Saturday, 10 September 2022

Thoughts on Smartphones & Photography

Oppo Find X5 Pro main lens (25mm full frame equivalent), ISO 135, 1/150 @ f2.2

On a summit recently I was asked to take a couple’s photograph and handed a smartphone. I took the photo and looked round. There were several other people there, all taking photographs with smartphones. No one except me had a standalone camera. Over the last few years I’ve observed this many times. Cameras have become rare, smartphones ubiquitous. The latter are now the choice of most people for outdoor photography. They’ve replaced compact digital cameras, which were common a decade ago and which themselves replaced compact film cameras a decade before that.

How good smartphones are for photography is something I’ve been considering over the last few months after being sent an Oppo Find X5 Pro to test which I’ve now reviewed for The Great Outdoors.  This is the first smartphone I’ve had supplied for review as a camera rather than for other features. Previously I’d had a couple of smartphones to test for suitability for the hills because of their ruggedness but without any emphasis on the camera.  With the Find X5 Pro nothing else was mentioned by the PR company who supplied it. 

Oppo Find X5 telephoto lens (52mm full frame equivalent) ISO 100, 1/720 @ f2.4

The Fine X5 Pro does have an astonishingly sophisticated camera with four lenses, two of them 50mp and one with five-axis stabilisation, which the video camera also has. There’s a pro mode with manual controls, a histogram, and the option to shoot raw files and many other features, more in fact than on my cameras. This is not a phone with a camera tacked on. In fact it’s more of a camera with additional phone functions. It’s the first smartphone I’ve used which I’ve started to take seriously for photography.

Oppo Find X5 Pro Xpan mode ISO 100, 1/9300 @ f1.7

The Find X5 Pro is a far cry from my first smartphone, a top model back in 2010, which had a 5mp camera with a single lens and hardly any features. I bought it for communication and navigation not photography. I did take pictures for social media and on a long walk sent a few back to The Great Outdoors which were used quarter page size. They were just about good enough for this. Looking at them on the computer screen now even the best aren’t sharp, there’s quite a bit of noise, and details are smeared. I wasn’t surprised at the low quality. The phone has a tiny sensor and a tiny lens.

Photographs taken with my 12mp camera at the same time are fine and not far off those from my current 24mp cameras. Indeed, these cameras are themselves now six and ten years old respectively and there have been five subsequent models. Whilst these have added and improved features the 24mp sensor has remained the same because the image quality is fine.

In the same period of time smartphone cameras have improved amazingly as companies realised that photography was becoming a main usage and people were looking for better quality pictures and more lens options. As smartphone sales soared companies invested heavily in camera development in order to compete.

Oppo Find X5 Pro main lens, ISO 1686, 1/35 @ f1.7

Images from the Find X5 Pro are vastly superior to those from my 2010 smartphone and more like those from my camera. Even images from the far less sophisticated and much less expensive rugged phones are better. Yet whilst smartphone sensor sizes have increased a little they’re still tiny compared to the APS-C sensors on my cameras. So how this increase in quality been achieved? The answer lies in the huge increase in smartphone processing power which allows for computational imaging using algorithms and sophisticated software to stack multiple images to create sharper images with less noise. There’s much more technical detail on this in this fascinating article on DXOMark.

The latest smartphones can take great photos. But the process is mostly automated and sometimes the camera gets it wrong, just as the old fully automatic point-and-shoot cameras used to, both film and digital. Most of the time, in good light, the smartphone images will be fine. Most of the time. One way to have some control over the images is to use pro modes that allow you to adjust the exposure settings manually and shoot raw images that can be processed in software like Lightroom. Not all smartphones have this option. The Find X5 Pro does have, and I’ve used it occasionally and found it can work well though images often require more processing than ones from my camera. If the Find X5 Pro was my main camera I’d use it much more.


The two pictures above were taken at the same time with the Find X5 Pro and the Sony a6000. I printed both at A4 size and showed them to several people. No one could tell which was the smartphone image. Looking at them again a few months later and I can’t tell either. Would larger prints bring out differences? Maybe. Something to find out.

Could a smartphone like the Find X5 Pro replace my cameras? Not yet. I’d love it if it could as it would cut the weight and size of my camera gear drastically. As it is I think a smartphone like this could be my second camera, given that I usually carry two, both in case of failure and for use with different lenses. In fact, during my testing of the Find X5 Pro I have just carried one of my cameras. However if I wasn’t taking photos for publication I think I’d be quite happy with a smartphone. And maybe I’m being cautious and conservative. I’m very familiar with my cameras and lenses. I know how they perform and how to use them. Taking a smartphone camera seriously has meant a new learning curve, one I haven’t anywhere near completed. 

Update: after I shared this on Facebook a commentator, Mike Reid, posted a link to a video by photographer Sean Tucker called Getting Better Photographs from your Phone Camera. It's very interesting and informative.  

4 comments:

  1. Hi Chris. This is very interesting, I use a low spec smartphone to record day, field trip. The pictures are not really meant to high quality and sadly both my digial and my older film cameras are Brocken. It could be a good time to take look an update smartphone. Take care

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  2. Interesting article. I'm photographer going back to days of old Canon A1 and now moving DSLR to mirrorless. Yes I could have bought a top of range smartphone at a £1k +, they are very impressive, the weight advantage can be several Kg, a lot in winter when your rucksack is packed full of other stuff. Theres some very nice features like pixel level image fusion which has been around for years and just making it into commercial products. But I dont want to spend £1-2k on a phone when I may probably drop it (repeatedly), get it wet, stolen etc etc. I prefer a low – mid range smartphone (admittedly mine if 4 yrs old now) which I can leave in a drysack in rucksack and just use it for emergencies. The quality of photos is sometimes good but if I take landscapes and want to zoom into 100% or heavily crop then you will see the artefacts. The standard Android camera app is (I think) appalling leaving little control for the user so I downloaded a more professional app which lets you control quality and compression and does yield much improved photos but ive noticed you can still get the artefacts, poor exposure and a heavy drain on battery. So i'm likely to remain a conventional camera based person with my interchangeable lens and filters. I was told recently that there also is a resurgence in photographers using conventional film as well, its whatever takes your fancy to produce the images you like I guess.

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  3. Good points. My first proper camera was a secondhand Pentax S1a SLR back in 1979. It was fully manual, which forced me to learn photography! I'm not worred about dropping or getting wet the rugged cameras I've tried as both have happened to them quite a few times with no harm. Indeed, in heavy rain I only use my smartphone as my camera isn't waterproof. Zooming in and cropping certainly can be problems. The early Android camera apps were pretty basic. The app on the Find X5 Pro, which I think is Oppo's, is excellent though and has more options than my camera. Overall I don't think smartphone cameras are up there yet with cameras but they're improving so fast it won't surprise me if they are in just a few years.

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  4. Don't forget the process, my dslr with a bit if post processing or occasional outing with one of my film SLRs and all that intails is part of the fun!

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