#1366. Are Smartphones the real successors to film cameras?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Jun 12

Save for a few tradeoffs, they’re closer in spirit than you might think.

Google Pixel 8. SOOC. The (notoriously difficult) reds are excellent.
 

My interest in smartphones as serious photographic tools is not new, nor is it a secret. I’ve written about it many times on this blog. And though part of my initial attraction was more a gag reflex to the repulsively terrible ergonomics and images aesthetics of some earlier digital cameras, I now feel that modern smartphones also do a better job of capturing the experience of shooting film than DSLRs and mirrorless offerings from almost any brand out there. My initial defense of phones hinged on an important distinction in how “proper cameras” and phones handle their respective files:

Digitisation (in the context of photography) is simply scanning, or creating a digital file in the first place, in place of a sliver of celluloid. It’s what cameras do and for a long time, all that cameras did. They then left you to your own devices to handle backup, editing, sharing, printing, … It’s like all your company’s files existed on an SD card, and that’s it. While that might be enough for home finance pottering, it’s certainly no fun and terribly unprofessional. Worse, in my eyes, it placed the onus on file characteristics (often to the exclusion of all other criteria) and led to the idiotic pixel race and the poorly understood quantification of image quality.

Digitalisation means bringing your images into a digital environment and workflow. I don’t backup my Hassy file, except for a few prints, but all my phone pics are automatically uploaded to a cloud storage as I sleep. I simply pay my 30 bucks a year and forget about anything else. Compare that to the RAID systems + vault + cloud backup strategies that some of you have described in other posts … It’s not just about the money, but time, energy and peace of mind. Being absent from social media means that most sharing wizardry is lost on me, but it’s there for those who enjoy that, and even I partake with family on WhatsApp.

Have you ever used squid ink in your printer? πŸ˜‰ Google Pixel 8. Manual edits.
 

But, today, several other arguments contribute to this feeling that phones get an unjustifiably bad reputation. The fist of which is better highlight management. I know, this seems to matter more to me than to most other togs, and that baffles me, to be honest. Also, it must be said that some cameras do a better job of highlight management than others. Take a look at any of Ian Varkevisser’s e-film posts and you’ll see wonderful highlights everywhere.

Highlight management doesn’t mean not blowing them, it means either preserving them or breaking to pure white in a pleasing manner (ie softly, not with the usual brutal step). That was a hallmark of film. In spite of lower measured dynamic range, it handled extremes in scene a lot better than the vast majority of top end cameras today. Film also sacrificed shadow detail for good highlights, which is how the human eye deals with light as well, while most digital cameras do the opposite, and look unnatural for it. It’s no surprise to me that some of the bigger names in the camera world have started adopting a default tone curve that looks a lot more film-like than just a few years ago. And a tiny company such as Pixii is to be commended for going all in, in that respect.

The second is pleasing colour rendition. Today, the buzzword is accuracy, although top end cameras rarely are accurate. A “colour science” signature is often present, but doesn’t go far enough to qualify as a house aesthetic. That’s – wisely – left to presets and profiles (hear that, Hasselblad, profiles?) usually as third-party purchases.

Google Pixel 8. Slight manual editing.
 

Today’s camera manufacturers have a tough job, as they need to master four different unrelated competencies :

  • Camera and lens manufacturing. Which is why Sony bought Minolta, why Hasselblad and Leica still dominate in the quality stakes, and (probably) why so much resistance to change can be found in the old incumbents.
  • Electronics. Which is why Sony’s internal packaging is so superb while those coming from a mechanical manufacturing background have had such a rough time getting up to speed.
  • Image aesthetics (tone curve, colour, noise and grain). Which is why it’s no surprise that Fuji has such a loyal following of users madly in love with its camera’s colours and emulations, and why Sony of old did such a pisspoor job of producing images that didn’t make you want to barf. Film manufacturers devoted years of research to the look of a film stock, quantitative performance be damned. In a way, Leica digital cameras also each have a look, but – to my eyes – not distinct enough to qualify as different aesthetics, in the way presets or filmstock do. They feel more like incentives for customers to purchase multiple cameras in the range.
  • Software. This is the most amusing aspect to me, as I spent the first 22 years of my pro life working exclusively for software editors and it baffles me to see how so many, even today, even some large companies have no clue about how that’s done. Concepts such as agility, UX and technical debt are still widely misunderstood, and it’s taken the best manufacturers well over a decade to offer something decent.

So, watching the first 20 years of digital photography was like watching a slow-mo struggle of manufacturers in one or more of those dimensions, as each emerged from one of them and morphed into a provider of all four, each with their own deficiencies and successes. And, even today, there’s a sense of schizophrenia in many cameras that still points to those difficulties of integration.

