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Your Phone Isn’t The Only Camera You Need

Anyone who follows me on social media knows just how much I am into photography.  My friends often make fun of me that I’m always “packing” a camera whenever I go anywhere, but this article published in the Wall Street Journal provides a good case for my antics.

By Geoffrey A. Fowler

Smartphone-makers, touting photos of models frolicking in the sun, have been on a campaign to convince us they’ve got the only camera we need. They’re wrong.

Phone cameras have made photography everyone’s hobby. But even owners of the fanciest smartphones would recognize the many genres of disappointing phone-ography: The blurry runaway toddler. The lifeless landscape. The grainy candlelit dinner. The ghoulish flash portrait.

We need to save personal tech’s most endangered species, the stand-alone camera.

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The iPhone 6 Plus shows the whole scene in equal focus (making it flat), while the NX1 lets you blur the background to make the gargoyle the center of attention.

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On a recent vacation in Paris, I ran an experiment that only the family of a tech columnist would tolerate: I took all my photos twice. I snapped once with an iPhone 6 Plus, the current giant of camera phones that costs $750 without contract, and then again with the $1,500 Samsung NX1, a breakthrough camera that combines interchangeable lenses with the smarts and simplicity of the mobile revolution.

When I look through my Paris photos, the majority worth printing, posting or showing off came from the dedicated camera, the NX1. What makes them better? They tell stories. They capture drama in low light and can zoom into the action. The details are crisp, and the backgrounds are soft, so your eye knows just where to look.

There’s no arguing with the fact that smartphones are the most convenient way to capture a spontaneous moment. But my Paris experiment convinced me that dedicated cameras, whose sales have been in a tailspin since the rise of smartphones, have the potential for a resurgence among the legions who have gotten hooked on photography and now want their shots to look better.

After years of ignoring the smartphone threat, many camera-makers have new models that, like Samsung’s NX1, are easier to use, touch-screen operated, lighter weight, weatherproof and (finally!) connect to the Internet so you can share shots instantly. For new parents, vacation adventurers and globe-trotting retirees, there’s good reason to spend $500 or more on a camera that’s not your phone.

In full daylight with nothing in the foreground, my iPhone and Samsung shots weren’t dramatically different. But in other circumstances, I witnessed the difference between capturing the fact of a scene and the emotion of it.

This matters when you’ve climbed 400 steps to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, like I did last week. Once you’ve caught your breath, you can get up close and personal with some pretty gnarly gargoyles keeping watch over Paris. When I dangled the iPhone 6 Plus over the ledge, I captured what I’d describe as an awesome snapshot of a creature in a vista. But the image is flat—it’s hard to focus on the expression of the gargoyle amid the detail of rooftops and the sparkle of the Seine.

But my shot from the NX1 looks, as one friend commented on Facebook, like that gargoyle is about to come alive and dance around with the Hunchback. The creature’s mottled skin and snarl are in sharp detail, but the Paris vista behind him is in soft focus. His gaze captures just enough Eiffel Tower to suggest sinister designs. If my vacation had its own movie poster, this would be it.

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The iPhone 6 Plus may capture all the facts of the room, but the NX1’s shallower depth of field gives the chandelier a soft background, making it the star.

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Inside the temple of excess that is Versailles, my flat iPhone shots suffered from the same problem as me: What do I look at here? But seen through the NX1’s intentional background blur, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to decide between chandeliers, paintings and mirrors. The photo is about the chandelier, which feels close enough for a swing.

Camera geeks call this effect a shallow depth of field. It’s produced by better lenses and requires a camera sensor that’s large enough to capture it. (The smaller the image sensor, the less you can shorten the depth of focus.) The NX1, which has an APS-C sensor like entry-level Canon and Nikon DSLRs, makes it easy to put just a few inches of a portrait in sharp focus. A phone in the same situation just can’t.

