I've heard and read so much about iPhones that I thought I'd take mine for a walk. It's good but....... (spoiler: still going need real cameras for the good stuff...).

Everybody tells me the Lumix S1R and the 50 S Pro are too heavy to carry around on walks so I took them seriously and decided I'd stroll as the other 95% do and just take along my iPhone. It's an XR and it's supposed to have a great camera and lens. I thought I'd give it a whirl and see if it's really The Astronaut and not the Rocket... (secrets of space travel). To see if I could buy into all the iPhone excitement and use my ever present phone in lieu of a $3700 camera and a $2300 lens. 

I started by documenting my departure from the house. As you can see from the driveway, it's all Subaru all the time. Mine is the one on the left. I had to get the bigger one so I can fit in all my photo junk and haul it around. I've had the vehicle for almost a year and have yet to go "off road" or to drive on ice and/or snow. So much for all wheel drive.

I did the usual Sunday walk. I parked on the south side of the river that bisects downtown Austin and walked over the bridge that you've already seen too often in blog posts. I did take some images of familiar buildings and venues so I could make real comparisons.

I have to give the phone credit for at least three things I like about shooting with it, speaking technically: I like that it does a very cool, automatic, multiple frame HDR file that just looks nice and "open" without looking stupid. I like that the phone seems to always nail exposure. And I like even better that the color balance seems to be pretty exact no matter what the shooting conditions are. 

Culturally, I like that I can stop and take photos of anything and anyone and no one bats an eye or gives me a second look. You could probably photograph in the middle of a nuclear submarine and the authorities would think you just needed something catchy for your Instagram feed. 

On a non-photographic note, I did love having the video capability be totally dumbed down and instantly accessible. And it looks good too. I did a slow motion clip of an escalator in a hotel and basically, all I had to do was select "video" and push the button. Nice. 

As a camera for documentation and quick snapshots the iPhone XR is perfectly fine. I hate only having the wide angle lens on it and wish I had the same selection of lenses that the newer iPhone 11 Pro boasts but after my afternoon of shooting I'm not ready to believe that I can ditch all the traditional camera gear I own and make myself happy with the results of even the best phone right now. And I'll tell you why: When you blow up the tiny pixels from the tiny sensor the images seem to fall apart pretty quickly. They hold together well enough for Instagram, on a phone screen, but they do get noisy when you push the exposure a little; and that's from frames taken in the best light. I also miss long, fast lenses and the aerobic exercise of carrying them all around 😆

While I was out and around I saw some funny signage. The one just above is probably my favorite. It's an ad for the second best taco chain in town, Torchy's (the best chain taco place is TacoDeli; by a good margin....). But I have to say that Torchy's does a good job with their pleasantly irreverent signage.

Le Politique. 

As an aside, I'd always wondered about a restaurant on 2nd St. called, Le Politique. I finally tried it this past week with an old friend who came in from out of town. On a Thursday at lunch time the place was almost empty. The food was good, the service was great, and the atmosphere most congenial for a slow, talky lunch; but the main dining rooms were nearly empty. Made even more obvious because it's such a large space. I also tried their attached Parisian-style bakery on Sunday and their pricy pastries are actually quite good. You forget what you spent on them after the second or third bite.... but really! $5.00 for a chocolate croissant (take out)???

Nice Holiday spirit in the windows at ToyJoy on Second St. I personally love the avocado ornament (above) and wouldn't mind having another set of Rock'Em, Sock'Em Robots. (just below).

Some seriously mixed up signage.
Which is it? Coffee or Wine?
Or hot wine in a coffee cup?

Thick on dynamic range. Thin on post process-ability.

A good thing about wide angle lenses is their ability to get in the whole span of this mural, just off Congress Ave. I appreciated the iPhone for that since I so rarely carry around anything shorter than a 35mm.

All three days of Fall in Austin. 

