Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Smartphone Camera Vs DSLR/Mirrorless Cameras

So this article at Petapixel happened few days ago, a photographer pitted the Huawei P20 Pro against a 50MP full frame DSLR, Canon 5DS R. I did skim through the article and did not intend to react considering how clickbaity the title of the piece sounded like, but then I received emails and messages via social media seeking my opinion and feedback on the current hot topic: is the current smartphone camera good enough to replace traditional dedicated camera?

My current smartphone the Moto G5S Plus. All images shown after this were taken with this smartphone. 


Instead of tackling the Petapixel article headon or any other previous incarnations of meaningless smartphone camera vs "insert your professional camera of choice" comparisons, I would like to just look into a simpler question:

Is smartphone camera good enough for me? 

After all, I cannot speak for you, I cannot generalize the whole photography crowd, and certainly I cannot assume that what works for me will work for you too. I am a photography enthusiast, actively shooting almost every day now with both mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras as well as smartphone camera. As an experienced photography blogger and imaging products reviewer, I think I have a thing or two to say about the sufficiency of smartphone camera as a photographer's tool.

To just cut straight to the point, my easy answer is no. No, the best smartphone camera today is still not enough to justify me throwing my Micro Four Thirds System (OM-D, PEN cameras and M.Zuiko lenses) away.

I acknowledge that smartphone camera is the most popularly used camera now on the planet, with convenience of using one everyday device that you take with you everywhere you go to. The best camera is the camera you have with you at all times, right? Also, I see that smartphone camera is evolving rapidly, and in time with advancements it may surpass what a traditional dedicated camera can do. Nevertheless, at this time of writing, there are still many limitations in smartphone cameras which seriously restrict what I can accomplish for my photography needs.

We are going to talk about these inadequacies of smartphone cameras in this blog entry.


1) FIXED LENS, NO OPTION TO CHANGE FOCAL LENGTH

The most frustrating limitation on a smartphone camera is the focal length being stuck at a fixed wide angle at all times. No matter how the current innovation of using "intelligent zoom" or having a second lens for a longer focal length, or the option to attach "miniature tele-converters", honestly, nothing beats the real advantage of being able to change lenses and use whatever focal lengths that can provide the required field of view.

Dealing with wide angle is not easy, certainly not for every single shot. It works for scenery/landscape, group shots of people and maybe that "selfie", but when it comes to general photography, I prefer to work with something longer in focal length, such as 50mm or narrow in field of view, allowing more perspective compression (less background to deal with) as well as better distortion management. You know how when you shoot with wide angle everything looks out of proportion (the sides being stretched wider, or the head of a person appear too large for the body), using a longer focal length drastically reduces this problem. Controlling perspective is crucial most of the photography that I do, and using a smartphone with wide angle on all the time just does not work for me.

Here is an idea, since now multiple cameras on a smartphone is a thing, and I do not see the numbers of cameras dropping anytime soon: why not make each camera with a different lens, covering different focal lengths? Latest Huawei has 3 camera modules, why not make it camera 1 with 28mm, camera 2 with 50mm and camera 3 with 85mm?

2) AUTOFOCUS AND SHUTTER LAG

I am a run and gun photographer, I need my camera to be fast and able to respond immediately. After all, street photography (that I do all the time) is all about capturing that fleeting moment, you blink and you miss it kind of scenario. As much as I applaud the processing power of a smartphone (it is now more powerful than a PC 8 years ago, maybe?) it still hesitates and struggles in autofocus! No way it is as instantaneous in response as current DSLR and Mirrorless camera AF capabilities. After the AF lock, then there is the annoying shutter lag, which can be anywhere as bad as half a second to a second long, depending on lighting condition and what phone you are using. Yes I have tested some of the best phones in the market and there is still that minimal lag, not enough to be noticeable by non-photography obsessed people, but enough for me to miss important moments if I relied on the smartphone camera to do any critically timed shooting. Oh you would not believe the "marketing" phrases, using "laser-assisted AF, Phase Detect, X-ray scan, heat vision with whatever crap alien AF technology" yet when it matters, the AF misses, or the camera just lags.

To confidently get the shot, no, smartphone camera is still not there yet. Though I do see improvement from generation to generation.




3) NO MECHANICAL SHUTTER OR PHYSICAL APERTURE 

In order to truly make the camera tiny enough to fit into a smartphone which is ever getting uncomfortably slimmer in design, the cameras are stripped off from their important parts. The mechanical shutter is replaced with just electronic shutter and the lens is left fully open all the time with no option to control the aperture. Not having mechanical shutter means external flash use is almost impossible to do. Using electronic shutter itself is problematic, as the images tend to suffer in terms of noise penalty at higher ISO use as well as the jello-effect (rolling shutter effect) when shooting fast moving subjects. Furthermore, not being able to change the aperture at all seriously limits creative execution of the camera, for example when I want to do long exposure shooting, slowing down the shutter speed to capture motion of moving water, or light trails along a highway at night, it was impossible to do. Being stuck at wide open F1.8 was just too bright to slow down the shutter speed.

