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Is It Time to Start Incorporating Smartphone Cameras into Our Work?

Published: 29/05/2019

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Over the past two or three weeks, I’ve been thinking about smartphone cameras, as my two-year term on my current cellphone will be expiring soon. The more that I started exploring smartphones online, the more those pervasive machine learning algorithms took hold and started bombarding me with smartphone-related advertisements. The one that got my attention was the new flagship smartphone from Huawei which has a camera that has four lenses, the most notable one of which is a 40-megapixel--you read that correctly--a forty megapixel sensor with an f/1.6 aperture and 26mm focal length. DxOMARK rates it as the best camera it's ever tested by far. A recent Fstoppers article even highlighted this phone being used to take shots of the Milky Way and passing meteors! On top of that, DxOMARK rated the phone as having the best video capabilities it’s ever tested, as well.

Interestingly enough, a few days later, I stumbled across an article about the advances in smartphone cameras and that Olloclips, a well-known manufacturer of attachable lenses and accessories for smartphones, has received the endorsement of the highly regarded adventure photographer, Chris Burkard. After getting over my initial surprise at reading this, this actually started making sense to me. After all, it stands to reason that with all the big name camera manufacturers each having a posse of professional photographers using and endorsing their products, we’d eventually see big name shooters start using advanced smartphones and related gear.

After reading these articles, I started wondering how long it would be until such smartphone technology began to permeate our work as pro shooters. Personally, I recently started to use my smartphone camera during scouting visits/walk-throughs with my architecture and designer clients. Snapping these photos allowed me to vividly remember the elements/features they identified in our discussion. It also gave me a chance to explore “first intuition” camera angles that came to me in that moment. As a matter of fact, at my last shoot, my client actually asked me to send her my smartphone shots so that she could review them and give me her thoughts on which shots she’d be most interested in having me pursue on the actual photoshoot date. This was the first time that I’d used my smartphone pics in this way and it ended up working beautifully, in this particular instance.

I've also been told by friends who do lots of videography that, with the rapid advancements in smartphone video capabilities, we're almost at the point where a videographer could use their smartphone with a Rhino Slider and make videos that would require thousands of dollars of equipment to produce, only a couple of years ago! In fact, I'd bet that there are lots of videographers out there right now either experimenting with using their smartphones for real estate videos or actually using one for paying clients.

So, what do you think? Do you use your smartphone in any way at an actual shoot? Would you be open to it regarding video? What do you see as any potential risks? If you're dead-set against it right now, what features/capabilities would you have to see to consider a smartphone in your work?

Tony Colangelo

27 comments on “Is It Time to Start Incorporating Smartphone Cameras into Our Work?”

  1. Why not? Does it really matter what box a camera is in as to whether we can use it? The only question I would have is does it do the job I want a camera to do? I have that same question for any camera I use and they all have good points and some iffy ones so why not cell phone cameras?

  2. Take your thought a step further...Don't think of JUST cell phones as just cell phones. We use them as wifi triggers. We use them as color proofing devices. And yes we use them to take pictures. We also use iPads for tethering, and on both devices we make basic color and cropping. Now there is software that allows sure post processing of RAW images. You can even upload the final edits to clients. Lightroom CC on an iPad runs faster than legacy LR because adobe is doing a lot of the heavy processing in the cloud.Wanna see something cool? Retouch a portrait on an iPad with a pencil on the Adobe App Photoshop Fix..AMAZINGLY fast. When Photoshop for the iPad will be released, the need not to buy the absolute fastest computer to do post will be liberating. NO, you can't do everything on an iPad, but you can do a lot. Files uploaded to LRCC can be edited on your big iron computer at home, while having access to all your images online...from your phone...welcome to the mobile workflow.

  3. A few things are still issues with cell phone cameras. Cramming more pixels on a very tiny image sensor (if they've actually put those pixels on the sensor and aren't just using some pixie dust reasoning to say that phone has a "40Mpx" camera) is problematic based on physical laws along with engineering limitations. Another issue is optics. With smaller optics, flaws are magnified. When you look at DXOmark for lenses that can take advantage of Canon's 50Mpx 5DS bodies, you quickly see that there aren't that many and Canon knows optics. I'm not sure how strapping some third party lens to a cell phone with a rubber band is going to beat a "camera" that has been engineered to align the lens to the body with a far bit of accuracy. Another issue is using flash/strobes. Somebody may come along with a product for an iPhone, but at $1,200, how does that iPhone compete with a real device that was designed from the ground up as a camera? Forget Android. Every manufacturer has they own quirks and for Yongnuo or another flash manufacturer to test a multitude of different brands and models is unlikely to happen. It would also mean some sort of cabling or Bluetooth communication.

    Video on a cell phone is the same as making photos only more so. Yes, it can be done and some people are good at it. Interiors, though, are some of the toughest scenes to do. Lenses are still an issue. Size is an issue. There is merit to devices that are human sized. The more things you need to hook to the camera, the more room you need for connectors without eliminating the possibility of mounting the camera to a tripod or stabilizer. Tiny connectors are more prone to snapping off of circuit boards bricking a camera. Battery life/external power hookups, heat dissipation, filters, etc.

