The problem with camera phones (that nobody talks about)

The problem with camera phones (that nobody talks about)

You've come a long way, baby

Once upon a time, the biggest problem with camera phones was the camera itself. One of the world's first camera phone, the J-SH04 was released in 2000. Boy did we come a long way, right? It could should tiny 0.11 megapixels images. It went up from there. The camera is a big deal in any phone nowadays, Apple has it's “Shot on iPhone” campaign and bunch of other brands do the same, some even partnering up with Leica to give their phone a legs up above the competition.

Speaking of partnerships, I was recently looking at the reveal of the Nokia 9 pureview who's got Zeiss backing them up, look at that beast:

Oh Mama, that thing has 5 cameras. Yeah you heard that right 5 cameras! It can capture an amazing amount of detail, has RAW shooting and even a monochrome mode (this thing has 3 monochrome cameras), crazy low light capability, killer dynamic range. While watching the presentation, I started to want a bit. What photographer doesn't want the bestest image quality they can get, right?

Well, I slapped myself right there and remembered my dashed hopes and dreams with camera phones. This brings me to…


My quest for the best camera phone

I'm probably not alone, I just want one device. It can take calls and browse the web, and also be a great camera that would allow me to leave my pocket one at home. I had one of the first ones really pushing the camera: The Sony Satio. Afterwards I had the sleek but ultimately garbage Samsung Galaxy Zoom, then I go the looks-like-a-camera Panasonic CM1, and now I settle on an old LG G5 with camera grip. Here are some shots with various phones/camera phones, in order: Blackberry Priv, Samsung Galaxy Zoom, LG G5, Blackberry Priv, Panasonic CM1


There are some good news and some bad news. The good news is, there is absolutely no doubt that camera phones get more and more amazing everyday. The Panasonic CM1 crammed a 1 inch sensor into a very small portable package. And there is absolutely no doubt you can make some pretty outstanding work with relatively recent phones.

Even better, camera phones have 2 advantages for street photographers: One is the phone itself, because you can totally fake you are using your phone, you can get some pretty stealthy shots with it. And the second is, incredible fps. Many modern phones offer increased fps, like my old G5, it has 30 fps! Just keep the shutter released press and voilà!

But while camera phones make awesome images, here's the issue…


The problem with camera phones

Here's the problem with camera phones. They have camera POWER but they don't have camera HANDLING. Phone have had “good enough” image quality for years, but there has not been one camera phone I have EVER trusted in my life. Every single camera phone out there are phones first. They handle like phones, and then some wizbang camera has been attached afterwards. What that means is, you are stuck shooting with your hands like this:

This is less than ideal and VERY limiting to photographers. Especially for street photographers, because most phones will not allow for one handed shooting. Right after fancying the new Nokia 9 pureview, I reminded myself that no matter the fancy new camera tech, it would handle like the dozens of phones I had and the lusting stopped right then.

The one camera I believed would be the end-all of all camera phones was the Panasonic CM1. It looks very camera-ish, and definitely has the camera power. The handling however is a different situation. I had to put a grip on it to make it feel more camera-like but the handling is again, phone-like. Phone manufacturers put too much emphasis on image quality and VERY little thought on handling.

It doesn't matter how good your camera is if you can't get the images you want. Take the LG G5 I currently have, I told myself the handling wasn't that great (even with the camera grip) but the fact that I could shoot 30fps means that I could just get 3-5 seconds worth of images and I would surely get the shot. That is not the case, because I have never been able to frame correctly, even winging it with the 30 fps.

There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a shot, and pulling your phone, knowing that the angle you actually want you probably won't get because you can't hold the phone well enough. Add to that the fact that you can never change settings easily (it's either in the menus or you have to touch the screen to change them) and you are probably going to miss those in-the-moment shots.

Granted, landscape shooters or anyone who doesn't need to shoot at angles or quickly, this does not apply. But for street photography, I've only been frustrated with camera phones for the last 10 years. The handling is never there. The ease of changing settings is never there. Even the Panasonic CM1, that has a dial on the front is not enough. At minimum a serious camera needs 2 dials to change settings, if you have to go press buttons to change the settings from shutter speed to ISO, that's not going to work when you need things fast.

