Thoughts on Cameras in the Age of Excellent Cell Phone Photos

I noted here, I believe, that recently my dSLR, my Nikon d750, basically crapped itself, most likely from a faulty mirror mechanism. This wasn’t entirely a surprise to me — it had developed a hiccup several months back where the first photo after being turned on was a black rectangle as the camera remembered it needed to get the mirror out of the way to take a photo. I was not happy about this state of affairs but neither was I terribly put out; I have had the camera a sufficiently long time, and have taken a sufficiently large number of photos with it — literally hundreds of thousands of them — that I feel like I have gotten real value from the camera. I can repair it (and probably will, eventually, to pass it along), but I’ve been thinking of getting a new camera for some time now. Now, as it turns out, will be the perfect time.

But here’s an actual quandary: I want a new, dedicated camera, but I am also, if not cheap, exactly (and here I look around my office at computers and musical instruments), someone for whom utility-to-price is a huge motivator in purchasing. Which is to say that if I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of use from something — “use” being a very flexible term in this formulation, but let’s not go there now — then I can’t justify the price in my head. So right now I’m asking myself the question: Can I actually justify buying a new dedicated camera?

The reason why this is a question: Well, look at the photo above, of a dandelion, which I took on my walk yesterday. I took it with my Pixel 4; I saw the dandelion, bent down a bit, took the photo and then kept walking. Then I came home, fiddled with it some in Photoshop, and at the end of it had a picture that’s in many ways as good as one I might get out of a dSLR — a dedicated camera. So, do I need a dedicated camera at all?

Another example:

The top photo here is taken with a Nikon d5100 dSLR, an older but still serviceable dedicated camera that I’m using since the d750 crapped out. The bottom photo is taken with the Pixel 4. Both pictures were taken within seconds of each other — look at the cloud shapes for confirmation of that — and both are jpgs taken directly from the camera without any further editing on my part.

Which is the better photo? Ultimately, it’s primarily a subjective matter, I think — but that’s just it: It’s a subjective choice between a dedicated camera using a very expensive lens, and a cell phone camera. The dedicated camera here is nine years old, but the cell phone camera has a imaging sensor that could fit into the corner of the dSLR’s sensor. The d5100 relies on the user to work on the photo manually, either in-camera by fiddling with settings, or afterward in Photoshop, while the Pixel 4 lets the mighty power of Google’s machine learning do all the heavy lifting. There are choices to be made and preferences one might have, but at the end of the day, neither photo is so far and away objectively better — in terms of the technical aspects of the photo — that you would say a dedicated camera is necessary, on the basis of these photos.

So again: What utility will I get out of a new, dedicated camera, when the cameras in phones do such a very good job these days?

The answer for me might be paradoxical to some, and it is: The better cell phone cameras get, the more frustrated I get with their limitations — and the more I recognize how much better a dedicated camera is for those situations.

Let’s go back to the Pixel phones, with their cameras. I should note that they are and have been very, very good cameras, enough so that if I go somewhere and I don’t bring a dSLR, I don’t worry too much if I’m still going to be able to get good pictures. I even wrote about this fact previously.

But that said, their limitations — and the limitations of other very good cell phone cameras — still will pop out at you if you are more than a casual photographer. Their small sensors can only capture so much light and Google’s (or Apple’s or Samsung’s) AI can only compensate so much, and the choices they make are ones you have to live with whether you want to or not. The lenses on camera phones are likewise limited, which is why Google/Apple/Etc have spent so much time creating “portrait” modes to offer fake blur that their lenses can’t provide, and why literally everybody’s nose looks so damn big in selfies. Yes, you can buy add-on lenses for cell phones, but at that point the financial buy-in is high enough that you should start asking if it might not make more sense to get a dedicated camera.

Also, good luck getting a photo like the one above from a cell phone, unless you’re directly on stage with the musicians, sticking a phone in their face while they’re performing. And even then the phone is going to struggle with focus and lighting in ways that mean the chances of you getting that live candid shot before the bouncers haul your ass off the stage is fairly low. There are camera apps on phones that allow you to specify ISO and shutter speed and other technical aspects of your photography, to be sure. But again, if you’re the sort of person for whom all of that matters (and you are comfortable fiddling around with these things), the chances are pretty good you’ve already got a dedicated camera, and you’ll be using that for everything put pickup shots.

