Is it better to invest in a flagship phone or get a camera?
It’s quite a dilemma and the fact that both devices have improved greatly in the past few years, doesn’t make the choice easier. Let me say in advance that if you never watch your images outside your phone or tablet then the answer in no, you don’t need anything more than a smartphone. For the rest of you, keep reading.
During the last three years, phone industry has made great leaps in photography. It abandoned the senseless megapixel race which did more bad than good on the tiny sensors and settled to around 12Mp which seems to be the sweet spot, at least for now (the war of megapixels seems to flame again lately).
Camera companies on the other hand, after taking a huge plunge on sales which started in 2010 seem to have gotten out of the stun and fight back by developing cameras with not only improved photo and video quality but also great connectivity and rich features while managing to reduce size by developing mirrorless models. The new microprocessors and software have improved the “out of the camera” quality of files, providing an alternative for people who are not willing to post process their shots or want to keep it to a minimum. Somebody could say that the newest cameras are trying to resemble smartphones more and more while smartphones are trying to resemble cameras.
Landscape photo from a Samsung S7 Edge. Not bad at all
Will Smartphones Replace Cameras At Some Point?
Will we get to a point where the quality of smartphones will be so close to cameras making their existence futile unless you are a pro? I think not. And the reason for this is glass. There will always be improvements in the sensors’ dynamic range (the ability to portray dark and bright areas of the same image without messing either) and resolution but they will always hit a roof imposed by optics—the lens.
This inseparable part of every camera is where complications begin to arise for smartphones. A lens is made from a series of glass elements whose job is to project a focused image on the sensor in order for it to scan it. Even if sensor companies could make these small sensors as capable as bigger ones, they would have to pair them with much better lenses. A low capability lens in front of a great sensor is like having a great music source and amplifier playing music through lousy speakers. It doesn’t make any sense, and better lenses are bigger lenses, there’s no way around this physical constraint, at least not for now.
If you take a vintage 50mm lens from the 70s and compare it to one made today, you will see that more or less they have the same size or the vintage is smaller because there is no autofocus. Even after almost fifty years, lens manufacturers have managed to marginally improve quality (considering the time past), remove imperfections and above all lower the cost but their product remains practically the same. I own a 50mm 1.7 Asahi (1977) which can destroy many modern lenses and even compare to the best ones. Lens making is an art that bears similarities to that of mechanical watches manufacturing. Progress is being made but it’s painfully slow and there are no breakthroughs unlike the digital technology which evolves on a daily basis.
Since smartphones cannot accommodate bigger lenses (which would also allow bigger sensors to be installed), phone manufacturers have to put their weight on software and more specifically digital manipulation algorithms which are workaround solutions to the physical constraints.
So Why Should You Stick With Your Phone?
Everyone is always carrying a phone into their pocket and that means that they can take it out anytime and fire away. Even if cameras ever managed to become as small as a phone, they would always be an extra thing to carry around since you would never leave your phone behind anyway. This single fact is the core of why phones will always compete with cameras even though the latter are usually of higher quality. Phones are not an accessory or a tool anymore—in our minds they are a necessity.
Ease of Use
This is where smartphones excel. The constant development of new software which improves the phones’ capabilities and works around restrictions to deliver a better image with minimum effort from the user’s side. After automatic panorama stitching now developers have managed to work with multiple exposures (identical images with different light levels) and actually produce natural images and not fake looking HDR. The outcome is dynamic contrast that rivals the one of big cameras albeit with restrictions. It cannot work with moving objects, but still it’s very useful for landscapes.
Another feature recently developed is the artificial blurring around a subject which imitates the narrow depth of focus that bigger sensors produce especially with longer lenses (medium and telephoto focal lengths). This is very good with portraits since it isolates the subject by blurring the background making this way the subject to stand out. Most of the times it works but sometimes doesn’t, since the algorithm cannot always recognize the distance of the objects in relevance to the person. This can produce mistakes like not blurring sections that should be blurred or by making half of the object blurry while leaving the rest untouched. I’m sure that future updates will improve its performance and even though it will never give the natural effect of a real lens still it can work pretty well.
