This is question I’ve been often asked and see discussed online each time a new phone is released. New features are often labeled as revolutionary, or game-changing therefore supposedly eliminating the need to carry another camera. There are few ways to think about these statements and factors to consider when seeking an answer to this question. Note, this post is very much written for the masses and does not include each and every variable in the mix. We could get far more technical with this discussion, but at this stage it’s about the big picture.
Sensors in smartphones, for the most part, are absolutely minuscule in comparison to DSLRs and are quite a bit smaller than most point and shoot cameras. There are some physics involved in this discussion but generally the larger the surface area of the sensor, the more capable it will be at resolving detail and creating less noise in low light conditions. Granted, technology has rapidly improved the ability to maintain decent image quality in challenging environments. There’s speculation that the first iPhone sensors were creating images so poor in terms of resolution and noise that this gave rise to apps that could utilize filters such as Instagram and Hipstamatic in order mask the faults, much in the way that Lomo cameras became an artistic fetish with random light leaks and unpredictable additions to the final image. So while technology marches on, there’s only so much that can be accomplished with tiny sensors and software. This is an area that may and should see further improvement and may continue to close the gap.
This is what I view to be one of the most limiting factors for current smartphones. The lack of an optical zoom has created a whole generation of sub-par images captured by people digital zooming in on a scene. Take a look around the audience at any event and you’ll still see this pinch/zoom happening. It’s not the user’s fault; it’s been something proudly stamped on the sides of cameras for years, aka “100x digital zoom”, etc. Consumers, unaware of the differences, enable digital zoom and greatly degrade the final image quality – to the point that prints from these images would look quite horrendous. The counterpoint to this is that in reality how many people are actually printing photos from smartphones? The vast majority are posting them online in reduced resolution and calling it a day.
As a lover of prime lenses (lenses that don’t zoom), there is absolutely a time and place to slow down and creatively constrict yourself to one focal length (which is what every iPhone is essentially). But the average person generally isn’t treating their phone in this manner and therefore is using digital zoom.
This is what I view as the next step in smartphone photography; the advent of optical zoom and improved lenses. This will be a challenge as it requires additional physical space or attachments of some sort, much in the way third party companies have tackled this need in a less than elegant manner. A company like Apple won’t resort to an unrefined solution, so it’ll be interesting to see how they approach this design.
One massively important benefit that smartphone cameras have over most traditional cameras is the ability to immediately and easily share memories captured. This point can’t be stressed enough. This is a huge limitation to most cameras. Sure there are workarounds and some companies have tried to create solutions, but there is simply no comparison to the sake of ease one experiences when snapping a pic and uploading it directly to social media within seconds. This, for many people, drives them to use their smartphone instead of another option despite the other disadvantages. Quite often I’ll see people carrying DSLRs still taking photos with their phones – for this very reason. Camera manufacturers should find methods of embracing the desire to share. Building wifi or apps into the camera isn’t enough. We need a very simple and straightforward method of quickly getting photos from our cameras to the cloud. There will come a time when many consumers will abandon point and shoot cameras for this very reason – as smartphone technology catches up, there will be little reason to consider bringing a compact camera. Declining sales in this area have already begun and the landslide will only continue.
I personally find the process of throwing on some good music with a steaming cup of coffee and editing photos in Lightroom or Photoshop to be supremely relaxing. But I freely admit I’m absolutely an oddity in the minority. For most people, this would sap any desire they had to share their memories. Once an event passes, it’s exponentially more difficulty to work up the time to go back and edit pics from the time. I’m sure this is even more true for the under 35 crew; Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook are avenues for quick sharing and harvesting of likes and comments. Tying in with the previous section on sharing, the ability to quickly edit and share in a spontaneous manner is critical for many people. Beam your DSLR pics to your tablet or smartphone, edit quickly and share. Yes, to an extent this can be currently done, but it’s not a mainstream workflow and hasn’t been a priority for companies.
With apps such as Snapseed, VSCO, etc, there’s something fun and almost tangible about touching the photos you’re editing on your phone or tablet. For many, this is likely to be far more approachable than the intimidation presented by professional editing software.
This all comes down to the often repeated statement that the best camera is the one that’s with you. When film cameras were king, far less people had a camera with them all the time. There’s no doubt that being able to capture and share memories on the fly is highly desirable; and for many this trumps any of the geeky points discussed above regarding image quality. This is a huge advantage for smartphones, and weighs in heavily to this discussion.
I can see no foreseeable future in which I personally will give up taking a traditional camera with a bag of lenses with me to travel destinations or while striving to create photos to hang in a gallery. There’s simply no current substitute for the quality offered by a full frame sensor with fast glass, or a mirror-less camera with a decent lens. But I’m admittedly outside of the norm. And for most people, there’s equally no substitute for sharing that special moment with your closest 400 friends in seconds and ultimately that may be what determines the answer to the initial question.
Yes. Current phones can now replace a ‘real’ camera, not because of image quality or sensor technology, but because of the shift in society that has transformed what it means to capture and share a moment in time.
Mostly phone pics shared on Instagram