Updated: Jun 24
UPDATED JUNE 2021
Does the smartphone camera have potential for ‘real’ photography or is it solely for taking snapshots and social media sharing?
Since it is the camera I always have on hand I decided to investigate its potential.
With the numerous advances in smartphone camera technology in recent years the camera in your pocket has become a very capable image-making device and I don’t believe that smartphone cameras can any longer be totally dismissed as being inferior to ‘real’ cameras.
Many of the modern phone cameras produce excellent image quality and, additionally, provide many of the opportunities for ‘real’ photography provided by dedicated cameras.
Photography purists will insist that only a DSLR or mirrorless camera will provide the quality necessary for real photography, although an increasing number of photographers admit that they use smartphone cameras on occasion.
In reality, not everyone will always have a DSLR with its many lenses with them and, ultimately, it is better to have a camera than to have none, particularly if it is one of the better smartphone cameras.
Clifford Pickett is one photographer who uses an iPhone to take professional landscape photographs and he has several training videos demonstrating his techniques. These have been instrumental in giving me confidence in using my phone camera and sharing my results knowing that the quality of the images is not compromised because they are shot with a phone camera.
Advantages of phone cameras
Apart from the fact that the phone camera is always with us, there are several other advantages of these highly portable devices.
Instant storage and immediate sharing
Photos are easily stored online. There is no software to contend with, no worries about having a USB lead or other file transferring system to transfer photos onto a pc. Online storage options mean that photos are there immediately on both phone and pc for uploading to a website, sharing on social media or post-processing.
When travelling around the country I often know the general area in which I take my photographs but I find it is very useful, when I come to share or work on my photos, to have the exact geographical location identified.
Lough Owel, Portnashangan, Multifarnham, Co. Westmeath, Ireland
I knew the general location in which I stopped to take these photographs as the sun was going down over a beautiful lake, but my phone gave me the exact location.
Range of portable accessories to make for a better photography experience
Although many recent phone cameras have two, three or even four lenses built in, many need the addition of external lenses to give a variety in focal length. Fortunately, many excellent quality add-on lenses are available, and I find that the macro lens, in particular, is a useful addition to the phone camera repertoire as it makes this interesting aspect of photography possible.
Optical stabilisation is becoming more common on phone cameras but for that true photography feel, and a reduction in camera shake, a tripod and remote shutter release give us numerous possibilities such as long exposure (possible with some newer phone cameras) time lapse photography or shooting in low light conditions. Some sturdy but extremely portable mobile tripods are widely available.
Discreet tool for photography in variety of situations
There are always occasions when you want to blend into the background with your camera.
Doing street photography is one occasion when you want to capture candid images therefore need to be as discreet as possible.
Street photography often requires the photographer to watch and wait. You almost have to read the future, interpret how the elements are going to line up to make an interesting picture, be in the right place at the right time to catch that fleeting moment, and of course have your camera on hand to capture it.
Almost no-one takes any notice of someone holding a phone so you can wander and watch discreetly.
Photographing at a family occasion or public event is a time when you want your camera to be as inconspicuous as possible, as are occasions when you are taking natural, candid photographs of your children or grandchildren.
A phone camera does not draw attention to the same extent that a DSLR with its large lenses does and children are generally unaware of its presence.
Apps available for post processing and various enhancements
There is a great range of mobile apps available, from both Android Play Store and Apple App Store, which add interest and various possibilities to your smartphone camera.
Many different editing apps as well as apps that allow you to add copyright information to your images, apps that allow you to do long exposure photography with your phone camera or apps that help you achieve bokeh (blurry background) are just some of the apps available.
A Google search for best smartphone apps will return lots of results, or for a quick overview of apps available in different categories, check out:
Easy to learn
Perhaps this is the most important advantage of all.
Phone cameras are very intuitive, and it is super easy to learn how to operate the camera itself and to master some skills which will elevate your photography to a new level.
More on this in the next section.
Since I don't have to get to grips with buttons and dials I can concentrate on experimenting with different compositions
Creative phone photography
All forms of photography are basically about utilising the same set of skills, regardless of what device you use to capture your image.
Skills such as achieving a well composed image, displaying a unique perspective, finding and making use of good light and having an emotional connection to what you are photographing are as important, if not more so, than the equipment you use.
Creating images with your phone camera not only allows you to experiment with composition techniques but also with focal length, exposure and perspective. You can also inspire your creativity by shooting in different land or seascapes, on the streets, by investigating macro or by taking portraits of people and pets.
Depth of field can now be achieved with some phone camera modes and long exposure images are achievable with some newer phone cameras.
The lack of real optical zoom is a disadvantage with smartphone cameras, but it does force us to become more creative, to zoom with our feet and adjust our compositions to accommodate this weakness.
We may not be able to take a close-up image of a distant subject but finding a leading line to draw the eye to the subject can make for a compelling image and compensate for the lack of zoom ability.
With the addition of an ultra wide angle lens on my iPhone 11 Pro I have had many opportunities for experimentation.
While many people use their smartphone cameras for casual photography and social media sharing, there is a lot more to smartphone photography than just this.
If, like me, you are always on the lookout for good photo opportunities, interested in varying your compositions and experimenting with technique, light and colour, the smartphone will allow you to be spontaneous and creative.
I find that I am constantly looking around while out walking – for strong patterns, vivid colours and unusual objects or scenes which might make an interesting picture.
I often stop when driving if I come across a lake or mountain range, even a country lane, to assess their potential for a photograph.
When you begin to look at the world from a photographer’s point of view, to assess every subject for its photographic potential, the mobile phone is immediately available to turn that potential image into reality, and this is where its real strength lies.
While the smartphone camera may not replace my dedicated camera just yet, it certainly does have its merits and is worth taking seriously as an important item in the beginner photographer’s toolkit.
If you are interesting in exploring the potential of the smartphone camera you might be interested in my earlier posts