There’s an old saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. Smartphone users have taken that axiom to heart: Market research group InfoTrends estimates that people took 1 trillion digital photos last year, and digital photography is growing exponentially. Smartphone cameras are improving, but will they ever completely replace DSLR cameras? Probably not very soon.
As mobile device photography technology evolves and more people rely solely on smartphones and tablets to take photos and videos, it’s tempting to think that DSLR cameras will meet the same fate as film cameras. Dual-camera technology — which has been integrated into flagship models made by smartphone manufacturers like Apple, HTC, Huawei and LG — has been hailed as a game-changer.
However, dual-camera technology may not be the make-or-break feature some believe it to be. Its effectiveness depends on how it is implemented, but in reality, the decision on which camera phone to buy should hinge on price and sensor quality. Aspiring mobile phone photographers have more choices than ever today when purchasing a camera, but it makes sense to evaluate the features realistically.
In popular implementations of the dual-camera setup, one camera captures the black-and-white image while the other takes a color photo. Technically, the color sensor and black-and-white sensors are the same except for a single difference: the black-and-white sensor has had its top layer’s color filter removed, rendering it unable to capture color but increasing its ability to capture light threefold.
This makes the camera function much better, particularly in low-light conditions. And as any photographer will attest, each f-stop matters. A quality DSLR needs 20 seconds to capture an image of the Milky Way — and it already sees colors the human eye can’t perceive while stargazing. Adding a black-and-white sensor to a mobile phone camera reduces the time required to capture that same image to a fraction of a second.
Another factor in the DSLR vs. smartphone camera debate is that smartphone photography apps have become more powerful as the computing power of phones themselves have eclipsed laptop capabilities from just a few years ago. That means users can expect excellent performance, with the only limits being screen size and accessory tools. But screen size and tool limitations can impose significant drawbacks.
For example, finger-directed edits made on a small screen typically aren’t as precise as those made via a stylus or mouse on a laptop or desktop. Another consideration is that some apps limit image size to achieve better speed and faster uploads. These limitations might be acceptable to amateur photographers, but professionals will likely continue to use DSLRs and computer screens for their work.
And that’s not so unusual; there’s often a gap between products used by consumers and professionals. Cars have become more streamlined and lightweight over the years, which is a boon to consumers. But people who are on the road in a professional capacity still require larger, bulkier trucks to haul goods from point A to destination B.
It’s unlikely that 2017 will see the launch of truly game-changing smartphone camera features, but we can expect smaller and better sensors, superior glass and upgraded software as the top manufacturers continue to battle it out for world domination. Hopefully battery life will improve too! That’s an innovation that is long overdue in a smartphone-dependent world.
The shortening cycle of smartphone replacement isn't really necessary, but it does generate pressure for new and better products, not just for the photography realm but also for computing power. And that has positive implications across all areas of science and technology, which sends out ripple effects that make human life — and perhaps even civilization as a whole — better.
Serban Enache is CEO of global stock photo agency Dreamstime.com.