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Smartphone cameras still no match for dedicated devices

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-06-16 09:32

Smartphones have revolutionized photography in the last decade or so, solidifying the mantra that "the best camera is the one you have with you". Purpose-built camera devices, however, are still used by professionals and dedicated amateurs across Asia. These technologies still have a place in the world of photography, even as iPhone filters and Android zoom lenses dominate the market and social media sphere, a non-negotiable feature for all cellphone devices. Despite the newest and latest developments, however, there is still no substitute for using a dedicated physical camera for creating photography either as a hobby or for professional display.

Many pricey phones are still unable to compete with DSLR devices (digital single lens reflex), which typically provide better images in low light with the flexibility of attaching a diversity of macro or telescopic lenses. When it comes to studying subjects far away or right up close and personal, a photo on your iPhone will not compete. Internationally renowned photography contests such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year would be impossible, with blurry images of creatures scared off the moment an iPhone or Android device reached within focusing distance.

However, the gap is narrowing. Many mobile handsets boast zoom settings of up to 100x, meaning that snapping a flying bird in your garden may not be a complete waste of time and SD card space. However, such zoom functions are only ever digital, meaning that pixels are artificially expanded, leading to a degradation of the image. True optical zoom is something phones are struggling to integrate, and even the most basic entry-level DSLR camera can provide authentic close shots with ease. Modern DSLR cameras also typically have full frame sensors. This means that a large surface area enables more light to be absorbed, ideal for night shoots or capturing fast-moving objects. This is a mechanism which would be impossible to pack into the slim, bitesize dimensions of a smartphone.

Until recently, photography in a 'bokeh' style (shots with stylistically out-of-focus backgrounds) was associated with professional image taking. These days, however, many phones offer artificial bokeh filters, allowing portraits to suggest intimacy with focused centerpieces and a dreamy, blurred background. This is achieved by an AI program which recognizes the centerpiece and separates the outline of the subject accordingly. This system is not perfect, however, and jagged edges or imperfectly blurred lines are soon noticeable, at least with the current generation of mobile devices. An entry-level DSLR lens such as the Canon 55mm achieves the same effect manually, with crisp, clear contrast between the subject and background. Using software to digitally replicate these optical effects still has some room to improve.

Large and cumbersome cameras may not be the right fit for the casual photographer, but those looking to optimize their photographic experience are still better off choosing a dedicated device. This is not to say that smartphone cameras are useless. The compact requirements of modern devices mean that an extraordinary amount of technology is packed into the latest phone models. The technical barrier for entry is also removed, with the average consumer able to enjoy taking photos without having to learn about apertures, aspect ratios or shutter speeds. Convenience is king, and making photography accessible for everyone can only be a positive. Those who continue on to develop a passion for the hobby, however, may soon find their phone camera is inadequate for the creativity that they wish to express.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.

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