#1315. In defense of the smartphone, again.

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Oct 05

A new perspective on an old question.

 

Beyond the use as a visual notebook, at which it excels, the smartphone has progressed tremendously to capture more and more of the ‘serious’ photography market. Periscope lenses, larger sensors, better colour science, better DR, RAW files, and probably more, add to the list of features bridging the technical gap between phone cameras and traditional digital cameras.

All of this while another gap is forming between the two camps, one that not only grows daily but will presumably not be filled anytime soon, in the form of computational photography. Stuffing cameras with computer power to enable the new features is something the incumbents still don’t seem to have wrapped their heads around, beyond quantitative performance enhancements (fps and AF speed, both important only to a few percent of actual photographers).

 

So yes, in daylight, phones are getting dangerously close to far more cumbersome and expensive gear. And even some fine art photographers are starting to take them seriously.

But that’s not where I find phones most useful and legitimate. After all, most of the photos on this page are made using a venerable Samsung Galaxy 9, many years old now, and I doubt they would have been that much better using an iPhone 15 Pro Max.

No, to me, the form factor (and vaaaaaaaaaaastly superior screen) is what makes the phone so indispensable.

 
 
 

For photographs such as the 3 above, there’s little doubt my equally venerable X1D produces nicer looking files. Below is an example of the Hassy’s version of the middle scene. At 100%, there’s no contest. At screen resolution, I’ll let you decide how much better the bottom version is compared to the one above.

The fact is that even a medium format camera hits limits in highlight recovery that computational photography can easily circumvent (on a recent phone, that is, not with my antique ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). And the apparent dynamic range in modern phones is simply better than what a single high-quality RAW file can offer.

X1D
 

In practice, my phone produces some more pleasing results in a minority of cases. My camera typically beats it hands down, particularly when light is in short supply. In the example below, I prefer the phone’s output, for example. But that’s rarely the case.

X1D
 
S9
 

My typical decision tree for picking one of the two is short: for images that will deserve PP, it’s the Hassy. For images that can be displayed with little or no editing, mainly souvenirs, it’s the phone.

But even that is challenged by the charge of the lighter device, as the default look out of modern phones is so nice it actually questions my desire to do any PP at all!

No, to me, the form factor really is the main discriminant, as the smaller tool simply frees up my mind to shoot more instinctually, more freely, more reactively. More and more, I’m feeling traditional cameras shine for preplanned shooting, or any type of photography that requires special tooling (such as Philippe’s environmental macro portraits, for instance). And maybe even that second use case won’t last long, given the rapid expansion of the smartphone’s shooting envelope.

 
 
 

My phone encourages me to pursue that most sociopathic of endeavours: photographing other human beings. Of course, I understand that engaging in such unspeakable practices in France will make an outcast of me.

But that’s where the phone takes me.

With my X1D in hand, my mind longs for Ansel Adams and Micheal Kenna. The phone tugs me towards Martin Parr.

 

That’s not to say the Hassy couldn’t have made the above 4 shots. It could and they might even have looked better. But the blob of grease behind either camera simply reacts differently to the different tools. The phone is now so ubiquitous that it kind of offers me some sort of “normie shielding”, it doesn’t draw attention to my despicable soul stealing efforts.

Of course, the astute observer will have noted that it doesn’t quite impart on me the courage of seeking full frontals, or even distant but easily recognizable faces (maybe one day AI will change the faces of the people we photograph, for the safety of their afterlife and to keep photographers away from the bureaucratic lash?)

Still, I do find the two cameras very complementary. And the fact is that my heart longs for images of the human kind, such as the one above. And even images traditionally reserved for my X1D (below) don’t turn out that bad on the lesser machine. So, my phone is seeing more and more use. And my next camera will be … a phone. Will there be image degradation? Yeah! But I’m in it for the image-making, not for the pixel-peeping.

 
 
 

Of course, this being me, where would the fun be if, when arriving at such a simple and beautiful conclusion, I didn’t throw in some last minute anguish into the shopping cart? ๐Ÿ˜‰

You see, I kinda like the look and limitations of my S9. In fact, I liked the S6 even better. Every new improvement in the quantitative domain seems to come at the expense of an equal step back in the soft realm of aesthetics.

Which begs the question: will I like my new phone as much ? The S9 blows highlights much sooner than most things photographic on the market, but it does so more pleasingly. See the clouds in photo nยฐ3 on this page, for a painfully obvious example. That is almost film like, and therefore precious to me.

 
 

Will the new kid in my bag be more beautiful, or merely more competent? Time will tell. Apparently, its fruity manufacturer is facing production and quality issues, so it might take a while before the head to head mano a mano takes place. Let’s hope I don’t facepalm after the purchase!

