Over the past few years, manufacturers have repeatedly blamed smartphones for being the reason the camera market has collapsed so dramatically, and recent experience now has me perfectly clear.
Last weekend I attended the Southport skate jam and as the weather in England is unusually beautiful, I decided to bring my camera: a Canon 5D Mark III. I also brought my friend Paul, who is not a photographer but has a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra.
It was a great day, and I had a 24-105mm f/4 attached which I occasionally swapped out for a ridiculously wide 8mm fisheye. I moved around a bit, looking for good angles while my friend Paul stood mostly next to our bags.
He did, however, take out his Samsung phone and take a few videos, but he also took a picture. In fact, we both had pretty much the same shot of inline skater Kai Simpson performing an incredible stall on a narrow, vertical piece of metal.
Simpson wore a green t-shirt that contrasted beautifully against the blue sky and his daredevil antics made for a great photo opportunity, a photo that Paul also noticed.
When the day was done, Paul sent me the picture he took of Simpson and I was blown away. Using the Snapseed app to add blur and vignette, he captured a stunning image that took him “a minute or two” to edit.
I was shocked at how good the photo looked compared to the one I captured, especially since I used a dedicated camera. Sure, her photo had undergone artificial intelligence-powered (AI) retouching, which smartphone photos rely on, but she and Snapseed miner perfectly edit shadows and highlights to create a image that has a particularly good dynamic range.
I had exposed for the sky, leaving the shadows dark, which I tried to pay attention to when I ran it in Photoshop and was able to, after some work.
But that’s just it: Paul had captured an image that looks amazing, especially when viewed on a phone – where most photos are viewed these days – and it even holds up well enough on a laptop screen. ‘computer.
And to reiterate, Paul does not consider himself a photographer.
Looking at what he captured with his phone, I wonder what the point of bringing my gear was. I might as well have taken it with my phone and avoided the hassle of taking photos with my camera and going through the standard editing process. Could I have a similar image? Sure, but it would take me a lot longer to get there.
Paul sent me a second image, this time it was actually a screenshot of a video he had taken. In this photo, the quality is clearly worse, but what the AI had done with the dynamic range still really impressed me.
Again I also got a shot of the same scene where I exposed for the sky and again the shadow area isn’t great. In fact, the whole picture looks a bit flat. Maybe I should have pushed the image more like the AI did on the Samsung smartphone because apparently that’s what people want.
I know the Galaxy S22 Ultra was helped by the good weather. If it had been a cloudy day or if we had been shooting in the evening, I might have been able to do better what the smartphone could do by using strobes, which would have elevated my photos to a place that smartphones don’t can’t quite access.
I’m also aware that a 5D Mark III isn’t the “latest and greatest” iteration of a full-frame camera. But he is still a full frame camera, and I’m sure there are plenty of photographers like me who still use it and cameras like him on a daily basis. The idea that a phone wielded by a non-photographer is capable of taking photos that rival it is incredible.
Considering the sunny weather and the effort of lugging my DSLR around and then having to edit the photos through Photoshop, I can’t help but think there wouldn’t have been a huge difference in the photos if I had used Paul’s phone instead.
Looking at how close Paul’s photo is to mine really highlights to me what’s going on in the camera industry right now and how we as camera enthusiasts are in a position as delicate as the companies that manufacture cameras. The point and shoot are dead thanks to smartphone quality, and arguably prove that they are capable of punching well above their weight.
I’m a big believer in owning a full-size standalone camera, but this experience really shook me. The gap between smartphones and cameras is closing, and I’m not sure we photographers are ready.