Switching to Smartphone Camera?

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Today’s Question: As I’ve gotten older I am increasingly tempted to ditch my digital SLR in favor of a mirrorless camera system. But taking that idea a step further, do you think it would be crazy to use an iPhone as my only camera?

Tim’s Quick Answer: I don’t think it’s crazy at all to use a smartphone as your only camera system, provided you are willing to accept the inherent limitations of smartphone photography.

More Detail: In many cases you can save considerable weight by switching from a digital SLR to a mirrorless camera system. Opting to use a smartphone as your camera provides even greater weight savings, making it a tempting option for many photographers. But there are also inherent limitations with smartphone cameras.

One of the more significant limitations of smartphone cameras relates to lens focal length. Most smartphone cameras have a lens with an effective focal length of around 50mm. In general there is very little (or no) ability to zoom without sacrificing image quality. A variety of accessory lenses are available for many smartphone cameras, but these don’t provide the range (or quality) available with a larger camera system.

There is also a greater risk of noise and other image quality issues with a smartphone camera, primarily due to the extremely small sensor size used by most cameras. When you have relatively strong lighting you can achieve excellent image quality with many smartphones. Under conditions with low light levels, noise can become a significant issue.

In addition, there is generally less control you’re able to exercise over the exposure and other camera settings when using a smartphone. For example, you are generally not able to achieve long exposure times with smartphones, other than through the use of apps that simulate a motion blur effect by blending multiple images together.

To be sure, it is possible to capture incredible photographic images with a smartphone, especially a more recent model featuring top-of-the-line camera hardware. Many photographers are producing great work with the exclusive use of an iPhone or other smartphone. Provided the compromises don’t represent a serious concern for you, I think it is perfectly reasonable to consider the use of a smartphone as a primary camera.