Let's Stop Calling Them "Smartphone Cameras"

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

Let’s not beat around the bush anymore and start calling the cameras in our phones what they really are, cameras. Yup, they’re just plain old cameras. There’s no longer a need to specify that they’re not a “real camera” anymore. I know it’s semantics, but I think it’s important to realize what these things have become over the past 8 years.

2005-2009: A nice perk you rarely use

Image via Matt Haughey Image via Matt Haughey

The cameras in phones were next to useless for years. Around 2005 or so, they finally got good enough that people would use them in a pinch to get a shot they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. These pictures look terrible, but they were better than nothing. Here’s a line from Engadget’s review of the Sony Ericsson S710a from 2005:

Although its sensor, lens and the resulting pictures blow away pretty much every other cameraphone available in the States, the S710 still cannot replace your high end digicam. Still, it's perfect for snapshot from a day, or (thanks to the flash and CCD) even a night out on the town.

I got married in 2009 and we received a point and shoot camera that was not great, but was certainly far better than the cameras in either of our phones at the time. On our honeymoon we took all of our photos on that camera and almost never used out phones.

2010-2012: The camera you have with you

Image via Engadget Image via Engadget

2010 saw the release of the iPhone 4 and the original Samsung Galaxy S, each of which had really nice camera for the time. They were certainly a step up from what we had before, and we started to hear more and more people saying they were leaving their real cameras at home more often and just taking pictures with their phones.

This was the era of people generally understanding that smartphone cameras were not as good as a standalone camera, but the difference was so little that most people did’t care. And if they did care, the mere reduction in friction in taking a photo with your phone was enough to get many to just use their phone.

Besides, selfies had become the biggest innovation in photography in decades and nothing did that better than a smartphone.

2013-2015: The only camera that matters

Image via Me :) Image via Me :)

I realized when I was talking pictures with my iPhone today that this is the best camera I own. I have a low to mid-range mirrorless camera that I love, but my iPhone gets almost as good images in most situations. And the specs in these things are amazing! High end phones have 12MP+ sensors, fancy true-tone flashes, 8MP wide angle front facing cameras, optical image stabilization, laser auto focus, 4K video, and 240FPS slow mo these days. These are not just get specs to have in a smartphone, they’re great for any camera!

It really hit me when I was shooting some sample footage when I first got my iPhone 6S Plus. The video I was getting out of the iPhone was far, far better than what I was getting out of my Nikon. “How can this be?!” I asked myself. How could this phone camera not only get close to the quality of my $800 camera, but actually demolish it? It was a startling realization, and if I look around at the world, it’s the way it’s been for a few years.

How many young people bring a point-and-shoot with them when they go out with friends? I went to a book signing last week and we all got pictures with the author: it was assumed that we would all have out own smartphone with us to take the picture. Even I, a staunch supporter of “real cameras” find myself taking far more pictures with my phone than anything else.

And I haven't even touched on the fact that images and videos I take from my phone can be immediately shared to Twitter, Facebook, iMessage, Snapchat, Instagram, and infinite more places. I can also use Pixelmator and Snapseed to edit my images on the phone without even waiting to get to a computer to make them just how I want them. And services like iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos let me take every photo I have ever taken with me wherever I am. Software is eating the world, and it's made cameras completely badass.

I will still continue to bring my Nikon with me for special occasions because I do want that more professional quality and enhanced control that I get with RAW images, but I bet even those days are numbered as Apple and others get even better at a rapid pace.

Like it or not, our smartphone cameras are cameras nowadays. All dedicated cameras are bulky, offline, and don’t even take noticeably better photos than our phones in many cases. It’s amazing and just another example of smartphones being the ultimate “omni-device” that sucks up countless products into one that is so much better in every way.