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Snobbery Towards Mobile Phone Photography Is Just Gatekeeping the Industry

Snobbery Towards Mobile Phone Photography Is Just Gatekeeping the Industry

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.

Taken handheld with Google Pixel 3 XL (4mm, f/1.8, 1/435 sec, ISO 54)

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.

Taken handheld with Google Pixel 3 XL (4mm, f/1.8, 1/25 sec, ISO 305)

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.

Taken handheld with Google Pixel 3 XL (4mm, f/1.8, 1/3906 sec, ISO 63 — I do wonder how accurate these EXIFs are!)

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.

Conclusion

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.

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18 Comments

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Gatekeeping? really! 1.4trillion photos are expected to be shot this year alone. I am wondering how many from phones... Would I be exaggerating if I wrote1.35 trillion?

Ken Flanagan's picture

There are trolls everywhere. They don't represent anyone but themselves.

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

I think it is because people that owns "real" interchangeable lens cameras, se the smartphone as the new point & shoot.

No, no, say the smartphone users. Our cameras are much more than a point & shoot. We can take just as good pictures as you can. Our cameras are the future.

Ney say the ILC camera users. They are still just point & shoot.

David Pavlich's picture

While there may come a day when phone cameras are as good as ILCs (can't say never, but....), what brings out the fangs is when someone claims that a phone camera can do what a nice ILC can do. At this point, it ain't so.

David Love's picture

Come on now. I shot this pro phone pic with my s10+. We are right around the corner from selling all our gear and stocking up on lens attachments for phones, software auto bokeh and some cool insta filters.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Did you steal this pic from cool cat? Looks like his work.

David Love's picture

He doesn't have work. He's just here to talk smack.

Paul Scharff's picture

I love mobile photography because there are more challenges to make something work. At least there were. Now in many cases it's easier to get a shot of something with the computational photography components in smart phones than it is with an pro camera.

I use my pro gear for my hired work, but I'm finding I'm using my phone for 90% of my personal shots these days.

I'm still astonished that a P&S/bridge camera hasn't been introduced with computational photography capabilities. If phones with their puny sensors can put out imagery like they do now, imagine that same capability under the hood of an RX-100 with a 1-inch sensor. I think it would be a game changer for the industry.

David Love's picture

The challenge should be in the creativity of the shot, not how to get a phone pic to look like a pro pic.

David Love's picture

The problem is not the phones but the spam of phone pics being amazing from people that edit the crap out of them in post. Now everyone else expects pics to come out of their iphone 7 / 12 just like that. I would rather have a device that doesn't require me to edit the hell out of it to try and get it to measure up to a real camera. I also don't use actioncams as my main camera for video shoots either so I must be strange.

Cool Cat's picture

You already edit the crap out of your photos, so what's the difference?

David Love's picture

I wouldn't expect you to know.

Jerome Brill's picture

It's not gatekeeping, it's limitations. You can take great photographs within the bounds of what a cell phone can do. Sometimes the difference in a top tear shot is not the subject or composition, it's the technical stuff like sharpness, chromatic aberration and noise. Only so much of that can be edited out or corrected. These don't make a great shots in themselves but they do take photos to the next level. Some cell phones are offering more cameras with different lenses and that's great, but they are still fixed aperture. Computational processing in cell phones are no different than what we already do manually so I see that as a plus. They just have to give more control over that processing to the end user if they want to gain interest of professional photographers. Honesty there really isn't argument. They are two classes of product but they do share a common goal.

Les Sucettes's picture

I don’t get it... there are trobes and trobes of people arguing over the benefits of «fullframe » small format over APSC - ad then within the same segment, it seems, when jt comes to iPhones with tiny sensors and bad lenses, suddenly it’s just tech that needs to catch-up or something like that.

Sorry my sensor size is actually increasing not decreasing because now I can shoot digital medium format without robbing a bank. iPhones are good to scout and, well, if you have nothing else with you sure use it...

Les Sucettes's picture

Problems problems problems.

Sure, if all you want is Instagram likes be my guest. Fine if you are just learning and don’t care that all your images will work for are tiny screens.

It is photography... no gatekeeping there

Jeff Williams's picture

My thing with dslr vs cell phone is the lens. My most used lens on my dslr is a sigma 150-600mm. My cell camera cannot get anything close to the quality of 600mm. If all I wanted was wide shots w/o digital zoom- cell phone is easiest. but if I want a tight shot of a bird, aircraft or anything in the distance, my cell phone stays in my pocket. With apps on my cell phone I can now do full manual and raw. and this is great- for what it is- a tiny wide lens.

I agree with the article- composure is the most complex thing if your camera is in full auto mode (most cell users). Different tools, different outcomes. No gates here.

C Fisher's picture

People don't realize how many camera apps have manual settings just like a "real" camera. I shot manually on phones for over 5 years before I got a "real" camera. I bought a Nexus 5X specifically because it was one of the first phones with camera2api.

Les Sucettes's picture

I think speak for yourself. Most aren’t satisfied with APSC sized sensors and go fullframe and others need Medium Format. The minuscule sensor in a phone and bad optics will not ever be better. They may be good enough for hobbyists, that’s great, but sorry - that’s not an apples to apples comparison