Replacing the camera with a smartphone?

Nowadays, the smartphones and their cameras have evolved to a level where the question of replacing the digital camera (mirrorless, or DSLR) with a powerful smartphone is only natural. Tremendous progress has been made to the technology inside the smartphones, where the cameras themselves, the rapidly evolving sensors and together with powerful algorithms, led by fast processors integrating AI, can deliver amazing results in capturing and processing the images into vivid JPEG files.

We are talking about fine lenses (some certified by Leica, others by Zeiss), improved sensors for low light conditions and processors that put everything together, from combining the information captured by several cameras, to the removal of image noise, while adding sharpness, contrast, saturation and HDR capabilities, in order to produce a final JPEG file that pleases the eyes of both photographer and his/her audience. More than that, the power to capture fine details is bringing super sharp images with crazy high resolutions; the powerful Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi is working on a camera setup to deliver more than 100 megapixels. This is the resolution we see in the amazing Medium Format camera Fujifilm GFX100!

However, can it be done? To ditch your camera (as heavy, or light at it seems, but still heavier that any smartphone) and successfully use your smartphone to photograph what you want and need to be photographed? I will say, “It depends” – on your expectations from your type(s) of photography.

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: We can clearly see the software automatically applying contrast and saturation, in Auto Mode.

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: I have chosen a standard lens for this comparison. JPEG in Eterna film simulation, with minor contrast and brightness applied.

I wanted to give it a try and convince myself that it is possible. After getting a good Canon EOS digital DSLR camera for improving my skills in photography and bringing home images with better results, (compared with the ones made by a compact Panasonic camera), the following, natural step in improving the IQ of my images, while reducing the size and weight of my gear, was to switch from a DSLR system to a mirrorless system. I did this 6 years ago, with no regrets and for the types of photography I am interested in, I would never go back to a DSLR system.

Years have passed and the progress made in smartphone cameras is just remarkable. Friends around me (although they were not necessarily all photographers) already had expensive, flagship phones and they just never stopped talking about their high quality images, captured with their smartphones. I never relied on my smartphone, no matter what model that was, to bring home high IQ pictures. This is why, when needed, I always took my photo bag with my Fujifilm camera and some selected lenses, according to the specific needs of the moment. However, even if my actual photo bag is lighter and smaller than the one I have sold years ago (together with my Canon DSLR), it is still an extra weight, limiting a bit my total freedom of movement. I was carrying a bag and my friends were carrying nothing (except a slim smartphone in their jeans pocket). At least I was happy in knowing my photos had the highest IQ. This is why, my smartphones never had top of the line camera(s). They only needed to provide decent IQ, nothing more.

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: Going closer to the subject’s face, AI switches to Portrait Mode and the algorithm simulates the bokeh and background separation. It is remarkable for a smartphone, but this effect is created by the software, so not exactly the real thing.

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: Only an F2.8 lens (and shot at F2.8), but there is plenty of detail and Eterna makes it all soft and warm, being an excellent film simulation choice if the dynamic range is your top priority in JPEG files.

Nevertheless, we do not always shoot for our portfolio and for photo exhibitions. At least this is my case, as a busy father and husband, having a full time office job and doing photography mostly during the weekends and holidays. I can totally understand a passionate, freelance photographer, doing nothing else but photography, while carrying his camera every day, all the way, always ready to seize the “decisive moments”, being fully available and focused in getting the best angles in the best light (being golden, or blue) in countless amazing locations. I would love to do this, but right now, it is just not possible. This means I rarely carry my camera and I do not bring so often, valuable material (worth exhibiting, or publishing on my blog and personal virtual gallery). Most of the material I have on my SD cards is made of personal memories and travel photography. Things you could do very well with a flagship smartphone. Therefore, I started to consider selling my smartphone and getting one of the best smartphone for photography. Which I already did.

My actual smartphone uses the Leica certified triple lens setup found in the flagship Huawei Mate 20 Pro, although mine is a different model. Compared to my old smartphone, the results are simply amazing. Using AI, the device recognises many types of scenes like Sunset, Beach, Food, Flower, Blue Sky, Portrait, Text, Stage Performance, Architecture, etc. and automatically makes the necessary image setting adjustments, according to all types of situation, to offer an optimised JPEG file. All of this in full auto mode, just touching one virtual button. Of course, there is also the Manual Mode, quite powerful, plus other modes, making this a very powerful device. Having three cameras can offer you plenty of freedom, while keeping the IQ at high levels for multiple focal lengths. One camera is ultra wide angle, one is standard and the third one has a telephoto lens. From Wide Mode to 1X, 3X and 5X, with PDAF technology, OIS and Laser AF, this device is in a different league, compared to everything I have owned and tested.

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: This is the HDR Mode with its wide-angle lens. A very impressive result, much better than everything I saw in smartphone photography.

