New Appreciation for Camera Phone Photography

New Appreciation for Camera Phone Photography

I have a confession to make: this past week I've been playing around with images that I've taken with my cell phone over the last year or so. I went to backup my phone's photos and decided why not try and play with them a bit in Photoshop during some downtime. You know what? I've been having a great time, my creative gears are turning, and I have a new found respect and appreciation for that tiny camera built into my phone.

If we're completely honest with ourselves, I think that many of us as professional photographers are a bit put off or even afraid of the insane popularity and accessibility of cell phone cameras. For good reason too, we've spent thousands of dollars on our gear and our education and the tiny little cameras in phones these days are to the point where they can take some damn impressive images with very little effort. I don't think we need to be afraid though. If this past week has taught me anything, it's that the cell phone camera is just another tool at our disposal. There is a time and a place and the sooner we embrace it the better off we'll be in the long run, we may even have some fun in the meantime. 

I am a portrait photographer and the only lens in my bag is an 85mm. I also really love going for hikes, finding bridges or pathways, searching for great textures and scenes. Honestly, I don't really want to purchase a new lens, carry all my gear with me, and try to learn the basics about landscape photography; Insert camera phone here. My phone is the bridge between the professional portrait images I take and the natural outdoor adventure images that I want to shoot while I'm on a hike. My phone lets me experiment and play around in a quick and care-free manner all while giving me some decent photos to remember the adventure. My phone lets me experience (on a very small scale) the creativity of landscape photography. There is no pressure about setting up a tripod and dialing in the settings, I just take my phone out of my pocket or backpack and I'm ready to start shooting.

The icing on the cake is that the photos themselves can end up pretty decent straight out of the phone or I can take a working knowledge of Photoshop and tailor them a bit more to my liking. Are they print ready? Heck no. Do they stand up next to genuine crafted landscape images? No, definitely not. That's not what's important to me though. My phone camera is particularly crappy when compared to some of the cameras on more recent phones from Apple and Samsung but in spite of this I'm still able to take shots that I'm happy with.


So what's the take away from all this? Learning to care a little bit less about the little things and to see the bigger picture (no pun intended) can be a pretty liberating moment. As photographers I think that a lot of times we want perfection and only the highest quality from our images. In doing so, we can sometimes create a stressful moment or situation where there doesn't need to be one. At least for me, the ability to grab a quick shot on a hike without having to set anything up is pretty priceless. 

Chime in with your thoughts on camera phones. Don't worry about which is better, the phone or the DSLR. We already know that your DSLR is the better camera, that's not the question. The question is do you find your camera phone freeing sometimes? Events maybe? Or how about walking the streets in a new city? I know that if for some reason I wanted to take a picture of some particularly great looking food at a restaurant, I would rather use my phone than bust out a full-frame DSLR. With phone cameras continuing to get better and better, the quality of images that we can capture on the fly is increasing too, which will always be cool with me.

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Liam Flynn's picture

My wife is twice the photographer with her iPhone as I am with my DSLR and lenses. I have been doing picture walks with my phone as my only camera to drive that point (and yours) home. I find I'm less worried about the results when I use my phone. Using a fixed focal length is a commonly-recommended learning tool so to me a phone camera is a positive thing for multiple reasons. And of course it makes posting to social sites a breeze.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Liam, haha, kudos to your wife! I agree with you that when I leave my DSLR at home (on a hike for example) and just have my phone, I don't stress about the quality of the images nearly as much.

Sure, at the really scenic points on the hike I want any images I snap to be pretty cool, but the ease that they can be taken lets me keep my adventure stress-free

Mike Gillin's picture

Great article, and I think it hits or hints at a few points:
1. The technology in camera phones is pretty good. It's not huge sensor, but it's not bad.
2. If you know how to work within the limits of the technology you can get some pretty good shots.
3. The addition of programs like Lightroom on the phone itself can make for a great, and light mobile workflow.
4. The old axiom, the best camera is the one with you. Knowing how to get the most out of it can make for a fun time.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Mike! I think that in 2017, a person would be hard pressed to say that the cameras in phones aren't seriously impressive technology haha.

I definitely think that as long as you are aware of what can and can't be done with your phone, you can do some amazing things. There are incredible social media accounts (on Instagram namely) that have been built using nothing but mobile images and some of the photos are really quite astounding.

Burke Morris's picture

I'm ambivalent to smartphone photography. I try really hard to enjoy the simplicity, and I do participate, but I end up enjoying my mirrorless and GoPro more. I'll use my smartphone when that's what I have, but if I know I'm going to take photos I tend to use my camera. Portability is why I invested in a mirrorless and nice zoom lens and ditched the clunky DSLR so I never think lugging around my camera as a particular burden worthy of using the smartphone instead. That said, and given my amateurism in the art, none of my family/friends can tell the difference, or care, that the video or photo came from a smartphone/camera/GoPro. I also think your experience is the norm and surely not the exception. Used to be beginner cameras were just good enough to hook someone into the hobby before they upgraded to something better. Unfortunately for camera makers the beginner camera is in the smartphone and it's really, really good and likely the only upgrade in the future will be to the next smartphone version, not to a full sized camera. Enthusiasts and pros will dismiss it but the smartphone is the future for all but the niche photographer.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for commenting Christopher, I think that you have a great point about the struggle for camera makers having to deal with people whose entry point into photography is a smart phone.

If a person has a great camera in their phone (like in the newer phone models) that can take really good images very easily, that person is going to have much higher expectations from a DSLR if they decide to transition.

It makes me think of the old point-and-shoot cameras that have basically been replaced at this point by the phone.

Daniel Karr's picture

I get asked all the time by friends and family. "I've got $200-$300 to spend, what camera should I buy?" I usually tell them "None". If you have a modern cell phone, especially a dual lens iPhone, then there isn't really a new camera I would recommend for less than about $500. (obviously things change if you're ok buying used) . What a good cell phone is capable of capturing these days will rival most any affordable point and shoot camera on the market, and the limitation of one or two focal lengths will make you a better photographer than a cheap superzoom. I'm consistently surprised by what i'm capable of shooting, using just an iPhone

Evan Kane's picture

I hear that one too Daniel! When someone asks me what's a good place to start when buying a camera, after finding out what they want to shoot, I have no problem seriously recommending a new smart phone. If a persons intention is just to take higher quality selfies, still life images, landscape shots, etc the truth is a quality cell camera is a great place to start.

Mike Gillin's picture

Totally agree. More my answer has been to recommend a photography course first. Understanding photography goes a long way to better photos.

joe o sullivan's picture

It's nice to see an article on Fstoppers about a camera phone that isn't an iPhone for a change, thanks! :-) Great pictures too.. I use my LG G4 a lot, instead of the DSLR, unless I'm know I'm going out to take a particular type of photo, like night time, long exposures, or sunsets, macro etc. It shoots raw, so that's sometimes my lazy excuse for not taking the DSLR.
Still there's no substitute for the DSLR if you want to get the best quality.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Joe! My phone is a Blu R1-Hd, which is a pretty inexpensive smart phone because they really skimped on the camera technology and even so can take a decent shot given the right lighting.

There is no question what it can't do though haha, it's low light performance is non-existent.