Would It Be a Good Thing if Smartphones Replaced Our More Expensive Cameras?

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. 

Final Thoughts 

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. 

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57 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

From an optical standpoint, a smartphone will never match a dedicated camera as a dedicated camera will always have a larger sensor than the smartphone and be able to use better glass which is not thrown into peoples' pockets along with keys and all manner of other things. So no matter how good the sensor in the smartphone gets, the dedicated camera will have the same technology in a larger size. No matter how good the optics of a smartphone camera becomes, the dedicated camera will have bigger glass, more elements, and better optics. The term "garbage in, garbage out" applies here because all things being equal, working from a higher quality base image will always produce better results regardless of the processing that you're doing after the fact.

In a theoretical world where it COULD be equal, of course it would be a no-brainer to choose the smartphone since in such a world you would be sacrificing nothing while gaining the benefit of ultimate portability. The issue is that it's not equal and it's not likely that it will ever be equal. With a dedicated interchangeable lens camera, you can cover everything from circular fisheye to 1000+mm telephoto by changing your lens. You're not going to get that kind of optical range on a phone without making some massive sacrifices to the phone's portability.

The "good enough" argument is certainly an interesting one because I would agree that smartphone are certainly good enough for most users and the majority of ways that images are viewed today. However, this doesn't mean that image quality doesn't matter anymore. It just means that phones have really come a long way. Despite how far they've come, they still struggle with low light situations, lack versatility in terms of focal lengths, and often don't have a real aperture to control, relying on computation to mimic the effects of different aperture settings to attempt to compensate. In the end, it's apples and oranges.

Usman Dawood's picture

You make some very good points.

It's not that image quality doesn't matter, it's that it doesn't matter as much as many of us think it does.

Also, AI will really impact low light performance. Super-resolution is one of the ways to do this. Computational photography. Stacking images as you know reduces noise. Lots of ways to combat this and the money and processing power is definitely with smartphones.

Michael Jin's picture

Stacking images to reduce noise, like pixel shifting to increase effective resolution or HDR to increase dynamic range, is a limited solution because any system that requires the combination of multiple exposures quickly loses effectiveness with movement, whether it's the camera operator moving or elements of the scene moving.

AI can process and distort what exists, but when it comes to detail that doesn't exist in the initial capture, AI can only guess. This guessing will get better over time as Adobe's newest Content Aware Fill shows, but it's fundamentally different from capturing a scene optically in a single take and it has implications when it comes to truth in photography, which is already a dubious proposition without these AI enhancements or processing.

As for the importance of image quality, I agree that image quality and resolution in particular do not matter nearly as much for the average user as we might think. After all, most of us are not printing out 30"x40" enlargements to hang on our walls for viewing at nose distance.

Usman Dawood's picture

Once again, good points. I also think that AI and computational photography in phones is still in its early stages. As things develop and tech gets better it may be polished to a point where it's seamless and indistinguishable.

Either way, some good times ahead. Having easier to use and better tools can only be a good thing :).

Tim Ericsson's picture

Would it be good if smartphones replace our cameras? Yes for photography in general, no for the lazy uncreative hacks who constantly bicker on this website about technical garbage!

Back under the bridge I go...

Usman Dawood's picture

Haha lol. I'll join you :P

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

any camera that creates sharable images that meet the needs of a user is a "proper" camera. i think "dedicated" would be a better adjective for describing non-smartphone cameras.

and all cameras make compromises, be it to size, image quality, capability or price. the day a smartphone camera can be made that requires no more compromise than my dedicated camera is the day that camera falls below 50% usage for me. but that day won't arrive for me until image quality is high enough for large printing at living room sizes and optical zoom, or non-degrading digital zoom, that covers at least 10mm to 200mm equivalent can be had. for now, both are behind my dedicated camera's capabilities.

Usman Dawood's picture

I completely agree I simply used the term "proper" just as a way to make a distinction.

Semantics.

David Pavlich's picture

If someone is happy with the limits of a phone and the images are 'good enough', then the phone should be their camera.

New technology isn't free. How much will people be willing to pay for the new phone cameras?

What if? It's going to take a real leap in technology for a phone to match a D5 with a 600mm lens capturing a Cheetah running down its prey.

