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Category: Hardware

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[]
The era of use and throw

The era of use and throw

In the last twenty or so years, things have changed a lot when it comes to consumer durable goods, particularly electronics. We’ve seen the transition from the fat CRT television sets to ultra-thin LED TVs. From analog to digital. From metal to plastic (and increasingly cheaper plastic at that). Even in the last decade or so, a lot has changed. For example, smartphones no longer come with removable/replaceable batteries — they are soldered into the devices, making it much harder to get battery replacements. The shift from desktop PCs to laptops to smartphones (and tablets) is a case in point. Even earlier in the day of analog electronics, repairing devices was the norm. Over time, it has become an increasingly rare exception.

In the past, when a component of your desktop system failed, you simply replaced that part alone[1]. There was a thriving market for replacement parts. Laptop parts aren’t so easy to replace, and with mobile phones and tablets it’s almost impossible to repair or replace individual components. Well, it is possible to “repair”, but the cost of the replacement components makes it a better (wiser?) option to buy a new device. You can see the same trend in almost every other household gadget. Things aren’t being made to last — they’re being made to be replaced once every few years and the environmental and social costs are heavy. Notice how most electronic gadgets, even the more expensive ones, come with a measly one year or, at best two years of warranty. And there is almost no incentive to repair old devices out of warranty — just chuck them away and “upgrade”. I notice that there are fewer and fewer technicians who offer repair services at reasonable prices — maybe it’s just not a profitable business any more or maybe the products aren’t designed to be repaired[2].

It’s not that technological advancements have made repair harder than replacement as much as the manufacturers would like us to believe. There appears to be a deliberate movement away from reliability, repairability and build quality:

That scarcity is by design. Manufacturers don’t want you to fix that broken microwave or air conditioner; they want you to buy a new one. Some even send cease-and-desist letters to people who post repair information online. Back in 2012, Toshiba told laptop repair tech Tim Hicks that he needed to remove 300 PDFs of Toshiba’s official repair manuals from his website, where he was offering the information for free. To avoid being sued, Hicks complied, and now fewer people have the guidance they need to repair Toshiba laptops.

Source: https://spectrum.ieee.org/green-tech/conservation/why-we-must-fight-for-the-right-to-repair-our-electronics

Not just in electronics: occasionally, when I get my hands on an old household item, even something as trivial as a plastic bucket made years ago, it seems almost amazing how the build quality has deteriorated in recent times. It seems that manufacturers now have made build quality and longevity a “premium feature”, to be paid for through the nose, rather than to be expected in any product.

  1. in fact, assembling a desktop computer was and still is an easy project[]
  2. I suspect that the latter has contributed to the former[]
What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

smartphone

Is it just me, or are there other smartphone users who’d prefer a device that can be held and operated on one hand and a thumb?

Is there no market for such Android phones that you can operate from one hand? It appears that there are very few small form factor Android phones on the market these days. There are no decently specced models that are less than 5.5″ that I can find online. This is simply annoying because not everybody wants a large screen[1]. For me, and I suspect for a lot of people, operating a phone with two hands is an ergonomic issue. Even my Nokia 2.1 (which is a 5.5″ model) is hard to operate with one hand alone for some tasks. I frequently find myself switching the phone to my left hand to use the right forefinger for touch operations. On the other hand, my old iPhone 5s which its 4″ screen is still a delight to hold and operate. Yes, the keypad is too small, but still usable at that size. I think the 4.7″ to 5″ form factor is ideal.

I do understand the need for large screen smartphones, since some people want to use their phone as a mini tablet (especially with the monster sized 6.7″ screen phones), but surely there must be users who just want to conveniently hold the phone and operate it with a thumb. Besides smaller phones fit snugly into the trouser pocket.

The other issue with larger screens is that they draw more battery power and drain even powerful 4000+ mAh batteries in a short duration. So manufacturers have to stuff the phone with more powerful batteries just to get the same charge duration. I also find the overall weight of larger phones to be an issue.

Maybe the trend will once again change and soon we’ll have reasonably sized smartphones once again. In the meantime, the still somewhat pricey older iPhone 7 and 8 (with 4.7″ screens) seem to be the only options in the sub 5″ smartphone category.

Edit: There is a list of current 5″ smartphone models compiled by digit.in. And yes, the iPhone 7 is at the top of the list.

  1. some of us use phones as phones, not as video-watching devices[]