I'm not a person who bets money on stuff but if I did I'd say it's a sure bet that the new, three lens iPhone 11 is the nail in the coffin for much of the traditional camera world.

Selena at Willie Nelson's ranch. 

I bought an iPhone XR a few months ago and I'm pretty impressed with the images I can get out of the camera. It's not a "real camera" replacement for me for a zillion reasons (the lens isn't long enough) but it does a good job for all the times when I just need some quick, wide angle documentation of "stuff."

But when I saw the introduction of the new phones from Apple that include a portrait lens, a slightly wide lens, and a full-on super wide angle lens, along with even faster processing, and computational tools that enable users to easily blur backgrounds, and also shoot very good 4K video, I more or less found myself thinking that the writing is on the wall for the mass abandonment of traditional cameras by a whole new tranche of former camera users.

The Xs and X iPhones that are the current flagships in the phone line (until next week) have great cameras in them already but the "11" models seem to me as though Apple stopped thinking in terms of designing a set of phones with cameras and started thinking in terms of designing brilliant, little cameras that can also text, make a call, or assist me in making a mobile deposit of that check I got last week from a client. The mindset changed; now they are designing communications tools with a hard and sharp emphasis on photography and videography and they will pull in a large number of former stand alone camera buyers for whom photography is no longer the center of their universe. But I don't even mean that these people have downrated their enjoyment of or participation in photography but that they no longer want to buy cameras, test lenses, learn antiquated rules and aesthetic "guard rails".  (cough, cough, looking at you Rule of Thirds). They just want to easily take photos and videos and share them with friends, family, and far flung strangers who might just hit the "like" button on Instagram or Flickr. They want a transparent experience and one that's more or less instantaneous, from capture to share.

Before you run screaming from the room I have a few pieces of anecdotal evidence I'd like to share...
One of my close associates is a videographer with many years of hard won experience. He is sooooo not a millennial. Anyway, he works with large clients like Subway, USAA, NXP, Purina and many others. His video work is superb and usually he does his work with a Sony FS7, or a couple of Sony A7R2 cameras, and a box full of great lenses. He wrapped a daylong shoot a few weeks ago and packed all the cases into his car only to remember that he needed some beauty footage of the headquarters building for his client. He was exhausted and didn't feel like pulling out the cases of gear, assembling cameras and lenses and putting them all on a big video tripod. His choices were to either use his iPhone Xs to do the video or come back on another day when he had the energy to set up the whole assemblage.

He opted to use his phone for the footage. His phone was ably assisted by a $15 app called, FilmicPro. It gave him a better codec than the one built in by Apple, as well as total control over all the usual, professional video settings. The built-in image stabilization worked perfectly and he ended up with some very beautiful video of the building and the surrounding campus. He incorporated it into the final video project and it was, for all intents and purposes, a seamless inclusion. Proof once again that the camera is secondary to the eye and the experience of the user.

I have another friend who is a full time photographer. He pooh-poohed my standing rule about always bringing along a back-up camera on a paying assignment and found himself stuck near the end of a location shoot on which he was responsible for making portraits of a number of execs. His newish Sony camera crapped out/died with two exec portraits still to go and he momentarily panicked, then he pulled out his phone, dialed in a good exposure for his LED lights and completed the shoot with his iPhone.

He needed to do a bit of Photoshopping to match the out of focus backgrounds he was able to get with his full frame camera but when he showed me the final, retouched images and asked me to compare it was a very close call. I'm certain his clients had nothing to complain about. Sure beats him flying back to Vancouver on his own dime to pick up the two people who were scheduled at the end of the job....

I'm not saying that I'm ready to give up my "single purpose" cameras yet. There's a ton of work that I and others among us do that can't be handled right now by iPhone cameras. Stuff that requires long lenses, low noise under low light, fast focusing, total control, etc. But there is a lot of personal stuff that's easily handled by those little Swiss Army Knife communication tools.

