What Are You Going to Do When Phones Replace Your DSLR?

What Are You Going to Do When Phones Replace Your DSLR?

Ten years from now, will you be the equivalent to what I refer to as film hipsters, fighting for an obsolete technology, or will you be a part of something that may be inevitable? Something that we all seem to refuse to talk about?

I’m sure I’ll catch a lot of l flack for this, but not taking this thought into consideration may just be the final nail in your professional coffin in the future. After receiving our new iPhones a few weeks back, my wife says to me while fooling around with the camera and its features, “This is awesome. Geez, if these cameras get any better or easier to use, I hope we still have a job.” I gave her a defensive look before chuckling and brushing her comment aside, but the thought stuck with me. To an extent, her comment raises a valid concern — one that we as photographers should be talking about.

Spare me the “we need to re-educate our clients” and “the cameras will never be better than a DSLR” spiel. First ask yourself, which technology has been advancing faster with a much larger consumer base? It may be a simple matter of demand that forces camera giants like Nikon or Canon to get into bed with an iconic giant such as Apple. What would happen if the camera technology used in phones caught up in terms of performance to DSLRs?

Impromptu Chong costume thrown together and shot by my wife with her iPhone using the Portrait setting.

I’ve had this idea, which I’m sure would be terribly received, but let’s talk more about the elephant in the room. I’ve recently been tossing around the idea of creating a digital advertisement for a single “special edition” portrait session, sharing it online, booking the session, handling the payment for said portrait session, editing the images, and delivering them all via my iPhone 8 Plus. Terrible, right? The reality is, it’s completely possible and due to my experience as a professional photographer and tact when it comes to dealing with people, I’m almost positive whoever booked said portrait session would be entirely pleased with the images I delivered.

Oh man. What are things coming to? It’s time to ask yourself whether or not you’re going to be on the cutting edge of technology as things shift away from DSLRs or will you be a die-hard DSLR supporter until the end?

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michael buehrle's picture

oh dusty.........

Anonymous's picture

We probably won't have time to worry about it because, according to people like you, we'll all be dead from global warming / global cooling / STD of the week / Republicans / Democrats / Russians /...
I think you get the idea. ;-)

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Gotta watch out for those STDs

Anonymous's picture

At my age, it's not a problem unless you really can get them from a toilet seat! :-)

chris bryant's picture

Those STDs are a pain in the ass!

Steven Gotz's picture

It isn't the camera. How many times have we heard that? It is the photographer!

Many of the things I do for fun, like photographing wildlife, could be done with a mirrorless if the focus was fast enough and the optical zoom long enough. That can probably be built in to a phone eventually.

But what I do for profit, photographing people, primarily headshots, takes skill that is unrelated to the camera. The lighting for one. But mostly it is the photographer's skill in directing the client, getting the best out of them, that makes the difference between a good headshot and a great headshot.

I would guess that there will be more people interested in studying photography when they are already carrying around a decent camera, but there are plenty of people now carrying around a huge DSLR who are taking snapshots of children with them.

If a person buying a new camera threatens your business, then you might want to look at finding a new business, or educating yourself to become a better photographer. The camera desesn't take the picture, the photographer does.

That said, if a million photos are taken by amateur photographers every minute, there is a high likelihood that one of them will be a very nice photo. Maybe even a great photo. But that shouldn't threaten your business.

Anonymous's picture

Very well said, Steven. The inevitable fall of professional photography has been predicted since nearly the advent of professional photography. First, it was the Kodak Brownie, then 35mm, then semi-pro slrs, polaroids, digital point-and-shoots, cell phone cameras, and Instagram that would all hammer the final nail in the coffin. Vastly improved technology and democratization of picture taking are not a threat; they show a continued (if not growing) interest in the medium, and make professionals with learned skills and great eyes even more desired.

Anonymous's picture

Good point. In a sense we're already there with cameras ability to meter and focus more accurately and faster than humans. I meant more that "skills" regarding interacting with people and scenes and "eye" regarding what is visually pleasing. But there are algorithms now that calculate what most find pleasing, and even AI that can interact with people in similar ways. So yeah, it'll keep advancing.

Anonymous's picture

Interesting and relevant read on the creation of a similar database: https://medium.com/stories-from-eyeem/how-we-trained-an-algorithm-to-pre...

I don’t know much more about the project (I downloaded the app and didn’t agree with some of its choices, lol) or have any updates. I’d be interested if anyone does.

Anonymous's picture

I very seriously doubt that. If such a product is regarded as great photography, it will say more about the audience than the technology producing it.

Anonymous's picture

What makes something art is the human element, both that of the artist and that of the audience. Truly great art is a "dialogue" between the artist and the audience. Anyone who has that same conversation with a computer generated image is giving up part of their humanity. One could make the argument, the artist is guiding the computer but flaws are also part of the artist and his message.