Or to put it another way: cell phone cameras have gotten good enough that they will do 90% to 95% of everything that the average person would ever want out of a camera. And that is an unalloyed good thing! Everyone should have a camera that flexible and useful to them. But if you’re an avid photographer (or a professional photographer), you spend so much more of your time than the average person in the 5%-to-10% area where cell phones fall down, that you become painfully aware of how far they have yet to go, regardless of how far they have come. This isn’t about snobbery (or more accurately, shouldn’t be) — it’s about use cases. For how I use cameras, my Pixel phone, as wonderful as the photography out of it is on a regular basis, still can’t give me everything I want and need, and it’s frustrating for me that it can’t.

Which is why as cell phone cameras become better, I still find myself reaching for my dSLR, and why, in fact, I ordered a brand new one, which is scheduled to arrive at my house tomorrow (details forthcoming! Wait until it arrives!). I love my Pixel 4 camera, and I love that I always have a “good enough” camera on me. But “good enough” is still not good enough for everything I want to do, and for every picture I want to take. I will get enough use out a dedicated camera that it is still worth the expense for me. I suspect that will continue to be the case for a while.

49 Comments on “Thoughts on Cameras in the Age of Excellent Cell Phone Photos”

  1. As an addendum, I will say that personally speaking I suspect that my Pixel 4 is a more capable camera than my nine-year-old Nikon d5100 for everything but portraiture — I get so much noise and grain out of sky and sunset pictures from the 5100 that it becomes an exercise in frustration, even with good lenses and decent conditions. Still, I would unhesitatingly use the 5100 for photos of people over the Pixel, and did, for the pictures I took of Krissy on her 50th birthday. The Pixel can take good portraiture, but it takes more effort.

  2. Sometimes the best camera is the one you have on you. Had you not ended this post by telling us you’ve already bought a new dSLR my suggestion would have been to consider a mirrorless camera. As that technology improves you might want to consider one in the future. I have lots of money sunk into my dSLR with cameras, lenses, flashes, etc., but mirrorless is something I’m considering for the future. So much lighter, and if the quality is there, well, might have to go for it.

  3. First, stop using lossy systems like JPEGs. You’re starting out by limiting what your camera can do when you take pictures this way and it isn’t a fair comparison when you hobble your camera.

    Second, it really comes down to convenience versus quality. A really good camera (it doesn’t have to be a DSLR either) is significantly better than a cell phone camera, even one of the best, like the Pixel 4. The PIxel 4 is a lot easier to pack around and use. Most people always have their phones with them and they don’t carry a dedicated camera the vast majority of the time.

    I have a Nikon Z7, mirrorless camera and love it. The pictures are some of the best I’ve ever seen. It weighs less and is much easier to deal with than a DSLR too. I have had to buy new lenses for it which is expensive and a pain. It is significantly better than my old Nikon D300 (and it should be) and it is also much better than my Pixel 3. If I’m on the go, I take pictures with my Pixel 3. If I’m doing something important that I really want great photos from, I pack my Nikon Z7 and love using it.

  4. A trained commercial photographer, its the edge cases that I need a full frame with strobes. But like “god of the gaps” as the science to religion, my iPhone pro is doing more of work on the street than my M10. The full-frame’s are becoming the camera of the gaps.

  5. Catfriend99:

    I will indeed explain why I got a dSLR over a mirrorless when I write up the new camera. It is a tale fraught with whiny indecision! But don’t worry, I will make it interesting.

  6. As catfriend99 said, a mirrorless would be a great choice for you. Nikon makes a full-frame one that comes with an adapter that lets you keep using all the Nikkor glass you have.

    I have the Z50 and it’s great. APS-C, but great. It replaced an old Canon Digital Rebel. I only had 2 lenses for that, and a flash, and found a good home for it. The viewfinder is amazing. I don’t need my reading glasses to use it! Just like an SLR!

  7. JS: Yes, you can buy add-on lenses for cell phones, but at that point the financial buy-in is high enough that you should start asking if it might not make more sense to get a dedicated camera.

