Format and sensor wars - So what's new! - 'Invisible' cameras.

N.B. The following is an opinion piece, based on what I use, how I use it and what I think of it. It is not meant to imply or recommend anything and is intended to (hopefully) be thought provoking and of course as ever (again hopefully) entertaining. 

It's been going on ever since photography started. Any kind of downsizing is met with disdain, disapproval and lies, damn lies and graphs, lots of graphs.

  • Plate cameras > Medium-Format 
  • Medium-Format > 35mm
  • Film > Digital
  • DSLR > Mirrorless
  • 'Full-frame' > APS-C
  • APS-C > m4/3
  • 'Proper cameras' > Smartphones

The owners of the former always attempting to push the virtues of their purchases over the owners of the latter. Technical (and moral) superiority versus innovation and ease of use, 'professional' versus 'amateur', photographer versus snapshooter. It has always been this way and likely to continue ad infinitum. Despite the fact that the later always supersedes the former and becomes the new standard and the format we should all aspire to.

And just when all those mirrorless fans have got DSLR owners off their backs. 'Oh no not smartphones. I'VE got the ultimate small footprint system, it stops here with me, right now. Below me is chaos, anarchy and the simplistic limited aspirations of the crowd. My camera is for photographers, smartphones are for everybody else. I won't compromise, I won't downsize, I won't....... I won't................

You can understand it, after having suffered the indignity of not even being acknowledged by the owners of those 'Big Boy' Nikons and Canons, lot's of mirrorless users now have to take that same indifference from all those iPhone users rushing about like headless chickens clogging up the bandwidth with yet another selfie. I particularly like this 

https://twitter.com/FlakPhoto/status/583994724391976961

THE RISE OF THE SUPER SMARTPHONE

But now we have the snapper as photographer aspirational 'super smartphones.' I've got two of them. The Nokia Lumia 1020 and the Panasonic CM1. And the words iceberg and tip spring to mind. 'But what do we have to worry about? These are still small sensor, poor quality facebook feeders right?' Well actually no they are not. At least not in the minds of the people who buy my pictures. Because they keep buying my smartphone pictures, from the 6MP squares from my Blackberry Q10 to the 38MP 16:9 widescreens from my Nokia. 

But then the question surfaces - Is the Panasonic CM1 with which I took the above examples of 'mall photography' a smartphone or a mirrorless fixed lens camera with some communication facilities attached? Certainly reviews of it have been turning up on sites more normally reserved for everything bar smartphones. And since embracing the 'smartphone aesthetic' and 'The ART of point of shoot' a few inconvenient truths (for some - including me) have emerged.

  • The most accurate colour and 100% exposure accuracy I've ever seen comes, somewhat surprisingly, from my Blackberry Q10.
  • The notion that I couldn't have taken the above pictures on anything other than a camera like the Panasonic CM1 and escaped some awkward questions and probable ejection from the building goes without saying.
  • I'm starting to sell almost as many smartphone pictures as those taken with 'proper' cameras.
  • My picture libraries and the people who buy my images, like me, have no problem with the quality of these images.
  • In many ways, including live screen quality and getting the image 'right' without lots of post processing, smartphones are actually ahead of DSLR's and mirrorless cameras.
  • In case anybody hadn't noticed, sharing, social networking and the ability to move pictures around efficiently, simply and quickly is becoming essential for photography in 2015. And yes that includes the professional domain as well. 

So OK, these things might be useful for inconspicuous street photography and for social media inspired shots, but landscape and travel photography, surely not?

Images in gallery above shot with Blackberry Q10, Nokia Lumia 1020, Samsung Galaxy Camera 2 (Not technically a smartphone, but an Android 'smart camera' with a smartphone type sensor) and a Panasonic CM1. And you can see that in terms of colour, dynamic range and sharpness these images are perfectly acceptable for stock photography and many of them have generated sales already. With some Photoshop work there are no signs of a 'typical' smartphone image (if that exists any more) and if I'd told you that these were shot on a DSLR, a mirrorless camera or were film scans, would anyone have questioned that? I don't think they would and this shows what these devices are capable of with some fairly limited post processing work. 

For me, the great advantage is that I could travel light and work without anyone taking any notice of me. In fact I now regard my smartphones as my 'invisible' cameras. Invisible because since everyone is snapping away with their phones, or using them to check emails, browse the internet or even making phone calls (so old-school I know but apparently people still do it), nobody takes any notice anymore. And even if it is obvious somebody is taking pictures with one, nobody seems to care. So creating photographs has now become an every day (minute?) event that attracts no attention. It's as if people 'see' me taking pictures when I'm using a big(ger) interchangeable lens camera, but not when I'm using a smartphone. The ultimate non-threatening, non-intrusive, inconspicuous, picture making device. Cartier-Bresson would have loved one!!

