Should You Ditch Your Smart Phone?
I remember it like it was yesterday,
The world of technology and the way we live our daily lives changed forever. I was about 17 the first time one of my mates got a mobile with a camera built into it, and at the time this was the very cutting edge of technology, despite the appualing resolution which would not stand up against today's tech. To think, before then you had to have a camera in order to capture still images which was somewhat exclusive save for disposable single-use snappers and cheap film cameras.
Today you have the ability to capture high-resolution images simply by pulling out your smartphone and snapping away. In danger of sounding like a grandad, it really is funny how much this is taken for granted these days. But those of us who predate the internet can remember a time before instant gratification will no doubt have albums tucked away with terribly developed snaps compared to today's phones crammed with selfies.
Since these very humble begins of single digit MP sensors the smartphone propelled itself forward at a rate matched only by (insert generic Sci-Fi vessel) to the incredibly intelligent and highly sophisticated camera phones we enjoy today. With the ability to shoot with settings similar to that of a camera, why would you need a camera in today's world?
Well, the truth is, for nearly 100% of people the smart phone will suffice; they have great sensors now and stunning screens which make your shots look amazing; you can edit in phone, apply effects and filters and even now apply soft focusing and bokeh. So for your cat pictures, filtered selfies and god knows what else, you're cool. Those that want more however should be looking to invest in a tool that can take their photography much further. What more could you possibly want you say? Well, here's a few things that you don't get with your camera phone.
Depth of Field
Being able to manipulate the aperture of your lens means you have full control over the depth of field within your image, whether it's front to back crisp sharpness or a blurry foreground, background or both. Modern smartphones are starting to introduce this feature through algorithms that introduce a blur to give you a 'professional' look to portraits or whatever, and I have no doubt that this is the future of photo technology, however its a long way off yet.
You will find that the tiny computer doing the adjustments isn't spot on and you end up with blurring to your subject instead of the background/foreground and the bokeh produced looks digitized rather than optical and natural.
Creating these effects with a camera isn't difficult with a bit of practice, all you need to do is buy one and try it for yourself!
The ability to alter exposure empowers your creative side, enabling you to control elements such as motion blur or maintaining the amount of image noise in your images. This is daunting at first, but once you have mastered the exposure triangle these adjustments become second nature.
Dials for Shutter Speed and ISO are staple controls on a manual camera, but they are not unique to the traditional picture recording media, in fact there are camera apps which will let you adjust ISO (sensitivity of recording medium, in this case, the camera sensor) and the shutter speed (speed at which the recording medium is exposed to the scene). Newer cameraphones offer this natively, but before you had to download a special app to unlock advanced camera settings if your phone had them.
In my early days of shooting I tried a couple of these 'Pro camera apps' and I found them really difficult to use, mainly down to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing, but also the fact that settings are plastered all of the screen and fiddly so it wasn't easy to see what you were doing. I've got quite big hands to trying to hold the phone and make tiny adjustments was always a frustrating experience!
I found that my learning rapidly increased once I had purchased a camera with manual settings and was able to clearly identify the changes that were being made. This is of course only applicable to digital cameras, for which is the extent of my photographic knowledge (excet for an ancient cheap film camera when I was about 8 years old!), the same cannot be said for film cameras which will afford you a greater challenge if you're brave enough, but for most beginners I wouldn't advise that.
Like exposure control, this is another feature that is available on some smartphone cameras, but just like exposure, it's a pain in the arse. My Pixel had the ability to shoot in the RAW file format which was a draw for me buying that handset as I thought would be super handy if I didn't happen to have my camera with me.
Once I got it I found that to unlock the RAW file format you had to download a special 'Pro' camera app, no big deal. But then there was a whole heap of settings that had to be adjusted in a particular combination before the phone would shot in RAW files.
I no longer have the phone after it died a swift death last year so I have no idea which app it was, but I can tell you that I never once used it. In fact, I don't think I ever managed to get it into RAW mode as it was easier to take my camera out with me.
Why not just shoot JPEG then and leave the camera at home?
For those that aren't aware, JPEG is an image file that is read by just about every image viewing device in the world and is a finished article, whereas the RAW file is incompatible with most image viewing programs and is incomplete. A RAW file captures all the data in your scene when the shutter is pressed and needs to be processed before being turned into a viewable JPEG file (or equivalent). When a camera that takes JPEG files captures an image it takes what it believes to be the right information, make enhancements that it believes provides a balanced image and deletes everything else. Some alterations are possible through camera phone editing apps, but these are very limited.