But it's the video field in which the newest iPhones currently hold the most promise. With an application like FilmicPro you can have nearly absolute control over the "camera" in your hands. There is even a Log setting for increased dynamic range (although the computational exposure control seems to provide an optimum level of D-range already). It's no exaggeration that I could easily shoot interviews, stage documentation and art video with any of the latest cameras and the only stuff I'd have to compensate for is how to work with audio. There are tools that allow you to bring the signals from professional microphones directly into the phone/camera but the interface (screen area) gets too crowded to work with fine-tuning levels, and also there are limitations to monitoring the audio as well.

But filmmakers have worked for decades with dual sound systems, using external audio recorders for many of the same reasons. Even with fully outfitted dedicated video cameras. A small, separate audio recorder provides a lot of flexibility....

The latest thing to pique my interest is the flood into the market of very able and very inexpensive gimbals made for the phones. You can now do "Steadi-Cam" work that rivals the stuff we're were raised with in movies and all it costs is an additional couple hundred dollars and a few weeks of practice.

If I was to recommend a new camera to someone who wants to record their daily life, record family vacations, take portraits of their kids and generally do all the photography most people use conventional cameras for I would probably steer them towards a great phone. The only caveat would be if they required the reach and focusing acumen required for shooting fast moving sports. If they have a kid playing soccer then all bets are off but if the mainstay of their oeuvre is taking snaps of their lunch, and selfies with the city skyline in the background....then what the hell?

My kneejerk reaction to "iPhone-ography" when it first popped up (2009-2010-ish) was to be dismissive. The cameras in the phones weren't at parity yet. But now? Now my only objections to embracing the phone as a fully functional imaging tool for many uses is my (dumb) nostalgia for the form factor of traditional cameras and my habituation with them. Strip all that away and just judge the images on an objective basis and you'll find conventional cameras quickly becoming more and more niche.

If I were zooming around the world taking travel videos I'd be at the Apple store right now, standing in line waiting to get two of the newest phones. (You still always need a back up......).

Will traditional cameras survive? Sure, until all of us old guys die out and photography moves past our collective memory of those super star photographers from the last century who carried a worn Leica over one shoulder on a leather strap well seasoned with ample gravitas. Or our memories of the great studio shooters of our time looking casually over the tops of their motor driven Hasselblads.

We shoot what we shoot (in terms of cameras) because we know and trust what we're most used to. But I'm already thinking of tossing my new iPhone XR to Ben and having a (manufactured) reason to get an iPhone 11. And, yes, I'll use it in 4K for my next video project, securely clamped onto a $200 gimbal and giving me new capabilities that I only dreamed of a few years ago.

Yes, just as I stated a few years back that we could use a Sony RX10ii or iii for 95% of our commercial projects, I'm just about to that mindset with the latest phone tech. And too many people have already proven the concept for anyone to argue otherwise....


Michael Matthews said...

I agree fully. Now stand by for an avalanche of phone photos from people like me who picked up a phone and surprised themselves.

Dave Jenkins said...

Whatever. Me, I just like cameras and like to use them. That's one reason I like the Fuji X-Pro series so much. They make the camera much more a part of the photographic experience than most other cameras. I like twin-lens reflexes for the same reason.

Phones may make okay photos, but they don't give me no satisfaction.

Mister Ian said...

Yes! After seeing the Apple event I'm putting my RX10 II and my Rx100 III on eBay and putting this money towards the new phone. I figured this was inevitable with "computational photography" aided by CPU improvements and additional lenses overcoming single big lenses and sensors.

Unknown said...

I'm old and getting older. Give me a viewfinder (electronic or optical) or give me death. Don't keep me to that!

Mark the tog said...

I have been saying pretty much the same thing these past few years.

In the film days of the 70's photography using SLRs was the province of moneyed enthusiasts and pros. The expertise required and cash outlay required to develop skills with the gear were a limiting factor to widespread adoption of these cameras.

