How the iPhone 13 Pro became my only digital camera

I’ve been taking pictures with cell phones since August 2003, when I bought a Nokia 3650, one of the first camera phones sold in the US. and occasionally Android.

But in a way, I’ve never taken phone photography so seriously. Mostly I saw it as a digital equivalent of using a disposable camera: something that had more to do with quick and dirty convenience than artistry. When I was taking pictures that I really cared about, I was using a digital camera optimized for image capture and nothing else. Since 2019, that has been my FujiFilm X-T30 mirrorless camera.

The arrival of the iPhone 13 last September felt like a trigger to rethink my instincts. Many of the internet’s insta reactions to Apple’s latest iPhones and their camera features declared them to be fake — pointing out that photos taken in decent light didn’t necessarily look much different from those taken with previous iPhones. However, I was intrigued by the photography upgrades of the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. They include macro capabilities, a new 3X zoom, and improved sensors that let in more light.

In other words, the 13 Pro phones were designed to be better at shooting things that were close or far away, or that were obscured by dim lighting — exactly the kinds of limitations that would lead me to shoot with my X-T30. shooting instead of with my iPhone 11 Pro. (I’ve been shooting all my videos on smartphones for years, so the iPhone 13 Pro’s video upgrades, while welcome, didn’t predict a big change in my habits.)

[Photo: Harry McCracken]When I bought an iPhone 13 Pro a few weeks after its release, I decided to go all out. !) in the Bay Area, and photos taken for work. And I did it all with my new iPhone as my only digital camera.

It’s been over nine months since I took a picture with the X-T30. Here are some things I learned – interspersed with images from my iPhone 13 Pro.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

1. Photographic basis is always the most important

If your hand shakes when you take a photo, the image will likely be blurry. Okay, that’s one of the most obvious photography tips ever and applies to every camera ever made. But when I took pictures with a smartphone, I rarely stopped to remember it because I wasn’t in a serious frame of mind. Now that I am, I hold the phone more gently, pay more attention to composition, and generally do all the little things that add up to make for better photos. They work!

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

2. It’s worth digging into Apple’s camera settings

When it comes to its own apps, Apple has a reputation for being unfavorable to customization. It also disables settings to the iPhone’s Settings app, where it lists its apps in a really mysterious order. (All I know is there are two sections, and neither is in alphabetical order.)

I’ve found more pleasure in imposing discipline on my photography, even when the technology doesn’t.

For these reasons, it’s easy to forget that the Camera app has any settings at all. But it does — and they give you a surprising degree of control over your shooting experience. You can ditch Apple’s HEIC file format for the much more widely compatible JPEG, set the default portrait mode to 2X zoom instead of 3X, and even tell the Camera app to keep the settings until you tell otherwise – so it’s always in the black opens. white mode, for example.

In the Settings app, you can also select one of Apple’s “photographic styles” such as Rich, Vivid, or Warm. These presets remind me of the X-T30’s ability to emulate a variety of FujiFilm film stocks.

Of course, if you’re the type of person who loves advanced features, you might be drawn to a powerful third-party iPhone camera app like Halide or ProCamera. I’m glad they exist, but I don’t really bond with them. For starters, Apple won’t let you set a third-party camera app as the default, so it’s hard to avoid its own app altogether. On the other hand, while many camera apps beat Apple’s in terms of sheer features and manual options, I haven’t found one whose interface I like as much as Apple’s.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

3. You should be taking (or at least keeping) fewer photos

For anyone who grew up shooting 35mm rolls of film with 36 exposures — and paying to have them processed — the essentially unlimited photo capacity of a smartphone is incredibly liberating. Or at least, that’s how it used to feel. These days, having 93,970 photos in iCloud feels like a burden; the gems are outnumbered by shots that are unremarkable or just sloppy. And there are many instances where I have 47 small variations of the same scene because, well, there’s no reason not to keep pressing the shutter button.

But lately I’ve found more pleasure in imposing discipline on my photography, even when the technology doesn’t. When I’m capturing a dim sum outing with friends, I’d rather have a dozen gorgeous photos than 300 that exhaustively document the meal. So I take fewer photos – then try to remember to go back and delete all the photos I don’t like.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

4. Taking a lot of pictures is a battery drainer

One of Apple’s most welcome upgrades in current iPhones is their improved battery life. Shooting in moderation is unlikely to run out of juice. But on days when I’ve been firing with devotion, my 13 Pro’s battery has taken a workout — and on a few occasions it’s gotten dangerously close to zero. Unlike a conventional camera, the iPhone and all its closest rivals don’t allow you to trade in a new battery; the best thing you can do is bring an external battery. (I bought one from Anker with support for the iPhone’s built-in MagSafe charger.)

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

5. Camera Phones Still Have Ergonomic Issues

When “the best camera is the one you have with you,” it’s hard to beat smartphones: thanks to their portability and versatility, we almost always have them with us. But while photography is one of the most important functions of a phone, phones still don’t feel like they were designed primarily as cameras. (There have been occasional exceptions.)

Pressing the shutter button on an iPhone’s screen can jostle the phone and blur the photo you’re taking, and while you can use the physical volume up button instead, it’s not particularly well-positioned for that purpose. . I also miss the firm grip of my FujiFilm when holding my iPhone. And because the iPhone camera bump is on the edge of the phone, I still occasionally snap a photo with my fingertip visible in the shot.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]All in all, it’s easy to see why several companies have come up with mechanical shutter button housings for iPhones, making the phone feel a little more like a classic camera.

6. I miss my “real” camera less than I expected

Smartphone cameras have not achieved absolute parity with conventional cameras. My FujiFilm X-T30 has a lot more megapixels than an iPhone, which is useful when I want to crop an image without getting something that looks too blurry. It accepts interchangeable lenses, such as zooms, that go well beyond the 3X range of the iPhone 13 Pro. If I carry a camera bag full of lenses and futz with manual settings, I can still get results that my iPhone can’t match.

And because the iPhone relies as much on advanced computer science as it does on fancy optics to display images, there are times when the photos I get are a little overworked. I worry that future phone photos could look even more synthetic – and I hope that Apple and other smartphone companies don’t immerse their future camera phones in an AI overload.

[Photo: Harry McCracken]In short, I’m not arguing that the fact that I haven’t used my X-T30 in months means that the iPhone 13 Pro has made it obsolete. Still, I’ve never felt any great regret for leaving it at home. Between the capabilities of the iPhone and my new thoughtful approach to how I shoot with it, I have all the cameras I needed.

Will I ever pick up my FujiFilm again? Pretty sure – hey, I still use Polaroids. There is a certain joy in using a device that does one thing well; and smartphones are by definition not such a device.

Still, I came out of this experiment with a new favorite camera. That it’s also a phone, game console, e-book reader, voice recorder and much more is just a bonus.

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