Smartphone Photography Apologetics

iphone lightroom everywhere newsletter mobile
Smartphone Photography Apologetics

I want to begin by defining apologetics because I don’t want you to think this article involves me being sorry about smartphone photography. It’s quite the opposite. The Oxford English Dictionary defines apologetics as:

Reasoned arguments in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.

In this article, I'll provide "reasoned arguments" for treating your smartphone photography with the same intent and vigor as your dedicated mirrorless or DSLR camera — because many treat mobile photography as a novelty and the images we take as snapshots.

I also want to preface that while I refer to and use my Apple iPhone as my mobile camera—and have since 2008—this article applies to all smartphone cameras. This is 100% not a slight against Android users. I refer to iPhone photography because that’s what I use.

It’s often said that the best camera is the one you always have with you. I am in complete agreement with that. However, does it matter that your camera is accessible just by reaching into your pocket if you don’t apply the same rigor to getting an impactful or creative photo?

“Wow, that’s quite the professional camera you’ve got there!”

I’m sure many of you can relate to this scenario. You’re either situated somewhere with your camera or walking to a location with your tripod and camera slung over your shoulder. As you walk past some people, one of them says, “Wow, that’s quite the professional camera you’ve got there!” The implication is that the size and heft of your camera and accessories define the quality and strength of your photos. Usually, photographers summon the analogy of a chef whose food is delicious because of the oven they used to cook it. “Oh wow, this dish tastes so good! You must have used a really great oven!”

iPhone 15 Pro Max | November 3, 2023

In some cases, the camera does play an important role in the visual quality of the photo. The best example of this is the film camera. It is undeniable that using different film stocks lends distinctly unique looks to the developed photo, and for many analog photographers, that result is as important as the composition itself. It’s similar to an audiophile who prefers listening to vinyl records because of the richness that the medium offers. My concern is when analog photographers promote the film’s aesthetics above the composition and execution of exposure. In other words, the photo is more about the sizzle than the steak.

Does size matter?

You’ve probably heard the age-old photography adage, “Composition is king,” right? I fully rally behind that ethos because your composition ultimately defines everything that falls within the four walls of your frame. Sure, exposing your photo correctly is a close second, but what is more important: getting a properly exposed photo of an uninteresting composition or an interesting composition that has been improperly exposed? I’d argue for the latter. I can always fix an improperly exposed photo (within reason), but it’s much harder to make a boring photo more interesting (and using generative fill technology doesn’t count here).

iPhone 13 Pro Max | October 1, 2021

So, here’s my next question: does it matter what camera you use to get an interesting composition? In other words, do you relax your standards of getting a great photo just because you’re using your mobile phone? Another way to ask that question is, do you set a higher standard for your photography when you use your dedicated mirrorless or DSLR camera instead of your mobile phone? The answer to that question brings us to the crux of my argument for treating your photography with the same creative vigor regardless of the camera in your hands.

Stand in front of more interesting stuff

National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson is attributed with the quote, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” Do you notice that Richardson did not say, “If you want to be a better photographer, get a better camera.”? That’s because the camera is just a tool, and the effort you should put into getting a strong composition does not vary based on its size, weight, or sensor.

Don’t believe me? I took this collection of photos between 2009 and 2010 with my iPhone 3Gs… a smartphone with a single lens and a 3-megapixel sensor. When I took these photos, I applied the same intention and effort as when I used my Canon 5D Mark II. Sure, my iPhone didn’t have a fraction of the exposure control or focal length maneuverability, but that didn’t stop me from trying to find a compelling composition. While the image quality produced by the iPhone 3Gs’s meager sensor is laughable by today’s standards, I still applied the same care in post-processing. I even used Lightroom’s Super Resolution feature to double the resolution.

iPhone 3Gs | October 15, 2009

iPhone 3Gs | October 23, 2009

iPhone 3Gs | October 20, 2009

iPhone 3Gs | July 10, 2010

We are in a smartphone photography renaissance

There is only one reason to attribute the staggering nosedive that the camera industry experienced from around 2010 onward: the introduction, proliferation, and massive improvements of the smartphone camera.

