The Bastards Book of Photography

An open-source guide to working with light by Dan Nguyen

Why Even Buy a Camera?

The difference between your camera phone and a dedicated camera

  • Exposure value: +2
  • Shutter speed: 1/1250
  • F number: 3.5
  • Iso: 160
  • Focal length: 24.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Jul 23, 2010 at 09:04 AM
Capturing the clouds, before movie night at the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The best camera is the one you have with you. And modern phone cameras capture respectable images. So it’s worth debating whether you even need a dedicated camera when you already have a capable one inside your phone.

What’s the main difference between my camera phone and a “real” camera?

Manual controls. Notably, the ability to adjust shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

For the purposes of this guide, it’s best to separate cameras into two worlds:

  1. Simple point-and-shoot cameras – You point the camera – its computer automatically handles the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for you – and you press the button. This category covers virtually all camera phones and digital cameras under $200.

  2. Everything else – You have the option of manually adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, among many other settings.

There is shutter control on phone cameras

A commenter helpfully pointed out that there are apps, such as Slow Shutter Cam, that can mimic shutter priority mode. So the example below is a failure. I’ll have to set up another example then :) - Dan

So what’s wrong with automatic control?

Nothing, really. In fact, I’ll sometimes switch my camera to automatic because it does such a great job and I’d rather focus on finding the right scene or moment rather than if my dials are in the right place.

But the camera’s computer doesn’t always make the right choice. One of the easiest cases is when trying to capture light trails of traffic at night.

My iPhone 4S captures this:

  • Exposure value:
  • Shutter speed: 1/15
  • F number: 2.4
  • Iso: 800
  • Focal length: 4.3 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Apple iPhone 4S / on Jun 15, 2012 at 10:21 PM
10th Avenue traffic, from the High Line Park

This is not a bad image at all. It compares well what my $1200+ Sony NEX-7 would capture.

But here’s something my dedicated camera – and it doesn’t have to be the NEX-7, it could be any number of sub-$300 advanced compact cameras, or film cameras for that matter – can do that a camera phone can’t:

  • Exposure value: -0.7
  • Shutter speed: 5
  • F number: 9.0
  • Iso: 100
  • Focal length: 16.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 16mm F2.8 on Jun 15, 2012 at 10:19 PM
10th Avenue light trails with a long exposure, from the High Line Park

I created this scene by setting the shutter speed to a slow enough value that in the time it took for the camera to open up and close, the traffic had moved a significant distance, causing those light trails.

There’s not a technical reason (I think) why a camera phone couldn’t do this. But phone designers don’t see the need to clutter up phones with such complexity. And they’re right: capturing motion trails is a pretty limited use case.

But there are lots of other methods and techniques of photography only available in dedicated cameras. In other words, manual controls give you more artistic control. If that’s important to you, then yes, buying a dedicated camera is a justifiable decision.

  • Exposure value: 0
  • Shutter speed: 1/80
  • F number: 4.0
  • Iso: 200
  • Focal length: 15.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S90 / 6.0-22.5 mm on Jun 3, 2011 at 08:29 PM
One of the best purchases I made was a Canon S90 Powershot. It’s not much bigger than a phone so I could carry it while running. I took this shot from the Williamsburg Bridge during an evening jog. I came back the next evening with my large DSLR but the clouds just weren’t the same.

Other dedicated niceties

It’s unlikely that phone cameras, in their competition to get even slimmer and smaller, will ever have the optical zoom capability of dedicated camera lenses. Most camera phones don’t have a real zoom but instead, just crop out the non-zoomed area (i.e. a zoomed-in image has fewer pixels than a non-zoomed image).

With great glass comes better sharpness, of course. And as anyone who plays casual action games on their phones, touch controls can be imprecise. In real shooting situations where you have to have your fingers lie lightly on physical dials and switches to move at an instant, it’s hard to imagine touch controls being adequate.

How come professional photojournalists say they use Instagram/Hipstamatic?

It’s true, there’s been a stir among the don’t-even-edit-out-red-eye photojournalist crowd as some major news orgs have come to use camera app photography for publication.