It's ironic because the camera-phone is the first device in history where you have all of the photographic process from capture to publishing right in your pocket. To be honest, I've given up on camera phones, I just have my phone and my pocket camera with me. It's just weird that I prefer an 8 year old camera with barely a few frames per second, has worse IQ than my phone that can take 30 fps shots.

And again it all comes down to HANDLING. It's the one thing phones are missing. And it's probably never going to happen. Because camera needs are different than phone needs. The best camera phone would probably be like a camera with a touchscreen in the back. But what about the camera dials and buttons? As a phone user, you probably wouldn't want anything messing with your screen. As a camera user you want those buttons. But when you hold your phone, you don't want to be pressing random buttons. Here's what I mean:

Take your pocket camera and hold it in front of you. Notice anything? Yep, the back area has been designed to accommodate your thumb and lower thumb area. All of this has been designed so that you have a nice grip to have your index finger press the shutter release button. Look at this lady here:

Now imagine there are no creases, this area is just screen real estate, this immediately kills handling. And while you might WANT this area while shooting. It's also a phone. How would you like to be stuck with a phone like the bottom right one:

This also brings another point: Bulk. Cameras are bulky and what's great with bulk is HANDLING. You can hold it better. Phones stopped being bulky a long time ago. So when you want to hold your slab of a phone with one hand it feels weird as your fingers try to get a grip on the back of the phone and not let it slip.

Is there a solution?

The good news is, there is a solution to this conundrum between phone and camera. A modular phone. The phone can be removed to be it's own slab, or you can put it into a camera module to get a nice grip with buttons. Something like “Pictar” wanted to do:

You can see how the guy is handling the phone, and observe the thumb rest area. Something like that,  but with normal camera buttons in the back. But the way things are going with modular phones, where nothing ever pans out, this is more of a pipe dream than anything.



I love camera phones, and they only get even more awesome everyday. However, it doesn't matter how great they are if you can't trust them to get the shot. The main problem I have found over 10 years comes down to handling. And while this problem looks easy to solve on the surface, if you just add camera handling to a phone, it would probably suck as a phone. Let's hope brands like Nokia or Samsung will finally make a phone that makes photographers want to leave their dedicated compacts at home. Until then, my trusty Ricoh GRD IV is always by my side.

4 powerful stories for street photographers

4 powerful stories for street photographers

One of the things I have in my “bag of tricks” when I coach street photographers is stories. There's a lot that I use, but there are 4 that I come to over and over again, here they are, for the first time compiled:


10 years ago my teacher told me something
I'll never forget


When I was in college for graphic design, my teacher told me this story that stuck with me for years. I don't remember much of her, only two stories she told…and the fact that she threatened us with lower grades if we misspelled her name. I guess I'll get an F on this one…


Anyway, I'll tell you one of her stories, the other one is below. It has to do with art but of course this is for streetshooters too…


Picture this: My teacher is in college, it's her first art class and she sits down near this other girl. The art teacher starts her lecture, gives the first assignment and everyone starts drawing. My teacher takes a peak at what her classmate is doing and her heart drops. Why? Because her drawing skills are amazing,


After going home, my teacher gets to her room, closes the door and weeps bitterly feeling sorry for herself. Everyday she would go home in tears…that other girl was too good.


This went on for months, until one day, something incredible happened. In a few months of simply sticking with it, my teacher ended up becoming better than her classmate…so much so that the classmate ended up dropping out of the class entirely because she was intimidated.


What is this about? Well, I know when you look at some really good street photography, your stomach churns inside. You feel sorry for yourself and tell yourself you'll never be that good. I know because I've been there. I felt like I was lying to myself calling myself a street photographer. But I stuck with it.


Tell you what, nothing beats sticking with it. When I started Street Photography about 10 years ago, I had many “online buddies” with their sites and Flickr. Most of them are long gone because they didn't simply stick with it.

Will Smith said something similar: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”


Moral of the story is: Stick with it.



The other story my teacher told me that I'll never forget


When I was in college for graphic design, my teacher told me ANOTHER story I'll never forget. Not bad for a teacher I don't remember the name of!


