Is The iPhone Camera a Real Camera?

Edited with Polarr Photo Editor

There’s been an ongoing debate for years — and I can’t believe I’m still hearing it pop up once in a while — where some photographers or photography enthusiasts are saying that the iPhone camera isn’t a real camera. To some, this could be deemed “camera snobbery” and quite frankly, I don’t believe there is any room for it in the world. Our planet is messed up enough.

Photography as we know it today has been in a state of evolution since it began in the late 1830s. Yes, photography in and of itself began much sooner than that, but I’m talking about photography with a camera, one that captures light to create an image on a surface. Imagine it. Photographers during those times — in the late 1830s and into the early 1840s — were probably quite proud of what they were able to achieve in creating an image without the use of a brush, some paint and a canvas.

Since change is constant, I believe photography will continue to evolve, and I can’t imagine what cameras will be like even ten years in the future. One thing I do know is that the technology we’ll use then is most likely going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before, just like when the world of film photography from a few short decades ago would never have imagined us using digital cameras today, and I mean the traditional type. Do you see where this is going? Photography has changed, and we’ve accepted it.

I’m not stopping there, though, with this attempt to make my point. I have more to say about it. I just stated that we’ve generally accepted the fact that photography is always changing, and it’s been easier for some more than others. Quite frankly, some folks just can’t accept the changes they see in the art form, and that’s okay. They don’t have to change how they capture an image. This debate, however, isn’t about whether or not people have to change their ways regarding image capture, it’s about whether or not the iPhone camera is indeed a real camera. So, what is a camera?

Since the first cameras ever used, the fundamental idea has been to capture a moment in time by using a device that allows light that is reflected or projected from an object to pass through a lens, no matter how primitive or complex in design, and land on the surface of something with the ability to record the image. Going forward now, I’ll be writing about digital cameras because I don’t think I need to mention past technologies anymore. Cameras have a few major components that are common across the board: a lens with an aperture, a shutter mechanism, and a surface that records the light. These three things are all part of what make up the exposure triangle.

The iPhone has a lens, and in most cases these days, the iPhone that people carry has more than one. A traditional camera, like a DSLR or mirrorless, also has a lens. Hmm. Interesting. Really, the only difference between the lens of an iPhone camera and that of a traditional model is that the aperture in an iPhone’s lens is fixed. The adjustable aperture of a traditional lens allows for much greater flexibility in creating an image, but the iPhone makes up for that with its use of powerful algorithms.

The iPhone has a shutter mechanism. It can only physically stay open for one second, and Apple limits it to this to prevent heat build up on the chipset, but the iPhone’s shutter can be blistering fast. It’s small size and light weight will no doubt attribute to the speed. The shutter in a traditional camera can be very fast, too, but unlike the iPhone, it can stay open for as long as the photographer wants. We’re beginning to see that there are limitations to the iPhone, that’s for sure.

The iPhone has digital sensors. I pluralize that because every iPhone has multiple cameras with the Selfie Camera on the front, and at least one camera on the back. The sensor adjusts its sensitivity according to the light that is available. Apple’s algorithms for automatic shooting with the Camera app work to give the fastest shutter speed with the lowest ISO value in order to provide the sharpest image possible.

So, if you’re reading this, you already know how a camera works. I wasn’t trying to bore you, I was just illustrating the point that the iPhone camera works pretty much like a traditional camera. But, there are still people who don’t think it’s a real camera, and one reason might be because they claim all that computational stuff isn’t how a real camera works. Well, sorry to break it to you, but even traditional cameras do computational stuff to a degree. I mean, a JPG image, which many, if not most, people shoot with their traditional cameras, is completely processed using computational algorithms built into the camera’s software.

The difference between the way a traditional camera builds an image compared to the iPhone is that a traditional camera — let’s say in Auto Mode — uses a single exposure made from Focus, ISO, Shutter Speed and White Balance. The iPhone has a much more complex array of variables involved, including Auto Exposure, Auto White Balance, Auto Focus, Noise Reduction, Local Tone Mapping, Highlight Details, Image Fusion, Face Detection, Facial Landmarking, Segmentation Mask, and Semantic Rendering. That’s a lot of stuff to do in an instant. All this computational goodness isn’t always perfect, though, because it has been known to over process the image to the point where some elements in the frame just look fake. But, that’s where shooting RAW or Apple’s ProRAW helps eliminate that problem.

Speaking of RAW, the iPhone has been capable of RAW capture since the 6s came out in 2015. This allowed for some people, myself included, to take a more serious, photographic approach to mobile photography and get the most out of the small sensor. Sure, this requires processing the image after the fact, but, oddly enough, that’s exactly what is required when shooting RAW in a traditional camera.

I’ve heard it said that a photo is not a photo until it’s a print. I’ve made a lot of prints from images captured on my iPhones, some as large as 24 x 30. I once had one in a gallery display with a number of other photographs taken with assorted traditional cameras. At the gallery opening, I could see folks walking around, talking about the photos, and when someone heard mine was taken with a phone, they were quite surprised. To be honest, in this day and age, I think it would be very difficult to tell, by looking at a print, just what kind of camera was used to create it. Sure, there will be obvious exceptions because it’s hard to beat the print quality you’d get from something like a Hasselblad or a good full frame camera, but looking at an 8 x 10 framed print on the wall could have you wondering if it was an iPhone or a Canon, so long as the lens used was a wide angle. That brings up another obvious difference, a photo taken with a long lens. You just won’t get a shot of a bird from any distance with an iPhone. Limitations.

So, without going into so much more detail about this whole debate, the questions is, “Is the iPhone a real camera?” Let’s answer this by posing a few more questions:

Can you capture a moment in time with an iPhone? Yes.

Can you capture a moment in time with a traditional camera? Yes.

Can you make a print from a photo taken with an iPhone? Yes.

Can you make a print from a photo taken with a traditional camera? Yes.

Can you take a RAW photo with an iPhone? Yes.

Can you take a RAW photo with a traditional camera? Yes.

Do you see where I’m going with this? To say the iPhone isn’t a real camera is absolute nonsense. No one knows more than I do that the iPhone has limitations, but there are things I can do with an iPhone that I couldn’t do with my DSLR when I had it. When I sold my Canon stuff, I knew going in that I would be faced with challenges in my photography but I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I’ve also enjoyed the community aspect of mobile photography. There’s no trash talking, no elitism, everyone wants to help each other improve in their photography. And, you never hear a mobile only photographer snub a traditional camera user. You just don’t.

So, to those who don’t think the iPhone is a real camera, I hope my words enlighten you enough to make you question your opinion again. Photography is an art form. It’s in a constant state of change; one that we’ve accepted over the years and there is no reason we can’t accept it as we go forward into tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s