But it’s important to understand the context of why pros enjoy camera apps. The most famous case is Damon Winters, of the New York Times, who won a POYi award with Hipstamatic photos of the war in Afghanistan. Winters used his phone camera because that was the easiest way to get candid snapshots in tense situations and he said he would’ve preferred an app with lesser effects, but Hipstamatic was what he had on his phone at the time. It was the form-factor and convenience of the phone camera, and the lack of decent editing ability, that led Winters to use Hipstamatic:

People may have the impression that it is easy to make interesting images with a camera app like this, but it is not the case. At the heart of every solid image are the same fundamentals: composition, information, moment, emotion, connection. If people think that this is a magic tool, they are wrong. Of hundreds of images taken with the phone over those six days in Nahr-i-Sufi, only a handful were worth reproducing.

I have no intention of becoming a camera phone photographer. I use it often for personal photos (my cat being my favorite subject), which suggests why it was the perfect tool to tell this particular story. It helped me make intimate pictures of a subject — the American soldier in wartime deployment — that is often seen only as part of a sizable, anonymous fighting machine. I cannot say if I will use the camera phone again on my job.

For other pro photographers, I suspect the reason why they’re so enamored of Instamatic is for the same reason that writers love Twitter. They love it for the social network and the ability to express themselves without the heavy-overhead of the editing process. There’s something very liberating about just having to select a few pre-determined filters, making the best of it, and hitting “send” to be seen. Yet no writer or photographer would commit to using a tool for a career-making assignment.

  • Exposure value:
  • Shutter speed: 1/55556
  • F number: 2.4
  • Iso: 80
  • Focal length: 4.3 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Apple iPhone 4S / on Jun 25, 2012 at 06:47 PM
I took this with my iPhone 4s while walking along the Hudson River after a storm. It’s a respectable picture – I did no alterations to it – but in this kind of light, any camera will make a beautiful picture. The details in the water and landscape are probably too muddy for most pros to be happy with.

So what’s the right dedicated camera for me?

After the question of “Does it have manual controls?” is answered, then things can get considerably complex. There is no perfect answer because among the well-reviewed cameras, it comes down to tradeoffs.

My boilerplate advice is this: choose something that fits with what you’re used to.

If all you’ve used is a camera phone, then you’re not used to carrying a separate bag for a camera. If you buy an expensive bulky camera and can’t deal with the change-in-routine it requires to bring it along, then you may be wasting a lot of money. If you live in a big touristy city like New York, where it’s acceptable (and safe) to carry huge cameras around for any occasion and you can literally point your camera anywhere and take an interesting photo, then maybe you’ll care more about image quality than pocketability.

Luckily, there’s a wide variety of great cameras at reasonable price points, enough to let you make good decisions about tradeoffs. I don’t have much advice on what specific model or brand you should get, but I’ve devoted another chapter to things you should be thinking about.

How much will a mediocre camera hold me back?

It’s hard to say, honestly. I know the feel-good answer is: “it doesn’t matter.”

And this is true in many, many ways. I devote an early chapter on how the quality of light is the main factor in most great photos.

But while a bad camera won’t keep you from taking amazing photos, a good camera will make it easier. And it can be encouraging the camera produces results that, more often than not, match what you intended.

I can think of plenty of people who’ve bought extravagant camera systems yet who’ve never produced a more worthwhile photo than the photos found in the portfolio of someone with a dinky camera but more vision/creativity/hustle. On the other hand, who knows that that latter photographer could’ve created with a better camera?

So if you’re buying a camera, don’t go into it thinking that spending more money will make you a better photographer. But don’t go into it without thinking carefully about the importance of certain features, lest you end up settling for a terrible camera that holds you back.

  • Exposure value:
  • Shutter speed: 1/1126
  • F number: 2.4
  • Iso: 64
  • Focal length: 4.3 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Apple iPhone 4S / on Feb 12, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Even with the fancy cameras I have, I’ll pull out the phone camera because sometimes, it’s just easier. Although during this sunset from the High Line, I did so because my camera had run out of juice. The phone did a proper job.


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