I’m sometimes asked the question, “I have a (insert smart phone name here), why do I need a camera?” There really is no easy answer to that question. For some, the smart phone with its built in camera may be all you ever need. For others, the limitations of the smart phone may make it impractical for most or all of their photography needs. (A brief apology here for the length of this post.)
When I was growing up, almost everyone had a camera in their home. Probably the most common type was the Kodak box camera that used rolls of 620 film and, as often as not, it was loaded with a consumer grade black-and-white film. “Real photographers” (those who were making money in photography) were typically equipped with a large format camera on a heavy wooden tripod or, for field use, some type of medium format camera, possibly a Hasselblad or some type of twin lens reflex camera.
As time moved forward, the Kodak box camera was replaced by smaller, lighter cameras like the Instamatic line that used a smaller film format that was in a cartridge making loading much simpler. At the same time, the 35mm single lens reflex became more popular for professional photographers although the studio cameras and medium format cameras remained.
Today, many photographers have moved to a totally digital environment, a process that may gain even more momentum with Kodak’s recent discontinuation of even more film options. In the digital world, the type of camera used seems less important while emphasis has been placed on the number of megapixels (millions of tiny dots) that can be captured on a camera’s digital sensor and transferred to the digital storage media. We still see cameras that sort of look like evolutionary descendants of Instamatics (point-and-shoot cameras) as well as those that have camera bodies and lenses like their 35mm and medium format predecessors. As the initial question points out, we also have cameras built into our smart phones.
So how do you know whether you need a camera or if your smart phone is all you need?
The first question you need to ask is “What will I do with my photos?” If you will only display your photos in relatively small sizes on the web (places like FaceBook and Flickr) or print standard size photos (3” X 5”; 4” X 6”, maybe 6” X 9”), then the camera in your smart phone may be all you need. A five or six megapixel camera can easily fill these requirements. (The iPhone 4s has an 8 megapixel camera.)
Will you be taking photos where you are close to your subject or far away? In most cases, if we are taking photos of our children we can get fairly close. In this case, the smart phone camera may be okay (see the next question). If, on the other hand, you are taking pictures of birds or dangerous wildlife where you can’t get close, then you may need a separate camera with either a built in zoom lens or interchangeable lenses.
How active is your subject? One of the problems with photographing children is that they don’t seem to be still for very long. If your smart phone introduces any delays between when you push the button and when the photo is taken then action shots are going to be much more difficult. A separate camera virtually eliminates this as a problem.
There are probably other questions that you need to ask as well but these are some basics that everyone should consider. More importantly, take those photos and preserve the memories.