Is all smartphone photography narcissistic?

In the smartphone camera vs digital SLR debate I’ve come to the conclusion that technical comparisons are irrelevant. For me it’s a question of curation, narcissism and  Starbuck’s Lattes.

A post on The Verge about smartphone photography has really got me thinking about this.

The sentiment of the piece became overwhelmingly distorted by the reader comments. I too appreciate that smartphones have democratized photography (it seems everyone’s now a photographer and, love it or hate it, Instagram does occasionally deliver some surprisingly delightful pictures); however the rhetoric that smartphones are the death of the digital SLR is as premature now as it was three years ago when Nokia proclaimed its demise.

The smartphone camera revolution has taken hold through convenience not technical superiority (in much the same way as the MP3 file format). A smartphone offers an always available camera with an always (nearly) available connection. This has replaced the need to consciously remember to “bring the camera” and the need to tether it to a PC when you get home to export the pictures.

However, debating the technical merits of the smartphone against a digital SLR is just plain dumb.

A photo of coffee. De rigueur on Instagram
A photo of coffee. De rigueur on Instagram

Smartphones cameras are “good enough” for 99% of consumers

The two form factors are different. They always will be. The physical form factor of a smartphone is not going to be able to accommodate and match the optics of an SLR and deliver the same versatility (at least not in the immediate future).

However, for most a smartphone camera is “good enough”, and that’s the point to consider.

The debate over whether smartphones will kill the SLR market can’t be had until we appreciate the way in which consumers are using smartphone cameras and consuming content. The technical limitations of the smartphone camera are the reason you see little in the way of sports photography, macro or portraiture. Instead, photos of Starbuck’s Lattes, cats and selfies are the order of the day. In many cases, the technical limitations of the raw file are further disguised by Instagram filters and then viewed on a 5” screen or a thumbnail in Facebook where a megapixel count becomes irrelevant.

Of course, this doesn’t make smartphone cameras bad. Smartphone photography is absolutely aligned to the disposable, share-driven culture of today.

Thanks to the smartphone, the pictorial archive of my children is huge. I have a digital SLR and to be honest I use it less than half a dozen times a year.

However, when I do use it, it’s because I want to record an experience for my own posterity and I want the flexibility afforded by the SLR. I wouldn’t go on holiday without my SLR and for consumers with both a smartphone and digital SLR I imagine I’m not alone in this behaviour.


That’s when I had something of an epiphany! Reviewing my own use it seems that SLR shots are those that I archive and curate with more attention. They record family experiences, I review them on a large monitor before saving them, and backing them up on an external drive. By comparison, and by its very nature, most smartphone photography (including my own) seems largely narcissistic and for the benefit of others rather than myself. “Hey Twitter, look at my Latte”. I don’t curate by smartphone photos outside of occasionally freeing some storage. yes, i post them to Facebook but 24 hours later they are forgotten.

But again, that’s not bad. It’s just different. Do smartphone photos comprise 98% of all photos taken?* Yes. probably. But that’s because more people are taking pictures of cats and lattes; not because professional photography for print is being eroded.

Perhaps it’s not even that the smartphone is good enough for 99% of the population, but that it’s good for 99% of use cases where a camera is required, regardless of your photographic heritage.

So let’s dispense with the “iPhone will kill the SLR industry” sentiment and appreciate that it’s different strokes for different folks.

*I made that stat up, but it sounds about right!


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