There is no doubt that the iPhone has completely revolutionised photography. Smartphones in general have had a large impact but the iPhone now sits as the top camera used on Flickr ahead of traditional camera giants and other smartphone makers. Not only that but it birthed the social network (Instagram) which saw the most growth last year. More and more photographers are using the iPhone (and other smartphones) as their only, professional camera. So here are some Pros and cons of mobile street photography and why I personally love and hate using my iPhone for street photography.
Smartphones are in general extremely portable (though getting less so). They are also something that almost everyone always has with them as phones are useful. If you have limited space, you’d probably choose to take a phone with you as one of your few essential items. They fit in pockets or handbags (if you have a large phone or small/no pockets). You don’t need to take anything extra than you would for a normal day to have your smartphone.
2. Quick to set up
The iPhone is about three gestures away from taking a picture at any time. Turn the screen on, swipe across the camera unlock (with touch ID if you’ve got it) and then press the shutter/volume button. Done. Some Android phones even have gestures like shaking the camera in a certain way or a certain knock on the screen to get the camera up. In all these cases you can go from camera in your pocket, to picture taken in a few seconds. Great for those wonderful unexpected moments.
3. Focus on Composition, not settings
Smartphone camera brains are improving quickly, even if they still aren’t perfect. They often do a “good enough” job of exposing and setting the white balance for a picture. This means you can forget about your settings and instead focus on the composition of your pictures. This is especially wonderful for street photography which has always been about composition/subject and interaction over perfect settings and exposure.
4. Can manually set controls when needed
Of course, when you need to play with the settings, you can. The iPhone offers a great simple way to adjust your exposure by pressing on the screen and moving your finger up (to raise it) and down (to lower it), simple. Alternatively there are apps like Manual on iOS or Camera FV-5 which let you adjust all the settings as you wish. Sure, you can do this on a DSLR, but the touch interface on a smartphone often makes it easier (only often as not all camera apps are equal. Some third party and android manufacture camera apps are horribly difficult to use).
5. Editing built in
Smartphones let you instantly take and then edit a photo. No longer do you have to wait to get home, open up photoshop and then twiddle, but you can instantly take and edit and finalise your creative vision in a moment. This also means you can retake a photo if you realise that there is something which just doesn’t work in the image. Some of these editing tools let you get over difficult problems that you’d normally need expensive hardware to fix.
6. Instantly sharable
Of course, having a camera that is also a communications device allows you to share images instantly. Some people might role their eyes and think this is just about getting the instagram of your cup of coffee up on (the) line an hour sooner than you could with a standalone camera, but it’s more than that. If you’re with friends, you can instantly share the group shot to every person there via bluetooth
or airdrop (scratch that, airdrop never works) or you can have your photos backup automatically so that even if your phone is stolen or breaks down, you’ve got a backup.
7. They are the normal way for people to learn photography now
Although I had used camera before I got a smartphone, I really learnt photography on a smartphone. That was the device that I took the most photos on and started to think about composition and so on. This is even more the norm for people growing up now. Their first cameras aren’t those throw away disposable film cameras, but smartphones. That is how people are and will learn photography and so it is no surprise they should get started in street photography using them.
8. Not just great for pictures
Of course, smartphones have access to the whole internet and masses of media which make them more than just cameras. They can tell you the weather (so you can pick what clothes and gear to bring, they can help you plan your trip around town, recommend locations to eat at and access great music while you are moving. This can help enhance your photography experience (although you might not want some of these aspects.
10. They are (relatively) cheap
I say this, because people have smartphones already. When you consider that most people have a smartphone, they then have a camera to do street photography. They don’t need to spend a few hundred/thousand more on a camera and lens but just go out and start with their smartphone. There is no cost to invest. Of course, a top of the line iPhone would cost you nearly a thousand dollars and the cheapest smartphone would have a pretty poor camera so there is a balance to this point.
11. They are discreet
As so many people have smartphones, they help blend in and make you look more normal than the block with the giant DSLR. Sure, some of the modern near 6″ phones aren’t as discreet as the old 3″ ones but they are still more discreet than a top of the line Nikon or Canon with lens.
Despite all these good points, there are still a few strong reasons that I don’t really like doing street photography with a smartphone.
1. Battery life
This is a big one for me. I’ve been using an iPhone 5s for a long time and although the battery life is okay, keeping the screen on drains battery a lot. As this is not just a camera but a phone and communication device, running out of battery life is a big no no. With a standalone camera you can take a back up battery and just slot it in, not so with an iPhone (although some android phones can do this). Instead you have to plug in a cable and have it charge either as you go around or when you take a break. It’s not ideal really and so encourages turning the screen off when it isn’t in use and other behaviours. Which means…
2. It can be quicker to use a normal camera
When you have a standalone camera, you keep it in your hands, round your neck and on a lot. That means you just need to raise it to your eyes and press snap. If you are trying to save battery power on a phone (as I often do) you’ve probably turned off the screen, so you have to turn the device on, unlock it, and then you can shoot. This is not as easy or quick in my experience. Sure you can leave it on the whole time but then you’ve got battery life issues.
3. Fixed lens (that’s okay with me)
So this is a pro con in my book but I thought I’d put it here anyway. Smartphones have fixed lenses and if you want to zoom, you really have to zoom with your feet. If you like 50mm focal length, tough.
Of course, I love having one camera, one lens and like 35mm (the iPhone is about 31mm equivalent and other smartphones are usually similarly placed) AND you can get attachment lenses (such as olloclip) which make the focal length wider or longer. So it’s not a true hard and fast rule.
4. Instantly sharing/editing has it’s downsides
I recently stopped sharing as much online (including even here). When you are in the rush for likes, favourites, stars or whatever, you tend towards lowest common denominator art, and sharing things which other people will like rather than what you want to shoot. You also don’t look at the images as objectively as you might otherwise. You miss the big distraction in the corner that should have been cropped out when taking the image because you managed to capture a great expression.
Waiting is good.
5. Dynamic range
Smartphone cameras have tiny sensors which usually means the dynamic range isn’t as good as a full blow camera. This isn’t great for high contrast images where you really want to show the differences in light, such as a bright day with the sun blasting at you, or a dark night with spotted street lights. It helps create silhouettes though.
6. Low light performance
Likewise, the lowlight performance of these cameras isn’t great. The small sensors create a lot of noise at higher ISO levels and so you need slower shutter speeds [you can’t change the aperture]. Some of the newer smartphones have optical image stabilisation which help, but then you can end up with subjects blurring due to their movements. It’s a tough balancing act to deal with.
7. Smartphones stand out
Although smartphones can be discreet and help you blend into a crowd (especially of tourists) if you’ve seen someone with an iPhone 6/s Plus in gold, you’ll know that Smartphones can also standout. The way we hold them, the attraction for pick pockets. It all should be considered as a whole. Furthermore, you might want to look a bit more professional when you take someone’s photo on the street to look less like a wierdo.
Do you use a smartphone for street photography?
The points above are my thoughts and reflections. I am sure many are true for everyone but I’d love to know your opinions and experiences? What reasons make you/stop you from using your Smartphone for street photography?