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People can be very opinionated and even downright belligerent when it comes to photography.  Emotional debates have raged about which is better, Nikon or Canon.  Now, there is a new thorn in the side of these serious amateur photographers, the rise of the smartphone, which is largely displacing classic photography with near real-time ‘snap and post’ social media.

CN Tower 2
A DSLR excels at landscape photography.  This is much harder for smartphones to do well.

They argue vehemently over which camera is best to use.  The line between using a quality still camera, like a DSLR (digital single lens reflex), versus a smartphone, is blurring dramatically in the world of consumer photography.  There are some very strong opinions that polarize the points of view to one extreme or the other.  The DSLR crowd do not see the smartphones as actually being cameras, but the average photographer today is snapping more pictures with their smartphone or tablet than with a deluxe DSLR.  So, what is the truth?

Photography has many purposes and can be done well with a variety of cameras.  So, there is no perfect answer here.  All cameras are good and useful, but is it important as to which tool you use?

Joe Portrait
A quick portrait mode iPhone X snapshot turned into a nice portrait of my friend, Joe.

The new smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone X, are highly capable image capture tools.  So, it is unfair to judge them against higher end digital cameras from Nikon, Canon, and Sony that offer sophisticated image resolution and interchangeable lenses.

Both the smartphone and the DSLR have a place in photography.  The type of photography, the place where you shoot, the time when inspiration hits, and the opportunity to capture an awesome picture may very well dictate which tool you use to capture your photos.

Cookie 2
Sometimes, you just need to snap a photo because it speaks to you on a deeply personal level.  This picture has life, joy, and colour in it.  I love cookies, so it tugged on my heartstrings.

It is rare these days for pictures to be printed on archival grade paper for large format photographs to be displayed on walls or in galleries.  Most images end up on social media sites as a low-resolution JPEGs at sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

Flipped Image
When shooting a selfie with a smartphone, the screen-side camera can cause the image to be reversed or flipped.  Note the text for the restaurant sign is written backwards.

We are Social reports that there are ‘2.80 billion global social media users in 2017, equaling 37% penetration’.  So, to say that social media use is popular is an understatement.

Visual content is more than 40 times more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content. (Source: HubSpot)

Sky and Mountains
Flying over the Rocky Mountains offered an opportunity for a powerful image.  I looked out the window and said, ‘wow’.  Is it high art, no.  But it is a good memory for me.  It is personal.

The latest study by Locowise found that adding hashtags had no effect on engagement rates.  In fact, tweets without hashtags outperformed tweets with hashtags. (Source: Adweek) Therefore, it is better to focus on the quality of your original content instead of overly relying on hashtags for increasing engagement.  Adding a photo to a post dramatically increased the rate of clicks through the post.

Aim High inverted
Even for a still image of a static object, a smartphone can do a very good job.  The lighting is a lamp to the right and the colour correction is impressive.  iPhone X

Yet, some social media sites, such as LinkedIn are shifting towards a hashtag-based post with the hopes of enriching user engagement.  They resist images.  This strategy is likely to fail for LinkedIn.  They should instead unlock their limitations on adding images to posts, this is clearly a much smarter strategy for them.  But, it comes with a hefty cost for additional cloud storage, so economics is driving this strategy, as hashtags add little extra storage burden.

So, when is the best time to use a smartphone and when should you use a DSLR?


Dentist Selfie
Has the ‘selfie’ gone too far?  Do we really need to see some images?

The most useful application of the smartphone is for selfie photography.  According to Jon Nicholls, of the Thomas Tallis School, the current obsession with photographic self-portraits – The Selfie – can be traced back to the origins of photography. One of the first things photographers did when they learned how to fix light on a surface was to turn their rudimentary cameras on themselves.  The earliest known example comes from 1839, the same year that Louis Daguerre patented the ‘invention’ of photography as a commercially viable process.  Since then, the self-portrait, a genre inherited from painting, has become a staple form of photographic image making.

Capturing funny moments or irregular shots can be fun.  In this photo, I heard my dog, Sam crying in another room.  He climbed up on the bathroom counter to eat the bar of soap and was not able to get down.  Yes, I rescued Sam, but a picture was needed first to show my wife that it was not me eating her expensive soaps.

Smartphones are always with us, so they are ideal for capturing impromptu snapshots taken by impulse because we suddenly see something interesting, shocking, or memorable.  Catching moments in time is perhaps the best use of the smartphone for photography.

The new features in smartphones can greatly enhance your portraits.  They zoom in and defuse the distracting backgrounds.  This is the exact same image shot in the ‘photo’ mode and the ‘portrait’ mode.  Clearly the portrait mode enhances the picture.

Portraits can be surprisingly good with some of the latest smartphones.  They have some preprogramed ‘portrait’ modes that dramatically enhance the portrait.  Here are a few images taken in the portrait mode.  The differences are startling.  Without making any changes other than the mode of the smartphone, a strong, enticing portrait can result.

