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Phone Cameras: Worse Than You Know, Better Than You Think

Who owns cameras nowadays? Everyone. Absolutely everyone, because everyone has a smartphone with a built-in camera. As a professional photographer how do I feel about them? Well, that’s a complicated question. Phone cameras have come a very long ways in the past couple of years and more and more high-end phones are boasting stats that rival those big intimidating professional DSLR cameras (we’ll talk more about that later). So how good are phone cameras? My mother always told me that you should start off by saying something nice, but I want to end on a high note. So Let’s go against mom’s advice and start off with the some of the negatives of camera phones.

Worse Than You Know

Alright, let me just start off this trash-talking portion with admitting that I think phone cameras are wonderful, but only in their proper place. I personally dislike my phone camera for several reasons but I still use it on occasion. Most of the time I use it for a reference device: pictures of flyers for events I need to remember, a portable scanner, a quick image grabber of something I want to try. If someone asked me how often I used my phone camera for anything artistic, I would usually say never. But a couple of weeks ago I took a couple honest-to-goodness images. One was a portrait of my oldest daughter and the other was a flower in my wife’s garden (I would say “my” garden, but to be honest all I do is the heavy lifting while she carefully crafts the garden-scape). Other than those two aberrations I can look back at my photo scroll and see dozens and dozens of pictures that I will delete as soon as I make sure that I’m available to make it to those events.

“Josh, why do you refuse to use your phone camera? They have come such a long ways, they are always with you!” Absolutely, and those are some of the things I’ll talk about later, but my reason for not relying on my phone camera is sound. I know exactly what’s going to happen when I open them in a real image editor: the pictures are going to suck. No question about it. I’ll zoom in and see a mushy pixel mess. I also do some photo editing for people and whenever someone submits a phone camera image I always cringe. There will be color cast issues, and light contrast issues, and focus issues. Because of the wide lens on the phones peoples faces will look slightly distorted. Shadows will be extremely dark and I won’t be able to save the lost data. Blown out areas will be eternally white and no amount of Lightroom or Photoshop “magic” will be able to recover them. Yes, the images look great on small screens and maybe even on social media and yes I can even print out the rare picture to a reasonable size and make them look pretty good. But it will not compare to a real camera. Call it “pixel peeking” all you want but when I take a photo I want it to be good. Like sharp, contrasty, beautiful, and something that I can actually print out on a decent sized layout to put on the wall. That’s not going to happen on my iPhone; at least not compared to my DSLR. Yes, phones are pushing the boundaries of numbers of megapixels, but the actual stats of those monster phone cameras are actually pretty bad. Because honestly the sensor just can’t take it all in. First a quick overview of how camera sensors work. When old film cameras used to take a picture, the light from the lens fell onto a small portion of film and the film "captured" the light (that's what cameras actually do...they capture a wide variety of light spectrum). In the digital world we focus that light onto a sensor. Some high end DSLRs are pushing 40, 50, and even more megapixels worth of "light" information (Canon even has a camera that pushes 120 megapixels but that's really another whole discussion). That's a lot. And all of that information needs to be read by the sensor. Now some phone cameras are claiming they can capture anywhere from 20 to over 40 megapixels. They are trying to claim the same (or nearly so) to what the highest end DSLRs capture. But their sensor size is 38 times smaller than what's in a DSLR. Huge difference. That's like trying to pack for a camping trip for a family of six in a Honda Civic. Technically the stuff could all be crammed in there but it ain't going to be pretty...or possible to move. Same thing with a phone camera. Sure you can pack 20 to 40 megapixels of data on it but the sensor just isn't able to deal with all of that data nicely and neatly so the end image isn't really a 20 megapixel image. Instead it's much smaller which results in lost information. It’s a matter of real estate. The reason DSLRs are so big isn’t to impress everyone else, or to fool others into letting you closer to the action (well…not primarily). The reason for the size of the camera is largely due to the size of the sensor inside that monster of metal and plastic. All of that light comes down the barrel of the lens and sits on the sensor which, again is approximately 38 times bigger in area than your phone camera sensor.* On top of that a DSLR is dedicated to imaging so it works processing the data that the sensor reads. Your phone on the other hand is also a guide, instant knowledge acquirer, game station, gossip collator, texting device. Oh, and it also acts like a phone once in a while.

Better than you think

“This guy’s a jerk! Are you kidding me? I love my camera phone!” Good. That’s great. Because let’s talk about what makes them pretty okay cameras. There is no doubt that those little cameras have made huge leaps forward in just a couple of years. Better clarity, focus ability, and color correction are just a few things that make 2007 seem like the dark ages (the year the first iPhone was released). And talking about picture quality, the megapixel count is huge now even on “entry level” phones. Suddenly everyone and their teenager is a portrait/lifestyle/landscape/food/still life photographer. But let’s be honest: 95% of the photos on peoples’ phones are selfies. And the pictures look incredible on the screens and social media because the technology has come so far.

It’s great! Instead of hauling around a clunky camera that feels like it’s going to throw out your back, you have an incredibly small and powerful(ish) camera that you can pull out of your pocket, add to your flowing diary of life’s images, and throw it back into your pocket. Never before in history have we been able to keep a running daily schedule of what we wore, had for lunch, people we met, etc. All because those cameras are stuck on our phones and those phones are our life. Well, just about. I know that mine practically could run mine. My phone knows my daily calorie intake, calendar of events, when I wake up, when I go to sleep, how many videos I watch on YouTube, etc. Of course I need to have it next to me at all times so of course I will have the camera.

Aside from image quality and portability we can’t forget about ease of use. Poke the screen to tell the camera what you want in focus and hit it one more time and you have just taken a picture of a coffee that your great grandchildren can one day say, “See that cup? Great gammy was about to drink that to make it through her day.” (I dream of a future when people in hover cars pop a tablet in their mouths and they experience 24.5 minutes of delicious coffee flavor while also enjoying a 3 hour period of caffeine infused alertness…its’ my dream).

So, do you respect your phone camera enough? Probably not. You like it. You use it. You experience your life through it, but you don’t realize what a powerful piece of artistic technology you have at your fingertips. Use it! Experiment with it! Take pictures from different angles. Actually use the back facing camera to take some awesome portraits of your friends. Turn away from the sunset and capture how the light plays on the garden, the faces of your children, etc. Your phone camera is an incredible way to learn and become a photographer! But is it going to replace those stupid, clunky, archaic DSLRs that professionals foolishly cling to? No. Because as good as they are, phone cameras they fall very far short of what we need.

So, what does this mean? It means that your phone camera is awesome because it is always with you and can capture fun events while they happen. But it also means that those pictures will only be great while on small to medium sized screens. Printing them out in on small formats will also be fine, but when you put them on 11x14 medium then you are going to start to realize that the shadows are really speckled and the light areas on the image are…well...REALLY light. So enjoy your phone camera. I think it’s a great way for people to start playing around with photography as an art. But I hope that once they get hooked they’ll at least pick up a decent point and shoot camera, or maybe even head for the nearest DLSR and take a step into a bigger world with better colors, wider contrast, and a whole lot more fun.

And, as always, if you are looking for a great lifestyle portrait experience in the Waukesha or Pewaukee Wisconsin area, throw me a message! I love to capture all the special ages and times of peoples lives. Let’s make some beautiful images together!


Light Play Portraits

*Average phone sensor compared to a full framed camera sensor.

*Picture is actually from my camera phone. It does fine but definitely does some strange face stretching and highlight issues)

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