Why An iPhone Can’t (Yet) Be My One And Only Camera

Ever wanting to minimise my camera kit, it’s crossed my mind more than once than a camera phone could be the only one I need.

Which would be ironic, as this is how I began photographing with intention over a decade ago, years before I discovered film, or knew what any of those intimidating and multiple numbers dials and buttons on an SLR were for – with a series of Sony Ericsson camera phones.


Could it be, that after shooting my way through literally hundreds of cameras and lenses, and making tens of thousands of photographs, I’d arrive right back where I started, albeit with (I hope) a better understanding of and greater competence in the dark mysteries of the art?

Well, almost, but not quite.


On the plus side, here’s what I like about my iPhone (5C), the most capable phone camera I’ve used –

1. It’s compact, convenient and always with me. The best camera you have is the one you have with you. That’s always the iPhone!

2. The images are more than acceptable, especially shot via an app like Hipstamatic. I don’t make huge prints, and any “defects” of the lens/sensor/app I see as a specific character of the device.


3. I have plenty of control. Again Hipstamatic allows me to manual adjust shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, zoom, focus and white balance.

4. The phone works very well as a point and shoot, on Auto everything. For when I want to relinquish all that manual control that Hipstamatic offers. Which is 90% of the time.


5. It’s not much different to using a digital compact. Especially when using 3:2 ratio with the phone on its side and the volume button(s) as the shutter button.

6. Different aspect ratios are readily available. Especially with Hipstamatic, though I confess that I only really use 1:1 (which just seems right for iPhones, the seemingly obvious modern digital successor to the classic Polaroids) or 3:2 (as I’m so used to this ratio from 35mm film, my Sony NEX, and my Pentax DSLRs).

7. I don’t feel the need for further uploading, processing, etc. Keeping processing simple is vital for me with film or digital. With the iPhone I just use the images as they come out of the phone (granted I have a Hipstamatic combo of “film”, “lens” and “flash” that I tend to use for most shots, so they’re rarely straight out of camera/phone).


On the minus side, there is very little, but they add to the reasons why I can’t abandon all other image making devices for the iPhone yet (or maybe ever) – 

1. It might not feel much different to a digital compact, but it does feel very different to even a DSLR with a vintage lens. Let alone a 35mm film SLR. The tactile experience of holding and using a “proper” camera and those beautiful old metal and glass lenses remains a vital factor in my enjoyment of photography. The iPhone just feels like a device, a gadget, albeit a very capable one. I never pick it up and smile at the beautiful ergonomics and glove-like fit in my hands.

2. The screen is pretty good for framing and focusing, but I miss the viewfinder experience of a “proper” camera. That sense of being immersed in the confines of those four straight sides and everything else in the world evaporating can’t be replaced when holding a device with a screen at arm’s length. (This is also a major reason why my Pentax DLSRs have almost entirely replaced my previous main digital Sony NEX camera, which despite its many outstanding qualities, also lacks a VF).

3. Storage seems very limited. My iPhone is also my iPod, my main email and messaging device, my portable internet browser, YouTube viewer/listener and more. Although I have very few apps, music or anything else overall, it always seems to be close to full, and I can only shoot maybe 40-50 photos before it maxes out. It doesn’t help that Hipstamatic is doubly storage hungry, keeping an original copy plus the filtered/processed version of each photo. I’ve toyed with the idea of upgrading to a new phone for everything but photography, then stripping everything but Hipstamatic from my current iPhone and using it purely for photography. But then I wouldn’t want to always be carrying two phones around, I may as well be using a “proper” camera.

4. Because it’s digital and so easy and instant, the pictures always feel disposable. This perception then extends so I feel I can’t/don’t make any images worth keeping, in the way I can with other cameras, even other digital cameras. Even though I have indeed made some photographs I really like with it. This is a state of mind I know, and maybe could be overcome in time.


5. I have very little emotional connection with it. This is similar to no 1 above or maybe a combination of 1 and 2. It’s just a clever little device – and has a huge range of uses of course, aside from being a very competent picture maker. But beyond that it has very little charm or attraction, and doesn’t evoke any particular affection. I’m not one for adulation of objects, but I can say that even my Pentax DSLRs bring a smile to my face when I pick them up – they feel like a comrade or companion in the quest to capture beautiful images.

All in all then, I can’t see that my iPhone will become my sole, even my main camera any time soon, if ever. 

But it still makes an excellent back up for those spontaneous images when I don’t have another camera – or the time to get it out.


Addendum – I realised after publishing my last post about using just one camera and lens for a month, that I’ve also been using the iPhone, and even included images made with in that recent post!

But it hadn’t even crossed my mind that this had broken my one camera one lens run with the Samsung/Miranda combo!

More than anything else I think this shows how I don’t even count the iPhone as a “proper” camera…

Would you ever consider using a camera phone as your only camera? Let us know in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

19 thoughts on “Why An iPhone Can’t (Yet) Be My One And Only Camera”

  1. Not for me 😉

    As you explained, the iPhone makes really cool pics, nevertheless the handling and the emotions working with a real camera … despite digital or analog, is a different thing.

    I use the iphone more as documentation tool … e.g. to have GPS tagged pics from my locations.

    Last time during a short trip to Frankfurt, I did not notice having a 35mm sun shade on a 28mm lens. All pics have a slight vignetting. Does not really matter, but this is someting you’l never see on an iPhone 😉

    1. Handling and emotion sums up what the iPhone lacks well. I would add a viewfinder too. Which are all unfair comments really given the device’s size and its capabilities in relation to that size. But ultimately the reasons I/we love using cameras extend far beyond just making pictures.