Snapping pictures of family members can prove to be valuable over time.  Here is my beautiful niece, Sierra showing me her video skills.  Note that the lens cap is still on, we have much work to do here ‘little one’.


B-29 Cockpit
Taxiing for departure in FIFI, one of two remaining Boeing B-29 heavy bombers from WWII.  You can see where George Lucas found his inspiration for the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars fame.  Does it look familiar to you too?

The greatest power of the DSLR is the ability to manually make adjustments with the goal of improving the photographic result.  Now, some of the newer smartphones are adding capabilities to make exposure adjustments too.  But this is a core feature of the DSLR.  Now add interchangeable lenses to the DSLR and suddenly the opportunities to capture amazing images greatly improves.

B-17 Tail
As an aviation buff, I shoot lots of airplanes.  Here is a shot from with a B-17 bomber.  The upper gun turret was removed permitting photos outside.  Yes, the winds nearly took my head off, but I was able to capture a unique image so the risk was deemed to be acceptable.

If I am off on a specific adventure, doing something unique, exciting, or expensive that may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, then I will not risk using a smartphone as my only camera.  I depend upon my DSLR to capture these special moments and experiences.  I need to trust that my pictures will reflect the magnitude of the event or situation.  So, a DSLR is inherently more trustworthy to produce impressive photographic results compared to a smartphone camera.

No smartphone can do justice to far away objects.  Here is an image take with a Nikkor 1000 mm lens on a Nikon DSLR D-800 camera body.  A tripod was mandatory for this big, heavy rig.

With different lenses I can capture images that tell stories or create photographs that most would never be able to capture with a simple smartphone.  The quality of the source image in high resolution raw files permits greater editing later to further accentuate the image with cropping, white balance, colour correction, changes to lighting, Photoshop manipulation, and more.

White Dog
This shot was taken with a Nikon D2X and a 70-200 mm f2.8 lens.  Getting down to the dog’s eye level was key to the shot composition.

Controlling the depth of field to isolate a subject is often important to making a great photograph instead of a poor one.  I read recently that pro photographers shoot in the aperture priority mode so they can quickly control the depth of field.

MT Headshot
A portrait taken with a Nikon D-800 camera and a 28-70mm f2.8 lens racked to 70mm with natural light at ISO 400, 1/125s and f5.6 softened the background to isolate the subject.

Adjusting the shutter speed to create motion effects is another powerful feature of most DSLR cameras.

To capture this flow of water, I used a slow shutter speed of 1/25s at f22, from a Nikon D1x camera body with the 28-70 mm f2.8 lens racked to 70mm.  The motion of the water was deliberately blurred by the slower shutter speed to create this motion effect.

The day of citizen journalism is now upon us.  Everyone with a smartphone or a fancy DSLR is capable of capturing moments in time that tell stories or share experiences.  We can all be news-makers and news reporters today.  Citizen journalism, whether with still images or video clips is leading the nightly news line-up.

Interviewing the Honourable Marc Garneau, member of Canada’s Parliament and Federal Minister of Transport

Factual filmmaking has in some senses become hostage to these new, “immediate” technologies.  But many working in the genre praise the developments for adding a richer dimension to current affairs and factual documentaries and everyone seems to agree that the genre will never be the same again.

Citizen Journalism
While waiting for a flight at Montreal’s airport last year, I snapped this picture of a reporter for a Brazilian broadcaster conducting a field interview with a Brazilian TV host.  They used the iPhone 7 on a selfie stick with a small light and microphone attached.  Interesting, right?

“Phone cameras and internet video must threaten broadcasters who think TV viewers will move away from them (and on to the web), but the collective arena is a hive of creativity,” says documentary pioneer Molly Dineen.  “It should add to what traditional documentary makers are doing and not take away.”

Global TV Team the CN Tower 2
One time, while working for Global Television here in Toronto doing a microwave radio study, we snapped this group picture outside on the roof of the CN Tower.  Of course, current health and safety rules and regulations would never permit this image to be taken today.

Virtually every news media outlet now accepts content from the public.  You can be a news star in an instant if you are at the right place and at the right time.  Capturing that one in a million shot is now possible with far greater odds if we have hundreds or even thousands of people taking pictures of the same event.  A form of crowd-sourcing the news is now upon us.

FIFI, the Boeing B-29 bomber prior to my flight in her.  A memorable experience of a lifetime.

So, to me, all that matters are that you shoot and capture images.  The tool is secondary in many cases.  However, the functionality of the camera used to capture an image can have a huge impact on the quality and usability of the photo.  In my case, I use everything that I can to capture life’s moments.  I am not a technology snob, I just love the content.  The tools are fun and interesting, no argument, but it is the image that rules the day.

Giraffe 2
I love bokeh, this is the deliberate defocus and diffusion of the background in order to accentuate the foreground subject.  This effect is easily achieve on a DSLR but hard to do normally with a smartphone.  Nikon D1x camera with an 80-200mm f2.8 lens.  Taken at 200 mm focal length, 1/180s at f6.7 with ISO 125.

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.