    For me, the issue is not so much the expense of the add-on-lens-hacks (they seem to top out around $100-$200) but just that the results have been pretty bad in my experience. I’d like to do more macro photography — nature, mostly — and it’s hard to justify spending a couple of $K for a rig that I would probably use 6 times a year at best.

  8. Wiredog:

    Too late. The new dSLR is bought. Also, I personally disagree that they would be a great choice for me. As noted, I will walk people through my choice when it arrives.

  9. Looking forward to the explanation!

    I still miss my old Nikon FM2. Sigh. Young, booze-and-drug-addled me, was such an idiot…

  10. My Canon Rebel XT is still taking great photos, thankfully – I think I bought it the year after my youngest son was born, so it’s close to 15 years old at this point. I use it mostly for zoom and landscape shots or, as you pointed out, situations where depth of field is likely to be important. It’s amusing that is does feel superfluous much of the time, though – I brought it on our last vacation, and used it all of twice, which hardly merited the space in the luggage. That said, I’m looking forward to reading about your new toy!

  11. Please someday discuss best camera for taking pictures of the moon. I will say my iPhone 6s (yes, ancient in cell phone years) does not do well there.

  12. This reminds me a bit of considering whether or not I want to get a new laptop, as my old one (somewhere around 10-12 years old) is starting to lose functionality. For most of what I’d use it for, my desktop and tablet do the jobs — the tablet is more comfortable to carry around in my purse for reading/web browsing/email, and the desktop is generally going to give me more utility (and a larger screen). But I used my old laptop for teaching (I am a college professor) and to work on things while I travel (where having a dedicated keyboard and a bit more oomph in the processor helps), so I might put in the funds. But most of that is work stuff; if I didn’t have the job I did, I’d probably go without a laptop and be fine. (I effectively am now; of course, at the moment, I’m teaching from home and not traveling, so none of that matters.)

  13. Absolutely agree about frustration with cell phone limitations. When I am working again–optimist as I am!–I plan to get a Canon top–of-the-line lens set and hang them on a basic Canon body. Reasons for me: I know just enough photography to want to get better on options the cell phone simply doesn’t support, and basics that unaccountably aren’t in them, like improved color palettes. I am frustrated by the fact that the Samsung Galaxy color space is nowhere near the fidelity approached by a dedicated camera.

    That doesn’t mean I will stop taking pictures with the cell phone. On-the-go composition? Perfect. Documentation for various aspects of daily life–like the skateboarder who was blow-drying her hair as she rolled through the city street, or that crazy bumper sticker/billboard/sign…cell phone is great.

    What I find is that the cell phone insidiously saps my skill at careful, clean, very precise shots–it’s very convenience encourages me to get casual. But that casualness has a place.

    That said–a cell phone mount on a monocular lens is The Bomb for shooring birds at bird feeders and other close-in wildlife. I’m using a $52 monocular with an adjustable cell phone mount, and it definitely outperforms the fancier monocular for $189 with built-in camera and night vision. So, no good owl photos!

    Wishing you luck on your ruminations….

  14. Chris S
    For cell phones, the Pixels from Google are OK at astrophotography. You really need a tripod for them to get the best results. If you use a camera where you can set f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO, the moon is a sunlit object so the settings for that will usually work.

  15. I think you have pretty much summarized my dilemma too. I still fall back on my Lumix G2 when I want to do anything other than take snaps. Trouble is, the camera weighs a ton, needs a suite of (expensive) dedicated lenses and at the end of it all, it is not so convenient for just posting pictures to the WWW which sadly, is what I do most of the time.

  16. I was going to answer the question “Why get a dedicated camera?” with two words:

    Interchangeable lenses.

    If you’re doing anything at all specialized – wildlife, macro, wide-angle, architectural photography – the cell phone camera won’t do, because specialized, dedicated lenses are almost always what you’ll need in that 90-95% range you mention. I take enough photos of buildings that I seriously considered buying a tilt-swivel lens, then realized this is something I do mostly on city vacations and I’m better off renting such a lens a couple of times a year. (Or maybe buying used, but who sells those things???)

