5 Reasons Why Your Smartphone Camera Sucks

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IPhone sux

There has been a lot of hype in the tech press these days about how smartphone cameras are turning your $5,000 Nikon into a paper weight, and anyone who dares disagree is branded a Luddite. Take, for example, this pontification from the Guardian, proudly proclaiming the obsolescence of the point-and-shoot camera. Such articles suggest that there is no longer a need for DSLRs, dedicated point-and-shoots, video cameras or any other form of conventional image recording device: your iPhone can do it all.

IPhone suxVeverka Bros. is shooting a new fireworks extravaganza called Passfire (we’ll be talking more about this in following posts) and call us old-school, but with all the awesome visuality of fireworks-sparks, bursts of color and blazing explosions-we decided to shoot on the industry-standard Canon 5D Mk II. However we also picked up an iPhone-in part so we could check email and Facebook in the field, but also because we wanted to see if all the hype about its camera was warranted.

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While the iPhone was awesome for taking behind-the-scenes production shots to share with fans on social media and as a quick point-and-shoot for when both of the bigger DSLRs were tied up, after a month in the field I have decided that the smartphone camera hype is just that. Anyone who appreciates quality photography should definitely not leave their conventional camera at home.

Here are five reasons why your smartphone camera sucks:

1. Poor Optics:

Smart phones may be sleek and compact, but those tiny built in lenses come with a major drawback: optical quality. The big lenses you see on DSLRs aren’t just a fashion statement; from depth of field and speed (amount of light they allow in) to sharpness, they vastly outperform smartphones. They also can allow for optical zoom, meaning that you don’t have to sacrifice resolution to get closer to your subject.

The inherent drawbacks of smartphone lenses are not lost on photography enthusiasts; there is an entire niche industry for additional lenses that attach to camera phones, in theory adding additional optical flexibility that the original lens lacks. While there is a certain novelty to such contraptions, they are no optical substitute for a real lens; they are optically inferior, bulky, fragile, fundamentally defeat the sleekness that makes smartphones so attractive to begin with, and oh, yeah, they look stupid.

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2. Bad light sensitivity:

People love to talk about how many megapixels their smartphone camera has. While this is an important factor in any digital camera, it is far from the only measure of a camera’s performance. Light sensitivity is another important factor. As a general rule, smartphone camera sensors perform worse in low-light situations than the sensors in any half-decent digital camera. This is why the photos you take at night or in poorly lit rooms always look blurry and noisy unless you use the flash-and if you do, they look even worse.

3. Size does matter:

Camera Sensor ComparisonAnother major problem with the camera sensors in smartphones is that they are tiny. Their small size means that you have very little artistic control over depth of field-the ability to have the subject in focus while the background is nicely obscured. A large depth of field (where most or all of the scene is in focus) means you don’t have to worry as much about where you focus, but such images generally lack visual impact, due to the fact that the brain doesn’t know what part of the image to focus on. Next time you’re watching a film, notice how the characters are sharply in focus, while the background is nicely blurred. This is one of the signature looks of a Hollywood film, and it’s narrow depth of field that makes Hollywood look Hollywood.

4. Say what?

People who regularly shoot video with their smartphones may notice a common problem with their videos: the audio sucks. This stems from the fact that your smarthphone was designed to be a phone, not a video camera. The built in microphone may be sufficient for making calls and asking Siri if it’s t-shirt weather outside, but when it comes to recording decent audio, it is sadly lacking in any but the most ideal situation. Dedicated video cameras have much better mics, and often have a jack allowing you to plug in an external microphone or audio source, providing much cleaner audio recordings. Since capturing high quality audio is a crucial part of recording a good video, smartphones are fundamentally lacking compared to dedicated video cameras.

5. (cr)Apps:

The availability of a nearly endless number of photo and video Apps for smartphones may seem like a godsend for quickly tweaking the look of your photos and videos. Indeed, there are a number of apps that streamline repetitive processes such as simple color correction and uploading your photos to social media. But the App sword cuts both ways. For starters, the majority of photo and video Apps out there Photo Appssimply are bad; they are buggy, gimmicky and have a limited selection of useful functions. Such Apps also encourage users to mindlessly pick from a standard set of looks, giving one the illusion of creativity, while actually homogenizing the aesthetics of photography. Notice how all Instagram photos have a certain look?

The other reason why photo apps aren’t the greatest thing since sliced bread has nothing to do with the features of any specific App, but with image processing in general. No matter what sort of digital trickery you do to a bad photo, it will still be a bad photo. As they say in the digital effects business: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The point is, when it comes to fixing fundamentally bad photographs, no Apple, actually there isn’t an App for that.

Given the many reasons that smartphone cameras aren’t as great as they are hyped up to be, does this mean they are all bad? Surely not. Like any tool, they have a purpose. Smartphones are great devices for communication, and they are certainly useful as cameras to snap photos at a moment’s notice. But don’t believe anyone who claims that they make traditional cameras obsolete. What smartphones have going for them is convenience, but convenience has never been synonymous with quality. If quality photographs or video are what you are looking for, don’t leave your other camera at home, and keep your smart phone handy for Facebook and Angry Birds.

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Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China, where he has produced a number of award-winning films. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNN Travel, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. He was born in Ithaca, NY. Jeremy Veverka is a media professional with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups. To learn more, visit www.jeremyveverka.com or follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyVeverka.
  • Most of what you say is true. Yet, art respects few boundaries. Ultimately, what matters is the finished product, it seems to me. Very few viewers of photography as art know or care precisely how the images they look at are made. They respond or they don’t respond. If the image is compelling, do they really care whether it is made on film with a Hasselblad or with a Holga, made digitally with a smartphone or digitally with an Olympus OM-D EM5–except perhaps on an academic level, as part of a museum exhibit label footnote? Take light sensitivity, for example: I cling lovingly to my original iPhone for its bad camera. I hope it won’t stop working. I love it precisely because I relish the noisy images it makes in low-light situations–that is, I love it BECAUSE of its inferior light sensitivity. I view it as a tool among many that I sometimes choose for its special characteristics. The average phone camera doesn’t aim to make art. He or she is simply looking to record experience . A smartphone may not in some objective sense do that as well as a D-SLR, but if it didn’t do it well enough for most people, sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras wouldn’t be plummeting. In the end, most people DON’T, in fact, appreciate quality photography or care about it much at all. For them, a recent-model iPhone really is a remarkably useful piece of equipment for recording their lives (and doing many other things as well). In the realm of art again, I find it hard to argue that a modern high-quality D-SLR is necessarily better than a washed up iPhone camera (vastly more versatile, yes), but always better?

  • Sorry. That should have read “The average phone camera USER….”

  • Trithereon

    There is certainly a valid argument to be made that good art is more about the content (skill) than the tool. However, that does not in itself invalidate the desire for better technology. Yes, excellent art can be produced on low-quality equipment and really great equipment won’t make up for poor artistry, but all other things equal most consumers of art prefer that made on better equipment and using better equipment allows for more flexibility in post. It’s easier to add noise, blur and artifacts back in than try to repair photos/video that are low quality to begin with.