Why Cell Phones Won't Ever Replace Professional Cameras

Why Cell Phones Won't Ever Replace Professional Cameras

I have an iPhone 6 Plus. It’s amazing. It has a backside illuminated sensor, an f/2.2 lens, and optical image stabilization. Yes, I have optical image stabilization in my phone. Would I ever use it for work? Not a chance.

"Yeah, but can you Instagram with it?"

I love my iPhone’s camera. It’s quick, responsive, it takes generally good pictures, and most importantly, allows me to share them quickly and easily.

My horse would be fairly unamused if I rode around with a DSLR strapped to my neck.

I also have a 5D Mark III. It’s a pretty decent camera too. It’s versatile, can handle about any lighting (or lack of lighting) situation I throw at it, and I can count on it to get me the shot I want.

With the rise of smartphones, many have bemoaned or cheered the death knell of the DSLR, forever banished to antiquity by its less bulky, more Instagram-y cousin. And yet, I can’t remember the last time I saw a professional using an iPhone to shoot a Cavs game or a Galaxy S6 in the hands of a wedding photographer. That doesn’t mean I didn’t see thousands more smartphones than DSLRs in those venues, but we must remember that abundance does not signal superiority.

The Laws of Physics Aren't Going Anywhere

No matter how amazing technology gets, there are some fundamental limitations that will more or less always be in the way of smartphones. In particular, the laws of physics are notoriously difficult to bypass. I’m talking about sensor size.

Larger sensors are, in general, better sensors. They can gather more light and offer more depth of field control. The sensor is my 5D Mark III is exactly 50 times bigger than that in my iPhone. I regularly shoot between ISO 1,600 and 6,400; my iPhone maxes out at ISO 800 and believe me, it’s not pretty. That large sensor lets me get images that are physically impossible with a phone. On top of that, if you’ve ever tried focusing an iPhone in a situation so dark that it requires ISO 6,400, I’m sure you’ve found it to be about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Don’t waste your time or your Jell-O.

ISO 6,400: Far out of iPhone territory.

On the same token, those small sensors, even with an f/2.2 lens, cannot offer great DOF control. From a physics standpoint, sensor size does not actually have an effect on depth of field, but for the purposes of practical photography, you won’t have the same level of control. Phone manufacturers would have to start placing DSLR-sized sensors in phones and phones would become bricks. We’ve had brick-sized cell phones before and like most other things from the 80s, their popularity didn’t last.

Made for the Task

Beyond physics, DSLRs and high-level mirrorless cameras feature interchangeable lenses. Phone manufacturers have to strike a sweet spot between wide-angle and telephoto and often, the telephoto side gets the short end of the stick. This is why you see sports photographers with the aptly named “Big Whites” (Canon's super-telephoto lineup) lining sidelines. It’s also a place where you’ll also see many parents who have brought along at least a beginner DSLR and kit lens to give them the reach they need. On top of this, the autofocus abilities of modern high-level cameras are simply unmatched by smartphones.

In addition, the not too wide, not too telephoto nature of smartphone lenses often make them jacks of all trades and masters of none. They’re just a bit too wide to make a flattering close-up portrait and often a bit too telephoto to take in entire landscapes. Phone manufacturers know they can’t cut out one user segment to slightly increase the satisfaction of another. On the other hand, there’s no compromise with a professional system. The lens you need is out there.

