What if Smartphones Had The Same Image Quality as DSLR’s?

Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii
Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii

I had a thought the other day: what if smartphones had the same image quality as full-frame DSLR’s? How would this change photography, and how we shoot?

I think the main reason why people look down on smartphones is because they think its image quality isn’t “good enough” as DSLRS— which you can do fancy stuff like pixel-peep, “bokeh”, and trot around big lenses (and look “pro”).

But imagine if we lived in a world where a smartphone camera had as good image quality as a full-frame DSLR camera.

Would anyone still shoot with “real” cameras anymore? Why wouldn’t everyone just shoot with a smartphone?

The best camera

Marseille, 2013 #portra400
Marseille, 2013 #portra400

I personally like the idea of ditching all of my cameras and just using a smartphone.


I like the idea how a smartphone can truly liberate the photographer— you have an entire camera setup, darkroom, and publishing studio that fits in your front pocket.

You can use the camera on a smartphone to make photos, use a third-party app like VSCO or Snapseed to post-process your photos, and then publish your photos online to services like Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, or a personal website or blog.

Some articles on shooting with different cameras:

What are the downsides of using a smartphone?

London, 2014 #potra400
London, 2014 #potra400

So let’s continue this train of thought:

If a smartphone (let’s say the iPhone 10 or whatever) has the same image quality of a full-frame DSLR— what would be the downsides of using a smartphone?

First of all, we are all already so addicted to our smartphones— it would mean that we would just be on the smartphone more.

Secondly, I think this would cause more addiction to social media platforms— constantly wanting us to upload photos to get more likes, followers, and comments.

Thirdly, generally the ergonomics of a smartphone device isn’t as good as holding a camera with a grip. I know a lot of street photographers who only use iPhones, and after shooting an entire day on their iPhones, their hands start getting quite cramped. There are also a lot of interesting add-ons to add a grip to your iPhone.


Paris, 2015 #ricohgr
Paris, 2015 #ricohgr

It seems the trend in cameras is going to be “modular” — meaning that we can put together and take apart and buy “attachments” for our smartphones like lego blocks.

Ricoh first experimented this with the Ricoh GXR camera— where instead of changing lenses, you would change both the lens and the sensor. The camera was very ambitious, but overall a flop.

Now LG is putting out a new flagship smartphone which allows you to add these add-ons (one is a camera grip, one is a add-on which makes your audio sound better).

Technology will always be changing, but certain things will not change— like the shape of our hand, and the ergonomics of holding things (like holding a camera).

I don’t think the DSLR will ever disappear completely— some guys I know with bigger hands prefer a bigger camera that fits better in their hand. I’m sure the DSLR’s of the future will just be a lot lighter. And big-ass lenses aren’t going away (after all, it is a good way for people to peacock how “pro” they are, and we haven’t yet figured out how to change the physics of lenses yet).

The iPhone is the perfect camera for 99% of people

Busan, 2013 #neopan1600
Busan, 2013 #neopan1600

Honestly, if 99% of your photos are just uploaded to Instagram or Facebook (and if you are always on your smartphone), your photos will never be viewed on anything larger than a 5’’ screen. So do you really “need” any camera that is more than an iPhone?

Of course there are professionals that use full-frame and medium-format digital cameras to blow up their images to cover skyscrapers. In those cases, having more megapixels and image quality is important (for upscaling images). But for the rest of us (hobbyists, amateurs, and people who make images for fun for social media)— do we really “need” anything more than an iPhone or a mainstream smartphone camera?

Innovation isn’t going to be in image quality

Vienna, 2015 #trix1600
Vienna, 2015 #trix1600

I look at many of these modern digital cameras with 40+ megapixels in small cameras (Sony A7-series and RX-series). Image quality keeps on getting better with every single digital camera out there. There are seriously no digital cameras that have poor image quality anymore. The camera I’m currently using mostly (Ricoh GR II) is a compact camera that fits into my front pocket, has an APS-C sensor, and costs only ~$550).

We’re at the point where we don’t need better image quality.