    When I bought my dSLR (a Canon Rebel), I looked at mirrorless cameras as well. I disliked what I saw in the viewfinder so much that it took me two minutes to decide against them. The electronic viewfinder was too artificial for me and looked gray compared to the brightness of the dSLRs. I have aging eyes that take -13 diopters of correction, so…the brightness mattered a lot to me.

    I got the Rebel, rather than a prosumer camera, which is what I started out looking for, because of the price/utility tradeoff you mention. The things I can do to take better photos have more to do with my skill level than how fancy the equipment is. Also, the prosumer cameras I looked at were too damn heavy for me to handle comfortably, and the best camera is often the one that you are physically comfortable handling and will use.

    Lastly, I’d rather spend money on more lenses than a fancier camera.

    One’s mileage will vary on all of this.

  17. Unless I’m intentionally going out to shoot something (like a video for pay, going to someplace whose photos or video I’ll want to preserve, or doing potential headshots for Tammy), I find hauling a serious camera around to be a major PitA, and will just use my iPhone camera (now that it’s the 11 Pro, I’m even getting good shots on a regular basis!). For the most part, letting the phone’s post-processing do the work for me is a real blessing — it’s like Alex Lindsay (formerly of the THIS WEEK IN PHOTOGRAPHY Podcast) liked to say about wanting his camera to have the settings his Sister (a professional photographer) would set for a particular shot! 95% of the time, I can trust the camera to do a better job than I could to know what I need for a particular shot.

    But I have to agree w/Lisa Hirsch that the ability to swap out lenses with what I think of as a “pro” camera is a major advantage — and using clip-on lenses w/my iPhone is a questionable substitute at best. Since my major interest in a camera is taking video anyway, I want those lenses I’m most likely to use for that purpose in addition to the zoom lens I got with the camera — like a 100mm lens for close-ups, a 35mm lens for full shots (and usually establishing shots), and a “fast 50” (50mm with a lower maximum aperture setting, like 1.4 or 1.2) for medium shots or shots in borderline lighting.

  18. I like a dedicated camera but chose a Canon GS9 X mark 2 – huge sensor, lots of shooting modes in a shirt-pocket sized package. Unobtrusive but powerful.

  19. I’ve preached the gospel of iPhone photography for years, but still have a dedicated camera on hand (the Fuji X-T2, because I got tired of waiting for Canon to put 4K recording on any camera under $10K, as well as the X70, which is basically a minified X100 rangefinder), because the options you have access to are just better, depending on your situation.

    Shooting events or artsy nightime window shots with the X-T2 results in shots that I’ll tinker with in Snapseed or Lightroom just a touch, but are overall fine, thanks to Fuji’s excellent film simulation modes. Plus I can flick a switch and shoot 6K footage without having to change much else-everything’s already pre-programmed.

    That being said though, I’ve definitely been in a situation where I don’t have my cameras on me, like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights last year, and I was able to get good night shots with my recently-upgraded iPhone, which had always been a frustration in the past. I have a couple of Moment lenses as well, but they’ve felt less mandatory this time around (they’re still fun to experiment with, however!)

  20. I left out a couple of my photographic peculiarities:

    – I don’t have and have never used Photoshop or other photo-editing tool, with the exception that I used the built-in Flickr editor to lighten some photos of U-505 that (wait for it) I took with a very outdated pocket camera rather than my cell phone camera. The camera was by-then 10 year old Powershot.

    – My photos are 99.9% natural light. I’ve never really learned about proper use of flash.

    I want to second Dana’s recommendation of the Canon G9 X Mark 2. I bought one of those because sometimes I lack the will to haul my camera bag. That Canon fits in a pocket and has a great range of features.

  21. I think you are right to go for a fancier camera. My iPhone 11 Pro takes great photos and has an 18mm wide angle (which is fantastic), but when I was about to head out on a two month trip in my RV, I knew I needed something more capable. I used to be a professional photographer, but I sold all my Nikon stuff a long time ago. I wanted a high quality camera that didn’t require me to carry a bunch of lenses. I got a Sony DSC-RX10 IV with a 24-600mm F2.4-4 lens. I wanted something I could carry on hikes that wouldn’t weigh me down. It has been a great camera. Of course it’s not much use during our current lockdown! Someday I’ll be able to use it again. BTW, I loved The Last Emperox!