 

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  • Jeffrey Horton says:

    I love that photo on the boat of the back of the woman’s head. There are a lot of beautiful shots here, maybe it’s not important with what hardware they were created?

  • PaulB says:

    Pascal

    Another fine set of images to show that the tool is not as important as the person using it.

    There are times when I am out photographing that I miss the invisibility that using a phone provides us. Though, my general habit is, with a camera I am pursuing images of a โ€œhigherโ€ calling. With my phone, I am capturing images to share on social media.

    Of course, there are times when either camera fills the void, though I tend to be single minded and will need to force myself to use my phone if I have my camera.

    Concerning technology advances in the new phone cameras, you may notice another shift in your appreciation of highlights as occurred with previous phones. It seems the trend in sensor development and DR processing is to get more information from the shadows, rather than the highlights.

    Good luck with your new fruity phone. I will look forward to your first impressions of its photo abilities.

    PaulB

    PS. Am I really the first to post? Or is this a trick of a lag in the data stream? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Paul, thank you for the kind words. Yes, the recent “advances” in phones seem to mirror those in cameras, and may not suit me at all. If phones are worse at highlights and better at shadows, I will just have to underexpose systematically, as is the case with my X1D. Though that defeats the point of using a phone, in my mind. We shall see ๐Ÿ˜‰ Cheers

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I believe I’ve suggested this before. <> Which roughly translates as “everyone to their own tastes”, or something like that.

    I resent the fact that a piece of equipment that I bought as a “telephone” has a hundred and 91 other functions, to drive me bats. But since I’m stuck with the “fact” that’s all you can get, as a portable telephone, you are asking what I think of it. Very little.

    For years I had a neanderthal second hand Nokia cellphone that truly WAS a cellphone. It held its charge remarkably well – something I CANNOT say about its successors. It slipped into a small side pocket was no trouble, didn’t need a protective case, could always be relied upon.

    Now I have a bazooka to do the job of an air rifle. It’s heavy – bulky – requires a protective cover case, which is falling to bits and can no longer be replaced (and no, I am NOT buying a new phone for some reason as silly as that). But your question relates to its photographic abilities. Well it’s not a $2,500 iPhone, it won’t get my breakfast ready, it can’t even make a cup of coffee! I think I’ve so far taken about 50 photos with it, and you could halve that number with culling.

    Do I like taking photos with it? Not much. Why not? How am I suppose to avoid having its blasted cover flapping around in front of the lens? The sun backlighting the one and only viewfinder – a screen – making it hell on earth try to see what I’m trying to photograph? – or am I meant to have a slave following me around, to hold an umbrella over my head whenever I want to shoot something with it?

    As for some of my monkey games – like shooting a composite image on my stackshot rail, or using one of my tilt-shift lenses, or all of my MACRO stuff – naah – forget it.

    Conclusion? I’ve really only ever used it as a “camera” simply “because it was there”, and I would otherwise have had to go find a camera that wasstored with the rest of my gear. But I do have one use for it -photographic use, if not exactly “as a camera”. With the Snapbridge APP on it, I can use it as a remote for my “real” cameras. Which is actually handy – because the remotes I can buy from the manufacturer of the cameras don’t have the same range, and because I don’t have to remember to pack a remote since the Snapbridge is permanently in my pocket.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete, over here you can buy phones that only do phone things. No camera, no internet, just phones. They are very useful for many applications, including digital detox, or hiking. And, as you suggest, their batteries last forever. You may be interested ๐Ÿ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Very, Pascal – but the only one I’veseen here is made for “old people”, and has buttons suitable for use by a person with five thumbs on each hand. Rather too large, to be convenient. If I stopped grumbling about the contraption, I do find it handy to have access to the internet, send SMS messages, run Snapbridge, run the timer, clock etc. But I’me definitely not the market for cellphones sold on the basis of their built in camera, multliple lenses, AI processing etc etc.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Hi Pete,

    I can pretty much relate to what you say and agree with your sentiments in general. High end phones used for photography are pretty overpriced when compared to say a pocketable larger sensored compact with decent optics and reasonable zoom for casual shooting. Phones are too finicky to use for photography I find. But the manufacturers of phones certainly are way head when it comes to fancy software assist. For those who identify as phone photographers keep on clicking and enjoy though.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ian, you’re right, but I think that a large part of the phone’s pull is that it’s always with us. A compact is just another thing. And the phone is a complete package with auto backup, memory thingies that show you where you were 3 years ago. There are a lot more side benefits, including sharing, for those so inclined. I’m not, but the fact that the ubiquitous phone makes me more or less invisible as a photographer, in a country where people look at you like you’re a mass rapist if you photograph in their direction, is really a plus. Cheers.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I still have in my head the example of the moron with the iPhone, who demanded to know what I was doing with my camera set up on a tripod, and a lens combo. equivalent to 1.8 metres, photographing an island off the coast, to take my 30 frames of the island home and process them, to produce a panoramic shot of the island.

