Guest Post by Terry Burnes
Mike and I recently had a bit of an offline exchange about the question of whether a phone camera is or can be a “real” camera. As this seems a current topic, perhaps even a debate, in photography, and occasionally here on TOP, Mike asked me to put a few thoughts together.
Let me say right up front that my answer is yes. But at the same time I understand that there are significant differences between my iPhone 8’s camera and my OM-D E-M5 Mark II, not to mention some newer full-frame cameras.
My main point is that I think we should be open to all forms of photography and whatever any photographer uses to make good photographs, from wet plate to the phone. I also think phone cameras are among those evolving most rapidly right now and thus bear watching and perhaps keeping up with, especially as regards photography by the young (in other words, the future of photography).
Finally, I wonder if those judging phone photography harshly are personally familiar with the latest technology. It really came into its own for me with my iPhone 7 and now 8 [6+ and 7+ for me —MJ]. Prior to that I tend to agree that the tech was limiting. I’m confident an iPhone X or Google Pixel 2 would be even better. And we clearly have more to come.
Mike asked me to send him an example of a recent photograph taken with my iPhone. Let me be clear here that I do not consider myself an especially accomplished photographer. I’m an amateur always striving to improve, as I suspect many TOP readers are. This post isn’t about my photography, it’s about phone cameras.
So below is the photograph I sent to Mike. It’s a simple one taken a few days ago on a walkabout in the historic section of my town of Gardnerville, Nevada, with my iPhone 8 with the Sirui add-on telephoto lens (60mm-e) attached. I picked this because it’s a common sort of composition, such as many of TOP readers might take; it has considerable detail and tonal variation; and it shows the use of a phone camera much as we might use our ILCs, for “artistic” photography and with a lens different from the “kit” lens.
Like many of you I have several cameras, all from the Olympus system and targeted at different uses. My “main” camera is my OM-D E-M5 Mark II. I consider the others secondary. But what has happened for me personally is that my iPhone has slowly taken over as my secondary camera. And having done that I now find it slowly taking over my photography in general, edging out my OM-D bit by bit.
That is for reasons that are both obvious (availability and convenience) and mysterious (the effect it seems to have on my limited creativity). One clear advantage my iPhone has over my OM-D is that it almost completely eliminates the need to deal with the technical aspects of photography, thus putting more emphasis on the artistic side. That may be a disturbing statement to some of you, but I believe there are two fundamental aspects of photography, the technical component and the creative component. I struggle with both. But to focus on the latter I’m inclined to let the camera do as much of the former as possible, leaving me with more time to think about the photograph I’m trying to produce.
I’m not trying to convince anyone about the merits of phone photography. That’s up to each of you. But to help you decide, let’s play a little game.
I maintain a website of my photography, called Catch and Release Photography, which I normally share just with family and friends. It’s organized chronologically for the most part. The best examples of my iPhone photography are my 2017 albums. The one titled Along the Way contains 199 photographs that I personally feel are my best of last year (I know, too many, but that’s as far as I could go with the always-excruciating culling exercise).
Sixty percent of the photos in that album were taken with my iPhones, a 7 then an 8. The other photos were taken with my OM-D E-M5 Mark II or my Olympus E-PM2. All received the same sort of post processing in Apple Photos. Can you tell which are which, phone or “real” camera? Maybe you could share your thoughts in the comments, picking one of each.
In a few days Mike will post a list of the phone photographs and you can check your conclusions.
Remember, this is not about my photography. Compliments are welcome. Share your criticisms with your dog. And yes, I know on-screen display is not the “real” test—printing is. But I think most photography is viewed on a screen these days. And my iPhone photos that look good on the screen seem to print as well as the others, though I don’t use fancy printing options.
And I’m not making a case for the phone being your only camera—just maybe your second camera. If you need a big beautiful print, by all means get out your full-frame camera and best lens and have at it.
With that said, as my iPhone has slowly intruded on my “real” photography I have worked to improve its capability. Few of us stick with an ILC and its kit lens. Well, why not augment the phone camera too? So below is a photograph of the kit I’ve assembled.
I don’t usually have this with me. I take it along when I want something more than just my phone but less than my OMD kit.
From upper left, a small bag from Waterfield Designs in SF that is specifically designed for carrying a phone kit. Then an auxiliary battery for charging the phone if necessary. A Joby Gorillapod. A LensPen and a microfiber cleaning cloth. And four auxiliary lenses: Moment “Superish” 170-degree fisheye, Moment wide angle, Sirui telephoto, and Moment macro. Finally, in the center, a clever phone camera grip from Just Mobile, the Shuttergrip, with lanyard.
Moment lenses: I use their basic phone case, which contains a mount for their lenses. That mount also works for the Sirui lenses, which have the same mounting system as Moment. It’s a good case for protecting my phone and makes attaching and removing the lenses easy and accurate.
A few comments. All the lenses are quite good, far from toys, but I didn’t like the Moment telephoto (too soft on the edges. Moment says that’s because it is a portrait lens), so I substituted the Sirui, which is much better for my purposes. I think the Sirui wide angle would probably be the equal of the Moment wide. Sirui are about two-thirds the prices of Moment.
