Today, the vast majority of photographs taken by people all over the world are shot with smart phones. No, really. In fact if you check out Flickr’s Camera Finder page you’ll discover a shocking truth — there isn’t a single DSLR or even a point and shoot that ranks in the top five among cameras used by members of the Flickr community. In fact four of the top five are versions of Apple’s iPhone, and the lone outlier is the Galaxy S5, also a camera phone. Is this is because the camera is falling out of favor?
Yes and no. Sadly, sales of compact digital cameras have fallen as camera phones get better and better—and they’ve fallen pretty considerably. Even DSLR sales are hurting. But despite these dismal numbers, I still believe that there’s a place in the world for non-phone cameras, and they’re always going to be favored by serious hobbyists and professionals. In fact if I had to guess, I would say that the primary reason why smartphone photos are dominating the photography universe right now is because of simple proximity.
People take a lot of photos with their phones because they always have their phones. All but the most diehard photographers occasionally leave home without their cameras, but almost no one leaves home without their phone. Camera phones are not replacing cameras, but they are introducing photography to people who probably wouldn’t ordinarily have purchased a camera. So today, everyone has a camera and everyone takes photos, while in the pre-smartphone days it was just people who were hobbyists or professional photographers.
Since you’re a reader of my blog, the chances are pretty good that your camera phone is not your only camera. But I’d also bet money that you’ve taken plenty of photos with your camera phone, despite also being the proud owner of a DSLR or a top-of-the-line point and shoot. And depending on what you know about your camera phone, your results probably range from disappointing to satisfying.
Advantages of phone cameras
We’ve already discussed the biggest and best advantage of the common smartphone camera, and that is convenience. Today, almost everybody has a camera with them at all times, simply because they have a phone with them at all times. That’s one reason why so many of today’s photos are shot with smart phones—it’s not because smart phones necessarily take better pictures, but because they’re always there when we need them.
Another great thing about smart phones is that you can use them to quickly share your photos. I can’t tell you how many times I, personally, have switched from using my expensive the DSLR to snapping a quick photo with my smart phone at the same event, simply because I wanted to be able to quickly send a picture to my wife or some other friend or family member. With a smart phone, you can do this almost anywhere, just so long as you have a data connection or can connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Smart phones also have apps, which makes it super easy to share using Facebook, or to text an image, or to upload one to Instagram. Simply tap on the app you want to use, and seconds later the photo is available for all your friends to see.
This is a lot harder to do with cameras. Many modern cameras are equipped with Wi-Fi capabilities, but not many of them have data plans. That means that you have to be somewhere near a Wi-Fi hotspot in order to send those photos. Or, you can use an Eye-Fi card as a middleman to transfer photos from your camera to your smart phone and then upload them from there. But let’s be honest, when you’ve got a smart phone camera anyway, why would you bother with that extra step?
And let’s not overlook one seriously cool thing that smart phones can do, that no modern digital camera can quite compare to. Smart phones have a much bigger screen than even the largest LCD on a modern digital camera. That means that you can check out your photos on a big screen almost immediately, and if you can’t see the details you can simply pinch your touch screen to zoom in. Some camera LCDs give you the same ability, but because the screens are small you just can’t look at fine detail the way you can on your phone.
Finally, camera apps are available for just about everything you want to do with your photos. If you want to add cool filters to your images, there’s an app for that. You can add frames, you can desaturate, you can tweak and save to your heart’s content and you don’t have to wait until you go home and do it on your computer. So there’s that, too.
Disadvantages of smart phones
Now here’s the thing, the gap between smart phone cameras and compact cameras is getting smaller all the time. But for the most part, there is still some difference between the picture quality you can get with the average smartphone camera and what you can get with a compact digital camera.