        He wanted me to let him have a copy – when I said “nothing doing”, he produced his iPhone and said “Oh well, I can do that” – and proudly showed me the result – a deep royal blue coloured image shaped like a severely deformed banana, with a heavily serrated edge.

        And went off, chortling.

        I left half an hour later, and went home to start the process of stitching my images into a panorama. Which is about 8 feet/2.5 metres long, 8 inches/20 centimetres high, and hangs above our bed, since there’s nowhere else in the house with a wide enough flat space to hang it. No serrated edge, though.

        It’s all good – I’m happy using “cameras”, cellphones don’t “do it” for me, and I’m happy to be left behind. I also never wore flairs, don’t watch cricket, do love classical music, don’t want a Lambo, prefer “style” to “fashion”, and don’t eat fast “food”.

        In short – I’m happy being “me”, and the rest of the world can do whatever it wants.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    In my humble opinion, a camera or an iPhone is simply a tool which can take photographs. Itโ€™s up to the person operating either one whether the resulting image will be art or โ€œsomething to share on social media,โ€ as Paul B wrote. I find the iPhone to be very versatile as well as exceedingly simple to use – probably because Iโ€™m not a technical photographer no matter my choice of tool. I always have my iPhone with me, which means that I can take advantage of any serendipitous discoveries! I guess that makes me Team iPhoneโ€ฆโ€ฆ
    I did enjoy your lovely examples which perfectly illustrated your opinions – nice work, Pascal!

    • pascaljappy says:

      So true, Nancee. And you prove it regularly.
      I think I wrote before that camera makers had stuck to digitization while phone manufacturers had invested heavility in digitalization, providing the user with a tool that’s both always there and incredibly convenient. That matters to me more and more. Thank you for the kind comments, too ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    Camera or phone?
    Does it matter to the viewer?
    I don’t think so – each has advantages and limitations but both are tools to enable the user.
    We can get a bit “purist” for no reason other than resistance to change – we see this in the insistence by some to only shoot film.
    We can embrace technology or leave it alone – at least we are free to choose.

    Good article and images – I love the way gravity has apparently been defied in the first image ๐Ÿ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Peter, no it doesn’t matter at all to the viewer. I think it’s mostly in the mind of the photographer. The phone makes me feel invisible.It’s purely in my mind … And it’s in other people’s minds, for other reasons. And I agree with you in that resistance to chance and sunk costs probably plays a major role in the rebutal of the phone. Also, thank you for the kind words ๐Ÿ™‚ Cheers

      • PaulB says:

        Pascal

        I donโ€™t think itโ€™s in your mind.

        When I am out doing street photography, I have noticed that I am noticed sooner and farther away the bigger my camera and lens combination is. Also, from my experience lens diameter & length seems to be noticed first, then the camera body size. As I get attention sooner with a Sony A7 size body with a Zeiss 50mm f1.4 EF, than my Leica SL2 with the 50mm f2 Summicron M.

        When I use my phone, or a point and shoot, no one seems to pay any attention to me.

        PaulB

        • pascaljappy says:

          Yes, they have become so ubiquitous nowadays that nobody cares. And since their typical users probably don’t spy on others, they probably don’t think we are spying on them. All good ๐Ÿ™‚

          Cheers

  • Jon Maxim says:

    Hi Pascal,

    Do I have to repeat the old saying, “The best camera is the one you have with you”? I guess I do.

    That has to be the biggest advantage to the phone camera – plus all the others in your article, plus all the other comments. My rather strange problem is that I hate the placement of the lens in the phones. I vastly prefer using a viewfinder which enables me not to notice where the lens is placed in the camera. But when I have to use the “dirty baby diaper” hold to view the screen of a phone, I have great difficulty in knowing how to move the phone to correct the orientation of the camera. I think that it is because I expect the lens to be in the middle of the “camera”.

    Also, I find it difficult to hold the phone to shoot. I have managed to overcome that by adding an aftermarket grip to the phone, but now the phone is not so easy to carry or you have to carry the grip separately making your pocket bulky, delay the picture taking taking it on and off, etc., etc.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Very true, Jon. When holding the phone in one hand, I always struggle to trigger the shot with my twisted fingers having a hard time to reach the bottom of the screen. As for lens placement, I have got used to it, but it isn’t intuitive. Lenses in the middle probably wouldn’t look as cool ๐Ÿ˜‰ Though I guess the real reason for the placement is that most phone photographers mostly photograph vertically. Manufacturers cater to the masses and photographers like us don’t really get considered in any of those decisions, I guess. Oh well ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Cheers

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