What do we need more to “innovate” in photography and cameras?

Of course the cliche answer is that we need more creativity, imagination, and ideas.

However I think the next big innovation in photography is to take a hybrid approach— combining analogue and digital.

An LCD-less digital camera?

Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

I have a dream of an “affordable” digital Leica without an LCD screen. A digital camera that feels like a film camera (you cannot “chimp” the images immediately afterwards) yet have the convenience of digital.

A digital camera like this already exists: the Epson RD-1 camera (it even has a film-winder). Shooting with the camera was a ton more fun than any digital camera I’ve ever used— I wish one day a camera company re-makes a camera like that.

Do we really need more buttons in digital cameras, more features, more panoramic-stitching modes, more HDR modes, and other “bells and whistles” that are unnecessary?

Digital meets paper

Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii
Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii

It is funny— we rarely think of paper as a “technology.” Yet it is.

Cindy recently saw some papyrus scrolls from 2,000+ years ago. Pretty incredible that the information on the scrolls were able to last that long — I doubt that any digital camera of today will be “usable” 2,000 years from now.

I’ve recently been more fascinated with paper— I love how paper books “load” instantly, how you can interact with it (write directly on the margins, and underline things), the physicality of the book (the lovely feeling of holding a book in your hands), as well as the fact that my book will (in theory) be read-able 2,000 years from now.

I love shooting film— but the biggest problem is there is a huge bottleneck in terms of getting your film processed and then scanned. I know I can personally develop and scan my own film, but I am the type that I prefer shooting over developing. I love the “zen-like” process of shooting film— I am more “in the moment”, I enjoy not worrying about what my photos will look like (I can’t chimp), and the ultimate aesthetic of the film images.

For the longest time, I’ve been trying to emulate the look of Tri-X black and white film pushed to 1600 (high-contrast and grain). I am actually proud to say that with my newest “Eric Kim Tri-X 1600 Preset” for Lightroom (download my presets for free here), I have achieved a “look” that I am 90% happy with. While the aesthetic isn’t quite as “nice” as my film photos, it still looks damn good to me— I think it is good enough for me to ditch the film Leica and stick with the digital Ricoh GR II.

Now the problem with digital photos is that they die on your hard drive. Even if you upload your photos to Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram— they will disappear into the digital ether. 2,000+ years from now, Facebook and Instagram will probably not exist anymore. And will anyone even have devices to “load” or view your images? Imagine trying to even watch old VCR films of your childhood— it is a pain in the ass to try to find a VCR film. And even CD’s and DVD’s— most laptops don’t even have a CD/DVD reader anymore.

But if you print out your photos to paper — they will have a lot longer shelf life. Depending on how you print your photos, it will last perhaps 100-200 years. But I figure with new printing technologies and paper technologies, we might be able to print black-and-white photos that will still be “viewable” 2,000 years from now. I am not as confident about color photos— they will fade (just think about all the faded color paintings of the Renaissance). This is another reason why I’m sticking to shooting more black and white— the photos will be able to “last” longer.

The 10,000-year-clock

Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii
Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii

Kind of off-topic and random, but I’ve been investing more in long-term thinking. While I don’t know if I will die today or tomorrow (if I get hit by a bus, or trip and break my ankle and hit my head on the concrete while texting-and-walking) I like to think that I might live to be 100-years-old.

Not only that, but I like the idea that I could create photo-books, photographs, articles, essays, letters, and videos that my future children (and their grand-children) can read.

I came across this interesting project: a bunch of librarians and thinkers are putting together a clock that will last 10,000 years. The point isn’t the clock— the point is to promote human beings to think long-term (the decisions we make today will vastly influence our future offspring, assuming human beings will survive for another 10,000+ years).

This is why Elon Musk is investing in space-travel and trying to put humans on Mars (he thinks humans will kill themselves and Earth). This is also why Elon Musk is investing in electric cars and solar power— to get rid of our dependence on fossil-fuels. I honestly don’t think we will run out of fossil-fuels in our lifetimes, but they probably won’t be around for the next generation, or the generation after that. Even hybrid-cars; while less bad than traditional gasoline-powered cars, are still 100% reliant on gas.

