Can the iPhone Replace Your Camera?

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Can the iPhone Replace Your Camera?

If the best camera is the one you always have with you, but the photos it produces aren't very good, is it really the best camera? That's a question I've thought about a lot. Knowing what I know about my Sony cameras and my iPhone, can I faithfully replace the latter with the former and not feel like I'm operating at a significant disadvantage? It's an important question because so much of what I share on this website and YouTube channel is focused on mobile photography. I even wrote this lengthy article explaining why I think smartphone photography has so much potential.

So, I decided to test myself by leaving all of my Sony gear behind, relying solely on my iPhone 15 Pro Max, my tripod, and a handful of filters while going on a trip to Utah. As a spoiler alert, I can tell you that I did create a number of photos with my iPhone that I'm really happy with. However, I won't pretend that everything was perfect or that I didn't find myself wishing that I had my Sony camera at times. And that's what I'd like to focus on for this article: the good and the bad with solely relying on my iPhone on a short photo trip.

Trip details and gear

The logistics of my trip was that I drove to Moab from December 21 - 24, visiting Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Goblin Valley State Park, along with various turnouts in between. As I mentioned, my only camera was the iPhone 15 Pro Max. I didn't use any 3rd party lenses, such as the Reeflex G-Series lenses, because they weren't available to me at the time. I am expecting to receive the final production versions of these lenses soon and will definitely create new content using them.

I also brought my Really Right Stuff travel tripod (TQC-14 + BH-25) and some older screw-on CPL and ND filters, but I didn't have much of a chance to use them (I'll explain more about that in a bit). Finally, because the iPhone drains its battery faster when you are heavily using the camera functions, I had two Anker battery packs: the Anker Prime bank for when my iPhone was really thirsty and the smaller Anker Nano bank when I wanted to top off the battery.

Turning the iPhone into a camera

One concept that dawned on me as I prepared for this trip is that, while the iPhone is an exceptionally capable picture-taking device, it doesn't exactly resemble a camera. As photographers, we have a muscle memory built in when we reach out for our cameras. Specifically, our instinct is for our right hands to grab the camera by its grip, and our thumbs and index fingers manipulate dials, wheels, and buttons. Our phones have much sleeker form factors, and the only option is to either use two hands to grab it at its edges or claw the device with one hand.

So, I thought it'd be interesting to see if I could find some accessories that'd allow my iPhone to adopt the form factor of a camera. Thankfully, I found a great kit of accessories for the iPhone that does exactly that. It's called the LightChaser 15 by PolarPro. I've owned several products by PolarPro, so I had high expectations that this kit would do the trick. I also recorded this short review video illustrating how I used it.

What I liked about using my iPhone as a camera

As you'd expect, there's a lot to like about the iPhone as a camera. It balances flexibility and image quality without the bulk of a dedicated camera and lenses. It offers enough manual control over the exposure that you can get some impressive compositions. And its sensor allows you to capture in both RAW and ProRAW formats, giving you even more flexibility when editing your images.

One of the little tricks that I really enjoyed was taking a series of vertical photos that I'd stitch together to form a high-res panoramic image. I especially liked pairing that function with the outstanding 5x (120mm-equivalent) telephoto lens on the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Doing so allowed me to capture expansive scenes while retaining pleasing compression.

The only downside is that Lightroom Mobile still does not support pano stitching (or HDR tone-mapping), so I had to wait until I was at my laptop and could use Lightroom Desktop. The bright side to using Lightroom, though, is that all of my photos had already synced to the cloud from my iPhone and were waiting for me on my laptop. Be sure to check out my course, Lightroom Everywhere, to learn everything you'd ever want to know about this outstanding cloud-based ecosystem of apps. 

Aside from that, my goal was to approach my photography the same way I would if I had my Sony gear. I knew that I had three built-in lenses and a fixed number of focal lengths at my disposal. I also knew that I had the ability to control the shutter speed (to a degree) and the ISO for my exposures (iPhones have fixed apertures, so you can't adjust that). Given that information, I looked for compositions the same way I always had and worked with the capabilities that were available to me.

Because these areas are SO vast, I spent a lot of time looking for interesting foreground elements to frame my subjects that were almost always off in the distance. I'd have to do this regardless of the camera that I was using, although you could argue that having access to 200mm or longer would make the compression more noticeable. Still, I was happy with how much more nimble I was by only holding a phone rather than my entire camera kit.

One final thing that I really enjoyed was experimenting with infrared photography. Before my trip, I ordered this Hoya 67mm R72 filter to use with my PolarPro filter adapter. I admit that the process of correctly exposing and editing infrared photos using an iPhone will require a lot more experimentation, but it was still a ton of fun. I especially want to thank my friend, Nick Sinnott, from Chicago Photography Classes, for introducing me to this new avenue of mobile photography.

What I didn't like about using my iPhone as a camera

Despite having a blast using my iPhone as my only camera, there were a few issues that frustrated me. Of course, it'd be great to have a massive full-frame sensor and all of my Sony optics, but then I wouldn't be using my iPhone. So, yes, there is something to be said about that. On top of that, having true access to full exposure control, including a variable aperture, would be fantastic.

Being able to separate my subject from the background using a wide aperture is a critical compositional technique. However, iPhone photos tend to look sharp and flat throughout the entire image. That's why computational photography (i.e., Portrait Mode) exists. Fortunately, we can further simulate a shallow depth of field using Lightroom's Lens Blur tool. Still, I do miss being able to control my exposure settings fully.

And I do legitimately miss using a viewfinder and a rear tilt display. While it's great to see my entire composition on the iPhone's large display, it can be difficult to frame things up when the sun is blaring or when you want to position the camera at an odd angle.

In terms of accessories, I was most excited to use the PolarPro 67mm filter adapter with my older Formatt Hitech Firecrest circular polarizer filter. All of those orange and red rocks would contrast really nicely against the blue sky, especially when using a polarizer filter. Everything mounted properly, but I lost faith in the filter after seeing some very odd banding, especially in vertical photos.

I have no idea why that filter would cause the banding, but I know that it wasn't present in photos when the filter was removed. I don't know if it's the filter or a byproduct of using the iPhone's lenses and sensors. But, I've since received a set of magnetic filters, including circular and linear polarizers, by Maven Filters and will be testing them extensively. Still, it was frustrating because I really liked the photos from that location, but the banding basically rendered them useless.

Another issue worth highlighting is the fact that this device is not a dedicated camera. What I mean by that is it does take some time between frames if you're shooting at 48-megapixel ProRAW or even 12-megapixel RAW. With my Sony camera, I can rifle off huge bursts of full-resolution uncompressed RAW files, and they'll be written to my SD card almost instantly. With the iPhone, despite its ridiculously powerful processor, it may sometimes require a few seconds before you can take another photo. It really depends on how many you just took.

Also, acting as a full-screen viewfinder and camera is power-intensive. Depending on the age of your phone and the condition of your battery, that could result in accelerated power drain. Even with my four-month-old iPhone, I put a beat down on my battery each day. That's why having a fast-charging power bank is mandatory.

Wrapping it up

Despite the issues and limitations I just listed, I truly am as excited as ever at the possibility of using my iPhone as my primary camera. In reality, you'll never know just how far you can push your smartphone camera until you give it a genuine try. But, as I've written before, the key is to treat your photography using a smartphone as seriously as you would using a regular camera.

If you make the effort to find a compelling subject with interesting light, it really doesn't matter which camera you're holding. You'll be able to do some amazing things, I promise.

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