Will smartphone cameras ever be as good as professional cameras? No of course not. The pinnacle of smartphone technology can never beat a dedicated camera built with few technical or budgetary limitations. It’s simple physics, where you have to conclude that a bigger lens and bigger sensor will always beat smaller devices.
But I’m tempted to argue with myself here because we already know that smartphone cameras can take amazing photos – and they just keep getting better. Why? This is because these are consumer products. So they sell in huge numbers: literally billions. This means that the almost infinite resources needed to extract incredibly good images from a fundamentally unsuitable device (or at least, a device that is not optimal) are freely available. The ratio of consumer smartphone cameras to professional cinematic imagers is very high, literally millions to one. So the fact that an ARRI Alexa might cost sixty times the price of an iPhone – expensive, in other words – only illustrates that the professional camera is built with a much smaller overall R&D budget: divide sixty into many millions, and you will see why. It’s an economy of scale, pure and simple.
That’s not to say motion picture camera budgets aren’t enough. You have to put it in context, that is to say that the R&D of a professional device is laser-focused on the niche activity of high-end cinema.
The smartphone’s optics are remarkably efficient. The tiny lenses – often several on a single phone – are masterpieces of miniaturization. Coupled with the same processing power you’d find in a mid-range laptop, it’s now possible to produce fantastic images; better, perhaps, than many consumers have so far been able to shoot with a conventional camera.
Let’s say (and I’m not going to argue) that smartphone cameras eventually match the capabilities of cinema cameras. Does that mean they will look alike? No, I don’t think that’s the case, because they play totally different roles.
In the meantime, I have absolutely no doubt that smartphone cameras are one of the most remarkable technological achievements of the decade. I’ll always want a professional camera (and I’ll talk about that later in the article), but my phone is my go-to camera for most everyday needs.
The best camera is the one you have with you
One of the most important grains of wisdom revealed to humans over the past century is that the best camera is the one you have with you. Obviously, this is a leading role for smartphones. For most people, unless you’re naked, you’ll have a smartphone with you. This means that you can also take very good photos and decent video. So decent, in fact, that with a proper microphone you can prepare tracks for broadcast, and few would complain about the quality. Moreover, smartphones are also internet devices. Thus, the unique event you have just filmed on your smartphone can be broadcast on a news channel (or simply on Twitter) in seconds, from anywhere in the world.
This ability is not only to capture the story as it happens, but also to alter it. Authoritarian regimes cannot cover up their oppression so easily when every egregious act is “broadcast” through a thousand smartphones.
Recently, I used my iPhone camera for fun. Once you stop wondering where your smartphone camera falls on a scale between consumer and professional, you can start using it to the fullest without worrying about accuracy, calibration, and pixels. It frees you up to do all kinds of things the professionals would frown upon.
For a long time I was fascinated by the resolution. The conventional way of talking about this measurement is in terms of pixels per frame or inch. This is important because, with not enough pixels, they will be visible. But in very large numbers they will disappear, and as long as you have a sharp lens, more pixels means better quality, where “quality” is how much you can zoom into an image and still see new detail.
For me, there are two types of resolution. First, there’s the physical, measurable version of the type you see cited in the datasheets; then there is the perceived resolution. Most of the time, this last version is the only one that matters, unless you are in a specialty where pixels per inch will directly and proportionally affect the result.
Perceived resolution is what you see, or at least think you see.
This works in favor of smartphones, as phones process images within an inch of their lives, and they get away with it.
My iPhone has a resolution of only 12 megapixels. That doesn’t sound like much compared to today’s high-end professional cameras, where 50 or even 100 megapixels aren’t unheard of. Whether those pixels individually contribute measurably to the final image is a whole other question. But while these tiny bits of imagery may be small, they’re put to good use, with techniques like taking multiple photos and combining them into a more realistic image – essentially increasing spatial resolution with temporal and cumulative precision.
You can increase the perceived resolution with tricks like adding sharpness. This does not add information to the image, but misleads the viewer by increasing the high frequencies of the image. In the image domain, sharp transitions (as you would see if you traced a speck of light moving between black and white squares on a chessboard) represent higher frequencies. A fuzzy or fuzzy edge would be a lower frequency. So, by boosting the higher frequencies of an image, you can simulate the look of sharpness. It’s like the “tone” control on an amplifier.
Smartphones have a plethora of image processing to choose from. With a little experience, you can make a dramatic difference. The end result is usually not an accurate or “pure” photograph. But I don’t mind. In the two images below you can see that they don’t look realistic. But they look striking. They “burst”. They get a big reaction from the non-experts I showed them.
The one with the Volvo car was taken in the British city of Bradford. I wanted it to look like an old fashioned postcard. The weather was good, but not spectacular. So I chose a “vivid” color profile, increased contrast, saturation, and “definition” (which, among other things, can remove haze, according to Apple). The sky almost looks like it was cut and pasted from another image. It wasn’t, but it almost adds to the slightly exaggerated “postcard” effect. It definitely attracts people’s attention.
The phones have a dedicated AI silicon. This not only helps with “per-pixel” processing, but also with apps that “style” photos. What I mean by “Style” is a non-algorithmic process, like making an image look like an oil painting, a cartoon, or matching the feel of the image to another photo or reference image.
I find the latter type the most exciting because the output is not pixel based. Of course, the original image starts with pixels, but the end result is more of an expression of a concept. As such, it looks more like a vector image than a bitmap. That means it doesn’t really have any resolution, and it’s extremely powerful.
Imagine you have one of the latter effects, and it is effectively neutral. Instead, it makes the image resolution independent. This is effectively what modern resolution scaling applications do. This raises questions about accuracy or authenticity, but that doesn’t matter for smartphones as art.
And if all you want to achieve is a striking and compelling image, you’re free to use any or all of the repertoire of digital and AI-based effects on a single image. In the end, if people ask you for a print to frame and hang on their wall, you’ve achieved something, and I think that’s perfectly OK.
I will always want access to “conventional” cameras with a big lens and maybe a full frame sensor. Of course, it’s always best to capture as much information about the locations of a photograph as possible. But I’m finding more and more that I can take great photos with a smartphone that, after processing, grab people’s attention in a way that conventional photography doesn’t.
And the reason I don’t think that’s a threat to the traditional art of photography is that it’s a different art. It’s a new medium. And I think we should be happy about that.