Photography has turned into somewhat of a digital arms race in recent years, with camera manufacturers constantly upping their game and releasing some landmark piece of kit. But the humble smartphone is by far the most used camera in the world right now, and it's not just tourists and selfie-queens that can take advantage of them.
Now, you might have spent thousands on a top of the range DSLR camera, and splashed out some more money on professional lenses to accompany your 36 megapixel+ beast. I'll forgive you for thinking I'm insane to be recommending the use of a smartphone camera more, but bear with me, there are plenty of compelling reasons.
Why Use a Smartphone Camera?
There's an age old saying in the photography world, and it's one that rings true to this day. "The best camera is the one you have with you."
The majority of us carry a smartphone around with us all day every day, and while we've been building up a selection of expensive lenses the phone manufacturers have been quietly improving their cameras.
The fact is that most of us have a smartphone with us far more often than we have a DSLR, and it would be foolish and elitist to not take advantage of this. If you're still not convinced, here are some other reasons to take up smartphone photography, or phoneography as I like to call it:
- Convenience - We've already covered the convenience aspect, but it's worth mentioning again. Let's be honest, carrying a full DSLR setup around all day is cumbersome and tiring, and just the process of setting up can take long enough that we miss the decisive moment. With a smartphone that issue is non-existent. I can take my phone out of my pocket and have a shot lined up within ten seconds, and that speed and convenience is worth it's weight in gold.
- Connectivity - The majority of photographers want to share their images with the world, and there's no easier way than with a smartphone. You can go through the whole process of shooting, editing, and uploading on one screen, and you can even do this on location. I don't need to tell you that you can't easily do that with a DSLR setup.
- Composition Scouting - When I'm out on location I generally have my backpack on with all my gear inside, and the process of setting the DSLR kit up takes a couple of minutes. I don't want to do that only to find out that I don't like the composition of my photograph, so instead I use my smartphone camera to scout out the compositions. The results from that determine whether I bother putting my full setup in action.
- They're Surprisingly Good - Many photographers completely dismissed smartphone photography years ago, when the low light capabilities were non-existent and the overall quality was sub-par. That has all changed now, and many of the newer generation of phones have incredibly good quality cameras with a vast array of features.
- They're Everywhere - Over 2 billion people own a smartphone now. 2 billion. There's a vast array of app designers, technical support, and help forums to solve any issues. Chances are you walk around with one in your pocket all day, and just by using it more for serious photography work you can hone your skills as a photographer. Personally, I use it on my daily dog walk when I don't want to lug my full setup with me.
What to Look for in a Smartphone Camera
We've covered why to use your smartphone more, but choosing the right one for you can be a rabbit hole that can eat up days of your life. Of course you want an actual device that will work well with your lifestyle as well, but providing all that is covered here is what you should be looking for when purchasing a new smartphone:
- Megapixels - These used to be the holy grail of camera specifications, and while they are still important they are nowhere near as important. The majority of recent smartphones offer between 12MP and 18MP resolution, which is more than adequate. There was the ridiculous 41 megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 back in 2013, but issues with diffraction means that most smartphone manufacturers have shied away from reigniting the megapixel wars.
- Aperture - We've covered the aperture extensively in our Exposure Triangle article, but smartphone apertures operate a little differently most of the time. Generally speaking they offer a fixed aperture of below f/2.0, which allows a lot of light to reach the sensor to improve low-light capabilities but doesn't offer the same level of control as a DSLR. All you need to remember here is that a lower f/number is usually better.
- Controls - The last couple of years has seen a huge boom in the innovation of smartphone cameras. The technical improvements mean they can now be used as serious photographic tools, and an improvement in serious features has followed. Many smartphone cameras now offer RAW image capture and a full set of Manual controls. This not only frees up your creativity but also increases image quality, and even allows you to take long exposure photographs. Obviously the lack of changeable aperture limits this somewhat, but in low light conditions and with a smartphone tripod you can get some really creative images. Look for smartphones with RAW capabilities and full manual controls, and that will tell you that the phone manufacturer is serious about the photographic needs of its customers.
- Dual Lens or Not - A lot of smartphones that have been released recently have taken an extra step in innovation, offering a total of three lenses integrated into the phone. The usual rear facing and selfie lenses are always there, but they have also added a short telephoto lens to provide unprecedented optical zoom. If that's something you're interested in then definitely keep an eye out for that feature, although be warned that some smartphones only utilise this extra lens to create shallow depth of field effects.
