Is “Best Smartphone Camera Ever” Simply Best Camera, Period?

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

The title may have the words “best smartphone camera ever,” but the case is slowly, methodically and cleverly being made that the iPhone is the “best camera ever” – no qualifier – for a growing number of people and situations. There are many reasons why it just might be, but often overlooked are the iPhone’s relationships to old school photography, like “Sunny 16” and Henri Cartier-Bresson. What? Read on.

This is an awfully long article about Apple's latest iPhone World Gallery initiative, prompted by a short piece asserting that the iPhone 6 may be the best smartphone camera ever.

Call me inspired.

The iPhone 6 – in the right hands – can produce stunning photos. Not stunning “smartphone” photos. Stunning photos. Period.

Just take a look at this page on Apple’s web site.

How can such a very limited device – it’s a phone, for Chrissake – with a single, fixed focal length lens (4.15mm) and a maximum aperture of f/2.2 do so much?

I mean, beyond the obvious engineering, software eco-system known as the App store, and all of the rest.

There's a really, really good and non-obvious answer to that: the iPhone is the cutting edge embodiment of “old school” photography — or as they might say in German, “alte schule.”

Sunny 16, Cartier-Bresson and More…

It’s time to trot out and dust off one of the greatest rules of thumb for photography — “Sunny 16” – and then apply it to the iPhone 6.

And to legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s first Leica, the Leica I with 50mm lens, purchased in 1931 (by the way: the very first Leica I (Model A) of 1926 had a non-interchangeable, fixed length 50mm lens).

Cartier-Bresson’s first Leica, the Leica I with 50mm lens

Cartier-Bresson’s first Leica, the Leica I with 50mm lens Source: Wikipedia


The “Sunny 16” Rule

Back in the days before digital, every box of 35mm film I ever purchased had an exposure cheat sheet called the “Daylight Exposure Table.” I don't even know if they still have them today.

It was Kodak’s expanded version of the “Sunny 16” rule of thumb which basically says: on a bright sunny day with the light falling directly on your subject, set your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed to the inverse of your film speed (1/ISO).

This is less important now that we have unbelievably sophisticated light meters, but back in the day, this was a pretty useful guide.

In the Exposure Table below with ISO 200 film, for example, the closest mechanical shutter speed to the inverse of 200 is 1/250, ergo the suggested exposure: f/16 at 1/250. As less light is available, the suggested aperture setting widens.

Hold that thought.

Emulsion Speeds Back in Cartier-Bresson’s Day

It takes more than a couple of minutes to determine what 35mm film speeds were back in the 1930’s, but we do know that 35mm Kodachrome was introduced in 1936 with an ASA of 25 (Kodak Tri-X in 35mm wasn’t introduced until 1954) and Agfa’s Isopan ISS replaced Superpan in 1935 with a DIN of 19 or 20 (equivalent to an ISO between 50 and 100).

By comparison, the iPhone 6’s tiny digital sensor has an ISO range of 32 to 2,500. At the upper end (yes, noise and all), that means the iPhone 6 has a 4+ stop advantage over Cartier-Bresson's tool of choice, responsible for some of the world's greatest images ever recorded.

“Sunny 16” and Film Speed Applied to Cartier-Bresson Back in the 1930’s

So: take “Sunny 16”; apply it to an ISO of perhaps 100, and there you have it: Cartier-Bresson was probably very familiar with shooting around 1/125th of a second at f/16, perhaps dropping down to 1/30th of a second at f/8, in his early days.  These settings would have had been the basis for sharp and contrasty images — or just a little bit of motion blur. He didn't have to worry about fiddling with focus.  He didn't have to worry about soft corners or lateral chromatic aberration at first, either.

Hold that thought, too.

Why else is f/16 interesting?

It happens to be the nearest f/stop to the iPhone 6’s f/2.2 maximum aperture full frame equivalent: f/15.4.

Let's continue.

Field of View on a Leica and the iPhone 6

A standard 50mm lens on a 35mm camera like Cartier-Bresson’s Leica 1 offers a field of view of about 40°. A 35mm lens on a 35mm camera – also considered a standard or normal focal length lens approximating the field of view of the human eye — opens that up to 54°. And at 29mm, the field of view opens up another 10° to 64°. I'm going to assert that 29mm is the hairy outer edge of “normal.”