The wide and telephoto lenses are very useful, the wide being about an 18mm-e and the tele about 60mm. With the 28mm-e native phone lens, that makes a pretty good spread. The Superfish and macro are less useful but nice to have along in case.
The Shuttergrip allows one-handed operation of the phone camera, or much more stable two-handed operation. It contains a bluetooth shutter release that can be detached for remote shutter operation. It has a tripod mount.
With this little kit I feel I have the operational equivalent of my Olympus E-PM2 interchangeable-lens camera. The major difference then becomes the sensor, MFT vs. whatever small sensor is in the phone. But that’s only a liability in low light, where the phone still can do pretty well:
In the end I’d say the two big weaknesses of the phone are low light and long telephoto (the twin-camera phones are slowly solving the bokeh problem). But I think that stuff is coming, somehow. Huawei seems to be coming out with a three-camera phone and as sensor tech progresses I think low light will become less of a limitation for most phone photography.
But the phone camera has some major advantages too. Size, and convenience—and of course it’s the camera most of us always have with us. But it is also very inconspicuous, leaving the user something other than a photographer in the eyes of those nearby.
Most of us have our phone with us, so why not make use of the camera? At least us amateurs. The pros will still want the larger-sensor cameras, but I think will make greater and greater use of the phone for ancillary photography.
I don’t do video so phone videography would be a topic for others, but there is a lot about video on the Moment website (Moment has just announced development of a cinema anamorphic lens). I think video or hybrid photography is another area where the phones and their young customers are making rapid progress. I get the feeling that in the future, still photography is going to have its hands full competing with that.
Once again, I’m not trying to convince you of anything. Do what you want. But you probably have a camera in your pocket. Why not make it the best one you can afford and then use it, especially when lugging a “real” camera around is not in the cards. I think if you get a current Apple iPhone or Google Pixel and learn to use it well you’ll find it slowly creeping into more and more of your photography.
As for me, I’m not sure yet another ILC is in my future. The one I have is pretty good. But I’m sure more phones, and their cameras, will be coming. And I’m looking forward to learning what they will be able to do.
TOP reader Terry Burnes, 71, is from Gardnerville, Nevada, USA.
Words and pictures © 2018 by Terry Burnes, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Fred: "This is a very interesting post. As Terry states there is a real virtue in having a camera that is with you all the time and that all you need to do is point and shoot. Also with a phone camera you can easily inflict...er...show your pictures to others. (I find backing people into a corner useful.) Also I have never been that concerned about pictures in low light. The quality of the image is what it is and that usually works for me, after all the picture is in low light.
"What I wonder about is if you are going to have some extra lenses and other things to carry around with you would you do just as well to have a little soap bar Micro 4/3 interchangeable-lens camera with a touch screen on the back? I'm sure it just comes down to personal preference. Good post."
hugh crawford: "I remember photographers carrying 35mm film cameras for when they didn't have their 'real camera.'"
Lenya: "Obviously, a good photographer can take great pictures with whatever they have at hand. A great skier can ski on any pair of skis. It is the unwashed masses who need all the help they can get out of their equipment. Apart from that, what if you wonder outside of your house with your puny phone in hand, and then suddenly you stumble upon a running cheetah, a motorcycle race, or a diving kingfisher? Not to mention a beautiful model that you must photograph at ƒ/1.4 and 105mm? Or it suddenly gets dark and the Milky Way shines like, well, like a Milky Way shines? Nah, security is security is security, and without a serious camera one would always be paranoid about what might have been."
Curt Gerston: "I teach a middle school photography class...great fun. A few years ago, I insisted my students use the drawer full of Canon Powershots I had for their assignments. Some wanted to use their phones, but I insisted they use 'real' cameras...this was Photography after all. I carried an iPhone myself, but refused to take pictures with it (it was at best an emergency camera).
"About four years ago, some students (ignoring my 'real camera' admonishments) began turning in portfolios of work from their phones. Some of it was truly great...I was amazed: these were photos with genuine and unique vision, and much better than most of what I was seeing from my students using the Powershots. In fact, when I started letting more of my students use their phones, the overall quality of the work improved: I’m speaking of the creative aspects of their photographs, though the technical parts clearly were improving each year too. It reminded me of a truism we hear, but sometimes forget: the importance of the comfort the artist has with his/her tools. My students use their phone cameras all the time, all day long. When the time comes to do 'work' with them, many of my students are much more adept at 'seeing' with a phone. It just fits for them, and the work shows it.
"So, I'm much less snooty about it now, and even use my own phone camera much more often (got an iPhone X...that’s a pretty good camera). I use my Fuji much more still. And I have a bunch of used Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras for my student who want to start to take more control of their shutter speeds, D-o-F, etc. But, there is no doubt in my mind that for this new generation of photographers, it’s going to be the phone that does most of the work. Maybe not if they become pro fashion or sports photographers, but who knows? I still can’t believe what phones can do already. Ten to twenty years from now, phones might be all anyone needs."