They say the best camera is the one you have with you but could your smartphone ever replace a ‘proper’ camera?
Over the past few years smartphones have decimated the fixed-lens compact digicam market, largely because the latest phones can meet most snapshooters’ requirements. Why carry two cameras when the one in your phone is simpler to use than your camera and can make and receive phone calls into the bargain?
Many photographers have previously used a ‘walkaround’ compact camera for when their SLR equipment was too large, heavy and complex. Today even professional photographers rely on a smartphone at certain times.
In this article we consider the advantages and disadvantages of shooting with smartphones, when compared with dedicated cameras.
Smartphones have largely replaced cameras for recording important events in many people’s lives.
Although cameraphones are growing in popularity and capabilities, are they really capable of replacing a real camera? To some degree that depends on what kinds of pictures you want to take, how you plan to view and share your pictures and whether you can live with the restrictions each type of camera imposes.
Taking pictures and recording movies with a smartphone is now as easy as with a JPEG-only camera. But it’s much simpler to upload pictures and movie clips from a smartphone to social media and backup pictures to the cloud or home-based storage.
By contrast, even entry-level DSLR cameras appear unnecessarily large and complex. And, even with point-and-shoot digicams, when it comes to image sharing, they are often tricky to use and require an intermediary device ““ which is usually a smartphone.
Displaying photos taken with a ‘proper’ camera on a TV set is also seen as challenging by some photographers. Whereas, with Wi-Fi it’s simple to transmit images and movie clips from a smartphone to a modern TV set or share them with other smart devices.
What smartphones do well
Smartphones are always with you and they’re great for image sharing, regardless of which process you use. Whether it’s social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like or simply showing your image to a companion on the screen, they provide an immediate view of the picture you’ve taken or the movie clip you’ve recorded. Instant gratification is one area where smartphones excel.
Smartphones are great for on-the-spot image sharing.
Some of the main cameras in the latest smartphones offer 20-megapixel resolution, which can match or better that of many ‘serious’ cameras. And most of them provide all the basic snapshooters’ functions plus a LED-based flash and geo-tagging capabilities. An increasing number of top-end models can record 4K movies at 3840 x 2160 pixel resolution, along with Full HD, 1920 x 1080 video movie recording. Some can record Slow motion and Fast motion clips.
Smartphone images usually have a ‘widescreen’ 16:9 aspect ratio, which is ideal for displaying on widescreen TV sets and other screens, but not always great for printing.
The 16:9 aspect ratio of smartphone images is ideal for viewing on portable device screens.
Smartphone cameras can work well for close-ups because their combination of small sensor and lens aperture delivers a wide depth of field. They’re great for sending close-ups of all kinds of small subjects to professional consultants when instant advice is needed or reporting instantly on incidents and events.
Many come with creative filters that can make photos more interesting. Panorama shooting modes are quite common and some include multi-shot stabilisation modes and HDR (high dynamic range) settings that can overcome some of their inherent limitations by recording a series of shots at different exposure levels and combining them.
Where ‘proper’ cameras win
The main difference between smartphones and ‘serious’ cameras is the size of the sensor, which for phones is generally between 4.89 x 3.67mm and 5.79 x 4.1mm, compared with 6.2 x 4.6 mm for the smallest sensor in a digicam and 12.8 x 9.6mm in a fixed-lens camera for photo enthusiasts. The sensors in DSLRs and mirrorless CSCs are even larger, starting at 17.3 x 13.0mm and extending to 36 x 24mm (the same as a 35mm film frame).
Due to the size constraints of smartphones their lenses are much smaller and less complex optically than camera lenses. So they can’t match the resolution of camera lenses. Smartphone lenses also have fixed focal lengths, which are typically equivalent to about 26mm in 35mm format.
While cheaper smartphones tend to have ‘focus-free’ lenses, more sophisticated models are usually capable of autofocusing, although some can’t focus closer than about 10cm from the subject. And even though some smartphones boast ‘fast’ maximum apertures of around f/1.8, when coupled with the small image sensor, the lens will let in roughly the same amount of light as an aperture of about f/8 on a ‘full frame’ sensor.
This seriously inhibits the potential for shooting in low light. And where sensitivity is adjustable, the upper limit is usually less than ISO 1000, which can produce noticeable image noise. Most smartphone images contain visible noise at ISO 400.
Photographers who take pictures with smartphone cameras after dark should expect noisy images. (This photograph was taken with a M4/3 camera and is relatively noise-free at ISO 3200.)
The fixed focal length further restricts the types of subjects that can be photographed successfully. While moderate wide-angle lenses work well for group portraits and normal snapshots of daily activities, they are woefully inadequate if you want to photograph sports or wildlife.
The combination of small sensor and lens aperture also inhibits the ability of smartphone cameras to create a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects from distracting backgrounds. Although some cameras provide selective focus and background blurring modes (either in-camera or via an app), they aren’t as effective as you’d get from a ‘proper’ camera and fast lens.
Smartphone users have few (if any) controls over shutter speed settings so if your aim is to record blurry pictures of flowing water or capture a crisp shot of a fast-moving subject you can’t take them with your smartphone. Regular cameras will provide both much more control over the ways in which images are captured and the degree to which those images can be edited post-capture.
Even the few smartphones that provide raw file support are limited when compared with regular cameras because the quality of the data from a small sensor is lower than you can get from even a 1-inch type (12.8 x 9.6mm) chip, which is fast becoming the minimum acceptable size for fixed-lens compact cameras. Camera-captured images generally make better prints.
Overcoming smartphone limitations
A few camera manufacturers have developed ways to overcome at least some smartphone camera limitations. Clip-on cameras from Olympus and Sony provide larger sensors and zoom lenses to work with and, in the case of Olympus, the ability to attach M4/3 interchangeable lenses to your phone.
Less sophisticated accessory lenses are produced by other third-party manufacturers. Although these won’t make a smartphone as versatile as a regular camera, they can take it part of the way. Add-ons with larger sensors will definitely provide worthwhile improvements to image quality and also enable users to take advantage of the phone’s easy sharing capabilities.
Downloadable camera apps can add functionality to smartphone cameras and there are plenty available, both from phone manufacturers and third-party developers. Among the most popular are those that simulate bokeh blurring, digital filter apps and apps that let you combine images to create collages or add text to photos. Post-capture editing apps are also available for tablet PCs, including pared-down versions of popular desktop editors.
Pairing smartphones and cameras
Almost all recently-released cameras are Wi-Fi enabled but they need to be paired with a smartphone to utilise it. Downloadable apps can enable the touch-screen on a phone to operate the camera’s focusing and exposure controls and also transfer images and movie clips to the internet for sharing or backing up.
Photographers who embrace this facility may find it convenient to use their smartphone camera for everyday snapshots but most will still keep a proper camera at hand for times when they want the best image quality and maximum control over capture parameters. And there are often times when being able to control a regular camera remotely from a smartphone will enable you to obtain shots that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Shot composition will play a vital role in how successful your images are, regardless of how they were captured. Being in the right place at the right time and having the ability to ‘see’ interesting combinations of light and shadow, colour and pattern will make a world of difference between an interesting shot and a mediocre one. If you can capture those ‘decisive moments’ you’ll have something worth sharing, regardless of what equipment you’ve used.
Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s photography pocket guides