The writing has been on the wall for a while now; slowly and surely, nail by nail, the smartphone with its built in camera functionality is killing the consumer camera market. I’m writing this post because I often get asked by so many people, “What DSLR should I buy?” and I always reply, “Why do you want a DSLR?” Not too many people need a 36 megapixel DSLR. It’s been said the best camera is the camera you have with you; your smartphone. The truth is a DSLR is not for everyone, perhaps not for anyone at all, unless you are a professional making your living from shooting sports, photojournalism, commercial, portrait, or wedding photography. If you are a fine arts photographer then you still might be better served using something better like medium format or *gasp*, film. Outside of these professions I really can’t think of a single reason why anyone would want or need to haul around heavy glass and camera bodies when the smartphone is actually offering more.
1. Smartphones shoot amazing video at 1080P and in slow motion at 120fps.
Many will quip by suggesting a smartphone isn’t enough camera because they want to shoot ‘good video’ . Many smartphones actually outperform dedicated cameras in the video department. My iPhone 5S mops the floor with my Fuji X-Pro1. The iPhone is 1080p and offers 120fps slow motion and built in image stabilization. It’s a no brainer when I want to shoot personal video. But don’t take my word for it. Consider that an agency shot a short film for Bentley automotive using just an iPhone 5S.
2. Image quality rivals dedicated cameras.
Hobbyists and amateurs make up the largest percentage of DSLR sales but there has been a growing migration toward more compact, lightweight mirror-less alternatives. This market segment has already taken a significant chunk out the DSLR bottom line and smartphones pose an even greater threat. I don’t want to suggest that camera-phones compete for the best overall image quality, but pound for pound they do trump dedicated cameras and they deserve another hard look. Like I mentioned, unless you are a pro, camera-phones have surprisingly excellent picture quality, and like everything else electronic, they continue to get better with every new generation. I upgraded my iPhone 4S to a 5S strictly for the advancements in the camera technology alone. But at the end of the day are the pictures any good? I recently put my 5S through an extensive two week photography ‘tour’ (my vacation) and came out pretty damned impressed.
Major camera manufacturers are struggling to find something innovative to bring to market while the onslaught of smartphone innovation marches on. The iPhone 5S captures only 8 megapixels of resolution claiming the lowest resolution in the industry but that is what makes it such a good camera. Apple wisely chose to make bigger pixels as opposed to cramming more pixels on the same sized sensor. When you’re talking pixels, or photo-sites; bigger is always better. Improved colour depth and wider dynamic range which means a wider range of tones from black to white before you lose detail in the shadows and the highlights. Apple designers also re-worked the lens arrangement but sadly, they are still plastic elements. Fortunately, a sapphire crystal lens cover compensates by improving sharpness and contrast. It has a slightly wider 2.2 aperture with a two-tone mixed flash with both daylight and tungsten LEDs for a more natural colour balance.
Here is what I consider to be the iPhones biggest strengths and weaknesses. First and foremost, the iPhone has outstanding accuracy for white balance and colour fidelity. It just nails it; no matter what kind of lighting you encounter it gets this right every time. In terms of exposure, I find the camera consistently overexposes by at least one stop. This is not a problem because when you correct for it, any minimal noise gets pushed back down making for a slightly cleaner image. Low light shooting is still fair to poor. I consider low-light shooting the biggest weakness for camera-phones mainly because of the limitation of their sensor sizes. The dynamic range is improving however. Files now handle more aggressive editing before falling to pieces. Nothing compares to a good RAW file but I wouldn’t be surprised if RAW image capture is on the drawing board for future camera-phones. That just might be the final nail! Although my images were looking great on the screen I had an uneasy feeling that the photos wouldn’t looks as nice when I got home when I looked at them more critically. To my surprise and relief the photos looked every bit as good full size as they did in the field.
3. More productive. Faster, lighter, easier makes shooting more enjoyable.
On my trip, I ended up using my iPhone about 60% of the time over my Fuji X Pro-1 because I like to shoot lots of images and move to as many locations as possible. I’m usually with a group of people so I can’t hold up the show while they wait for me to make photographs. The more I shot with the iPhone the more I was impressed with it. It was far faster, lighter, and I could shoot low angle much more easily. The Panorama function worked absolutely brilliantly with no extra work needed by me setting up panorama heads and calculating nodal points for DSLR lenses. I just pressed record and panned through the scene in front of me and the 5S seamlessly stitched it into a much larger resolution image. Having something that is small and light encourages me to take more photos because it’s easier. I take great shots that I would normally never pull out my DSLR for. It’s a much more fun, liberating experience.
4. On board editing and image processing.
I think the biggest advantage smartphones, in particular the iPhone 5S, has over dedicated cameras is the ability to edit and process images on the same device. There are so many photography apps for the iPhone that allow for some pretty amazing things. Gone are the days of editing images on a separate computer when an app can handle all of the editing on board. I found myself processing images in the field. If dedicated cameras are to compete, this is the area they should make up lost ground. Cameras need to become computers and open the doors to 3rd party developers. As it stands now, camera phones are light years ahead and are increasingly getting better at making more sophisticated adjustments to colour and gamma curves. This means that rather than simply brightening or darkening the photo or adding some cheesy effects, you can actually edit the exposure, brightness and contrast, while separate adjustments can be made for highlights and shadows.
Since camera-phones are essentially computers it opens opportunity for what seems like an endless amount of possible new features. Most camera-phones now have some kind of high speed burst mode that rivals high end DSLRs. Slow motion full HD video is now standard with 4K recording around the corner. Just this past week Apple introduced the new built-in time lapse feature for it’s upcoming iOS8. The yet to be released OS8 will bring manual focus and exposure settings to the iPhone but with better usability than what most 3rd party apps offer now. Simply slide your finger across the screen to change exposure up and down as opposed to fiddling by picking spots on the tiny screen. There is even a solution for android users that can control the amount of perceived depth of field but I’m still waiting to see which manufacturer is going to be first at introducing RAW image capture.
6. Integrated cloud and all encompassing photo ecosystems.
A common struggle with users and their dedicated cameras is how to manage all the photos after taking them. Soon, manufacturers will automate cloud and syncing of photos across all your devices. I still like to keep a master library of all my photos offline in Lightroom but you won’t have to anymore. Rather than being a place purely for storage, the new OS8 will allow users to search through their entire library using date, time, location or an album name to quickly find the photograph they’re looking for. Additionally, a built-in suggestion feature will bring up the most relevant photos as soon as you tap the search button.
In terms of overall usability, image quality and the ability to edit directly, the iPhone 5S has impressed me enough to keep my dedicated camera sitting on the shelf to collect dust. But now I’m wondering how these files would look printed? How should I print them? I thought about going to a custom printer that I normally work with but then thought they may try and correct any flaws in the files resulting in a biased experiment. More importantly, I thought, who’s going to shoot on an iPhone and then go to a fancy printer to get them printed? It makes no sense. Most people are going to go to Costco or somewhere similar to have them printed.
Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself and this is a story for another time. I will tell you that I did go to Costco with my iPhone 5S files as well as a fancy printer and compare the results and the results are shocking. Stay tuned for the next post. Below are some of the photos I took all on the iPhone 5S and edited in camera. Nothing was touched outside of the iPhone 5S.