Mobile Cameras vs Real Cameras & Why it’s Not Even Close – w/Examples


Winter’s End – Taken a few minutes apart. The mobile image  lacks any fine detail up close and fine detail is totally lost in that pasty look that is common of low end cameras and lenses. The film scan however holds up well. See complete image details here on Gavin’s journal. More examples below.

by Gavin Seim: When I was starting out you we’re not even regarded as a respectable portrait photographer unless you used at least medium format. How things have changed. But this mobile photography for the sake of it is a passing fad.

The camera in your iPhone costs about ten dollars to make – Now I was browsing Facebook the other day I found the above reference photo I posted while on our Spring 2012 tour. I remembered that morning, the light on the trees and how my 4 year old son rode with me to greet the sunrise. It was a good memory. But next I compared it as a photographer to the final print version of Winter’s End. That promoted me to compare others, from both film and digital, comparing them to their mobile counterparts.

A great image is more than the sum of it’s tech specs – But when those details are far below the sum of it’s artistic merit, it brings down the entire work.

What was really illustrated was the vast difference between a point and shoot image and a quality photograph. Even I had not realized how poor the quality was. The phone photo is a good reference and helped me plan and log I wanted to produce. It was also fun travel memory and some might say it was “good enough”. But I’ve learned that “good enough” is not how we produce great images to stand out in today’s market.

I see more and more people acting as if phones are serious cameras. Sometimes even touting it as something special. This bothers me because a low grade camera is not a feature of your art (and make no mistake, your phone camera is low grade). It’s true that gear does not make a photographer. But low image quality can make even the most accomplished photographer look like an amateur. Comparing a phone snap to a professional level camera is a bit like comparing a Prius to a dragster.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the snapshot or a point and shoot. But you don’t build a skyscraper out of straw and it’s not until you see the difference between the a mobile photo and the well finished piece made with the right equipment that you realize what you would have been missing – The finished images show how much difference there truly is. Now technically (but unlikely) you could spend as much time visualizing your image with your mobile as with the serious gear. But the lack of control and image quality would still limit your results.

Nothing I could have done to these snapshots would have made them even close to the finals. It’s not just pixel numbers, it’s pixel quality. The difference is clear even on screen. But in print it will be like a screaming Banshee and every flaw is revealed. Some argue that prints can be made from mobile photos. Fine, but that does not make them good prints. In a world where it’s VERY hard to stand out, I want the best quality I can get. The goal of a photographer is not to lower the standard, but to always raise it.

I make wall prints. Portraits and Pictorials. My goal is that finished print and how it will look both technically and artistically. This is my job. I see a lot of people touting mobiles, but very few doing anything with the images but posting snaps to the web. I don’t kid myself when using a phone to take photos – I know, it’s technically a” real camera” a handy tool to have along. But I’ve never once made a quality wall print from a mobile.

I might get a decent 8×10, but even that would be lacking. Sure, mobiles getting better. That does not mean they’re the the right tool. I’m not looking for Facebook snaps when I’m working. I’m making serious images. To make them on a camera that does not have print quality would be a giant waste of my time. Mobiles have their place. But I don’t pretend that a cheapo camera is “good enough” for serious prints.

Resting Place – This one is from a 5D MK2. The full quality mobile image was still not even close in capturing the detail and range or the subtle light of the scene. See with complete image details here on Gavin’s journal.

It’s said the best camera is the one you have with you – Fair enough. But I say the best photographer is the one who has the right camera and knows how to use it well. I believe that most people touting mobile have not done much comparing. I know we’re not comparing apple to apples. And that’s the point.

The best camera is the one you Have With You – The best camera TO Have With You is the best one you have… Be prepared for quality.

Bear in mind that a good camera is not simply measured by whether it takes a photo: It’s measured by it’s control, noise, artifacts, lens abilities, handling abilities, overall functionality and of course fine quality. Phones will remain snapshot cameras, just like snapshot cameras have always been. That’s what their made for. There’s a reason Ansel did not take his best images with his $1 Brownie. And that had a lot more quality potential than our mobiles – The right tool for the right job.

Don’t short change yourself. Just because you “can” does not make it the right tool. A good craftsman must consider not only if it’s good enough, but what tool would make it look it’s very best. A mobile device camera is not even remotely close to what a professional system can produce. It’s not even close to an image done on 35mm film. The line between the snapshot and the professional photograph exists and and should be taken seriously if we as image makers want to be taken seriously. Below are a few more reference snapshots next to their finished counterparts. (click them for larger versions). Note that these were cropped from the full quality mobile images.

My point was not to insult you for using your mobile – I use mine too! And in fact we can capture and edit nicely planned images on a mobile, even though our controls are very limited. My point is to remind us that while our skill can be applied to the smallest of cameras, the resulting image fails if it lacks the quality needed to convey our vision. It can make a great snapshot of the kids and may even have great artistic merit. It can me a good web photo or promo clip. But don’t expect to be able to do much with it. A mobile produces web photos. That’s about it.

Using “mobile photography” as a marketing approach is getting attention. But it’s a fad that won’t last. An image is either good, or it’s not. Regardless of what it was captured on. Iconic images will occasionally be made on a mobiles just like in years past. Spur of the moment journalism using cheap cameras has it’s place. But a low quality camera is rarely ideal.

Some will tell me I’m just a pixel peeper. But the proof is in the print and that’s what I look for. I love the science of photography and I got really into that in my EXposed series. But I also don’t ignore the art. As evidenced by our new film, PHOTOGRAPHICS. I’m just saying if we expect to be taken seriously, we should use the right tool for the right job. And if you plan to make quality prints, a mobile is not the right tool.

Good luck, Gavin


Ghostlands – The phone image looks pretty good here even though it lacks the finesse of the final. Until we look at the details from this film scan. In a print of nearly any size there would be no comparison in the quality. See with complete image details here on Gavin’s journal.

Gavin Seim: Portraitist, Pictorialist, Speaker and producer of Seim Effects Photo Tools and the EXposed workshop.