She was working for a company as one of the graphic designers. She says there was another lady there who was -her words- a mediocre designer.


 For every project she would push out 2-3 different designs, all of them mediocre stuff. Back then this stuff took time, you had to use scissors something called glue and paper.


But one day, she heard a THUD, it was the boss who put down a large rectangular machine on the desk. It was the brand new Apple Mackintosh.


Might not seem like much today, but back then this was breakthrough stuff, and it offered the possibility to design layouts right on the computer. My teacher told us that the mediocre designer went at the computer like crazy believing it to be her salvation, the answer to everything. For every project, now she outputted 10-15 designs…all mediocre.


Her point was this: That designer believed the computer would make her better, but all the computer did was to enable her to make even more mediocre designs per project.


I got her point as a graphic designer…it's not the computer, not the tablet, it's what you know to do that counts.


In other words… It's not the camera you have it's what you do with it that matters. By the way, months I received an email from someone who canceled their subscription to Inspired Eye Magazine, I asked him for feedback and he said “There are many affordable (Expensive brand) cameras on ebay”. His email reminded me of the story I just told you about my graphic

design teacher and having the wrong focus. Not hating on the brand he want, but for sure he'll be making the same pictures on a more expensive camera.


How would I know? Because I was an ex gear head myself, and non of the cameras I got year and in year out ever made me a lick better. Shoulda listened to my old teacher, right?


Moral of the story is: It's not what camera you have, it's what you do with it that matters



The rejected David


Probably the most famous statue of ALL TIME is Michelangelo's David. I've seen a replica of it in St Augustine, Florida and LET ME TELL YA, this thing is both massive and impressive.


But you probably don't know the story behind it. It's one of the stories that shaped my philosophy of street photography.


It starts in a quarry. There was a huge stone that was rejected by previous sculptors because it had too many imperfections. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years…. It spent decades overlooked, until Michelangelo took a crack (pun intended) at it.


He is reported as saying “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”. This is a dynamite quote for photographers. It talks about the power of Vision. He saw something where others saw a piece of rock. I think that's one of the tasks of the street photographer: To see what others routinely miss.


It's like having two antennas up and constantly looking for angels that are trapped and setting them free with your camera.

He's got another quote of Michelangelo  I really like:


“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”


It translate very well for street photographers:


“Every scene has a photograph inside it and it's the task of the photographer to discover it.”\


Moral of the story is: Pay attention



Field of diamonds


Let me tell you the most inspirational story I know about It will not only motivate you, but also reveals what's REALLY important in street photography. And despite what you've heard, it's NOT about getting close. Here's how it goes:

There once was a man by the name of Ali Afed. He had kids, a beautiful wife, land and camels..

One day the priest came by and started to talk about the most beautiful object of creation: Diamonds


The more Ali heard of diamonds the more he wanted them. The more he wanted them, the more he wanted to hear about them. At some point, he couldn't stand it anymore. So he sold his land and cows, left his family with neighbors and went on to
find diamonds


All he had was a large bag of money. After two years of wandering all around the country, searching high and low, a desolate and desperate Ali Afed was left looking at the sea. He stood up and walked towards the sea, never to be seen again, having never seen a diamond. Isn't that sad?


Back in Ali's field, the new owner was making his camel eat when it chewed on a rock and spit it out, but the new owner saw a spark. He took the rock, washed it and it was the most beautiful thing he's ever seen: A diamond.

After taking a shovel and digging all around what used to be Ali Afed's land was a large field full of diamonds of the purest form.  

The diamonds were there all along, all Ali had to do was to dig in his own field rather than trying to find them elsewhere And that my friend is where most street photographers go wrong, instead of focusing on their own eye, heart and mind they focus on other things like getting more cameras, making more followers, dreaming of other cities, etc.


But the secret and treasure of photography is right there within them. And it's been right there all along. It's the premise behind the Phototactic course: To help you discover your own street photography genius.


Moral of the story is: The secret of street photography is in YOUR eye, heart and mind



I share many stories like these in the behind the scenes videos of Inspired Eye, but these are the 4 that has most impacted me, and that I keep telling over and over. Which one was your favorite?