Updated: Jun 30, 2019
"Photography has never been so popular, but it's getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying." These are the words of Antonio Olmos, award winning London based Mexican photographer. He is not alone in his views. There have been many newspaper articles and YouTube videos lamenting the death of photography due to the rise of smartphones. In recent times renowned German film director and photographer Wim Wenders has suggested strongly that ‘phone photography’ is killing photography as we know it.
Smartphone cameras have become very sophisticated in recent years and all of the high end models take good, sharp images that rival those of many dedicated cameras. They have all but replaced the lower end point and shoot camera, with an added bonus being that they are always with us, ready to snap that unexpected moment. But convenience isn't everything, especially for those who engage in photography as an art form, those who like to make pictures rather than just take pictures and those for whom photography is more than just the equipment we use but is a creative pursuit that engages the whole person in the art of creation.
Recently there have been claims that, although we are taking more photographs than ever before (it is reckoned that 1 trillion photos are taken every year!), no-one is really looking at them. It could be true that most of the photographs posted on social media are not given more than a cursory glance, but this is not to say that photography as an art form, which is a very different thing to snapshots on social media, is being destroyed. There will always be those who want to bring their photography to a further level, who will become frustrated with the creative limitations of snapshot photography and want to do more with this art form than just take pictures. Whether this is done with a phone camera or with a dedicated interchangeable lens camera may not be as relevant as the fact that many photographers want to use the best equipment that they have to hand, and at times the camera at hand might be a smartphone camera.
Although there are arguments claiming that smartphones are ruining photography there is also the counter argument that because of smartphones we see a lot of people, who otherwise may not have taken pictures, capturing and sharing images. When pictures turn out well they may be printed or enlarged to be framed. All in all this interest in photography has to be good for the business of photography.
In my own case I would actually credit the smartphone camera for getting me back into ‘real’ photography. I owned my first camera when I was around ten years old. It was a Kodak and was my pride and joy for many years as I took photos in all kinds of situations. From that film camera I learned about the importance of not allowing light to touch my film and of using the available light correctly when shooting to avoid over or under exposure. After all, every failure cost me money! My second camera was a Polaroid Instamatic, and I enjoyed being able to instantly produce a photo and show it to friends. Perhaps Polaroid anticipated the ‘sharing’ culture to come!
Although I always had a love for photography, unfortunately for many years, due to the demands of job and family life, I abandoned the ‘craft’ of photography and my camera of choice became the latest smartphone camera. Indeed, I invariably found myself buying a new phone on the strength of its camera capabilities. Over the years the phone camera has been readily available for family events and holidays, and as the cameras improved so too did my appreciation of the photographs they could take. I thought, why would I want anything else? Recently, however, I decided to re-kindle my dormant passion for photography, knowing that I can get so much more from this art form than just snapshots, and, after much research and deliberation, invested in a Nikon DSLR camera. From my first handling of the camera it felt like a ‘real’ camera that could produce ‘real’ photographs and through learning about the camera controls, experimenting with new techniques, investigating lenses and filters, I have discovered the potential offered by a dedicated camera.
While I enjoy learning about the technical aspects of photography and experimenting with different techniques, the most important aspect of photography for me is the creativity aspect. In my view, creativity, the ability to express ourselves artistically and creatively through our images, is what makes the difference between photography as an art form and ‘taking pictures’. That is not to say that this has to involve an expensive camera system and there are certainly those who are aiming to become more creative with smartphone photography. Numerous courses are being offered to meet this demand, including online courses, and in my view this bodes well for photography as a craft. Many of these courses give information on composition, lighting and so on that apply equally to camera and smartphone.
I recently had my camera with me when I unexpectedly came across a waterfall. I decided to experiment with different shutter speeds and spent some enjoyable time finding out about the effects of fast shutter speeds and slow shutter speeds, freezing motion and capturing motion, which speeds worked well, which speeds were too fast or too slow, and so on. To me this is where the strength of the dedicated camera lies, as well as the ability to interchange the lenses to suit different scenarios or requirements. However, with some experimentation it is possible to get creative effects from the phone camera also, and there is a case for using both, or using the best equipment to suit the particular situation.