One often overlooked aspect is the ergonomics of a camera versus a phone. The modern smartphone is meant to cover a myriad of functions that used to be reserved for individual devices. As such, it can’t be designed solely to be a camera. Try holding your 5D Mark III to your ear and you’ll understand why. It’s difficult and slightly unwieldy to hold a smartphone in front of your body and frame through a screen. On the other hand, a well-designed camera melds to your hands and allows a line of sight connection with your subject. Within a few uses, the controls are intuitively at your fingertips and you can adjust most any function without ever taking your eye from the viewfinder. It allows for uninterrupted creative flow.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of smartphones is the (relative) lack of manual controls. Yes, the iPhone is probably the biggest offender in this aspect, but Androids do not begin to approach the controllability of a good DSLR. And that’s a problem. Why is this? Cameras don’t understand reality. It’s not their fault. They’re not conscious or sentient. My camera doesn’t know that even though that guy who arrived late to the wedding sneaking up the aisle is physically closer to the sensor, I still want the focus on the couple. Luckily, I can tell my 5D III precisely that: ignore the stragglers. This type of ultra fine control isn’t available on a phone and while it can seem to be almost overkill, this type of refinement can make or break a shot when pressure is on.

New Appreciation

I don’t lament the proliferation of smartphones as the death knell of the professional photographer as many do.  Sure, they might be squeezing the point and shoot out of the market, but I think smartphones have provided two key boosts for photographers. First, they have created a culture of photography; we have become obsessed with images, taking and sharing photos at an unimaginable rate. People are more attuned to photography nowadays; there is a greater demand for pictures than ever. After all, if you went back to the 80s and said “pics or it didn’t happen,” you would get some rather strange looks.

Second, as increasingly powerful technology puts higher quality images in reach of more and more people, many photographers have mourned a level of loss of need for photographers. I can’t argue that many people have adopted such an attitude, but it has also created an attitude of expectation: the expectation of great images all the time. People’s understanding and appreciation for quality images has never been higher; thus, when they inevitably run into the limitations inherent in non-professional equipment and lack of training, they can and often will turn to professional photographers.

Always hold yourself and your work to the highest standard.

Of course, that means that the level of standards on photographers is higher than ever. Is that a bad thing, though? Shouldn’t we all be held to the highest of standards? Certainly, top shooters in the 90s weren’t resting on their laurels because camera phones hadn’t yet become mainstream.

I love my iPhone. By my math, I take about 10 pictures a day with it. It’s great for capturing moments I want forever encapsulated without interrupting the moment itself. But, if it’s time to work, you can bet the iPhone is going in my pocket.

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29 Comments

I have photographed in at a sports venue where cell phones are not allowed: Augusta National for The Masters Tournament; I chose a practice round where cameras are allowed, which is standard for PGA events. I brought two full frame SLR cameras with me, a Canon EOS 5D Mk III with a rented Canon EF 100-400 f4.5-5.6L II lens, and a Canon F-1N with an FD 28mm f2.8 (yes, that uses film).

I've been shooting film since 1980 and doing manual focus. I've just my 5D since December 2013, but I am amazed at the blazing autofocus speed. But I frequently forget when I don't have an SLR nearby that my cell phone can take pictures. The only complaints that I have with my cell phone is that "hunt and seek" focus and the shutter lag; I can focus and take a picture quicker with my Canon A-1 and F-1N than with my cell phone!

As the article mentions, cell phones don't have interchangeable lenses.

I've taken photos while driving with my Canon A-1; just set the lens on infinity and shoot. I've been less successful when using my smartphone in traffic. The 5D was new and I saw a vanity license plate that needed to be photographed. The autofocus of the EF 24-105 F4L wouldn't lock in. I handed the camera to my wife and told her how to switch it the manual focus. At the stop light, I got my shot.

Ergonomics is a valid point! I've been looking through a viewfinder since 1980; looking at what could probably be a washed-out LCD screen, well, you won't know what you get. I removed the battery grip for my 5D and the motor drive for my F-1N to save weight for The Masters; I used a shoulder harness for the two instead of neck straps.

I use the EXIF4Film Android app to capture film exposure information for my film cameras.

Call me old school, but I like looking through a viewfinder and the interchangeable lenses. Film also provides more flexibility, particularly when using B&W film and the contrast filters.

Alex Cooke's picture

Hi, Ralph! I recently sold my A-1, which handled similarly to the F-1N, but I still shoot with an old Rollei from time to time. How did you like the 100-400 Mk II? I have the Mk I.

