Wednesday, March 1, 2023

10 Things you Can't Do with a Smartphone

This was the final image seen in the movie, "The Shining".  It was taken with something called a Banquet Camera.  Read on for why I'm even showing this to you.

Also in this Issue:

  • 10 Things You Can't Do with a Smartphone
  • Sony A7R V - Little-Discussed Features of Note (youtube video)
  • Announcements / Next Time in Cameracraft Magazine
  • Adding Detail to Old Photos

10 Things You Can’t Do with a Smartphone

Smartphones are taking over, and the gap in image quality continues to shrink.  (See my lecture about Computational Photography given to the Royal Photographic Society for more on this topic.)  But there are still areas where the big cameras are essential.  Below is a short list (click on any image to view larger and sharper):

1.  Olympic Sports / Nature Photography / Horseback Riding

This is the first example most people think of.  Anything requiring a telephoto lens and subject tracking will remain the domain of mirrorless cameras (and to some extent DSLRs, although the mirrorless camera bodies have eclipsed the DSLR's legendary tracking abilities).

2.  Capturing the Decisive moment

Unless you're in Pro mode or RAW mode, the smartphone may not take the picture when you hit the button. There might be some software-induced delay, or it might go "buffer diving" through the last 60 images in the viewfinder buffer, looking for the least blurry or happiest smile image to use.

3.   Wireless Flash

You knew I would bring this up. :-) NOTHING makes people say "Wow!" as much as using wireless flash to bring light and drama to your images. All of the Friedman Archives books have a chapter on how to use them. Continuous lighting (such as using LED panels) are a viable substitute but with flash you can get critical sharpness by shooting at f/11.

4.  Enlargeability 

Pixel Peeping.

This is no longer a given. While most smartphones pixel-bin down to 12 MP, the new Samsung S23 Ultra gives you the option of shooting at the native 200 megapixels (!), giving you lots of leeway to shrink and otherwise clean up your shot. 

On the flip side, I should also point out that when Nikon came out with their 3 megapixel Coolipx 990 back in 2000, they were able to produce a 65 by 43 foot giant poster from it which they proudly displayed above Times Square in New York City.  Billboards, it turns out, only require about 10 dpi because they're viewed at an extreme distance.  Having said that, if pixel peeping is your hobby, great light and a big camera will satisfy your cravings like nothing else.

5.     Control over depth-of-field

Smartphones are catching up here as well, being able to produce fake bokeh in ways that are increasingly harder to detect.  But historically the bigger camera gave you much more control over what was out-of-focus and by how much.

6.  Overpower the Sun

When shooting outdoor portraits, using such tools as wireless flash and a softbox, you can control the amount of light on your subject and the amount of ambient light independently. Sometimes you can take that to extremes, by using high-speed sync to shoot at 1/4000th of a second and a small f/stop to make the ambient light so dark as to be essentially black, a technique called "Overpowering the Sun". (I did this while on assignment in Vietnam.)

Overpowering the Sun lets you shoot studio shots outdoors in daylight.

Overpowering the sun is probably worthy of its own blog post.

     7.  Real estate photography

Real estate photographers have a technique for balancing the light coming in from the windows with interior light. It involves putting the camera on a tripod and taking 3 pictures (two with flash) and combining them in Photoshop.

Even though smartphones are better than big cameras at rendering high-dynamic-range scenes so they look like your eye and brain remember seeing them, the 3-shot technique demonstrated here works even better - and has been proven to get up to 20% higher prices when used for listings.

8.  Tilt/Shift

See this image of a banquet hall?  It's similar to the famous shot shown at the end of the movie "The Shining". This was taken with a specialty camera called a Banquet Camera, one that was designed for large groups and maximum depth-of-field.  Notice that the front and back rows are in perfect focus. Even at f/22 your conventional digital camera lens can't get this kind of result.

How was it done? The secret was in a technique called "Tilt" (half of the famous comedy team "Tilt/Shift"). Using a giant black bellows, the lens could be tilted until the lenses' focus plane aligned with the plane of the faces. It's a technique that large format cameras have always been known for - being able to move the focusing plane to something other than being parallel to the film.

Anyway, while it's true that the smallish sensors of a smartphone have an inherently greater depth-of-field than a large sensor camera, a smartphone couldn't have taken a picture this big and sharp.  But a modern camera with a tilt lens has half a chance. :-)

(BTW, the "Shift" part of "Tilt/Shift" lenses was necessary in the days of film to correct perspective problems when the film plane and the subject were not parallel (when looking up at tall buildings, for example).  Today we can fix that in Photoshop.

9. Ergonomics

'Nuff said. With electronic or optical viewfinders, you can compose your shot in broad daylight. Not so with smartphone, whose displays get washed out easily.

10. Smartphones Can't Send RAW 16-bit 8K video to an external recorder. :-)


So those are ten benefits just off the top of my head. I invite you to add your own in the comments!

A7R V - Little-discussed features of note

Here's a quick little video talking about features of the Sony A7R V that aren't being talked about much. It includes two features I don't think so highly of. Enjoy.

  • The completed version of the Fujifilm X-T5 book by Tony Phillips has arrived!
  • Smaller versions of the .epub and .azw3 files are available for the Fujifilm X-H2 and the Olympus OM-1. If you've had trouble getting these to load onto your e-reader, this may just do the trick. Contact me for a new download link.
  • The Spanish version of A7R V book is in the works! AvĂ­same si quieres estar en la lista de notificaciones.