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: Shot at 16mm (narrower than what Huawei is capable of with its wide-angle camera) and in RAW (quickly processed in Capture One Express). There are definitely more details, cleaner rendering and much more information in the highlights and the shadows areas

In my opinion, the coolest three things in the photos taken with this smartphone are:

  1. The wide-angle lens is the equivalent of 16mm field of view in full frame format. The perspective in these shots and the way I could frame a huge cathedral just by standing close to it is amazing. My widest lens for Fujifilm cameras is the XF 14mm F2.8. I would need a 10mm lens, for my Fujifilm, to get the same field of view.

  2. The HDR mode is great. Just activate it and it does a wonderful job. Compared to the image I see on my Fujifilm camera’s LCD screen, the one on Huawei’s display just looks delicious. No more time spend for post-processing. The smartphone does everything for you.

  3. The Portrait mode; AI is at work, trying to simulate the subject separation from the background, just like in the photos made with a portrait lens at wide apertures. For the untrained eye, you get a “Wow!” reaction. If you look close, you can see something is a bit unnatural.

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: Back to Portrait Mode, the smartphone automatically recognises all types of scenes and apply the specific setting accordingly. Yet, sharpness and details need consistent improvements.

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: Portrait at F2.8 at 55mm in JPEG. Further image settings can be applied, as the Fujifilm’s JPEG files have a wide latitude for post-processing.

For posting on social media networks, or sending a great shot in a few seconds via messenger apps to your friends and family and keeping visual memories of places and events that happened in your life, this type of device might be the right and most comfortable solution for most of us. In addition, it is important and very useful to have a smartphone with great camera(s).

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: The last portrait test; if she would have turned her head, one more degree to the left, AI would not recognise this scene as a Portrait anymore, which is an inconvenience. The image came rather soft, lacking details, sharpness and a bit far from the real colours (just as all images made with this smartphone).

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: Plenty of details, true colours, beautiful background separation (versus a fake one, above) and just imagine what if this would have been made with a fast portrait lens like XF 35mm F1.4, XF 56mm F1.2, or XF 90mm f2.0!.

Nevertheless, from the point of view of the professional / serious enthusiast photographer, excepting the personal, non-pretentious photographic work and some street photography, well… as smart and powerful a smartphone can be (like the one with the Leica certified tripe lens setup – considered among the most powerful at the time of writing this text), it cannot replace a good camera (like a mirrorless APS-C from Fujifilm with one of the XF lenses).

The landscape and travel photography might benefit from the powerful processing of the JPEG files directly inside the smartphone, but if you need real high dynamic range (including the post-processing operations on your PC), great clarity, great performance in low-light conditions without sacrificing detail rendering, natural colours and discrete sharpness, you need to rely on a good camera (even if it’s only on the APS-C sensor size level) with a good lens. In addition, if we talk about portrait photography and the ability to combine it with artificial lighting and the “powers” of a great portrait lens, the differences are immense.

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: AI decided the settings for this image (the same as if I would have chosen the HDR Mode manually).

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: Only a JPEG with applied some post-processing tweaks, but we can see rich details and better colours.

As powerful as they are today, the smartphones cannot replace the dedicated cameras, yet, if we talk about serious photography. Even if the level of clinical sharpness and flare / CA control in modern lenses leaves us, sometimes, the impression that we are dealing more with laboratory scientific tools, than true photographer means to create art (where are the Character Lenses of the old days, I ask?), we still recognise the importance of physics: a digital camera that weights between 0.5 and 1 kg with a huge sensor, coupled with expensive lenses made from more than 10 pieces of  high quality glass, in different groups and costs 4 – 5 X more than the most powerful smartphone, will collect the available light and record the digital image in a way that a smartphone simply cannot provide. Not to mention the list of manual settings and customisation the user can apply to his/her camera, in order to create a result as close as the expected one.

First image – Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple lens Leica certified: The last photo of this test, made in HDR Mode to maximise the dynamic range. Although HDR is helpful in this type of situation, it degrades the colours and cleanness of the image. More details would have been welcome.

Second image – Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR: The last RAW file, swiftly processes in Capture One Express: plenty of details in the skies and the shadow areas, better colours, more dynamic range, better resolution.

For high quality images, for my portfolio and for present and future photography exhibitions, I will still rely on my trusted Fujifilm X camera. Having written this comparative article, would only encourage me to take my Fujifilm camera more often. There is no “photographer” feeling while holding a smartphone and pressing a virtual button on its screen, in order to deliver a “snapshot”, but having my Fujifilm camera in my hands, I feel more committed and involved in the sweet and beautiful process called “making photographs”.

Exclusive content, previously published in September 2019 on FUJI X PASSION – Inspirational Photography Magazine (Premium Area) – www.fujixpassion.com

© Sebastian Boatca 2020 / www.sebastianboatca.com

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