The Rise of the Cellular Phone Camera

by Jeffrey Sward
Click here to view Personal Observations on the Death of Silver-Based Film Photography and Silver-Based Printing
Click here to view Converting Color Film Negative to Positive Using Photoshop by Removing the Orange Cast
Click here to view Digital Camera Sensor Size Comparison Chart

The Rise of the Cellular Phone Camera

As of 2011, more photographs are now taken with cellular phone cameras than with all other types of still cameras and camcorders combined.  From which it can be concluded that:  

  1. The vast majority of consumer photographers cannot discern quality and/or convenience is more important than quality
  2. There is probably nobody left who actually uses a cellular phone for the purpose of making phone calls

Quite a few articles are now appearing which extol the virtues of a cellular phone camera as serious equipment. There is some question of whether or not the cellular phone camera will eclipse the point-and-shoot camera or even more serious equipment. All other things being equal, larger sensor sizes will generate better images, and the sensor size in a cellular phone will always be minuscule compared to any dedicated camera. Two interesting points of view are emerging. Examples of the two views include The rise of the camera-phone (Stuart Jeffries) and the Camera Phones Will Not Make Point-and-Shoots Obsolete (Matt Braga).

The emergence of cellular phone digital photography has made a camera a constant companion for millions of people who always carry a cellular phone but rarely carry a camera. In addition, most cellular phones also have have instantaneous upload capability for social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook. The ubiquitous presence combined with instant social uploading has vastly increased the number of casual and banal images created, often captured for ephemeral upload only. As recently expressed by Nigel Farndale: "photography, once a noble art, has become, thanks to the move to digital, a mental illness."

The smart phone is becoming good enough much of the time. Consumers who use their mobile phones to take pictures and video [are] more likely to do so instead of their camera when capturing spontaneous moments. But for important events, single-purpose cameras and camcorders are still largely the device of choice. -- Liz Cutting of NPD Group, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times December 22, 2011.

The Decline in Consumer Image Quality Amid a Cornucopia of Capability

We're in an unprecedented age when, as a culture, we're actively and willingly regressing on image quality. We have tools incredibly advanced DSLRs and fine optics that can take sharp, clear photos, and motion clips at higher resolutions and bit rates than ever before. We can do more with those images and videos, yet collectively the "it's good enough for the web" and "it's fine for YouTube" mentality is becoming a prevalent. -- Christopher Robinson, "Confusing Tools With Talent And Craft," Outdoor Photographer, August 14, 2013

During the last few decades of the silver film era, the typical consumer image quality rose dramatically, largely due to development of both better film emulsions and the 35mm consumer point-and-shoot. Professional image quality only rose slightly in the same time period, due only to better film emulsions At the beginning of the digital era, consumers converted much sooner than professional. Early consumer digital camera were inferior to consumer 35mm point-and-shoots, and there was a precipitous drop in consumer image quality. Professional generally only switched to digital when professional level cameras became available. However, digital point-and-shoots with moderate sized sensors were soon developed which exceeded the image quality of 35mm point-and-shoots for typical consumer usage. However, consumer only embraced digital point-and-shoot until cellular phone cameras became ubiquitous Consumer cellular phone camera image quality is a regression to much lower quality In a sea of digital image capabilities, we have chosen intentionally poor image quality, a major irony.

Reduced Image Quality and Fewer Tools Suffice for Most Consumers

The following are scenarios where the quality difference is the biggest between a modern smart-phone camera compared to a real camera

  1. Low light
  2. Portraits with shallow depth of field
  3. High dynamic range scenes like sunsets
  4. Telephoto
  5. Sports & wildlife with fast auto-focus
  1. Normal folks (meaning people who are not photo enthusiasts) do not want to carry an extra camera, particularly for situations which most often happen during a night out.
  2. Many people use the fake depth of field applications and think the rendering is nice.
  3. High dynamic range applications are used and give really nice results (not my words, don't shot the messenger).
  4. Normal folks seldom need telephoto.
  5. Normal folds seldom shoot sports and wildlife and seldom need fast auto-focus.

I have a hard time motivating my friends to carry a real camera.

-- User lattesweden, comment under article "Nikon cancels DL compact series citing high development costs,", February 13, 2017 [Edited for clarity and removing abbreviations.]

Cellular Phone Vernacular Images Become Slang Communication and Hence Reduce Interest in Photographic Quality

And of course none of these channels [print magazines] can compete with the stream of vernacular images and video that one can find through Instagram and Snapchat. Taking better photos has always been a niche concern—and it has become even more so as photos have become a kind of slang communication. - Allen Murabayashi [1]

In a world where every smart phone is a camera, consumers simply are not going to be as interested in the latest camera equipment, and other information related to photography. The tech websites frequently discuss photography – at least as it concerns camera phones – and the web provides plenty of alternatives to the traditional magazines. -- D.B. Hebbard [2]

Pick at most two: good, fast, cheap

The classic project management constraint triage of cost - time - scope to quality to options for choice in image making tools. Reducing any of cost, scope, or time without increasing any other constraint reduces quality. The ultimate result is at most two of good-fast-cheap can be had for any given situation. Cellular phone cameras s fast and cheap. Dedicated cameras are good.

project quality triangle

Immediate Access to Social Media Increases Cellular Phone Camera Appeal

Cellular phone cameras often seamlessly integrate with social media applications. This seamless integration allows the user to very rapidly upload an image just taken to various social media platform. The trade-off is speed at the expense of quality.

Comparison Chart of Image Quality by Era

  Consumer Professional
Era Typical Camera / Media Relative Quality Typical Camera / Media Relative Quality
Instamatic film Instamatic - Kodacolor - Ektachrome - Tri-X Moderate 35mm professional or medium format film- Portra - Ektar - Ektachrome - Tri-X Excellent
35mm point-and-shoot film 35mm point-and-shoot - Kodacolor - Ektachrome - T-Max Good 35mm professional or medium format film - Portra - Ektar - Ektachrome - T-Max Excellent
Early digital First generation consumer digital Poor 35mm professional or medium format film - Portra - Ektar - Ektachrome - T-Max Excellent
Mid digital Digital point and shoot (optical zoom, moderate sensor size, etc.) Very good 35mm full frame digital <= 16mp first generation Excellent
Cellular phone digital Cellular phone Moderate 35mm full frame digital >= 16mp second generation Outstanding

Cellular Phone Camera and Digital Camera Image Comparison

The following comparison images were taken with a Motorola Atrix cellular phone camera and a Canon 5dii camera.  Both images are of the same model, from the same distance, in similar lighting conditions.  Both original images encompass the model head to toe. Each image was cropped to show the same view of the control patches, gray card, and model. Each of these cropped versions was edited to match the color tones as closely as possible, but without any other processing.  No noise reduction was done with either image. Both cropped and edited images were resized to 400 pixels high. The 400 pixel high images were sharpened for web use.

Comparison Photos Motorola Atrix and Canon 5dii
Camera    Motorola Atrix    Canon 5dii
ISO   100   100
Shutter   1/100   1/80
Aperture   f/2.8   f/6.3
Full image size in pixels   1944x2749   3744x5616
Pixels in original crop   566x746   1060x1424
Pixels in crop as resized for web   303x400   298x400

[1] Murabayashi, Allen. "Don't Mourn Popular Photography." Mar 7, 2017.

[2] Hebbard, D. B. "Bonnier Says It Has Shuttered Popular Photography and American Photo.", March 8, 2017.

Wong, Katy. "The Rise of Smartphone Photography." Discovery, Cathay Pacific, 13 Aug. 2019,


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