  22. I’m using a Samsung Galaxy S9 phone as my everyday camera. One thing that I think gets overlooked is that its tiny light sensors and AI absorb so much *more* light, especially in low light conditions like sunrise or sunset, than my eyes/brain do. This is because all brains selectively, sequentially *destroy* information before it reaches the brain’s cortex. This is called “dazzle,” and it can be distracting, even at low levels of dazzle.

    There is a useful work-around on my phone to make my low-light pictures more closely match the color saturation that my brain is seeing. After I take a particularly good picture, I can, immediately or at my leisure, turn *down* the brightness on that picture by 10 or a dozen and then re-save. This allows my camera to more closely match the effects of the real ambient light, as opposed to the light-level the camera thinks it is seeing.

  23. sbradfor:

    “First, stop using lossy systems like JPEGs.”

    I think it’s amusing you think I don’t know about the existence of RAW files when you’re aware I’ve used both Photoshop and a dSLR for more than a decade. The jpg photos were for demonstration purposes. That said, as I noted in the first comment, even in RAW, the noise out of the d5100 is significant.

  24. I got brave and dipped my toe in the dSLR world a few years ago, and by and large have been happy with the results, although they make both my failings as a photographer and my ignorance about image manipulation all too clear.

    The funny thing (to me) was that last year, my spouse and I vacationed with our adult son, who has a fancy new cell phone with a camera (no idea what kind, I don’t use cell phones). He and I were taking photos of the same things, and almost without exception, the photos his cell phone took were better for color, clarity and exposure than the photos I was getting with my Nikon. I got some of his photos enlarged to poster-size, and the images are just as sharp and crisp at 20″x30″ as they are on a 4″x6″ photo.

    That won’t stop me from continuing to try with my Nikon. Once in a while, I do get a photo with it that genuinely makes me proud (as they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while). And at least with a digital camera, I don’t have to pay for developing unless I feel like it. It’s just interesting that cell phone cameras have gotten as good as they have.

  25. For me it comes down to the style I like to shoot on why I have a dedicated dslr. I mainly shoot nature and wildlife so for me I need lenses with lengths that will reach 200, 300, 400+ to get the shots I want. I have yet to come across a phone camera that can zoom that far. But on my trip to Ireland, when my battery died on my camera, I was super happy to have my phone and was super happy with the photos it took.

    My other big reason for a dedicated camera is versatility to switch out lenses, even though it may be a pain if your traveling or on the move. I love that I can get macro shots and then see something cool that’s far away and switch out a lens to capture that shot.

    Excited to see what you ended up getting. I just got a Nikon D500 last year which is my first foray into dropping serious cash on a camera as well as starting to build my lens collection which makes a huge difference. Next stop is a full frame camera this year for even more options in shooting.

  26. That tiny sensor is never going to give you the low light low noise capability of a full frame sensor nor the dynamic range. The fake blur is good but not perfect and can never be. And you can’t control it by manipulating the f-stop. You’re getting pretty close to pinhole territory here so enlarging a picture to hang on your wall is always going to turn up artifacts.

    But given what you are doing, you might be interested in the Android app Camera fv-5. Ut uses the Camera II api to bring a lot of manual adjustment capability to phones.

  27. The partner and I are kayakers. While I work a fly rod, the girlfriend takes pictures. Almost as important as the adjustable lens of the Canon is the viewfinder.

    Video screens as a viewfinder are worthless out in the sun. It would work better if she could talk the wildlife into moving so the screen wasn’t in the sun, but they haven’t been real accommodating.

  28. For the past few months I’ve been using my phone camera to grab bar codes from those stupid Von’s Monopoly pieces. It is so frustrating to move the phone in and out and just watch it refuse to focus or, if it’s in focus, refuse to notice the bar code that is literally 2-8 inches away.

    Oh, wait, you actually take pictures with your phone. To be honest, most of my camera phone pics are street signs so I know where I parked.

    I’m guessing I have nothing to add to this thread. Good thing I have vodka on my side.