The Canon AE-1 changed that in 1976 by introducing an aggressively priced auto exposure camera that was heavily promoted on TV ( a first).
In a fortuitous coincidence, Noritsu introduced the the first One -Hour film processing lab in 1976. Now the bump in camera sales driven by TV was assisted by the delightfully speedy processing that lent immediacy to photography. Thus the enthusiast market grew as the barriers to entry were dropped. Weekend warriors shooting weddings on Saturday were delivering crappy albums by the next Friday. Event photography became a thing.
Digital was the next big breakthrough for those who really loved the shiny gear but were turned off by f-stops, shutter speeds and film processing. The market for expensive gear grew explosively as hordes of people with scant interest in technology were snapping up DSLRs in hopes of effortless excellence afforded by the latest tech.

When the phones started coming with cameras that actually were decent, many of those DSLR owners left them at home in favor of the phone they always carried. These were the people who really wanted to have a simple experience with pictures. They were ALWAYS going to leave the DSLR field as soon as something more convenient came along.

The phone will drain away those people who were never really enthusiasts to start with. As such, I believe the camera market will revert to the demographic of somewhat prosperous enthusiasts and pros albeit at a higher base than 1976. Think Leica, who has actually been prospering these last few years.
As of today, my clients still expect me to show up with a big camera and whack of lighting gear. In truth the iPhone 11Pro Max (mo screen mo betta) could actually do the work I generally do now.
And if I switched to fashion, it would be the only camera I needed. ;)

What will be an issue is whether this new normal can support the R&D needed to maintain interest in the big camera field.

Kristian Wannebo said...

> "..(the lens isn't long enough).."
Yes !
Now, how long a lens in a phone is practically possible?

Say you settle for moderate 12 Mpx.
And you want no diffraction, let's use the practical limit of aperture larger than 2x the pixel pitch in microns.
( A purist might suggest 1.5x.)

Then some simple arithmetic gives:
A 50mm-[35mm-eq.] lens needs a diameter of at least 3mm, an
85mm-eq a diameter of at least 5mm (i.e. divide by 17 - regardless of sensor size).
Modern phones are around 8mm thick.
And the inside? At most 5-6 mm.

So we *could* have a diffraction-free 12Mpx 80-90 mm-FFeq phone camera - but that's about the limit - or a thicker phone.

Anonymous said...


Totally agree. My wife ordered me an iPhone 11 Pro just yesterday. I've been procrastinating about updating the iPhone 6 I've used extensively since late 2014 and could no longer ignore the tremendous increase in capabilities over that period. As she was doing the "paperwork" I commented that my Sony a6000 may not go out much anymore.

Tom Powell

Spike said...

Not a fan of the slippery slabs. Lots of capability, but miserable handling. How did we get stuck with such an impractical form factor? (And why do we say "form factor" instead of "form.") Seems to me a number of years ago there were a few attempts to make cameras that also happened to be phones. I'd like to see that approach revived.

yanisha said...

Yes, the cameras in phones just keep getting better and better. But the phone cameras *still* haven't addressed many of their horrible shortcomings in relation to regular cameras. They may someday though. Just putting the innards of a high end phone camera in a more normal camera body with great ergonomics, fast operation, and either interchangeable lenses or a built-in lens that covered more use cases might be a real leap forward. It doesn't appear like the traditional camera companies will get there, but Apple, Samsung, etc. probably will.

The enthusiasm by camera reviewers, bloggers, and many users about the use of smartphone cameras is very interesting in light of all the agonizing about small details of regular camera ergonomics, the slightest differences in IQ, pixel peeping, slight differences in EVFs/OVFs, speed of operation, etc. that they do all the time. Then many will turn right around and say that smartphone cameras with super tiny sensors, horrible ergonomics, very slow operation, no viewfinder at all, etc. can replace their camera.

If they believe all they say then why don't they review these smartphone cameras using the same standards and rigor as compact cameras such as the Sony RX100VII and Panasonic LX100II?

I want to see smartphone cameras reviewed using the same standards. Pixel peep, measurebate, get into details of all the measurements for noise, dynamic range, speed of various operations, ergonomics, etc.

