From tourist (cell phone) to serious photography (pro gear and technique)

July 02, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

It is said that cell phones take well over 90% of all photos taken in recent times. I have also heard people say that cell phone cameras are so good now that they don't need a good camera and lens. In the last two blogs I showcased some cell phone photography. But how far can you go with cell phone photography and is good gear worth it? Does using good gear and good technique really make a difference, and if so, how much of a difference? Is the difference meaningfully better or just nitpicking better?

          I visited the photographically famous Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe in California recently. So I decided to do a test. I took a picture of the same scene in basically (a few minutes difference) the same light using my cell phone (version 12 from a fruit company) and using my Sony A7R IV. Now before the experienced photographers get upset at me, let me just agree with them that better gear will not make you a better photography per se. You are still the photographer and the gear does not change you. Furthermore, good technique and great light are even more important than gear. That being said, let's look at the two images. I will not identify the images at first. Can you pick which one is the cell phone image and which one is my Sony's image?

What do you think, which camera took this image? Here is the next one.

So what do you think? Is there a difference and is that difference significant enough to justify spending a lot of money on expensive gear? The first image is from my Sony A7R IV. Now there are apps to better control the camera on the cell phone and I certainly could have gotten a slightly better image. But as you can see, it just does not compare to what can be done with good gear and good technique. I will talk about this image again next week and run down what technique I used to get it.

          Yes, cell phones can take great images. For many people it may be all they need. They don't shoot right into the sun. They don't go out when there are deep dark shadows AND a bright sun in the same shot. They don't care about blurring the water. And they don't want to spend time editing images in complicated software later. I say this in all sincerity without a hint of belittling such photographers. It all depends on what you photograph, when you shoot, and the conditions you shoot in.

          The difference between these two images show one area in which cell phone sensors cannot match those of full frame cameras and that is dynamic range. The large sensor of the full frame camera can handle a bigger difference between the lightest and the darkest areas of your images without losing detail in the extremes than can a cell phone camera sensor. Please note that the image from my Sony is not an HDR, that image comes from one raw file (without using pseudo-HDR - developing the same file twice). In a different scenario in which I am not shooting into the sun, the cell phone would have fared much better.

          As for me, I will continue to use my cell phone camera for some photography BUT for serious work in difficult light I love my Sony gear.


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