Dedicated digital cameras have larger sensors, plain and simple, and larger sensors mean better light sensitivity. This in turn means that you can get good quality images in all kinds of light, not just in ideal light. Camera phones, with their smaller sensors, take beautiful pictures of relatively stationary objects in a very good light, but that all changes when the light is low and subjects are moving. Compact digital cameras, on the other hand, can usually take good quality images in all kinds of light. They have they typically have better battery life and a more powerful flash, too. And most smartphone cameras don’t have optical zoom (this differs from digital zoom, which creates loss of resolution), although that’s changing too—the Samsung Galaxy K, for example, has an impressive 10x optical zoom capability.
Smartphones can be used with a variety of impressive camera apps that give you limited control over your settings, but for the most part you’re still going to get the best control with a dedicated digital camera. Most phones don’t let you change aperture, for example, which is one of the most important creative tools that you have as a photographer.
Most camera phones have fixed-focus lenses, which can be maddening in low light or other challenging shooting conditions. And the macro capability of most smartphones still doesn’t rival what even the less expensive compact cameras can do. Finally, manufacturers don’t put image stabilization tech in smart phones because they would add too much expense and extra bulk, so you’ll get camera shake on a smart phone long before you’ll start to see it with a dedicated camera.
Now having said all of that, let me say again that the gap is closing, and it’s closing fast. I can’t say exactly when smartphone camera tech will catch up with compact digital camera tech, but I will say that I have no doubt that it will happen. So what is true today may not be true tomorrow.
How to take great smartphone photos
Now that you understand the limitations of the (modern) smartphone camera, let’s talk about how you can work around those limitations and get the best possible photos whenever you get caught out without your camera.
Wheat Field & Clouds by Flickr user Mark Philpott
Despite those limitations, you can still get awesome photos with your camera phone. Some smartphone photos have even won national awards, so just because your only available camera is also your phone doesn't mean that you're not going to be able to take a quality photo.
First, check to make sure that you're shooting at maximum resolution. Some phone apps default to smaller image sizes, so always open up the settings and verify that you're shooting at maximum resolution for any new photography app you install.
Second, check to make sure that the app you're using to take photos takes advantage of your camera phone’s native resolution. The iPhone, for example, shoots at 8mb or larger. As a general rule, if the app doesn't declare "native resolution" somewhere in its description, it probably isn't a good choice. Any app that does render images at your phone’s native resolution is going to say so right in the sales material.
Smartphones need tripods, too
Just because your smartphone is small doesn't mean that you don't need to use a tripod in low light. In fact this is particularly important for smartphones because again, they don't have the same image stabilization tech that you'll find in a dedicated camera or a DSLR zoom lens. The good news is that you can get tripods designed specifically for smartphones, and they are typically small and light, which makes them infinitely more portable than a tripod for a DSLR. Keep in mind that the smaller image sensor does mean more noise in low light, so even tripod-stabilized shots may not be without quality issues.
Unless you're lucky enough to have a smart phone with optical zoom (how do you know? Because optical zoom is a huge selling point, and you won't get out of the electronics store without being told all about it), don't zoom. That means pinching and expanding to "zoom" in is a bad idea, for the simple reason that you're not really zooming. You're simply telling the camera to crop into the image instead of rendering it in its entirety. That does nothing except steal resolution from the final shot. The result will be a photo you probably won't even want to print, let alone enter in any competition.
Instead, zoom with your feet. Yes, that's the old fashioned way of doing things, but think of it like this—not only are you upholding an ancient tradition, you're also getting some exercise. And better photos, too.
Remember that good light is good for smart phone photography, so seek out well-lit settings but try to stay close to the opposite ends of the day. Early morning and late afternoon still rule as the best times of the day for photography, whether you're using a camera phone or a DSLR.
I guess I'm old-fashioned, but I still like to have my point-and-shoot and I'll probably swear until the day I die that no camera could ever rival a good DSLR, no matter how far advanced camera phone technology eventually gets. But even I admit that there are times when using a smartphone camera just makes a lot of sense, and since that's true it follows that you should always try to get the best possible photos out of those astonishing little devices.
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