- Additional Features - There are a myriad of filters and settings available for smartphone cameras now, and while most of them are largely gimmicks there are some useful ones. The HDR feature is an excellent one to look out for, and the panorama mode is a firm favourite for those wide vistas. Certain depth of field and selective focus features are quite fun, but largely fail to overcome the 'fake' look that the software creates.
- Waterproofing - One of the best new innovations in recent smartphones is the ability to effectively waterproof them. A number of the larger technology companies now offer smartphones that are waterproof up to a certain depth. This opens up an entire new world of photographic potential, and it's a good way or trying our underwater photography without shelling out thousands on an underwater DSLR housing. Just make sure it's definitely waterproof first!
- Battery Life - An often overlooked feature when looking for a good smartphone camera is the battery life of the phone itself. Obviously taking photographs uses up more battery power than when it's sitting in your pocket, so choosing a phone with a long battery life is highly recommended.
The Best Smartphone Cameras on the Market
You already know what to look for in a smartphone camera, but we'll give you another helping hand and recommend some of the top smartphone cameras on the market. Starting with the critics (and my) favourite:
Google Pixel 2
Google's newest flagship smartphone has blown the competition away when it comes to photography. Running on a beautifully clean version of Android, the Pixel 2 achieved the highest ever score for a mobile device on camera testing benchmark website DXOMark.
It doesn't have dual lenses and the rear camera resolution of 12.2 megapixels may seem a little on the small side, but the software driving the camera is second to none. The software actually does a good job of mimicking the shallow depth of field effect, and the excellent HDR+ feature is an added bonus. Oh, and it's waterproof up to a depth of about 3 feet for up to 30 minutes too!
One minor issue is the lack of RAW capabilities in the integrated camera app, but with the freedom of the Android operating system you can actually capture RAW files on the Pixel 2.
Google Pixel 2 Cons
- No dual-lens system means bokeh effect is fake
- No integrated RAW capture
Google Pixel 2 Pros
- Image quality second to none
- Fantastic software
- Operating system and battery life well up to scratch
Apple iPhone X
Ten years ago the Apple ushered in a new age of mobile technology, and the new iPhone X marks that ten year anniversary with their best smartphone yet. This naturally means that it's also Apple's best camera yet, although there are some tradeoffs.
One of these is the price - It is a huge amount of money to spend, and the fact it isn't even the best smartphone camera around may put a lot of customers off. Admittedly it's not far off the Pixel 2 in terms of quality, and if you're one of those who can't cope without the iOS system then it's a big upgrade on the previous model.
As far as technical specifications go it's looking pretty good. The iPhone X comes with dual rear lenses and a 12 megapixel sensor, which allows for depth of field control and optical zoom. It also boasts image stabilisation on both sensors.
Apple iPhone X Cons
- Very expensive
- Image quality isn't quite on a par with the Pixel 2.
Apple iPhone X Pros
- Dual lenses allow for DoF manipulation and optical zoom.
- Beautiful retina display and slick operating system.
Samsung Galaxy S8/ Galaxy S8 Plus
Apple's long standing rival in the smartphone market has made incredible leaps to catch up with the iPhone's innovation, and it seems that they have finally overtaken their competitors. The Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus is widely considered the best smartphone on the market, and this unofficial title is aided by the fact it has an excellent camera.
The Galaxy S8 is another phone that opted to leave out the dual lens/sensor system, and instead focused on creating one excellent smartphone camera. The 12 megapixel rear camera is the same as was found on the Galaxy S7, and the range of features on offer is fantastic.
You can use full manual controls, capture RAW files, shoot HDR and panoramas and even capture 9 megapixel still images when in video mode! Not to mention the 4k video mode and the fact it's dustproof and waterproof up to 1.5 metres for 30 minutes.
Samsung Galaxy S8 Cons
- Lack of dual lens/sensor system means depth of field control is limited.
- Image quality not quite up to the Pixel 2 and iPhone X standards.
Samsung Galaxy S8 Pros
- Vast array of useful features.
- Dustproof and waterproof up to 1.5 metres
- Excellent image quality and beautiful curved display.
Huawei Mate 10
Huawei may not be on the same level as Apple, Google, and Samsung in terms of brand recognition, but they are really making waves in the smartphone camera world with their innovative ideas and excellent features.
