2021-06-17 The Smartphone Camera

I just finished reading The Smartphone vs The Camera Industry by Nasim Mansurov, on Photography Life. He argues that the camera industry is done for, and that photography is moving to smartphones. It’s a good read and it matches my experience.

I bought a new camera back in 2013, with a 17mm lens. It took gorgeous landscape pictures and pretty good portraits. I loved it! However, when I switched from the iPhone 6S to the iPhone 11 back in 2019, I realised that the pictures this new phone was taking were better. They weren’t much better, but they were still better. Dramatic skies, glowing fields, flower closeups, they all looked great. Portraits were pretty good. Zoom was useless, but my “real” camera didn’t have a zoom at all.

That changed in 2017 when I bought a 75-300mm lens. Now I had a zoom but I ended up never using it. My hands are too shaky and I wasn’t bringing a tripod along; birds in flight were far off and hard to track and focus; other animals were hard to see; distant mountains were disappearing in a blueish haze. I wasn’t using it much. I used it at the zoo. The animals were close, and I have enough time to fiddle with the settings and the focus.

Two years later, however, it really paid off. We went to the Galápagos; the animals here are not afraid of humans so you can see them up close. And if they are close, and don’t move, and I have a zoom, then I can take wonderful portrait of these animals. Check out the Galápagos albums. Those marine iguanas… 😍

Now that I’m back in Switzerland, though, I once again have little use for the 75-300mm lens.

This year, I started taking a lot of pictures of flowers using my iPhone 11. So beautiful! I loved those details. I wondered: would the pictures be even more glorious if I had a macro lens? I bought a 35mm macro lens and gave it a try. And it’s true. You can get a little bit closer. The depth of field is very small. So small in fact, that I often wonder whether it would be better if I were using a different lens and just cropped the image. Or used the smartphone. Or bought a new camera with multi-focus image fusion.

See where this is going? It’s what Mansurov means when he talks about the “big camera complexity problem”. If you just use a good smartphone camera, your landscapes and your portraits will be excellent, your closeups will be good enough… and you probably don’t need a zoom unless you’re going to the zoo. At least that’s my take by now.

Practically all the pictures I share on Mastodon (@kensanata) are made with the smartphone. It takes too much time to wait until they’re transferred to the laptop, processed there, and sent to the phone. The immediacy of being somewhere, taking pictures, and posting about the experience is lost.


JTR (AKA @jrss ) here. You’ve touch a topic close to my heart 🙂

Oddly, with me, it was the other way around. When I realized I was looking at phone specs because of the camera, I decided to simply just get a camera (https://helpdeskheadesk.net/help-desk-head-desk/2019-11-06/).

I got a lot of good things from getting that camera, which is right now behind me in my “photography” bag:

for one, I swallowed article after article (and YouTube vid after another) about photography and camera. I’ve learned a great deal about exposure, ISO, aperture, compositions. I’ve also discovered to frame my photography style a bit further, and from there learn and improve more with what I do. Some of the photos I’m proud of taken with the camera are at https://helpdeskheadesk.net/help-desk-head-desk/20200201/ (by the way, that bird picture is with a 300mm zoom camera I took with me to a local park once. I took several, this came out good, the camera is doing a good job canceling out my shaky hand if I use high shutter speed - no tripod)

Obviously you (and the original article) make excellent points. Almost every single time I pass something “cool,” I don’t have my camera with me. When I bought the camera, I was aiming for a small-frame (hence, mirrorless) camera that I could always carry with me, but that’s simply not practical, especially with the lenses and the equipment. Another thing is the apps (I use Snapspeed mostly) and the ability to post to Instagram and similar (even to Mastodon!) withing seconds, have it look amazing and get a comments, where with the camera you’re a week behind - exactly because of the process described. I have Darktable (if you don’t have it I highly recommend you try it as one FOSS enthusiast to another) and Gimp and I know my way enough around both, but Snapspeed is home to me. I’ve been using it for years.

But there is something special about a camera, and it’s not the camera itself. It’s the mindset. When I take my camera with me and go to the park, I tap into the creative side of my mind. I actually don’t want to look at my phone at all. On a vacation recently, I walked down a street that would normally take me 20 minutes or so to walk down on and instead I walked for almost 2 hours, looking at buildings and windows from different angles. To the passerby, I probably looked like a weird person: staring from this angle, then from that angle. I didn’t care, I snapped away. The quality wasn’t necessarily in the photos (some came great though), but in the mindset. It was me and my camera. I was there to take photos. It was also obvious to others what I was doing and they kind of nodded and moved out of the way.

Sure, you can’t do this every time. Actually you can’t do this almost at all, since you need to plan it and have the equipment with you. But I’d argue that these are the moments that teach you about photography and your own creative style. They fill you with additional inspiration you wouldn’t get just from holding your phone, because your phone will keep chatting back at you. The phone is good to take one photo, perhaps three, and move on. The camera is like being sucked into another dimension. I don’t know if this makes sense at all.

Anyway, I ranted long enough. Thanks for posting this, and giving me the chance to focus my mental lens 😉

– 2021-06-20 11:35 UTC

I definitely agree with the eye of a photographer changing the experience. It’s like writing as learning: taking pictures puts us in a particular frame of mind when looking at things; it changes everything. Structure, colors, subjects, lines, horizon, colors, the sky, reflections – everything is interesting and different if you are thinking about taking pictures.

I do feel that this is possible while carrying around a smartphone but maybe years of owning a camera have enabled me to do this? Then again, I do think that a generation raised on Instagram must have an eye for photography.

Just yesterday we went on a walk that was supposed to last two hours and we took three and a half hours. Taking pictures, sometimes with the phone, sometimes with camera and the macro lens, looking up flowers, reading up on local things, reading the plaques. If I have picture taking in mind, the distinction between camera and phone fades away, for me.

Anyway, I’m not about to throw my camera and it’s three lenses away just yet. 😁

– Alex 2021-06-20 13:43 UTC

nytpu: «personally love my “real” cameras, but maybe it’s because I often shoot on film, so carrying around a digital camera occasionally isn’t much different.»

Szczeżuja: “In 2017 for my holidays I take only a mobile phone for taking photos.”

– Alex 2021-07-03 06:09 UTC

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