Photography: Buy a camera or use your phone?

08 March 2021

Ever since the first camera phone was released in 2000, built-in cameras on phones have progressively become more advanced. Nowadays, phones are able to offer the clarity and texture control to rival most professional cameras. They’re also more portable than chunky cameras and you can easily integrate them with apps or upload photos instantly.

I personally haven't had my own camera since my last digital Canon point-and-shoot gave up on me years ago. I've never owned a DSLR as a I can't justify the price since I don't shoot photos professionally anyway. I have a Huawei P20 Pro and iPhone 12 and they both take excellent photos, plus it's so easy to edit and enhance via my favorite apps like A Color Story, Snapseed, and Enlight. They're also very handy for quick snaps and chance encounters with someone you don't see regularly, as opposed to having to set up a camera and change settings (aperture, shutter speed, et cetera) just to take a photo. 

Photo taken by my friend Ed in my new home yesterday, using my iPhone 12 and a ring light, enhanced with A Color Story

Photo taken at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) last Wednesday using my iPhone 12

But then, despite the benefits of smartphone cameras, owning a camera as a separate gadget still has its benefits. Cameras are ergonomically designed for taking pictures. The lens choice and exposure also cannot be rivaled, plus there’s so much more hardware that you can use with a camera.

Ultimately, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself to work out whether a camera or phone is best for your needs.

What type of photography are you interested in?

When it comes to everyday photography, a smartphone is usually all you need. However, if you’re looking to become a serious hobbyist or go pro, it may make sense to buy yourself a ‘real camera’. For one, it might affect your credibility if you’re doing professional wedding shoots with a smartphone. Secondly, while you can do a lot with a smartphone camera, there are going to be limitations.

A good example could be landscape photography. Smartphones simply aren’t able to do long exposure shots. In order to make use of slow shutter speed, you need a DSLR. There are sometimes hacks to get around this. As this tutorial shows, you can simulate long exposure photography on an iPhone with the help of some apps. If you’re a hobbyist that doesn’t want to shell out on a camera, then it could make sense to stick with your smartphone and rely on these tricks.

What type of camera would you buy?

Some cameras are just as capable as your smartphone. In fact, there’s very little reason to buy a cheap digital camera other than as a fun toy to give to kids who aren’t ready for a smartphone yet.

A more expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera could have advantages. There are also all kinds of niche cameras such as GoPros, 360 cameras and camera drones. Then of course there are film cameras which may have the same retro appeal as vinyl or a classic car. These are the types of cameras that are actually worth buying because they offer features that a smartphone simply cannot replicate.

What type of phone have you got currently?

If you’ve got a basic older model of smartphone, then it’s likely the camera on your phone isn’t as good. In this case, it may make sense to buy a separate digital camera - even if it is fairly basic, it may still have better photo quality than a basic smartphone.

You could always upgrade your phone. However, if you’re happy with a basic smartphone, you may not see the benefit of spending a thousand pounds on a new phone when you can spend a fraction of this on a camera. 

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