Re: why smartphone photography stinks for you. A Response

Jul 3, 2015

Benn Murhaaya

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Re: why smartphone photography stinks for you. A Response

Jul 3, 2015

Benn Murhaaya

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Vivitar UWS loaded with cross processed film. This camera has no exposure control. Just a shutter release and rewind

I’ve read the latest article by JP Danko about why smartphone photography stinks. I disagree, and here is my response.

I do hate the term “tog”. I cringe every time I see or hear it.

Your definition of real camera does sound little bit pretentious to my ears as it leaves out pretty much all point and shoots and (however heretic it might sound) lofi/lomo cameras. Disregard the phone aspect for now. All the autofocus, auto exposure cameras with little to no control about anything are left out. This includes cameras like Olympus Mju, many Polaroid Land cameras, Instamatics and Brownies… why I mention them? Cause it seems like your generalization is presuming only digital media. These analog cameras I mentioned are directly comparable with some of the current phone camera offerings. Take Kodak instamatics and Brownies. Cheap, low quality shooters that were spewed by the millions yet they provided the public with much appreciated democratization of photography. Because of their limitations in exposure their photos looked very much the same, yet they defined the visual style and taste in such strong way, that most popular (and praised by you) app like Instagram and Hipstamatic base their success on this established visual style. Just look at the names. Our family memories are defined by low quality cameras yet we continue with this tradition even now, when the access to quality digital apparatus is easier than ever before. But people did not seem to mind the lens quality of the Instamatic or automatic land cameras. As those pictures were viewed as rather small prints today photography is viewed on small screens.

Olympus Mju II loaded with Trix 400 pushed to 1600 in Rodinal - talk about resolution
Olympus Mju II loaded with Trix 400 pushed to 1600 in Rodinal – talk about resolution

I don’t want to base my dispute just purely on aesthetic choice or taste of photographically uneducated yet very prolific masses. (I do not consider the lack of photography related knowledge as a detriment to quality of each individual photographer or their photos). Point and shoot cameras together with little to no user exposure controls, shutter lag and misbehaving autofocus were one of the main factors that shaped the contemporary photography. The term snapshot aesthetic should not be alien to you. Name William Eggleston is first of many that pops up to my head when this term is said. His contribution to modern photography is not only undeniable but fairly major. Let’s not dwell on just one person and name people like Nobuyoshi Araki or Daido Moriyama, both know to shoot with compacts many times lighting the frame with just the tiny built in flash. I don’t find anything second rate about those of their photographs. (Note, all of these were also using fully manual cameras like Leica in case of Mr. Eggleston and various Pentax and Canon cameras in case of Moriyama san and Nobuyoshi san respectively). Those cameras often lacked the ergonomics and quality viewfinders of SLRs/TLRs but provided something instead. Small size and weight and being low profile contributed to them being carried around and being used to make photos.
It may sound like I am attacking you from the left field of analog photography. You can argue that film can take more abuse and still produce nicer output than digital (which I would judge by case by case basis rather than in general). But how much one abuses the film is discovered much later if not too late. This goes especially for people lacking the experience shooting the film. But I don’t want to compare mediums here but the approach. You should remember that color print film used to be a domain of snappers and not real photographers. It was people like already mentioned William Eggleston together with Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore or Martin Parr just to name the few, that took the once forbidden territory of color photography and made it into art.

Vivitar UWS loaded with cross processed film. This camera has no exposure control. Just a shutter release and rewind.

The low light capabilities are through the roof compared to what an average Joe Shooter had at his disposal before. Many point and shoots will take only 100-400 iso films and slowest shutter speed will go to 1/8thh, 1/5th tops. Good luck shooting night panoramas with that. Any current decent phone will give you better low light results than its analog analog (see what I did there?) from a decade ago.

Olympus Mju II, cheap-o print film. Flash on.
Olympus Mju II, cheap-o print film. Flash on.

