Saturday, February 20, 2021

Why mobile phone photography is great for professional photographers

You probably read the title of this blog post and thought "Is Jeff implying that mobile phone cameras are good cameras for professionals to use?" But that is not what I am talking about here. Even though cell phone cameras have gotten very good, and some may argue that the image quality has gotten good enough for most people, they are not the right tools for us professional photographers. I have heard a lot of people question whether or not these cameras are bad for us professionals, since people are taking all their own photos. But I believe that all the images captured from those pocket devices is actually helping us professionals. And here is why:

Photography has become more important to people

It wasn't that long ago that the vast majority of people walked around without a camera in their possession. And just in the last 10 years all of that has changed dramatically. Now, in most westernized civilizations, almost everyone over the age of 10 years old seems to have a camera with them 24/7. We are now taking more photos in a single day than the first 100 years of photography combined! Those images (and videos) are being posted and shared on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and countless other social media sites. This means that people are thinking visually more than ever before. Photos are now even more important to the way we communicate.

Quantity does not mean quality - but they DO want quality

I believe that, even though there are millions of photos being taken every day, the average person has had their photo quality expectations lowered. For those of us capturing photos with high quality cameras and lenses, we know that mobile phone images can't compare to the "real cameras" we use on a daily basis. The low light images are grainy and the small lenses just can't deliver image quality of dedicated cameras and good glass. For this reason, people have gotten used to seeing their portraits in selfie mode, with narrow depth of field, and taken with wide angle lenses which are not very flattering. 

I say all of this because I photograph a lot of teenagers and young adults, and am always intrigued when they see their portraits on the back of my camera. They are totally surprised to see how good they look, with narrow depth of field and lenses that flatter people. Sure, it is not all about the optics, it is also the skills of the photographer knowing the best settings, light and locations. But I truly believe that the "low bar" set by everyday mobile photography is helping us professionals shine in comparison.

Mobile phones lenses are not flattering

As I just mentioned,  most cell phone cameras are wide angle which does not flatter most people. When I take portraits, I usually opt for a good zoom lens, like the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 lens which really compliments my subject. I zoom in tight to accentuate the depth of field, keeping my subject in perfect focus while blurring everything else. And when photographing at long focal lengths, this helps slim people which is always a good thing. Since people are so used to seeing themselves through the wide lens of a cell phone camera, they appreciate our more flattering lenses.

No depth of field

Sure, most of the new mobile phones offer some sort of "portrait mode" which simulates narrow depth of field, but even with this feature, the image quality still does not compare to the real thing. And the rest of the time, people are photographing with cameras that default to keeping everything in focus. This is great when photographing landscapes, but not so great for photographing people and events. I can't tell you how many times I have shown people their portraits on the back of my camera and had them amazed at the selective focus (which really draws the viewer to the subject).

Flat lighting

Just about anyone who takes photos with their mobile phone is doing so using ambient light or the tiny little flash on the back of their handset. This is very limiting and makes it hard to control lighting like us professionals do with one or more large flash units. So, once again, the general public is used to flatly lit images, with no dramatic lighting!


Low light = low quality

Whenever there is a cool event with the moon, I see countless phone shots on social media, and all I see are grainy photos of a white dot in the sky. Sure, they tell a story, but it makes the images that us professionals are taking with long lenses and tripods stand out that much more. 

Everyday user vs trained professional

Ansel Adams used to say that the most important feature of the camera is what is 12 inches behind it. That would be the person taking the photo. Most people who take photos with their phones are not photographers and therefore do not know how to make a great photo, regardless of the equipment used. This means that they are creating images for keepsake (which is great), but probably not the quality that us professionals desire to deliver to our clients. They may not be able to take great photos, but they will likely appreciate the difference when they see professional images.

All of this is not to say that the camera in your phone is a bad thing. Not at all! There is the common saying that "the best camera is the one that is with you" and, like most of you, I love having a camera in my pocket all the time. Just yesterday afternoon I was capturing photos and videos on the ice rink as we played hockey. I chose to to use my iPhone 12 instead of taking my DSLR on the ice. 

I am curious to hear what you all think of this assertion, and I welcome your opinions on this subject. Feel free to comment here on the blog or on social media.

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5 comments: said...

This debate rages in my home. My 19 year old son , an avid iPhone user, always assured me that all DSLRs capture the moments better because we spend the time with composition when using them. My concern is that everyone on the planet can pull out a mobile phone and capture any moment . I’m a sports shooter who lugs around two old Canon 1d bodies. Recently I have taken to dropping my stealth like Ricoh GR2 into my pocket in the event of a moment. But I fear that my IPhone , located in another pocket will do the same. My son assures me that it is still apples and oranges. All this advice from a 19 year old. It must be true!

Ralph Hightower said...

I have a Canon 5D III, along with an A-1 a F-1 New. But recently, I've used my Samsung Galaxy S9+ to take videos of our Beagles; one video is of one of our three climbing a tree after a squirrel, other videos of them treeing squirrels, and the latest is of our four year old playing with a newly adopted nine year old. Since I've done more photography than cell phone photography, I use my cellphone in landscape orientation. I was impressed with the quality of the S9 video quality.
However, I am not a professional photographer.

Dinyar said...

I've always thought that the better the cameras on cell-phones become, the more the pressure is for manufacturers to improve "stand-alone" cameras, be they P&S, SLRs, Mirrorless, or Bridge. So the professional photographer, or the user of any camera benefits.

Unknown said...

I agree entirely Jeff. However, I will just add that, as you well know, cell phones have additional capabilities that very few tap into. As an Android user I'm referring to the "pro" mode where you can modify shutter speed, white balance and all of that. If more of the consumers took the time to learn and get out of auto mode then we might be having a different discussion. Until then, at least for sports photography and low-light which I like shooting, the cells just don't measure up..............yet!


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