Creative photography is about making choices in terms of our craft, always experimenting, discovering, and trying new things. Smartphone cameras can give us some choices about how we take our shots, whether we will shoot high or low, near or far, and about subject matter and composition, and they are becoming more sophisticated all the time. However, we do eventually reach the limit of our choices with smartphones, in large part due to their small sensors, which are obviously limited in what they can achieve. I also find that they can be pretty frustrating in bright sunlight when the absence of a viewfinder is a big drawback! The dedicated camera, on the other hand, works fairly well under most conditions. It challenges us to get the right exposure and the proper focus; it gives us options such as variations in depth of field using different apertures or the ability to control speed through adjustments in shutter priority; it gives us the option of interchangeable lenses to suit different types of photography. It encourages us to take shots that other people might not normally take, or even think of taking, to keep learning and continually hone our craft. Carrying a camera and several lenses, and possibly a tripod and other equipment, deciding on our venue, waiting for the right light, the right moment in which to take our shot, is more challenging in terms of planning and effort than simply taking out our phone camera when we see something worth shooting, but it is also more rewarding in terms of creativity. In other words, it helps us to become photographers rather than merely people with cameras.
So, is the smartphone destroying photography? I think not, but in my own case I’m learning about photography from a ‘real’ camera and that learning extends to using a phone camera more creatively.
Recently I have taken some photographs with both smartphone camera and my Nikon DSLR and I tried to be as creative as possible with each.
The next photo was taken with my smartphone. I was walking along by a canal when I looked behind and saw this tree and its reflection. The picture quality is not great as I used the digital zoom but I am glad I got the image.
I am not a purist when it comes to camera equipment therefore I'm happy that Samsung or Apple or Google are perfecting their phone cameras. It's not what the camera can do that concerns me most but what I, the person with the camera, can do. For that reason I believe that there is a definite role for the smartphone camera in every photographer’s ‘toolbox', and as phone cameras become more sophisticated they offer more and more in terms of creativity also.
I like to have my smartphone camera with me to capture those unexpected moments and because I like good photographs I do a lot of research on smartphone cameras before buying the best that I can afford. However, despite the fact that it can produce sharp images that look well when compared to many dedicated camera images, for me the smartphone will never replace the camera in terms of honing my craft, growing and developing as a photographer and in terms of ‘making’ rather than ‘taking’ photographs. Dedicated cameras are more technically superior to phone cameras but phone cameras do have a lot to offer the serious photographer and I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the phone camera as being totally inferior or to feel threatened by this type of photography. Instead, I think what photographers need to do is to embrace this technology, accept that it has a place in photography and utilize it to reveal its potential. When I take this attitude I find that my phone camera can enhance my photography experience and I begin to learn more and more about how to use these very portable devices in creative ways. I don’t think that smartphones will destroy photography as long as there are photographers who want to engage with their craft, but is up to those photographers not to become ‘lazy’ about photography, not to become satisfied with the nice image produced on auto by the smartphone camera into which they have very little input. For me, the smartphone camera is just another part of my photography equipment, and I want to learn as much about how it works as I can.
Is it easier to take a photograph with the phone camera that is already in my bag than to carry a dedicated camera and its various lenses with me for those unexpected photo opportunities? Yes it is! Do I get as much satisfaction from taking these photographs? No, unfortunately I don’t, but as my knowledge of photography as a craft improves I realise that whatever camera I may have, it is merely a tool! In the end, it really is up to the photographer to reclaim photography; it is what we achieve for ourselves, with the aid of whatever equipment we have, through all the ups and downs involved in becoming better photographers, which brings out the best in us, both as photographers and as people.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams