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.
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.
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.
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.
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.