While I am quite bullish about film-photography in the long run (I don’t think film photography will die at least the next 100 years— it will just keep getting more expensive), I pretty much doubt film will be “produce-able” 1,000+ years from now. If we have blown up the Earth or taken all the minerals/materials— there probably won’t be any photo-voltaic materials for us to make film cameras.

The awesome thing about digital cameras (and anything that runs on electricity) is that we have the ultimate power source: the sun. The sun will still be around 10,000+ years from now. So I am quite happy that our future generations will enjoy all our rechargeable digital devices that will be powered on the sun.

Cameras of the future?

Downtown LA, 2012
Downtown LA, 2012

I’ve re-read some old camera reviews; and I think it is hilarious how outdated they are.

Even the Fujifilm X100S review I did — that camera is already outdated. Even the Fujifilm X100T review I did seems a bit dated already— I think cameras like the Fujifilm X70 are superior (a point-and-shoot camera that has the same sensor as the X100T).

Nobody will know what the digital cameras of the future will look like— whether they will be embedded in our retinas via contact lens computers or whatever. But still— image-making seems to be distinctively a human activity. Human beings have it in our DNA to make art and images.

From what I’ve read, there are an insane amount of information that is brought to our brain through our eyes. Humans are an audio-visual species, we will always love images and music for the rest of eternity.

The reason why we love Instagram and Snapchat is because we have an embedded preference for images. After all, babies can understand images, but have to learn for at least a decade to read/write text. A lot of scholars bemoan the fact that “nobody writes or reads anymore” — but how can you blame human beings? We have evolved to be audio-visual processing machines.

Images of the future

SF, 2016 #ricohgrii
SF, 2016 #ricohgrii

The more I think about it— there won’t be that much “revolution” or “innovation” in terms of images.

The photographs of the future will be the same as now and the past: we will take photos of our friends and loved ones, we will take photos of strangers, we will take photos of landscapes, nature, plants, coffee cups, and our daily lives.

Photography is still a very young artistic medium. But look at the history of art— with paintings and sculpture; it is all just an imitation of either nature or human beings.

So human beings in the future will still be interested in nature, the human face, and things that evoke a human emotion. And that is what is still going to make a strong image: emotion.

Memorable images

Downtown LA, 2015 #ricohgr
Downtown LA, 2015 #ricohgr

I feel that a truly memorable image is one which strikes a chord with our heart. Photos that cause us to be afraid, photos that cause us to hope, photos that cause us to smile, laugh, and relish in humanity.

The only photos that have stuck with me are generally awe-inspiring (the epic timing of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s man jumping over a puddle), the intensity of a human-stare (most of Richard Alvedon’s portraits in the American West), or socio-political images (Garry Winograd’s photo of a mixed-race couple holding chimpanzees in their arms).

So what we need now in photography (and the future of photography) isn’t fancier digital cameras, better image quality, or more bokeh— it is to create more emotional images that touch our hearts.

Practical advice

I know this essay is all over the place — but to go back to the original point: if you own a modern iPhone or smartphone— you already have “good enough” image quality.

Do you want to learn how to make “better” photos?

Learn how to make more emotional images, and also to improve your composition (we humans seem to have a natural affinity to lovely and well-proportioned compositions).

How to make more emotional images

Walter. Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii
Walter. Berkeley, 2016 #ricohgrii

So how can we make more emotional images?

  1. First of all, we need to photograph what is personal to us. That means we need to photograph strangers who we feel some soulful connection to. We need to photograph our loved ones; our partners, our children, our close friends.

  2. Secondly, we need to always be prepared. That means always having a camera ready to make an image— because a camera that is neither in your hand, your front pocket, or your bag is useless. And one of the biggest benefits of a smartphone? You always have it with you.