WTF? A culture in conflict. The happy hour patrons want so badly to sit outside at the bars and cafes but are too soft to handle the cooler weather. The W Hotel had three or four of these "bar tent" set ups for their patrons. I am instantly reminded of bird cages or terrariums. For humans 
hell bent on being part of the sidewalk society. Sad. Tragic. Funny. 

Near the end of my walk I bought an apple pastry from Le Publique, along with a boring and bitter cup of drip coffee and enjoyed half of my mid-afternoon repast in the shadows of the former Seaholm power plant. The other half I poured out....

So, here's the TLBREW (too long but read every word): Phone cameras are nice and easy to use but as soon as you move from viewing the results on another phone or on an iPad you start to notice the weak spots and limitations of the tiny sensors. It's nice to have a "take everywhere" appliance but I think counting on a phone camera as a sole art tool is premature. Keep your camera. Appreciate the added potential. Even if you never exploit it you'll at least know you could have....

Differences of opinion stoically tolerated. Have at it: 


Jim said...

I like the leaves on the manhole cover shot. Very nice.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks Jim. Sorry about the early typos. Studio Dog made me go for a walk before I'd done a second proofing... Fixed now. I hope.

Jeff Smith said...

Hi Kirk,

I couldn’t agree more regarding the current state of phone cameras. Easy to use, always with you (except when you are saying now where the hell did I leave my phone) and getting better all the time. I thought the new iPhones this fall might serve as my travel kit. I spent hours visiting the new iPhones and snapping picture of anyone or anything in the stores. I concluded that really they are pretty decent, especially in good light, but I wouldn’t be happy with the image quality for the reasons you cite and it really couldn’t yet replace a standalone camera for ME.

I decided to keep my existing iPhone and buy a new camera instead. Sold all my Fuji gear and the micro 4/3 lenses I was holding onto thinking I may go back to that. I liked the ergonomics of Nikon Z6 and 7, checked out the new Z50 at Photo Plus and ended up buying that. Overall I quite pleased with it, and best thing I can say about it is that it just works. It doesn’t get in the way and changed settings from inadvertently bumping the Q button on my Fuji gear are a thing of the past. Focus and colors are good. What is currently missing with the Zed system are some small primes, e.g. like the Sigma 45mm you purchased. I can easily live with f2.8 if its a sharp, well built small lens.

I enjoy reading your blog and wish you a wonderful holiday season. Jeff

PS I look forward to the day when I feel that a phone camera can get me to leave my camera kit home.

JohnW said...

I agree completely Mr.T. I bought a smart phone for the camera and the fact that it is weather resistant. Had a lot of fun with it initially and produced some good images. But, as you say, the weaknesses show up really fast and the fascination wore off quickly. What I found it was really good for is getting the camera into weird angles and places you wouldn't ordinarily be able to get a larger camera. In the end ... it's just a phone. Can't remember the last time I took any images with it.

All the Best of the Season to you and the family.

Jeff said...

hi Kirk,
I think you have perfectly described the situation. Of course dedicated cameras produce better images than cell phones under a wide range of conditions, and that will remain important to a (relatively small) subset of "all the people who take pictures". But for the other- maybe 80%, 90%, or 95% of all picture takers, who only want to see them on a small screen (phone, ipad, laptop, electronic frame, etc) the phone cameras are at or very close to the magic "good enough" level. Plus very easy to send to friends and social media, and as you noted- a built in movie camera,and the magic attraction of nothing else to buy, to carry, to spend a long time learning to use, and no post processing.
If the camera companies are putting all of their eggs in the "large numbers of aging photography enthusiasts (like me) will happily buy our new expensive full frame mirror-less cameras and lenses" marketing plan then the next few years might get very tough for them. I think they need to find a way to attract some of the younger iphone crowd in order to be healthy companies, and I'm not sure that complicated $1-4k+ full frame cameras plus expensive Z, Sony, or RF lenses are the right answer because I suspect that not many younger people have the time, money, or interest to go in that direction.

Andrea Bellelli said...

I entirely agree. Everyone sets on a kit that works for him/her. I'm happy with my Olympus kit: it is light, I have all focal lengths I need, and since I seldom print larger than a3 its quality is enough for me. Actually the last should be the key point: how large you need to print.

pixtorial said...