To address one of your last points, do you ever wonder why a lot of photography looks the same? I left out the word smartphone deliberately. Most people does not control aperture, depth of field, motion blur or use of camera flash regardless if they shoot with Iphone or latest Canon Rebel. Most of the photos are taken in similar conditions and such deliberate discrimination of smart phone photography seems unjustified and that you are leaving out the whole picture so it fits your feelings about smart phones which I don’t oppose. Feel however you like about the smartphones I feel my way about different cameras as well.
To conclude, if you leave out the feelings and look at the whole picture then the smart phones are more and more valid photography tool with its own usage. Large format cameras were THE tool of the trade once and now are a niche. Apply your point about sharpness to large format vs. 35 mil double perforated film shot on Barnack’s Leica. You see it does not matter if it is digital or analog. The arguments were and are still the same.

About the author:

I am a visual fetishist and film waster. Close to 60 cameras went through my hand in past eight years. Including SLRs digital and analog, TLRs, P&S, lomo… you name it. I now shoot with full frame on digital and anything from 35 mil to 4×5 in on film. I develop my films and large format slides and print my own photos to 50×60 cm prints and I am now days from self-publishing a retrospective book. My (moderately NSFW) work can be seen on my site, and two tumblr blogs.

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15 responses to “Re: why smartphone photography stinks for you. A Response”

  1. Paul Menard Avatar
    Paul Menard

    quantity is also waaaay more now
    and smartphones are nearly all 28mm f9-19 or something, while random compacts would have more variety

  2. Renato Murakami Avatar
    Renato Murakami

    I think your points are correct Benn, but you might have missed some of the points JP made himself.
    Your comparisons are proper, but they are mostly about older cameras and tech, or alternative cameras used for niche shooting styles or art.
    JP was talking about smartphones used as cameras to take professional shots nowadays.
    Yes, all in all it’s about the photographer – not the tool – but I think one of the major problems with smartphones – even compared to older cameras which could produce worse results – is that smartphones are not cameras. They are not dedicated devices, so the focus is not in professional shooting.
    You end up making a lot of consessions if you choose to take photos using a smartphone, hence why it “stinks”.
    Comparatively, I tend to agree that the experience of taking photos with a smartphone is also among the worst. Dealing with menus burried deep into a touchscreen interface and all, it lacks the ease of professional dedicated digital cameras, and the pleasure of older film formats altogether.
    One could probably say that amongst several digital options, smartphones would probably be one of the worst for a professional shoot. Toy cameras aside perhaps. Or taking photos with a GoPro?
    Like I said in my previous comment, given the choice, would you use a smartphone for work? I mean, it could be done, certainly. Just like some photographers could use film, a lomo, even collodion type camera. But you either have to be in a niche, or do a lot of work around for it to do it’s job, even more in specific situations (low light, sports, etc).
    And I think more to the point, is that smartphones are no dSLRs. You can choose for yourself to impose some limitations as a professional, but if you want focus on photography and flexibility, you’ll go for a dedicated camera. A smartphone has an interface mostly dedicated to the smartphone part, the camera is not the main focus, almost all of them don’t even have a direct way of attaching to a tripod, external flash sync is limited, sensor size goes against the form factor, it’s never shaped to be ergonomic as a camera, touchscreen can be a hassle to easily switch between options, and both low light and manual controls plus raw are currently evolving, but are kind of an afterthought since the device is a smartphone first, then perhaps a camera second.

    1. Ivars Avatar

      Ergonomics (and user experience) is thing which sadly is ignored in latest hypes on technologies which seemed unreal just a decade or so ago. Touchscreens are prime example of that – everything has to be touch-enabled otherwise it’s deemed to be old-school and cumbersome.

      I see an perfect example of this in Amazon kindle readers. I have had discussions with several people couple of years ago. I prefered to pick kindle 4 (non-touch) over paperwhite though it had slightly inferior display. They tried to convince me how stupid it is because touch screen is so convenient and buttons are so old-school. Now after release of kindle voyage which sports presure sensitive “buttons” in addition to “paperwhite” touch screen I have heard from couple of them how much convenient it is to have buttons on it.

      Same thing goes with cameras. I remember that it seemed no big deal that I have to use menus for some settings on my D40. Now when I have D7100 I can’t get how could I live without quick access to those settings without ever touching menu. The same goes to many smartphone photographers – they just don’t realize how user-unfriendly (is it a term) smartphone actually is for photography.

