Curiosity killed the cat

Currently, I live in a ground floor apartment in Dainfurn Ridge in Johannesburg SA. One of the joys that I have found in living here is that a Southern Masked Weaver for the past two years has taken to building one of his nests in a tree that I have growing in the small garden in my property. I have found this to be rather intriguing as I used to own a property that was very close to a river and enjoyed the weavers building their nests in the trees that overhung the river. I did not expect to see a weaver building his nest in my small garden in an almost non-descript tree.

Nearly every one of age today owns and uses a smartphone that accompanies us wherever we may be or go. For a very large portion of the market, the smartphone has been the introduction to photography as they now all come equipped with a camera. The reason that I am mentioning this is that I had my Samsung smartphone with me and being so taken by the weaver’s dexterity and prowess watching him build his nest right in front of me, I wanted to record the action so I reached for my smartphone and proceeded to snap a few pictures. The preview is available almost immediately showing me an overall image of the scene, fine in itself but the weaver nest was far too small.

I knew that my phone was able to ‘zoom’ in so I did just that by dragging my finger across the frame, going as far as it would allow and took a few more shots. To say that I was disappointed with the result would be an understatement. I did want to record the marvel of nature that was unfolding in front of me and the only camera that had at my disposal was an early Panasonic Lumix TZ8. Unfortunately as I pen this, this camera has been replaced and further down in this article I will introduce you to one of its replacements the Lumix TZ95.

Panasonic Lumix TZ8 & Samsung Smartphone

I know I am not comparing apples with apples but I know that the uninformed needs to know and to understand that the smartphone cannot replace a proper camera. I am also the first to admit that the smartphone camera has come a very long way since its first introduction now almost 20 years ago. This was a Japanese device the Kyocera VP-210 equipped with a 0.11MP camera. (I am including a link as it does make for some absorbing reading.) I am speculating but the cameras seems to have been a mere after thought and was included because it made complete sense, not very good but it did do what it was intended to do.

At that time nobody would have guessed that this statement would be made today concerning smartphone cameras, and I quote, “Smartphone cameras have become so advanced that they can replace DSLR cameras in many situations, offering everything from impressive optical zoom to great colour ranges and HDR capabilities Manufacturers are constantly working to improve their handset’s camera offerings, and it has now become common to see high megapixel counts and 3D depth-sensing features on flagship devices.” This comment has been based squarley at the feet of the rank amateur who has absolutly no knowledge of the complexity and sophitication of the system a DSLR is just a small but important part of. If you are happy with Ai being able to do everything for you then so be it. Your photography will never adavance as you will never know just what it taskes to control what it is and as how you want you photograph to be.

Southern Masked Weaver

Photographed handheld with the Panasonic LUMIC TZ8 at 300mm. Senor 6.17mm x 4.5mm (The TZ8 is no longer in production, replaced with even better cameras)

Would I want to be without my camera on my smartphone? No, as its uses are many and if used as they were intended nothing can replace this. Would I use my smartphone as my primary camera, never and I want to support my statement? The first being is that for a large portion of my early life I earned a very good income from being a trained professional photographer and all the equipment that I used an owned was acquired to do just this. Secondly, I don’t want to digress too much as I want to give you something to think about when doing your photography. Every professional that I have ever spoken to or been in the company of will tell you that he or she formed a very personal bond with the camera or cameras that they used to produce the images that were needed for the client they were working with.

I had a few but my personal favorite was a Mamiya RZ 6×7 kit. In its day the Mayima system had a very good reputation but the major reason why I used it was the 6X7cm format. Commonly termed as an ideal format camera. The images were superb and very little needed to be cropped or added when producing images that were to be used in the most popular magazines during its day. The 6×4.5cm although smaller in image area was also considered to be an ideal format but both these more often referred to as a medium format camera. Every photograph that you took required planning and some effort and almost all of the time the results were predictable even without having an instant preview at your disposal. Having started in the film era a full-frame sensor still refers to the area that was and still is covered by a full-frame 35mm film camera to this very day.

I know I am not comparing apples with apples but the smartphone manufactures would have us believe that their cameras are comparable with professional stand-alone cameras and are capable of similar results. If you were ever able to change lenses on a smartphone camera or add another, no longer is it portable and would simply not be able to be carried in a pocket anymore. I am aware that there are a few third party lenses that will extend the focal length of your smartphones camera but the results generally speak for themselves.

Although not to scale this chart will give you an idea as to how the different image sensors compare to one another in size

I have seen some amazing shots or photographs that have been taken with smartphone cameras. This is a generalization on my part. I have hardly ever or should I say never seen a print that has been made with the use of a smartphone camera and if you would like to comment please indulge me, avail yourself of this opportunity to do so and we will share it with all our readers.

Images submitted to ‘Unsplash’ by Valik-Chernetskyi with the use of his Samsung Smartphone Camera.

To further support my statement about conventional cameras ever being replaced by smartphone cameras comes down to design. There are physical limits to the cameras that are employed on a smartphone. The first that I will mention is the physical size of the sensor that can be used in a smartphone and to avoid making a smartphone any bigger or thicker they are restricted. The Apple iPhone used a 1/3.2” sensor and for those in the know understand that the light gathering ability of this sensor compared to a full-frame DSLR’s sensor is far smaller that essentially restricts the dynamic range of the smartphone sensor. Succinctly, dynamic range is the difference between the darkest and lightest tones in an image.