Usman Dawood's picture

Absolutely, some formats may never be replaced but that's a good thing too. I don't think smartphones will replace everything but if they replace some of the smaller sensor "pro" cameras that I think would be a good thing.

amplighter's picture

I hate to say it, but there will come a day when both of these two media formats will merge. Although there has been several attempts the camera needs to stay ahead of the game as I would never stoop to using a smart phone for image taking. However, making the DSLR's extremely heavy is not very pleasing to my hands.. thus I've had to make expeditions. But i'll still going to avoid using the smart phone. The only reason I have a smart phone?. is so I can remain in contact with my wife via Zello walkie talkie app. otherwise, I'd get rid of the smart phone in an instant.

Michael Jin's picture

There are a ton of useful photo apps on the phone. Stuff like Photo Pills, Sun Surveyor, Radarscope, Hyper Focal Distance Calculator, etc. I think that the smartphone is one of the best things to happen to photography for perhaps different reasons than most people would consider. :P

I use my smartphone for a lot of images. Even when I'm shooting something professionally, I'll bang out a quick smartphone shot to send to an editor or client.

Smartphones will continue to approach SLRs in quality thanks to their use of AI and computational technologies....until (or more likely unless) SLRs do the same thing to further up their game.

Imagine a D850 with the Pixel 3's technologies in it. A 46 MP shot at ISO 12,800 that is crystal clear despite moving objects? I and many others await the day when SLRs start using these tools. In the meantime, a lot of us guess that perhaps a camera like an RX100 will do it, and then SLRs will quickly follow.

For now, I have to use my SLR for most of my work. But I'm finding that I use it less for casual/snapshot-type photos as smartphone technologies (and add-on apparatuses such as Moment lenses) continue to improve.

The most important question is: What are the pictures used for?

If you are a pro photographer with demanding clients, your needs will be entirely different than an amateur sharing pictures on instagram of facebook. These platforms destroy almost entirely the quality of the pictures.

However, if your clients demand pictures that can be printed in glossies or in 20 feet posters, you will something entirely different.

I am not a pro but I use camera because I cannot get the the kind of picture I want with a smartphone. Maybe in a couple of years.
Nevertheless, most of my pictures will be viewed on instagram or shared via Google photos or my website. Most of my viewers use smartphone to view my pictures or crappy pc. So I wonder if they actually could see the difference between a high quality picture and a lower quality picture.

Anthony Cayetano's picture

Nope. It's Physics. Enough said... well, actually, even with computational imaging and AI, you can use those techniques on bigger sensors and better lens and get much better quality. Period.

Usman Dawood's picture

I get the feeling you didn't fully or properly read the article or understand what the point of the article was.

Kirk Darling's picture

If enough people don't get the point (and you don't know about those who don't comment), it may be time to look more closely at the work.

Usman Dawood's picture

The opposite of that could be said too. Maybe only the very minor proportion of people who either didn't read it properly or didn't understand it commented. I can't cater to everyone.

"the iPhone is the most popular camera in the world"

And Subway is the most popular restaurant and Budweiser is the most popular beer, and the Corolla is the most popular car.

Mediocrity being popular doesn't mean that the finer choices disappear or have no market.

Usman Dawood's picture

An expression to do with forests and trees comes to mind.

Theres a reason why being "popular" matters in consumer goods, it shapes the future.

Carl Irjala's picture

This article reminded me of an experience from the summer. I was with a group of tourists to see a musical at an outdoor theater. I had my new Nikon D750 in my hand and was stopped by the guard.

"Cameras are forbidden here!" she said, continuing: "We must protect the copyright laws."
"Okey," I said, "But can I take some pictures with my iPhone?"
"Of course you can!" said the guard "The ban applies only to proper cameras."

Usman Dawood's picture

As long as you get the shot right :P

How could he? He didn't have a proper camera! Not joking.

Usman Dawood's picture

I can't tell if you're joking or not.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Looks like I found one of those photographers I referenced above, lol

Well, I said I wasn't joking. :-/

Tim Ericsson's picture

Your attempt to exclude smartphones from being "proper" cameras shows your own shortfalls as a photographer. If you were confident in your own abilities, you wouldn't have the desire to define what a "proper" photographic tool can be.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Since Sony also makes its own smart phone, it's surprising that Sony hasn't invented a camera grip with full smart phone capability. It would also be fully integrated with the LCD screen on the back of the body. This feature would absolutely smoke Nikon, Canon, and Fuji. It may cost the user and extra $20 per month for cell phone connectivity (including WiFi), but you would only need one grip if you are using multiple cameras with this capability. I really don't see any Japanese company working with a Chinese, Korean, or American company to accomplish this capability/ Too bad.

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