Why the Best Camera for Beginners Isn't Their Phone

Why the Best Camera for Beginners Isn't Their Phone

A common piece of advice for photography beginners is to use your phone to take images, as it's a powerful camera in the right hands. I used to give this advice too, but after a lot of thought, I realized I was wrong.

After reading Usman Dawood's article "Here's Why the iPhone Is the Best Camera for Beginners," I couldn't stop thinking about it. In my comment on that article, I said I had broadly said the same thing, just swapping "iPhone" for "modern mobile phone," as many manufacturers have malleable and intricate camera applications. But even with the addendum, the point wasn't sitting comfortably anymore. So, I broke the statement down into its constituent parts to see where the problem was hiding.

It certainly isn't that the cameras in the latest mobile phones aren't good enough; they are, and with the right apps, understanding and add-ons, they can be damn near a professional standard tool for creating still images and videos. I didn't even feel uneasy with the absolute term "best," as I'm sure a phone camera is the best for many people; it's always with you, it's multifaceted, it has lots of other functionality, and so on. So, by the power of deduction, I must be taking umbrage with the word "beginner." But why?

Companies like Moment have been producing lenses for mobile phones that really put pressure on point and shoot cameras. This clip-on Moment product, for example, is an anamorphic lens which can give you incredible videography reminiscent of higher-end cinema.

On the face of it, a modern (or even reasonably modern) mobile phone's camera — with the aforementioned extras — is perfect for beginners in so many categories. For one, it doesn't require you to fork out any money, as you've probably already got one. Two, you can have a lot of control over the camera and its settings. Three, it's highly portable, and as it's always on your person, you're likely to shoot more. Dawood goes over a host of other positives for the camera in your pocket, and I'm sure there are plenty more neither of us have mentioned. And yet, I don't feel it is the best camera for beginners. It wasn't until just this morning I could fully unpack why that is, and it was hidden in a popular article I wrote last year: "Am I the Only Photographer Who Prefers Heavier Equipment?"

In this article, I discussed how much I loved shooting with the Fujifilm GFX 100 and GFX 50R, combined with the 110mm f/2 while doing street photography, despite it weighing a whopping 2.4 kg (5.3 lbs). I went on to write one paragraph which was unexpectedly poignant to the question at hand and why I no longer agree with my own advice:

Even if I shoot an incredible image with my mobile phone, I don't enjoy the experience. I don't feel I'm plying a skill or engaged with the moment, but with the medium format Fuji and a lens that weighs 1kg/2.2lbs on its own, I did. I had that camera in my hands for days on end as I walked miles and miles around Tokyo, taking several thousand images. The tactile experience gave me a similar sensation to what I have felt when shooting on different film bodies: you're involved and everything is markedly more satisfying.

Taken with the GFX 50R and the 100mm f/2, weighing in at that of a baby, but with all the warm fuzziness in your core that comes with holding said baby.

I realized that Dawood is exactly right, and so was my old advice: the best camera for beginners is their phone, but only on paper. What I had forgotten is that honeymoon period when I got my first SLR. The clicks and the whirs of the dial, the clap of the shutter, and the blink of the viewfinder. Then there's the thrill of the exploration of focal length, the gasp at the bokeh from your first f/1.8 lens, and the feel of the process. At best, this is missing from mobile phone photography, and at worst, it's faked by algorithms and sound effects. My current mobile phone camera obliterates my first standalone camera in pretty much every metric you can measure them both on, but I would have never have fallen in love with taking pictures had the two have traded places.

In actuality, I think a phone camera is an invaluable tool for all photographers, particularly those at the start of their journey into photography, as it can teach you a lot that was previously knowledge gated behind books and more difficult trial and error. What I don't think, however, is that a phone camera ought to be the only camera somebody interested in photography owns and uses, as it misses out on vast swathes of the experience. It has many of the same results, but without the romance. It's a simulation that's useful, abundant, and educational, but it's incomplete. Algorithms can and will fake everything a phone camera can't physically do, and some day soon, it'll be with such accuracy you can scarcely tell the difference between those images and the real thing, but that's just it: it won't be the real thing. It will be devoid of that tactile process that produces something intangible along with its images and that has had photographers continually clicking for over a century.