New iPhone 11 (not the Pro), an upgrade from my old iPhone 6. The camera and the software behind it are amazing. The new Night mode is a very capable and intelligent HDR/NR solution that makes this a truly useful snapshooter. Video quality is stunning, simply beyond what a multi-purpose pocket computer/communicator should be capable of.

That said, for a photo that I'll print, I still reach for one of my Fuji cameras every time.

More importantly, I'm struggling to wrap my head around the "bar tent" contraption. That begs for you to revisit on a Friday night for some more street photos.

Mark Hobson said...

I’m very tired of reading that pictures made using phone “cameras” are ok for web / screen viewing but not for “serious” work cuz, apparently, I must be doing something wrong. I have been making pictures over the past 18 months using only the latest iPhones (currently the iPhone 11 Pro Max - 3 lenses). During that time I have had 2 gallery solo exhibitions and numerous acceptances into juried gallery exhibitions of my iPhone pictures. Some of those were exhibited as 24x24 inch prints.

It would seem that gallery/art center directors don’t give a damn about what device is used to make pictures. They only seem to care about those qualities in a picture which go beyond the “technicals”. And, they also seem to understand that most gallery goers are not photographers and that those viewers don’t care about anything other than what a picture might “say” to them.

All of that written, I am not suggesting that phone camera is, despite the “PRO” moniker, a “professional” picture making device. Although, after a 30 year career of making pictures for the likes of KODAK, Corning, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb (Ray Ban), Heinz and other Fortune 500s, I can write that, if I were still in the biz today, the iPhone would be a player in my picture making device bag. Especially for editorial and annual report work.

MikeR said...

pigeon hole category: The Kodak Brownie camera for the 21st century.

Gato said...

A most interesting column and I largely agree with you, but also agree with Mark Hobson above. The best phone cameras are capable of putting a very nice print on the wall, and if there is compelling content no one is going to quibble over technical quality -- except possibly some of us older traditional photographers.

What I'd like to see at this point is someone apply all that phone computing goodness to a 1-inch sensor. Either put a large sensor into a camera, or put phone-level processing and connectivity into a compact camera. That would get my blood flowing and pull my credit card out of the wallet faster than anything in the full frame realm. (I know Samsung and Sony made attempts, but neither of them stuck with it long enough to get it right. Or maybe they just jumped in too soon and the tech was not ready.)

As it is, my next serious photo purchase is almost sure to be a better phone. I have reached a point where virtually all my family and close friends are on Instagram or Facebook and photo sharing has become a big part of our social interaction. Given that most of my friends are imaging professionals -- working or retired photographers, graphic artists and publishing people -- I'm feeling a need to up my game from my $99 Walmart special phone.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Mark and Gato, I can only say that I must be doing something horribly wrong with my iPhone XR. Thanks for the counter-opinion. I'll keep plodding away at it.

dinksdad said...

Why doesn't Apple take a tiny fraction of their cash hoard and buy Olympus (or Pentax)? Then they could put their A.I. magic into a real camera. Or at least improve Olympus's menus.

Eric Rose said...

All I can comment on is my personal experience. I have a top of the line smartphone and have used it for casual photography. The one time I wanted to enlarge a photo to 8x10 the entire image fell apart. It was unusable. Mind you the lighting was not optimal for such a device but I expected better. Better to carry around my old Panasonic GX1 with a Panni 20mm f1.7 lens. I suspect anyone blowing up cell phone pics to 20x24 must be using some pretty sophisticated software plus cherry picking shooting conditions. Not saying it can not be done, just that it's the exception rather than the rule.


Kurt Friis Hansen said...

@dingsda: You write "Why doesn't Apple take a tiny fraction of their cash hoard and buy Olympus (or Pentax)? Then they could put their A.I. magic into a real camera. Or at least improve Olympus's menus."


To create another camera, that no one - at best a minuscule elitist few - will buy and carry around without compelling reason?

