Is the quality of the smartphone camera really that important anymore?

By | 2014-08-16T12:13:11+00:00 Jun 19th, 2014|

I’ll be the first to admit to being an absolute specs snob when it comes to just about anything tech related, whether it’s my computer, my smartphone or my camera. One of the specs that I’ve always paid very close attention to was the quality of a smartphone camera. It never boiled down to the number of megapixels, per se, or what sort of camera modes were offered so much as how good the special sauce was. Let’s face it – as it currently stands, the iPhone 5s still is the best phone on the market in terms of overall image quality. Is it because it only has 8 megapixels or a faster lens? Not really. Working at Google, and alongside the folks on the Android Camera team, has given me a really interesting perspective around how important the actual code is that handles photos once the hardware has been used to create the actual image bits. There really is a special sauce – every manufacturer has their own – and this sauce determines the flavor, as it were, of your images. In my opinion, Apple just happens to do the best job with their sauce.

Of course, as the question posed in this blog post asks, does this really even matter as much anymore? The more I think about it, the less I find that the camera/image quality of my smartphone is a critical factor. Why? Simply, it no longer is used as much anymore by me. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t heavily rely on the on-the-go ability to edit and share my photos. That is something that my smartphone is still crucial for and its processing power, RAM, and storage specs still rank at the top of my list. However, I find myself shooting almost exclusively with my Sony A7 and A7r. At least one of them is with me pretty much anywhere I go and the IQ of the camera and whichever lens is on easily surpasses even the iPhone in all aspects. There is no arguing there.

So, with my camera’s built-in ability to transfer full-res jpegs (with RAW support undoubtedly coming) to my smartphone via wifi at about 2 seconds per file, I now have the benefit of using the various editing apps on my phone to stylize a muuuuuch higher quality source file and share it ’round the world in no time. It’s a workflow that I’ve really been immersing myself in over the past few months and have really come to like it. In fact, I took this image the other week while in Cairns with my A7r, transferred it to my iPad Air via WiFi and edited in Snapseed. I’ve also created this entire blog post from scratch on my iPad.

And you know what else? I’m finding myself not really even missing the indisputable convenience of carrying only one device. My Sony A7 is mirrorless, has a full frame sensor and, when coupled with Sony FE glass, is exceptionally light and easy to carry. Plus, it really is hard to find a smartphone on the market today that isn’t able to produce a ‘good quality’ image, so even in those instances when I may not have my Sony with me, my smartphone will always work in a pinch… it’s just that those instances are becoming fewer and fewer.

So with all of this said, do you think you will begin reevaluating the importance of your smartphone’s camera IQ given the trends and direction that camera tech is going?

6 Comments

  1. Lurdes Alves June 19, 2014 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I think you are right. There is no way we can compare a smartphone to a camera. Nevertheless, there are moments when you fonte have your camera with you and you pass across a acene, people or a landscape you cant just ignore. There is were The smartphone comes in. As a journalist my iPhone hás indeed helped me in several ocasions

    • Brian M June 19, 2014 at 8:10 pm - Reply

      Absolutely! I would never be so bold as to say that photography with your mobile device is obsolete. Quite the contrary. The iPhone is an exceptionally capable device for taking photos.

      My main point was to illustrate that, as far as I’m concerned, I no longer find myself pouring over specs of the smartphone camera the way that I used to because of this hybrid workflow.

  2. kate hailey June 19, 2014 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Hey Brian,

    As a long time photographer and “iphoneographer”, I have enjoyed the improvements within the image quality of the iPhone. Smart Phones in general definitely have great functionality. I create art and document the day to day with my iPhone often. I have invested in a Fuji X100s as my walk around and often, travel camera, when I don’t want to carry my larger DSLR and a bunch of lenses.

    I think the most important thing is knowing the limitations of the tool you’re selecting and know what tool you need for the job.

    I’m also a fan of mobile workflow, I’ve been editing files from my Fuji on my iPad, the plethora of apps available on the market is amazing and fun. And now with the options of LR and the Cloud, it’s just a stepping stone in the world of mobile workflow. Loads more to come. We live in an exciting time for sure.

    ~ kate

  3. Rob June 19, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Brian,

    I actually was thinking about this recently, as a person just entering the big boy camera market I’ve started to look at the phone as being a “second” shooter.

    So I think it will stay important, I personally use a Lumia1020 and love the 34MP images it can produce, Pre and Post Dawn, I’m still shooting when a lot of Iphones get put back in their pockets (more of a app/education perspective as the aperture is equivalent, but manual controls are not given in the native apps)

    I think apple and ios app Dev’s put a lot more effort into the ‘sauce’ as you call it not only for the Chip to JPG compression but also in the compression and resize to upload to web services.

    This last factor is something I wrestle with daily considerably the “downsize” quality for online posting is where most of the image quality is lost.

    Also, I have to use my Nexus 5 to upload images to G+ etc so I already have a similar workflow to you, swapping your Sony for my Lumia, hope Google changes it tune regarding limiting its apps cross platform.

    Thanks for the article.

    Cheers
    Rob

  4. Rob Follett June 19, 2014 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    While I don’t disagree with anything you said, Brian, I found “If you need that extra bit of detail” and all you have is an iPhone 5s, then use one of the two 3rd party Apps which allow capture/storage as an un-compressed TIFF. I have published side-by-side photos, and the results are amazing! Downsides? Two! iPhones don’t handle TIF format, so you need to move them to your computer using iTunes File Move. Second, you can’t let these files “hang around” on your phone — Each one is 18mb! But if you need detail, and the 5s is all you are packing…..

    Rob

  5. Peter Gamba June 24, 2014 at 3:46 am - Reply

    dollars and cents – for me that is what it all boils down to – if a person is just getting into a higher focused form of photography, then being able to invest over a thousand dollars in a new mirrorless system is possible. Those who have invested in major DSLR’s may find it a stretch to yet invest in another “walk around” system who’s footprint is evolving so rapidly in terms of image quality. I understand your point of writing but I also believe there will be many who read this that will want to ditch the camera that is always with them in order to carry yet another piece of technology with them constantly. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that the next innovation in mirrorless will be the ability to “communicate” with others if one chooses to just carry the real camera and not lose touch. Now, we photographers have a different ability to always get the shot, albeit not the stellar, printable high detailed image that a Sony or Fuji might bring us. Personally, I’d love the ability to purchase a new camera every year or two like I do a phone, and yes one could always do the “buy and sell”. Yet, I’ve seen some amazing phone shots, especially when paired with some decent glass onto the lens. Just my thoughts.

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