      1. Renato Murakami Avatar
        Renato Murakami

        Yes, all of this!
        People can call me old, outdated and whatnot, but there is one thing I still haven’t changed my mind after all these years of smartphone and tablet (plus other gadgets) evolution: touchscreens are nowhere near reproducing the experience of physical controls.
        I never thought it would, and I still think it won’t. I of course eventually entered the smartphone and tablet game because of unrelated benefits (less about interface, more about integration and software functionality), but still miss having even a cellphone with physical keyboard.
        But smartphones are passable (even though I still have a harder time typing text compared to when we had physical keyboards)… cameras and some other devices can be even worse.
        Good thing is that I think most (not all) camera manufacturers understands that. You can’t just slap a touchscreen there and throw some garbage convoluted menu system without loosing costumers. It’s at most an extra spec.

    2. murhaaya Avatar

      However the marketing surrounding the smartphone is hyped, I don’t believe they would put an equal sign between capabilities of smartphone vs. of an dedicated camera be it mirrorless or DSLR. If you want to consider smart phone as a substitute to the dedicated camera then they really do suck but why would anyone started with such premise, especially a well versed photographer is hard for me to fathom. It is an easy target to pick. Scooter bike sucks compare to superbikes, netbooks suck compared to the desktop computers…

      While one may feel that iphones are not suitable for professional photo shoot, somebody else might prove him wrong by successfully doing just that with clients and photographer all satisfied with the results. As not all shots has to be taken on film then not all shots has to be shot on dedicated camera. I frankly don’t see the reason behind the bashing.

      Bash professional grade cameras that fail to deliver on expectations based on the price or marketing.

      1. Renato Murakami Avatar
        Renato Murakami

        It might have something to do with the hype of smartphones producing some extremely misguided actions… though I have to agree with you that it was a bit heavy handed.

        Like I said though, it’s not that I think smartphone photography is “wrong” or even necessarily inferior by itself… give a capable photographer a smartphone, and he’ll produce better results any day in comparison with a poor photographer with the best dSLR available in the market.

        On the other hand, cutting down professional photographers and replacing them with journalists with iPhones, or “citizen journalism” produced shots, might be a very bad decision for content quality.

        Down to tech specs though, it’s always good to reinforce, specially for non-photographers and amateur photographers, that there’s a bunch of things that specialized cameras will always offer in comparison with smartphones. Mainly because some stuff that might sound logical to photographers, isn’t always that clear to those who are not.

        So if some smartphone manufacturer these days employ marketing tactics that implies someone should buy their smartphone rather than a dSLR because they’ll get the same result from both devices, I’ll always say it’s extremely misleading, when not downright false advertisement. Which is why I’m pretty ok with criticism that points out specific details and tech.

        As example, I’ll point out Nokia Lumia 1020 advertising campaign:

        To be perfectly clear: I had a Lumia 1020 myself. It really captures great images. And I replaced it with another smartphone with focus on camera quality (Xperia Z3). But no, it isn’t “goodbye” to the dSLR, it doesn’t eliminate the need for tripods and lenses, and the ad is extremely misleading specially for non-photographers. That’s the thing I wish ad agencies would stop.

        It’s problematic not only because it misrepresent it’s products and lies directly to consumers faces, but it also undervalues and mocks photography as a job, professional photographers as category, which in turn poses some future consequences that I’m not very ok with. :P

        1. murhaaya Avatar

          I would choose a skilled photographer with an iphone over non skilled photographher with dSLR.

          Original discussion has nothing to do with citizen journalism and its consequences to photography as a profession. But again one could make very much the same argument about Kodak Brownie. Before “press the shutter, we do the rest” one had to hire a professional photographer. Photography required considerable skill and considerable investment (does this line sound familiar? Buying into the top of the line system is not cheap the same way as buying into wet plate camera was not cheap).

          Regarding the nokia lumia advert… for many sunday shooters, it can deliver 100% on what the advert tells. They don’t need dSLRs, tripods, external strobes and bought all that because of some other hype. If everything you want is pretty good photo when strolling through the city as a tourist and don’t care about anything else… well you’re in bussines.