  29. There’s one big reason I’ll never go cell-phone-only: if I see a bird or something out the window, and take a picture with my cell phone… I get a lovely, sharp picture of the glass or the window screen.

    Sometimes you gotta yell it where to focus.

  30. I was going to suggest that if you’re happy with your lenses, just buy a new and upgraded compatible camera body, but if you’ve already bought the replacement . . .

  31. Of course a large camera will always give you higher quality than a cell phone camera. The real mystery is how the latest phones can take such good pictures with their dinky little lenses and sensors?

    For those who like technical explanations, Russian programmer “vas3k” has an eye-opening article: “Computational Photography.” In short, a hell of a lot of processing in your phone, long before you press the button, plus sensors you didn’t even know your phone had. It’s not quite artificial, (i.e., your phone isn’t exactly lying), but with each new model it creeps closer and closer that way.

  32. I have a cell phone, but it is a pain to use for photography. First, I have to get the damned thing out of my pocket. If you ever call me, ring at least a dozen times. I’m fighting with my phone. Then, there’s security. It’s an iPhone X, so it’s smile for the face camera which means more delay and taking my eyes off of whatever I was going to photograph. By then, I’ve lost the quick camera option and have to flick up a half dozen times to get the phone in command mode so I can get into the camera app. Then, it’s check the camera app, because odds are it decided to into conical panorama mode while it was snoozing. Finally, it’s time to take the picture, either that or go to bed.

    My solution. I carry a small ultrazoom camera in a little belt case. It comes out in a second. It has a simple on/off switch with no security checks. There’s no malware and it can’t link to my bank account or credit card. Then, it’s point and shoot. A no brainer for a no brainer., I prefer an ultrazoom since I’m always taking pictures of stuff – birds, flowers, cars – that are way too far away to shoot without one. Have you ever tried to sneak up on a coyote? I’ve heard two things about it. It’s hard. It’s not a great idea.

    Congratulations, in advance, on your new camera. I hope you get a bazoodle of yea of photographs out of it. As a technical point though, you did the right thing sticking with digital. I was worried you might be switching back to silver nitrate.

  33. This will date me: I learned on “film”–remember that? It’s celluloid with photosensitive coatings–and in the darkroom. As the erstwhile editor of an aviation magazine, I’d cheerfully burn through a couple of 20-cassette “bricks” of ASA 64(!) Kodachrome, 720 exposures each, on an air-to-air photo shoot–even with the processing, it was way cheaper than re-flying a mission with the camera plane and one or more subject airplanes. It wasn’t until the development of good DSLRs that I let them take my Kodachrome away. I still have several really nice 35-mm bodies sitting around, as well as lots of once-expensive glass, some of which I still use with my DSLRs–“real photographers (gender optional) know how to focus for themselves.” As a curmudgeon/Luddite, I still think that one learns to pay more attention to composition and lighting when one can’t blaze away 10 or 20 frames, with autobracketing of exposure, for each shot. (Especially since when I wasn’t shooting for the aviation mag, I had to pay for my own film and processing.)

    That said, I agree entirely that “the best camera is the one you have with you,” and I have, and love, a 7 year old Canon pocket camera, hardly larger than a cellphone, that has a 20:1 optical zomm and all the manual modes, as well as point-and-shoot if I want it. (Although it lacks, alas, a viewfinder other than its little screen.) I think that the ability to choose the ideal lens to fit the subject is still a major advantage of DSLRs (and some mirrorless cameras, although I don’t have any of those), as well as reasonably affordable larger sensors compared to even the best phones–not that I don’t still take lots of pictures with my not very new or advanced phone as well.

    Finally, the DSLR is just so damn versatile! One of my (two) DSLRs has been modified for astrophotography (by removal of its internal IR filter), and I can use it for everything from full-sky wide-angle long exposures through planetary and/or deep sky photography through a telescope–with a decent tracking mount and post processing, people are getting near-Hubble quality imagery from light-polluted urban backyards. And I can still use it for regular earthly subjects just by shooting a 15% gray card (or, failing that, a white bedsheet, or somebody’s white vinyl siding, or something) and setting a custom white balance. My ultimate solution: have a kind of OK phone, a better pocket camera, and a better yet affordable DSLR with a decent selection of good glass (both old and less so), and use each as appropriate.