I'm not saying that good smartphone cameras can replace serious cameras used seriously for professional purposes, but most ordinary people do not even have a wish for producing pro-style images, let alone "art". They want to produce good, usable (to them) images for the platforms, they use (typically up to 4k telly's, which is a quite large, often high quality, format in todays homes compared to costly, cumbersome "small" print available to most people ;-)

Today I stumbled on this recent YouTube video describing a blind test of mostly "upper echelon" smartphones:


The final conclusions are rather interesting.

Look for yourself, and decide whether the f64 crowd or the f0.95 crowd will carry the day.

We're not discussing, what is right or wrong (is Picasso's Guernica "wrong"? I've seen it several times with my own eyes in Madrid), but maybe - just maybe - the preferred old geezer fad with razor thin DOF is not a widely shared view outside the hallowed circles of self-appointed "grand wizards of the holy light" ;-)

I largely agree with Mark Hobsons view. And accept, that a few billion smartphone users may have different views. Valid views.

There are far too many restrictions doled out on what is good or bad in my view. If a few billion people enjoy their results - god, bad and ugly plus interesting and quality "art" intermingled - who are we to decide, what is quality and good?

And the "print" qualifier is in many cases a quality crippler compared to even a modestly sized 4k TV in many living rooms. Many prints could be said to be tiny in comparison, but it seems, that many old geezers of my age have not discovered, that phones or social media are only some of the display platforms. A good smartphone image - maybe even interesting - can be enjoyed by many, if deemed necessary. Even shared and enjoyed among friends via the Cloud. All over the world, instead of a few images on the wall in a backroom cupboard in a home.

It's as if a lot of "photographers" (ahem) have not discovered, that print media is no longer come-il-faut. Even the most conservative and backward publishers seem to accept that fact (maybe not willingly, but...)

He who pays the party, decides the music, and billions of "payers/users" decides the music, whatever the "opposition" decides is right or proper. Even in modern art, the smartphone is gaining traction; why not?

If a customer decided, that it was an interesting approach to ask Kirk Tuck to use a smartphone as a deliberate tool for some or all of a paid for project, what would our beloved Kirk do? I have a theory, maybe wrong, alas... smile!

Have fun - with a good, modern smartphone - and leave the f0.95 at home (unless really required ;-)

Smile, merry Christmas and a prosperous new year 2020.

CadenceMichael said...

Maybe those human terrariums are intended to be cones of silence (and just as effective as they were on TV).

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I've seen beautiful images from all manner of iPhones. I'm just not good at leveraging that tool.....yet. To answer the question above: We always rise to a challenge, if a paying client is involved... And have been using the phone for various bits of video for a couple of months now. Clients don't see the difference in most video situations. Gateway drug, indeed.

Mike Shwarts said...

I like some of what Gato and dinksdad said. However I'd hate for Apple to buy one of these 100 year old companies. New companies can ruin old companies. Try walking into an Abercrombie & Fitch and asking to see a fly rod or shotgun. :) I would prefer Apple or Google go into a joint venture to bring their computing power to camera companies. I would like to see the Night Sight of my Pixel 3 in a Sony RX100 Mark ??? for a shirt pocket sized camera. For a jacket pocket size camera, that computing power could go in an Olympus E-M10 Mark ???

As far as the social media aspect, cameras like those I mentioned can already upload to your phone for a quick edit in Photoshop Express. If the file is worth some serious editing, you can pop the card in your laptop later to use a full-fledged editor.

Dave Jenkins said...

I have nothing against phones that can take pictures. Sometimes they're even handy. But I just like cameras. I like to handle them, use them, even look at them. Phone cameras just don't give me no satisfaction.

D Lobato said...

We visited Austin for a few days and got home in Baltimore today. I walked up East 6th Street on Sunday and Monday and recognized one photo of yours. It would have been fun if we had the good fortune to meet.

Robert Roaldi said...

