Sunday, September 4, 2016

Can A Smartphone Replace A Dedicated Camera?

I think this question comes up a lot, and the answer isn't the same for everyone.  In fact the answer for a lot of people has shaken up the entire camera industry and flung its future into uncertainty.

What about for those who are more serious about photography?  I'm definitely one of those people so here's what I've experienced...

It's been 10 months since I started using the iPhone as a camera. Last spring I spent two days traveling with the family and no other digital camera except my iPhone (I was also shooting two vintage film cameras just for fun). It was at that point that I could say with certainty whether a smartphone could really replace a dedicated camera (for those who would actually use a dedicated camera).

Last November I ordered my first smartphone. I had decided to finally give in and get a smart phone for many reasons.  I decided on the iPhone 6s, and mostly because it had a better camera than the 6. I figured out of all people I would be able to use it to its maximum potential.

Here I am 8 months later and have mixed feelings.

The Good

  • It's with me pretty much everywhere I go, you can't beat that for convenience.
  • There are so many photo editing apps available. I use Snapseed. The built in iOS photo editor has a lot of capability too, and the edits are non-destructive (original preserved).
  • Tiny sensor = huge depth of field. I don't have to worry too much about missing focus with everything except close subjects.
  • Automatic mode is pretty darn good, and any oddities are well covered by the touch-to-meter-and-focus function (just touch the area you want to meter and if it's large enough it will measure and adjust).
  • Under 1" of Glass
    It fits into places that a larger camera just can't, or where you would look like a total douche trying. This shot was taken in a 1” gap under a glass shield. If only the lens was a bit wider.
  • It's much less conspicuous. Smartphones are so ubiquitous that you have a better chance of getting a candid photo than with a larger camera. People can't always tell what you're doing with your smartphone: maybe you're taking a picture, or maybe just reading your email. They drop their guard and this can be beneficial for more candid photos and fewer palms. Also, dedicated cameras are still discriminated against. Carry around a DSLR long enough and eventually someone will tell you you can't take photographs of something. There are also places where cameras are not allowed. I don't see them trying to stop people from bringing in cell phones though.
  • At 12MP Image Quality in good light is very good. I believe I could print fairly large without flinching as long as the picture was taken in fairly bright light and clearly in focus.
  • Sharing is a breeze. Even though dedicated cameras are getting better at sharing, they're just not there yet. You can take and share in seconds, or even do both at the same time. Convenience is king.

That sounds pretty good, but is it enough?

The Bad

  • It's big. The 6 and 6s are large devices, never mind the plus models. It is difficult to shoot using one hand. Given the price of the device it makes me nervous to do so. Unlike a camera it's not safely attached to a strap all the time, nor would I ever feel it's rugged enough to be bumped around like a regular camera if it were on a strap. Now the new iPhone SE may solve the size issue, but let's be honest, most phones from all manufacturers are as large or bigger than the iPhone 6.
  • It's not instant start up like a camera. As much as swiping to open the camera from the lock screen sounds quick, it's not. See previous bullet for one reason (hard to do that one handed). Also note that most people with iPhones will never see the lock screen. With Touch ID, one press of the home button and I'm at the last app I had open. Not convenient at all. I am at least 3 touches from the camera app most of the time. It's way too easy to miss a moment, and I have. There may be other non-Apple phones that can get to the camera faster, but I'd be careful about thinking they're drastically better.
  • The focal length is maddening. At approximately 30mm (in full frame terms) It's neither wide enough nor long enough to be usable. If I had to describe it I would say it's a wide angle lens that's just not wide enough. It's nearly impossible to take a tight portrait with this lens because it's too wide. This means you're stuck with a distorted closeup or an environmental portrait. Wide portraits are fine but difficult to control and turn very cluttered quickly. It's not wide enough to offer any really deep perspective, nowhere near what a 24-27mm focal length on a full frame camera would get you (. Some might say to step back and “zoom with your feet”, which is incorrect to start with. My instincts (from 8+ years of photography) are always to get closer to cut out the crap and isolate my subject. The problem is once I get close enough to get rid of distractions (people, plants, reflections from glass, etc...) I can't go wide enough to actually capture the subject the way I wanted. For a longer perspective, one might think zooming is an option. See the next bullet.
  • "Digital Zoom"
    There is no true zoom. I love prime lenses and can easily go weeks (months even) with a 50mm equivalent lens on my camera, but the 30mm offered on iPhone just doesn't cut it. My first instinct was to use the built in zoom. I quickly learned that it was nothing more than a “digital zoom “. Not only did it crop my image but it enlarged the pixels to fill 12MP, ruining the sharpness of my images. I decided I would be better off shooting at the widest setting and cropping later. I looked into add on lenses, but soon found that they added another layer of inconvenience and significant cost for quality. That investment could easily be spent on a dedicated camera far more capable than a smartphone.
  • It has a fixed aperture. If I had to choose the most important aspect of photography, it would be depth of field. With the iPhone, there is no DoF control, the lens is fixed at f/2.2. Not that it would matter much, but it would be helpful for macro and landscape. At the very least they could offer “focus peaking” so we could confirm focus of large scenes at least (there are third party cameras that do offer focus peaking).
  • Little manual control. The default photo app has no manual controls. Recently Apple provided manual controls for third party apps. Though this is a step in the right direction, none of the third party apps that I have used that offer manual control are any easier to use than the 50 and 60 year old film cameras I was using in parallel. The simple aperture and shutter dials on old manual cameras that stay where you put them are a joy to use. Those apps are painful. It takes too much time to pre-tweak settings that all reset after you power off the phone. This is somewhat fixable though, after all it is just software. They could make it easier to use. I may not have found the right app yet. With numerous apps offering manual control for $1.99 to $5.99 I'm not about to spend $20-$50 experimenting (a lot of research based on forum rumors may have led me to a decent, but not perfect option, stay tuned for a future article).
  • Terrible low light performance. This is where every smartphone camera is going to bomb. There is a direct relationship between sensor size and low light performance. Larger sensors just capture more light when the scene is framed identically. Technology is improving low light performance of smaller sensors with every generation, but comparing sensors from similar generations supports this fact. So no matter how awesome someone claims that their camera or phone shoots in low light, if it has the same size sensor it's going to suck about the same. A little trick that they use is something called noise reduction, they just use software to detect noise (random pixels of incorrect color) and smooth it out visually. The iPhone does this in spades. Any shots in dim light appear plasticky and lack detail. I much prefer to do my own noise reduction after the fact, but that is not what the general public wants. Sadly there is no way to turn this off.

