A Comprehensive Case for Phone Photography
Why are traditional cameras on the decline? Why is phone photography getting so big? Why is there a stigma against using phones for professional photography? And, perhaps most importantly – why is the stigma outdated?
We will answer (most) of these questions while explaining why 2020 is finally the year of the smartphone photographer.
Table of Contents
Welcome to the Mobile Revolution
Phone cameras have come a long way since their debut in the early 2000s – phone photography has done the same.
The Japanese J-phone that pioneered that iconic combination of phone and camera had a meager 0.11-megapixel camera. I’ve seen lithographs with higher resolution.
Phone cameras continued getting better over the next couple of decades up until the present, but the stigma has remained:
Phone cameras are no substitute for real cameras. Phone photography isn’t REAL photography
Let’s break down why people assume phone cameras are worse, before we break down that misconception and shatter your photography world.
Phone Photography Perks
There was a time when phone photography was a laughing stock. While some traditional photographers would tell you that it’s still a joke, they’re just failing to see the writing on the wall. Read on to see our six reasons why phone photography is here to stay.
While photography is very much an art form, there’s certainly a definitive, material aspect to it. Yeah, you can take good pictures with a disposable camera from 2005. There’s merit to the old Kodaks. But those relics don’t hold a candle to the DSLRs of modern-day photographers.
Comparing phones to DSLRs might be a little disingenuous – after all, they’re technically mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras (which debuted in 2004 with the Epson R-D1) are fundamentally different than DSLRs in construction, if not operation.
Mirrorless cameras are chosen over DSLR for their compact size, lightweight nature, and superior video. Phones have all these features… and amplify them beyond that of a traditional mirrorless camera. Yes, the sensor is inherently smaller on a phone, but that’s the only real tradeoff.
Admittedly, it’s a big one because sensor size directly affects resolution. But, this tradeoff really only rears its ugly head in lighting extremes. The modern phone’s ability to shoot in 4k – and sometimes in 8k – show that this issue is being mitigated quickly.
The other concern with a phone camera’s hardware is its fixed aperture and focal length. When you see some shooting on a traditional camera, don’t they typically have an adjustable lens? In a super-condensed explanation, what those lenses do is adjust the field of view (how much of the scene is captured) and the depth of the photo (how blurred out is the background behind your subject).
Because of the fixed nature of your phone’s camera, the aperture and focal length can’t be adjusted via a single lens like on a traditional camera. But, don’t fret – there’s a workaround. With a combination of my iPhone 11 Pro (three total lenses – two that can have a Moment lens mounted on them) and four mounted lenses, I have access to nine different focal lengths. Do a little cropping in post-production and I have literally an infinite number.
When it comes to aperture, things are a bit more tricky. The new native iPhone camera app offers the ability to adjust aperture, but you know not to use the native camera app. Each iPhone lens and mounted lens has a slightly different aperture, so just stick with what your gear allows. Varying our focal lengths is enough to create a diverse look to your work.
This is the obvious one, right? Phone cameras are just worse. The images they produce are of inferior quality. They’re grainy and blurry and bad.
And that… well, that is true. The best phone camera available in 2018 – arguably the Galaxy S9 – has a 12mp camera with f/1.5 aperture. That’s a fantastic camera, but it’s pretty comparable to mid-range consumer-grade digital cameras of a few years ago.
Of course, there are a lot of factors that influence picture resolution beyond megapixels and apertures. Sensors, pixel size, and more all contribute to a quality photograph. Phone cameras excel in some of these places, but for others – the technology simply hasn’t been made quite small enough yet.
That’s changing – and it’s changing quickly. After all, hardware engineers have an obsession with making things smaller.
To be fair, new technology is usually invented in its “big form” first. Photography technology is still advancing rapidly and it will always be available for traditional cameras first, only coming to phones a few years later.
It’s unlikely that phone cameras will ever beat traditional cameras in this sense, but a few years lag time isn’t a huge negative.
This is one category that’s not up for debate anymore. Phones have caught up to cameras in this regard, and they’ll stay with them from now on.
You’re aware the Samsung Galaxy S20 shoots 8k video, right? And that most phones that dominate the Asian marketplace have 100+ megapixels with 480+ fps video capture capability. Those specs are light years ahead of that Japanese J-phone and miles ahead of last year’s consumer-grade digital camera.
With the right phone and third-party app combination, you can also capture in RAW (photos) and LOG (videos) which will increase the production value of what your phone camera produces. To explain, phone cameras do have smaller sensors than traditional cameras, and as such, struggle in lower light and with contrast and saturation. By shooting in RAW and LOG you can make micro-adjustments to these settings in post-production to create a finished product that has a more traditional camera feel.
So, you’ve taken these photos and videos on your phone, but there’s no way that you can edit them adequately on such a small screen with such limited processing power.
While your phone shouldn’t be your choice for editing every time, there are certainly times when it’s acceptable. Whether you’re looking to do basic photo editing on a free app or in-depth video-splicing through a reputable paid app, there’s a viable option for you. It should be noted that your audience and what device they’ll consume your content with must be considered when deciding on where to edit.
To explain, if your viewers are watching your content on their phone, then they’re watching in 720p on a small screen. The imperfections in the video won’t be noticeable compared to if they were amplified on a 60 inch 4k HD television. As such, it’s on you to know your audience well enough to make these kinds of judgment calls.
If you aren’t sold on this explanation, then give our editing on a phone or PC guide a read. It goes more in-depth on the topic and provides tips and tools to improve your workflow.
Perhaps the biggest difference between traditional and phone photography is in the gear. To explain, I think I’ll use a personal anecdote from my adventures with DSLR dude.
About three years ago, my buddies and I decided to take a thirty-day cross-country road trip. The goal of the trip was to capture loads of content to be used in whatever way we saw fit upon return. In retrospect, more forethought could’ve been given. At the same time, if we had planned more, then Photos with Phones may not exist.
One buddy – who we’ll call DSLR Dude for anonymity’s sake – was in charge of the camera stuff. He’s won competitions from Sony and met Chris Burkard, so you know he’s the real deal. Unfortunately, the real deal apparently takes a really long time to prepare because of all the gear. Who’d have guessed it?
Admittedly, after the trip, his photos turned out better than mine. So, I started to look into ways to upgrade the iPhone 5 that I had at the time. The myriad of phone photography gadgets that I found impressed me so much, that Photos with Phones was born not long after.
Since then, I’ve upgraded to the Google Pixel 3a and iPhone 11 Pro, added four of the five Moment lenses, and curated a phone photography gear bag that competes with what DSLR dude is packing – all for a fraction of the cost. I can be ready to shoot in minutes and can travel for miles because my gear is a fifth the weight.
Most new phones are going to come with memory in 64gb increments – typically 64gb, 128gb, 256gb, and/or 512gb. Depending on the frequency at which you shoot, any of the memory options could fit your needs.
For context, before I started shooting videos for our Youtube channel, I was more than happy with the 64gb of storage on my Google Pixel 3a. After a shoot, I would transfer all my photos from the phone into Google Photos because Pixel owners get free unlimited original file storage. Once I started shooting video, however, I found that I was running out of storage mid-shoot, which is a big no-no.
So, when deciding to add a phone to our arsenal, I looked for one with additional storage capacity. I decided to go in the 256gb iPhone direction, but I just as easily could’ve picked up an Android with 128gb of storage with the ability to add an SD card. I have never run out of storage on the 256gb iPhone, but when I do I can just offload videos onto an external hard drive like one would do with a traditional camera.
So, the jist of comparing storage capacity between smartphones and traditional cameras is negligible unless you’re capturing an obscene amount of content.