Leaving the DSLR Behind for This

Leaving the DSLR Behind for This

As a professional photographer, I have a love-hate relationship with cameras. I love them because they enable me to pursue my passion, but I also find them frustrating at times. However, amid this complex relationship, I've managed to discover one camera that embodies everything I love about photography while sparing me from the aspects I dislike.

For a camera to earn the privilege of accompanying me everywhere I go, it must meet certain criteria. It should be portable, lightweight, and compact enough to fit comfortably in my pocket. It should also be easy to handle for extended periods. These requirements seem to align with those of a typical point-and-shoot camera, but there's a twist: my camera isn't a traditional one, it's my smartphone.

My smartphone is the only camera I carry with me at all times, and I use it extensively for photography. It serves as the ideal tool for casual photography and even handles some professional tasks admirably. Phones have evolved to the point where they can genuinely compete with dedicated cameras for everyday photography needs. Even as someone who appreciates the charm of point-and-shoot film cameras, I've learned to achieve similar results using my phone. In this article, I want to shed light on why you should not underestimate your phone's camera when engaging in casual photography.

Size and Portability

Most modern phones boast a form factor and weight that make them comfortable to carry around and use for extended periods. Think about the last time you made a call or sent a few text messages: your phone is something you always have with you and regularly use. This convenience has been the norm for the past two decades, and over time, phones have become smaller and more lightweight. Do you remember Apple's "Shot on iPhone" campaign? While the campaign's images may not have been groundbreaking in terms of quality, they made a compelling point: your smartphone can effectively replace a camera for trips and leisure activities.

As an iPhone 14 Pro user, I must admit that my device is somewhat heavy and bulky. You'd be justified in teasing me about this, and you could probably list cameras that are marginally larger and heavier but offer superior performance. However, it's essential not to underestimate the capabilities of smartphones. They are unmatched in terms of portability and functionality. With the emphasis placed on smartphone cameras by companies like Apple, as well as other manufacturers, the features and image quality you can achieve with a phone are genuinely impressive. This leads me to my next point.

Image Quality

You might argue that phone image quality is mediocre at best, but I beg to differ. While ultra-wide and telephoto smartphone cameras may lack some detail and dynamic range, the primary wide camera often excels. This wide camera is ideal for casual photography, offering a fixed focal length, excellent low-light performance, and numerous features to leverage its capabilities. Moreover, most phones support shooting in raw format, which captures more image detail and provides the flexibility to post-process your images using apps like Lightroom and Capture One Mobile.

Admittedly, phone image quality cannot rival that of a full frame sensor from 2010, but it's important to consider the intended use. Most likely, you won't be sending your smartphone photos to high-end printing companies for museum exhibitions. On the other hand, I wouldn't describe smartphone images as poor quality. While I'm not a pixel-peeper, I can discern that images captured with the latest smartphones look fantastic on social media and screens. Qualitatively, the iPhone camera is an excellent choice for those of us willing to trade a few stops of dynamic range for a few pounds less in our bags. With the introduction of larger sensors in the iPhone 14 and 15 models, we can only expect further improvements from this point. These enhancements involve both software and hardware, making new smartphones exceptional photography tools.

I often advise my beginner photography students to use their phones before investing in a dedicated camera. More often than not, the differences in image quality are overshadowed by the ease of use and accessibility offered by smartphones. However, there are situations where dedicated cameras still hold an advantage.

A canid shot of my sister

When Do Dedicated Cameras Have an Edge?

To be clear, I don't use my iPhone for professional work. While it would be intriguing to conduct an entire photoshoot with a smartphone and include it in my portfolio, current technology limitations prevent this. Factors like sensor size and lens availability restrict the capabilities of smartphone cameras in more serious photography scenarios. For my professional work, I rely on a 2016 Canon 5Ds, a DSLR known for its exceptional sensor and color rendition. Shooting with this camera feels almost akin to using a medium format camera, offering unmatched image quality.

Ultimately, medium format cameras reign supreme for capturing the most information from any scene, despite their slower operation and high cost. I'll admit that one of the things I really want to upgrade to in 2024 is a medium format system to capture even more detailed and lifelike images. While I have found ways to make my 5Ds look medium-format, the feeling of shooting with a Phase One is unmatched by any other system. 

Below, you can see some casual photography with the Canon 5Ds that I've done at the Rheine river waterfalls in Switzerland. A phone would capture most of the information, but I would not be able to get nearly as much editing freedom as with a camera. Then again, I love to edit my images, and I hate bringing a dedicated camera to any leisure activity, so I would probably make do with the DNG files from the iPhone. 

Closing Thoughts

Indeed, my phone's camera is the one I never leave home without, not just because I love shooting with it, but also because in today's world, you can't leave home without a phone. Phone photography is often underrated, yet it's equally important. In fact, some of my creative inspiration is drawn from phone photography. I often encounter novel structures and ideas captured in my amateur phone shots, and these images frequently find their way into my mood boards and become photographic concepts.

Now, I'm curious: what is the camera you always have with you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.
LIGHTING COURSE: https://illyaovchar.com/lighting-course-1

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If your customers/consumers consume content on a 6"/15cm screen ie. smartphone then you are good to go otherwise you are just leaning on apples computational photography.

It seems these type of articles are currently "in" (whatever phone vs. DSLR/Mirrorless)... last week it was a pixel 8 pro vs. whatever... and I actually own a pixel 8 pro BUT I always appreciate it strengths and know it weaknesses compared to a full frame/medium format sensor powered camera.