The loss of data is irreparable, like a street seller pushing fresh strawberries, when they're gone, they're gone! To produce the highest quality image you want to retain as many of the pixels captured by your camera's sensor to ensure the maximum amount of detail is available in the final file. Ever looked at a picture and seen large block like chunks of color? This is where the data has been lost for smaller pixels and the tiny computer has blended similar colored pixels together to save space in the final image file.
Think of it this way, you can walk into NEXT and buy a suit off the peg. It will be nice, it'll fit OK and if needed you can make small adjustments here and there as needed. If you try to make too many though it will be ruined.
You could, on the other hand, buy a suit of from Saville Row, tailor-made to your exact specification with enough leeway in the material to go up or down a couple of sizes should you require it. You still have a suit, but which one is going to fit better? OK, a bit of a tenuous analogy, with a RAW file al nondestructive actions can be removed back to the original files, you can't do that with a suit, but hopefully you get my point.
By shooting RAW you have all the adjustments available to you in a JPEG editing app, only these will have a far greater range so you can push your images further. Besides the obvious like brightness, contrast, saturation, and cropping, you can manipulate and fine-tune colors, recover details in shadows and highlights (that aren't clipped) and perspective to your heart's content to produce something original and unique.
Alternatively, you could use the same filter on that app that is so fresh right now! 🤩💯💯👌
This is something that I believe is strongly overlooked by many because it is difficult to understand; it certainly took me a while to appreciate it. Reach is the most obvious thing to consider when talking about the focal distance of your lens, and as most smartphones utilize wide angle lenses your reach is extremely limited.
Why not just zoom in, or get a clip on zoom lens? Because you want to take good quality pictures, that's why! Zooming in on most (not all) camera phones is done digitally by cropping the sensor and chucking away more of the image data than it was going to in the JPEG conversion. The result? Pixilated rubbish, and not good for anything but a thumbnail.
'But a clip on zoom lens is optical', I hear you cry, where's the harm in that? In my limited experience of these, I found them to be constructed using very cheap glass so the images are super soft, and they tend to add massive vignettes to the image. Not ideal for producing your next masterpiece.
Putting reach to one side, the other advantages of having flexibility in focal Length enables you to take more flattering portraits by compressing the image slightly which narrows the face. The compression effect is also extremely effective at extended focal lengths for distorting the perception of distance, making objects appear closer together like in a wing mirror. The above image is a subtle example of this effect making the plane look closer to the building than it actually is.
The opposite is true of wide angle lenses which do the reverse. By getting close to a subject with a wide angle lens you will stretch the subject and give a larger than life perspective. Great for shooting cars, or live music events.
Floppy dog ear filters, you can't get them on a camera? Good!
Of course, that's not what I was referring to, and if you thought I was then shamed on you!
There are a variety of different filters that you can use on your camera lenses (where a thread is provided) which can be used to enhance or manipulate your image. For instance, a polarising filter will help in reducing glare and naturally increase contrast and saturation.
ND (neutral density) filters provide a flat neutral curtain in front of the lens which prevents a predetermined amount of light from hitting the sensor enabling you to increase your exposure higher than you would otherwise be able to introduce blurring to moving parts of your image. This is ideal for coastal shots, silky clouds, rivers, and waterfalls. Used effectively you can reduce the movement of people to a ghostly presence which is very effective with many subjects, particularly in busy areas.
Filters come in many other variations such as color and graduating variations, and not a single one of them will add ridiculously big eyes, stars or daisy crowns to your selfie!
Is it time to take the step?
Please don't think I am trying to encourage you to rush out and buy the most expensive camera you can't afford, that is not good advice. There is a genuine trap in today's society where people take a few good snaps on their phone and think they need a camera which they rush out and buy, use a couple of times and then leave on the shelf. If you are genuinely excited by and enjoy the process of taking photos with your phone and want to take the next step (as I did a few years back) then you might be ready to take the step and purchase your first camera.
There is a trap in today's society where it has become 'trendy' to have a camera around your neck, but the camera is more of a tool rather than a gadget or fashion accessory. Like any tool, you need to dedicate yourself to mastering it and pushing the limits and this is where the real pleasure of taking photographs blossoms. It did for me anyway.
If your happy snapping on your phone, then my advice is to keep it that way, but if you want more from your photography then it might just be time to make the investment, get yourself a camera and unlock the door of opportunity that awaits your idle thumbs! But what camera do you buy? Well, this is a real challenge, and I have had my fair share of successes and failures, depending on your point of view. Coming up soon I'll run through my camera history and the reasons behind my choices if you need some inspiration on where to start your journey.
So do you think you're ready? Let me know in the comments below.