Phone cameras VS DSLR's?

by Justin Clark 8 months ago in camera

Using the right tool for the right job

Phone cameras VS DSLR's?

Hello all! Welcome back! This week we'll be looking at phone photography and DSLR photography for Vocal's "Mobile Moments". I think that the path I'll be taking with writing this is a little different to what Vocal and Moment intended, but it wouldn't be my writing if I didn't do it slightly different. So what is the competition? Vocal would like us to take an image with our phones, share our creative process to the finest detail we can; from concept to product.

To start, the quality of phone camera's now compared to that of the first "potato cam" are worlds apart. Technology has developed so much and so rapidly. Not only has the tech developed but the way that it is utilised has changed immensely, take the implementation of dual cam on the iPhones from the 7+ onwards. Did you know that the "portrait mode" on iPhones is only available due to crafty usage of available hardware and software? Traditional DSLR's achieve that "Portrait" effect (known as a shallow depth of field) by using a wider aperture, being aware of our subject distance, our focal length, and how we focus our lenses. Apple bypasses these requirements by being clever with software and 2 cameras, producing an artificial effect that is near identical to the effect produced by a DSLR. For those that are looking to get into photography or even those that just enjoy taking images to share with friends, phones are a fantastic medium to enter the field. However, I'm not a fan of phone photography, but at the same time, I love it and it's important for me to explain this confusion.

Why I don't quite click with phone photography

I'd like to start on this topic with the elephant in the room - using a phone doesn't feel the same as using a DSLR. This is entirely a personal preference and probably down to my own stubbornness. There are many people who have much better success than I do with phone photography, a quick search on instagram under the hashtag "#Shotoniphone" will generate 11.7million hits with some genuinely stunning images. My lack of skill in phone photography is not for lack of technology or software, it's simply due to the fact that when I'm holding my DSLR, I have a different process - I think of things differently. I consider my camera's capabilities for low-light photography, how much data I can retain in my shadows before I'll start encountering noise, or how much I can bring back my highlights. When I hold my camera, there's a process, and that comes from familiarity and practice. Could I get this with my phone, definitely, but do I personally need to? Most the time when I'm taking an image, I have my camera and that process starts up, so no, I don't. Additionally, I use my DSLR because digital zoom is different to changing your focal length. I primarily use zoom lenses, meaning if I want to change my composition and still get the most out of my tech, I can by the swivel of a lens as opposed to losing out by using digital zoom. However companies do offer a useful solution to this issue, such as providing lenses that are easily attached to phones via phone cases. In the past I have used a wide angle lens on my phone and enjoyed the different perspectives I was able to achieve with that lens. Maybe I just need to give phone lenses a proper shot. Due to the fact that I source paid work with my DSLR, it is better for me to invest my time and finances on my camera/gear. For your entry level consumer, lenses that can be attached to phones provide a level of versatility that would otherwise be unavailable.

Are phone cameras and DSLR's really that different?

Depending on what you're using them for, yes they are. If you're uploading images to social media, they're near indistinguishable. If you're consuming images in an alternative medium to digital, you're probably better off with a DSLR, even though the latest iPhone boasts multiple 12MP cameras. They're different, for example the 12MP's that fit into a small iPhone camera, vs the 24MP's in a full frame camera aren't the same. As an iPhone user, I also don't have access to the "pro mode" that Samsungs and other companies provide (essentially manual shooting, where you can control your settings). I could achieve this through third party apps available on the AppStore however, I don't utilise this feature, and sometimes some of the settings the iPhone chooses are just downright questionable (like this image which was shot at 1/1600 - ƒ1.8 - ISO 20 - Why shoot it at 1.8? Everything is already sharp for what should have a shallow depth of field).

Shot on iPhone 7+ - 1/1600 ƒ1.8 iso20 - quick edit in Lightroom to fix the contrast and reduce the oversaturated blue in the sky. Notice how even at f1.8 with a subject distance of roughly half a metre, most of the image from front to back is sharp, opposed to the image slightly below which has a shallow depth of field.

The other thing is, aperture and depth of field on phone camera's are very different to DSLR's. I can achieve a depth of field of 0.3metres at 70mm f4 with a subject distance of 2.5metres with my Nikon Z6. This means I can shoot differently with my camera, knowing that my subject with be fully in focus (with a 30cm thick depth of focus) but the background will blur beautifully.

Shot on Nikon Z6 - 1/125s ƒ4 ISO250 subject distance ~2.5m Focal length 70mm

However unless using the portrait mode on my iPhone 7+, the background will be pretty sharp. This comes down to the physics of the camera and how it absorbs and utilises that light, as seen in the examples above.

What do I use my phone camera for then?

This is where we start getting into the tangible benefits of having good quality cameras attached to phones. I cannot stress this point highly enough, "the best camera you have, is the one on you". I don't always have my Nikon on me, which is rare, but having a phone in my pocket allows me to still capture images, and I very rarely leave the house without my phone. This was an image that is special to me, and I liked it enough to post on my photography focused instagram.

The backside of Mount Washington, my current workplace (I'm working as a snowboard instructor). I'll expand on my process of taking this image further below.

Why do I like this image so much? One, I managed to get a somewhat decent composition with my phone camera (something that normally escapes me) and I was able to capture my first experience on some of the hardest terrain I've ever had the chance to ride on. This brings us to the second point and the strongest point to make for phone photography. The personal element. I love taking photos, but when I'm with my camera, I'm thinking and analysing, whether that be to produce a product for clients, or to produce an image for social media.

