When is a Smartphone the Right Tool for the Job?

March 03, 2020

It’s no secret — smartphone cameras are sophisticated nowadays. While everyone uses theirs differently, they seem to be indispensable, even to the professional photographer. But, are they better than premium compact cameras, for example? Which qualities, if any, do smartphones lack? If you’re still using your smartphone, consider these five useful questions. 

What are your images for?

The intended purpose of your images is the best place to start. Why do you need the photos? If your images are bound for a low-resolution environment, or if they are merely for yourself, smartphones seem to be a great option and are adequate for general social media. They are definitely adequate to capture the grocery list from the fridge.

Tread carefully, though. If you have something to showcase such as a product to sell, will your smartphone be enough? 

Do you blog, or vlog, or just want to show off your new clogs? There are times when you want your images to stand out — especially on social media. Using your smartphone might leave your important subject seeming quite average. Available light and your smartphone camera settings can only do so much and it might be time to consider having a camera where you have more control. Premium compact cameras, such as the Panasonic TZ110, or the Canon M10, can be used for these purposes. Some benefits include better image quality from larger sensors, versatility in cropping and depth of field from optical zoom, or shoot movies in high resolution 4K. 

Is controlling the camera settings important?

White balance is not something that can be easily controlled with smartphones; neither is shutter speed (the length of time the sensor is exposed). If you’re shooting a restaurant scene which is warmly lit, your smartphone will automatically correct this, leaving the room looking cold or even blue. 

If you’re shooting action photos in a low-light you cannot boost the shutter speed—for this, and for the first scenario, you need manual mode. This is another benefit of premium compact cameras. Take a look at the new Fujifilm X100V or the Canon GX7. These cameras connect just as easily to your phone via Wi-Fi as they do to the computer for image transfer so you can get your photos into the world quicker than ever. Most cameras provide this, DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, too.

While compact cameras have manual and auto modes, smartphone cameras are designed to do all the work for you. Features like Auto-Enhance and Deep Focus (which improves dynamic range and detail) from Apple’s iOS 13 are typical examples. If you want to take control of your camera—shutter speed, ISO, aperture, colour temperature—the camera app is probably not the best option, but it doesn’t mean smartphones are unworkable. Those features can be located in other apps such as Adobe Lightroom CC, Snapseed and VSCO.

By the way, if you'd like to learn skills like Editing On The Go, to basic Smartphone Photography, we run courses on these subjects.

Smartphones are great for candid moments. They are as slim and portable as compact cameras, but are more likely the camera most available since most of us live with our phones glued to our hands. It isn’t always necessary to self-manage camera settings, but most subjects deserve it for the best results.

How important are image quality and size?

The iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro Max have the latest cameras in Apple’s product range. They both use 12MP (megapixel) image sensors but only the premium phone, the Pro Max, can take advantage of a dedicated tele-zoom lens. What this means for the more affordable iPhone 11 (and previous iPhone models) is less detail. Now, here is our comparison: all the compact cameras mentioned use image sensors more than three times that size and no less than 20MP in resolution. If all you’re after is a better camera, it is no doubt more affordable to buy a dedicated camera.

Capturing detail is very important if you enjoy cropping your images. However, even with 12 megapixels, there isn’t much room for altering the image frame after it’s been taken. And with Apple’s image technologies at play, things like Deep Focus, which seek to improve the image behind the scenes, you may feel that your iPhone images look unnatural. This is prevalent with the studio lighting options available, especially with portrait subjects. The image may feel too detailed or too blurry.

If you need images of a small file size, the smartphone might be best. Paired with an accessory lens and/or a smartphone tripod, the results will be great. Otherwise, take advantage of larger image sensors and more megapixels at prices more affordable than leading smartphones.

How intensive will your editing be?

If you don’t need to edit your images, a smartphone will certainly do the job. 

All the same, the editing options are there: crop and straighten, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, saturation and more. There are also plenty of apps available. But when image quality can lack to begin with, especially with standard JPEG images (as opposed to RAW files), then it can be challenging to get good results. Raw photos cannot be captured in the default app, but with apps like RAW+ and VSCO this is possible, but still clunky. For that you’ll need a compact camera. 

It is no problem to edit small batches of photos with a smartphone. What makes editing difficult on these devices is their limited screen sizes and general inability to batch edit (meaning to copy ‘edits’ across multiple images). But having said that, VSCO is notably good with this.

Is file management necessary?

How many photos will you need to take? Will you need to offload the photos onto a computer? It can be difficult to manage larger volumes of photos, especially in the editing phase. 

We don’t recommend using your smartphone as a standalone camera for long periods of time (without backups), especially when travelling — smartphones can be lost easily due to their small form, they can also break more easily than standalone cameras. Still, geotagging is a useful feature smartphone images will benefit from. These images can be searched by location, or discovered on a map. Standalone cameras offer this too, but are not yet as integrated into the user experience.

There are several factors at play when determining whether your smartphone is best in any given scenario. Most of all, they are great for impromptu moments; times when having a photo is more important than not having one; times when capturing a candid scene is more important than controlling camera settings. Image quality is another factor. Smartphone photos are not suitable for making large prints or cropping excessively—the detail is simply not there in their small image sensors. For this, and for manual mode and more, take a look at premium compact cameras and see the difference. Dynamic range on smartphones is still impressive, though, particularly the shadows of Night Mode, for example, in the latest iPhone range. This makes image editing easier later.

If you simply need to take some photos, your smartphone might be enough. Editing is widely possible, either within the photos app (slightly tedious if the auto-enhance does not satisfy you) or in third-party apps like Snapseed, Adobe Lightroom CC and VSCO, which are very capable and support batch editing. But not even these apps can manage large volumes of images efficiently. For that style of photography you may need a separate camera and the greater image quality these enable. A separate camera will make your photos stand out, especially online.

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