Photo Kit: When smartphone cameras are better than DSLRs


  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 06 Jan 2015


If you own an all-singing, all-dancing modern 24-Megapixel full-frame DSLR, is there still a place for your smartphone’s built-in camera?

After all, whatever the smartphone can shoot, the DSLR can too, right?

Well as I discovered on my 15-day trip to Nepal, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut as that.

On this trip, I decided to keep my professional camera gear pretty light -- just one 70-300mm telephoto zoom lens, a standard 24-85mm kit lens and a 16mm full-frame fisheye to go along with my full-frame DSLR.

I had debated whether I should take a flashgun and a tripod, but having trekked through Nepal in 2006, I was reminded that the extra weight of these two items did not warrant the one or two times when I needed to use them.

UNOBTRUSIVE: a quick candid shot like this taken with the iPhone would be as easy to get if I were using a DSLR
 

And you know what? As my trip progressed, trekking up the rocky roads around the Annapurna mountain range, walking through the jungles of the Chitwan National Park and navigating the dusty narrow streets of Kathmandu, I found that the iPhone 6’s camera extremely useful for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, as pointed out by my brother, the iPhone 6 is a lot less intimidating to people than my big DSLR.

Normally shy people who refused to be photographed when you point a huge honking DSLR in their face are actually more likely to allow you to shoot when you use a smartphone.

In fact, the iPhone 6 is an excellent snapshot camera, as you can see from the photos here.

However, there are a few things that the iPhone does that’s actually better than a DSLR.

GO WIDER: The iPhone 6 produces some pretty impressive panorama images
 

Smart panoramas
For example, the built-in auto-stitching panorama function is way more convenient and produces immediate (and excellent) results.

If I wanted to shoot a panorama on my DSLR, there would be a lot more hassle involved -- I'd have to set the camera to manual mode, lock down the exposure, then slowly shoot each image, moving slightly between each frame, while making sure I had enough overlap with the last frame.

A VIEW TO A KILL: Sometimes only a panorama will do justice to a particular location
 

Then, AFTER my trip, I'd have to open these individual shots in Photoshop, and then stitch them together to form the final panorama.

It’s not a pleasant experience, let me tell you.

Even with some mirrorless cameras like ones from Panasonic, which do offer panorama shooting by simply panning the camera from left to right, results aren’t as consistently good as the photos I get from the iPhone 6.

 

Shooting video
Another thing I discovered was that shooting a quick video is more convenient with your smartphone.

With modern digital image stabilisation and the high quality of video recording in smartphones these days, it’s just better to whip out the iPhone to record a quick video or two.

Often, the videos I get from the smartphone are at least as good or better than what I'd get with a DSLR.

The iPhone 6 has another trick up its sleeve that kept me going back to it to record videos and that's the fact that it has an excellent slow-motion video recording mode.

Apple's latest iPhone is capable of recording video at up to 240-frames-per-second (fps) and produces truly spectacular looking slow-motion videos when played back at 30fps.

So yes, I discovered that there really is a place for the smartphone camera alongside a modern DSLR when it comes to shooting.

HIGH DYNAMIC RANGE: The iPhone 6 produces very natural-looking HDR images
 

Always with you
Of course, the biggest advantage of the smartphone camera is that it's small and you're more likely to carry it around with you than a DSLR.

There were times on my trip when I just didn't want to carry my DSLR around -- carry a big DSLR around is like waving a flag announcing to beggars and thieves that you are a good target.

With a smartphone I could walk around and look almost like one of the locals and still be able to whip it out to take a quick snapshot when I saw a good photo opportunity come up.

QUALITY: Modern smartphone cameras are getting better with every generation
 

It's about the photographer
I had a reader write in after reading last week's column, taking issue with me comparing DSLRs with smartphone cameras, not knowing that last week's article was actually the first part of a longer article in which as you now see, I deal with the merits of having both cameras on hand.

The reader also pointed out that it's the photographer and not the camera that makes a difference and in that I do agree -- it really doesn't matter what camera you use, as long as you are creative and get interesting photos from it.

Every camera has its limitations and it's up to the photographer to work within those limitations to get a good shot.

(Photo Kit is a fortnightly online column in which Tan Kit Hoong (tankh@thestar.com.my) shares his thoughts on the art and technology behind cameras at thestar.com.my/tech.)

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