The Worlds Most Popular Camera

22nd February 2014

It has been said that the best camera is the one you have with you. Most people today have a mobile phone. From the time when mobiles first started sporting cameras built-in, the days of the compact camera and DSLR were to some extent numbered1.

Flickr Camera Share Information from Flickr certainly suggests that if you look at their most popular cameras in the world the top ones are all smartphones and specifically iPhones. IMAGE From a quality standpoint most high-end mobile phones take near compact-quality pictures but there are a few key caveats.

Distance shots

The only smartphone camera I’ve seen that does an impressive job of distance photography is the Nokia Lumia 1020. It achieves this but having a massive 43MP sensor allowing digital zoom to actually work well unlike every other smartphone where digital zooms usually yield grainy horrible shots. The downside is that to fit this impressive sensor and lens in the phone, the 1020 developed an upside down slightly pregnant belly on the back of the phone. It doesn’t sit flat on a table, is thicker and heavier than many other smartphones, however if you’re not tied to an ecosystem (Android or iOS) then frankly it’s one of the best options. Although it doesn’t address the other three issues on its own.

Blur

Very few smartphone cameras have Optical Image Stabilisation simply because it requires a physically larger lens/counterbalancing arrangement hence the quality of the photo relies a great deal on the steadiness of the users hands. Often I find myself having to steady my iPhone when holding it for photos or video hence one hand isn’t usually enough. When pushing the Volume shutter or tapping the on-screen button it also tends to introduce a small wobble that can ruin a photo - particularly in lower lighting conditions. Beyond the immediately obvious idea of using a tripod, a better way to grip the phone without one would be ideal. Again the Lumia has a camera grip attachment that overcomes much of this.

Battery Life

Taking photos drains the battery but not as quickly as taking video. Whether this is driven primarily by the screen backlighting as a viewfinder or by the video encoder onboard is unclear though I can tell you that the drain on the battery causes the temperature of the phone to significantly increase with an iPhone 5S. A professional photographer would have multiple batteries that are changeable, fully charged and ready to go to take as many photos or as much video as possible. Relying on a smartphone as your camera/camcorder has the added problem that you need to ‘conserve’ some battery in case you need to make/receive a phone call, get directions or check something on the internet. For Apples products at least there is no battery you can just swap out - you’re just out of luck2.

Remote Shutter

The argument regarding a lack of a remote shutter is perhaps the most flimsy where many people are happy to use a different camera application on their smartphone that comes with a built-in timer function. It’s interesting that Apple have excluded such functionality from their default Camera application in iOS but then such a function implies the necessity of external gripping equipment for the iOS device in question and most are not free-standing devices3. Apples answer to this perhaps is the continuous improvement to the front-facing (FaceTime) camera and this leads to the proliferation of ‘selfies’. Unfortunately until the front and back cameras are the same spec it’s hard to suggest this is ideal either as we are implicitly accepting lower quality from the device than is possible whenever we want to take a photo with us in it and there’s no one else around to take that photo for us.

Potential Solutions

You might think I have a crush on the 1020 and photographically speaking that’s true but there’s more to being the most popular camera in the world (otherwise the 1020 would be nearer the top of Flickrs list) and that’s as much about how good it is to use as a smartphone when you’re not taking precious memories. I love my iPhone and since I can’t easily give it up for a multitude of reasons where does they leave those of us that aren’t Nokia/Windows Phone users?

The ultimate answer is to use the smartphone standalone for general photography but if you want to extend its usefulness then add some accessories to augment its performance. If you’re using an iPhone there seem to be a lot of options that are ‘close’ but not quite everything in one package. There are battery cases and lens cases, cases with tripod mounts but precious few that have them all. The other problem with accessories is they should be cost effective. If I’m going to spend about $500 on accessories then I could just buy a high end compact camera or a low end DSLR.

There are no single accessories out there that do what I want on their own, however the AtoB Grip I have used and reviewed here and it covers the battery, grip and tripod issues very well. I’m currently testing the Muku Shuttr (review coming shortly) and long term I’m looking into telephoto lenses (caseless ones).

Just Buy A DSLR

I have been told this over and over by other people and here’s the problem: I can buy an iPhone on a monthly plan for no money up front and pick up the accessories above for under $200. In addition it’s smaller, lighter and more useful than a DLSR that frankly can only take pictures. If I drop, fold, spindle or mutilate an accessory it’s not a big financial setback. The truth is the money alone doesn’t stack up and frankly I’m not a photography nut and most people aren’t. Accessories work well enough.

Conclusion

Ultimately the best camera is the one you have with you and since people want to feel connected above all else that is the smartphone. For those people with smartphones that want to push their photographic limits, accessories are preferable to an entirely separate camera. It’s a far more efficient proposition to extend the capabilities of a smartphone as a camera knowing it won’t quite match the performance of a DSLR but will likely be close enough for most people. If you’re really obsessed with picture quality and you’re REALLY obsessive about taking photos you’ll buy a DSLR and nothing I have said will stop you.

If you do have both devices be honest: Was there ever a time when you wanted to take a great photo but just didn’t have the DSLR handy and used the smartphone in your pocket? Thought so.


  1. So far as large volumes of products are concerned. Clearly DSLRs and Compacts will always have a place however smartphone cameras are now good enough quality for the average individual not to bother with a second device. 

  2. An replaceable battery has the big plus of immediacy such that if your device goes flat, a quick swap out of the battery has you back at full charge, whereas a battery pack needs time to recharge unless it’s constantly attached. 

  3. If they are free standing (possible with a 4, 4S, 5, 5S but it’s not the most stable) but even so they aren’t able to be adjusted (height/tilt) making capturing group shots incredibly difficult.