To summarize my position, phone cameras are the best cameras for many people, but for beginners to photography with a genuine interest in the medium, they are only the best on paper. They work superbly in a supplementary role and as a learning device. They're even great for capturing images when you don't have your dedicated camera with you or perhaps have forgotten your wide-angle lens. But if you're a beginner who thinks they could love photography, do yourself a favor and pair that little device in your pocket with a standalone camera that can immerse you in the act of making photographs. Its value might not be justifiable on paper, but it will become apparent and might be the difference between a waning interest and a lifelong love affair with the craft.

Do you agree? Am I off the mark? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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43 Comments

Jeff Walsh's picture

The best camera for beginners is whatever is available to them. I think we need to stop telling people what's best for them, creating barriers of entry for everything, and just start encouraging people to do. Accomplishing something, anything, will encourage people to pursue things further as long as they enjoy the pursuit. Only have an old model phone with a camera in it...cool, take the best photos you can with that, and be creative. Use it's flaws to create something new. Keep pursuing that passion, then let time and necessity dictate when and how you change out your equipment.

Mark Rowe's picture

I agree, Jeff.

I think it’s time we start to realise the barriers to photography entry are now down with camera phones.
My daughter is 10 years old, we share this photography passion. I recently had the conversation with her about the fact that the best camera to have is the one with you because it captures the image you want in the moment whilst it’s happening. She has an iPhone 7. I also handed down an old Sony bridge camera... it never gets used. The images she’s producing are incredible because of her open mindedness to capture things that us ‘adults’ don’t often see.
In the meantime, my daughter is also learning about exposure and how to edit the image afterwards, often saying “I don’t think this needs editing as it looks exactly how I saw it when I took the image”. Although, we do have ‘editing shoot outs’ where we edit the same picture and compare and constructively critique the edits afterwards.

The best camera is the one that gets you into photography; phone, DSLR, etc. Learning how the camera takes the image is something that comes with experience and getting out to shoot with it. A good image is subjective but can also be improved with having the passion to learn and practice.

The best camera is not decided by this article nor the one before or after it.

Jeremiah Griffin's picture

A thumbs up from me.

Ultimately, photography should be fun - especially when done casually or by begginers.

Setting dictates about what is and isn't "proper" on something as trivial as this serves only to deter other potentially great photographers from joining the community.

Robert K Baggs's picture

I agree, though I'm not sure our points are in opposition. There will always be something that's best for every person in every situation, it doesn't mean you have to have it. I'm by no means saying you *must* have a DSLR, but I am saying that a DSLR is the best option for experiencing photography when contrasted with a mobile phone. The last thing I want to do is put barriers up to stop new photographers coming in; the more the merrier! If that's how the article came across, my apologies.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I'm totally with you. When the phones start emulating what cameras do but it's obvious that it's a fast cheat way to get the same effect as a camera and lenses it removes all the how can I achieve this or how to do that and can limit the satisfaction. Basically it says why learn something when it's already done for me.

Stuart Carver's picture

I think the direction we should be taking (as a species in whole) is to have the phone introduce someone to creative photography for them to realise that they then want a proper camera to capture images and videos.

It’s a pipe dream that would give camera companies a much needed boost, but we can hope.

Stuart Carver's picture

P.S. photography is ever increasing in popularity as a subject in the UK education system, and not because it’s a cop out subject etc, kids are genuinely interested in it and I’ve seen the results, some of the work is amazing.

Usman Dawood's picture

Brilliant article Robert, definitely made me rethink some of my points. Thank you.

Jerome Brill's picture

It's tough to be unique with a cell phone image. Sure some offer a little bit of optical zoom but that's about it. Your subject has to be really interesting. If that's the case, your cell phone as no bearing in it.

If you are into really into photography though, it doesn't take long to find the limitations of a cell phone. The computational part is actually pretty great. It's just not working on a high end level. You actually have to drop back in tech to get a better photo which seems counter intuitive.

Although is it really backwards if you can choose any lens you want on a SLR? That's the part you start to realize, you need different lenses. Everything is a tool and you need the right tool for the job. And it doesn't just stop at the camera and lens. You need the software to help you create the image.

You can only automize so much before creativity is lost. I'm not saying you can't be create with a cell phone but it's tougher when something is holding your hand telling you what you can and can't do.

In the end, a cell phone is a limitation in photography as a whole.

Tony J's picture

In my opinion, someone can learn framing or composition with a smartphone. If someone wanted to get into photography I would tell them to buy a used DSLR/Mirrorless/Film camera and 2 used prime lenses and explore. Used gear can be cheap. Just my viewpoint

Richard Ver Steeg's picture

Phone cameras are brilliant tools for the casual photographer - you always have your phone with you. And If you are serious about photography, there’s a lot you can learn with a phone camera - techniques like composition and lighting are camera independent. If you don’t understand those, the best camera in the world won’t help you. You can absolutely take professional quality images with a phone camera if you know what you are doing and your subject is matched to the capabilities of the device (you can say the same for a pin-hole camera).