The 5DIII is my bread and butter camera, but it's not without its limitations as well. Of course, the AF is incredible, as you say. But, the joy of a cellphone is that I never have to balance the inconvenience of lugging a large camera vs. taking pictures. One thing I love about mirrorless cameras is that they're reinvigorating the lost art of manual focus; unfortunately, DSLRs just aren't set up for that sort of work.

I don't think it's old school at all. Without jumping into the whole film vs. digital debate, at the end of the day, do what works for you. There are facets of film that are still superior to digital, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect is the entirely different use experience it offers. That can never be ousted by digital - not better or worse, but uniquely different.

Alex,
I rented the Mk I version of the 100-400 for the 2014 Masters; unfortunately, that practice round was cancelled due to thunderstorms.

The Mk I has the push-pull for the zoom, but I found that more difficult to use due to the size of the lens; I did manage to use the lens for a few photos to get a feel for use. I have a Promaster 80-205mm f4.5 for my FD mount cameras and that is easy to use. If the length of the lens were not a consideration, I'd get the 100-400. But some venues that I may shoot in have a lens length limit of 6 inches, so I'd choose the 70-300mm.

I did see one other person that was shooting film at The Masters; he was using a disposable camera. I noticed a lot of point and shoots, entry levels, prosumer, and pro gear digital cameras (no medium formats).

The use of the shoulder harness was a back-saver and a neck-saver.

PS:
On the weekends and at events, I find myself shooting more digital than film; for events, digital is cheap. During my weekday lunch break, I'll shoot film.

This should be renamed to why iPhone can't and don't be so lost on, a Nokia Lumia 1020 with a more powerful processor could preform just as well as a dlsr, and the you can easily make a case to support lenses

Still inferior to the even the crappiest DSLR though; who cares about the processor when the chip is so tiny.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Replace...not likely but use along side, why not!
To be honest I have used an iPhone when shooting for a Fortune 100 company to post some images immediately. (Two Exec headshots and a product shot) With the fast pace of social media, quickly getting something on FB is a priority. Even if I used an ever finicky EyeFi card or was tethered getting the images on FB ASAP was why I shot with a iphone. Shoot and post in like a minute...Now I have a Sony so I can wifi pix to my phone then upload very quickly. So an iphone can come in handy once in a while

Ricky Perrone's picture

But why is that so important? Surely editing those 3 shots on a laptop and instagraming or whatever couldn't have taken but a few minutes more and the results i'm guessing could have been exponentialy better. If it really is that important to get 2 headshots of a fortune 100 executive on instagram that quickly, we are talking about minutes not days here.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

no Ricky, it wouldn't have taken a lot of time to work off a laptop but when the big cheese suggests to the PR guy that we get "some of these great shots" on social media RIGHT AWAY!! and I can do a very nice iPhone shot I am not going to stop the shoot download a card and waste their time, as even a few minutes can break the rhythm of the shoot. Or they might think I am finished and leave.
It worked out fine, and for a shot that was seen online, the quality was great.

"From a physics standpoint, sensor size does not actually have an effect on depth of field"

I don't understand this statement. Surely the Trigonometry of the sensor size does iindeed cause depth of field.

Alex Cooke's picture

Hi, Chris! Check out my article on DOF; it's all explained there: https://fstoppers.com/education/mastering-depth-field-73453

Ryan Hargrave's picture

so you're saying that if I have a FF sensor at 10' away from the subject with a 50mm at f4... and I swap in a APC-C sensor body it's not going to reduce my DOF from 2'-9" to 1'-8"? Because the physics says it will.

Alex Cooke's picture

No, Ryan, that's not what I'm saying. The factor you're missing is the maintenance of equivalent magnification. If the subjects are adjusted to maintain equivalent magnification on both sensors and all other variables are equal, the DOF will in fact be the same. This is why sensors, once adjusted to maintain equivalent perspective, have no effect on DOF.

