In this day and age, it is very hard, if not impossible, to imagine a world without a smartphone and its camera. If you have ever uploaded an image onto the internet from your smartphone, you have contributed to the monumental wave of photographs that the co-existence of smartphones and Internet has brought about. To hinder this flow is now impossible; and we, as both creators and consumers of these photographs have contributed and adapted to this trend. We have evolved through times where the privilege of making pictures was somewhat reserved to struggling amateurs, dedicated professionals and the curious wealthy folk. Today, smartphones with their most updated cameras lie in the hands of almost everybody. Everyone now has the means to document their lives and events and the ever-so-generous Internet to put the images out there for the world to see. At this point the only thing that separates the photographer from the hobbyist with a smartphone is the “reason” why each of them makes a photograph; the intention behind it.
The technological race that runs alongside photography has inevitably dictated how we think about what we photograph. When the digital camera hit the market towards the end of the 20th century, there was an obvious skepticism in professionals to leave their film and analog practices behind to enter the new and unknown world of digital photography. A shiny new world where the electronic sensor replaces the film, RAW files replace the negative and the computer replaces the darkroom. But doing what we do best, we adapted and opened the gates to a new wave of technological advancements revolving around digital photography. In 2000, when the Japanese company, Sharp came out with the world’s first 0.35-megapixel phone camera, most of the world was still adapting to digital photography. The technology, since, has advanced in leaps and bounds and we keep adapting. Before we knew it, the entire photography industry turned digital and phones turned smart.
Today, smartphone photography has created its own niche in the world of photography, but is still, at times, regarded as an amateur or hobbyist approach to the medium. This is because smartphone cameras are mostly made for the consumer and don’t lend the kind of control to the photographer as a dedicated digital camera does.
The first and biggest advantage of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras over smartphone cameras is their ability to use different lenses, each catered to our individual needs. Dedicated digital cameras can incorporate lenses of different focal lengths, ultra-wide and fish-eye lenses, macro and telephoto lenses and more. The amount of control that using lenses with specialized glass elements gives us is huge. We have utilized these qualities for a long time and it seems counter-productive to do away with this kind of control over the image. Basic controls, such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO, are needed for fine-tuning the exposure according to the photographer’s needs. These controls are completely missing from camera phones. Even if an application enables the user to have these controls, it cannot produce the same results as a dedicated DSLR or a mirrorless camera would.
Smartphone cameras stand at another major disadvantage if we talk about zooming. The digital zooms in smartphones are simply cropping into the widest image produced and interpolating the resulting image to the original resolution to make it appear sharper. Whereas cameras using interchangeable lenses with real glass elements produce images of the same native resolution, whether the photographer is shooting completely wide or zoomed all the way in.
Furthermore, the low-light performance in smartphone cameras still has a very long way to go. The cameras defining the best low-light performance right now are the Sony a7R mirrorless camera and the Sony a7S II mirrorless camera. But that being a specialized need doesn’t affect the serious hobbyist using the smartphone camera. It wouldn’t be surprising if the low-light sensitivity in smartphone cameras had a sudden upgrade, but the rest of the drawbacks like the lack of lenses and a mediocre optical zoom will exist.
Just to get a sense of how fast the technology can grow, we have to consider the new smartphone CAT just announced. The world’s first smartphone with a thermal imaging camera is set to release later this year. Thermal imaging, being a very specialized need, has never needed to be made available to the masses, but this gadget race to create the ‘most advanced feature’ in smartphone cameras is lending us this ability.
Essentially what smartphones are doing is lending us the ability to create images without needing to know how or why the images appear the way they do. This highly automated nature of smartphones is leading to a lot of new photographers to completely ignore the fundamentals of photography, the basics of exposure and other such skills. While enjoying the kind of ease and comfort smartphone cameras have provided us with, we must keep in mind the drawbacks of smartphone photography. It is, perhaps, only a matter of time until smartphones are at par with dedicated digital cameras for all purposes, but until that day, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will dominate the realm of professional photography.
Written by Akash Das, guest writer and photographer.