Huawei were one of the first companies to pioneer the depth of field effects in smartphone cameras, and the Mate 10 brings a new feature to the table for photography enthusiasts. Not only does it feature a standard 12 megapixel rear camera, but adds a huge 20 megapixel black and white sensor into the mix as well. Not to mention that they teamed up with the legendary Leica to design this smartphone camera.
This is a smartphone camera for those willing to put the effort in. The results are actually rather uninspiring on auto mode, but getting creative with lighting and angles can yield some excellent results. Add a 2 day battery life to that, along with 4k video recording and high speed video recording and you have a really strong contender for the photography enthusiast.
Huawei Mate 10 Cons
- Standard shots are rather uninspiring, you have to put the work in to yield the best results.
- Huawei's EMUI interface can be frustrating and annoying.
Huawei Mate 10 Pros
- Smartphone designed with photographers in mind.
- 20 megapixel black and white Leica camera is sensational.
- Software driving the camera is excellent.
- Battery life second to none.
Smartphone Photography Tips
There's one mistake I see over and over again with smartphone photography, and it's quickly killing all the potential that your smartphone offers - People get lazy when using a smartphone.
We can take a photograph whenever and wherever we want, going from thought to capture inside ten seconds and requiring absolutely no planning beforehand. After capture we have effectively unlimited cloud storage so are never limited on how many photographs we can save.
Yet this doesn't lead to improved images, it actually decreases the quality of what you capture. The same thing happened when digital cameras were introduced as well. The fact that you weren't limited to a roll of film or a few large format slides turned people into photograph snapping maniacs, who subsequently spent the next month of their life deleting all the pointless shots they took on their shiny new DSLR.
This is a stage all beginner photographers go through, before they eventually slow down and start taking fewer photos but of vastly superior quality. Unfortunately, not many get past that stage with smartphones. They are just so convenient and almost toy-like that even many photographers don't take them seriously. That leads me to my one and only tip for smartphone photography:
Don't Treat it Differently
When taking a photo with your smartphone, approach it in exactly the same way as if you were using your big, expensive DSLR. Rather than just snapping away mindlessly actually think about your composition, what you want to achieve with this photograph, the available light, and whether it is a moment worth capturing in the first place.
Of course, there are some limitations that smartphones place upon us. For example, the lack of interchangeable lenses means that optical zooming is either limited or non-existent. The way around this? Zoom with your feet - Simply move closer to what you're photographing rather than relying on the digital zoom. Many photographers actually place this limitation on themselves to enhance their creativity, using prime lenses to eliminate optical zooming. So rather than treating it as a disadvantage think of it as a lesson in creativity.
That's all there is to it. Don't get lazy, shoot RAW whenever possible, and approach your smartphone photography with the same dedication as you do with a DSLR in your hands. People are creating beautiful photo books with smartphone images, and there's no reason why you shouldn't either!
Smartphone Apps for Post Processing
When shooting in RAW it's important to follow that commitment up by editing your photographs afterwards, and you may be surprised to know that there are some really high end editing apps available on smartphones now.
I'm not talking about your Instagram filters, but professional grade software from some huge names. Couple that with beautifully designed high resolution displays and you can often take an image from inception to completion all in the palm of your hand.
Of course, if you want to take on some more advanced post processing it's quick and easy to transfer the images onto your computer. For the times that you want to keep it simple, here are my two favourite apps for post processing:
Adobe Lightroom Mobile - For those of you who are Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers (I highly recommend it) you may be surprised to find out that they offer Lightroom Mobile for free, and that it is much more powerful than you would expect.
Lightroom Mobile is basically a very slightly toned down version of Adobe Lightroom Classic, and it's often more than enough to get the job done. However, if you want access to the full range of Adobe software it's ridiculously easy to synchronise your mobile photos with your PC.
Snapseed - If Lightroom isn't doing it for you, the chances are that Snapseed will. This is a free app available for both Android and iOS that offers aspiring photographers a plethora of useful editing tools. Think of it as a cross between Lightroom and Instagram, with the exposure controls from Lightroom available alongside an array of beautifully designed and customisable filters.
Now you've learned the basics it's time to stop ignoring the camera in your pocket and start taking full advantage of it's convenience!
Far too many photographers these days get bound down in the gear wars, all the while ignoring the potential of the humble smartphone camera. Remember...
The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it."
- Ansel Adams
There are those who say that smartphone photography can never be considered true photography, but to them I say why not?