How professional cameras try to stay ahead of mobile phone cameras
Mobile phone cameras have become incredibly popular and increasingly powerful. Looking at this development from a hardware point of view, it is surprising that mobile phone cameras haven’t rendered traditional photo cameras redundant.
What is the difference between phone cameras and full-frame cameras?
Unlike traditional cameras with full-frame sensors (36mm by 24mm), mobile phone cameras utilise tiny image sensors (just 7mm by 5mm). The size of the image sensor is relevant to the quality of the photographs, as a larger surface area of the sensor is able to capture a lot more light, thus detail. Also, unlike full-frame cameras, mobile phone cameras use incredibly small lenses, which optically cannot even come close to producing the same image quality as a traditional full-frame camera.
Hardware is not the deciding factor anymore when it comes to buying decisions.
Mobile phones are able to produce full-frame-like images by combining image data from several sensors using sophisticated AI algorithms. The latest generation of mobile phones has three or more cameras. Typically, you’d find a wide-angle lens, a standard lens and a telephoto lens next to each other. In addition, a lidar sensor gathers three-dimensional (depth) data about the distance between an object and the phone.
The software running on the phone digitally stitches all of these data inputs together. Via an intuitive software interface, it allows the user to seamlessly zoom in and out by switching between the available cameras in an undetectable manner. The user experience is very similar to using a traditional camera with a big and heavy zoom lens. In addition to that, the three-dimensional information from the lidar sensor allows the phone to blur out the areas around the subject, mimicking the shallow depth-of-field effect of large and heavy lenses.
So is this the end of traditional cameras?
While the advent of powerful mobile phone cameras has certainly had an effect on the sales of traditional cameras, camera manufacturers have caught up on the software side.
Surrey Wedding Photographer Moritz says “Camera manufacturers have quickly realized that they can only compete if the in-camera software data processing is on par with their phone competition. For example, the autofocus on my Sony A1 is still unmatched by any mobile phone camera”.
Mobile phone users love the connectivity of their devices, as they can share their work with a few clicks. To tackle this aspect of seemingly mobile phone superiority, camera manufacturers have invested a lot of time and energy into making their full-frame products as connected as possible. Modern full-frame cameras offer a plethora of connection options including Wifi, wired LAN, and Bluetooth. Photographers in the field can send their work directly to the client - moments after the shot is taken it is already delivered. Likewise, the camera can be remote controlled via any of these connections.
During the Covid-19 pandemic live streaming has become extremely popular. The team of funeral live streamers at Funeral Memories tells us “Our modern cameras are capable of high-end live streaming straight out of the box. It’s as simple as set up and go.”
In conclusion, full-frame cameras have similar (or even better) connectivity to deliver still images or live video feeds to the world. In addition, they allow two-way communication so photographers can use their cameras without holding them.
When mobile phones with usable cameras first entered the market, they had one particular advantage: they could take pictures without producing any sound at all (just mute the phone), while traditional full-frame cameras with a mechanical shutter still produced a distinct clicking sound. This made unobtrusive shooting difficult especially during weddings, press events or wildlife photography where even the smallest sound could disturb the scene.
This problem seems to be completely eliminated by switching to a mirrorless design. Hardly any new full-frame photo cameras rely on the old mechanical shutter. This makes it possible to shoot completely silently - a photographer’s dream has come true.
There is one last aspect in which traditional full-frame cameras are way ahead of their phone competition: the use of external flashes. While phones use tiny LED flashes which are barely strong enough to light a group of people at night, full-frame cameras can attach entire systems of on-camera or off-camera flashes. Not only are these way more powerful than the tiny LED flashes but they can also be placed anywhere in the room, thus allowing the light to come from any side. The team of commercial headshot photographers at FrameShot tell us “We use complex systems of up to five flashes to produce our business headshots. There is no mobile phone camera in the world that would be able to control our flash setup”.
Mobile phones have by no means killed the traditional full-frame market. Due to the large image sensors, modern full-frame cameras still produce images of a way higher quality, while competing on the same level in terms of connectivity and ease of use. For anybody looking to take their photography from a “phone level” to the next level, purchasing a full-frame camera is still the obvious choice and there is no technological development on the horizon that might change this development going forward.