iPhone X vs digital camera vs film

Every year, comes September, Apple presents a new iteration of the iPhone, and every year, the iPhone gets better at taking pictures. One year, the iPhone gets better with low light shots, another year with portraits. Last year it started emulating the low depth of field and bokeh you normally get with a few high end lenses. This year, it will be about  studio lighting.  And every year, in the forums dedicated to digital photography (or should I say – to the cult of digital cameras), purists and fanatics develop new arguments to explain that “a photo shot with an iPhone is not the same, it’s looks artificial, you can see the difference”.

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The iPhone X launch ceremony – Sept 12th, 2017

Maybe. To the trained eye of a specialist. But for the majority of people, the pictures they get from their phones are much better than what they used to get from a point and shoot camera 10 years ago. Incredibly better than the prints they used to receive when they were shooting film. And now they can share them. Without having to be an expert.

Smartphones ARE the go-to digital camera of billions of people

  • We always have them with us,
  • Taking pictures with them is simple and intuitive
  • With their large, high resolution screens and easy to use interface, they’re a great platform to edit and enhance pictures,
  • The integration with email, messaging and all sorts of social network apps is seamless. And the images are backed up automatically (in a cloud) and made available in cloud based galleries.
  • did I mention selfies?

And they’re getting better every year – integrating better sensors, better lenses, adding optical image stabilization, adding a short tele lens, and using software emulation to let billions of people take pictures which used to require expensive hardware and a solid photographic knowledge (portraits with low depth of field and pleasant blurry backgrounds, studio lighting).

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Clearwater Beach, FL –  Sunset – Shot with an iPhone 7.
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Clearwater Beach, FL. Sunset – Shot with Fuji film X-T1 – which picture do you prefer?

As a result, smartphones are more than good enough for casual family photography or casual travel photography, and many news organizations have equipped their reporters with smartphones. In any case, the pictures will be primarily seen on screens (smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV), and on this type of support, the quality of the images (resolution, contrast, dynamic) is more than adequate.

Of course, smartphones are missing a few things:

  • No viewfinder (an issue when shooting outdoors on a very sunny day or with long tele lenses)
  • No ultra-wide angle lens (can’t emulate that)
  • No medium to long tele lens: the tele objective of an iPhone has a focal length equivalent to 56mm – even with the “digital zoom” (aka cropping) you can’t get beyond the equivalent of a 200mm lens, and with a reduced resolution.
  • No macro lens
  • No fine control of the exposure or the focus (you can put your finger on the screen to indicate where you want the phone to set the exposure or the focus, but that’s still pretty limited)
  • No way to control multiple flash guns or studio lights
  • And of course, they don’t have a 50 Megapixel full frame sensor.
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Peniscola, Spain – Fireworks – Fujifilm X-T1 – Something you can not capture with an iPhone, yet

Where does it leave us?

  • Amateurs, families, people traveling light and all sorts of professionals needing good quality photographs will be happy with a smartphone
  • Soccer moms, enthusiasts, who need a longer reach and more control over the picture will use a bridge camera (such as a Sony RX10, Panasonic FZ1000), a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder or a dSLR.
    Provided they have the skills and have bought a few good lenses (in any case something better than the trans-standard zoom usually coming with the camera) – they may sometimes get better results than with a phone. It’s a bit provocative, but I would argue that a photographer of average abilities using an entry level mirrorless camera – with no electronic viewfinder and no flash shoe, paired with a 18-55 (or 16-50) kit zoom – is probably worse off than the user of a smartphone in most situations.
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Tour de France 2017 – Fujifilm X-T1. Another one I would not have tried to shoot with an iPhone

What about film?

  • So far, digital photography has been about ease of use, convenience, and speed.
  • Film could not fight in the same category. Film photography requires more technical knowledge, it’s a cumbersome process, and it’s slow. Today, you shoot with film by choice, because you love the old film cameras, because you love having a piece of film in your hands, because you love the technical challenge, because you love the way images taken with film will look.
  • To some extent, conventional digital cameras are following their film predecessors, and have started leaving the mass market. They’re already in a niche, still large, but shrinking. Five or ten years from now, as the smartphones will have kept improving, the niche will be much smaller, inhabited by photographers who love to be in control of the technical characteristics of their images, and refuse to be deprived of that control by a smartphone.
  • Admittedly, film photography is an even smaller niche. But I don’t see it shrinking anymore. As smartphones become better at delivering pictures automatically, as digital cameras become the domain of perfectionists, a minority will look at film photography as the ultimate refuge for spontaneity and authenticity.

