Last night, as my wife navigated our family vehicle down the interstate, I was perusing Flipboard on my phone. I was on The Shot by The Photo Desk and came across this question: “How long before the phone finally kills the camera?” I stared at my phone for a minute before moving onto the comments.
Why is this argument a big deal? Why are there such vitriolic responses on both sides of the argument? I really think it is because people really want to find innocuous things to bitch about. Before I move forth on my thoughts on this matter, I want to move our timeframe back to the late 70’s and early 80’s and before. There was a similar situation going on in the photographic world since the age of film began, but I am going to look at 135 format (35mm) and 110 format (the freaky little cartridge).
Back in the dark ages before the Logitech Fotoman (the first commercial digital camera, 1990) and the Kodak DCS-100 (the first commercial digital SLR, 1991), there was film. The vast majority of film used throughout history was the 135 format film, good old 35mm. It was a product that was targeted at both professionals and amateurs, much like DSLRs and ILCs are today. High end professionals used Large and Medium format film, which many still do up to this very day (digital medium format is still in its infancy in comparison to DSLRs). So there was a clear Professional market with product, an amateur market that over lapped with the professionals and the third market, consumers.
The average consumer, with no artistic or commercial desires, simply needed cameras to document their lives and preserve memories. Most houses without a “photographer” in the family did not have a interchangeable lens SLR. They had simple point and shoot cameras. In the 80’s and 90’s these cameras started to have power zoom lenses with auto focus, but before that they were simple, set focus, set aperture, set shutter speed cameras.
The vast majority of photo prints from the 70’s would have been made with these simple cameras. The quality wasn’t the best, but the 135 format allowed for large enough negatives to make for descent 4×6 and smaller prints. These are what the average consumer used. These and other, smaller format cameras that made toting a camera around easier were what John Q. Public shot their family photos with.
One of the bigger developments in film formats came in 1972 when Kodak released the 110 film cartridge. There were other sub-35mm formats around, but 110 became the almost standard micro format film on the market. The Kodak Pocket Instamatic was released in step with the film. It was small enough to slip into the pocket of some jeans, it featured auto exposure which ensured descent exposure, and came with the name Kodak, which at the time was a mark of quality.
The Pocket Instamatic and its rapidly appearing cousins from other manufacturers made photography more accessible and oftentimes, more affordable. There was one drawback, which remains to this day. The 110 format, at 13x17mm, created negatives that were ¼ the size of a 135 negative, which was about 36x25mm. When the same scene is captured, 110 film, had ¼ the resolution of the same scene shot with a 35mm camera. Add in the fact many of these 110 cameras had plastic lenses, and there is a notable drop in quality from 35mm.
Not only did the 110 format have a smaller surface area than 135, they used the same film stock. There was no difference between Kodacolor 100 when it was spooled onto either format, outside of the way it was cut and perforated. So, even with a smaller image area, 110 cameras were exposing the same size silver crystals. This increases the apparent grain in a print four times over that of a 110 print.
So considering only the negative size, 110 created images 4 times worse than the average 35mm point and shoot camera. Even with equivalent lenses, 110 would never surpass 135 in quality. Considering both 110 and 35mm point and shoots were mass produced to equivalently crappy standards, no one in their right mind would have used 110, right?
But people did, in droves. There were a few 110 cameras sitting around the house when I was growing up. Hell, a 110 was our family camera until I was 5 and my dad dropped the cash on a Minolta Maxxum 7000.People loved these cameras and cherished their prints. People loved the portability and convenience of 110 cameras.
The limitations of the format did not preclude people from making legitimate art either. The above photo, by Matthew Paul Argall, is an intriguing 110 image taken just this year! 110 is just as legitimate for art today as it was then.
Many photographers of the era had a Pocket Instamatic for those quick shots that would pass before they could get their medium format gear out of the trunk, or before they could break their SLR out of the bag. Did the limitations of the format impact the art? Yes, but image performance does not have a large bearing on artistic aesthetic. A photographer who knew what they were doing could get the most from the limited format. Minolta and Pentax both created 110 SLRs for this audience. It was good enough for the needs at the time.
So what was the point of this historic diatribe? This is not the first time that that has been a photographic solution that was inferior to other available at the time. Hell, today nothing much is going to outperform large format 8×10 Ektar. Phone cameras will not replace digital cameras . . . ever. 110 never supplanted 135. They existed, to this day, in tandem. APS couldn’t even nock off 110, it is decades newer but already dead.
My proposal is that the cell phone is the new 110 camera. My iPhone is my Pocket Instamatic. It fits the same role; small, fits in a pocket, and takes a dependable picture. While it is technically inferior to a $200 USD point and shoot its performance is much closer than 110 ever came to 35mm.
Honestly, the pictures a phone camera takes are pretty damn good now days as well. I have printed hundreds of 8×10 prints from my iPhones, they look good. Do they look as good as my 8 year old Canon Rebel XTi could have done? No … not even close. As compared to my dearly departed Sony A7? No freaking chance in the next 10 yeas will a Android, Apple or any other phone will even approach that quality. Why?
Because physics, that’s why. A finite amount of light pours through a lens. A smaller sensor, even with the same amount of pixels, will absorb less light photons. Les photons absorbed means less fine detail and more blurring. A 10 megapixel full frame sensor will generally make better images than a 10 MP APS sensor, and so on down the line to the smallest sensors, which tend to be cellphone cameras.
Just because the sensors are technical inferior to sensors 10 times their size does not mean the camera phones make bad images. The key is here is the photo quality is not as good! It can still be excellent, but generally a better camera will take a better image in the same scenario. But if the iPhone is what you have on you, it will take the best picture you can at that time.
So, the smartphone cameras of today are equivalent in purpose to that of the lowly 110 camera of yesteryear. They are designed to be the ultimate in convenience. But you can sent your image to the world and call your mom with an iPhone. The 110 did not afford you those luxuries. And the fall off in quality of image from a good DSLR to the iPhone’s 8 megapixel sensor is nowhere as near severe as the quality fall off from 35mm to 110 was.
In closing, the trade off is quality for convenience. But the lower quality is still pretty damn good. You can print 8x10s all day from an iPhone, A good number can be printed larger as well. Mobile phone cameras can create legitimate art. But many dismiss what a mobile phone camera takes as a mere snapshot. I’ll bitch about “snapshot snobbery” next time.
Have a Great Day!