I should stop saying “Real Camera” versus “Phone Camera”

It's A Nice Day For A Light Wedding

Language is tricky. A camera is a camera is a camera. Sometimes I need to clarify that I’m referring to a traditional device and not a hardware feature on a phone. One answer is to refer to such things as a “real” camera, and yes, please, include the quotes Mr./Ms. Editor.

I won’t do that any more, even if I’d done it half-jokingly in the past. Last night I was at the LA County Museum of Art and happened across a couple getting professional photos taken in their wedding clothes. I was spending the afternoon in tourist mode so of course I had my full Urban Guerrilla camera on a sling, and two lenses. I wound up using the iPhone 6s Plus for this instead.

This photo is about 90% as the iPhone shot it. I did push some sliders around in Lightroom. A hardware generation or two ago, I’d be doing that to rescue the photo. Here, I was just improving it adjusting it to my taste, as I do with the stuff I shoot with my Olympus E-M1.

I’ve been deep-testing the cameras of the iPhone and the new Nexus phones. Modern phone camera photo quality is excellent across the board in flagship-class devices. Now, “it’s a good camera” means it <em>handles</em> extremely well, and (like my Olympus) acts as an extension of my brain’s visual center.

There were a couple of practical (boring) reasons why I used the iPhone instead of the Olympus. Yes, one of them was that I knew it’d make a cool demo photo for my Sun-Times review. Another: I hoped that if I used the iPhone’s burst mode, I might get lucky and catch a frame illuminated by the photographer’s flash.

But just as important is the fact that I trust the iPhone. If I have a tiny window in which to get the shot, I know that the iPhone will come up with a halfway decent photo. (So long as the subject isn’t moving. The iPhone loooovvveeessss slow shutter speeds.)

At my skill level, getting a good photo with the E-M1 in a lighting situation I’ve rarely had to deal with requires some trial and error. A woman in white in front of 200 densely-packed streetlamps at night certainly qualifies.

Sometimes, I even just want a snapshot. I enjoy the immersive creative nature of photography but the risk is that I go into my Photo Trance and I’m no longer really there. In this case, it was the end of a long and fun day, my brain was in “dinner and bed” mode, and I no longer had enough mental bandwidth for immersive photography. I was in “push a button and get a photo” mode.

This year, time and time again, I found myself treating a phone in my pocket as a “second camera”…part of my arsenal, alongside the Olympus on my shoulder, to be used when it felt to me like the more appropriate camera for the situation.

A camera is much more than a good picture. A camera is how you take that picture. Today, a phone camera is manifestly a “real” camera.

3 thoughts on “I should stop saying “Real Camera” versus “Phone Camera”

  1. Alex Santos

    Considering that the tests are ongoing, I hope you can evaluate the images on the new iMacs which are capable of RGB101010, aka 30 bit color.

    Cheers Andy!

  2. Jeff Stockwell

    What I find really interesting/annoying is when some pundits act as if taking photos with a modern smartphone camera is nothing but a series of crippling compromises and “if a person really cared they would invest in a ‘decent camera’ especially when you can get one for only $400-$500 dollars.” I have read in more than one place that in 20 years my children (and most of the general public) will openly mock me for having taken photos with my iPhone.

    The camera in my iPhone 5s is ridiculously more capable than any of the cameras that my (and most of my friends’) parents took of us when we were children. My parents had a series of very inexpensive Kodak cameras that took a variety of film cartridges and used disposable flashbulbs/flashbars. These were awful cameras, but it’s what we had (and could afford). I cherish the terrible little prints that were developed from those horrible cameras at drive-up photo booths in strip mall parking lots and non-chain drug stores.

    I’m just not enough of a photographer to justify spending several hundred more dollars on a camera that I will use a number of times a year that I can count on one hand. Not when I would be better off spending that money on an iPhone with more storage to hold more photos and video (for both me and my wife) AND do all the other things I use a smartphone for on an average day.

  3. Ihnatko Post author

    Modern flagship cameras take knockout photos. I won’t belittle people for using them as their main camera. But I do hope that people have a conventional camera in their arsenal as well, particularly if they have new kids or their parents are getting…older. There might come a time in the future when you’re glad you took a sharp, detail- and color-rich photo with a Sony camera instead of a decent snapshot with an iPhone.

    The huge blessing of smartphones is, of course, that they’re always at hand. You never know when the last photo you’ve taken of someone will turn out to be the last one you ever get.

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