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 😉 ). And the apparent dynamic range in modern phones is simply better than what a single high-quality RAW file can offer.
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.
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? 😉
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 n°3 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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