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Venice – Fujicolor Superia 400 – Nikon FE2

 

A more serious comparison – iPhone 7 Plus vs dSLR

For three years now, Arstechnica has been comparing images of a same scene taken with a high-end smartphone, and with two good full frame dSLRs. By the way, one of the two cameras they tested was Sony’s A7 II, which is a full frame mirrorless camera, not a dSLR, but we’ll ignore this detail . They just published the latest iteration of their tests:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/12/mini-shootout-can-iphone-7s-bag-of-tricks-compete-with-a-real-dslr/

Just a quote: “phones long ago left “good enough” territory; images produced by a modern smartphone like the iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel can be flat-out excellent when the images are constructed to play to the smartphones’ strengths.” (Lee Hutchinson)

No wonder the camera maker are now preparing Full Frame or Medium Format digital cameras with 50 MegaPixel sensors. Trying to maximize the advantages of a conventional camera for the situations when the smartphone is not good enough.


Chicago - iPhone 5S
Chicago – iPhone 5S

Fuji X-T1 vs Apple iPhone 7 Plus – should we still carry a conventional digital camera with us?

A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Taos (NM) area with friends. One of them – a pretty good photographer – had decided to travel light and had left his full frame DSLR at home. He only had brought his smartphone, a brand new Apple 7 Plus. I had brought my Fujifilm X-T1 with the standard 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens. Along the day, we took pictures of the same scenes (natural and urban landscape for the most part), and at the end of the day, we compared our photos. Let’s use two pictures taken from the Rio Grange Gorge Bridge, on Route 64, a few miles from Taos, NM, as an example:

Rio Grande from Taos - iPhone 7 Plus
Rio Grande from Taos – iPhone 7 Plus. Photographer: L.C.
Rio Grande from Taos Bridge - Fujifilm X-T1
Rio Grande from Taos Bridge – Fujifilm X-T1

To our surprise, the pictures were virtually indistinguishable when displayed on a smartphone, an iPad Pro or a laptop screen. We did not expect the resolution to be differentiator (at 12 Megapixel, an iPhone 7 has more than enough resolution for pictures shared on social networks). The biggest surprise was the dynamic range of the iPhone 7 Plus, which appears to be better than the Fuji’s on a very difficult subject (black rocks, snow, sun reflections on the river).

At the top of that, the iPhone can publish photos in seconds after they’ve been shot (on iCloud or on the major social networks). The Fujifilm is relatively good at this exercise – for a conventional camera. But you still need to bring up WiFi on the camera (it becomes a WiFi access point), launch the Fujifilm app on a smartphone, connect the smartphone to the camera, and upload the selected pictures to the Photo application of the smartphone. Only then you can edit and share your pictures. Definitely not as fast.

Our goal was not to conduct an exhaustive scientific comparison – we were tourists and just shot landscapes under daylight. There are areas where a dedicated digital camera probably still has a marked advantage: action or wildlife photography, low light or night shots, for instance. And a dedicated camera has a viewfinder, and gives to the photographer a much greater ability to control the technical parameters than the Photo app of a smartphone. But the iPhone, now with a second short telephoto lens and a portrait mode simulating the shallow depth of field you would get with a 55mm f/1.2 lens on a dedicated digital camera, is getting closer to what a dedicated camera can do with every new generation.

A photo scanner for $12?

ION iPCS2GO - the iPhone 4 and the 4x6 drawer are in place
ION iPCS2GO – the iPhone 4 and the 4×6 drawer are in place

$12.00, really?

I was at Barnes and Noble’s the other day, when I saw this ION iPICS2GO pseudo-scanner in the bargains bin. Not really a scanner, though. It’s a sort of light box. There is no lens or imager inside. It’s just a stand where the iPhone actually taking and processing the pictures will be set.

Coupled with an iPhone, it can scan 3×5 and 4×6 prints, and, more interestingly, 24×36 negatives or slides.

The iPICS2GO was boxed, so I could not see it. But it was only $12. And even if it was a piece a junk, it was worth trying.

Unboxing

The whole thing is rather bulky (the size of a toaster), but it looks solid and well built. The negative holder and the 4×6 print holders are made of plastics of good quality and will not damage the originals, and the iPICS2GO will just needs four AA batteries to work. The print or the negative being scanned is lit by LEDs, which seem efficiently color corrected.

There is an iPICS2GO app on Apple’s app store, that you can download for free and use to control the camera of the iPhone. Although Apple’s built in Camera and Photos applications will give the same results if you “scan” a 4×6 print, you will need the ION application to enlarge and invert the 24×36 negatives. You could do it with Photoshop, but if you had a laptop and Photoshop, you would probably also own a real scanner and would not be interested in this product.

The core audience

As mentioned earlier, the iPICS23GO is not a scanner on its own. But paired with an iPhone 4, it forms a cheap and portable scanner, and its bundled application makes it easy to edit and share the scanned images, via e-mail or through Facebook. I can imagine a situation where you visit old friends or relatives, and they end up opening the proverbial shoe box where their favorite Kodak prints are stored. You scan a few pictures for immediate consumption on the iPhone, or share them around via email or on Facebook.