          For us, it won’t ever replace dSLRs (I use the term loosely) but for many, this is what they are looking for.

          1. Renato Murakami Avatar
            Renato Murakami

            I understand what you are getting at, but I will stand by my stance on the Lumia advert.

            The original discussion had nothing to do with citizen journalism and I never implied it to have, it was in line with what I said about misguided actions produced by smartphone hype, which was a reply to you wandering where the original argument came from.

            For the record though, I still consider that photography requires considerable skill and considerable investment, though perhaps they are less, or at least different from Kodak Brownies and wet plates era.

            Like I said, I owned a Lumia 1020. I know fully well it can take good photos for Sunday shooters. Perhaps because of the way it was targeted and how they’ve painted it, the ad still feels extremely insulting. And it’s filled with misleading messages too. Ones that might not matter much for photographers themselves, but it paints a wrong picture for those who are not.
            This idea that it seems some editors and publications get that they will end up with same results by replacing professional photographers with amateurs with smartphones have to come from somewhere.

            You see, it wasn’t an advertise saying it takes pretty good photos when you are strolling through the city as a tourist and don’t care about anything else. It was clearly targeted against a stereotypical version of a pro photographer.

            If it was targeted at casual tourists, it would be taking jabs against point ‘n shoot cameras and whatnot.

            It furthermore paints a very wrong picture of their own product, as if the Lumia 1020 would completely dismiss the use of tripods, lens exchanging capabilities, among other things. Funny how they miss in the advert that they even sell a proprietary case with a quarter inch thread in the bottom of it to… yes, attach it to a tripod.

            But back to the original topic, it just sounds to me that you took it a bit too personally. JP’s post was mostly technical, and a good explainer on what advantages dSLRs have over smartphone these days that people who are not photographers might not know about.

  3. Vlad Didenko Avatar
    Vlad Didenko

    Surprised the author did not mention pinhole cameras as ultimately technologically restrained, yet still creatively used cameras.

    1. murhaaya Avatar

      I thought about it at the point of writing the text however restrained they are the photographer has greater control of the exposure in the end.

  4. Allen Taylor Avatar
    Allen Taylor

    Sorry to nit pick but you don’t “load” cross processed film into a camera. You load film. If your intent is to have it cross processed (developed) opposite of what it is (negative or transparency) then you shoot it (exposure) differently and then have it cross processed for the desired effect.

    1. murhaaya Avatar

      Then don’t nit pick. Matter of speech. When I load to the film, I have the final processing in mind already, be it black and white, color or slide.

      1. Allen Taylor Avatar
        Allen Taylor

        Its not a matter of speech at all, as I said, it is a matter of intent. Again there is no such thing as unprocessed “cross processed” film that can be loaded. No need to get defensive, just fix your mistake and word it correctly.

  5. JP Danko Avatar
    JP Danko

    Thanks for the reply Benn! There is definitely a certain appeal to a simplified approach to photography – whether its digital or analog. There are a number of smartphone-only photographers that produce great work and I would never presume to judge their work based on the tool used to produce it. The problem I have is that the marketing hype that surrounds smartphone cameras – suggesting that they are an equivalent substitute for a real camera. They are not (yet anyway). iPhoneographers who buy into that marketing message (usually people who are just discovering photography) are missing out on a much bigger world of artistic possibilities.

    1. murhaaya Avatar

      I’ve touched some of the points in reply to Renato Murakami.

      From the original post, I felt unjustified opposition based on presumptions that I feel are not sound. It did sound much like posts ten years back “Why digital sucks compared to film” with much of the points including options buried deep in menus, quality, low light capabilities, fps able to be raised in much the same way and there we were talking about dedicated cameras. The same dedicated cameras that are now pinnacle of technology used for unfair comparison to something never meant to compete with them.

      As an avid user of film compact cameras (some of my experience put into word can be seen on 35mmc) I feel probably the same level of user experience while shooting with them compared to the film SLRs. One or two buttons is all there is to it. With some better third party camera applications, shooting with an smartphone is nothing.