Are Camera Phones the Answer?

At the February 2017 APS competition, we saw examples of how good cell-phone made photographs could be. And, for several years now, there have been many more phones sold than cameras and far more photos made with phones than cameras. I also read a blog on the web where the author offered the idea that “the best camera is the one you have with you.”

iPhone Image: Linda's 61st by Jim Harrison

The evidence mounts: camera phones must be the answer.

Not so fast there, my friend!

The same blog author expressed his opinion, which I share, that shooting pictures with a phone is a very poor substitute for a satisfying photographic experience where the photographer controls the results. It’s OK for grabbing shots to share as attachments to phone messages or social media posts (where usually both shooter and recipient will promptly discard the pictures). But to make real photographs? Really?

I’m undecided whether my first complaint about phone cameras is their godawful ergonomics or their lack of technical and creative controls. Both ruin the experience for me. Ah, but maybe I just bought too cheap of a cell phone to get good results.

Don's Early Years in Photography

My background and heritage in photography reaches back most of my 77 years, into the 1940s. My parents were both accomplished amateurs and active in the local camera club. I recall meetings and competitions at our house, and that I didn’t like the pictures of nekkid women because I “didn’t like the [sic] spressions on their faces.” But I digress. By the way, I’ have changed my opinion on nudes!

The Stephens family practiced the art and craft of photography from the economy/low income side. My first camera was a broken 1920s or 30s vintage German Ihagee post-card sized folder, from which my folks had removed the lens for use on an enlarger. As a very young lad, I toted that non-functioning camera along on club field outings and captured countless marvelous images. Unfortunately, none have survived!

My first working camera was a hand-me-down Kodak Baby Brownie Special that used 127 size film. It was a very pretty, little camera, with streamlined art-deco styling flourishes, molded in shiny black Bakelite, one of the earliest “plastic” cameras. Unfortunately, the photos it made weren’t as pretty as the camera, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that.

When my Dad came home from the Navy in 1945, and I was six, we moved into a house with a coal furnace, standard for the era (and, of course, with a coal bin). Within a couple of years, the furnace had been converted to natural gas, and (you’re way ahead of me here!) the coal bin was scrubbed out and made into a photo darkroom. By age eight, I was developing my own film, see-sawing it back and forth through small trays of chemicals under a dim red bulb. I then made “contact” prints because I was too short to reach the enlarger.

Later On

I’ll spare you the details of the intervening years, but suffice it to say, I became a camera clubber myself in junior high school, was the yearbook photographer as a senior, and paid my way through college as a photographer. When assigned to Fort McPherson in Atlanta in 1978, I joined our forerunner, the Alpine Camera Club.  I also started a part-time commercial photography business. Upon retirement from the Army in 1982, I rented studio space and went full-time. I was in business through about 2003. And the rest is history, as they say.

Cameras and “Deliberate” Photography

Back to cameras, and ergonomics: I’ve owned everything from tiny plastic snap-shooters through Speed Graphics, Leicas, Rolleiflexes, Nikons, and Hasselblads, up through 4x5 and 8x10-inch view cameras. Every one of them, to a greater or lesser degree of success, was thoughtfully designed to feel good in my hands, help me appreciate the subject as seen by the lens, and to allow me to operate controls necessary to accomplish my photographic objective. Phone cameras? Not so much!  And not for me!  The too dumbed-down ultra-automatic digital cameras? Again, not for me!  You might take it, but I’ll leave it!

Example Film SLR with Depth-of-Field Scale, Aperture Ring and Other "Hands On" Features: Pentax MX by Jim Harrison

Adding immeasurably to the photographic experience were the accrued mastery of photo trivia and technique, and the ability to control results. Then, there were no auto focus, auto exposure, or auto-anything else. Film “speeds” (Weston or ASA, then ISO numbers) were whatever Kodak, Ansco, Agfa or Ilford said they were (running up to maybe 400), not something to be punched into your camera as an option when lighting conditions changed. Exposures were determined by light meters, or following the printed guide sheet that came with every roll of film, or by the “Sunny-16” rule. With phones, you don’t even think about such things.

There’s a lot to be said for photography as a thoughtful, deliberate pursuit. Back to view cameras for a moment: those heavy behemoths absolutely required a tripod or studio camera stand, and the film was expensive. You set out to shoot for a reason, or not at all. With digital cameras or phones, thought has become afterthought, and it costs nothing to shoot an obscene number of exposures then dispose of them without even going to the darkroom (what’s that?) or your computer. Was harder better? Often!

I must admit, though, that there’s also a lot to be said for modern camera’s and phone’s portability and ease of use.

Selecting a Camera

Any opinions on selecting a modern camera? Of course! I always have opinions!

One of my all-time favorite cameras was the Leica M-3, introduced in 1957. It was small and portable (though not exactly light weight), sleek of design and beautifully machined from a solid block of aluminum with genuine leather trim, had all needed controls, had a fast and accurate range-finder focusing system that worked in dim light, and legendary lenses. Of course, dating back to ’57, it was strictly a manual camera with no zoom lenses and a very modest array of range-finder coupled interchangeable lenses (from 21 to 135mm). Key points: the lenses had distance scales engraved along with f-numbers and depth of field scales, the aperture was selected by turning a ring on the lens barrel and shutter speed was set with a separate dial. None of those stupid up-down arrows or multi-purpose command-wheels on the camera body.

Example Modern DSLR (with battery grip) Featuring Excellent Ergonomics and a Plethora of Features: Pentax K3-II by Jim Harrison

Few modern cameras and no phones have those features. It almost brings me to tears. So, who has those features, along with light weight and compactness? I’m really talking here about high-end mirrorless cameras and compact DSLRs, especially those with interchangeable “prime” lenses (not so much about those with fixed zoom lenses).

Recommendations

I know better than to go further, but here I go!

I’m probably ignoring several great choices, and offending some users and brand loyalists, but I recommend you look at the current Leica digital cameras if you have VERY deep pockets (many of these even look like the old M-3!), or Fujifilm and some Sony cameras. I don’t own any of these! I’m probably remiss, but I don’t know where else to send you seeking real f-stops, distance and DOF scales on the lenses and aperture setting rings on the lens barrel where they belong.

So, to sum up my humble opinion, my ideal camera gives me complete creative control, while still being portable and handy.

What are the characteristics of your ideal camera?  What’s your opinion?