In this situation, the results are pretty good. IN order to benchmark the iPICS2GO, I scanned a 4×6 color print (the picture had been taken by a good 24×36 camera 10 years ago) with the ION box and with the real scanner of an all-in-one photo printer from Canon. Both images were transferred to a Mac, uploaded in Photoshop, and printed again. The Canon scan is a bit better (wider tonal range), but not that much. If the goal is just to casually look at old pictures on a smartphone, share them on Facebook or even print them again (4×6 prints, please, nothing larger), the ION iPICS2GO fits the bill.

4x6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO "scanner"
4×6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO “scanner”

Scanning negatives, on the other hand, is a much more difficult challenge.

The app does a good job at converting the negative into a positive image, whose quality is acceptable as long as you look at it on the iPhone (the original 24x36mm negative has a diagonal of 43mm; the screen of the iPhone has a diagonal of 3.5in, or 88mm – Th enlargement ratio is roughly 2:1). But don’t try to export it to a PC, or even worse, to print it. As soon as you enlarge it, the quality becomes unacceptable, as can be seen on close-up (below, on the right).

Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative
Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative
Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)
Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)
Close up of the image created by the ION app (size: 376x240 points at 128ppi on an iPhone)
Moderate enlargement of the central part of the negative

I have to admit that the ION iPICS2GO is much better gadget than I expected. If your goal is to take snapshots of your favorite prints every now and then in order to have them always with you on your iPhone, it’s perfect. You can also email your images or post them in Facebook directly from the ION app.

On the other hand, if the only source document you have is a negative, don’t expect miracles. In the best case, the resulting image will be somehow acceptable as long as you look at it on your iPhone. Beyond that, it’s hopeless. If you love the picture, bring the negative to a minilab.

But in any case, an old picture reborn on an iPhone is better than any image forgotten in a shoe box.


Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4x6 print on a flatbed scanner
Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4×6 print on a flatbed scanner

The original images were shot in France in “les Gorges du Verdon”, a small scale version of the Grand Canyon, in 2001. I don’t remember which camera I was using.

Smart phones and photography – a follow up


A few weeks ago, I was commenting that the market segment of low end digital cameras (let’s say anything not equipped with a zoom) was in danger of extinction, being superseded by smart phones.

Camera of the Nokia N8
The lens of the Nokia N8 - it bears the glorious Tessar name and as a true Tessar lens incorporates 4 elements, all aspherical this time. The Xenon flash is positioned above the lens.

Nokia’s previous high end models were already fitted with a “Carl Zeiss lens” and a 12 Mpixel sensor. A review of the new Nokia N8 by cnet shows that smart phone photography has reached a new level. With its 4 elements lens (all aspherical) and a Xenon flash, the Nokia N8 is in a class of its own, somewhere between the other smart phones and good point and shoot cameras. And Zeiss was obviously very proud of its contribution at the latest Photokina.


According to DPreview, Panasonic has started a teaser campaign to prepare the launch of “Lumixphones“, with a Lumix digital camera built in. Of particular interest is the fact that the camera section will include a mobile version of the “Venus” image processing engine. I suppose it is relatively easy to order and integrate a tiny image sensor and a small lens in a phone, but good digital images are created by good processing algorithms much more than by good lenses. The image processing section is the real differentiator and that’s where Panasonic may shine. When will we see smart phones with Canon Digic 4 or Nikon Expeed 2 image processors?


At the same time, Motorola and T-Mobile started releasing information about the DEFY, a rugged smart phone using the Android operating system. Scratch and water resistant, it boasts a 5 Mpixel camera with autofocus capabilities. It is not suitable for underwater photography, but another model may be in a few months.


The iPhone 4, with a 5 Mpixel sensor coupled with an autofocus lens (focal length: 3.5mm, equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm film camera), gives surprisingly good results on close-ups and when shooting relatively well lit interiors. It is also very good at taking pictures of big objects like cars and trucks. It is more difficult to get good results when shooting people – it is not as good as a regular camera at finding the right color balance; getting decent action shots is even harder. As for landscapes and low light situations (the “flash” is a joke), it’s bordering the impossible. Dedicated and talented iPhone users like Xeni Jardin can take incredible action shots with an iPhone 4, though, so the limit is obviously the photographer.


The focus of this site is film photography, and I will keep on shooting film and writing about film cameras. But using a film camera (or a regular digital camera) is not always a practical proposition, and sometimes a smart phone’s camera can save your day.



The Pool Table - Graceland (Memphis, TN)
The Pool Table - Graceland (Memphis, TN). Shot with an iPhone 4 - HDR activated
Hood ornament - Chevrolet - 1954
Hood ornament on a Chevrolet Police Car from 1954 - Shot in Tunica, MS with an iPhone 4 - HDR activated.