Porsche Targa. Google Pixel 8. Ollie preset.
 

But smartphones aren’t like that. They haven’t been for a long, long time. I’ve just bought a Pixel 8 because my Samsung Galaxy S9’s mike and speakers gave up on me (and, in a blatant display of my age, I actually use the thing for phone calls). The Pixel’s got a brighter screen and a battery that lasts longer than a youtube video. Apart from that? No difference worth writing about. Same thing when I moved from the Galaxy S6 to the S9, apart from more pixels but worse colours. Phones have been well polished, reliable, easy and fun to use, efficient tools for at least 15 years.

In that way, they resemble film cameras. At least the later generations that had benefited from decades of evolution into some sort of conventional haptics. They were easy, they were fun, and they were super fast and intuitive to use. Then a generation of engineers who’d obviously never taken a shot in their lives proceeded to tear all this down and created a user experience that not only caused a 90% drop in sales but will baffle historians for centuries to come πŸ˜‰

As paradoxical as it may sound, I find the experience of shooting with a phone quite similar to shooting with my last film cameras (ie two Mamiya 7 ii bodies) in some ways. The above blue shot with the Ollie preset sure is reminiscent.

Water lilies. Google Pixel 8. Magic eraser and manual edits.
 

OK, the huge elephant in the room is obvious. Shooting with film implies the anticipation and surprise of having film developed. But I don’t chimp with my Hassy and I don’t chimp with my phone. It’s a question of workflow preferences.

Where I do see a major difference between the two is where the final image must be delivered. With film, as with smartphones, this is largely in-camera. Whereas conventional digital cameras frequently offer huge dynamic range and a not-that-satisfying look out of the box, pointing you to post-processing. Note that Ian, as illustrated by his e-film series, does the in-camera thing with a Fuji camera. So it’s possible.

In my case, though, the dichotomy is clear. I’ll use the Hassy not when I want to photograph something, but when I want to indulge in some PP. And I honestly can’t think of a better camera for it (except possibly the X2D). Whereas the phone is all in-camera. There is no longer a quality consideration in play, and I find the Pixel’s images good enough to record memories such as travel shots, by itself.

St Cyprien. Google Pixel 8. Ember preset. Not my style, but it’s there for those who like that.
 

And, while I’m being heretical: it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see HCB using a smartphone for his work …

So there you have it. The best possible files for PP enjoyment on the one side. And the in-camera tonal curve, pleasing colour and looks, and intuitive ergonomics of film cameras, without the total experience of loading and developing, but with the peace of mind that comes with well thought-out digitalisation, on the other. All is not perfect. Ergonomics are far from ideal. And I don’t expect a die-hard film-photographer to happily jump to a phone. But, for me, the future is in finding a better app than the standard one. And I do think all those considering film for its aesthetic qualities and an escape from the traditional camera’s idiosyncrasies should consider this option too.

In-camera vs in-PP. To me, this is where the only real camera / phone divide is left today (with some cameras able to do both). And I find it significant that Leica is releasing an app that gives smartphones a bit of that Leica lens look. It’s great news for iPhone users.

Barbecue. Google Pixel 8.
 

Now let’s hear it. I’ve brought out the pillory.

One final note. For this post, I have deliberately chosen images taken in sunlight that would qualify as brutal, the sort of light in which most cameras would stay in their bag. Just sayin’ πŸ˜‰

 

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  • Pascal O. says:

    Hi Pascal,
    Your pictures are unquestionably very beautiful, I especially like the water lilies.
    But for me, the ergonomics of a mobile phone simply do not work. I just dislike them as I try and keep as small a phone as possible (yes, I still use it to make calls πŸ˜‰ )
    I prefer (as a Sony user) the approach taken to shrink the size of some of their bodies with the recent offerings of the C (for compact) range.

    Moreover, the pictures taken here, undoubtedly on a par with those that could have been taken with a regular digital body, are in environments with good light and stills. I would also be interested to see how your new Google handles sports, low light environments.

    I agree with you that there is and will continue to be a convergence in IQ between mobile phone and interchangeable lens cameras, especially if manufacturers of the latter do not improve their offering. As a for example, how long has it been since Apple launched Touch Id to secure the usage of their iPhone? 10 years or so, I guess.
    Why has no camera manufacturer thought of including this additional feature?
    Thanks for a thought provoking post, as always

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Pascal. You’re right, those photos were made in very bright sunlight. It’s a situation in which most (even expensive) digital cameras fail miserably, as the industry as a whole has focused on low light performance rather than highlight recovery. And filmstocks behaved the same. I’m not saying phones are better than cameras, only that they behave more like film and do better in bright light, which is my type of shooting.