Ryan Hargrave's picture

I do want to lead by saying great article. I'm not trying to tear it apart or anything. I enjoyed it. just talking about a small part of it is all. :)

I assume you are changing distance to maintain equivalent magnification.

I just ask because if so your statement is still not true. Sensors do infact have an effect on DOF. Only if you introduce a second factor can you negate that effect.

You are basically saying the equivalent of "shutter speed has no effect on exposure" Not true. If you increase your shutter speed and increase your ISO then you can get back to the original.

Sure maybe its a scientific point.. but how you are phrasing it is confusing. Especially to someone learning about this stuff.I know you are just trying to simplify the theory, which is fine, but it's still confusing.

at least not until Nikon starts making phones.

Jonathan Adams's picture

Funny but a friend of mine shooting for the LA Times posted this comment today while shooting the SF Pride Parade.

"It's also the first time I've had to experiment with these combination of activities: live-tweet, instagramming, broadcast on periscope, shoot stills, do video interviews, walk for miles and transmit on deadline."

I wonder what his use ratio of iPhone v 5dIII was today.

Steve Jobs was interested in the Lytro technology before he died...one day that will be in a phone...and one day you will pick your depth of field after the fact.

1830's - camera pictures will never replace painted pictures.
1930's - color film will never replace black and white film.
1990's - digital cameras will never replace film cameras.
2090's - ?

Andrew Griswold's picture

This is great bud! I had mentioned it before but really well written article and touches on so many different issues between DSLRs and mobile shooting.

I agree we are all held to a much higher standard now that we have so many people shooting and creating great content so often. Some have found "fame" while others have found professions shooting with nothing more than there iPhone and a strong social presences. I have found a balance between those two I guess with thousands of followers on Instagram and a list of clients that are willing to pay the same going rate for a full time shooter in my city and surrouding cities for a great shooter paired with a strong social presecne. I use it as almost a plus on top of my photography that already gets me jobs here and there. I have to mention 90% of my work comes through Instagram and is based in some way around Instagram. Yes the iPhone has its limitations but it brings out the best in my work when I am challenged to shoot with this device that is said to not be used in a professional setting.

Its a great talk though and love the points you touched on man, we should def chat more about this soon!

Alex Cooke's picture

Thanks so much, buddy! I truly appreciate the kind words!!!

I really admire the trajectory you've carved out for yourself. You've really seen beyond the surface of Instagram and tailored it to your needs and aspirations. And for me, the thing is: if you use it well and it gets you work, then by all means, use it! I'm coming more from a nerdy aspect (as is my wont), mostly concerned with fundamental limitations in design and physics. Your business acumen, however, is astounding and the way you have made this tool work for you is really admirable!

I would love to chat more about it soon!

Rob Timko's picture

They already have in a few instances. Newspapers and news reporting, for one. I don't understand the vitriol that comes with this conversation.

Alex Cooke's picture

You're absolutely right, Rob. It's a surprisingly heated conversation, partially because of the convergence of consumer technology and professional technology and the resultant narrowing gap that forces the redefining of the professional photographer, at least in my opinion.

I'm surprised you didn't mention lighting. With a cell phone you'll either need to use the very unflattering built-in flash, large continuous lights, or some gimmicky third party device to sync flash.

Dedicated cameras like SLRs can be used with small, powerful flash units for which a huge array of modifiers can be used to control light. Cell phones just aren't about that level of quality and control.

Alex Cooke's picture

Excellent point, Brent! I couldn't agree more!

Spy Black's picture

The biggest problem with the cellphone camera phenomenon is the effect it has on camera manufacturer's bottom line. Their revenues are down, which affects their ability to R&D new technologies to further the medium, and in turn advance the state of the art. If cellphone cameras take over the low end (which is the bread and butter of the industry), you're going to see a lot of mergers, bankruptcies, and higher prices for gear from whatever industry remains.