The sensor in the Lumix TZ8 is not large in itself but why was it able to record images that are far better than was produced by the smartphone? I honestly think that it is the lens and the in body stabilization that is being used and the enhanced technological features that exists with the design. Smartphone manufactures also insist on producing cameras with for more megapixels than is realistically needed. Bigger is not always better but you have to investigate this for yourself. I used and owned a Canon EOS 1Ds with a full frame sensor of only 11.1 effective megapixels but the images that were produced by this camera was absolutely stunning and is a camera that I miss the most.

We further need to understand that any lens has a characteristic focal length. This is the point from the lens where the image is in sharp focus. Shorter focal lengths give us a wider angle of view and more of the picture area is covered and can be seen, whereas longer focal lengths give us a narrower field of view and the image is magnified and far less of the image can be observed.When considering the lens in our smartphone the focal length of the lens is limited by the thickness of the phone and if my smartphone is only 7mm thick I suspect that the lens that is being used would only be about 4mm.

There is an actual lens stack that is used in the manufacture of these lenses consisting of 5 or so very small elements approximately 4mm in diameter and 0.2mm thick. As these elements are fixed they presently are not able to move so the term ‘zoom’ that is sometimes used is a misnomer. The zoom lens is actually another lens that you select, and in most cases with the use of another sensor with an overall affect of the image being magnified the same as a fixed telephoto lens that is being used in conventional photography that allows you to achieve the same but if not better affect.

You might have noticed that some of the premium smartphones have incorporated more than one camera in their devices. A panoramic, standard and a telephoto or portrait mode. The technology involved in the manufacture of smartphone lenses is a compromise between focal length and sensor size to deliver the required magnification. The latest Apple iPhone has incorporated a ‘telephoto’ lens termed as a portrait lens but to achieve this they had to incorporate a smaller sensor as a shorter focal length is required to deliver the same magnification. Currently, Sony is working on a six-camera phone, the mind just has to boggle as the sky is not the limit. Previously I mentioned that I zoomed in to try and capture more of the weaver but realistically all that was happening is that the sensor was being cropped to produce a more magnified image.

The image was magnified but the result, shocking! Huawei today makes one of the most maligned smartphone cameras on the market, here I am mentioning the Huawei P30 Pro that incorporates the first optical zoom lens termed a periscope zoom in its design. I have included a video where the camera is physically torn apart so you can see this lens complete with its own sensor incorporated within the body of the smartphone. The P30 Pro has 4 separate cameras, termed quad-core, with its accompanying sensors in the design. In order for the periscope zoom to function across all the focal lengths it has a much smaller sensor than the primary 40mp sensor of 8mp. It has already been stated that in the future we may see optical zoom cameras with a range from 10 – 15x being incorporated, so keep your eyes on this space. (I would strongly advise that you watch the enclosed video below completely as the contained information is invaluable.)

The lens that is found on the Panasonic TZ8 is a LEICA DC VARIO ELMAR incorporating a 25mm ultra-wide-angle and powerful 12x optical zoom with a range from 25mm to 300mm. Even with all the technology that exists today an optical lens with this specification will never be able to be incorporated into a smartphone but just as earlier stated they could infringe. Smartphone cameras have come a long way since they were introduced so many years ago and have been blamed for killing the point and shoot camera market but in reality, they did kill the very low end of the market.

However, the market had to adapt to this and the production of cameras with super long lenses emerged. Sensor sizes also increased and I have to admit that there is not one smartphone camera that can compete with the image quality being produced by these cameras. The smartphone camera that I own is pretty average but it suits my needs perfectly and I do use the camera a lot but well within its limitations and will never attempt to use it again to take decent photographs although situation dependent is capable of doing so. In this article, the proof of the pudding was in the eating and I know that the images that I produced using the LUMIX compared to the Smartphone that I was using says it all.

The very real reason why I would not want to use even the latest and greatest smartphone camera is just the way it looks, feels and operates. After all, it is a very smart pocket computer that comes with a built-in camera and so it will forever be. Can it take beautiful pictures? Sure it can but personally, and I have to stress this, not for me. Horses for courses and God willing I will always have two. There are many accessories on the market today that will make the smartphone easier to operate and to keep steady such as an adapted gimbal or stand. This is really what it is, a smartphone with an added grip, gimbal or on a stand…

The biggest advantage that the smartphone has over a conventional camera is that you have it with you most of the time and when a photo opportunity presents itself you simply whip it out and fire away. What generally happens with these images is a point to ponder and would make for an interesting discussion and to repeat a statement that I previously made, ‘horses for courses’ and ne’er the twain shall meet. Ergonomically a smartphone camera will never compete with the joy of handling and creating images with a decent dedicated camera. The reason I can say this is based on my many years of experience being a part of the photographic fraternity and industry and long may it survive.

Lumix TZ95 Key Features

  • 20megapixel 1/2.3inch BSI CMOS sensor
  • 30x optical zoom lens, f/3.3-6.4, 24-720mm equivalent
  • 5-axis Hybrid image stabilisation 
  • 3inch tilting touch-screen, 1040K dots
  • EVF: with eye-detection, 2330K dots, 0.53x magnification
  • 10fps continuous shooting speed
  • 4K photo – shoots 8mp photos at 30fps
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity
  • 4K UHD 30fps video
  • ISO80 to ISO6400
  • 3cm macro focus
  • Available in black, or silver