Where is all the measurement and dissecting of lens performance for smartphones like on regular cameras? Where are the comparisons of photos taken with smartphones and regular cameras? You know, using a studio setup at various ISO levels, zooming in to 100%, comparing with other cameras, and so on?

Or maybe camera reviews should be done like smartphone camera reviews if all those anal retentive camera review details are unimportant?

Frank Grygier said...

If you want a Sony Alpha camera in a cellphone take a look at an Experia 5. https://www.sonymobile.com/us/products/phones/xperia-5/features/. $800 for a Sony RX10 that makes phone calls.

typingtalker said...

Sony recently announced the A6600 two months before deliveries are scheduled which seemed strange. Maybe it was to prevent people like me from buying a new iPhone.

I use my "always with me" iCamera a lot but the Sony still makes better pictures and videos.

Craig Yuill said...

I think that you are correct that smartphones like the new iPhone 11 Pros represent the final nail in the coffin for much (not all) of the traditional camera world. Mind you, smartphones have been doing significant damage to that world for years, and that world still hasn't completely disappeared. In a similar manner to what you and others mentioned, I have been in situations where I had to add video clips shot on my smartphone to video clips I had taken with a regular camera. I prefer the regular camera video files, but smartphone files are better than no files I suppose. And since my smartphone is always with me, I can take pictures and video clips even if I have no regular camera with me.

That said, there are a few areas where no smartphone camera, even with the best cameras and computational photography capabilities, can touch other types of camera - long-telephoto work, action and underwater photography (a la GoPro), low-light photography, and serious video work, among others. The small sensors, limited focal-length range, fiddly form (factor), and lack of connections ultimately restrict the usefulness of these cameras for a lot of work. You want to plug in a good mic or strobe? Good luck. And are you really going to subject a $1000+ smartphone to harsh physical environments or underwater, where $300 rugged and action cameras rule?

And, although adding a smart-phone gimbal for video stabilization sounds great, that only works if the smartphone's stabilization system can be locked. I saw a test where one of these gimbals was tested with one of the latest iPhones, and the camera's optical stabilization elements could not be locked. The result was a jittery mess. Check if your smartphone's optical stabilization can be truly locked before buying one of those gimbals.

You might think then that a smartphone with a larger sensor, ability to change lenses and add accessories, and better ergonomics would be ideal. But I recall you tried a Samsung camera that ran on the Android OS a few years back - and you were somewhat critical of it. I wonder if this is an idea that is worth trying again, with some modifications.

In the end though, I think that while smartphone cameras keep getting better and better at taking still photos and videos, many of us who have those and regular cameras will continue to do what we are doing today - use both.

david place said...

Interesting post ... am personally moving more and more to the iPhone camera ... exploring RAW files on the iPhone has lead nowhere mainly due to lack of image stabilization ... does anyone else find it odd that FilmicPro is able to use image stabilization when none of the RAW camera app can?
I wish Apple would make stabilization available outside their camera app or offer RAW/jpg combos.
Another idea would be an app that could “back off” the applied settings (for instance: lessen saturation if it seems too much or decrease sharpening).
[Yes, Apple offers image editing but I’m thinking of ‘backing off’ rather than applying more.]

JoeR said...

I think that there may be a market for a hollow camera body that would hold (hide) an iPhone for the folks who fear they will not be respected for using only an iPhone for "serious" work. Throw in a lens or two that is nothing more than an empty tube with a clear glass front and you have a perfect system. Taking orders soon...

Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree, although I admit that I could also be wrong -- but only if "computational photography" gets a lot better than it is now. You're mostly talking about presentation on video, which is becoming dominant for many pro applications. But: **video is also running away from cell phones.** I currently have hanging on my wall an 80" Samsung 8K TV. I may be wrong about this, but to get the finest resolution that 8K is capable of, I believe you'd need to shoot with at least a 30+mp sensor. What's the iPhone? 12? Twelve is fine for things like viewing on cell phones and perhaps small prints, but then starts to lose it. If computational photography gets better -- read that as, "is able to fake it better" -- then maybe they can fake an 8K. But to do that with a video of any length, it would take an amazingly powerful computer plus amazing software. The alternative to all that amazing stuff would be a camera no better than the ones you're using now. (There are some physical problems with keeping sensors very small, as they must be in phones, and increasing the number of pixels. I believe that just as most TVs are now 4K, that in five years, most will be 8K, and I think that will be a big problem for people who shoot with iPhones.)

What the new iPhones are a nail in the coffin of, is the traditional point and shoot -- I'm thinking of the Kodak Instamatics that generated a million digital versions after the revolution. What you've been hit by, as many photographers have been, is the fact that you're simply amazed at how good iPhones are...for *what* they they are. That moment will pass.


Unknown said...

If some company took the innards of a high end phone camera, stuck it in the body of a minox sized camera, used micro sd cards, had an optical finder (an evf if they could make it fit),a battery which had a reasonable capacity, the handling of such a camera would be superior to any "smart" phone. Just my 2 cents.

Kristian Wannebo said...

Already done:
DXO One.

You set it up attached to an iPhone, mechanically or by Wifi, (Android version coming), and use it with or without the phone. I've also attached an OVF to mine.

1" sensor
32mm -[35mm-equal.] f/1.8 lens (a good one) with AF
Also does video.
The camera remembers all settings including distance, good for zone focusing.
Size: 65 x 48 x 22mm
A small filter holder is available, and a mini clamp for mounting it on a tripod.

I added the small underwater housing and so have an all weather camera.

crsantin said...

I agree. I've been saying the same thing for about a year now. Filmic Pro is a real eye-opener for video. The 4k in my old iPhone 7+ is really good. I now have a Zhiyun gimble for the phone as well. There are also grips you can buy for the iPhone that allow you to handle the phone like a traditional camera, complete with a shutter button. They work really well. I have my eye on a new one that also doubles as a battery grip, plugging into the lightning port of the phone to charge it while you shoot. I was at the local farmer's market last week and I used my iPhone exclusively and I have to say, I was quite pleased with the photos. Try an app like Focos if you want out of focus backgrounds and nice portraits. Use Camera + or Halide if you want to shoot RAW. All of my processing is done with Snapseed which is still available for your iPhone. I can't wait to get my hands on a newer phone. It's definitely the way forward for me and I'm actually quite excited about it...and I say this as a real camera lover who still occasionally shoots film and develops at home.

Hardison said...

Almost everything I shoot is in medium light (indoor ice rinks and that sort of thing), and almost everything is 1/400 or faster. I honestly haven't tried a cell phone, but I see people doing it all the time. (I assume the pictures they end up with are a blurry mess, which is my fault for not looking.)

I was looking at a full frame camera to get faster speeds and less noise, but I might have to re-think that and do some experiments. I appreciate the insight.

Ken said...

Great post! I hate to admit it, but ya, I'm becoming more and more of an iPhone photo guy. I moved to digital back in 2001 with the 3.3MP Canon D30 and never looked back. I dabbled with iPhone since the original, but until I got my Xs, never really considered it a replacement. I moved to little cameras a while back from travel and casual use (Ex. Sony RX100 VA, Typ 109, etc.).

Where is my mind today? I'll be moving to an iPhone 11 Pro and selling my current RX100 VA. It's been collecting a lot of dust since my Xs arrived. The 11 Pro will probably seal it for little cameras for me. This will leave me with the OM-D EM 1 Mii and the RX10 M2 only. The RX10 M2 is still going strong and my main video and can handle photos in all but the lowest light.

Scott said...

I agree, and I think it pretty much has already happened — especially since those photo features new to Apple phones are not new to smartphones generally. And I used to love compact cameras. Maybe I still do ....

Eric Rose said...