Alex Cooke's picture

That's an excellent point. I'm curious what profit margins are on the lower end point and shoots vs. high end DSLRs. There are certain mergers I would welcome as I think in-house development would lower costs and speed development, but R&D funding has to be there too.

Interesting & good to know since I've been working for professional photo lab over 20 years & boy has the industry changed, labs are all digital now of course but we are the last to still process film but photographers using film are far & few between . Good to know the professional will still have to use a real camera. To stay in business these days we need both the professional & non professional photographer to stay viable and our lab serves both .It's good to know people are using phones also & better quality means their more likely to purchase a tangible print of their image to cherish a lifetime. I know nothing can replace that.Any photographer professional or not interested in developing there photos,digital or film please check us out at www.burrellcolourimaging.com were located in Indiana.

Obviously the author doesn't know very much about phone cameras.
Only mentioning Android or ios is wrong when Nokia did way more for hole "camera phone" concept.
You are taking about advanced manual settings when Nokia whit the Lumia 1020 introduced them first in 2013. You also obviously don't know about the manual focus Lumia any phone is capable of, so you can do whit a phone what you are saying in your example just not an iphone or android phone.

No mention of the Nokia 808 or the Pure View technology that allows you to take advantage of a serious 41mp sensor. Some Nvidia rep was also talking about an 80mp Pure View sensor at one point, too bad they went under, we may never see phones whit that much mega pixels.

I'm not saying phones are better only that your picture is not complete.

Older post but I had to chime in...

For certain elements I agree that DSLRS, or maybe mirrorless cameras will remain intact. But only for things like sports & wildlife where a 600mm lens is a good thing. Citing physics as an absolute reason why a smaller sensor will always be inferior is somewhat invalid because you're simply removing software from the equation.

Software is a HUGE deal, more than most pros would like to admit, and not just stuff like photoshop i'm talking about onboard software.

We are not there yet but give it 2 phone generations or so and software will more than compensate for the sensor size in terms of both low light performance and DOF. There are already apps that let you replicate DOF on your cell phone... they are crap but it shows that the possibility is there. Couple that with advancements in hardware and you will eventually have a camera that kills the DSLR for 85% of even professional work.

...Then it will take another few years for professional photographers to adopt the new technology lol.

I predict that for many types of professional photography we are about 5 years away from seeing widespread use of a cell phone as a primary camera. I could "almost" shoot a wedding with my Iphone 6s... almost...

Playing Devils advocate here. I agree with the statment that bigger is better in regards to technology. The buck stops there however. While the conclusion that DSLR's will not be replaced by smart phones might be correct, I find the supporting arguments to be misleading.

First, it is true bigger is better in regards to technology, specifically in this case sensors. It's still incorrect to say that phones won't replace DSLR's. Specifically because of Moore's Law. For anyone who's not aware of this, it basically states that processing power will double every two years while cost is reduced roughly at the same rate.

Eventually smart phone's will get to a point, sooner than you think, where they have as much processing power and other capabilities as current DSLR's.

Before the argument of batteries is said, there are a number of technologies being developed that resolve this issue that can already be purchased today.

So the main argument becomes only the hardcore photography geeks will need a DSLR. Now the point of lens, camera body, etc, that's a non argument in my book. At its most basic implementation all that would be needed to get around this is a cheap camera body insert for the phone. (eg all a manufacturer would need is a good design and a 3d printer)

The other argument in my opinion is, yes, this means DSLR's, due to physics will always be better. But at what point do you say I don't need more quality? Eg how high of an isoll would you ever need, etc.

That said, soap box over, smart phones will never fully replace DSLR's. But the decline for the market as a standalone device definitely is on its way. We will start to see more hybrid units and the only people left with a DSLR will be the photography elite. Just my two cents, this would be a great debate to have with my photography friends over beers.