Funny thing about phone cameras, it's as if everyone has re-discovered that it's sometimes fun to take snaps on a Kodak Brownie and look at 3x5s, one or two of which may end up in an album. It's sort of neat, I guess, but why all the fuss. I still have a Fuji F40fd, it's smaller than a phone. But then I'm not much of a phone user, in fact I keep mine mostly turned off or the battery will be drained for when I really need it. I might be out of sync.

John Krumm said...

If you use Halide to shoot with and then open mobile Lightroom, you can edit the raws, and it definitely bumps up the quality. I'd say they are about the same as the files from my old Panasonic LX3. Not amazing for DR and noise, but quite detailed.

crsantin said...

I'm transitioning into my iPhone 11 Pro Max more and more. I'm rather liking it. It seems to suit my needs for 80-90% of my photography. I've made 8x8 prints and they look good, not great but actually pretty good. I'm certain the image quality is there for my photo books and magazines that I print for personal/family use. I'm enjoying the change. I love being able to walk freely and shoot away and no one looks twice at me. Try that with a big old DSLR. Battery life is great. There are some great processing apps out there that let me do everything in-camera. The new iPhones have 3 lenses and on two of them you are able to select your f-stop for some nice, simulated, bokeh. I think it looks quite good. I won't be getting rid of my mirrorless cameras but I already know they are going to see a lot less use.

Jim Tardio said...

I'm assuming you already read Ming Thein's take on the iPhone 11 pro. He seems to like it. Here's the link: https://blog.mingthein.com/2019/12/10/brave-new-world-surprising-iphone-11-pro/#more-19316

Anonymous said...

I don't use a desktop computer or dedicated digital camera any longer, just the ipad and iphone, and I don't print large these days, either (no place to display/store it all). I do, however, still print softcover photo books at 8x8, and the iphone does great for that. Prints from the iphone 5, 8 and now 11 Pro Max have all looked super. And this guy made prints from iphone XS, much larger than what I do, with great success:

Despite all the above, this close scrutiny of digital images from various cameras, at pixel level quality, is all nonsense. For me, photography is about remembering and examining and sharing, for which the iphone is perfect. And, of course, it's so much more than just a camera.

Before I used a smartphone, as a supplement to my long-gone 5D, I enjoyed shooting with a very small Aiptek 1.3MB Pencam. It was quirky and not so easy to upload the files to computer, but it made for some interesting digital imgages that had a lot of character. In the hands of an artist, it would be a suitable tool to make fine art. Any camera could.

Anonymous said...

I think I might prefer to carry a small camera with a larger sensor than use an iPhone. For example, the Sony RX100 VI is smaller in height and width than the iPhone 11 Pro. On the other hand it is much thicker. And heavier. But it still might fit in a pocket about as easily as the iPhone.


JC said...

One thing that artists (and I mean painters and their kin) have never had trouble doing is distinguishing between art and non-art, without necessarily putting down non-art people. Newspaper illustrators use many of a fine artist's tools, but most would not consider themselves fine artists, at least, not with the work they do for newspapers. Some newspaper illustrators became famous as fine artists, but they understood that fine art is a different thing. Neither highly skilled draftsmen or people doing creative advertising art (unless they're Toulouse Lautrec) typically think of themselves as fine artists.

Photographers seems to have a problem making that distinction -- it's like if you have a camera, you're all somehow equal. Using an iPhone to make pictures suitable for a family album is a great thing to do, and maybe the most important thing you'll do, but it generally ain't fine art. Fine art is most often done at the edge of possibilities, not in bright sunlight with people you're related to squinting at the camera. iPhones are definitely good for that sort of thing, although I don't even use it for that sort of thing. My most common use for an iPhone is shooting labels, either for later reference or to send to my wife, when I'm at the store, to make sure I'm buying the right kind of cheese.

I'm not saying that nobody can possibly find a way to make fine art with iPhones (David Hockney did it with small Polaroids doing something that harked back to early Cubism) but it wouldn't be something to build a fine art career on. The iPhone is like a good paintbrush, effective in limited circumstances. Most painters really need more than one brush, and you get that with an ILC. IMHO.