Phones Cameras, Good Enough?

The phonecam has come along a fair way of late. The latest software and cameras are improving to the point where I for one am asking myself, do I need a ‘real’ camera anymore? Well frankly, probably not. But… and of course there is always a ‘but’.

The latest phones are pretty damned good. Plus now they have some really clever software tricks like fake bokeh. Bokeh is the fancy term photographic aficionados use, a term coined in Japan towards the end of the last century and used to describe out of focus areas beyond any sharply focused subject. This blurry area is influenced to a greater or smaller amount by qualities inherent within any particular lens and iris design. So the ‘quality’ varies subtly depending on the lens used.

Phonecam software attempts to recreate this effect by adding blur to otherwise sharp areas. This means masking away the background and this can lead to obvious halos and other anomalies around the main focused subject. If done carefully, it can work pretty well at making images appear as if they have been taken with a fast prime lens on a fancy camera costing thousands more. If not, they just look weird.

And let’s face it most people couldn’t care less. Carefully implementing this effect isn’t likely in the real world. But, and here’s that ‘but’ I mentioned before: Viewed on a relatively small phone screen and with the automatic software getting better all the time, it’s pretty effective. So perhaps when deciding whether to dump a real camera for a phonecam, the real question must be: who is your audience?

Last week I went on holiday to the island of Madeira and I asked myself this very question. I was on holiday. The island offered nothing particularly photographically interesting to me personally, and I wasn’t going to have the time anyway to search out something interesting either. (pool, beach, food and repeat being the order of each day) So I left my real camera behind and relied on my wife’s expensive iPhone 6. Not the latest, but still pretty good picture wise. And it was great. Not all that great photographically, but not too bad either. It was really great at being ‘there’. It’s the perfect snapshot camera.

The pictures were easy to take, turned out good and best of all were easy to share. And if that’s all you desire, you don’t need a fancy expensive camera. Or even a compact camera. But, (yes, another ‘but’ here, a serious one) if you want something you can call a ‘picture’ something you could print and maybe frame and hang on the wall… forget it. Unless the phonecam image is of a unique newsworthy event, or ‘art’ then you are going to be very disappointed. (Incidentally, some terrific as-it-happened images have been captured by phonecam, the nasty image quality almost enhancing the awful reality, almost like Robert Capa’s D-Day landing shots)

(Having said that, I know folks who have real cameras and will save the costs of photo-printing a picture and instead print out crappy inkjet on plain copy paper and frame it. If you are one of these people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate image quality, then you shouldn’t even be reading this and any phonecam will do).

So can the phonecam replace the real camera? Yes and no. This is not a cop-out answer, it really is all about deciding what you want from your photography. Cameras are simply tools. Nothing more. There is and never will be a universal camera. Choose the right one for the job. Easy. Or perhaps the hardest decision of all… Nothing in life is ever easy.

As a tool to create an image of substance a phone is next to useless. For that you need access to a range of focal lengths, control over depth of field and the ability to capture the light. A phone fatally suffers from basic physics. It has a tiny sensor which has poor light collecting ability (low light trouble) and a basic lens.

And remember, picture quality alone is not the whole answer. How you, the photographer, interact with the camera, is perhaps the really important part of getting any good shot.

Basically a phonecam is a square, flat, touch screen device that you view the scene via its large screen at arms length. The screen can often be difficult to see in bright light, and rather ironically, also too obvious to all those around. Not ideal. Nor is the way you take the shot. Punch the screen a bit too enthusiastically and you can nudge the camera during exposure, causing camera movement and blurring.

Compare all that to an ergonomically designed ‘real’ camera. The camera fits securely in your hand, with shutter trigger pressure fine tuned to the slightest movement of the tip of your finger for precise timing of any capture. There’s negligible delay, and that’s very important. Add access to controls and lenses not readily available to a phonecam and it’s clear a real camera is just that – a real camera that’s simply a far better tool. But the phonecam is absolutly great for snapshots, easy and always to hand.

So I think I need both.

I already have my real camera, so I must decide now which phonecam to buy. Fruit or Robot? Decisions, decisions.

Having said all that, have a look the work of Giles Clarke who has shot some wonderful reportage work on an iPhone 6+ Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 21.04.48

And some of my own holiday snaps using the same camera…

PoolPool Palm treeSunset Railingschurch

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