This is probably self-explanatory. Most of the images that people take, are uploaded either for use at social media or to be sent to other people, again through the internet. Even though I use cameras 95% of the time, I still find myself sending pictures to my phone (in case of Instagram there is no other way) all the time. Even camera companies have recognized this and are developing apps so that their cameras are able to send files to phones with ease.
Even for people who shoot RAW files, programs like Lightroom are free and very useful for a quick process and Jpeg compression before uploading on the net. People demand speed more than any time before. When you shoot with your phone all this process takes seconds but with a camera it might as well take minutes.
Photo from a Ricoh GR (ISO 4500 & Shutter Speed 1/250)
A classic camera that costs 40% less than today’s flagship phones
This is the kind of photo that can expose the weaknesses of a phone camera
Why Should You Get a Proper Camera?
Low light and fast object capabilities.
One of the biggest problems for small sensors is the lack of dynamic contrast and the presence of noise in higher ISOs (ISO is a number describing the amplification of the sensor’s signal which happens in order to compensate for low light conditions). Even though smartphone lenses can concentrate lots of light (as much as a good camera lens) still it’s not enough for low light conditions or faster shutter speeds (the faster the shutter opens and closes, the less is the light that goes through) when in order for a photo to be properly exposed, the sensor has to work in higher ISO which has the aforementioned side effects. All modern cameras can work up to 800 ISO with not many problems and many can produce pretty clean images up to 3200 or even more for full frame cameras. Phones on the other side start to present significant problems already at 400. This gap between the devices, will never be bridged. Bigger sensors will always gather more light and consequently will have the upper hand here.
Choice of Focal length and Aperture
Camera users almost always have the luxury of zoom lenses or a choice between many different primes (single focal length lenses, which can be wide, telephoto and everything in-between) which they can mount on their cameras according to what they want to do. Smartphones on the other hand are always restricted to a wide lens (and lower quality extra wide for the front one) and some of the recent model have an additional camera with a telephoto whose performance is not on par with the main camera though.
The reason for this is that telephoto lenses are bigger than wide lenses which means that shrinking them produces an even bigger problem. Another issue with telephotos is that they need more stability for the shots not to be shaken, which again is more problematic with phones since their stabilization system (even for those with an optical one) is inferior to that of cameras and second because of their non-existent ergonomics. Cameras are made to be gripped phones are made to fit in pockets.
Another advantage of cameras is that they can change aperture. Aperture is a mechanical iris that regulates how much light goes into the camera (in phones it’s always wide open). There are two uses for this. One is to regulate the depth of field—how much of your image is in focus. You may want a blurred background when you shoot portraits but you don’t want it for landscapes or street photography. A second use it to reduce the light in order to drop shutter speed when shooting video. This induces a pleasing motion blur which makes videos more cinematic.
Real buttons, fat grips and textured surfaces guarantee that most cameras are a joy to hold. On the other side smartphones are shaped like remote controls, they are slippery and uncomfortable after ten minutes. Some people never think about it but bad ergonomics can spoil your appetite to take photos pretty fast.
So what should you choose?
Bottom line is that eventually it all comes down to what you want to achieve. I wanted a camera since I was a kid. When they bought me a 35mm point and shoot, I was so disappointed, that after a while I gave up on it. The worst part was that I had no control over the camera. I couldn’t select anything else except what kind of film I could use. I couldn’t set shutter speed, aperture or even focus where I wanted. I didn’t have a problem recognizing that my shots were bad. I had problem with the fact that I couldn’t do much about it.
Today’s phones are better than that camera in almost every aspect and with much more control too. To really take advantage of a camera, you have to invest time and effort in order to learn how it works. Shooting with a camera is the hard way and if you do it right, it will always take you further. If you have a genuine interest in photography, if you get out to shoot and not just shoot when you happen to be out, then a camera will surely help you to evolve as a photographer. If not, a smartphone will probably produce better results than the most expensive camera with the best lens on it.