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Why the Best Camera for Beginners Isn’t Their Phone

A common piece of advice for photography beginners is to use your phone to take images, as it’s a powerful camera in the right hands. I used to give this advice too, but after a lot of thought, I realized I was wrong.

After reading Usman Dawood’s article “Here’s Why the iPhone Is the Best Camera for Beginners,” I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In my comment on that article, I said I had broadly said the same thing, just swapping “iPhone” for “modern mobile phone,” as many manufacturers have malleable and intricate camera applications. But even with the addendum, the point wasn’t sitting comfortably anymore. So, I broke the statement down into its constituent parts to see where the problem was hiding.

It certainly isn’t that the cameras in the latest mobile phones aren’t good enough; they are, and with the right apps, understanding and add-ons, they can be damn near a professional standard tool for creating still images and videos. I didn’t even feel uneasy with the absolute term “best,” as I’m sure a phone camera is the best for many people; it’s always with you, it’s multifaceted, it has lots of other functionality, and so on. So, by the power of deduction, I must be taking umbrage with the word “beginner.” But why?

On the face of it, a modern (or even reasonably modern) mobile phone’s camera — with the aforementioned extras — is perfect for beginners in so many categories. For one, it doesn’t require you to fork out any money, as you’ve probably already got one. Two, you can have a lot of control over the camera and its settings. Three, it’s highly portable, and as it’s always on your person, you’re likely to shoot more. Dawood goes over a host of other positives for the camera in your pocket, and I’m sure there are plenty more neither of us have mentioned. And yet, I don’t feel it is the best camera for beginners. It wasn’t until just this morning I could fully unpack why that is, and it was hidden in a popular article I wrote last year: “Am I the Only Photographer Who Prefers Heavier Equipment?”

In this article, I discussed how much I loved shooting with the Fujifilm GFX 100 and GFX 50R, combined with the 110mm f/2 while doing street photography, despite it weighing a whopping 2.4 kg (5.3 lbs). I went on to write one paragraph which was unexpectedly poignant to the question at hand and why I no longer agree with my own advice:

Even if I shoot an incredible image with my mobile phone, I don’t enjoy the experience. I don’t feel I’m plying a skill or engaged with the moment, but with the medium format Fuji and a lens that weighs 1kg/2.2lbs on its own, I did. I had that camera in my hands for days on end as I walked thousands and miles around Tokyo, taking several thousand images. The tactile experience gave me a similar sensation to what I have felt when shooting on different film bodies: you’re involved and everything is markedly more satisfying.

I realized that Dawood is exactly right, and so was my old advice: the best camera for beginners is their phone, but only on paper. What I had forgotten is that honeymoon period when I got my first SLR. The clicks and the whirs of the dial, the clap of the shutter, and the blink of the viewfinder. Then there’s the thrill of the exploration of focal length, the gasp at the bokeh from your first f/1.8 lens, and the feel of the process. At best, this is missing from mobile phone photography, and at worst, it’s faked by algorithms and sound effects. My current mobile phone camera obliterates my first standalone camera in pretty much every metric you can measure them both on, but I would have never have fallen in love with taking pictures had the two have traded places.

In actuality, I think a phone camera is an invaluable tool for all photographers, particularly those at the start of their journey into photography, as it can teach you a lot that was previously knowledge gated behind books and more difficult trial and error. What I don’t think, however, is that a phone camera ought to be the only camera someone interested in photography owns and uses, as it misses out on vast swathes of the experience. It has many of the same results, but without the romance. It’s a simulation that’s useful, abundant, and educational, but it’s incomplete. Algorithms can and will fake everything a phone camera can’t physically do, and some day soon, it’ll be with such accuracy you can scarcely tell the difference between those images and the real thing, but that’s just it: it won’t be the real thing. It will be devoid of that tactile process that produces something intangible along with its images and that has had photographers continually clicking for over a century.

To summarize my position, phone cameras are the best cameras for many people, but for beginners to photography with a genuine interest in the medium, they are only the best on paper. They work superbly in a supplementary role and as a learning device. They’re even great for capturing images when you don’t have your dedicated camera with you or perhaps have forgotten your wide-angle lens. But if you’re a beginner who thinks they could love photography, do yourself in favor and pair that little device in your pocket with a standalone camera that can immerse you in the act of making photographs. Its value might not be justifiable on paper, but it will become apparent and might be the difference between a waning interest and a lifelong love affair with the craft.

Do you agree? Am I off the mark? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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