What’s so special about 29mm?

It just so happens to be the full frame focal length equivalent of the iPhone 6’s 4.15mm lens.

So what does THAT get you?


Depth of Field on a Leica and the iPhone 6

The hyper-focal distance (the closest focusing distance at which the depth of field reaches to infinity – i.e., the image remains sharp) for a 29mm lens on a 35mm full frame camera at f/16 is 6’ 1”, with the foreground going out of focus for anything closer than 3’ 0.”

For Cartier-Bresson’s 50mm lens, hyper-focal distance would have been about 18’, with a near focus limit of about 9’ – pretty much perfect when combined with a normal or close-to-normal field of view for street photography, landscapes, and this:


The iPhone 6’s 4.15mm lens, sensor quality and auto-focus speed make it even MORE perfect for the exact same things,  like these:

Shot by Brendan Ó. Source: Apple iPhone World Gallery

Shot by Brendan Ó. Source: Apple iPhone World Gallery


Shot by Gabby K. Source: Apple

Shot by Gabby K. Source: Apple iPhone World Gallery


Shot by Jirasak P. Source: Apple iPhone World Gallery

Shot by Jirasak P. Source: Apple iPhone World Gallery


So as a camera – just a camera, forget about all the technical advances — the iPhone 6 is remarkably similar in optical function to the way one of the world's greatest photographers probably set up his Leica in actual practice.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that in the right hands the iPhone 6 is capable of similarly brilliant images.  Or — at least technically — better.  WAAY better (though I admit to a fondness for overly contrasty, grainy B&W images myself.  Oh, wait – so do a bunch of other folks.  There are plug-ins for that!).

A Couple of Other Things

OK, we do have to talk about software for a moment, as in: you can no longer talk about photography WITHOUT taking about software, whether it be intelligent auto-exposure; tracking auto-focus; chromatic aberration correction; noise profiles; or panoramic stitching – just to name a few.

Yes, software matters.

And we do have to talk about that fact that most images are displayed on small screens with limited dynamic range and ability to smoothly show fine gradation.

All of which minimize the iPhone 6’s weakness and maximize its strengths.  And the Leica's too.

Oh – and low light? Most low light scenes are less low-light than you might think. Times Square at night isn’t exactly dark.

The iPhone’s high ISO limitations are not real limitations for most people.

Putting It All Together: One Thing

The world is rich with incredible images from devices that don't hold a candle to the iPhone (or a Samsung, for that matter, or any number of other smartphones).  And I can tell you that just a couple of days ago, my iPhone 6 blew away my trusty Canon S90 — blew it away! — in early morning light.

If you forget for a moment that a single iPhone 6 has more processing power than the computing machine that the Brits used to break the Enigma code in World War II – and an eco system of thousands of software developers; an enormous cash horde to develop anything Apple wants; and the continuing tracking of Moore’s Law – it really boils down to one thing.

For so many, many people and situations, the iPhone 6 already IS the best camera ever, because it was designed for and marketed to be just that — with an uncanny resemblance, when all is said and done, to Cartier-Bresson's first Leica.

It is, in the end, the Leica 1's true spiritual heir.

Truly, unbelievably brilliant.

Oh, right: I have no affiliation with Apple whatsoever, other than the piles of money I’ve spent on their stuff.

Is iPhone 6 the true spiritual successor to Cartier-Bresson's Leica? Click To Tweet

Apple Makes Compelling Case for Why iPhone 6 Has the Best Smartphone Camera Ever

Via Techvibes:

Apple's homepage is now homage to the power of its iPhone 6 camera, showcasing a gallery of stunning photos taken around the world on the company's smartphones.

“People take incredible photos and videos on iPhone 6 every day,” writes Apple. “See what’s possible with the world’s most popular camera.”

Read this article at Techvibes “Apple Makes Compelling Case for Why iPhone 6 Has the Best Smartphone Camera Ever”


 Note: it is our policy to give credit as well as deserved traffic to our news sources – so we don't repost the entire article – sorry, I know you want the juicy bits, but I feel it is only fair that their site get the traffic and besides, you just might make a new friend and find an advertiser that has something you've never seen before 

(cover photo credit: snap from the Techvibes)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
Hugh Brownstone

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