      But the low light question is interesting. Computational photography no doubt helps the phone there as well, but I’m pretty sure results will be quite poor. I’ll give it … a shot πŸ˜‰ and will report asap.

      All the best.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’ll start with your tail and attack the body later. I live in a place where we describe our weather as “sunny one day – perfect the next”. Strongly lit is the norm – in real life, things DO have shadows. And to be truthful, I’ve experienced much the same, over and over, on my many trips to Europe and Asia. Of course that says nothing about Scotland – that’s too cold me me, I’ve never been – or Scandinavia, which I will leave to our friend Kristian.
    But as far as I’m concerned, all the remarks I’ve seen about “strong sunlight” are just an excuse for not taking a better photo.

    Next – ergonomically, cellphones are a ghastly tool for taking photos. Even my original Kodak Box Brownie was more fun, although not as sharp (and I never used it for colour shots). That’s not to say I never take photos with the damn thing. Just that I much prefer using a “real camera”.

    Best was the day a local idiot interrupted me when I was in the midst of taking a panoramic shot of an island 20 Km off the coast. He wanted a copy – and I told him I never share my photography so he couldn’t have one. He said “Oh well, I can take that shot anyway” and proceeded to do so – with a cell phone – and produced what in my memory was one of the worst images I’ve ever set eyes on – instead of an essentially flat image of an island on the horizon, it was severely curved, like a banana with some horrible deformity – and it was serrated, like very large saw teeth – and it was an absolutely hideous royal blue. Like that blue you see on Britain’s flag. So much for the suggestion you get a sort of “cine blue” with these contraptions. Pardon me if that’s a bit rude!

    I actually took 4 cloud/sky shots with it yesterday, and I’ll add them to my collection of “skies” for future use in “post” ( yes I do sometimes swap skies). And my little pup. I’ve had this phone for about a year, and I’ve taken maybe 30 shots with it – hardly an epidemic.

    The kindest response I can offer, Pascal, is “Γ  chacun son goΓ»t”. good luck to cellphone junkies – I’m sticking with cameras.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, definitely horses for courses. Using a phone to compete with a long lens was indeed foolish. As for colours, I find the native ones on this Pixel 8 extremely good (cf first shot). More importantly, some of the LUTs and presets available are also excellent, deviating from neutrality but in a very well thought out way (others are ghastly). Here, I feel most digital cameras are left sitting on their bum in the weeds πŸ˜‰

      Ergonomics depend on the app being used. I liked the one on the Samsung better than the one on the Google, so will be on the lookout for alternatives. That said, compared to the acne-riddled and deep-menu cameras from some manufacturers, I’ll take the phone ergonomics over the camera’s any day of the week.

      But, as you say, Γ  chacun son goΓ»t πŸ™‚

      • Ian Varkevisser says:

        Hi Pascal,
        do you ever use the Nik Collection Snapseed app on your phone ?
        Or lightroom mobile with presets ?

        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi Ian, I haven’t but will be looking into it, thanks. A former contributor called Adrian used Snapseed intensively and seemed to like it a lot. Cheers.

  • Jens says:

    Smartphones vs dedicated digital cameras has been a debate that followed me for quite some time and my views on the topic have changed. There have been more than one occasion when I even had my proper camera on me and took a picture with my phone on top and the resulting image was the better one. I failed to match the camera’s raw image to the one of the phone, which annoyed me greatly. The images would never hold as much detail and beautiful textures similar to the ones in Paul Perton’s recent post from the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway would simply get lost. Yet in sunny conditions the colours and overall look can be really pleasing from a smartphone. Even if some part of me doesn’t want to admit it (maybe since I invested so much time and money into cameras) they can be a viable choice for many occasions.
    Be that as it may, I no longer think that there is a real competition between both formats. There are many reasons for that spike in sales of dedicated digital cameras in the early 2000s (internet, social media, rapid technological advances…), yet it was simply a lack of alternatives and a bad fit for many of the customers in the first place. They never considered photography as a hobby and disliked the form factor. I don’t think the UI / complexity was the real issue here. They wanted to capture moments that are precious to them and would have bought a fixed film camera before – the convenience of a digital camera (instant images, no costs per image..) was the sole reason for the increased popularity along with the new options to share them. Once the smart phones became sufficiently good they were simply the better fit and you could argue that many of those who bought an entry level DSLR with a kit lens were never a ‘real’ customer. Of those who at one point replaced their kit lens, consider photography a hobby many keep buying cameras and lenses to this day. And there are young people joining the crowd. In short I think there can be a healthy co-existence between both formats.
    A bit to the defence of digital cameras – at least the recent Sony apps make it very easy to transfer the images to the smart phones and come with conveniences such as cloud backup if wanted. Attach the camera to the phone with a usb cable and you gain additional options. Modern digital cameras don’t have to be as complex and time-consuming unless part of you enjoys that process.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jens, I agree. There can, and should, be a healthy coexistence between phones and more traditional cameras. I’m interested to see what happens when the film camera craze wanes. Film cameras keep getting older and more expensive, and film is also very pricy. At this point, I feel the phone delivers a closer experience to film than most traditional digital cameras. It may feel surprising, but it looks like the big phone manufacturers may be leaning towards film-like tone curves, possibly to separate themselves more from cameras. In the end, most people will likely have both πŸ˜‰ Cheers