I suppose next week it will be how an iphone is better than the James Webb Telescope... can't wait.

Why can't you leave home without a cellphone? Not meant to be a trick question, but wouldn't we be better off from time to time not always feeling compelled to check texts, email, social media, etc., or what annoys me most... having to answer every last phone call in the middle of dinner at a restaurant?

And maybe our photographs would be better if instead of randomly snapping a photo of anything or everything that comes before us, just because we always have a camera with us, we focused on a more contemplative approach based on purposeful intention. In other words, plan and think about the photo to make better photos worth keeping. Create a memorable picture instead of just filling up a hard drive for the sake of recording every life experience.

Can you do that with a smartphone? Maybe. I'm not saying it's impossible, but most people don't. Smartphone photography generally equates to quick and easy. They're designed with that in mind. But stronger photography skills do not come easy. I wouldn't even hint that a beginner was going to improve their photos by using a smartphone.

As good as some of these cell phone camera's are, they are not ready for professional work. I have a 50% success rate with mine...

I own an older Pixel 6 Pro and a newish S23 Ultra. I carry one or both everywhere because I need them for my actual day job. I would say that they could be used professionally, especially the Samsung, as the main sensor is really good. However, the people for whom you are taking photos never take a phone nearly as seriously as a "real camera" and tend to feel that they themselves could just take their own photos if we are going to use a phone. There is a certain psychological aspect I think to bringing dedicated photo equipment. And also the "real camera" and big lenses are still superior to the smartphone when you compare the output side by side. Well, mostly. One exception is dynamic range of smartphones that process multiple images to computationally exceed the dynamic range of the sensor itself. While my real camera has a sensor with better raw performance, I can't wait until computational photography comes to the real cameras, because that will truly blow the socks off anything that a smartphone could ever do, since we would be taking a page out of the smartphone's playbook so to speak. This may require Qualcomm SoCs in our cameras instead of home-grown ones.

I take my cell phone everywhere and occasionally use the amazing camera. Using that camera, however, is just not fun or comfortable. It's much too fiddly with all the touch-screen controls, uncomfortable body shape, and obnoxious shutter release to use for more than a few shots. If I walk out the door to go have fun with photography, I'm taking a well designed camera.

Agree. I just can't hold a phone in the solid, braced position I've learned over many years. I have to further reduce stability to operate the "shutter." I don't much like using a screen to compose instead of a viewfinder, and I just can't see as well as I'd like to without a diopter's correction. I've got an additional bunch of problems with not knowing what my camera is doing, but it all starts with the phone just not being fun, ergonomic, and intuitive for me to use.

These confessions of recent converts from DSLR to smartphone photography are getting so tiresome and predictable, " I had an epiphany, let me tell you how brave I am" repeat ad nauseum. A smartphone is a tool that can be a valuable addition to your kit but it is not a camera, it is a phone that has a marginally adequate camera lens that depends on computational assistance heavily manipulated by the manufacturer.
If you can replace the ergonomics, the quality, the magic and creativity of a camera with an Apple phone just do it, no need to share with those of us still enthralled with the beauty of a modern camera.

I think it's understandable that we get a little defensive when an article raises the validity of smartphone camera technology. I know I do. Any sort of technology made to simplify a previously difficult task threatens what I feel like has been a lifetime of hard work to become proficient at my craft. Why should the next generation have it so easy? And if it's that easy, it can't be good, can it? However, the author is merely stating that there's a time and place for smartphones and dedicated cameras, and that the smartphone is a great device for casual and leisure photography. Well... we already knew that. Point and shoot cameras have coexisted with manual functioning, interchangeable lens cameras for as long as I've been alive.

The author's comment that I found most peculiar (slipped quietly into the middle of the article) pertains to teaching photography: "I often advise my beginner photography students to use their phones before investing in a dedicated camera. More often than not, the differences in image quality are overshadowed by the ease of use and accessibility offered by smartphones." Okay, maybe have a long discussion about camera features before buying one, but I honestly can't imagine how I would incorporate a smartphone into a teaching experience for beginner level students.

I've noticed over the years at our local camera club that new novice-level members, expressing what they hope to learn from the club, are almost always saying: they want to learn how to get their camera off "Auto" mode. Beginners already understand easy. Smartphones are designed to do the thinking for us and make photography easier. But that doesn't teach creative control over an image, which is where beginners typically want to go next. Understanding shutter speed, ISO, aperture, lens selection and focal length to effectively create a photograph is critical in order to fulfill the unique vision of the photographer. Can a smartphone control shutter speed or ISO for photographing a flower on a windy day, or maybe our intent is to show motion blur? Does it know which you want? Can it open the aperture for an artistic shallower depth-of-field? Exercising control over the final image in all its aspects is what photography is all about. I would never teach otherwise.... not even to a beginner.

I do sometimes use my phone for photos, but I don’t like composing with the screen, always use the viewfinder on my camera ( unless it is at an impossible angle) , it is less comfortable to hold for photography and harder to control . And I didn’t mention iq

I hope the samples weren't indicative of what the author deems to be works of art to be proud of? Notwithstanding the mirror selfie thing, everything else would get purged from my camera roll.. sorry. That grainy cross-process split tone thing is next level cliche. Cell phones do that well, though, to the point of this article.

If one knows the limitations of the particular phone then the results can be pleasing. The only thing I really miss is shooting medium format. I just can't afford that now. I like your magazine work.