The limitations of mobile photography

The limitations of mobile photography

Of late, I’ve been doing quite a bit of photography with my mobile, earlier on my old iPhone 5s and now on my new Samsung Galaxy M31s, a decent mid-range Android phone. Though I appreciate the advances in mobile photography in recent times, it’s obvious that there are quite a few limitations with mobile devices, some of them practically impossible to overcome. But before getting into the article, here are a couple of photos I’ve recently taken with my Samsung M31s from which it’s obvious that mobile photography has come a long way in terms of photographic quality as well as creative control.

Solanum Torvum
Macro mode on the Samsung Galaxy M31s – a dedicated macro lens allows for some creative control otherwise not possible on mobile cameras
From the terrace
64 MP primary camera test – the ability to capture so many pixels allows for a fair bit of cropping

As you can see, mobile phones these days come with extra lenses (and sensors) for additional creative control, like dedicated macro and wide angle lenses. With increasingly higher megapixels, techniques like pixel-binning are being used to increase image quality. Some years ago, such features would be almost unimaginable from a mid-range mobile phone. With effects like artificial blurring of backgrounds for the (not quite as natural) bokeh effect, auto-HDR, and creative instant filters and you’ve got a pretty decent package.

But coming to the main point of this article: what are the limitations of a mobile camera as a photography device; or to put it differently, under what circumstances would I not consider using a mobile camera?

Lack of optical zoom

This is the most obvious drawback of mobile devices — lack of (optical) zoom[1]. While a few very rare mobile models with an optical zoom barrel do exist, the fixed wide-angle lens on most mobile cameras makes it almost impossible to get clear and well framed shots of distant subjects. While prime-lens enthusiasts may disagree, zoom is a versatile photographic technique, the lack of which cuts out a whole range of subjects and creative control.

Poor low light performance

Despite so many advancements in image processing technology, one cannot get past the fact that minuscule sensors paired with tiny lenses can only capture so many photons. It’s obvious that mobile cameras, even the high end ones, struggle with low light performance because of this factor, the two biggest problems being high-ISO noise or softening of detail due to aggressive noise reduction applied by the camera processor and blur caused by camera shake due to slow shutter speeds. While it’s possible to get decent night shots with some mobiles, the quality is nowhere close to those captured with an APS-C DSLR/mirrorless camera, let alone full-frame ones. For people who love to photograph indoors or in low natural light, particularly past sunset, mobile cameras can seem very limiting.

Lack of manual controls

I know that there are camera apps which expose some manual settings in device cameras, but this is the second biggest limitation in mobile photography. While it’s nice to be able to shoot in Auto mode occasionally with a proper camera, what really makes photography interesting is the ability to experiment with settings like manual focus, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity etc[2]. With the small-sized sensors and fixed lenses, mobiles cannot do much even with such control of settings, but the lack of control takes away quite a bit of experimentation with, for example, depth of field, slow shutter speed, long exposures and so on. And even with mobile camera apps that offer manual control over settings, touch screen controls are just not ergonomic enough to use quickly and effectively.

Other drawbacks

There are other significant requirements which only proper (SLR-like) cameras can fulfill, like the ability to accurately track focus on moving subjects (for example, in Sports and wildlife photography), a much higher dynamic range, fast burst mode, ability to shoot RAW, using external flash, the versatility of being able to use different lenses for different purposes, using physical filters and so on. Of course, not everybody requires all features of a full-featured SLR-like camera, but most enthusiast photographers appreciate quite a large subset of the available features, even if they don’t reach out to use them all the time.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, particularly the physical limitation of small sensor-lens combinations, I think it’s next to impossible that mobile photography will significantly affect the popularity of advanced point-and-shoot and SLR-like cameras among the enthusiast crowd who find these limitations unacceptable.

The one significant reason for me to cheer the advancement of mobile photography technology is that mobiles are almost always with us while we cannot always carry along a camera wherever we go, and this allows us to take photos that we would otherwise miss. Capturing those moments in super-high quality is icing on the cake.

  1. The so-called digital zoom offered by many phone cameras is not zoom at all[]
  2. Even most budget point and shoot cameras lack fine grained control like aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual modes[]

2 thoughts on “The limitations of mobile photography

    1. Mobile cameras have steadily improved in the last decade or so. Inevitably there are people who speculate that mobile photography will kill DSLRs/mirrorless cameras which is of course ridiculous.

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