I'm somewhat (to my detriment) a perfectionist, and I have thousands of images rotting on my hard-drive that won't see the light of day because I think they're not good enough. My photos I take with my phone, nearly every single one of them has a memory attached to it and this is what I truely cherish about phone photography. I don't take photos with my phone to make them aesthetically pleasing or technically correct. I don't even edit them most of the time. The images I capture with my phone are the ones I appreciate more than images I take on my camera, because those images are for me, they are my experiences and my memories. This is where I implore - no, beg - please use your phones and take photographs. Take photos of things that mean something to you, take photos of friends, of people you appreciate, of those sunrises that the camera can't even really capture, of the flowers you walked past and could smell from an arms length away, because they made you feel something. People can take stunning images with phone cameras but I can guarantee, the most memorable are the images you've just snapped with friends. The images that don't need to be edited, the images that may or may not be shared, the images that might be slightly out of focus, the imperfect shots, that are perfect in their own way. This is the true beauty of phone photography. Yes, we can use phone camera's as substitutes for DSLR's, but the true strength of the phone camera is its personal emotive value. I've seen people freeze up in front of a camera but then as soon as the selfie cam comes out, they're totally relaxed, they're in their element, you're photographing them. Phone photography has an opportunity to break barriers larger cameras can't.

This concludes the written element to my Vocal Moments competition, below will be a small gallery of images captured with my phone, I will also go into detail for the process of obtaining the finished image spoken about in this blog ("Avalanche Danger").

Avalanche Danger - the process

Approaching this shot I did something different to what I would normally do with phone photographs, I took multiple photos in different compositions.

The first image - unedited - provided with iPhone details

The second image - a bit better, but I wasn't happy with my friend in the image, and I didn't like the angle of the sign post
The third image (the selected image) - I was happier with this composition, I liked how the sign was an anchor for the foreground, the trails in the snow encouraged you to follow the natural lines up the hill, then the hill crests and almost rolls into itself.

With my image selected I decided to give it a quick edit, this time I put a bit more thought into my images than I normally do when using my phone. I've had less opportunity than I'd like to get out and shoot with my camera, so my phone camera was going to have to be good enough for the 'Gram.

Editing Process of "Avalanche Danger"

During my editing process, I tend to take a somewhat simplistic approach, and this was facilitated by the fact that I did all of the editing for this image on the same phone that I took it with. This is another strength of phone photography, the all encompassing "in house" kind of process that you can achieve. I use Lightroom CC mobile, and it's great that it syncs with my desktop version. Initially I chucked my custom preset "interior flower" on it, a preset I designed to help improve contrast and make images pop slightly more. From there a little more tweaking of exposure was undertaken, mainly with "highlights", "shadows", "blacks" and "whites" settings for targeted changes opposed to global exposure changes.

I wanted to bring a bit more into this image in terms of detail as the original lacked a significant dynamic range. The highlights and whites were focused on in particular.

A difficulty with shooting snow is that many times our cameras pick "neutral grey" to balance our photos with white balance and exposure. Many times this can affect snow and make it look washed out or somewhat lacklustre. To avoid this, boosting your highlights and your whites can help revitalise the snow and bring some life to it.

My white balance was pretty spot on for what I wanted to achieve, however, snow can have tints of blue in it. I capitalised on this by being crafty with my colour sliders.

I am a big fan of applying a baseline vibrance boost, and bringing my saturation down slightly. Vibrance adds colour to your mid range tones, whereas saturation affects the overall image sometimes making it look unnatural. I boost my vibrance, and pull down my saturation just slightly, then I tweak further with the colour selector tool. I increased the blue saturation in the image individually by this tool just to make the snow pop a little more once again.

Clarity and dehaze are added to taste, in images without human or animal subjects i find a slight increase in clarity has a pleasing effect on most images.

I've increased the clarity quite significantly, this isn't something I would do shooting with my Nikon, but for the phone it was what I felt achieved the desired effect. I actually added a slight amount of haze (by putting the "dehaze" setting in the negatives). This helped me balance the clarity slider. Vignetting helps pull you into the image slightly by darkening the corners of the image.

The final tab is where I apply my sharpening settings. This helps me accentuate some details by making them appear more crisp. The progress so far can be seen in our image here compared to the original.

Masking is hugely beneficial, sharpening applies this effect to the whole image. However, sharpening our whole image can introduce noise, this is where masking is a great tool. We can choose how much of our image is affected by "ignoring" lesser details that we don't need sharpened. Lightroom mobile offers the ability to see what is being actively sharpened in the image by touching your image while using the "Masking" slider.

This is what the image will look like when you hold your finger on the image while utilising the "masking" tool.

Notice how at "Masking - 64", the sky is untouched, my sign is still sharpened, the trees are affected but the snow is less so. This is what I wanted to achieve as opposed to a global change across the image.

Here is a comparison of image the image with and without edits.



Gallery of meaningful phone photography images

A photo of one of our first runs in green (our instructor jackets) after passing our exams.
One of my first experiences with my iPhone 7+'s "portrait mode".
Some of my friends and I at going away drinks before my departure for Canada, is it a good photo? Objectively, definitely not. Does it mean something to me? An incredible amount.
An image from when my friend and I were trapped in the deepest snow we'd ever been in. It took us an hour to hike roughly 30 metres through waist deep powpow (it was quite heavy powder).

Once again, thanks for stopping by! It means a lot to be able to share something like this with you guys. - J

As always, if you've enjoyed this blog, or if you've found some benefit from this, feel free to share it around, drop a comment on the facebook post with this blog on my page, or if you're really feeling generous Vocal allows readers to leave tips. If you enjoyed this enough to buy me a coffee I wouldn't say no to a coffee donation 😍

If I've missed something or completely missed the mark, please feel free to let me know also, I do take constructive criticism onboard for future blogs!

Disclaimer: @vocal_creators instagram page authorised use of images not explicitly taken via a phone for comparative purposes, the banner shot is an image from a Nikon Z6, images in the article from a DSLR have been marked as such.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
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