Cell Phone Cameras
The best-selling cameras of the past decade
I read yet another article yesterday about how technology in cell phone cameras has surpassed that of dedicated cameras and "wow! look at these photos where you can barely tell which camera made the image!" What tends to follow is a discussion about the technology, which may as well be science fiction for all that I understand it, a talk about how ubiquitous cell phones are, and an anecdote about a professional photographer whose business was disrupted by cell phones.
It's great that cell phone camera technology continues to improve – they are, after all, the best-selling cameras in the world, and by a huge margin. You don't need me to tell you how much cell phones have impacted life in general, so to hear that they're also disrupting photography is not a surprise; they're disrupting literally everything. My weapon of choice is an iPhone X, a device I purchased because my day job requires heavy use of my pocket computer. That it has an advanced camera is nice, but it was not my deciding factor (its ability as a personal assistance was).
So, how good is the camera?
The phone's camera is good. The colors are great. The shadows and highlights are well controlled. Portrait mode is a real blast. Focus is nearly instant and always correct. The photos are full of detail.
And I hate using it.
Well that's a bit dramatic...
So I don't totally "hate" using it. As an extension of my brain – a way to quickly document some configuration or setup, the camera is my photographic memory. Want to send grandpa a picture of the kid doing something cute? Take a photo. Want to remember where you parked? Take a photo. Want to document pre-existing damage to a rental? Take a photo. Want to passive-aggressively tell your friend they're late for dinner? Take a photo of their empty chair. In this way, a camera in my pocket is great.
Where I do have a problem with my phone camera is when it comes to serious work.
A moment about video
As a replacement for a video camera, I love my cell phone. As much as I'm willing to dedicate time and energy into learning photography, I'm not willing with videography. I only take video for work, and in that situation, I just need the video to look as good as possible as quickly as possible, and in that way the iPhone is in many situations superior to the big fancy Canon camcorder. While the big camera has the better lens and better sensor, it takes extra work to get the final video cleaned up, a process that automatically happens during capture in the iPhone. Yes, by doing the work afterwards, I can fine tune the output, but I don't. This is documentary video, not art: I'm just hitting "auto-adjust".
And this is exactly my problem with the cell phone camera for photography.
Where cell phone cameras fail
Creative controls on the phone are limited precisely because the device is a phone, a pocket computer – all input is done via touch screen, an interface which is clumsy when it comes to precise, detailed settings. This is why most photo workflows on the phone involve shooting in automatic mode, and only afterwards, in editing, using "filters" to get the desired look. And while there's an infinite number of Apps each with an infinite number of filters each with an infinite number of tweaks, you're again battling the same precision problems as before.
Yes, with my Fujifilm digital camera or *gasp* my bestiary of film cameras, more knowledge and technique must be put in to the camera to get a workable output. But because I personally made those decisions, and was quickly able to have my choices reflected exactly in the settings, the output can surpass "workable" and become desirable. This process is more involved, but with practice and experience, it is also more intuitive.
My other problem with cell phone cameras
I have one other major problem with cell phone cameras, a personal problem: I can't compose on them worth beans. Physically holding my phone to compose the photo and then tapping the shutter is so clumsy a process that I routinely ruin great photos. I see other photographers online that are able to get careful, steady work out of their cell phones, but I don't know what their secret is; I have no idea how they do it. The entire motion feels awkward and fumbling. And for me, I'm someone who really values and derives inspiration from the capture process. I put a lot of effort into ensuring that taking the photo aligns with the photo I want to see, and there is no photo I can imagine that suits itself to an awkward process.
People will continue writing articles about how great cell phone cameras are, and how they are coming to represent cutting edge photography. Hell, Apple's latest billboard scheme "Shot on iPhone X" plays directly into this. My personal opinions and concerns are just pissing in the ocean of inevitability. And maybe, one day, there really won't be a need for a separate device that only takes photos, just like GPSs died – no wait, those still exist for some reason – just like alarm clocks died – sorry, those are still around too – just like flashlights are now dead – hrmm, got that wrong, too – ok, just like personal music players are long gone, I mean, except the ones that are still being made. But it might happen with cameras, really!
The photos in this article
The photos that are decorating this article I took on my cell phone at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California. We toured the gardens during the cherry blossom bloom this last Spring and for some reason I didn't bring a "camera" camera. Well, I had my new iPhone X in my pocket, so I pulled it out and gave it a run for its money. Then I did more edits in Lightroom on my PC, which speaks to my clinging on to old technology, since I should have edited them right on my phone with DMSO or VRBO or whatever and shared them directly with my friends and family using Apple Photo Sharing™®!
And they're alright. But I believe there would be better photos here if I had used a traditional camera.