Do you need a “real” camera?

In my opinion, a good smartphone camera is good enough for most purposes, particularly if your main use for the pictures is to post them online in relatively small sizes. It’s also much easier to get good results, right now, with the better ones like the iPhone XS, which are doing huge amounts of neural network and other processing to overcome the limits of conventional still photography technology (not to mention their very small sensors.)

Here are a few applications where you will still need a “real” camera:

  • Shooting things that are very far away. If you want to shoot animals or sports, you will usually need a telephoto lens of some sort, and a way to hold it steady. 56mm (“full frame” equivalent or EFOV) is a long lens on a smartphone. But you’re going to want 400mm or more for birds, rhinos, or quarterbacks. Add-on telephoto adapters for smartphones are not the answer for those applications.
  • Shooting things that are moving very fast. Fast, 3D tracking autofocus is still much better on high-end cameras, particularly SLRs, than it is on smartphones. There is very effective hardware support, such as dedicated phase detection sensors in better SLRs, which are better than what you find in mirrorless cameras and cell phones. (Increasingly there are focus pixels in the main sensors of EVF cameras and smartphones, but there are still significant trade-offs in terms of speed and image artifacts.)
  • Making large prints and close crops. There are two issues here: First, a 12MP cell phone camera has fewer pixels than a 50MP high-end camera. When you make large prints, or crop to just a portion of the image, you run out of pixels. Second, while a good smartphone camera can produce tonally beautiful pictures, and the weird sharpening and smoothing artifacts we used to see are less common in the best ones, if you zoom in far enough you will see a fair amount of excessive smoothing. At a certain point things start looking more like paintings than photographs. You can see this with the iPhone XS when you use the native camera vs. a RAW camera app: The same sensor produces RAW pictures with noticeably better resolution but significantly more noise, than the fancy AI in the native camera app. There are still trade-offs, even though the software is brilliant. So if you want a 30″ print of that fantastic sunset shot, you may not like the results from your smartphone.
  • Demanding environmental conditions. Yes, your new phone is probably waterproof. If you drop it in the toilet, you won’t have to sheepishly make excuses to the Genius Bar person at the Apple Store anymore. However, If I am going to be photographing in the Arctic in blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures, I’d rather have a camera with honest-to-goodness weather sealing, a large, replaceable battery, and proven low temperature performance specs. That’s not all cameras, of course, but you can buy ones like that if you need them.
  • Critical applications. Quick show of hands: Who wants to photograph a wedding with only a smartphone? If you can’t afford to lose any images because you won’t get another chance at them, you need some redundancy and backup. Dual memory card slots, maybe a spare body compatible with all your lenses, extra batteries and memory cards: These are all things that reduces the chance you will find yourself losing images or opportunities in a critical situation.
  • Serious video work. Cell phone cameras are often much better than low priced cameras at taking video. But if you want to be able to do manual focus pulling, or layer on accessories like microphones, external displays, and complex stabilization and motion rigs, you probably want something more substantial than your iPhone. Yes, you can buy that stuff for an iPhone, but really? (See “add-on telephoto adapters” above.)

A year or two ago I would have added a section on shutter lag problems, but with the iPhone XS synthesizing virtually zero shutter lag by doing pre-capture, that’s much less of an issue anymore. This list is getting shorter every year, but there were always be certain limitations imposed by the laws of physics, which will make “real” cameras the right tool for certain applications.

Ultimately, I don’t think all cameras will be replaced by smartphones. However, I think consumer level cameras will virtually disappear as a product category in the next few years. Surviving will be high quality and moderately expensive camera systems used by a shrinking number of serious amateurs, and expensive professional camera systems used by a small population of surviving professionals. Manufacturers in both those categories will slowly adopt computational photography features that first appeared in smartphones. But the stand-alone consumer camera is dead.

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