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

Previous comments

Given the price flagship smartphones are priced today even with projected sales of hundreds of millions of units, I shudder to think how much would such an add-on cost.

Then again, the technologies in a smartphone that powers the camera was designed specifically for an "inferior" camera system, its like "magic seasoning" for a bland plate of food so where would such technologies place itself in the context of a professional/enthusiast grade camera system?

Luke Adams's picture

No, I don’t think it will be a good thing for family photographers and maybe even wedding photographers. If every person in town suddenly has tools as good as the local photographers, you can bet on it that the number of diy’ers for the “easier” work is going to skyrocket.

Usman Dawood's picture

DSLR cameras aren’t exactly out of reach for guests at weddings. The uncle with the mark IV right?

I don’t think that’s going to be a major issue if one at all.

user-156929's picture

It takes a different level of impropriety to bring a mark IV than a smartphone.

Michael Jin's picture

I'm brought DSLR's to weddings before. Not sure what's improper about it. Beats taking smartphone photos and I was able to give the couple a few decent photos.

user-156929's picture

It makes the wedding photographer's job more difficult, who's job it is to give the couple a few decent photos, and increases your visibility at the wedding, which is always inappropriate. Of course, that's a general statement and situations vary.

Michael Jin's picture

Well I generally make it a point to be aware of where the photographers are and stay out of their way. As far as increasing my visibility at the wedding, I'm not sure how it's more visible than the numerous people holding their iPads above their heads during the ceremony to take pictures or videos that they're never going to look at again...

If my presence with a DSLR alone makes the photographer's job more difficult when I'm minding my own business and making it a point to stay out of their way, then they just need to be better photographers. From the number of photos I've seen where the main shooter catches the second shooter in the frame or vice versa, most of the photographers that I've encountered seem to do a fine job getting in each other's way without my help. It's always amusing to see a photo of the bride and groom standing at the altar taken by the main photographer with the second photographer in frame directly opposite pointing his lens back the other way. #coordination

I can see how it would be different if I was one of those people that rushed out into the aisle or stood next to the photographer during the family shots or something, but I just capture my own experience from my own point of view without going out of my way to try to put myself in the best position to shoot because that's their job, not mine. Funny enough, I always manage to catch a few moments that the hired photographers miss so I'd say that the end result is worth it even if my wife might roll her eyes at me as I strap on my camera.

I think when people talk about stuff like this, there's this underlying assumption that hired wedding photographers are actually good at their job. The truth is that like most other things in life, competent and skilled people form a rather small minority in the profession. The vast majority of people that take jobs as wedding photographers are way out of their depth to begin with. Given that I only attend weddings of close friends and immediate family, I'm not in the habit of trusting random people I don't know just because they claim that they are professionals. Even if I'm just bringing a single body with a 50mm lens, I'm bringing something with me and the couples that invite me know me enough to know that.

user-156929's picture

I whole-heartedly agree with the part about wedding photographers aren't always good at their job. When people find out I'm a photographer, it's amazing to me how many say they've been shooting weddings since they got their DSLR, for Christmas. :-(
Some are masters!

Luke Adams's picture

Once mothers realize they can take a nicely, blurred background, simulated well lit shot of their children with their phone, they aren’t going to be in a hurry to pick up the phone and look for a photographer, that’s for sure. Heck, most people can’t tell much of a difference between a crap photo and a good photo anyway. Imagine when those crap photos actually start looking good. Imagine this: you need a hole dug in your backyard, and as luck would have it, you realize you own a backhoe. Now are you going to pick up the phone and call a company to come dig the hole, or are you going to attempt it yourself. I imagine you would try it yourself - especially if it’s a fairly straight forward job. Oh, but wait! Your backhoe actually features a super easy dig mode where even a beginner can dig a proper hole. Even better! See where I’m going with this?

Usman Dawood's picture

The same can be said for full frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras if you're comparing them to older formats. How many people would be photographers today if the current camera type was still large format?

Tech generally becomes more accessible as things develop. People today have better cameras in their pockets than most people in the early 1900s (mostly because they probably didn't have a camera), that doesn't mean they're all going to start taking photography as a profession or never need to hire anyone.

