Smart Phones and Digital Imagery in the World of Photography

The emergence of the smart phones and advances in related camera technology has put the capability of capturing good quality images into the hands of virtually everyone. The smart phone delivers everything the disposable film cameras did many years ago, with the additional benefit of instant processing, and ease of sharing. The movement toward digital communication and lack of paper and film is a great matchup. Smart phones are undoubtedly great devices – but they do present limitations for capturing high quality images, due to their compact architecture and lack of proper lens controls.

Size Does Matter

Smart phones today are hobbled by tiny sensors. High megapixel phone cameras struggle to capture light and darken shadows, while noise causes drop out in highlights. Why? The extremely small pixel sensors employed are pushing the limits of micro-electronics. While there are a few models offering 48 to 108MP capture, the numbers are more about marketing than actual image quality. In most shooting modes, the actual image capture is 12MP, using pixel ganging to improve light capture and image quality, where the higher MP images in other that bright daylight are of lower quality overall.

That 12MP is actually ideal for a smart phone image capture. See related article on image size and MP requirement. Do you really need to generate a 10 to 22.6MB file from a smart phone?

Sensor Size Comparison

To compare, Ssmart phone camera sensors are around 50 to 78 square mm. Compact digital cameras generally have sensors of around 116 square mm. ASP-C cameras 368 square mm. Full frame professional cameras have 864 square mm sensors. In each of these, as the size of the individual sensor grows , so does the size of the individual sensors within it. The rule is simple: Larger sensors = greater light sensitivity = greater detail and contrast capture. Small sensors = less light sensitivity, less detail and lower contrast capture (often with shadow details lost).

Comparison of pixel sizes between sensors

The larger the sensor area also produces a greater capacity for wider dynamic color range, better low light response, better image distinction within shadows, less instances of burnout in highlights on glossy surfaces, greater control of depth of field, and crisper small details. Control of bokeh (soft focus) areas is significantly enhanced, creating more dramatic images.Larger sensors mean larger lenses, which gather more light, have fewer issues with distortion, and more control of image shaping. There is a reason that the highest end professional studio cameras now sport very large sensors, up to and actual 400MP, creating monstrous files, but none of that applies to smart phone cameras.

For perspective, the highest end digital camera available 15 years ago, costing tens of thousands of dollars, was only 18MP, with a sensor size of 1400 square millimeters.

In other words, the MP numbers thrown around in smart phone marketing can be misleading, and do not correlate well with the image quality from true digital cameras. This is not a dig at smartphones, it is just a difference in purpose. Cameras are for high quality image capture, smartphones are for convenience.

When the File Size Matters

Rather than repeating myself, refer to the related article on image size and MP requirements. When you want to go big on image output, take a look at my article on enlargement.

Aperture Effects Missing

Smart phone cameras have no adjustable apertures, offering only exposure time to adjust for amount of light in the scene. Using apertures in photography is an important tool Small apertures create deep depths of field with objects near and far in sharp focus. Large Apertures create soft background and foreground bokeh effects that enhance drama and focus on the subject.

If you want to capture a sharp image of a subject in motion against a blurred background, a photographer will use a wide aperture and focus on the plane of the subject and pan the camera to match motion. If you want to stop action a scene with moving and static elements, you use a narrow aperture with a lot of light, fast shutter speeds, and image sensors that are fast responding.

Smartphones can’t deliver this level of photographic detail, since the aperture utilized is not an optical feature, it is simulated through software.

If All You Need….

Smart phone cameras are quite good. But, for those involved in marketing and sales, the smart phone is not the tool of choice.

If all you need is a quick pic to capture damage that has been done to a box received from a shipper, a smart phone camera will definitely do the job.

If what you need is a quick image of a product before it is packed to record condition and verify content, then a smart phone is actually a great solution, as the preview of the image on-screen insures that the picture taker is getting it all in frame.

If all you need is a few quick photo of a low price item to post on ebay, or send to a prospective buyer, a smart phone will likely do the job just fine.

For these, and hundreds of simple images captured to add a visual to communications, there is no need for a photographer or a separate camera. That is why every smart phone has a camera today – it’s convenient, and what customers wanted.

When You Need a Photographer with a Camera

Photographers bring to the image collection party these important attributes:

  • An eye for capturing images based on experience and training. This results in better approach in viewing angle and more complete image capture, use of lens effects and lighting.
  • A photographer knows how to tickle details and shapeliness out of a subject by just changing an angle, or moving the camera closer or further away, adding a light, or blocking light, along with camera settings to match.
  • Photographers are in their field because they love the work, and are invested in producing the best images possible from a subject assigned. It is not a casual ‘good enough’ business to them.
  • Photography with lighting is always better than available light. Photographers know how to bring light onto a subject to create shaping, draw attention, increase visibility in shadowed regions, enhance textures, etc..
  • A photographer with a camera has the capacity to use depth of field, focal distance, field of view, contrast, and aperture settings coupled with capture speed to produce clearer, more focused images that require less post-process manipulation.

For these reasons, adding the services of a photographer is important when…

  • You need someone to capture the best images possible and you don’t have the skill or equipment needed.
  • You need digital files that can be used for a wide range of applications that hold detail and quality when manipulated.
  • You need images with no dark shadows concealing important details, or burned out highlights that mask surfaces.
  • You need fill lighting to capture the proper image.
  • You want an image that might need to be blow up in size for a large print, background at a trade show, or wall mural.

Smart Phones are not Going to Replace Photography as a Profession

Photography as a profession is changing. The smart phone has certainly made it easier for most users to capture good-enough images on the fly, with minimal pain. That is great! More people are capturing great images for fun, and many for profit, because of what the smartphone has brought us all.

On the other hand, for capture of portraits, wedding days, special events, architecture, image/fashion products, beautiful images of vehicles, corporate products, and photography of real estate – professional photographers delivers images that are not only high in quality technically – they add to the imagery itself through expert application to create timely images of distinctive value.

The two technologies don’t exclude one another, they compliment, and expand the amazing collection of imagery that is great for everyone.

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