The unstoppable march of the mobile phone camera

I really am a terrible blogger. At this rate I do about 4 per year, which probably doesn’t really qualify as blogging. Never mind, here’s one …

Although I still shoot film from time to time, I am very much a digital photographer these days, and have been for some years. Even when I do shoot film, I nearly always scan it and treat it much like a digital image thereafter – manipulation with DarkTable on a computer rather than with an analogue enlarger and photo paper in a darkroom.

Nonetheless, I’ve been unshaken in my belief that a purpose built digital camera is still superior to a mobile phone with a camera in it. The realities of the latest generation of mobile phone cameras have testedthat view a bit. However, ii I still believe that cameras and lenses in the shape that we traditionally recognise them are superior to hand phones.

The main reasons that I believe this are to do with:

  • the flexibility that comes with interchangeable lenses, particularly being able to manually focus and change aperture – whether modern CADCAM versions or adapted old film era lenses – is difficult to match in a phone which has embedded, tiny lenses (and yes, these days usually ‘lenses’ rather than ‘a lens’); and
  • ergonomics – unless your mobile phone is mounted in a gimbal or something similar, it’s just not designed to be manipulated in the same way that a well designed camera can be, and often feels too ‘droppable’ in more difficult situations.

My new Pixel 6 Pro mobile phone has 3 lenses – wide, standard and telephoto. The phone chooses when to engage which lens, based on where you land the zoom slider, so occasionally that choice by algorithm is a poor one. Often the software over-processes the image, to that it looks so ridiculously HDR as to be worse than a much older phone camera would do.

This phone also notionally has a 50 megapixel sensor, but in reality you rarely get anywhere near that pixel count because many shot options crop the sensor.

Getting the deft touch that switches from standard to telephoto by using the zoom slider isn’t as easy as you might expect. But like any camera, practice gets you closer to understanding how to either predict what the phone camera will do, or teaches you how to force it to do what you want.

However, once it all comes together, and you get some idea of how to work the controls and coerce the algorithms, the results can be rather impressive. Probably best done by using a 3rd party app on the phone rather than being limited by the standard Google Android Camera offering. Maybe sometimes using the modern phone’s ability to shoot RAW too, if you think there’s going to be an image worth some post-production. This phone shoots RAW in *.DNG format, which is about as universal as *.JPEG out there in photo software land.

The two digital cameras that I most often use are in no way threatened by how good the phone software and hardware is getting. The cameras still win hands down when it comes to the kind of micro control over images that come from fine-scale manual focusing, manual aperture and shutter speed adjustments, and being ergonomically designed to be securely hand held with all of those settings capable of being adjusted without looking away from the viewfinder or back screen. Probably pixel size matters as well, because the 50MP phone sensor versus the 24MP APS-C camera sensors must have quite different pixel dimensions? With some phone apps you can do fly-by-wire manual adjustment of ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc, but not without turning the phone around to find the controls on the screen.

These days most people are more attuned to being photographed by someone with both hands up in front of their face holding a phone. Using a small camera held to the eye, or at waist level with a flippable screen, is not a very familiar pose, and you can go largely undetected – great for candid shots!

But you tell me, which photo below is from the phone and which from the Fuji X100V camera? Different light on different days, and slightly different composition because of where I stood on each occasion.

Published by MikrokosmFotos

Dad | Ecologist | Photographer & longbowman every other chance | Here I mix snapshots with intentional fine art. Landscapes, buildings, dogs.

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