à son goût – I appreciate what you have done Adrian and I agree wholeheartedly that we should try whatever gear we would like to. As we did when we were children – we learn by exploring.

    That said – I do not own a smart phone and I am planning to avoid ever doing so. I leave it all to you and Pascal.

    FYI – Apple’s latest (highly expensive!) iPhone is giving trouble – the touch screens are uncontrollable. And Samsung’s much vaunted model 10 ain’t appearing in any great hurry, because they’re having terrible troubles with the camera. Release date postponed till 2020 – OMG!

    And as for Microsoft – their behaviour in relation to my PC was totally unacceptable and I will NEVER buy anything further from them, ever again.

  • pascaljappy says:

    Adrian, let’s start with what matters : your photographs are absolutely fantastic, thanks for sharing those!

    Onto the topic of phones. To me, their legitimacy is real, for 3 reasons :
    * They foster a process that’s generally a lot more fun than what we experience with traditional cameras. Your choice of terms “joie de vivre” capture it perfectly. And if we’re not doing this hobby to make ourselves happy, then why?
    * There is a look to some phone images that I defy anyone to recreate in post. Sadly, that look is rapidly disappearing as manufacturers repeatedly fail to comprehend that “different is good” and try to copy the big boys (which is scientifically impossible).
    * Some photographs are simply far easier with a phone, therefore phones open up the shooting envelope. Good luck to anyone trying to reproduce that incredible cricket shot with a DSRL. Not in a million years.

    So phones have their limitations. Good. Let’s work with these limitations rather than against them. Much like Adam’s last post on the M9 highlighted some limitations of that camera (then proceded to show fab pictures made with it), I think we should embrace specialisation rather than search for that elusive (and so effing boring) tool that can do it all. Distant storm I and II (to name just these 2) have that old Polaroid look that I would really really love to have, in small prints, on the wall. Fabulous stuff that a “better” system will just kill completely.

    My guess is that it’s far more difficult to produce photographs of the caliber you have shown here with a phone, so people have a natural antipathy and prefer to curl back into the comforting womb of the huge DSLR with battery grip and humongous zoom. That makes your stunning shots even more commendable and useful. Thanks again.

    • Adrian says:

      Pascal, much food for thought in your comments.

      Regarding “Joie De Vivre” (of using a phone), for me it is similar to how I feel when I use a very basic camera, such as my Sony A3000. The options and controls are that much lower, and as a result I think the expectations are different, which I have also found liberating. I think it merely creates a different mindset and approach in use.

      I’d never thought of phones having a “look”, but since most makers use the same camera modules and similar processing techniques it’s inevitable they end up taking similar pictures.

      Which bring me to your thoughts on simplicity… With a fixed aperture and nearly infinite depth of field at most focus distances, there is a certain freedom, and no need to worry about aperture, hyperfocal distances etc. In most cases I used my phone in full auto mode with multi shot HDR turned on, and only used it in manual mode when on a tripod. There simply aren’t that many settings – iso, wb presets normally left on auto, exposure compensation, and shutter speed, which I don’t think I’ve ever used.

      What was also liberating was just shotting jpegs and editing them on a small screen. No raw, no worrying about fine details, noise reduction settings… The final look of the pictures owes much to the filters and basic adjustments possible in Adobe Elements for Windows phone (much less fully featured than other versions). Many of the photos show little similarity to the original jpegs, and any “skill” was recognising which filter effects and adjustments would work to give a certain look. For example, the distant Storm photos you so kindly comment on were deliberately given that look as it suited the rather flat conditions, and although I dislike too much “styling” of pictures using filters, I thought the “low fi” look suited them – there is frankly no fine detail to see, they are all about atmosphere. I doubt if I would have processed a file from a proper camera in the same way as I don’t like filters for “serious” editing – so that was liberating too.

      Lastly I think working from a small screen focuses the attention more on overall impact, structure and a graphic quality over 200% fine detail, and therefore the “look” and atmosphere of a picture becomes far more important. I would say that was the biggest learning point – don’t sweat all the small details, worry about the look and feeling of how you capture and edit the result.

      Strangely, I didn’t feel any difficulty taking or editing these photos, which was one of the joys of taking them. Perhaps with a different set of expectations I just got “into the zone” with how best to use such a humble camera and it all felt quite natural – more circumstance and luck than any great skill.

