It began in the tenth grade. Right amid a regular (read: boring) Physics class, the teacher began a chapter on Light and Optics. The subject stirred something inside me; I was looking forward to an experiment we were asked to work on to calculate focal length of a lens by projecting an image on a white screen. Next to our Physics laboratory in school was a tree, which would inadvertently become the first image I’d recreate on a white screen with the help of lenses. My face lit up as soon as I saw the reflection of an inverted tree. For my classmates, it was yet another assignment; to me, it marked the beginning of a life-long passion for visuals.
In 2006, the Internet was an unobvious medium to read and research for middle-class households in India. Thus, I turned my attention to books on photography that spelt out different concepts and listed out the achievements of stalwarts in the profession. During math classes, I would tuck these books underneath the algebra textbook and read them as the teacher solved equations on the blackboard. At home, my parents would take heart that their son had locked himself up in a room to study algebra when, in fact, he would be flipping the pages of photography books.
Soon, there came a time when I wanted to turn my passion into something more tangible. That’s when I borrowed my family’s treasured Yashica DX MF-2 camera. It had a 38mmf/3.8 fixed focal lens, which meant there was no focus or aperture control ring. Since I couldn’t afford to buy many film rolls, my experiments were restricted, though I found some keen models in my family members.
With time, I learned the science as well as the art of photography. It was also the dawn of a digital era, which only helped matters. My next experimental tool would be the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ8, which came with an 8-megapixel sensor. Digital photography opened up a world of opportunities – finally, I could experiment with shutter speed, aperture and ISO to see how manipulating these would impact photographs. Each of these experiments brought me closer to a realisation – I was destined to be a photographer. When I broke the news during a family lunch, the only piece of advice I received was from my father – “Whatever you do, be sure to make a future out of it.”
Graduating in visual communication with a Canon EOS 500D, I came to also realise that the camera is only a medium; the real image is conjured in the mind first. It is not the camera that makes an image, it is the man behind it. My emphasis then was not only on being technically sound, but also have a perspective on my subject and tell the story through my eyes. A picture, after all, speaks a thousand words.
Today, cameras have come a long way. What began with light-sensitive plates graduated to films and then SLR and DSLR, and now we find ourselves in the age of mirrorless cameras. This evolution has also meant that smartphone photography is now a genre in itself. In the year 2000, Sharp came up with the first camera phone in Japan. The SCH-V200 flip phone had a 0.35 megapixel camera that could be connected to a computer where the pictures taken from the gadget could be downloaded. Many pixels and software enhancements later, smartphone photography has reached a point where their manufacturers contend that these are “cameras that fit in your pocket, but produce the same results as a proper camera”. Is there considerable truth in that claim? If only the answers were that simple.
Smartphone cameras have four key components that define the quality of the photos – the sensor, lens, software and, of course, the user. But let’s keep the jargon aside for now.
Over the years, smartphones have become sleeker. Raise your hand if you still remember the Nokia 3310! And now compare it with an iPhoneXS. Yep, that’s how far we have come. In a bid to keep phones handier, manufacturers often find themselves challenged in terms of how big a sensor they can use. The sensor determines the quality of a photograph. A ‘proper’ camera features either a cropped sensor (size 22.3mm x 14.9mm) or a full-frame 35-mm sensor. To give a perspective, an iPhone XS – arguably, one of the most ‘modern’ smartphones in the market – comes with a 7.01mm x 5.79 mm sensor. How does it matter? Well, a bigger sensor means more pixels, wider field of view and more depth. The size of the sensor also impacts low-light photography.
The other factor is the lens. Smartphone cameras are limited to fixed focal lengths. Although many recent smartphones do come with varying focal lengths, their optical quality cannot be compared with that of a professional camera.
The third factor is the software. Photographs taken using a DSLR need manual processing, using photo editing software while smartphone camera processes the photos for you, which, in turn, means that you have little control over the final image.
It’s smart of the smartphone manufacturers to have their customers believe that possessing a high-end smartphone can make you a photographer. But the reality is far from that.
To cope with limitations in smartphone photography, manufacturers today are working on computational photography. This means that apart from the software processing, a special algorithm is designed to help make pictures look nicer. Their idea is – make great-looking images, not great images. Needless to say, this method has shortcomings. For example, the most commonly used feature by smartphone users is the portrait mode, which creates a fake “out of focus” or blur area behind the subject, mimicking the lenses of a proper camera. The fake blur does not always work as expected and often leads to horrible results.
Today, the platforms for photo consumption have also changed. Instagram and other photo-sharing social media channels, that come with many filters, have become go-tos for spotting beautiful pictures. What smartphone photography then provides is a quick fix and a sleeker instrument to capture moments. There is also no doubt that it has got more people interested in photography. To answer the question raised earlier: no, smartphones cannot replace professional cameras and vice-versa. The idea should be to have both forms of photography co-exist, and push their respective creative boundaries.