It’s also true that a phone is not optimized for taking pictures (I hate using a camera app to control camera settings, your mileage may vary). The form factor, controls, lenses, etc. of a phone camera are all compromises with limited options compared to a camera with dedicated controls and interchangable lenses (if you’re phone doesn’t have a telephoto lens built-in, consider a clip-on accessory lens).Technology advances like portrait mode are ultimately limited simulations of basic techniques that are much more powerful if you understand how they work.

There is no should, only choices. A dedicated camera and lens system wont make you a better photographer but a knowledgable photographer can get pictures with a dedicated camera and lens system that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with a phone camera.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

What am I supposed to believe!? Who can we trust!?

Simon Patterson's picture

Don't sweat it. Like everything in photography, learn from the different perspectives, then make up your own mind.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

A phone is the modern version of Kodak Instamatic. It has brought camera to everyone,
If someone wants to learn photography the understanding of exposure and use of shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings are key, together with understanding of using different lenses. These are the basics of photography.
A phone is not a good tool for that.
Yes you can take nice pictures with a phone, but ability to use basic technics like freeze movement, shallow depth of field, a more compressed image are not really available.
A full frame camera with a 50 mm lens is a good option to start off. It’s sad that a 2.8 zoom lens is so expensive. There are a growing amount of used gear available and You can get gear do the same price as a expensive phone.

Normund Greenberg's picture

A smartphone is probably a good tool (and can be used to some extent) once one has accumulated some experience in both taking photos and post-processing them.

Tom Pinches's picture

Agree completely. very astute observations on what makes photography so enjoyable. I fell in love with film photography with an old east german fully-manual thing. The smell of the old leather case when I looked through the viewfinder made me happy! It's more than just the images you end up with, it's the process.

Peter Witama's picture

Totally agree that phone cameras are not for the real beginners to photography. Yes, it is a really great tool to get pictures taken anytime, anywhere. But for those who really want to get into photography must get a real camera. For me, I'll recommend a disposable film camera. First thing they need to know is ISO, then they try to figure out whether to use the flash or not. At the end, they will starve to see the result. That's all is for good fun. If they enjoy that kind of process, the excitement, then proceed to the next level..

Chris Pearson's picture

I think the definition of photography is the area which brings us different views.

The art of capturing an image indeed can be done many ways and a phone is as good as any other method from that sense. But if you want to become the next Ansel Adams or David Bailey then probably that is not the best place to start.

I use landscape and portrait as my examples because both those styles themselves have been focus on by the phone companies with Portrait modes and wider lenses in recent months and both those 'new' phone features got my 14yo daughter into asking for a 'proper' camera for xmas this year.

So probably today the first camera experience is with a phone and acts as a gateway to further knowledge.

Steven de Vet's picture

They are a great tool to take pics and some beautiful shots are taken with them. But not necessarily the best way start getting into photography as you don't have the control.

Usually I say, anything with interchangeable lenses and control on aperture/ISO/shutterspeed and you're good to go.
Some great (and cheap) mirrorless and DSLR's are available that give you all of that.

Kirk Darling's picture

You should have said "beginning photographer" rather than just "beginner" to focus your meaning.

Most people use their cell phone cameras to document their activities. The activity is the primary interest, the documentation is only corollary to it. There would be no interest in taking a picture except for the activity.

But for a "photographer," even a "beginning photographer," the photograph itself and the process of creating it is the primary interest--the subject may be secondary to the creation process of the photograph. Many photographers love making photographs of anything.

So in that way, the specialized photograph-making device provides more pleasure in making photographs.

Ian Luyten's picture

I think that camera manufacturers should take on the competition with phones like phones have done with the camera. If you can make a phone-call, send a text message, connect to the internet, ... (maybe just have android installed ?) - and make it wireless connect with an earpiece from your DSLR/Mirrorless camera in your backpack, why carry a phone then ? For people who carry their camera everywhere, this makes perfectly sense I think.

This way a beginning photographer can reach for his/her camera just as easy as for his/her phone, but the focus is just camera, not phone.

just my thoughts.

jay holovacs's picture

Part of the 'problem' is defining photography. If it's all about the tech issues of exposure and focus it's different than if one views photography as concept, vision, composition, and emotional message.If it's the creative side, than the machinery used is of much less importance. Great photos are not what machinery produces, they're what the vision produces.