      I loved some of your pictures from Japan, but I now find myself wondering how they might have looked if you had taken accompanying pictures with, and edited them on, your phone? It has opened up many questions for me about simplicity and creativity that I definitely hope I can recteate, rather than these pictures being just a one off stroke of luck.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Pascal’s final paragraph tinkles bells, for me. There are several issues relating to cellphone cameras that seem to me to remain unresolved – and perhaps difficult to resolve.

        One is that the photos they take appear to be limited – in the sense that they don’t appear to enlarge very much, before they are smothered in pixel noise. I may be quite wrong – it’s just my impression at the moment.

        The other is backlighting of the screen when you’re trying to use it to photograph something. I have enough problems with that, with screens on the back of my DSLRs – but they do offer an alternative. I’ve yet to see an alternative on a cellphone, although I’m sure it’s technically possible to produce one.

        But I did appreciate the quality of your photos as I went through the article, Adrian. They are an outstanding tribute to your skills as a photographer!

        • Adrian says:

          I did write a reply to your earlier comment during my commute, but then in spite of me living in London, I went through a location with no service and my comment was lost!

          To answer last things first, thanks for your kind comments. I’m not convinced it wasn’t some serendipitous fortune rather than skill, but I will take the compliment!

          As for file quality, at low ISO, the files from my humble phone are very clean, and the in phone jpeg engine isn’t bad – files have detail and generally aren’t ruined by over enthusiastic noise reduction. My “what’s in my bag” article had shots taken in a dim bar at ISO 4000 that were amazingly good, and don’t look bad on a 12″ screen (A4 ish size). The sensor modules in decent phones are akin to those in small sensor compact cameras, so quality should be at least as good, and I think phone makers have been smarter at automatically optimising the jpegs to create results more pleasing to consumers.

          I agree that composing on a screen is problematic in bright daylight, and my phone offers no histogram, so it can be difficult to see composition or judge exposure (although it generally exposes very well). Interestingly, and something I forgot to add to the article, after capture the jpegs are processed automatically for a few seconds, which often increased brightness and appeared to adjust levels or similar, particularly on dark pictures such as the one in the header – meaning the live preview and the post shot jpegs often didn’t really match. I just had to understand what the final files would look like from a few test shots, and then learn how the live preview would look in the final file. Judging exposures from screens without any guide such as a histogram or live “blinkies” (zebra stripes) can be really misleading and problematic.

          As to your earlier post, Apple.have successfully managed to plant the idea that the iPhone is a good camera through marketing, when the truth is that for several generations it hasn’t exactly been class leading. Many phones use similar sensors, which of course improve with every generation. Since Apple moved their prices skyward, other brands have followed – Chinese maker Huawei have a phone with a well regarded camera that even in Thailand retails for £700-800, and Samsung and the others are the same. Phone OS has become a 2 horse race between Apple iOS and Google’s Android, with Blackberry and Microsoft withdrawing from that market. I actually believe that Windows Phone had technical advantages over at least Android, and a better user interface than the big 2, but it never became successful enough to make money, and consumer spending choices for handsets are somewhat like cars, and driven by issues of status and image more than need or utility – hence Apple and Samsung increase prices and consumers happily pay for the kudos of being seen with their shiny new toy. Fortunately there is still plenty of life and development in the middle market, where customers who don’t want to spend the national debt of South America can get a handset that does 95% the same for a quarter of the price, although their cameras may not be as good as the flagship models with their 4 lenses etc.

  • Adam Bonn says:

    Well ordinarily Adrian if asking “Am I going crazy? (Using an inexpensive phone)” I’d reply something like, you really ought to quit freebasing crack cocaine it’s messing with your judgement…. but having actually seen the pictures you’ve presented, I think I need to expand my own mind (just not by freebasing crack cocaine)

    Your pictures here ‘just’ look like pictures, there’s nothing about them that speaks of the device used, and plenty that speaks of the eye and the vision of the photographer.

    • Adrian says:

      Thanks for your kind comments – if the pictures just look like pictures then in the context of using a £130 smartphone, I’d say that’s pretty high praise – even I was quite surprised by how well they worked, but I think I “got into it” and found my mojo with it, the field of view, the format etc.

      When I eventually viewed some of the pictures on my.laptop this week, the fine detail isn’t as good as larger formats,.although some of the slight softness may be the result of the multi shot HDR mode and an unsteady hand.

      On my what’s in my.bag post there is an iso 4000 shot with my phone that after some post processing was kind of staggering, and what it lacks technically IMHO it makes up for with atmosphere.

      These pictures made me revaluate my own view of small sensor devices and phones in particular, and were certainly much more fun to take and edit that using a big camera.

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