Anonymous's picture

In my mind, art is what it should be...not what some people consider it. Those people can get stuffed! [1st definition :-)]

Paulo Macedo's picture

Well, if somehow phones become so AI developed and so powerful that they overcome physics by algorithm then we're done for (i guess).
For now, no AI bokeh can replace a true physical depth of field, no tiny sensor can have the same pixel density and noise to signal ratio as an APS-C sensor, not to mention 35mm or MF sensor.
Point and shoot cameras, yes, they are being overtaken by mobile phones, dSLR cameras i think not.
As i've said, it's all in physics, and as phones evolve, dSLR cameras do too.
7 years ago, we were strugling with 11EV of Dynamic Range, Banding sensors, CMOS vs CCD. Nowadays, we are hitting the 15EV Mark, autofocus is getting way better, Morrorless 35mm cameras are also becoming amazing tools (Kudos for Sony).
And last, no phone lens can match a dSLR lens.

As for AI depth of field, on the next 10 years we'll see technology like the new iPhone faceID sensor used in camera to measure subject distance and background, with that 3D mapping we might get a more authentic depth of field simulation. And even so, it will have to be able to distinguish flying hair from background.

So, to me is a shy no.

I totally agree with you Paulo.
It's a no for me too!

Paulo Macedo's picture


I also see things over this perspective.
People who photograph on their cellphones aren't actually trying to produce some top end photography, like studio, product and so on.
Those who are, are fooling themselves.
Point and shoot cameras had the purpose of being used on vacation trips, and cellphones nowadays exell on that.
I couldn't trust a wedding to a phone, neither could i trust studio photography, yet, there are now gizmos to allow the usage of studio lights with phones.
This is why my no is shy, because a good AI and a double or triple lens setup on a phone could do a lot of things.
Or, instead of having two cameras, the lenses could become mobile and re-arranged mechanically to change the element setup of the objective.
There are a load of things that can be done, if technology allows such.

Can cellphones do some pretty cool and clean photos? Yes, sure.
Can cellphones be a tool for real work? Depends on who's asking, depends on the client, but to me is a no, not yet.

Anonymous's picture

"if somehow phones become so AI developed and so powerful that they overcome physics" Ha, I love this! If AI overcomes physics, the decline of professional photography will be the last thing I would be worried about. I'd be more concerned with the inevitable enslavement of humanity.

Anonymous's picture

There are limits to AI, despite the contrary opinion of Sci-Fi movies and literature.

Anonymous's picture

Hmmm sounds suspiciously similar to what an AI creature would post to lull me into a false sense of security... ;)

Anonymous's picture

Dave? What are you doing, Dave? :-)

Anonymous's picture

Haha. Good one

Sorry, but it ain't gonna happen. I use ultra wide and super telephoto lenses and a new machined pinhole lens just arrived today. I invest in glass because of the effects I want to create and then I use my Canon Pro-1000 to not only print up to 17x24 on beautiful paper, I also print on various textiles, like silk satin for windows hangings and cotton twill for hanging on the wall. I suppose the printing part I could still do with my iPhone XX, but I can't duplicate the effect of a 14mm of an overhanging boulder on a trail or a 1/15th with trailing edge flash sync of a taxi splashing through a large puddle. I've already switched to mirrorless, BTW.

Paul Baur's picture

You'll have bigger things on your mind, such as avoiding pigs as you're flying around in your jet-pack.

Will buy iPhone trigger for Profoto.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, even when the technology reaches a point where phone cameras can match the image quality (we are pretty close now but being stuck with a single wide-angle lens remains a big limitation) I just can't stand the user experience of holding a phone in front of me though so maybe a future with DSLR form factor but super small and light like micro micro micro 4/3 ;). I think what is more likely is that we will be moving to a situation where a floating 360 lightfield camera is the future then we just choose our frame/focusing in post. (though resolution will need to be massive so we can zoom in without losing IQ)

For that matter, I think phones, as we know them, will be gone by then too. I suspect we will have reached a place where phones are just a projected HUD in our vision from a wearable like a contact lens with no physical aspect we interact with using our hands.

Paulo Macedo's picture

There's this cool videogame, Deus Ex Human Revolution, where people can use augmented parts in their bodies (actually the game takes place in 2027), there's a scene on a trailer that shows a man, climbing up a mountain, taking a picture of what he's seeing and sharing it. Prosthetic limbs, eyes in this case, that can allow that :) that game is a pretty dope insight on what we could be in not 10 years but 30 or more.

Anonymous's picture

I was told in the 60's we would be there about 20 years ago. I didn't believe it then, either. ;-)

Ryan Cooper's picture

Except back then all the technology was wishful thinking, now most of the technology is already a reality in some form or another.

we have micro drones more than capable of hovering with a small 360 camera on them. Lightfield technology exists and works. Sensor technology is constantly improving meaning higher and higher resolutions become available. GoPro has already shown that shooting traditional format video in post "from" 360 is totally viable via overcapture. Wearable tech is continually improving and there have been proof of concepts of being able to put technology into a contact lens.

The only thing that is needed is for all that tech to mature and be put together. In my mind, not really a matter of "if", more a matter of "when" unless something even better is created first.

Anonymous's picture

If you had written "advanced," I would agree. None of this is "better".

Hans Rosemond's picture

I really don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer here. What it comes down to for me is that if your business is built on basic things, like shallow depth of field and presets, you could be in big trouble. However, if you are bringing more to the table and creating images that require an actual skill set then you should be fine. If anything it’s just raising the bar for photographers everywhere. The cream will rise. If you’ve been lazy about your craft, it’s time to look in the mirror, admit it, and step up your game.

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