Smartphones can do everything. Or is it that we have so little in the way of standards these days we settle for just about anything if it makes our life a bit easier. Even with the latest and greatest Apple device there is no way it will produce the quality of imagery that a decent "real" digital camera will produce in the hands of a skilled professional. Now it's all about the Walmart mentality. I want it NOW, I want it CHEAP and I don't give a darn about quality. The very reason most photography and by extension most photographers have become a commodity. Easily replaced by the next unskilled "photographer" wielding a smartphone.

Vu Le, DDS said...

I've been designing photo products for other dentists for years. It wasn't until I released a smartphone rig that things really took off. And because current phones are f/1.5 and dual stabilized, you can use very small led panels to light with them vs a larger format camera.

I can give them a great lighting pattern but what I can't do is make the excessive compression and thin highlight detail go away. Nor can iphones set white balance with the default app. It just doesn't hold up to close inspection but nobody is doing that these days. People live with those limitations to have easy image taking. The alternative is the ubiquitous Canon rebel + ring light +100mm that every dentist buys, uses for a few months, and shelves.

I personally prefer micro four thirds setups in the office, but there's no arguing with what most other dentists want. An iPhone dental photo rig. (Apple seems to have a disproportionate hold on my industry colleagues just as it does in the general photographer world)

Gato said...

Good chance my next serious photo purchase (serious to me is anything over $500) will be a phone with a really good camera. My days of getting by with $99 Walmart specials may be over, along with my days of compact cameras.

I'd prefer to go the other way, I think: A small camera with a phone inside. But that seems unlikely to happen. So I'll go with the flow.

I can see a point within the next few years when my only need for a "real" camera will be to meet customer expectations on the job -- not the photo quality.


Jeff Smith said...

Kirk, I couldn't agree more. I am seriously expect that I will upgrade to the iPhone 11 Pro this fall. Up to this point (I have an iPhone 7) other than in really good lit situations a phone just wouldn't satisfy me for picture quality. But times are a changing and I really want to carry less in my travels not more. If this phone is as good as we are being led to believe it's a shoe-in. Plus Apple's "Deep Fusion" merging of multiple pictures for higher resolution which is coming this fall should only make it better.

I just got back from a trip to England and Wales, and although my kit was relatively light Fuji XT-30, 18mm f2 lens, 35mm f2 lens, and lighter XC long zoom; it's still more than I want to carry. Plus changing lenses on the street/hiking path is a pain in the ass.

I think a new iPhone 11 Pro and perhaps a 1" sensor compact with a longer zoom reach and for back-up would likely be fine.

I all can say is bring it on, I am all for acceptable quality with less to carry.

Though I do really want to check out the rumored X-Pro3 too which should be at Photo Plus in October.

You know I found it hard to stomach paying over grand for a phone, but if it is a capable camera too really $1150 before any discounts is not unreasonable especially for something you can carry in your pants pocket. And if I keep thinking that, I will have thoroughly convinced myself.


DGM said...

I have absorbed way too much pop culture in my lifetime, so I am sympathetically reminded of a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Rupert Giles (the British librarian) had just replaced his ancient and destroyed manual transmission Citroen with a new automatic transmission BMW convertible. He keeps grabbing the transmission lever and jamming it into park or reverse. He finally exclaims something along the lines of "Blasted automatic transmission, I feel as though I'm not PARTICIPATING!!!".

Some day I will replace my old LG flip phone that does not even have a camera in it with some version of iPhone, possibly even this current version. When I want to obsess, I can fiddle with my old Citroen (GFX 50R)....

Bill Stormont said...

You said it, Mr. Rose!!

James said...

My big gripe about camera phones is that I often have trouble seeing the screen outdoors if the sun is shining on the screen. Also problematical if you’re using polarized sunglasses (especially prescription or clip-on). Is there a solution out there and will it work with a gimbal?

Gordon Lewis said...

Count me among those who find the results with a camera phone decent enough but don't like the form factor and handling. (And when I say "don't like," I actually mean hate.)