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Smartphones and cameras
Back in 2009 (only ten years ago as I write this) I had a "fold-up" mobile phone. I bought it to make telephone calls - the obvious reason. Then I found that I could also send text messages and that it had "predictive text" (which almost invariably produced results that were risible). It also had a built in camera.

There is an old photographic saying that "the best camera is the one you have with you". That's true enough, if the alternative is no photo at all and, clearly, the phone makers recognised that and decided to join the pocket camera market.

Now, let's look at two images taken early in 2009 at the local football ground, where a fleet of helicopters was based while being used to control a large bushfire running in a nearby National Park. The local volunteer Rural Fire Brigade, of which I was a member, was called in to act as standby airport firefighters. Thankfully everything went well and I had time to take some photos. I hadn't used my phone for photographs until then and I found the images it took were poor quality, to say the least. The first photo below does not warrant enlarging beyond thumbnail size.
A week later the fire was still burning and I again found myself called in for "airport duty". This time I took our pocket Canon Ixus camera, capable of taking images of 3 megapixels. As seen above, the comparison in results was dramatic. There could be no doubt that the pocket camera was far ahead of the phone.

Fast forward ten years and phones now are "smart phones" with (I read) more computing power than was available to the Apollo moon walking astronauts. Not only that, but their cameras also have developed enormously and the front facing camera of my new one has 13 mp, adjustable aperture (somehow), variable ISO, and the ability to create "faux bokeh" when in "portrait mode".

The new phone and an article on how they are taking so much of the camera market led to me doing a little exercise of photographing a rose in our garden, using the phone and my DSLR fitted with a 50mm lens. I posted the two images together, as seen below, and asked for opinions on which took which. While everyone made the right choice, I think the very fact that the question was even viable tells a story in itself on how far camera phones have advanced. Click on the image to go to the original page and comments.
Now, don't get me wrong - I'm far from interested in giving up my 'real' camera in favour of using a phone though they do indeed produce quite a good result in good conditions. As might be expected, if the ISO is raised, the image becomes both soft and noisy. But, if there's a photo waiting to be taken and the only thing available is a smart phone, then it's reassuring to know there's a good chance of a usable result. I took this final image (clickable) as a test with the phone's "night" setting. It's not great quality but still surprised me - the settings, after I checked, were 0.5 sec, f1.7, and ISO 12,800!
ADDENDUM
If you're interested in how a full frame camera takes this scene, click on the image above and I've added a full frame shot for comparison in the PiPs and comment stream. What intrigues me is that the full frame had a manual f2.8 lens (ie slower than the phone's f1.7), the ISO was the same at 12800, yet the full frame shutter speed was half that of the phone at 0.25 sec, rather than 0.5 sec. Something doesn't quite match up!


12 comments

Gudrun said:

ISO 12800 with a DSLR would also give you quite a bit of noise depending on the model! My first DSLR (EOS 350D) was awful at ISO 1600 and 800 wasn't that much better. Smartphones have come a very long way, your test shot even gives you a starburst!
2 months ago

tiabunna replied to Gudrun:

Yes, my first DSLR (Pentax K10) was very noisy above 400 ISO. It's not just smartphones that have come a long way, it's all advanced so much. (PS, I've now added an addendum to this article, with a full frame comparison on the night image).
2 months ago

Amelia Heath said:

Such an interesting article. I don't have a smart phone, but this one costs just short of £200 and seems like a bargain to me.
2 months ago

tiabunna replied to Amelia Heath:

Thank you very much, Amelia. I chose this smartphone because it places more emphasis on photography. Email me if you're thinking of making a phone purchase, I found there were quite a few points to watch for.
2 months ago

micritter said:

A very interesting and informative article. Thank you! By the way, I still use a flip phone with an ancient camera and I don't even know how to transfer the pictures, bad as they are, to my computer :( But your modern phone's camera is amazing. I wouldn't have expected it to even allow ISOs over 400...
2 months ago

tiabunna replied to micritter:

Thank you, I must say it's been something of an eye-opener to me also.
2 months ago

Janet Brien said:

Awesome article and so true!! It's fascinating to see these changes and I look forward to the day that I'll be able to have my dream camera that can do it all with a full-sized sensor, 100mm, delicious bokeh AND a zoom lens. It isn't going to be too long that we have to wait I think. :)
2 months ago

tiabunna replied to Janet Brien:

Many thanks, Janet. Yes, the technology is indeed galloping along. It will be interesting to see what even another five years will bring.
2 months ago

Frank J Casella said:

Great article and comparison. It looks as if flip phones are coming back around, but with better texting and camera. I can't wait to get my hand on one!!
2 months ago

tiabunna replied to Frank J Casella:

Thank you very much, Frank. Yes, the technology keeps moving on quickly, it wouldn't surprise me at all if advanced flip phones didn't show up, they certainly were more suited to pockets.
2 months ago

Andy Rodker said:

Excellent and thought-provoking article, George. Many thanks.
In the 80sn I stopped taking photos and my Pentax ME SLR plus various lenses sits in a box somewhat folornly at my parents house in Cornwall. I resumed taking photos only in 2011 when I moved to Spain. I was given a second hand cameraphone (Nokia N95) and was astonished at the quality of the results. I also bought cheaply and at different times a Canon Ixus and a Fuji Finepix pocket digital, after the Nokia was dropped in a pond and expired. I also continued to take shots with my Motorola E smart phone. But the Nokia had proved to be superior to all of these (although the Canon was good at certain things such as night shots). Now I only use my new Huawei Honor smart phone. Cheap and cheerful and good enough for my purposes since I am not a perfectionist, much to my girlfriend's frustration (she is!).
Regards,
Andy
2 months ago

tiabunna replied to Andy Rodker:

Thanks for your kind feedback, Andy. As I mentioned earlier, your old Pentax lenses would work perfectly well on a Pentax DSLR. That said, and as I surprised myself with this exercise, the new smartphones really do take remarkably good images - and, I might add, as your own photos also show. I can see I'll be using my phone camera fairly often in future. Finally, as your girlfriend is a photographic perfectionist, maybe it's time to try getting her to join ipernity. :-) Cheers.
2 months ago