Two Years In, Some Thoughts on Using a Smart Phone as a Camera

Posted on July 8, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Mobile with 0 Comments

Dingle at night.

Dingle at night.

For the past two years I have used only my smart phone, and not a digital camera, to record important personal events like vacations, birthdays, and other milestones. This is curiously controversial in some circles, but the quality of my pictures speaks volumes. Today, many people simply don’t need a standalone camera. I certainly don’t.

The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey Fowler argued otherwise a few months ago, noting that a Samsung NX1—just $1500 to $2800 at Amazon.com, depending on which model you choose—delivers much better photos than an iPhone 6 Plus. Well, of course it does. It costs two to four times as much as that iPhone. It’s also much bigger and heavier, gets worse battery life, and can’t be used to check email, post to Facebook, or play Angry Birds.

Dublin

Dublin

And that’s the point. You’ve heard that “the best camera is the camera you have with you,” which is as dumb as it is obvious. But I think of this more as, I’m already carrying a camera that is good enough for about 99 percent of the shots I want to take … all the time. I understand—and enjoy—that there will always be photography professionals and enthusiasts who want (or even need) digital cameras. But those people are the exception, not the rule. If you’re one of them, stop reading.

For most people, the ability to capture a perfect tilt shift photo of a gargoyle from the top of Notre Dame in Paris is beside the point (though that iPhone 6 Plus or any high-end Lumia could do that very well, actually). That’s not our day to day existence, and even if we were to visit Paris once a year for several years in a row, it’s unclear why most of us would ever need or want the capabilities that accompany the cost and bulk of any decent digital camera. Especially when we’re already carrying a great camera in our pocket.

Landing in Shannon, Ireland

Landing in Shannon, Ireland

I first tested this theory in August 2013 when my family visited Amsterdam for three weeks. (We do a three-week home swap each summer.) The Lumia 1020 had just shipped and I thought, hm, this amazing device, with this amazing camera, could very well be the first smart phone with a camera good enough to replace a digital camera. And as the shots of that vacation proved, it very much was.

Since then I’ve switched fully to using the latest high-end Lumia as my only camera. We used the Lumia 1520 for our home swap in summer 2014, for example, and the Lumia 930 for our February trip to Puerto Rico. This past week, I used the Lumia 1520 and an Apple iPhone 6 Plus during an anniversary trip to Ireland. And I’ll probably use some combination of these phones—the 930, 1520 and iPhone—during next month’s home swap. (That each is unlocked and can be used with local SIMs also plays a big role in this decision.)

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

What you lose with a smart phone—assuming you’re using one with a superior camera to begin with—is optical zoom. And I do miss this functionality sometimes, to be sure. Prior to using the Lumia 1020, we went through a series of point and shoot digital cameras that offered incredible optical zoom in the 20x to 25x range, and the last one even had GPS capabilities for tagging photos with your location, which I liked. This kind of optical zoom is pretty incredible, though I sometimes felt like I was spying on people who were far away.

Even the best smart phone camera supports just digital zoom, and as most people have noticed, it’s usually pretty lousy, even if you’re able to stabilize the device somehow. So on the recently-concluded Ireland trip, I tested an OlloClip Active clip-on lens attachment for the iPhone that adds optical zoom (2x) and wide-angle capabilities (via two separate lens). And while it works exactly as advertised, it was so ponderous placing and removing the lens when needed—the company provides a handy lanyard—that I pretty much stopped using it after a few days. Further problematic, the lens didn’t work with the Apple cover I use on my iPhone. And without that cover, the iPhone 6 Plus was as slippery as a bar of soap.

With the OlloClip Active, the wide-angle lens was borderline useless; all it really did was curve and warp the image. The 2x optical zoom lens, however, worked quite well for what it is. It’s just that I rarely want just 2x zoom. And, as noted, I pretty gave up on it. What this means, in practical terms, is that using the OlloClip add-on made the phone as problematic as using a digital camera. It was something I had to take out and put away, another thing to manage. If zoom is a requirement, just get a point-and-click digital camera.

Cliffs of Moher - normal 1x zoom

Cliffs of Moher – normal 1x zoom

Cliffs of Moher - 2x zoom with OlloClip Active

Cliffs of Moher – 2x zoom with OlloClip Active

There are other common complaints about smart phone cameras, of course. The slowness of the sensor, for example, though this is absolutely not an issue with the iPhone 6 Plus, nor with the Lumia 1520 or 930 with the Lumia Denim firmware. Action shots are never going to be as good as with a real camera, but anyone thinking they’re going to miss out on some quick-moving scene of their kids will be pleasantly surprised.

This statue is slow moving enough that any camera can capture it

This statue is slow moving enough that any camera can capture it

For me overall, the benefits of having the one device just make sense. Everyone has a smart phone, and everyone is going to carry it around all day. And while a phone is obviously fairly easy to steal, this will become less common as new security controls—built into that iPhone 6 Plus, by the way—make them less attractive to thieves because they will never work for anyone else anyway. Nothing says “tourist” more than a camera. And nothing says “rich tourist” more than an expensive digital SLR camera. Those people will always be bigger targets for theft than phone users, especially if you travel internationally where Americans stick out like, um, Americans.

The ability to post to Facebook as you go is also nice, as is automatic backup to the cloud on Wi-Fi, no wires required. For the Ireland trip, I just purchased some international data from AT&T, but for the longer trip in August, I will buy at least two local SIMs, be connected 24/7, and save a lot of money (while losing out on using my own phone number, which isn’t that big a deal). Yes, there are cameras that can connect online.  But the smart phone basically works everywhere. And in Ireland in particular, I saw incredible connectivity overall—including LTE speeds—with only a few rural areas dumping me off into the Edge or 3G past.

I enjoy some of the automatic tilt-shift effects that you can get with the high-end Lumias, and the iPhone 6 Plus does this as well.

I love these kinds of pictures

I love these kinds of pictures

But with the OlloClip Active kind of fading in significance, I did find one other thing I really liked about the iPhone 6 Plus camera: it has a tremendous built-in panorama function that works much better—it’s simpler to use and deliver rock-solid panoramic images—than the separate Panorama lenses app you can use on the Lumias. By the end of the trip, I was using the iPhone 6 Plus more frequently for this reason alone, but I’ll see what other options are available on Windows Phone before the August trip.

Panorama: Dunguaire Castle

Panorama: Dunguaire Castle

Panorama: Rock of Cashel

Panorama: Rock of Cashel

Panorama: Cliffs of Moher

Panorama: Cliffs of Moher

Panorama: Christchurch in Dublin

Panorama: Christchurch in Dublin

Panorama: View from the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

Panorama: View from the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

We’ve gone on a few big trips since I first experimented with the Lumia 1020 back in 2013, and of course my day-to-date photos have all been smart phone-based during these past two years as well. And you know what? I don’t regret it or wish I had done things differently at all. I suspect that most people will make this transition over time, and as they take more and more incredible photos on their smart phones, they’ll wonder why they ever bothered with a dedicated camera at all.

The dividing line, of course, is a capable smart phone. I cited the high-end Lumias and the iPhone 6 Plus above, but any iPhone (5 or newer), the Samsung Galaxy S6 (and Edge) and probably some other high-end Android devices fall into this category too. I wouldn’t necessarily use a Lumia 640 XL, 830 or 735 for my vacation shots, but these mid-range Lumias also deliver surprisingly great photos.

Temple Bar at night

Two years in, and I feel confident that we’ve crossed the hump. The best camera really is the camera you have with you. And chances are, it’s in your pocket right now. It’s certainly in my pocket.

Note: None of these pictures were retouched in any way, just resized. –Paul

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