    On another subject: I downloaded The Last Emperox from Audible the day it came out, but managed to resist listening to it until I’d gone back and listened to The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire first. Thanks, John. Thanks, Wil. Makes California’s excellent and well-considered stay at home requirements, AKA house arrest lite, hardly onerous at all!

  34. Sensor size matters. You can get a small camera with a relatively huge sensor.* Phones tend to small sensors and rely, as stated above, on a lot of ‘processing’. Not that the pictures aren’t good, but if you do a lot of cropping you notice the drop-off.

    *The Canon I mention above has a 1″ sensor.

  35. Long, large diameter lenses for light gathering and changing focus.
    Mechanical aperatures to change how much ligh gets in.
    Large sensors to provide more area for light to land on.

    Pretty much everything that makes a dslr better than a phone are things that make them hard to fit in a pocket.

    I would say go for it.

  36. Interesting technical discussion which I can barely follow. however, the point seems to be about that line over which thing matter a lot, regardless of whether you’re a pro, and over that line you feel the need for more than the average person. I’m that way with music, couldn’t bear early CDs with their very narrow spectrum of sound. Cheap guitars sound really cheap to me. Color is also important, so being able to get the exact color in a photo, the same one you saw, and wanted a record of, would make a deciding difference to me. So I understand, I think, the need to get the actual camera, and will look forward to a technical review that I will only be able to follow vaguely.

  37. I know the decision has been made, but there was one option that I haven’t seen discussed so far, and it would be interesting to hear your thoughts. Was there any consideration given to buying something used, such as a newer Nikon model after the d750? So many folks want to have the latest stuff that in other fields, there are active used marketplaces. The benefits are using the same glass and other accessories, etc. What about a used d750? And thanks for “The Last Emperox” Ya, ya, we launch the rockets!!

  38. I left out my prediction that the new camera is a Nikon, because you have the lenses, and why would you set yourself up to replace your lenses by buying a different body?

    I am now curious about which body, especially whether you looked at the very specialized astrophotography camera.

  39. The one thing that stuck out in this article more than anything else was this: “Which is to say that if I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of use from something — “use” being a very flexible term in this formulation, but let’s not go there now — then I can’t justify the price in my head.”

    I can’t help but believe the entire world would be a better place if more people would adopt that simple axiom. It applies at every level of income, from those struggling to get by who go into debt to buy some new toy to the obscenely rich, who never feel they are rich enough to afford the bigger yacht they desperately yearn for, yet will hardly ever use.

  40. Fully agree! Even when others can’t see the difference between my DSLR image and their cell phone image. It’s painfully obvious when I have to modify a cell photo to be used in a print document. Just upgraded my DSLR and will be happy for another decade, I hope.

  41. I still enjoy my Canon 7D, even though the current crop of DSLR’s cause me to salivate a little. A couple of years back I invested in a mirrorless Canon M5, which takes good pictures and is compact, but I still chafe at the user experience with a touch-screen LCD and arcane menu structures. Back in the 35mm SLR days, it was just second nature to twist a few dials to set aperture and shutter speed, and snap a shot. And you focused with your eye, dammit.

  42. The way I look at it, is if I went to a studio and took portraits of my kid, it’s $400+. Having a semi-decent lens and Fuji SLR is the same as two or three of these sessions, so it’s paid for itself over the 9 years I’ve had it.(Plus great for taking wildlife photography).

    The big change is traveling. In the past I would always take it with me. Now I only do so if I think I’ll have the time to take good photos with it.

  43. I really enjoy the manual settings on my LG V30. I have played with them and managed some really good shots, especially at the Postmodern Jukebox show in Memphis a couple of years ago.

  44. Excellent thoughts from Marky Mark (used equipment) and Charles Owen (use vs cost). Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, coined the term, “The Tyranny of the New.” Those who can resist its siren call can enjoy its best side effect: “The Affordability of the (often just barely) Not New.”