  2. Well, on the other side, one can’t stop progress and smartphone cams get better every day.

    There is a guy who contributed lots of cool plugins to the former Bibble RAW converter software, who has completly stopped working on postprocessing … he now has an iPhone app called Argent, which is applying all his filters (no fun stuff) already during the shot. I’m using it besides the 645pro app, which also allows lots of adjustments before pressing the shutter.

    I think – besides the tactile experience and joy – this is one essential part, to make your decisions before pressing the sutter and applying only a minimum of (post)processing – similar as during film processing.

    1. I’m all for getting as much as you can right in camera before/during the shot. I don’t quite understand when people seem to just get it close enough then say “I can just recover the rest in post processing”. Why not get to point of understanding your equipment so you get it right in camera and then you don’t need so much post processing?!

  3. I just don’t like how my iPhone handles as a camera. It is just too awkward to use. It’s a fabulous camera in a pinch though, despite its challenging usability.

    1. I was just thinking, why isn’t there some kind of iPhone case that’s shaped more like a point and shoot camera and makes it far more tactile to use? The technology and capability is there, the major issue for many of us is the handling…

      Then I googled “iPhone camera case” and see there are actually quite a few! Tempting!

  4. I bought a ZenFone 3 as my phone as it has an awesome camera. As I carry a phone all the time I decided to research the camera functions first. I have not been disappointed.

    1. It makes sense to have a smartphone that’s optimised for photography as that’s what a lot of people are looking for. Some of the samples from the ZenFone look great.

      The dilemma (for both the makers and the users) is whether to produce/get something that’s really good at everything, or good enough at most things and exceptional at some.

      I have toyed with getting a used iPhone purely to use as a camera, and add a case that adds better ergonomics etc.

      Or get a used phone to be my phone, iPod, browser, email, satnav, and half a dozen other things other than a camera, then use my current iPhone as nothing but a camera.

      But then you get into the thinking of if you carry two devices, would it be better for the picture taking device to actually be a camera that’s built to be a camera and nothing else from the drawing board?

      1. I often carry two, the zenfone and an iPad mini for reading, music. The camera on the zenfone is much better. It has a manual override so I can choose all the settings I can in camera such as aperture, speed, focusing.

      2. So what do you use as an actual phone, the zenfone? Did you buy it specifically to use as a camera? I’m just wondering why you wouldn’t buy a separate dedicated camera if you carry two devices anyway, or is the zenfone camera that good that it compares well with dedicated compact cameras? My iPhone is great but my six year old Nikon Coolpix is much more versatile and ultimately more capable in the final image.

        Our conversation has inspired me to erase and reset my iPhone, and just add the apps I need and use, which is pretty much iTunes music, Safari, SatNav, GMail, messaging apps and Hipstmatic. I finally have room on it to take more than a dozen photos without fear of it making out!

      3. Have a look on Instagram for zenfone photos, I have the 3. I carry a phone all the time so it is my go to fun camera. I bought it specifically because the camera got great reviews. Shock horror, sometimes I forget to take a camera with me, but I rarely forget my phone. It fits in my pocket and never runs out of film. So for fun selfies it is great, but also macros. When I am at school I use it to capture the students to share with parents. I love film for fun. But my phone is the camera I use the most. To note, I also have a Nikon d7000, a canon s90, and a Ricoh GXR. I love digital cameras too…but stick with those ones and rarely buy new digital.

  5. As you say, very little emotional connection!

    I use my iPhone, which is indeed a very capable camera, solely for eBay photos when I sell gear or very occasionally when I forgot to grab a real camera – and when I remember the iPhone makes photos.

    For me it’s uncomfortable, not intuitive to use. It’s a documenting machine, not something I want to use to make a photo.

    And anyways I don’t have a real emotional connection to digital photos!

    1. I agree about the iPhone being a documenting machine to a large extent, and a fairly unergonomic one (for photography) at that.

      I used to agree about digital photographs, but since finding the right set up for me (CCD Pentax DSLRs plus mostly vintage A series and Taumkar lenses) I’ve been increasingly happy with the results, and much more connected to them than ever before.

    1. Thanks for your comment Josephine, and the link. I rarely use my iPhone for video, I was talking about using it as a photo camera. Plus that “gimbal” is huge and would completely defeat the major benefit of the iPhone – the fact it’s pocketable and always with you. I need a bag bigger than the little one I use for my DSLRs to carry it in!

  6. Dan, I loved your thoughts about using a proper viewfinder. I’m normally quite comfortable with the fact that my iPhone and both digital compacts are shot using the screen. Other then the issues with strong sunlight (not often much of an issue in the UK) I find composition using the LCD screen to be a nice, easy experience. But I do love my film SLR! Yesterday morning I shot the better part of two rolls of film through it at a classic car event. When I popped back later in the afternoon with my compact digital, I was amazed to find that I bashed myself in the face with the camera when framing the first shot! Obviously I have some previously un-noticed, viewfinder-centric muscle memory!

    1. This made me laugh Richard – not least of all because I’ve done that myself a few times!

      Yes my NEX with the screen to compose and focus peaking is fantastic for getting shots well exposed and well focused. But it’s all at arm’s length, it’s a very detached experience.

      Strange you should say about the experience being more important than the final image – I’ve often felt that. I wrote a piece on a former blog called “Experience Trumps Results” about exactly that.

  7. I think that the iPhone is fine tool to capture images and if someone has no interest in the technical details of that tool, then I guess the phone would be all that they would need. In my life, it is certainly to hand much more than any camera. But I like the mechanical connection that I get with a more manual (or in the digital case, more “involved”) camera too. Indeed sometimes I wonder whether (for me) the image is secondary to simply getting outside and operating these lovely pieces of equipment.

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