First learn to compose a good picture, worry about the tech details later. (My first camera, early 60s, was a plastic fixed focus snapshot job that cost me uner $2)

Jonathan Brady's picture

A person with experience predating yours may possibly argue that a beginner really needs a film camera and to develop their own negatives to truly be connected to the process.
Of course, an app could simulate the experience of winding, slowing down the shot-to-shot experience, hiding the images for a few hours, days, or weeks, forcing the same ISO for a certain number of images, etc. It could even tint the screen red, have a selection of water, developer, acids, etc, and could even force you to print the image to see it completed.
Who's more connected to the process now!? 😉
But seriously, I think you're looking at this from your own perspective, and not the perspective of someone who is starting out. While there's wisdom in experience (and a TON of nostalgia as your article exemplifies), I'd hardly argue that a kid should grab an NES and half dozen games to learn how to eventually play Call of Duty. (PS, I can't play modern video games but I still remember up up down down left right left right B A select start)

Cory zirk's picture

I'm new to photography. I purchased a drone, and started using my cell phone. I couldn't achieve what I wanted with the fake depth of field, and limited range of focal length, so I bought an a6000, with 16-50 and a 55-210, aswell as a 50 1.8. since then I've added 24 25 28mm manuals, (2 are vintage. 28mm has a nice soft image, 24mm is super sharp, and my 25 has amazing bokeh with its 12 blade aperature. ) I've fallen in love with the hobby, and wondered why I hadn't explored it sooner. Problem is, I never have time to go out and shoot, due to work.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Both approaches works based on the individual.

When you start with a camera, you tend to get carried away and become gear head (if you are learning from YouTube, you'd most likely start accumulation gear, unless you are a person with lots of self control).

On the other hand, the best phone with a good camera is limited to 3 or 4 and there isn't much add-ons yet which makes it a better equipment for getting basic photography skills right.

Best advice would be to ask them to focus on the photography skills (composition, lighting, patterns, etc..), give some advice around pros and cons of both types of devices and leave the decision with them.

Jason Flynn's picture

Gear is fun, we all know it. Don’t be so ashamed of your love for gear that you feel the need to tell others that it doesn’t matter.

Also it seems like the images most of us are most proud of are the ones that are near impossible to take with a phone camera.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Thank you, Robert! Nice and passionate view. I want to be with you 130%. I like my SLRs and DSLRs.
But, honestly, I do not see how anything could be “best”. As long as your device could allow you to nourish the need for creating, it is totally fine. I suspect even phones might going to be surpassed by some direct nerolinkcaptureworldasitappearstoyouonly device in a foreseeable feature. Might be for a new generation old clunky cameras with big art lenses would be more like a comedy piece then an actual reference point. Some fearless image creators from the future will keep on trying them for sure.

Jason Flynn's picture

“Best” is whatever does what you most often find yourself needing. If a photographer is almost always happy with a smartphone and likes small and easy to carry, that’s likely the best for them.

I started out shooting seriously for architecture and quickly learned I needed RAW capture for color cast correction, high resolution for deliverable images, an ultra wide lens, and a tripod and live view for composition. So DSLR it was for me. Then I got into sports and events and portraits for family use, needed more lenses.

Until smartphones get tele lenses and good high ISO performance (never?) they won’t be good enough for a lot of what people want to shoot. I shoot my kids in school events inside, and see people making frustrated faces as they pinch zoom their smartphones trying to get well composed images. Bringing my camera bag to an event isn’t fun, but the results are worth it. So DSLR it is for me. I’ve bought and sold countless compact cameras hoping for a better solution, but a larger sensor is the only way for me to get images that I like in many situations.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Thank you, Jason! “
“Best” is whatever does what you most often find yourself needing.” - absolutely agree. “you” is a very important part of that statement, because every “you” is slightly different and therefore might not be a universal solution. I am sure sooner then later your heavy grieving about poor compacts performance would be alleviated, mate.

Jason Flynn's picture

I had an LX100 with m43 sensor and the built in fast f/1.7-2.8 zoom, really really wanted to like it, but the background blur doesn’t begin to compare to a full frame camera with a fast prime.

Full frame 35mm with the wide availability of affordable fast primes just can’t be beat, not even by medium format since MF lenses are so slow that the DOF advantage is lost by the slower lenses.

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