Are Modern Day Cellphones Just as Good as a Camera?

Recently someone told me that they didn’t need a “camera” because they had everything they needed in their Apple iPhone.

Thus started my searching for an honest comparison. I found several that took a serious look at optics and picture quality – and the general consensus seemed to be that digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras were better than phones still. The Digital Photography Review had an article in 2014 by Dean Holland that compared film and DSLRs and smartphones – worth reading. TechCrunch had an article where a photographer reviewed the iPhone 5S camera back in mid-2013.

However, I got to thinking – is picture quality the only thing? Then I started considering what a DSLR (not point-and-shoot!) offers that a phone does not. Even the point-and-shoot have options that the phones do not.

What are these benefits? There are quite a few:

  • Off-camera flash with hot shoes. This allows for superior flash equipment, and advanced techniques like bounced flash, fill flash, and reflectors. The built-in flash on most cameras is still much better than the LED flash used on smartphones. With a hot shoe and off-camera flash you can put the flash where you want it – and can use umbrellas for portraiture and other things.
  • Tripod mounts. The smartphone tripods are poor substitutes for the real thing, and dont provide the flexibility that a normal camera tripod does.
  • Bokeh and depth of field. These are professional techniques and are commonly used – but impossible with a smartphone (or point-and-shoot, unfortunately). These require an actual zoom or telephoto lens and complete control over f-stop and aperture.
  • Filters. You could add some effects afterwards, but it is always a digital compromise – and a poor approximation. Filters offer a much broader range of effects and capabilities, and some that can’t be reproduced by digital effects may include polarizers, cross screen and star diffractors, and diffusion filters.
  • Ergonomics. A smartphone wasn’t designed to be held and controlled between your hands the way a good camera is – and getting a shot can be more difficult, especially in challenging situations.
  • Time exposures. The smartphone has no capability of creating these long shots without the ability to hold the shutter open and without a proper tripod mount.
  • Backlit or contre-jour shots. A backlit shot is a picture with light in the background, shining directly towards the camera. A contre-jour photograph takes backlighting one step further and creates silhouettes and other effects. These shots would be overcompensated and the contre-jour effect would be ruined by an automated smartphone shot.
  • Afocal photography. This is a fancy phrase for using a camera with another imaging device to take a shot – such as using a camera with a telescope to get a shot. How would a smartphone would take a shot like this?

There are situations where a smartphone can take a fantastic shot – and may even be more appropriate. A traditional maxim in photography is that the best camera is the one you have on you – TechRadar devoted an entire article on this in late 2011.

A smartphone also has the benefit of being ubiquitous and of little note – making it great for spontaneous shots. It has the benefit of being invisible, allowing shots an obvious camera could not get.

Thus a smartphone is probably a good addition to a photojournalist’s toolbox – and on that score, it’s not the Apple iPhone but the Nokia Lumia that has the lead in photography. In late 2013, Laptop Magazine had a review comparing the Lumia to the iPhone; PCMag did a similar review.


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