  3. Thirdly, we need to relate to our subjects. Which means— we need to make images that we feel empathy with our subjects. If we photograph an old Chinese man looking miserable on the streets— can we truly relate with him? Or is he just some weird subject. I’d recommend trying to photograph people you can relate with— I feel more connected to seeing a young banker feeling stressed out from work and answering emails than some foreign villagers in an African village.

How to make better compositions

Marseille, 2015 #trix1600
Marseille, 2015 #trix1600

Composition seems to be a bit mathematical (golden mean) and also a bit of voodoo (there are lots of great photographs that don’t follow the “rules” of composition).

Here are some practical tips to make better compositions:

  1. Don’t have overlapping figures in your background: if you are taking a portrait of a friend or a stranger, make sure you don’t have poles or other people sticking out of their head. The simplest solution: start off with a simple clean white background.
  2. Focus on the edges: as humans, our eyes cannot see 100% of the frame (like dragonflies). We can only focus on probably 30-40% of a scene at a time. We generally tend to go into “tunnel vision” and focus on whatever is in the center of the frame— and as a result, the edges of our frames are messy and distracting. This is why photographers over-rely on cropping to “improve” their compositions. Practical advice? When you’re shooting— just throw your subject somewhere in the center of the frame, and focus on making the edges of your frame really clean. I generally find this to be easier when shooting with an LCD screen, a DSLR (what you see is what you get), or an electronic viewfinder.
  3. Subtract from the frame: 99% of photos fail because they are too busy. Rather than always trying to add more subjects and elements into your frame— take a zen approach and try to simplify and minimize your frame. Try to ruthlessly prune whatever isn’t important from your frame. The more you subtract from the frame, the more attention you can put into what is inside your frame.

Embrace whatever camera you have

Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject #ricohgrii
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject #ricohgrii

I often daydream about getting new digital cameras— because I somehow feel that my camera is never “good enough” — I have daydreams that having better image quality, more dynamic range, or a different focal length will somehow “unlock” my inner-genius.

The truth is no camera has ever made me a better photographer. The only thing that has helped me become a better photograph is to make more photos, to get brutal & honest feedback from peers I trust, to study the masters of photographers, and to edit ruthlessly (“kill my babies” and only show my best photos).

I’ve experimented a lot shooting on my smartphone and processing the photos in the VSCO app. I loved it, and had a ton of fun. But the biggest problem was that I got too addicted to Instagram, and didn’t let my photos sit and “marinate” long enough before deciding to upload them. And I don’t trust myself— I don’t have the personal discipline of not uploading photos instantly. This is why shooting film has helped me so much, I am forced to sit on my images for a long time (6 months-1 year) before looking at them, and before uploading them online.

Even when shooting digital on the Ricoh GR II now— I try to let my photos sit on my camera for at least a week before downloading them into Lightroom.

The principles will never die

Prague, 2015 #trix1600
Prague, 2015 #trix1600

The principles of great art and photography won’t change much in the future. So if you want to become a great artist or photographer— study the past.

Study Renaissance art, study painting, study sculpture, study the old-school master photographers. Gain inspiration from the modern artists as well— but generally the master artists from the past have been “tried and tested” from time— so there is a higher likelihood that old-school photographers’ work will last for a long time. To clarify— you don’t know if a popular photographer right on Instagram will still be popular 50 years from now. But if you look at a photographer from 50 years ago (1950’s-1960s) and their work is still around, there is a reason why their work has still existed. And a photographer from 50 years ago will likely be relevant 50 years from now (Nassim Taleb’s “Lindy Effect” rule).

Spend more time in museums, galleries, and study art history. One of the photographers I know who does this very well is Adam Marelli— he combines his love of classic art, design, and painting with photography. His principles of composition in photography come from the Renaissance artists— principles that will never die.

Love the old school

Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

As much as I love new gadgets as much as anyone else out there— don’t be tempted by the new smartphones that are coming out, the new digital cameras, or whatever technology.

The fundamentals never die. The old masters will never die.

If you want to become a better photographer, your tools won’t help. It will only be the emotions, heart, and soul you put into the images you make.

Always stay strong, and make beautiful images.

12:27pm, March 3, 2016 @ UC Berkeley

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