The impact of smartphones on photography has been well documented and profound. One lesser-discussed element of smartphones' influence on photography, however, might be the change in what photographers now want and expect from dedicated cameras.
We have a lot to thank smartphones for. Not only have they birthed millions of photographers, but they have also increased the number of photographs created by a ludicrous degree. It is estimated that in 1999, when film photography was at its apex, roughly 80 billion photographs were taken in a year. Current estimates suggest we now take 80 billion photographs about every two and a half weeks, with a projected 1.79 trillion taken in the year 2023. This sharp incline has changed photography in myriad ways, many unknowable, many well covered. But, how has it altered photography for traditional photographers with dedicated cameras, both enthusiasts and professionals?
(From herein, when I say "photographers," I mean those who take pictures with a dedicated camera. This is for conciseness; there are plenty of excellent smartphone-only photographers.)
Most of the impact is tied up in areas that are discussed regularly. On the positive front, smartphones have become powerful tools in our arsenal, from taking supplementary shots or behind-the-scenes images, to acting as remotes or useful references. On the negative side, photography has become significantly less prestigious and easier, and due to the increase in photographs taken, the bar has been raised. It is a mixed bag and one that is explored frequently.
That said, there is an effect of smartphones on photographers that I put a lot of thought into this week. I have been writing a review on the Panasonic Lumix S5 II, as well as some smaller pieces on cameras like the almost mythical Fujifilm X100V. When I contrast them to my Fujifilm GFX 50R or my old Canon 5D II, I realize that a lot has changed. When I'm buying a daily camera — by which I mean my workhorse that I perform most shoots on — my requirements have evolved in recent years. I believe this is partially as a result of smartphones.
Rivalling Smartphones: The Ultimate Hybrids
The Panasonic S5 II is a brilliant camera, and I will be treading on the toes of my review here. When it comes to creating portraits, I would rather use my GFX 50R. When it comes to filmmaking, I would rather use a Sony FX6 (not that I own one). I won't continue down this list, but the takeaway is that the S5 II isn't best in class at anything but perhaps one category: the ultimate hybrid.
At its inception, the phrase "jack of all trades" used to be a compliment. Somewhere along the line, someone added "master of none," and now, whether you say the first half of the quote or both halves, it makes no difference: people take it as a slight. If you're a jack of all trades, your skill set is too diffuse and you lack a specialty. (Incidentally, the third line "but oftentimes better than master of one" is an even more modern addition, despite what viral videos might suggest!) There's glory in versatility: it's a skill in its own right, and in photography, it's becoming more relevant by the day. Not only are photographers now often asked to create long- and short-form videos, but also livestream, film behind-the-scenes footage, and so on. And with photographers needing to do more, we need our equipment to bear the load.
Until recently, I still had segregated gear, but as I look to replace my Sony a7 III — my workhorse for the past 5 years — I've realized to be my workhorse today, the camera needs to be able to fit many roles. Smartphones have shown us that we can have so much in a small device, that it no longer feels unreasonable to ask a lot of my dedicated camera.
Smartphone cameras quickly got to the point where if it didn't defy physics, a phone could do a good enough job of capturing the moment. Then, algorithms and AI started chipping away at defying physics with faux depth of field and stabilization. While laughable in its first iteration, depth of field, for instance, has reached a point where it's occasionally possible to trick even veteran photographers into thinking it was taken on a dedicated camera. Smartphones can easily straddle two horses with one backside now when it comes to photography and video, and you could argue a third horse is involved with streaming too. So, why shouldn't I expect a camera that costs thousands of dollars for just the body to be able to perform all of the above? Yes, there is plenty that cameras can do and smartphones can't, but cameras have been ceding territory at an alarming rate.
In all honesty, it doesn't stop there. When considering the S5 II as a replacement for my Sony, I wanted to be able to create photographs of the highest standard and have a good selection of glass to do so, as well as 4K video at 60p. I wanted Phase Hybrid AF, strong in-body image stabilization, and a high-resolution mode. Then, not only did I want these video and photography specs, I wanted (somewhat) native live-streaming capabilities so that I could look like one of those fancy rich folk atop Twitch.tv.
It occurred to me that never before had I been so demanding in what I wanted from a single camera, but since the recent rise of the small hybrid body that can produce stellar results in every which way you might use it, I can't help but expect it all. This isn't all the fault of smartphones becoming smarter and more capable, but it is a factor in the rise of expectations. Thanks to multifaceted content creators and influencers, what is required by brands, clients, and collaborators is often far more than just some photographs, and so we need far more than just a straightforward camera.
Lead image by Kaique Rocha from Pexels.