Buying a Camera
If you love taking photos with your smartphone, it might make sense to get a dedicated camera. Smartphone cameras are getting better and better every year, and indeed they are good enough for most people in most situations (especially now that night mode is a thing, along with optical zoom features). But a smartphone camera will never fully compete with a “real” camera. Here are the reasons why.
- There are three major components to any camera: the sensor, the lens and the body. No matter how good smartphones get in the next few years, they will pale in comparison with dedicated cameras in all three categories. Before I get into each one of these, let’s first recognize in which areas smartphones are actually better:
- Compactness. We all slip our phones into our pockets or purses every single day, everywhere we go. So for the mere ability to add a camera to your everyday carry, nothing beats the smartphone. There actually are cameras that could be considered smaller (maybe an action cam like a GoPro, for instance), but nothing is as flat and compact as, for instance, the iPhone 12 Mini. And when considering a dedicated camera, I actually recommend still prioritizing this quality — a camera is useless if you leave it at home, at most people don’t love carrying around a bulky DSLR. Luckily there are plenty of other (mirrorless) options!
- Sharing to social media. Another amazing thing about your smartphone is that instant ability to send off a snap through WhatsApp, or post it directly to Instagram. The camera world is a bit slow in regard to easily connecting to your smartphone — it is totally possible, so I don’t want to scare you off that it’s too difficult to do, but obviously transferring from a separate device adds a step here. There are a few random examples of cameras that do post directly to social media, but they are quite niche. All this said, I do recommend some models over others in this regard, because this apps can file management vary across brands. (Sony is especially bad here, in my opinion.)
- Processing power. Research and development funding is stacked heavily in favor of brands like Apple, Samsung and Huawei, which means that advancements in technology favor the abilities of smartphone processors over “real” cameras by Canon, Sony or Fuji. Computational photography is what allows the Google Pixel or iPhone to fire off dozens of images in a split second and combine them into a decent-looking shot of a poorly lit scene. Accomplishing this as easily on a dedicated camera cannot quite be done.
So, if your smartphone can do all that, why bother with a “real” camera?
2. The sensor. Probably the number one aspect in determining image quality is the size and ability of a camera’s sensor. This is the thin and expensive piece of tech that records light, replacing classic film, and it has advanced dramatically in the past decade. Smartphones use sensors the size of, say, your tiniest toenail. As good as processors can exploit this limited surface area, this just isn’t much to work with. A decent and affordable dedicated camera can feature a sensor 20 times larger than that.
There is a wide range of sensor size options, all balancing our desire for detail, megapixels and raw information with our desires for compactness and affordability. Here’s a chart that shows the various options:
3. The lens. Before light can be recorded onto a sensor, it has to pass through a lens. This might actually be the most important piece of photographic hardware — professional photographers tend to think so. Lenses come in all sorts of shapes and qualities, but there are fundamentally two aspects (apart from style, build etc) that define a lens: the focal length and the aperture.
- Focal length is a number that describes the amount of a scene visible when looking through the lens. For instance, your phone probably has a “wide angle” lens around 28mm. This means that you can comfortably fit a group of friends in your shot when standing a reasonable distance away. But it doesn’t fit an entire building when you stand across the street (18mm would do the trick), and it doesn’t isolate any detail, they way your eye naturally might. (50mm or 70mm are better for this.) Lenses are sold at every desirable angle of view (from 10mm to 3000mm), and often with a zoom range that covers much more than modern smartphones, all at once. So if you’ve ever wished your phone could zoom in better on a subject, or get even wider, a better lens is what you want.
- Aperture is the size of the opening that lets in the light. This is measured as an f-stop. Photographers use different lenses and aperture values to achieve different effects. Without getting technical, imagine those photos you see where the background is all blurry and dreamy — that’s achieved with a very open(or “fast) f-stop around 1.4 or 2. Then picture a landscape where every single aspect is in sharp focus — that’s when a small opening (or “slow” f-stop) is used. Smartphones, being so small themselves, cannot possibly have large aperture openings to create that swirly bokeh in the background, which is why they’re faking it these days with clumsy computer processing. That will get better, but it won’t ever be as good as the real thing.
3. The body. I do love the feel of my iPhone 11 Pro, and I love the convenience that its body prioritizes, but as a handheld tool for making pictures, it leaves a lot to be desired. I like actual buttons, for instance. I like manipulating the controls with my hands. I like haptic feedback, and I dislike relying on a touchscreen, which can be clumsy and unreliable. I also like being able to tilt the screen for different angles (like holding it at my hip or waist), or putting my eye to a viewfinder. None of this is doable on a smartphone. The camera market features hundreds of options in terms of body designs to fit the various ways in which photographers prefer to shoot. Some actually do resemble smartphones (large touch screens, minimal “confusing” buttons and dials), and others emphasize different things, like a retro/vintage experience, or a fun, tactile one.
There are many other aspects to consider when buying a camera: price is obviously a factor, along with weight and size, and your own photo goals and intents. The main point here is to know that there are technical aspects to making pictures that smartphones simply cannot cover. We’ve all had pictures in our minds and tried to make them with all phones, and failed. If you collect enough of these frustrating experiences, it might be time to go to a local camera store and hold some actual cameras in your hand. Think about the joy of creating better-quality images while you walk around your town, and compare various models online in terms of the aspects I’ve described. Also consider style, and the pride you might have when holding a gadget designed specifically for your photography. It’s a thrill to finally capture the images you desire, with a tool properly designed for the job.