I need to use flash in my photography and I want to play with slow shutter speed from time to time, hence, having mechanical shutter and real physical aperture control will make a world of difference in my photography. The smartphone camera lacks both. (that dual LED thingy on your phone is NOT qualified to be a real flash, sorry).

Oh the new Samsung S9+ allows 2 aperture settings, F1.5 and F2.4.... which was completely useless in my opinion. F2.4 is still too bright for any slow shutter creative use. Hey Samsung, make it F8 next time, then we are talking.


4) SMALL IMAGE SENSOR SIZE

I will not make a big deal out of this, because I can actually live with the smaller sensor size if all the above issues have been resolved. However, if the smartphones can pack in at least a 1 inch image sensor, I think they can shake up the photography world real good. I acknowledge the existence of a Panasonic Android smartphone that features a 1 inch sensor camera, but that was several years ago, and it was not even made available to the worldwide market.

I don't care about megapixels. Heck, the megapixel race is getting ridiculous, that 40MP stunt from Huawei P20 Pro is questionable. I'd take a fully optimized 8MP image sensor with optimized per pixel sharpness, good dynamic range control as well as decent high ISO performance (usable ISO1600) over a half-baked, over-hyped and honestly disappointing anything over 20MP image sensor on such a tiny sensor for a smartphone.



5) LENS QUALITY

Hey what is with all the rage on having ridiculously bright aperture on the smartphone camera? You can find F1.8, F1.7 and even F1.5 now on latest camera iterations for smartphones. Really? Are you kidding me, that F1.5 is not gonna give you much advantage over F1.7. And that F1.8 is no different than F2, stop measurebating on such meaningless numbers.

What matters more, is optical quality, the lens construction itself. A high quality lens matter more than how wide the aperture is. I will take an optically superior F2.8 lens, with great sharpness, clarity, contrast and good technical controls (corner softness, chromatic aberration, distortion, etc) over an overcompensated F1.8 lens with all the flaws that could have been easily fixed if it was not F1.8. Also, the fact that the aperture cannot be changed makes me wonder if the lenses could have performed better if they were not that wide open. Having narrower aperture may actually improve overall image quality.


Of course, I have not talked about JPEG processing, the constant over-sharpening problem as well as too aggressive of noise reduction to create the painterly look that obliterates any useful fine details in the images.

Well, this article was not about bashing the smartphone camera as a photography tool, I was merely highlighting some valid points why I thought smartphone camera was not sufficient for my own photography needs, and I still carried around with me an Olympus OM-D at all times.

I am not asking for ridiculous demands, which most smartphone manufacturers are getting it wrong: they go for more megapixels, higher ISO numbers, wider aperture on lens and putting multiple camera modules on their phones.

Hey, instead of putting so many cameras, just include one with a 1 inch image sensor, a truly optimized optically superior lens at F2 or F2.8 instead of a questionable F1.6 lens, and include the essential parts that make a camera complete, such as mechanical shutter and a physical aperture control. Oh and while you are at it, please fix the shutter lag. Make the camera fast. Make it as fast as any DSLR/Mirrorless cameras, then we are talking. Maybe then, I will leave my dedicated cameras behind.

What say you? What is your stand when it comes to smartphone cameras?

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Thonet & Vander Frei - Portable Bluetooth Speakers

I do travel rather frequently for work, as well as back to my hometown Kuching from Kuala Lumpur and I absolutely cannot survive anywhere without good audio. I have had some good headphones with me, but the experience of listening to music over the air in the openness is a joy that I must have. However, having spent quite a fair bit on headphones, I thought I should look at budget-friendly portable speakers that can still pack a punch and deliver powerful sound that I desperately need. After much Google-ing around, I found Thonet & Vander, a German brand that specializes in consumer audio equipment. The particular speakers I was looking at was Thonet & Vander Frei.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Hameer Zawawi Performing in Kuching This Saturday (14 April 2018)


Hey beautiful Kuching people!

My friend Hameer Zawawi, a local singer-songwriter is currently in the midst of his "Plug Out The Machines Tour" around Malaysia and guess what, the next stop will be in Kuching! He will be performing at the ground floor of Haus Kuching alongside some awesome local bands such as Nading Rhapsody. Event starts at 730pm till late. 

I have known Hameer for several years now, following his gigs around KL before he made it to the US and disappeared for a year. I fell in love with his non-mainstream yet still totally relate-able music, featuring his hauntingly powerful and soulful vocals. He has songs about TV shows, zombies and video games! Honestly, I have missed Hameer's live performance so much because he went on tour to the US for a year and was just back to KL very recently. It was indeed so refreshing to hear Hameer perform on stage again, and wow, now in a full band!

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Carmen's Farewell

You may have seen Carmen on my review entries before, especially when I was testing new lenses or cameras. Carmen has always been generous to volunteer as my test subject for the new equipment that I was reviewing, and put up with my noobness in portrait photography. She always did her best and eventually has helped many of my reviews significantly over the years. When we (her friends) heard of the news that she is leaving Malaysia soon, we decided to do a surprise farewell dinner for her.

Carmen in my recent Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III review. Image shot with the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 lens.