created 10 months ago | Tagged:
Sometime in the last year, I gave up on carrying a camera. My phone is compact, quick, has the ability to share photos directly, and, at least to my eye, produces photos that are nearly comparable to my $700 interchangeable lens camera. In most contexts, I stand by that — on Facebook, in iPhoto, or on Instagram, my iPhone photos look fine. Great, even. But one thing I noticed when I first used a Retina iPad, which automatically pulled in my old iPhone shots from the cloud, was that these "good enough" photos looked awful. Grainy, blotchy, and even kind of blurry. Evidently the new Retina MacBook has the same effect. Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, says it's driving him back to his DSLR: As part of my 2012 computer-setup shuffle, I also replaced my laptop with a Retina MacBook Pro, and the first thing it screams for is a high-resolution desktop wallpaper. Great, I thought, I’ll just use one of my photos. (On my desktop, I use a solid gray background, but on my laptop, I like to have a bit of fun. And it would be a crime to put a solid gray background on that screen.) Almost nothing I’ve shot since 2010 is usable. He's so disappointed with his cellphone photo quality that he's migrating back to a Canon 5D Mk II, which isn't just a nicer camera, it's one of the nicest consumer cameras ever made. The Retina MacBook is a premium product for now, but few doubt that Apple, and other computer manufacturers, will move to Retina-grade displays across the board. It's just a matter of price and time. This is great in all ways but one: it's going to make our photos look like crap.
Cellphones shoot relatively high-resolution photos, but do so with a much smaller sensor than a dedicated camera. This means there's less room on the sensor for each pixel to gather light, which means there's more noise in the photos. And then there's the issue of optics — a dedicated camera will be shooting through a larger, more expensive lens, which ensures a level of sharpness that it's hard to get with a smartphone's tiny optical system. In other words, while photo resolution is the same, photo quality is much lower.
I, and millions like me, have tolerated the lower quality of smartphone photos because it's rarely been visible, at least since the iPhone 4/Droid/Evo era. (That's when the "the best camera is the one you have with you" pro-phone-camera sentiment really took off.) And with current screens, you have to blow the photos up, as above, to even see these imperfections. Put an iPhone 4 photo next to an S90 photo at a typical display resolution and you can't really tell the difference: