Whenever a new iPhone is released, we start to see comparisons being made against "proper" cameras. Generally speaking, these comparisons are met with some hostility and the most frequent comment I see is about how iPhones will never replace proper cameras. I wonder, would it be a good thing if smartphones actually did replace our cameras?
In one of their videos, Tony and Chelsea Northrup discuss ten ways the iPhone XS is better than a "real" camera. The thing I noticed is that image quality isn't one of the points discussed in the video. This is quite obviously because "proper" cameras still offer better image quality and more flexibility when it comes to image making. I've seen plenty of comments about how due to physics, the tiny sensors in smartphones will never be able to produce the same high-level image quality. This may be true, although advances in computational photography are really starting to close the gap. In the first video I ever made, I compared the iPhone 7 plus to the Hasselblad H6D 100C. Using image stacking and the tele lens to create a panorama, I was able to very closely match the image from the Hasselblad. Of course, certain aspects such as color and dynamic range were difficult to match. Larger sensor cameras still have distinct advantages in various key areas. Even with computational photography, I believe that proper cameras will still offer noticeably better image quality. Nonetheless, as processing power continues to increase in smartphones, we may see multiple cameras systems similar to the Light L16 camera being utilized in smartphones.
Image Quality Is Not The Most Important Factor
Every time I discuss this point, it generates a pretty strong response, especially when comparing cameras of different formats. Let’s ignore the different formats for a moment and just discuss image quality as an individual point. I’m pretty confident that most of us will agree in the diminishing returns of higher-end cameras. The huge differences in prices do not translate into huge improvements in image quality. Essentially, image quality is only important up to a certain level; after which the differences for most photographers becomes negligible.
The other point to consider is where and how images are viewed. For the most part, the majority of images that are currently being produced only ever get viewed on social media. Most of those images on social media are viewed on relatively low-resolution smartphones. Most images are not being printed large in galleries.
Of course, image quality is a valuable feature and there are a number of photographers out there who require nothing but the best. These particular types of photographers, however, translate into a very small percentage of the overall market.
Even when we’re looking at photography as an art form; aspects like composition lighting and color are significantly more important than the extra stop in dynamic range or a few more megapixels. A good image is good regardless of what camera it was shot on. For that reason, image quality is simply not that important. Essentially, smartphones only need to reach a certain level of quality before they become a more compelling option.
Medium Format, Full Frame, Smartphone?
Not so long ago, if you were a professional photographer, the smallest format you would have used was medium format. The reason is clear, image quality and flexibility when it came to printing large. Even then for many professional photographers, medium format was just too small and large format was the go-to film size. Full-frame or 35mm film would never have been considered by these photographers because it is incredibly small, relatively speaking. A video by Zack Arias describes this extremely well.
In recent years, we’ve seen how medium format is becoming more of a niche market and smaller sensor cameras like full frame and even APS-C are becoming more of a norm for professionals. This is partly due to the fact that the differences in image quality are becoming less and less pronounced as technology improves. Leading back to the point about image quality not being important, more and more photographers are starting to shoot with smaller sensor cameras. Currently, the most popular camera in the world is the iPhone. This is a relatively inexpensive camera that’s almost always with us and the images it produces are very good.
What If Your Smartphone Was As Good As Your DSLR?
Could it be a good thing if smartphones replaced our more expensive proper cameras? I’m assuming that the knee-jerk reaction to this would be a resounding no; but, let’s consider why it could be a good thing.
For one, connectivity. There are no cameras on the market today that is as connected as most smartphones. The fast-paced environment of social media and how content is mostly consumed drives many photographers to deliver content faster. Currently, smartphones have the advantage in this particular area. There are no mainstream cameras that allow you to take an image, edit it, and then post it on any of the major social media sites. Northrup discusses how on many occasions he will take an image with his “proper” camera but then also take a shot with his smartphone simply so he can post it quickly on social media. Speed and connectivity are valuable features.
Also, more people carry their smartphones at all times than they do their cameras. You can't take a picture with a camera that's not with you and the compact pocket fitting design of smartphones make them extremely practical. This is one of the key reason as to why the iPhone is the most popular camera in the world.
Now imagine if your smartphone could produce images that are about as good as some more professional cameras. Wouldn't that be extremely convenient? A device that fits comfortably in your pocket, and produces images that are as good as a “proper” camera. A camera like this would be with us at almost all times allowing photographers to take high-quality professional grade images with extreme convenience. Surely this can only be a good thing, right?
You may be tempted to speak about the "holiness" of the craft, but honestly, does it matter? A great piece of art shot in auto, it's still a great piece of art. The results in most cases matter far more than the actual method.
Could Smartphones Eventually Rival Proper Cameras?
In short, yes.
In recent years smartphones like the iPhone have more or less killed the bridge camera industry. There’s very little to no point in buying those types of cameras because your smartphone can do a better job. Image quality difference between smartphones and bridge cameras are pretty negligible and some smartphones are even better than some bridge cameras in this regard. Based on this, is it really a stretch to think that in a few years smartphones could rival or even beat some larger sensor cameras. The days of micro four-thirds cameras could be numbered. Another recent video from Northrup discusses why he thinks micro four-thirds won't survive long. Smartphones could potentially fill that gap.
The way that smartphone technology develops year on year means that they develop much faster than most camera systems. New features like being able to perform image averaging in camera with the Google Pixel 3 is pretty incredible. Using the subtle movements created by handshake, the Pixel can produce images using the super-resolution technique and this is all done internally with little to no delay. AI technology and computational photography allow for huge leaps forward in both image resolution and quality. Using multiple lenses to create depths maps is really starting to mature now beyond the point of just producing "fake" bokeh. Low light performance is constantly being improved with more efficient algorithms. The use of slightly larger sensors and wider apertures have also impacted image quality quite significantly. Even when it comes to features, smartphones have the advantage. Currently, there isn't a DSLR or even mirrorless camera that offers full frame 4k at 60 frames per second or 1080p at 240 frames per second. It's easier to offer these features in smartphones due to the high performing processors and smaller sensor. Smaller sensors have the advantage when it comes to higher frame rates and they don't produce as much heat as larger sensor cameras. This is not to say that smaller sensors are better, instead, it's a matter of respective advantages.
New technology is on the side of many smartphone manufacturers and many of the new innovations are software based. This is the main area where most camera manufacturers cannot compete. They simply cannot innovate using software in the same way that smartphone manufacturers can. Companies like Google and Apple have used their innovations in software to really close the gap. Sure, the first version of these innovative solutions may not be the best but considering where the money is the potential is huge. It's not difficult to see how smartphones may replace some larger sensor type cameras.
The income potential and R&D budgets are significantly greater for smartphones. With companies like Apple Samsung and Google leading the charge, smartphone technology has been developing at a much faster rate than most if not all "proper" cameras. What was once just a gimmicky feature in our mobile devices, now holds a significant category within the photography industry. From a consumer perspective, this can only be a good thing.
We as consumers and photographers are getting better and better smartphones every year that can potentially replace some more dedicated cameras we may have bought instead. I also do not believe smartphones are ruining the industry by any means if anything it's moving in a better direction. Some companies may not survive but it's up to them to innovate and keep ahead. There's a reason Panasonic is moving into the full frame market because they probably see how smartphones will impact the micro four-thirds industry the most. Having a super capable camera in your smartphone is a major advantage, especially for photographers. For that reason, I believe that if smartphones did replace some of our proper cameras it can only be a good thing.