I have a perfectly fine lawnmower but that doesn't mean I'm the one who's going to be cutting the grass.

Luke Adams's picture

I don’t think it compares. We’re talking about a phone that EVERYONE will have (not the 1 in 100 people or so who own an entry level Rebel, etc), AND does a bunch of the hard work for you. Professional looking background blur, and even professional looking lighting. If you don’t think there will be a decrease in entry level gigs (I say this with the utmost respect) like family photography, I think you are sadly mistaken. One of the most common things I hear on FB are comments like “wow, that looks like a professional shot” when moms are showing off their latest pics of their kids. While your lawnmower comment does show that there is still business to be had even when people could do it themselves, can you imagine what would happen to the lawn care industry if no one had the equipment to do it themselves and had to rely solely on businesses, and then all of a sudden the personal lawnmower that we have today was introduced. The lawn care industry would take a severe beating. IMO, if a smartphone ever truly rivals a professional DSLR, and does so in pretty much a completely automatic way, it can only mean the industry will suffer. Perhaps a lot. Perhaps only a little. But I don’t know how you could argue that it won’t.

Usman Dawood's picture

Ok to that I would say the industry will change, has changed and will continue to change.

Adapt.

Luke Adams's picture

Perhaps it will. Let’s hope!

Then the issue in my opinion is with what photographers themselves propagate as a "professional photograph" I do think that, too often has photographers sold their works not on an artistic level but simply by using effects to awe their customers and as time goes by the hallmark of a professionally taken photograph is just one with nice bokeh and dynamic range.

The importance here is to bring the art back into photography.

Luke Adams's picture

I agree with that - I really do. But I do family photography, and while I sometimes get a client who really wants to do a magical photo and truly utilize the extent of my artistic talents and imagination, most clients simply want run-of-the-mill professional shots. It's more about making sure they get umpteen pictures with every possible people combination, and that little Jimmy doesn't have his tongue stuck out, and old Grandma May has her eyes open. Simply put, they have $300 to spend and they don't want to spend it all on one child, putting them in different outfits and taking the time to set up complex lighting and staging. They want pleasing, normal, professional photos of the family - nice bokeh, dynamic range and all. IMO, that will be the type of work that will soon start to dwindle.

That doesn't mean I can't adapt and find a niche to keep making a living on, but in my small town, those run-of-the-mill family shoots definitely helps pay the bills, so it's not like I can just decide that I will only do the real magical, top notch stuff and hope the number of people willing to shell out the money for that quickly increases.

Matthias Kirk's picture

Computational photography will continue to get better fast and if the phone can use tricks to get more dynamic range, lower noise and convincing faux bokeh it will rival a DSLR in many aspects.

Some things, however it will never be able to do as well as a large sensor. One thing is action photography where you have a single exposure to work with and a really short exposure time. The quantum nature of light dictates the best possible signal to noise ratio that can be achieved and that depends on the total amount of gathered light (shot noise).

Another thing is resolution. The angular resolution of an optical system is limited by the size of the aperture. Pixel shifting can only blow up the file size beyond a certain resolution threshold. I do not think we will be seeing phones with a crop factor below 5. That means that a 35mm system is able to resolve five times finer detail with the same f/number than a phone will ever be able to, even with the most sophisticated technology.

But the smartphone does not have dual card slots or even a single card slot. So it is not professional

Matthias Kirk's picture

even if they manage to squeeze two slots in there DSLR manufacturers can simply put in a third one. Imagine the level of professionalism in these...

Paulo Macedo's picture

I believe that the true point here is connectivity.

Why the smartphone is such a good tool, because you can shoot with fairly good quallity, on par with most of the point and shoot cameras out there, you can benefit of AI to help you out on low light and even depth of field simulation.

