It seems that compact digital camera sales aren’t so strong lately, and it’s probably because an increasing number of people are using smartphones as their main photography tool when they’re on the go. I wrote ‘smartphones’ out of politically correctness, when in fact I should just have written ‘iPhones’. Anyway, the trend is completely understandable: the iPhone 4 and 4S are equipped with good quality cameras, but more importantly they are devices you always have with you; they’re light, pocketable, convenient. It’s undeniable, and since I got my first iPhone (a 3G), I certainly have shot a healthy amount of digital snapshots with it. On some occasions, when I didn’t have any other camera with me, I was able to capture a few good moments with my iPhone 4, moments which I would have lost otherwise.
However, the iPhone hasn’t yet completely replaced my compact digital camera and isn’t likely to (at least in the short-medium term). Why? Here are some quick observations.
It’s true, the iPhone is always with me and it’s the sleekest, lightest and most compact camera I’ve ever had, but it’s not the quickest or the easiest to handle. With the iPhone it’s practically impossible to shoot one-handed. You have to hold it steady with one hand and touch the shutter button with the other, especially in portrait mode (which is, I believe, the preferred orientation for many people). Also, the combination of the iPhone’s shape (the iPhone 4/4S’s even more than the 3G/3GS’s), the position of the camera lens, and the Camera app’s interface forces you to hold the iPhone somewhat delicately in your hands. You certainly do not experience the same firm grip of a traditional digital compact camera. Most of these cameras are designed to provide a comfortable grip that often allows you to shoot one-handed and simultaneously keep the camera steady. I still carry with me a relatively old 7.1 megapixel Nikon Coolpix 7600 which is very compact but despite its compactness it can be handled firmly and reliably with one hand:
Yes, the screen is ridiculously small compared to the iPhone’s and not as dense or brilliant, but for street photography my little Nikon is actually handier. It’s rugged enough so it doesn’t need a carrying case. When I see a scene I’d like to capture, I might only have a few seconds to shoot it (subjects are in motion, or other subjects might enter the frame, ruining the shot, or maybe it’s me the one in a hurry). I’ve found my Nikon to be faster and more precise on these particular occasions: I take it from my pocket, turn it on while already pointing it towards the scene, quickly frame and shoot. All with one hand. With the iPhone I could never be equally fast and accurate.
Don’t get me wrong: the iPhone is a good photography tool and has plenty of other advantages over a regular digital camera, especially over a seven-year-old digital camera like mine. With all the photo apps available in the App Store, you can easily adjust and edit any snap you take directly on the device itself, and of course you can instantly publish it online or share it in a number of ways. But when speed is of the essence, and/or maybe I only have one free hand, I reach for my Nikon.
Other features most traditional digital cameras have and iPhones have not, usually make me choose the camera over the iPhone even when I can take my time to shoot something or I can use both hands. I’m talking about things like an optical zoom, a good macro mode, and the ability to manually change certain parameters like white balance. Sometimes the iPhone is the best device available but maybe not the best per se for taking the photo I want. Conversely, sometimes I take a great picture with my Nikon but I can’t wirelessly upload it somewhere or share it with other people on the fly. Simply put, it’s a matter of choosing the right tool for what you intend to do. That’s why I personally don’t mind having a second device with me most of the time. For me, the quality of the results still wins over sheer convenience.