  • If I follow these lines of thought through the various posts here correctly, what we’re after are colors and tones the please us as close to “out of the box” as possible.

    Some imagers come from the factory with colors/tones that some people can wax poetic over. Fuji and Hasselblad, as well as certain mobile phones come to mind.

    Other imagers may provide more tools and flexibility in-camera, but we have to do something to the device to get what we want. Sure, a little is “pre-packaged”, but… I’m thinking of Sony, Nikon, and Panasonic and wonder if some people find these tools too complex and/or maybe don’t know how to come to grips with the flexibility.

    Not that Fuji aren’t flexible, mind you. Just look at all the fan-sites dedicated to sharing “Film Emulation” in-camera recipes. I’m surprised, in a way, that Sony/Nikon/Panasonic users haven’t created their own in-camera “Film Emulation” recipe websites.

    As always, keep up the good work and thank you for sharing your musings and thoughts on the “state of things.”

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Christopher. I think there are two camps. Those who come from the darkroom tend to like post-processing. That’s certainly me πŸ˜‰ But many others like to get it right in camera.

      Are cameras too complex? That probably depends on the target customer. Anyone in a technical type of photography will enjoy the customisation possibilities. As you say, yo have to set up your camera before it’s optimal, but then, it’s very good. People who enjoy street photograph, a more spontaneous style of shooting (like me), certainly balk at the site of those menus and buttons πŸ˜‰

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Here is what I find quite interesting. Canon rarely features in discussions here in DS, or around E-Films, nor is there much information that can be found in this regard. Canon users by and large have never embraced the concept – presumably because they have traditionally used Lightroom or Photoshop ?

    Yet what is more amazing is Canon have since the mid 2000s had by far the most advanced tools for the creation of E-Films.

    Canon cameras allow for creation in camera of 3 custom settings or E-Film creations. Canon calls this a Picture Style. Creating these in camera is pretty lame and restricted. As are the standard canon in camera picture styles.

    However they have what they call a picture style editor which runs on PC enabling the creation of E-Films ( picture styles ) and another piece of software called picture style registration which allows the E-Film to be uploaded to the camera into one of the 3 custom slots. ( I am unsure whether certain canon models allow more than 3 customs styles )

    What makes this eco system more advanced say than Fuji’s is superior tone curve adjustment , and 6 colour Hue , Saturation and Luminance ( HSL ) settings along with multiple specific colour selection and HSL adjustments if preferred.

    And yet it is almost impossible to find E-Films or communities for Canon online. There are some out there though if you dig hard enough.

    Any Canon users in the DS community ??

    • pascaljappy says:

      That’s amazing. I don’t know why all companies don’t do that. You could get a colourist to design a look for you and set it up in the app. That would be brilliant, and a much nicer upgrade than a new camera. Thanks.

      • Ian Varkevisser says:

        the bill is in the post πŸ˜‰

      • I wanted to take a moment and thank you for motivating me to look more critically at color management, color grading, and all the things that swirl around the topic of “film emulations.” I feel I’ve learned a lot from reading your site and then going and studying standards and how some of the camera companies have implemented them. It’s fascinating, actually.

        Again, please keep up the outstanding work. It’s really enjoyable to see and to read the commentary and comments.

    • I never knew this about Canon. Darn. I kicked all that to the curb a decade ago. Hmmm… thanks for pointing out their Picture Style software. It looks very flexible, indeed.

    • Jens says:

      Thank you for the input – a friend of mine who shoots canon was very interested to learn about this.

