Twitter Question: Nexus 5X as a primary camera?

Cory Hixson asked me a question about the Nexus 5X that was interesting and complicated enough that my reply became a blog post:

I’ve just finished recording an Ihnatko Almanac about traveling with a phone as your sole camera, and about camera choices in general, so this topic is still on my mind. I’m a little stuck on the phrase “primary camera.”

In a way, I’m the least helpful person to ask for camera advice. I’m an Enthusiastic Amateur, plus I’m a technology columnist. This means I don’t know about the needs of the average camera user and I’m way too arrogant to try to find out.

I’m going to zero in on the word “you” in this question. I wouldn’t be choosing a phone as my primary camera. I’m too persnickety about the results, and I want to have lots of control. I’ve just come back from a week at Yosemite and I would have missed my flight rather than leave home without my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and some lenses.

Nonetheless, for three days in New York city the week before that, I left the gear at home and relied solely on the Nexus 5X. Mostly because I had to catch a 6:30 AM train, so I was grumpy, and in no mood to sling a camera around my neck and find room in my bag for an extra lens.

I also knew that the Nexus 5X camera was up to the job of Taking Swell Photos:


Added another Daniel Chester French to my Life List. Outside the Hamilton Custom House, NYC.

A photo posted by Andy Ihnatko (@ihnatko) onMar 9, 2016 at 12:00pm PST

When I choose a daily carry phone, I want the best camera I can get but I’m trying to maximize other variables as well. I think the iPhone 6S Plus has the best camera overall, but I wouldn’t switch back to iOS just to get the camera. I think the Samsung Galaxy S series has the best camera on any Android phone (and it’s better than the iPhone’s in many ways), but I see many advantages to Nexus devices, and their “fresh from Google” updates, that I want more than that camera. If I had bought something else, I’d only be trading an excellent camera for a better one.

It’d be hard for me to choose a phone as my primary camera. I tend to think in terms of an arsenal of devices. I’ve got the Olympus for situations where I foresee myself immersing myself in photography and wanting to come away with the best photo possible. I’ve can trust the Nexus for those situations where I’m expecting to take mostly snapshots, or didn’t know that I’d be confronted with something amazing, or I just couldn’t be arsed to carry the howitzer with me all day. I keep attempting to seduce myself into buying a nice, tiny camera, such as a first-gen Sony RX100. The argument for is “teensy camera with a big sensor, a big lens, full manual controls and handling, and RAW capture.” The argument against is “$400, and don’t you already have a nice camera, doofus?” But I keep wishing for a “daily carry” camera that was a big leap better than my phone.

One shouldn’t become like one of those weekend golfers who keeps buying new and increasingly-exotic putters, thinking it’ll improve their performance. Every camera has limits. Even this Olympus that I love so much has limits. But great things happen when you try to find a solution to a creative problem that works within those limits. Phones don’t have zoom lenses. Okay, but is the photo of that Daniel Chester French sculpture no good because it’s a tight crop of a much larger photo? The resulting 3 megapixel resolution forced me to be even more careful about the composition; every pixel was carrying such a great load.

Plus, our desktop tools for massaging photos are extraordinary. I can do things with exposure, depth of color, and addressing sensor noise that would have been a fantasy just a few years ago. So really, I could just concentrate on framing the shot correctly and tapping the shutter button at the right moment.

The direct answer to Cory’s question is that any premium phone, and even most midrange ones, will take excellent photos. So don’t worry about it. Buy the phone that presents the best total package for you.

These sorts of answers can be very very frustrating, however. So if pressed, I will sigh and say “If I had to rely on a phone as my primary camera, it’d be an iPhone 6s Plus. Image quality is a real tossup between it and the Samsung Galaxy, but the iPhone’s speed and reliability tilt the scales.”

Yeah. That answer definitely took more than 140 characters, eh?

2 thoughts on “Twitter Question: Nexus 5X as a primary camera?

  1. Philip Shane

    When we were filming in NY, using my iPhone 6s Plus, I was really intrigued when you asked me if I’d ever consider buying another phone to use just as a video camera. The idea being, if I understood you correctly, was that there’s a chance that having a phone that was completely clean except for photo apps, might be faster, have more space on it, etc, as well as being perhaps safer from damage (since it would only be used when shooting).

    The question has stayed with me, and I think about it all the time! For now, however, I’m following my usual procedure with “should I buy something new” which is to wait until it’s absolutely necessary or the benefits are abundantly clear. So for now, I’m incredibly (!) amazed that my day-to-day iPhone is also an excellent member of my camera family, along with my Canons: 60d and C100.

    I can’t emphasize enough what a revolutionary day that was for me, being able to go solo with just a phone as my video camera, shooting in 4k with great internal stabilization. (In addition to the part-time experiment with the added gimbal accessory). It joined the handful of other historic days, when I first used a VHS camera, then Hi-8, DV, HD, and DSLR. The singular difference being that while it was always a joy with each of those steps to be able to hold a camera that was ever-smaller and ever-higher quality… None of their sizes was particularly mind blowing, because, frankly, they were all the size of an old fashioned SLR or larger.

    Never in my life did I expect to have a camera which was smaller than an SLR, let alone being almost as small as can be and still be able to be held and have a decent size monitor. Just, well, magical.

    And being able to film you was insanely great. Hope to have some of it edited to show to ya real soon.

  2. Tony taylor

    Have you considered the Olympus range of super compacts, I bought a Stylus about a year ago and with a much better sensor than a phone a yuge zoom ratio and five axis stabilisation it has proven to be a great travel camera capable of everything I’ve thrown at it. Even better it was end of line so I got it at a third of the price.
    It’s a pity Samsung didn’t continue with their android powered cameras you could take and edit on the same device but with a proper sensor and lens system.

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