    The amortized cost of a quality tool that being used a lot is tiny. Is the reason to use a cell phone based on cost? Size? Weight? Would you consider doing your editing on the phone too since it's a device you already have? It could save you $.50/job over a nice dual monitor rig with 12 cores of CPU and a fast bus. My equipment cost divided up on a per job basis is minuscule. I can move my standard kit from the car to the home in one trip without a back brace. It all packs in the trunk of a compact car along with all of the stuff in my non-standard kit that I don't bring in unless I need it.

    I do use my phone as a scouting tool on occasion, but almost never for RE. The nature of PFRE is that advancing a job is a very rare thing. If I were to visit an upscale home to work with a client on what images we needed to come up with for the marketing, I'd likely grab my camera pack and put a wide angle lens on my backup camera (small file sizes, but still RAW). I can torture those images like mad to knock down highlights and pull up shadows and still have something workable. My phone, not so much, but it works just fine as a phone, a note pad, a calendar, a calculator, etc. I can even record voice notes if I want to.

    The final reason I wouldn't start using a phone is the look. I could work around some of the technical limitations if I really tried, but not the social stigma. I could repair Ferraris with Harbor Freight tools, but my employer and co-workers wouldn't take me very seriously unless I was one of THE top mechanics for those cars and if I were, I could easily afford much higher quality tools so "what's up with this guy and these cheap A** wrenches?" I watched a show last night that featured a pair of photographers that were commissioned to make a coffee table book of the people that renovated Paddington Station in London. Their primary camera was a medium format Mamiya. Yeah, I notice these things, go figure. They were very good photographers with a long list of notable clients. They could show up with a less expensive and much smaller camera, but why? They've got the reputation. Very few non-photographers are ever going to have heard of Mamiya. It's a very high quality camera, they don't need it to be small enough to hide it in their coat and in the total scheme of things, the price was inconsequential. The fee they were paid to produce that book was probably enough to buy many more... and glass.

  4. @Wayne, how much bandwidth do you get with your cell phone plan? People have talked about being able to send images from the field to "the cloud" or to a home server/NAS and it would quickly use up all of the "unlimited" data allowance in a standard contract (around 22gb before throttling). What you describe sounds cool, but I've almost never done any critical editing in the field. When I did more journalism work, editing was verboten to start with and that would have been the place where mobile editing would be needed. I usually had to deliver images within 45 minutes of an event whenever feasible. You were to shoot in .jpg and deliver images SooC. I don't have the time in the field either. I capture the images and then head back to the office. On a busy day, I'll have the laptop ingesting images, applying presets and I might do some selects while I'm out or driving or doing the next job and that's it. I'm getting older and wearing my eyes out. My next pair of monitors will be even bigger. There is also more to a job than just making and delivering the images. There's invoicing, backing up and other chores.

    I've been doing some research lately on computer security and have seen how scary it is to use public Wi-Fi if you aren't using encryption from end to end. I don't think anybody would be all that interested in my RE photos, but they might want to do a little rooting around (joke) to see if I'm also accessing a bank account/accounting software which will have all sorts of banking information in it, etc. So many people leave their email on servers these days that getting access can be a nice present and lead to all sorts of other mischief. Yeah, a bit of paranoia, but I don't take candy from strangers either. How much bandwidth can you honestly get from a Starbucks if the router isn't all tied up?

  5. It is a certainty that as cell phones advance, at some point they will be not just suitable for Real Estate but GOOD at it. That is not good news, and I think we should not lead the charge to adopt cell phones as our camera of choice. I have seen my clients walk up to my camera and write down the make and model when they thought I wasn't looking. Of course they believed that they could buy the same camera and achieve the same results. They can't and I find it amusing. You better believe that if I was shooting with a cell phone, they would be buying the same model.

    But why in the world would we teach our clients that all is needed is a good cell phone to yield the images that we provide? When the technicalities of shooting are removed, all that is needed is a good eye. At some point, that is going to be the end of our industry. I am not in hurry to get to that point. I use a full frame Nikon DSLR, and a Godox 360 with external battery pack for my shoots. I like this rig, but in addition to providing great photos, it provides great marketing via its "wow" factor. My clients often comment on the rig, and how impressive it is. I started to switch to mirrorless (have 2) and less cumbersome flashes, but the wow factor isn't there - or at least not as much.

    The writing is on the wall - camera technology and software is rapidly advancing and the need for special skills is being reduced or eliminated. When it gets to the point that only skill needed is to hold a cell phone such that the verticals are correct, then we all be out of business.

  6. I am shooting my first pro video next week with lavalier mics hooked to my phone and a Smove gimble all my samples have turned out very nice, I am excited about this.

  7. Technology will make many of our current services obsolete. At some point what we think of as RE photography will be as relevant to real estate as the polaroid camera. That is why we need to make sure that our services keep adapting and moving forward.

  8. I don't think that any one camera is better than another - it's the skills of the photographer that count the most and how they use the tools of the trade of which a camera is only one. REP's can have several cameras - a smart phone, a DSLR, a mirrorless, a drone, a gopro dji, etc - each doing a different function for the job.