I have a Canon 6D, Canon 500D and Canon EOS 33 (film). Guess what, most of the shots I take are with my Nokia 8 or any other smartphone before it.
Why? Because I can make a fair image, with a portable device and quickly share it with others. For social media and those who live out of it, this is a crucial issue, availability and readiness.
I know, the EOS 6D has WiFi and I can store my images on the smartphone via App, yet, I still have to turn mobile data off, turn on camera WiFi, pair, open App, select picture, download. After all of this I will be able to process it on VSCO or any other App, still I need to turn mobile data on again.
With the smartphone, I open the camera APP, shoot (jpg + dng), edit the file and share on the fly.

The future, I believe that camera companies will one day embed Android on their cameras, possibly you will see a Canon 1D with SIM card tray, touchscreen and full loaded Android with Google Play in it. This way camera companies would canibalize some Smartphone sales.

I wouldn't mind the bulky body of the 6D with Android running on it. And i would love to add AI to my 6D sensor process.

The future is connectivity and I don't see camera companies willing to stay aside from this.

Josh Kummerow's picture

I don't think a smart phone will ever replace a "proper" camera, at least not for professionals or photography enthusiasts. There are a couple of factors that will come into play as tech moves forward.

First, is cost. New phones with the latest tech are not that cheap for the average person. Much like point and shoots, when the camera on the phones started to match or eclipse the quality of PaS, and the saturation of smart phones shot up, PaS have fallen by the wayside. When/If the cameras on smart phones starts to match that of smaller sensor dslrs or micro 4/3, those are going to be a tougher sell to the average consumer.

Second, is purpose. Like most things produced, if it is produced to have one focus and one purpose, the results are going to be far superior. The smart phone is a swiss army knife of tech, text, voice, video, photos, etc. While some manufacturers might focus more on one thing over the other, they still have to make sure each of those other functions still work properly. A high end dslr has one job, to take good photos. Without some miracle discovery in sensor or microprocessor tech a phone will never reach the quality of a quality dslr with quality glass.

Anyway those are my thoughts, have a great day.

J Maloney's picture

Hey Usman, I have looked at a lot of smartphones. None of them have tripod sockets, flash synch ports, easy manual controls, interchangeable lenses, a huge variety of custom settings for RAW FILES, long battery life, huge removable storage, grips, image quality for billboards, etc. Need I go on??? These articles really bring down the tone of this website.

Usman Dawood's picture

Ok but there are plenty of things smartphones can do that interchangeable cameras can't do. Respective advantages.

Which camera do you have that can do internal HDR in real time, or can do image stacking in real time with little to no delay. Which camera do you know allows you to edit using Lightroom and soon a proper version photoshop?. Which camera do you have that can share images and are as connected as smartphones or tablets? Which camera do you know utilizes AI? Internal storage and the ability to immediately have a cloud backup. Need I go on?

Even if we're talking about displays smartphones are significantly better.

Depths mapping?

Discussing respective advantages goes both ways.

Also, you can cover a full billboard using a 2mp image Fstoppers did an article about that. Most smartphones offer 6 times that in resolution.
https://fstoppers.com/originals/how-many-megapixels-do-you-need-print-bi...

Smartphones also have plenty of accessories including gimbals and tripods/tripod mounts.

Here's the thing, I'm not saying smartphones will replace everything. Consider this with a more nuanced approach instead of everything being one thing or another.

What I'm suggesting is that smartphones will probably replace some of the smaller formats which are currently considered proper cameras. If that happens that's a good thing because that means you have more capable tools. Sure if you want the absolute best image quality shoot Medium format but how often do you actually need that?

Oh and you can also leave comments and read articles on your phone, I don't think any camera offers that.

Click bait designed to piss us off. So I'll just say nope.

Usman Dawood's picture

Based on your comment It seems like didn't read the article but somehow formulated an opinion about it.

Interesting...

Kirk Darling's picture

"Currently, the most popular camera in the world is the iPhone."

And the most popular Mexican restaurant in the US is Taco Bell.

Usman Dawood's picture

Hmm, considering how the iPhone is one of the more premium products with significantly better processing power and a much better display than most cameras your analogy fails pretty hard.

Also, are you suggesting iPhones are cheap??

It's a device that does significantly more than what a camera can do, and has already replaced several camera types.

I always find it amusing when people try to come up with inadequate analogies to discuss nuanced subjects.