  45. The cel phone vs. dedicated camera decision tends to revolve around a few things:
    1) Do you print?
    2) Do you need to resolve small details?
    3) Do you have to shoot in low light?
    4) Do you shoot sports?
    5) Could you benefit from a wider or longer perspective than that provided by a 18–52 mm equivalent?
    6) Do you like the “texture” of more serious optics and a large sensor?
    7) Do you need speciality lenses, like tilt-shift/perspective control?

    Of these points, #2, 3, 5, and 6 apply to me. #2, 3, and 5 largely because I often photograph inside dark medieval churches, and want to capture architectural details and inscriptions. #6 is a taste sort of thing, like vinyl, but I like the “character” of many of the lenses I have and I don’t feel like software can entirely emulate it. That said, film gives an even more character-full look, but it is a pain for an amateur like me.

    I feel like cel phones today give exceptional results for web-sized images on sunny days and are even acceptable in the dark (in a pinch). Computational photography can give artificially narrow depth-of-field that looks OK. Panoramas are really easy to do on my camera. My iPhone 11 does really clever things with its three cameras. But in the end, the output looks a little artificial, and (more subjectively) phone shooting feels like a cheat.

    My primary cameras today (not that anyone asked) are my venerable five-year old Sony RX1r2 (full frame, 35mm fixed lens), a Sony A7r2 (full frame) with a few (mostly manual) lenses, and my everyday carry, a Ricoh GR3 (APS-C). Except for the relatively new Ricoh, they’ve served me well on a few trips across the United States and to the Caucasus.

    I have to confess though, I’m always tempted to sell everything and shoot with a rangefinder like the one I learned photography on. I feel like the photos I made with that archaic, mostly manual technology still are among the best I’ve ever done.

    Sorry for the length here, never ask a camera nerd to opine on the subject.

  46. Scott, nothing wrong with film and rangefinder technology! If that’s what floats your boat….

    I still have a couple of Ricoh XR-M bodies and lenses around.

  47. Dear John,

    I’ll be very interested in reading your personal analysis of mirrorless vs DLSR, because there are very few thoughtful ones out there, and I can always count on you to be thoughtful.


    Dear Chris S,

    I can help you with that, but the question is more open-ended than you’d think, and I don’t think John wishes this to become a photography how-to column. Email me.


    Dear pjcamp,

    “…enlarging a [cell phone] picture to hang on your wall is always going to turn up artifacts. ”

    Ummm, no. This is a common assertion, and it’s incorrect. As the guy who gets paid hundreds-to-thousands (yes, really) of dollars to print someone’s photograph, I know a bit more about this than your average bear.

    Cell phone photographs blow up just fine. 16×20’s look excellent, and that’s by my fussy standards. Bigger sizes will start to suffer, but those aren’t prints one presses one’s nose up to.

    Yes, artifacts *can* happen if one doesn’t have the camera defaults set for maximum quality or exports the photos through software that doesn’t maintain that. This happens more than it should because manufacturers’ defaults are often not for maximum quality.

    But, I’ve run into exactly the same problem with photos I’ve been asked to print from folks with DSLR’s. Default settings are usually NOT for highest-quality jpeg, and, of course, most users don’t save in RAW, the same way most cell phone users don’t.

    It’s not a technological problem.


    Dear Folks,

    The whole “X is better than Y” is a valueless red herring. Yeah, **on average**, a cell photo isn’t as good as u43/APs, which isn’t as good full-frame, which isn’t as good as ‘medium format’ blah blah blah.

    (** and there are a surprising number of exceptions to that)

    No one cares. Really, they don’t.

    People only care if the quality they get is good enough for their needs and desires. 99% of film photographers, pro and amateur, stuck with 35mm, despite medium format being so much higher quality. Of that 1%, 9 out of 10 (at least) were happy with medium format, and felt no need to move to 4×5″ sheet film or, further 8×10, despite the visible improvements in quality with each stage, even in mere 8×10 comparison prints.

    pax / Ctein
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  48. You’ve reminded me that I have been thinking of getting a dedicated camera too – simply because those are easier for me to handle and that makes a world of difference to me, as I have dystonic tremors in my hands, so it’s impossible for me to keep my hands still except for in certain restricted positions. Also, I recall my last camera had a handy little tripod, which was very useful. It annoys me to be basically unable to take pictures. Your post motivated me to look more into it.

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