The larger sensor also made a difference in capturing the City of Light after dark. A portrait I took of a friend at dinner in a dim brasserie looks blotchy and a little hazy from the iPhone, but rich and vibrant from the NX1. Both cameras use a relatively new technology called backside illumination to make them more sensitive to low light. But the NX1’s sensor is nearly 13 times larger, allowing it to drink in more light. It’s the difference between collecting rain in a Dixie cup and a bucket.

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The technical challenge in daylight photography isn’t detail, it’s conveying depth. The iPhone 6 Plus version looks like a snapshot, while the NX1 photo belongs on the menu.

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The impact was even more evident when I stepped out onto the street to photograph the Eiffel Tower at night. With the NX1, you can read the words in a nearby neon sign while still making out the tower’s steel beams. (Cameras like my favorite pro model, Canon’s 5D Mark III, have even larger sensors called full-frame that can photograph in the near-dark.)
So why don’t phone-makers just put bigger sensors in their cameras? A few, including Samsung, have tried. But bigger sensors require bigger lenses—and once you’ve done that, your camera, I mean phone, doesn’t fit in your pocket very well.

A few weeks ago, Apple bought camera-technology company LinX Computational Imaging, which has a sensor-array technology that the startup said offers the quality of a stand-alone camera without the bulk. That sounds intriguing, but Apple typically takes a while to integrate technologies it acquires into its phones.

Sensor size aside, the NX1’s shots bested the iPhone’s because its powerful lens took me places I couldn’t get on my own. Zooming on most phones makes images get blurry quickly. You can improve phone photos with snap-on lenses, but even the best of those can’t compare with the wide-to-telephoto zoom lens I used on the NX1. Atop Notre Dame, I couldn’t frame my favorite shot of the trip—an angel shushing a gargoyle—without a wide-angle lens. The iPhone only captured half of that conversation.

And there’s also the issue of motion. The NX1’s extra-fast autofocus and mechanical shutter—up to 1/8,000th of a second—helped me capture action scenes, like a busker creating giant bubbles I happened across in front of Hotel de Ville.

Now to address the elephant in the room: Who wants to lug around a pachyderm-sized camera? After all, the only reason I got another favorite Paris photo—a father and daughter sharing a late-afternoon stroll—was because I could pull my iPhone out quickly. By the time I hauled out the NX1, the moment had passed.

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The iPhone 6 Plus struggled with this Eiffel Tower night scene. The Samsung NX1 easily captured the City of Light.

I was glad to have the iPhone camera for spontaneous or intimate moments that might have been ruined by a big lens. But these days, it isn’t a camera that brands you a tourist—it’s a big, honking selfie stick.

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An iPhone 6 Plus took this photo in Paris—in part because it was easier to pull the phone out and shoot quickly than it would have been with a full-size camera.

The good news is that cameras are getting smaller, easier to use and smarter. The NX1, winning rave reviews among photo pros, is a prime example of the ascendant “mirrorless” category. They lack the internal prism and mirror that makes traditional SLR cameras chunky.

Samsung’s NX1 is particularly noteworthy because it was designed and built by the company’s mobile division—and borrows a number of phone technologies that make it more fun to shoot. You can tap a spot on its touch screen to focus and snap. It has lots of different knobs and dials for the pros, but plenty of automatic modes that help capture the split second your little leaguer’s bat hits the ball. (The biggest downside is that all these bells and whistles required me to recharge its battery each night).

And there are cameras designed for other purposes and places a phone can’t handle—be it exploring a coral reef or zooming in on Fluffy hiding under the sofa. And the newest pro-level point-and-shoots look less conspicuous than traditional cameras, but let you capture beauty no smartphone ever could. My colleagues and I tried out more than a dozen of the newest models, all of which now include the ability to transfer photos via Wi-Fi.
If you can see the difference in the photos I’ve talked about here, then it may be time to graduate to better tools. What you lose in having to carry around more bulk, you gain back in the ability to turn your world into art.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com or on Twitter @geoffreyfowler.


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