It’s only me, or do you hear that noise too? That annoying grumbling… Wait, I know where it comes from! It’s that wacky brigade of amateurs (and even some pro) fully equipped with the latest pro-body and the fastest pro-lens. Ah, they’re saying in angry “taking pictures with a phone is not photography”. Guess what? They’re wrong.
You can be a photographer (also a very good one) with your smartphone. Despite all the common belief, it will not be easier, quite the contrary. Don’t get me wrong, if you are a complete beginner using the camera of your smatphone will be definitively simpler than a full frame Canon 1D. Paradoxically the things change when you know what to do – when you are a photographer, basically.
A smartphone can produce good pictures
Let’s start from the beginning. From a merely technical point of view, a picture is good when it has enough resolution for its size, and when the acutance (which is basically the contrast of the edges) is sufficient. Another important aspect is the color rendition, that must be faithful. In practical, you must have a decent sensor coupled with a decent lens.
Now, in 2021, a lot of smartphone can deliver those two basic requirements quite easily. And I’m not talking about top-notch models costing more than a laptop, but the standard ones made by brands like Honor.
“Yes, but if I zoom to 100% you can clearly tell the difference between a DSRL and a smartphone…” Of course you can, but if you evaluate a picture just from the 100% you’re not a photographer, you’re peeping tom. With a 12MP smartphone camera you will have no problem to print 20x30cm (which is not a small size) pictures in photographic quality, that will be comparable to the ones obtained from a full-frame body of twice the MP. And you can increase a lot the print size, before starting to note some differences. The idea behind the shot, the composition, the ability to be in the right place at the right moment are FAR MORE IMPORTANT than having an expensive camera: it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it.
I’ll repeat it another time, like an old man. It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it.
Now, photographing with a smartphone brings a bunch of cool advantages over the standard way of doing it. First of all, lightness and compactness: there’s literally no camera that can beat a smartphone in this area. You slip it into a pocket and it’s like you don’t have it. I dare you, do this with your Nikon D5. Compactness means also that a smartphone is an unobtrusive tool, and you can take pictures almost unnoticed. This doesn’t allow you to spy people, it means that you can avoid the subject posing (everybody does that, more or less consciously, when he/she notice someone taking a picture at him/her). Maybe not that important when you are photographing a car, but could be useful during events.
Another nice feature is that you don’t have to worry about losing pictures: you just need a cloud service, and your shots will be remotely saved the moment you take them. This cuts time down in your editing workflow too. And speaking about editing, you can do it directly there with dedicated apps like Lightroom CC… even if, without the ability of profiling the screen, it is not the same as on a proper monitor, especially if you do prints.
If you are a beginner, the easy of use is maximum. It’s just point and shoot. Which is not an excuse for brainlessly taking pictures. But a great opportunity to develop creativity skills even if you’re not technically ready.
And here they come, the limitations. If you have instead the technical knowledge, you will find out soon that replicating all the things you know can be tricky, on a smartphone. First of all you will need most likely an app to use the manual setting of the camera: normally you can’t set directly things like ISO, shutter speed, or aperture. Actually, for the last one, is unlikely to find a smartphone where it is not fixed. This is a quite big limitation, also from a creative point view: for example, to achieve a correct exposition, you could be unable to use a slow enough shutter speed to get a nice panning. A possible workaround could be to use some ND filter, but it’s not quick, nor convenient.
Then you usually have too much depth of field, since the camera sensor is quite small: forgot about blurred backgrounds. Yes, IA now helps on some smartphone to recreate blur via software, but most of the times the trick is noticeable, so pretty useless to me…
Then we some technical points. The ISO range is limited: picture quality degrades quickly in low light.
The quantity of editing a picture can take is limited: small sensors don’t go along too well with a large amount of photoshop.
The reaction time to the input can be slow: usually nothing of dramatic, but sometimes could be enough to make you lose a fast action scene. The absence of physical buttons is another things that can slow you down, since you have to open at least a menu every time you want to change something.
Last but not least, the battery drains out quickly, if you take a lot of pictures, and once it’s done you can’t change it, so prepare to live with USB cables and battery bank.
My two cents
I shoot with my smartphone too, when I’m not on a paid project, even if I bring with me the DRSL: I usually go out with a 50mm 1.4 for the details, the portraits and generally the shots I want to have a narrow DoF, and an Iphone 8 (28mm equivalent) for the wide angle pictures. Definitely better that constantly changing lens, or having a bulky zoom lens (my D800 weights enough on its own).
Can you start your path to be a photographer on your smartphone? Of course you can. If you’re talented and/or your eye is trained you will get nicer pictures than 90% of the people telling you that you need an expensive camera to earn your stripes.
Can be a smartphone your only camera? I say: “Why not?”. If you know what you can do with that, and the way you shoot is not affected by the limitations, that can be a solution. For sure, if you pretend you can do anything with a smartphone as efficiently as with a camera…But that’s not you, right?