Taking Photos? Use a “Real” Camera Instead of Your Phone

lakesuperiorUsually my annual “Steve’s Road Trip” adventures are out west to the mountains, or down to the desert southwest, but for the second summer I’m headed to the north shore of Lake Superior before summer gives way to the fall. I’ll also go up to Ely for a day (and stop at former National Geographic photographer, Jim Brandenburg’s gallery) and so I can also head over to Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point and take some photos. (You can read my 2014 post about my first visit to Listening Point here).

When I mentioned my trip to a buddy of mine he asked, “Are you going to shoot with your iPhone?” I thought he was joking, but in the past we’ve talked about the “photography revolution” since smartphone shooting has essentially killed the “point and shoot” lower end camera market, and ad campaigns like Apple’s Shot on iPhone make it seem like anyone running around with their iPhone will get National Geographic-worthy photos (reality check: you won’t).

So that begs the question: Do you shoot important photos with your smartphone?

steve-at-camcorder

Me in 1987 taking video with my JVC Super VHS-C camcorder. Photo by my wife on her snapshot camera.

Well don’t. Over the past year or two I’ve been viewing friends and family photos taken with their smartphones. Yes it’s convenient since it’s in your pocket or purse, but the photos are horrible. There…I said it out loud. If all you use is your smartphone for photos—especially for ones you will want to keep as treasures and look back on some day—you will be very disappointed. They’ll look terrible on an HDTV, let alone a newer 4k UHD one. They won’t print well. If you zoom into the photo you will see how “muddy” it looks because that tiny little lens, and even smaller sensor to capture light, can only snap decent shots in direct sunlight. Plus, these smartphone photos won’t be anywhere near as good as that faded Kodak Instamatic photo your Mom took back in the 1970s or 80s.

I’ve seen people taking smartphone photos at their child’s wedding; at family events; even one at the bedside of a family member dying when a loved one was visiting to say goodbye. Many of those photos were taken in low light as well making them even more muddy and terrible.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore my iPhone 6S Plus. It arguably takes the best smartphone photos possible and, when a pro photographer is asked “What’s the best camera?” the answer usually is “the one you have with you since getting the shot is better than NOT getting ANY shot“, but if I’m taking photos at a family reunion, ones of my kids when we’re on vacation, or any I want to keep and look back on someday, I don’t use my iPhone to take them…ever.

d500On this year’s road trip I’ll have with me my new Nikon D500 DSLR camera. I’ve only had it a few weeks and am simply stunned with the quality of my photos. I’ve always told myself “it’s not the camera…it’s the photographer” and there is a deep truth to that, but I must admit that it’s both the camera and the photographer. There are shots that I can now take (especially in low light) that I simply have been unable to take with less capable cameras. Sure…that camera is about $3,000 but it’s my third Nikon and I started out with a “beginner’s Nikon”, the D70 which was about $900 complete at the time (including a ‘kit’ lens).

Yes, I did consider buying a pro-level Nikon full-format (i.e., FX) camera, or even a mirrorless like the amazing Sony’s A7R mirrorless series, but I already own Nikon lenses and the D500 was perfect for everything I want to shoot (e.g., landscapes; low-light; portrait; long-exposure shots of starry skies, etc.) and the zoom lenses I own mean I can take shots I’d never, ever be able to get with a smartphone. Plus going with either full-format camera would have required about 50% more in cost (about $4,500), and I just don’t shoot enough to spend that kind of dough on a camera.

I’ve never been as excited by a piece of technology as I am about this D500, and I realize now that I sure wish I had a camera this good in Italy, Australia, Japan, London, Germany and other places we’ve traveled to since I would have actually been able to get the shots I could “see” in my minds eye but couldn’t capture with a lesser camera.

sonyrx100ivBut here is an alternative to consider if you want a small camera for your pocket or purse that takes AWESOME photos that are easily 10x the quality of even the best smartphone photo: the Sony RX100 IV which costs about $900 street price. All the photos I took in Rome in 2014 were with its predecessor, the RX100 III, so you can get some idea of its quality and the model IV is even better.

Sorry this isn’t a full-on camera review with lots of “A” “B” comparisons of smartphone photos to digital ones, but I wanted to just get out some thoughts about cameras since I’ve had at least five conversations about this exact topic in just the last month. One friend said, “I took a photo with my iPhone of an extended family event with 30 of us around a table last year. Two of the cousins died in a car accident in January. If I zoom in on their faces you can barely even recognize who they are and I wanted to crop the photo just to print them out as a photo. The photo just sucks though. Can you do something with it in Photoshop?

I’m pretty good with Photoshop but the answer is “unfortunately not.” There just aren’t enough pixels in a smartphone sensor—and the lens isn’t big enough to let in enough light to hit that sensor—so their faces are not recoverable with today’s technology (and likely tomorrow’s too).

So at least consider buying a better camera if you want to take photos that aren’t essentially throw-aways, or are ones you will want to show someday at your kid’s wedding, or that they’ll want to show on some super HD television 20 years from now.

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