      That in turn made me look into Sony’s offering ‘creative looks’, which are fairly limited in turn. However in what I consider typical Sony fashion – they have very extensive options even for photos, but it’s hidden in the video section and named ‘picture profiles’. And unfortunately there is no external editor for it that I’m aware of. Here is a pretty decent (old) documentation on this (the naming conventions might seem strange, as they use terminology more often found for video / film). But if anyone wants a jpeg with a softer filmlike rolloff for highlights and richer red tones, all the settings are here.

      https://helpguide.sony.net/di/pp/v1/en/contents/TP0000909107.html

      • Jens, I too have had a look at “Picture Profiles.” There are a few limitations to using them (which I could enumerate if you’re interested). In exchange, there is an interesting, large range of tools for in-camera color-grading.

        Newer Sony models appear to have moved some of the Picture Profile functions into Creative Styles (which I believe are more aimed at stills work).

        I’ve read where some people feel they don’t need to shoot RAW with Fuji because their “film simulations” are so good. I’m beginning to feel the same thing about Sony (and Canon, Panasonic, and Nikon, for that matter).

        Which takes me way back to the old film days where we used to say “get it right in-camera.” Now we have a much broader means of “getting it right in-camera,” or so it seems to me. Cameras these days are truly portable “mini-labs.”

  • John Wilson says:

    Pascal – for me this post is prophetic. I’m about to give up my “fit in my shirt pocket” Samsung Ruggard phone of 11 yr’s for a Google Pixel 8pro. I bought the Samsung because it’s rain proof and I wanted a camera that I could use in the rain. I got some pretty decent images with it when it was a novel toy but pretty much relegated it to its real use … making phone calls … once I got all that Fuji gear. Now the Fuji gear is starting to annoy me. It doesn’t do some things I want to do very well or at all (all software related) and Fuji shows no inclination to make the software changes. Rather than change systems again ($25000 to my Fuji system equivalent) the easy fix is a new cell phone and a few apps.Turns out I can “lease” a Pixel 8pro from my service provider for a relatively inexpensive monthly fee and buy the apps for a few dollars.

    What intrigues me about the current cell phone ecosystems is the constant evolution and expansion of their capabilities with software; much of it dirt cheap apps. I’ve NEVER understood why “camera” manufacturers never embraced the “app” concept.

    As to the filmlike character of smartphone images, that’s nice to have but not central to how I shoot. Give me the image data (preferably a RAW file) and I’ll make the image I want in post.

    To Ian’s comment about Canon; I was a Canon user for over 27yrs, from film cameras to DSLRs. I switched to Fuji because Canon was sitting on their tush waiting for the mirrorless movement to fizzle out and not making the camera I wanted … smaller, lighter, quieter. I just happen to pick up an XT-1 at a Fuji demo and it was love at first touch … perfect weight and balance, fit my hand perfectly and the retro controls were just like my old film cameras (another boat that Canon’s missing … an updated digital AE-1).

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi John,

      I think traditional camera manufacturers who moved to digital never understood the richness of a digital ecosystem and certainly didn’t understand how to write good apps.

      But I’ve always been baffled that those guys making (very) expensive cameras with rubbish screens, delirious ergonomics and closed systems never feared they’d lose customers. History sure proved them wrong.

      Of course smartphones aren’t perfect. You mention RAW files, and they can do them. But I have no idea how good those files are. Also, the tiny-sensor look is always there. But the pictures, in the right conditions, are brilliant, and the app ecosystem is so cool.

      I hope you have fun with the Pixel πŸ™‚ Let us know πŸ™‚

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      Hi John,

      Perhaps Samsungs entry into the camera market 12 years ago – which was short lived and a spectacular failure – escaped you ?

      At least one did embrace the concept.

      Any theories on why it turned out to be the flop of the decade?

      It was a very novel concept at the time but lacked commitment to the market

      Did the internal politics within Samsung kill off their short lived foray into the camera market with a stunning idea ??

      I recalled considering it until rumours around their commitment to the camera industry grew strong – and finally materialised.

      https://allthingsd.com/20121126/the-galaxy-camera-a-better-android-based-camera-but-a-big-commitment-%E2%80%A8/

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      p.s. just for the record they even had an android based interchangeable lens system around that time too

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

  • Philberphoto says:

    Brilliant post, wonderful images, what else is new. In my case, to some extent I find that, the harder the process, the more it forces me to focus (pun intended). Therefore, if I were to move to phone-ography, the ease of it would soon reduce me to that of talentless, verbose instagrammer. So thank you, but no thank you.

  • Mark Ferencz says:

    When Sony puts a phone on it’s Hybrid video and image flagship we can come together for tea.

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