Regarding the "iPhone fashion shoot" (see "It Won't Be Long," below), I think David Dyer-Bennet hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "Many of the problems with the camera in my phone...are precisely the problems that mostly don't come up working with a professional model in the studio." With almost any camera or imaging system, you can optimize its performance by hitting the "center"—the sweet spot—of its various parameters, and minimizing potential sources of image degradation. And, indeed, that's easiest to do in the controlled conditions of the studio.
In the studio, you can use a tripod to control camera shake; use the optimum aperture of the lens; use the ISO that yields the best quality, and so forth. As old-time studio photographers know but some readers might not, you can also tailor the contrast ratio of the lighting to match the latitude (or "dynamic range") of the camera. Even using a transparency film of limited latitude, a studio pro would simply adjust the lighting accordingly so that the film could capture the whole subject brightness range effortlessly.
I wrote an article a while back (for a photography magazine, not this site) about how you could get very similar image quality from a decent digicam as from a good DSLR. All you had to do was shoot the digicam under optimal conditions.
It's only when you get to the "fringes," so to speak—the performance limits—that better, more capable cameras and lenses begin to show their superiority to worse ones. I've referred to this in the past (in writing about lenses) as "stressing" the system. Stressing a cameraphone is easy: just ask it to record too great a range of brightnesses, under mixed lighting, at a high ISO, with its lens wide open, at too slow a shutter speed. The result: failure. In situations where a better camera might still succeed.
It's even true of non-imaging properties like durability. For example, an average consumer camera will probably do fine shooting at the beach on a warm, bright, calm day. If you paid extra for a camera with weather sealing, you wouldn't be getting any added utility for your extra expense under those conditions. But add blowing sand and salt spray, and suddenly you're stressing a cheap camera and risking failure or damage—and you're also suddenly getting your money's worth out of a weatherproof one.
Or consider autofocus speed. Two cameras might do indistinguishably well under bright light with high-contrast subjects. But what about under low light with low-contrast subject matter? One camera might still be able to grab focus while the other one can't. You've stressed the systems, and reached the performance fringe with one.
Getting to know a camera consists of a number of skills and capabilities. Learning its settings and practicing until you're able to handle it quickly, to name two. But an important one is the gradual process of exploring the boundaries of its capabilities, so you eventually learn what it can do and what it can't. Every camera and lens imaging system has limits. It's knowing where they are that's the key.
The better the camera, the broader the center, and the further you can "stress" it before you reach the fringes where degradation starts to show.
Illustration from Square America
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Edie Howe: "Then there's the Holga—a camera so neurotic that picking it up stresses it out."