A couple of days ago, my friend Aggy over at DEW Traveller posted something over on Facebook that made me stop and think. She confessed that she'd started using her iPhone as a near-total replacement for a proper camera while travelling, citing the alternative as being far more lightweight and easier to carry while maintaining decent image quality.
Although this isn't really something that should have taken me by surprise, it nonetheless did. Already, there are vast numbers of tourists that opt to use their phones to capture memories of their trip; during my most recent trip to Scandinavia, it was glaringly obvious that most people around me had abandoned their standalone cameras in favour of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S5s.
And no wonder - the cameras on these phones are among the best in the market, and their ease of use makes them extremely consumer friendly. There are an abundance of apps which can turn any picture into something breathtakingly beautiful and easily sharable, from the pioneers of social photo-sharing Instagram to VSCO and Afterlight. Is there really a need to continue hauling around a big, bulky, clunky camera?
Starting out in photography
I started becoming interested in photographs when I was 11 and picked up my first copy of National Geographic Magazine, although it wasn't until 2012 when I picked up my first dSLR that I started becoming interested in the art of photography. My first 'real' camera was the Canon 550D, a beginner-level little thing that was nonetheless an amazing first camera.
I dived into playing with settings (I refused to use any of it on Auto mode) and my first real photography experience was at Galloway Forest Park in September of that year. Galloway is famous for its dark night skies, free of light pollution and giving rise to the opportunity for seeing the Milky Way.
Of course, the only tricky thing about trying to photograph the Milky Way is that any kind of star photography requires at least a passing knowledge of how light hits a camera. If your shutter isn't held open for long enough, all you'll photograph is pitch black, so the shutter needs to be open for 30 seconds to a minute at minimum. This was my first real experience with using a camera on a fully manual mode.
|Galloway Forest Park, Scotland, September 2012. Shot on Canon 550D.|
Why do I talk about something that happened two years ago? Because this is a prime example of something which simply cannot be replicated on an iPhone camera.
The iPhone holds its weight
For all the fancy filters and ease of use of the iPhone, there are limits to its capabilities. Of course, the iPhone's camera does hold its own - recently, National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson travelled around Scotland armed with nothing but an iPhone 5S.
With intense use (I’ve made about 4,000 pictures in the last four days) I’ve discovered that the iPhone 5S is a very capable camera. The color and exposures are amazingly good, the HDR exposure feature does a stunningly good job in touch situations, the panorama feature is nothing short of amazing—seeing a panorama sweeping across the screen in real time is just intoxicating. Best of all it shoots square pictures natively, a real plus for me since I wanted to shoot for Instagram posting.
Once I figured out what the camera could do well I began to forget all the things it couldn’t do at all.
So clearly, the iPhone camera is good enough that there are professional photographers willing to leave their workhorses at home when they travel. And, as Jim Richardson notes, "What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises."
The cons of camera photography
As some of you might know, I freelance in photography. I've put aside my Canon 550D now, and my baby is a Nikon D90 that lives in a makeshift dry box (it's really an airtight box with a pack of dehumidifying silica gel thrown in) with three lenses. And really, when I travel, those are all the lenses I really need.
Is it bulky carrying around a D90 and three lenses? You bet. I've found that the Crumpler 5 Million Dollar Home is the best way to carry all my memory-capturing essentials when I travel. I'm guilty of often wishing that my D90 wasn't the big, clunky monster that it is - when I pull it out of my bag, it's a look that screams 'tourist' and often makes me feel really self-conscious.
|Ritual bather in Bali, Indonesia, December 2013. Shot on Nikon D90.|
The iPhone captures small moments
The rise of iPhoneography is in no small part due to the ease of having your device on you all the time. Most people don't have their standalone cameras on them all the time; I'm guilty of carrying my iPhone with me absolutely everywhere, even to the bathroom. The constant availability of the iPhone has changed the way photography happens. It's less intrusive, less forced, more natural. This is particularly useful in photographing people who might not be comfortable in front of the camera - the result is something more like a daily moment.
I'll be the first to admit that I don't take my D90 with me everywhere, while on my iPhone I am more likely to capture moments that I would not have before. I would very rarely, if ever, use my D90 to take pictures of food, but on my iPhone I don't think twice before pulling it out to capture an attractive food setting or take a selfie of a precious moment with friends. Besides, I can hide any photographic imperfections with an array of enhancing or desaturating filters.
Another advantage of smartphone photography is how easy it becomes to share an image. With Instagram being a dominant channel of social media, capturing an image on a smartphone makes it easier to upload a picture than if you used a different device. For a lot of people who just want to share bits from their life with their friends and followers, this can be a huge plus.
The camera still has a role to play
But would I consider giving up my dSLR in favour of my iPhone? Probably not, and here's why. Despite the ease of use of the iPhone, the camera on an iPhone simply does not have enough control. You can't control aperture, shutter speed, or ISO on an iPhone camera - perhaps fine for the vast majority of users who don't really care, but this would definitely be a significant loss for me. There's no way I would have been able to capture Galloway in September 2012 on an iPhone camera.
On a smartphone, you probably won't be taking any particularly stunning pictures. You'll probably be capturing everyday moments. In addition, you lose a great deal of depth of field - the resulting images are flatter. There isn't a total loss of depth of field - they're great for capturing what's around you, which is perfect if your purpose is to take a nice landscape, but a more particular photographer may feel restricted.
|An example of depth of field, Westfjords, Iceland, June 2014. Shot on Nikon D90.|
Despite how much we resent the weight of camera bodies and multiple lenses, photography, like any other creative form, is a mode of expression whose creators are often caught in a love-hate relationship with the art. We love what we create, but we don't love the pain that creating it causes us. (I mean that very literally - my shoulders often ache from the weight of carrying around three lenses, extra batteries, and sometimes even a tripod.)
Of course, it might be easier to just go entirely iPhone, but then the legacy of photography would be lost. No longer would we be able to follow in the footsteps of Ansel Adams; we might very well lose the magic that was once the exclusive domain of those capable of capturing emotive pictures in the style of Sebastião Salgado.
Is the camera going away any time soon? I doubt it, at least not as far as dSLRs are concerned. I think there's a chance that smartphone cameras may replace point-and-shoot cameras completely - the usual function of point-and-shoot cameras is to take somewhat decent photos in a relatively compact body, which smartphones today are perfectly well capable of doing.
There's absolutely no doubt that the advent of iPhones have made photography more accessible to the everyday person. Anyone can be a photographer today, and I think it's great that it's easier than ever for anyone to capture the moments that mean something special to them. But the big, bulky camera remains the home of the 'serious' photographer; the amount of control you get on one of these is not something that can yet be replicated on a smartphone.
While anyone who is serious about taking quality pictures is not likely to toss their dedicated camera, the iPhone, for the vast majority of people, is a more than adequate, easy and compact device that captures everyday moments. Many lightweight, budget and compact travellers also value the small body of the iPhone.
The dedicated camera and the smartphone camera are both image capture devices, but their best use varies wildly from user to user. Both devices have their niches in very different applications, and even the best photographers may find use for both dSLRs and iPhones.
The big, bulky, standalone and dedicated camera isn't quite ready to die just yet.
What do you think?
Is the iPhone steadily encroaching on the space of the dSLR or the dedicated camera? How many of you have abandoned your cameras in favour of more lightweight, portable options? Or have you been able to find an in-between compromise at all - how many of you are trying Micro 4/3 cameras as lightweight photography options? Let me know in the comments!