Next Time in Cameracraft Magazine

See this old photo? My father took this of me in my darkroom when I was 15 years old. This is what happens when an inexperienced photographer relies too much on the microprism focusing aid in the center of the viewfinder, and shoots wide open at f/1.4, rendering the shirt in proper focus but not the face. Can modern AI-based technology save this shot by adding detail that wasn't there?

In the next issue of Cameracraft Magazine, I talk about the tools used to restore old photos, and experiment with several new tools used to add detail when the original image is soft, and also to add color where there was none originally. (How does it know what colors to use?)

Starting from a B&W image, one colorizing tool guessed correctly, while another tool made me look Scottish with too much lipstick.

Subscribe to Cameracraft Magazine today, and get insights you just won't find anywhere else!

Until next time,
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman

(Disclaimer: This blog was written by a human, with no input from a chatbot.)


  1. In the ergonomics, you can add that grabbing the device with semi-flexed arms (or stretched arms if you are far-sighted) you are forced to use times that are always shorter than needed to avoid blurring and micro-blurring, AND using a touch-screen only, you are forced to have your finger's ends always clean, dry, and not sweaty

  2. Another thing a modern camera can do that a smartphone can’t is let you see the image and controls in bright sun by using the EVF.

  3. Hi Gary... excellent blogpost, Thx. Further to your 10 Things list... a smartphone doesn't say "photographer" in the same way that a "real" camera does... ;-) Sometimes, of course, this can be a good thing...

    1. Yeah, nobody would take you seriously as a wedding photographer if you were using a smartphone. Ironically, people value the pro's images equally to the same image taken with a smartphone over the photographer's shoulder.

    2. Australian wedding photographer Jerry Ghionis famously won 4th place for WPPI Wedding Album of the Year with pics shot only with an iPhone 4.

  4. Another issue is trying to activate the touch screen wearing mittens at -20°C, or even less if you feel the cold; with my Oly EM-1 I can still use the main knob retrieving some useful preset

  5. Can Bulb Timer mode be used in conjunction with the Internal Intervalometer to say take 25 1 minute images, i.e.: really handy for astrophotography or any low light shooting session?

    1. Excellent question! The answer is "No" - Interval shooting requires that the shutter type be set to "Electronic" for some reason, and Bulb is not available with the Electronic Shutter. I think I'm going to roll that into v2.0 of the book. :-)

    2. Just did a little research and experiment. Gary, there is a choice to use the mechanical shutter with the interval shooting menu. However, you are correct that interval shooting will not work in bulb mode. SO if your individual pictures are less than 30 sec.'s you can use the interval shooting.

    3. Which camera/ cameras are you referring to that allow mechanical shutter with interval shooting? That could be very useful

  6. Thanks Gary, Good post. I'm amazed at the Google Pixel progress over the years, I've been a Project Fi participant since Beta testing. Love my Sonys though, and shooting in Nashville just wouldn't work without the gear.

  7. Gary

    Having recently purchased a Sony A7R V I have to agree with you that the Focus Bracketing function is poorly done.

    I am used to Focus Bracketing with a Phaseone XF, where one selects a focus near point, a far point and the XF calculates the number of shots to take and at what spacing,
    to give a stack that will yield a fully in focus final rendering, once combined in Helicon Focus. So no guess work, as one is forced to do with Sony.

    The lack of a far focus point is a major flaw, as the Sony defaults to taking pictures until focus reaches infinity or runs out of shots.
    In some Focus Bracketing uses one wants to stop at the far point, not continue to infinity.

    For example a macro shot where one wants the subject on focus, but the background still nicely de-focused.
    I would guess some product and landscape photographers would also like to have the foreground subject in focus and the background more blurred.
    With the Sony approach, the worst case would be having to find the shot in the stack that is at the far point, if one could set it.
    And then manually remove any shots beyond this point, prior to processing the stack.

    Overall the Sony approach is a part Focus Bracketing function and they need to improve it dramatically.
    Using the Phaseone XF method as the standard to aspire to.
    Firmware update please !

    If anyone has a dialogue with Sony, perhaps they could raise the need for improving this function, with them.

    1. I actually contacted Sony back in January with my feedback on this feature and suggested a more useful implementation. Let's see what happens... I'm certainly not holding my breath.

  8. I find that night shooting is much worse on the phone. Yes, there is night mode, but that is no good for moving subjects.
    Also, shooting in anything but auto mode is a pain in the ass. By the time it's set up the moment is gone.

  9. Reason Nr. 11. Trust in capitalism!!! If Sony, Canon, Nikon could bring to market the same performance for 500 $ and 20 grams where they actually need 5.000 $ and 1 kg - I'm quite sure they would do it tomorrow. ;-)))

  10. The ergonomics of smart phones are terrible. They're small, flat, and slippery, and operating the shutter is about as awkward as it could possibly be. It's hard to imagine a worse physical design for a camera. I wonder how many of these elusive little slabs have slipped out of the hands of their users while trying to take a picture.

  11. One handed operation is difficult/awkward with a smartphone.

  12. It would be interesting to do a similar article on what smartphone CAN DO that a proper camera CANNOT DO.
    For example: put in one's pocket to have it available everywhere. Or taking a photo in tight (hard to reach) places, for inspection purposes.


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