One of photography's most weathered tropes is "the best camera is the one you have with you," and yet, online courses, tutorials, and articles on mobile phone photography are met with a barrage of abuse. The dismissal of using camera phones as "not real photography" is just gatekeeping in our industry.
Mobile phone cameras have been accelerating at a breakneck pace, and the better they get, the louder and more aggressive the pushback from photographers seems to be. And that's a shame.
Most People Have a Phone, Many Can't Afford a Camera
The financial point of entry for a modern smartphone has dropped significantly over the years, to the point where damn near anyone can get their hands on one, even if they don't own it. Of course, if you wanted an iPhone 12 Pro, you'd be parting with well over $1,000, but one of the chief selling points of smartphones is that they're multifaceted. In fact, they're ingrained so deeply in modern, Western living that most people could scarcely live without one. And it just so happens they almost all have cameras on them, ranging from usable through to impressive. So, although many people can't afford a DSLR or mirrorless camera, they will likely have a mobile phone. If you have an interest in photography, that could be your only route to actively taking part.
There has been a torrid situation in the U.K. this year. With schools closing for lockdown, students were informed they must take part in online classes and learning. The problem was, there were many low-income families who either didn't have enough devices for each child to be able to take part simultaneously, or they had no devices at all. The government took measures to aid in this situation, but schools reported that there were still families struggling to engage in online learning. This is, of course, the worst situation, and most homes have at least a smartphone or two. So, imagine for a moment that you're a teenager with a keen interest in photography and all you have is access to a smartphone (your own or a family member's). Your choices are to not practice photography because you don't have a "proper camera" or just to use what you have access to.
The Cameras Are Good
There's no escaping it anymore. Modern mobile phone cameras are so proficient at their native focal length they rival most cameras. Yes, of course, not being interchangeable lens cameras and having sensors small enough that can fit in the phone are major limitations, but within the camera's remit and using the advanced software built in, a lot can be achieved. The various phone photography awards winners are a testament to what can be achieved. For example, have a look at The World Photography Organisation's Mobile Phone Awards category.
If you compare modern mobile phone cameras with modern mirrorless and DSLRs at equal focal lengths and similar settings, there isn't a great deal between them unless you're pixel-peeping. In fact, on several trips, I've kept my longer primes on the front of my camera bodies and used my Google Pixel 3 XL as my landscape camera. I'm far from alone on this front, and although it's not to say that a mirrorless or DSLR couldn't achieve better if it's good enough to be considered, it's a great starting point for budding photographers.
More Photographers Is Positive for the Industry
A cursory glance at the photography industry would yield enough information for concern. With the death of the point-and-shoot camera, being replaced largely by the iPhone, and with dedicated cameras, on the whole, at their lowest for a long time, the industry has taken a hit. Well, that is, if you focus primarily on camera manufacturers. Educational outlets, from tutorials and courses through to YouTube channels and even TikTok accounts have grown exponentially. In fact, most areas on the periphery of the cameras themselves appear to have done ok during a tumultuous period for the industry. One thing that is bound to be a net positive, however, is more photographers.
With mobile phone photography being more widely accepted and warmly welcomed as a legitimate member of the industry, it could lead to a number of boons. Firstly, photography-related content, education, and accessories will continue to increase. But furthermore, it strikes me as likely that keen mobile phone photographers would eventually want to graduate to a dedicated camera when money permits.
A Lot of What You Learn Carries Over to Dedicated Cameras
What makes a great photo, makes a great photo, whatever camera you use. A brilliant landscape image is brilliant regardless of what you used to take it. It's likely brilliant for its color, composition, atmosphere, and so on. These fundamentals of creating an image are a learning process we all have to go through, even if the first camera you ever had access to predated the digital era completely. Composing a good shot is one of the most difficult areas to master but is fully transferable to a standalone camera.
But the knowledge that can be had on a mobile phone camera that is also applicable to a dedicated camera does not stop there. With a modern camera, apps offer increasing degrees of control over the settings. You can typically alter exposure values, exposure times, and so on. At the very least, you can get a basic introduction to exposure. Then, there are myriad editing applications, including Lightroom Mobile, which allow you to manipulate the raw files. Even the computational edits baked into the default camera applications can give the user a sense of what needs to be done to an image to improve it, like dynamic range, for instance.
If you read the comments for anything promoting mobile phone photography, you'll instantly spot a toxic thread that runs through them: a general distaste for mobile phone photography, disregarding it as not "real" photography. I'm not blind to the reasons behind this; the built-in, computational edits made automatically do assist the user, as do many other quality-of-life features. But all these camera applications really do is raise the lowest level of the photo; they don't make it easier to make a great image.
My chief concern, however, is the first point I made: there are plenty of people who have an interest in photography but no access to a camera outside of their mobile phone. I do not want these photographers dissuaded or discouraged from engaging in our beloved medium. Let's not diminish their work with snobbery, but rather embrace and aim to cultivate their interest, integrating them into our industry, strengthening it in the process.