Modern smartphones have evolved to a stage where images captured with a communications device rival those created using a dedicated point and shoot camera. It might not be a digital SLR, but your smartphone is punching well above its weight when it comes to photography.
That’s why the lens and sensor combination that spends most of its life in your pocket is probably the best you own.
Don’t believe me? Here are six reasons to leave your old point and shoot at home.
It’s Always on You
Many before me have said it, and some have even used it to sell books: the best camera is the one you have with you. This is true whether you’re using the most expensive Nikon or Canon full-frame SLR or Nintendo’s nostalgic Game Boy Camera.
The smartphone slots neatly into this equation by virtue of the fact that most of us cannot exist without one. They’re always in our pockets, on the desk in front of us or charging on the nightstand, ready to drip feed us information and – when the opportunity arises – capture that photo you wouldn’t otherwise have taken sans camera.
Even if you did happen to bring the family SLR and collection of lenses, most SLRs are expensive enough to warrant camera bags. Not everyone lives life with a big fat 5D round their neck looking like Flava Flav. When you need to take a photo in a hurry, reaching into your pocket and activating camera mode pretty much wins every time.
This is further evidenced if you’ve turned on the news at all recently. Smartphones are no longer simply used to call emergency services or send concerned messages to loved ones, they’re being used to capture the news. So far this year some of the most remarkable news footage was shot with a smartphone – from the attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo’s head office to the worsening Ukraine crisis.
Size & Discretion
Certain types of photography demand certain types of equipment. Street photography is fun and the results can be remarkable, but for many it’s also a source of unease and anxiety when standing on street corners with a chunky DSLR and long lens. Check out Hannibal Renberg’s Instagram feed to see his impressive iPhone street photography, and gather some inspiration.
Compared with an SLR, your smartphone is small and innocuous. It might be the perfect stepping stone to shooting street photographs with bigger equipment, and it may enable you to capture moments you wouldn’t have otherwise caught if you’re busy messing with settings or changing lenses.
The size of your smartphone is also handy in a tight space, where traditional SLRs simply do not fit. Think taking photographs through fences, small gaps barely larger than your lens surface. You can also cram your camera into dashboards, cupboards and even bushes to get a different perspective.
Finally, covert photography (the art of taking photos and video where you shouldn’t) is also possible using the smartphone. The makeshift pocket camera you see above was used by VICE in a recent documentary and created using a cigarette packet, lighter and sticky tape.
We’re not suggesting you go breaking any laws, but if you need some footage for your investigative journalism piece, this is one way to do it.
There’s an App for That
Our smartphones are brought to life through our choice of software, and if there’s one type of app that many new users look for almost immediately, it’s a better camera app than the one on their device.
Though it’s not yet possible for iPhone users to replace Apple’s default offering, there are some viable options for when the time comes. Camera+ ($2.99) is probably the most user-friendly of bunch, with separate exposure and focus points, scene modes and other aids including a horizon level. ProCam 2 ($2.99) takes things to the next level and includes manual control over everything from shutter speed to exposure compensation, complete with lossless .TIFF image support too.
There are also apps that challenge you, like Hueless ($1.99) which insists on black and white for every shot and “photo 365” projects that encourage you to take a photo every day so it can be compiled into a video. There’s even an app called OKDOTHIS which focuses entirely on smartphone photography challenges.
On Android, Google’s plain old camera app is one of your best options, but you may need to download the right camera app depending on your device. If you’re yearning for manual control, Camera FV-5 has been described as a shutterbug’s dream, offering features like exposure bracketing that are normally only found on digital SLRs.
Only Android 5.0 devices with Google’s Camera 2 and a copy of Camera FV-5 can capture RAW images at present. Apple still hasn’t opened up the required box of tricks developers need in order to get access to all of the information captured by the iPhone’s sensor. This is arguably where mobile photography is heading, so prepare yourself and get the full lowdown on why shooting RAW opens so many doors.
One app that I simply can’t help but mention is FiLMiC Pro for iOS ($7.99), which allows you to shoot incredibly high-quality video at higher bitrates than Apple’s stock camera app allows. There’s also full manual control over settings like exposure, focus and white balance and a dizzying array of other settings – perfect for anyone wanting to get serious about mobile video.
Anyone who has a digital SLR habit will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that it’s an absolute money pit. You will throw money at new lenses, filters, batteries, SD cards, tripods, ball heads – the list is virtually endless. This is all part of the fun of course, which is why there’s a growing market of smartphone camera accessories to choose from too.
There’s lots of room to expand your smartphone’s abilities. From simple tripod mounts you can make yourself and entire lens systems that attach to the back of your device to purpose-built gadgets like the Camalapse Mobile ($40) which allow you to capture 360-degree time-lapse movies. You can even attach an LED light unit, like KLYP from Manfrotto for those especially dark subjects. If you’re interested in hobbyist underwater photography, you’ll find underwater housings for your smartphone to be considerably cheaper than SLR housings, which can cost as much as a brand new SLR body.
For videographers there are mobile-ready dolly systems like the iStabilizer and a host of gadgets designed to help you get the perfect steady shot, like the SteadiCam Smoothee or more advanced SwiftCam M3 which uses a motorised gimbal for ultra-smooth results. And when it comes to sound, the iPhone in particular is compatible with a growing collection of high-quality microphones.
These accessories can equip your smartphone to deal with just about any situation, though most of these accessories cost a fraction of what you’d expect to pay for SLR equivalents. You might not quite get SLR-quality results, but you won’t spend anywhere near SLR money.
You’re Always Connected
Our smartphones make us feel connected, particularly in the sense that you never get a moment’s peace; but when it comes to photography the immediacy is a blessing. There are no SD cards to unload, and most smartphones actually begin transferring your images automatically without any input on your part. If your smartphone doesn’t, then installing Dropbox adds this functionality.
If you’re an iPhone user with a Mac, your photos are automatically sorted by event and scanned for recognisable faces before appearing magically within iPhoto and being pushed to your iPad. But who said anything about sharing your photos from a computer?
These days it’s much easier to share your image straight away to your sharing platform of choice, and if you’re photographically inclined that’s likely to be either Flickr (which has free iOS and Android apps) or 500px (again with iOS and Android support). Whatever your network – Tumblr, Instagram, Oggl from Hipstamatic or plain old Imgur and Facebook, sharing your spoils has never been so easy.
Of course, you should be careful not to overshare and saturate your otherwise high-quality collection with mediocre uploads.
It Makes You a Better Photographer
In many ways smartphones take photography back to its roots. You have to learn to make do with what you have, because while there are hundreds of apps and aftermarket accessories available, you’re most likely to be caught snapping pictures on your smartphone on the spur of the moment, rather than doing a pre-planned shoot.
There’s no optical zoom, forcing you to change the composition directly by moving yourself. A dearth of lighting solutions means you’ll have to be more creative when it comes to portraiture, making use of available light from windows. Smartphone photography pushes you out of your comfort zone.
Most smartphone photographers don’t own one of the few Android models (I’m looking at you Nexus 5 and 6) that currently support RAW modes through third-party apps, which means the smartphone photographer can’t readily rely on post-production in order to save a shot. Shooting with your smartphone is about capturing moments you might otherwise miss, to the best of your ability, and using a limited toolset.
You might need to rethink your approach to certain situations, and you’re not always going to get the shot you want – but if you stick to a few basic smartphone photography rules then you’ll not only impress yourself, you’ll develop as a photographer while doing so.
Tell us about your smartphone photography journey. Tip us off on what makes it so enjoyable.