THE SMARTPHONE 'DILEMMA'

I've written many times before about how when I've published articles about smartphones in terms of their use as serious photographic tools, they get significantly fewer readers than my articles about mirrorless cameras. The same happens with DSLR's as well incidentally. Earlier today 43Rumors published a link to my first impressions Panasonic CM1 article. And as I would have expected, it's not generating much enthusiasm. If however, the CM1 didn't have the smartphone element and was instead an ultra-thin, pocketable, fixed lens camera, I suspect that it would get more attention on all the forums and review sites and my articles about it would get more readers.

And it's back to the format and sensor wars discussion at the top of the page. Just like the early days of digital and the early days of mirrorless, there is a reluctance on the part of many to accept this apparently inferior product (it's not, but that's the perception and I was just as guilty about this in the past) as being able to create decent images. And dare I say it, there is an element of snobbishness here from many enthusiast photographers.

That's understandable. When I was an enthusiast myself, trying to prove myself and then a semi-pro, the gear I used was so important to me. I remember almost bankrupting myself to buy a Nikon F4 film camera and a set of expensive primes because that's what I thought a professional aspirant photographer should be using. And I so desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Of course, when I was eventually taken seriously, all of a sudden the need to have what I thought was the appropriate gear became less important. Funny that! And just like medium-format film users used to put down 35mm users, that's happening today with smartphones. There is an attitude amongst some that because smartphones are everywhere and everybody uses them, they are something that 'proper photographers' shouldn't be seen with.

As I write often enough, these days I really do not like to be noticed when I'm taking photographs, but that wasn't always the case. Back in those early days I wanted to be seen as a serious photographer and I wanted the gear I was using to reflect that. So I'm not having a cheap dig at hobbyists here and even if I were, I'm as guilty as anybody in having exactly the same attitudes in the past. And yes regular readers will be well aware of my sneering article about smartphones and their users.

In time, of course, all this will seem crazy. Just like the early days of m4/3 when those of us who used those cameras had to suffer the jibes and patronising put downs from DSLR owners. We knew what we seeing when we looked at our images on the screen, but that didn't stop those whose self-perception put them in a class above, rubbishing the smaller format at every possible opportunity. I'm always reminded of this:-

In time, people will look back on all this with amusement. Just like we look back on all the other format 'wars' and wonder what all the fuss was about. Smartphone cameras will get better, of that there is no doubt. It also seems to be the case that as time progresses people will buy less and less specialist interchangeable lens cameras and I for one can see nothing that can stop that. Because smartphones work for many people. They are small light and convenient, they have communication and sharing possibilities built in that are simple and easy and don't require sitting down with a manual. They are also cost effective. Even my somewhat expensive Panasonic CM1 has all those phone, internet and sharing capabilities, so for an all-in-one device, it's not that expensive.

Sure smartphones have some way to go. They all mostly have fixed wide-angle lenses. They aren't that great at high(er) ISO's and they are a bit slow to respond. But for most of their users those aren't issues that detract from their virtues. And using mine where and when I do, that really isn't an issue either. Yes, I'm a classic early adopter. I shot my last roll of film in 2001, long before digital became the norm. I embraced m4/3 and other mirrorless gear very early and now true to type, I'm heading down the smartphone route and as time passes I'm using those cameras more and more. 

As indicated at the top of the page, this is very much a personal choice and has to do with the kind of images I produce and what they are for. It's years since I printed anything for example and the kind of work I do to make a living from photography has no need for the highest resolution images I can produce, though my image quality antenna haven't turned off quite yet. But above all I find using these smaller formats fun, stimulating and hopefully creative. I certainly try different things now, not always with the success I'd like, but these devices encourage me to keep trying. I'm lucky in that I'm able to experiment with what I do. There is no unhappy client waiting for me if I fail, so ultimately I can indulge myself. If was a commercial jobbing photographer shooting weddings, events, portraits, news, sports or putting together promotional and advertising material then I would choose something else. For instance I'm off to do a 'show home' property shoot later today and I won't be using my smartphones for that, 

We all have to decide what we want to use and how we want to use it and how open we are to new possibilities depends on who we are. Am I saying everybody should bin the DSLR / Mirrorless gear and 'go smartphone?' Of course I'm not. All I am saying is that using these camera phones is becoming an important part of what I do and will continue to do so. I'm also saying that with the recent quality improvements there are far less compromises and excuses that need to be made in terms of the image quality and that the simpler operational advantages of using phones with cameras attached can have benefits in terms of the images I can create. I like using them, but that's no reason to expect everybody else to do the same. However, with historical precedents to help me predict what's going to happen, I wouldn't be at all surprised if in a few years times the Soundimageplus blog is all about smartphone photography (or what follows it) Apparently the best selling camera on Amazon is a Go Pro. But then that's a whole other discussion.