selfaware soup

Esther Weidauer

Phone Photography

The "best camera" does not really work for me


In 2010 Chase Jarvis published “The Best Camera Is the One That’s with You”, a book about iPhone photography accompanied by an app and online community. It was a big deal at a time when smartphone cameras’ image quality was still quite bad and nowhere near a level where they could really replace a dedicated camera, not even a good point-and-shoot. Nobody took an iPhone seriously as a tool for “good” photography and a lot of photographers even made fun of it. It was all very elitist and full of gate-keeping.

They were all proven wrong of course. Smartphone cameras are much more capable today in 2023 than in 2010 and they are perfectly fine for what most people want out of their camera. They have effectively replaced the low-to-mid level range of small point-and-shoot cameras, and professional photographers use them in their work where appropriate. They have lowered the barrier to entry for photography to near-zero and more people take photos today than ever before, which is great. I could argue that they have also lowered the expectations towards what a camera should do in some unhelpful and non-obvious ways and led to a certain standardization of the form, which is not so cool, but that’s an argument for another piece (that I will totally write and not just forget about).

At the time Jarvis’ book made the point that smartphone cameras have one critical advantage: you pretty much always have them with you so when faced with a photo opportunity that the phone can at all handle, you won’t find yourself regretting that you didn’t bring a camera. And there’s merit to this idea. A photo taken at all, even with an iPhone 3GS (released the year before the book came out, and really not a good camera), is better than a photo not taken at all. It’s hard to argue against that. And for people who take photos wherever the opportunity arises, it’s absolutely true.

This also factors into one of the most basic and successful tricks of good photography: “take a lot of pictures”. If you take more shots you’ll end up with more good ones, both due to more opportunities and the practice you get. Of course the latter part only works if you do actually learn something in the process and don’t rely on quantity alone. This is also how a lot of “action” photography works (e.g. sports, live performances, etc) where intentionally planning the perfect shot just isn’t possible due to fast moving subjects. Smartphones have also made this method of taking many shots a lot easier.

But none of this really works for me.

I dug through my photo library trying to find all the photos taken on a smartphone and picking the ones that I consider “good” or at least “interesting” in a photographic sense. Sure there’s tons of pictures in there that I like for sentimental reasons like vacation and family photos but that doesn’t make them “good photos” in the context of this exercise.

My library spans seven years and contains 5628 photos that were taken by any camera that has the term “iPhone” in its name. Since I didn’t have any non-iphone phones during that time, that should cover it.

I ended up with 19.

Nineteen photos over seven years is not exactly great and it’s far less compared to the work I have done with dedicated cameras. None of these have ended up in my main portfolio either. They’re good but not that good.

Of course this is highly subjective and others have built entire very impressive portfolios on smartphone photos. But after such a significant time I think it’s clear that the smartphone is not working for me as a tool for photography that I consider “my work as a photographer”. And my recent dive back into film photography confirms this. Pictures that I spend more time and effort on tend to turn out better. I theoretically could put the same amount of care into smartphone photos as well, but in practice I just don’t.

It’s too convenient, too easy, too quick. I don’t get into a mindset where I take time, position myself carefully, maybe even scout out locations and return a day later with heavier gear. I thrive in inconvenience and idiosyncratic processes. That’s not to say that this is a “better” approach to photography overall, but it is the one that works better for me.