While this dramatic drop in shipped cameras consists heavily of point & shoot models with integrated lenses (the very thing that smartphones have supplanted), you could argue that this would affect casual photographers most because they’re the ones who typically purchased that class of camera. In fact, data shows a dramatic drop in camera ownership in just four years.

Does that mean that smartphone cameras are only useful for the casual picturetaker? Absolutely not! Each year, when smartphone manufacturers release their latest models, what’s one of the most important features they tout? The camera system! They show off the latest in sensor technology (e.g., the iPhone 15 Pro has a 48-megapixel sensor), the improvement in optics (e.g., the iPhone 15 Pro Max has a 120mm equivalent telephoto lens), and—most importantly—the evolution of their computational image editing pipeline (e.g., Apple’s Photonic Engine). That is fundamentally the most important thing to close the gap between the quality of photos taken with a smartphone and a dedicated camera.

Computational photography refers to the editing process that the smartphone applies to each photo as it's taken. It can do everything from stitching multiple exposures for optimal tone to ensuring that the correct subject is in focus to providing stellar low-light results… in milliseconds. That’s not to say photographers don’t have deep editing control after taking the photo. You can still edit all that sensor data provided you set your smartphone camera to shoot RAW, which most devices support.

On top of that, the explosion of the smartphone market has ushered in a major accessories industry that is expanding creative and technical possibilities. One accessory class I’m most excited about is add-on lenses. I recently shared a first-look video of Reeflex’s upcoming G-Series lens kit designed to take advantage of the iPhone’s larger sensor. With these lenses, I can utilize the full sensor AND adapt my focal length optically instead of relying on degradation from digital zoom.

So, what should you do?

I bring these elements up because we’re entering a smartphone photography renaissance, where hobbyists, enthusiasts, and professionals are pushing the boundaries of what you achieve. But I also know it's easy to say these things without doing something about it. My best advice is to apply the same composition and editing techniques that you use with a dedicated camera to your smartphone camera. That's the beauty of it all! The same principles and visual guides you use with your camera apply to your smartphone. Things like:

  • Using the rule of thirds to lay out your composition
  • Finding a strong foreground element to anchor your shot
  • Using leading lines to draw the viewer's eyes through the frame
  • Not taking every photo at eye level, but kneeling or raising your camera over your head for alternative perspectives

Most importantly, I'd say that the quality of light and weather will have as much of an impact on your mobile photos as your regular ones. Both your camera and smartphone can take outstanding photos when you apply the same discipline and vigor.

Still not convinced? Here’s a small collection of my favorite photos taken over the last several years using various iPhone models. At no time did I ever feel like I was at a disadvantage because I wasn’t using my dedicated mirrorless camera.

iPhone 15 Pro Max | November 19, 2023

iPhone Xs Max | February 27, 2019

iPhone 11 Pro Max | November 15, 2019

iPhone 15 Pro Max | October 19, 2023

iPhone 12 Pro Max | November 21, 2020

You can—and should—have fun with it

My goal with this article is not to guilt or shame you by implying that there is no room to use your smartphone camera to rifle off a bunch of snapshots of a funny, candid, or precious moment. In fact, that is one of the key selling points that smartphone manufacturers, especially Apple, tout. I have thousands of snapshots in my camera roll that serve no purpose but to capture a particular moment I want to remember. And while most of those photos have hardly any artistic merit, I wouldn’t trade them in for all the award-winning photos in the world.

Rather, I want to remind you that while your little pocket camera is amazing at capturing all those personal and fleeting moments, it’s also a powerhouse that can help you create photos every bit as striking and showstopping as your dedicated camera… if you put in the same effort.

My Latest Video: 7 Lightroom Desktop Tricks For Better Photo Editing

Are you using these seven secret Lightroom editing tricks? Each one will supercharge your photo editing skills in no time.

Lighten up your photo workflow.

The weekly newsletter for Lightroom users who want to take better photos with any camera (especially the one in their pocket), edit on any device, and streamline their gear. Sign up for free!