My Decision

Shared via
Camera to Phone
"optical connection"
My decision was easy, for the remainder of the week I carried my DSLR and even forgot to use my phone as a camera. I can set it once – aperture, white balance, ISO and it stays that way. It's always on, drains virtually no battery and wakes up instantly. It's rugged, and always on my shoulder when we're out on adventures. Even though it's almost 10 years old, the image quality in any light is far superior to any smartphone. Sure it's heavy, bulky, and takes much longer to get pictures out to share, but I still find the benefits worth the extra effort. Actually I've been cheating lately and simply been taking a picture of the back of my LCD.  If it's just for sharing, who really cares?

I will still use my cell phone for convenience, or just sharing a moment where quality doesn't matter, or when I just can't carry another camera.

Please don't misinterpret my opinion, the iPhone 6s is an awesome phone.  The display is beautiful and the processor is fast.  It's great having Siri to add appointments and reminders (my favorite thing).  I'm very happy with my phone, I'm just not going to use it as a dedicated camera.

Needed Improvement

I would hope to see the following improvements in smartphone photography:
  • Better focal length choices.  Maybe have two cameras on the phone, one super wide and one reasonable telephoto (50mm equivalent would be fine).  I would gladly take one high quality fixed focal length and one low quality at the current (crappy) focal length.
  • Variable aperture and much larger aperture.  Right now we're stuck around f/2.2 which is not very large at all.  With tiny lenses like these we should have f/1 or larger (meaning the lens opening is as large as the focal length or larger).  This would provide more light to the sensor meaning lower ISO (less noise).  It would also provide opportunities for less depth-of-field which could enable better subject isolation.  The variable aperture would be needed to increase depth-of-field as needed.
  • Better control.  There are apps that provide better control over functions than the stock camera app, but they're still difficult to use.  The lack of tactile buttons is probably the most frustrating.  You can't adjust anything without looking at the controls themselves because when you're changing a setting you can't feel that you've made the change, so you have to look to see if it worked.  For example, when I'm shooting an SLR I typically know what f/stop I'm shooting at. Let's say I'm shooting a 35mm f/1.8 at f/1.8.  I know my camera is set to adjust f/stops in 1/3 increments so I simply turn my dial 3 clicks to increase one whole f/stop (in this case to f/2.5).  I can do all this while still paying attention to my subject.  I would also like to see more static and selectable focus/metering points.  I still find it easier to make these adjustments using the direction pad on my camera, it's been more accurate and faster than tapping all over the screen on my phone.  Picking just one small fixed point and using that during composition I believe would let me concentrate on taking the photo.

Smartphones are capable of taking great pictures.  I took all these on my iPhone 6s (and toned most using Snapseed).

The Future

Smartphones will get better, and the DSLR’s days are numbered. The future is multi-lens multi-sensor cameras. Cameras that can collect multiple levels of information: focus/depth of field, noise, focal length and then use software to process the information into a single image that is both higher quality and far more flexible than a single sensor single lens solution. It's already begun. But I am guessing that they won't be ready for semi-serious use until about 10 more years (or be worth the cost). Until then I will stick with cameras that offer a single interchangeable lens option.

What do you think, have you traded your camera for a smartphone? Are you sticking with a camera (point and shoot, SLR, or mirrorless)? Why? Let me know in the comments.

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