Last Updated on January 17, 2021 by Jose Barrios
Every year a new bigger, better, and with more megapixels phone hits the market, and every year they say that the DSLR and mirrorless cameras are dead. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The harsh truth about smartphone cameras
The bottom line, they can’t take high-quality photos, at least not at the moment. It’s not that I dislike them, I have one in my pocket right now and I use it all the time to take photos for my Instagram account.
Smartphones are practical and I use them in daily life, they are just not good for professional photography.
The limitations of a smartphone for use in professional real estate photography can be summed up in the following: sensor size, pixel size, lens size, and the lack of external flashes.
Small sensor size
A smartphone camera sensor is about 20 times smaller than a full-frame DSLR sensor.
A full-frame 35mm DSLR or mirrorless sensor is about 864 square millimeters, while one of the largest smartphone sensors on the market today is only about 43 square millimeters.
Smartphone sensors being as small as they are considered crop sensors, so they capture less of an image and rely on very wide-angle lenses in order to fit the image on the sensor. This introduces a lot of distortion.
Small sensors also perform poorly when lighting conditions are not optimal, like in a poorly lit room, this is due to small pixel size.
Pixel size is too small
Camera makers and smartphone manufacturers always boast about how many Megapixels their cameras have, and even though more megapixels is usually better, it is not the most important factor for producing high-quality images, pixel size is.
Tiny sensors have tiny pixels, and pixels are what captures light on the sensor, the smaller the pixel, the harder it is to capture light. It’s like capturing rain in a cup vs a bucket.
To put this in numbers, pixels are measured in micrometers (microns, using the ‘µm’ symbol.), a full-frame sensor can have pixels over 8 µm in size, smartphone sensors don’t even make it to 1.5 µm.
Bigger pixels result in more light collection that in turn results in higher dynamic range, and better performance in low light, this allows for taking photos in dark situations without producing digital noise.
Smartphone manufacturers will do digital noise reduction in the background. This produces images that look good on a small screen, but when enlarged lack sharpness and can even look slightly out of focus.
Last I heard the laws of physics are still valid, and this applies to light and optics too. The tiny size and simplicity of smartphone and action camera lenses mean that they cannot manipulate light in the right way to produce a high-quality image. These tiny lenses lack sharpness and boke and usually have poor performance in low light.
Tiny lens + tiny sensor = poor low light performance
The way smartphones get around the small lens limitations is by digital manipulation. They add a lot of sharpening and tend to saturate colors so they can produce images that look great on a small phone screen, but, when observed up close, are not that good.
If you are interested in what lenses are good for real estate photography, you can read my guide here.
No external Flash
As far as I know, there are no remote flash triggers for smartphones, so external flashes are out of the question because you have no way to trigger them, and external flashes are a must-have for real estate photos.
If you lack an external flash you will not be able to window pulls or flambients, severely limiting your options when it comes to taking real estate photographs, especially when faced with poor lighting conditions.
Cheap consumer cameras are dead! Long live the smartphone!
Smartphones have managed to kill off one segment of cameras, and that is inexpensive consumer cameras, the type you buy in a kit at Costco. They are big, clunky, and kind of expensive when you consider that your smartphone can take photos that are almost as good as something that fits in your pocket.
But the big question for real estate photographers, or any other professional photographer for that matter, is our profession dead?
The answer is no it is not! Taking the photo is only half the battle, knowing what angle to use, what looks good, how to solve problems like rain, cloudy skies, or color casts, and then post-process them in Lightroom and Photoshop.
“What can I say? I love taking photos of houses.”
Based in Orlando Florida, Jose is a real estate photographer specializing in vacation homes, working for realtors and property managers to make their properties look great. You can visit his site at JoseBarriosPhoto.com.