The Power in Your Pocket: Smartphone Photography is Redefining Photography

Smartphone owners: Don’t underestimate the camera that you already have.

I remember being in sixth grade and walking down the hallway changing periods. One of my friends caught up to me and wanted to show me something that they had recently gotten. Excited, they slowly pulled out the original iPhone from their backpack. Besides being amazed that a fellow sixth grader of mine had a $500 smartphone (we only wish smartphones were that cheap these days), I was amazed at the camera. Now, the original camera itself on the iPhone was not anything exceptional. It lacked video capability, had a bare bones feature set, was slow, and didn’t even take exceptionally good photos even compared to existing smartphones at the time. However, I remember how easy and different it was to use. Touchscreen controls built into a single slab of glass to take a photo? Such a relatively huge viewfinder? All in a package that was small enough to fit into your pocket? At that moment, I was sold on the concept, and knew that this was just the beginning of a new era of photography especially as these things called “smartphones” became more and more popular. Sure enough, over the years we have seen smartphone cameras evolve and advance into pieces of technology that have changed the way people take photographs and capture their everyday lives. To this day, mobile photography still has a huge impact on the culture and society of the world.

With that said, here are six reasons why I believe smartphone photography is still redefining the photography landscape.

Small disclaimer: I am an exclusive iPhone user, but have used many Android, Windows, and even Blackberry (RIP physical keyboards) smartphone cameras and have compiled a list that is applicable to smartphone cameras in general.

So, with that out of the way:

Smartphone Photography is Redefining Photography because…

  1. You don’t need the newest or most expensive phone to take great pictures, opening up the art of photography to a broad array of people.

Chances are that if you own almost any type of smartphone from within the past two to three years, you have a half decent to excellent camera on your phone. It was only just a few years ago that in order to get a good smartphone camera, you had to buy the most expensive flagship model from a company. Not so anymore. As hardware and software advances each year, we are seeing more and more camera technologies trickle down and become more accessible on a more affordable price range of phones, especially in emerging markets where smartphone saturation is lower but steadily growing (such as Latin America, India, China and other Asian markets). In addition, smartphone saturation in The United States and much of Western Europe is above 75%. So in combination, there are hundreds of millions of individuals with smartphones, and therefore hundreds of millions of potential photographers. In addition, not everyone who’s interested in photography wants to, or can, spend money on a dedicated camera, or even a flagship smartphone with the best camera. A built in smartphone camera, especially one in today’s smartphones, is a great way to dip your toes into the hobby, and allows virtually everyone with a smartphone to do so.

Here are some pictures that I have personally taken on an iPhone 5s (released in 2013) to show that even if you have an older smartphone or can’t afford the steep price of a new smartphone of today, you can still take some lovely shots.

Captured By Ayden Toleman on iPhone 5s. St. Augustine Beach, Florida, The United States.
Captured By Ayden Toleman on iPhone 5s. Mexico City, Mexico.
Captured By Ayden Toleman on iPhone 5s. Armação dos Búzios, Brazil.

2. It’s mobile…

The Boy of Tondo. Time Sensitive Capture By Ayden Toleman. Manila, Phillipines.

…which seems pretty obvious, and I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase that goes along the lines of “the best camera is the one that you have with you.” The truth is, there are many times that I’ve been able to capture “the perfect” shot, not because I had an expensive camera, or a fancy lens, or was able to adjust camera settings, but solely because I was able to take out my camera quick enough before the moment went away. Manufacturers know this, and almost every smartphone has some type of shortcut to the camera knowing that some of the best moments to be captured are also the ones that are the most fleeting.

Time Sensitive Capture By Ayden Toleman. Port Aransas Beach, Texas, The United States.
Time Sensitive Capture By Ayden Toleman. Corona del Mar, California, The United States.

3. Smartphone photography is relatively cheap and relatively easy to adapt to your skill level.

Whether you’re at a novice, intermediate, advanced level, or anything in-between, your smartphone camera can adapt with you. You’ll most likely start using just your regular native camera app. Most of them are straightforward, simple, and have enough basic yet useful features to keep you engaged and experimenting with the fundamentals of smartphone photography. Feel like going a bit more pro? Buy a third party camera app. They are cheap (just a few dollars at most) and an easy way to allow you to have more customization over the aspects of the photos you take (shutter, ISO, white balance, image format etc.) allowing you to take more creative shots and allowing you to fine tune the look of your photos. If you want to go even more advanced, you can purchase supplementary hardware for your smartphone, such as external lenses or ND filters. Quality wide angle, telephoto (zoomed), macro etc. lenses, and ND filters can be had for just around $100 USD each, a steal considering the versatility they add and when compared with the price of professional camera lenses. Add a $10–15 tripod and boom, you have a mini yet robust smartphone photography rig, for fairly inexpensive.

A 16mm wide lens + lowered ISO led to a bright & vivid photo that captured the whole cave. Captured By Ayden Toleman. Cathedral Cove, Hahei, New Zealand.

4. There’s almost a special club that you get to join when you partake in mobile photography.

Each year, mobile photography is gaining more and more legitimacy as more amateur and even professional photographers pick up the hobby. This is catching the attention of brands and manufacturers who want to capitalize on peoples new found interest. More and more competitions, awards, social media accounts are showcasing the best of what smartphone photography has to offer. Even some of the biggest companies, like Apple, have taken notice, running an entire Instagram page showcasing their #shotoniphone photos which gives exposure to smaller creators. Hashtags and social media accounts surrounding Google’s Pixel phones, Samsung’s Galaxy phones, and others offer the same idea of letting everyone who uses mobile photography have the chance of showcasing it. In addition, there’s a plethora of smartphone camera comparison videos, guides, and tutorials on YouTube and all over the internet dedicated just for mobile photography. Smartphone photography has created itself its own genre of photography with endless resources and opportunities to exhibit your work.

5. Technology fueling smartphone photography is advancing at a rapid rate.

Many smartphone buyers care about their cameras, a lot. There’s a reason why manufacturers dedicate so much advertising, research and development, and general costs to improve and promote their cameras. The quality of a camera on a smartphone can be one of the biggest factors, or even sometimes the deciding factor when consumers are shopping for smartphones. This, along with the increasing competition in the smartphone field is only driving rapid innovations in smartphone cameras. Each year, it is expected that a smartphone manufacturer produces a flagship camera that not only “bests” their previous camera, but becomes the benchmark for other manufactures. With the size restraints associated with smartphones, the increase in processing power and interest in AR, manufacturers are also now turning more and more to post processing and software to enhance the photo experience. We are seeing companies push improvements in camera quality and adding features (like more advanced background blur, improved HDR, increased stabilization etc.) just through software updates. This is all good for you as a consumer because you’re guaranteed to get a better camera each time you buy a new smartphone, and often times even get upgrades to the camera that you already have.

6. Mobile photography puts you, the photographer, back into focus.

Experimenting with focus, foreground, and background can add depth and dimension. Captured By Ayden Toleman. Marin Headlands, California, The United States.

Yes, smartphones are extremely portable and have software that is always being updated and hardware that is always evolving. In addition, there are plenty of apps and accessories to enhance the photos you take. Indeed, smartphones have, are, and will continue to take breathtaking photos. However, at the end of the day, the sensor and camera hardware in a mobile phone is small, and much much smaller than a professional camera. The fact is, is that there is only so much capability a smartphone camera can have. But there’s an advantage to that because it forces you to make do with what you have, and forces you to focus more on being creative and telling your story. Professionals and naysayers will go on and on about sensor type, shutter speed, megapixels, aperture, lens compatibility, focal length etc. etc. And while those aspects and numbers are indeed important, often times people get caught up and downright obsessed with just the specifications and the numbers. However, fancy specifications and numbers don’t always get you results and there are plenty of individuals with “professional gear” that underuse or misuse the equipment that they have yielding them subpar results. Work with what you already have, get experienced with it and get creative. Experiment with foreground and background, with focus, with different lighting environments and so forth. Adapt to your smartphone camera and the limitations it has, and don’t lose the art of photography by playing a numbers game or a comparison game.

Extreme angles can turn even the most iconic landmarks into abstract art. Captured By Ayden Toleman. Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Of course DSLR’s, SLR’s Mirrorless and other professional cameras do indeed have their place in the market and will almost always be more robust and versatile than smartphone cameras. They’re extremely important, and the professional photographers who use them to their full potential are way more skilled and gifted at photography than I will ever be. If you ever do want to take up true professional photography, do it! Do your research, learn and talk to someone way more knowledgable than I am. But don’t feel pressured that you need to go out right now to buy an expensive camera and lens just to take good photos or become a photographer. At the end of the day, photography, to me, is about capturing a moment and a story in the most creative way you can. All you need is a camera, a bit of creativity, and a story. And each of us has a story to be told. Go capture yours.

Shooting into direct light can create unique silhouettes of iconic shapes. Captured By Ayden Toleman. Newport Beach, California, The United States.

Lover of photography. World traveler. Car aficionado.

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