    However what concerns me is the brand of the phone you are looking at: The Huawei. Isn't that the phone from the Chinese company that has been accused of so much tech spying in the countries it sells products and services in? If it isn't sorry, if it is - I believe it could be an ethical issue for some people. in any case, my point is that the photographer creates his images based on his/her viewpoint and uses the tool that gives the best image with the least effort.

    We use smart phones not necessarily for the MLS images - but we use them for great video and social media when selling marketing tools to agents and creating our own marketing tools.

  9. What Wayne said. Also, while I would never want to use a phone for any "serious" photography, the fact is, depending on your process, they're probably good enough for RE. I'm amazed by the "dynamic range" my iPhone XS captures. I use quotes because it's not native sensor dynamic range, but the phone is doing a boatload of calculations to get that. Computational Photography, man...

    It's just that, the second you start zooming into the image... bleh! Also, all that computation goes into the jpeg/heif images, not necessarily the RAW files. So, post edibility is very weak compared to raw files from real cameras even 10+ years old.

    Also, Chris Burkard is definitely still using "real" cameras. I'm sure he's genuinely enthused by smartphone cameras and optics, but at the end of the day a smartphone is not going to grant you the same level of quality, control, or versatility.

    All that being said, there are RE photographers who are currently using smartphones for video. I know Jordan Powers does ( as does Tacey Jungmann ( It's something definitely worth exploring.

  10. "Is It Time to Start Incorporating Smartphone Cameras into Our Work?" The answer really depends on how you want to market your services. Personally I don't like smartphone lenses or the large format print quality they produce. Secondly, from a marketing perspective I don't understand why someone would want to include smartphone services on their offerings? Can someone answer this for me?

  11. Yes the cell phone is advancing really quick and probably could work. As a business, when you show up with your big professional DSLR and tripod (and even lights), does that not impress the Realtor and home owner? They see pro gear and can't wait for pro results. It's like asking a bride for $3000 for shooting her wedding and showing up with a cell phone. It's being professional and giving the client the best product possible.

  12. Mike Cartwright wrote: "...The writing is on the wall – camera technology and software is rapidly advancing and the need for special skills is being reduced or eliminated. When it gets to the point that only skill needed is to hold a cell phone such that the verticals are correct, then we all be out of business."

    Several others have espoused the same sentiment here and elsewhere.

    I think that for some people, this is true. If all you're bringing to the table is the ability to push the right buttons on an expensive camera (focus, color, exposure), and maybe run some sort of formulated brackets through a digital meatgrinder, then yes -- technology has already made you largely obsolete. The technical aspects of an interiors photo can be completely automated at this point. "Camera Operators" are not likely to fare well in the future. But "Photographers", who can compose photos outside the constraints of a formula, who can think about an entire SET of photos while crafting the one in front of them, and who are more focused on the art of what they do (with a solid foundation of the technicals), are not so easily replaced.

    This fits nicely with another recent topic on this blog, the "Race to the Bottom". If your clients can't tell the difference between your photos and the cheaper photographer's work, then the fault is really yours. You are either trying to sell a Ferrari to someone who only really needs a Honda Fit, or else your work is really not any better than the cheap competition.

  13. Google purchased the Nik Collection in 2012. I read an article written by the developers of the Nik Collection in May 2017 when they stopped developing it. They have since sold it to DxO. The article was about developing the same software for Cell Phone use. The goal was to create the perfect image before you clicked the button. I have looked for that article and similar ones and have not found anything. Looks like they have succeeded or are close to it. My advice for real estate photographers is to diversify your services. Between the outsource companies advertising for the agents to send their cell phone images to them and developing the perfect cell phone camera professional real estate photographers are in trouble. Just like I was one of the first of two real estate photographers 20 years ago in my area I certainly hope I am around to be the last one too.

  14. When a cell phone can sync additional lighting I will use it. I'd love to have a camera the size of a phone that can do it. I think that lighting and composition are more important than the camera. The camera is part three of the equation.

  15. I shoot with my DSLR for stills and show up with all the bells and whistles, but I use my phone for video. This is fairly typical: as is this: (except for the aerials of course). I went the cell phone route when I discovered the Movi and Moment lenses. I also realized that physically a full rig wasn't something that would work for me. I can move faster and more creatively with a small rig. 90% of my effort goes into story-telling rather than building muscle mass (-: Will I ever move to a big rig... I'm not sure ... I have an A7III and Pilotfly Adventurer sitting on my desk asking me the same question! One other query ... are we judging "pro" just by size, or by cost, or by the person using it? When I add up the Iphone XS Max, Movi Cinema Robots, and all the lenses ... I'm at about $2800. I'm completely upfront with clients about what I use and why I use it. They like the results.

  16. A phone camera is a tool, in many ways superior to cameras of a few years ago. Personally, of there is a home on a hill and I want a slightly elevated shot, I'll mount my cell phone on a painters pole, run it up 15 feet, use voice command to shoot, and incorporate it into my stream. Works great.

  17. I found an agent that uses their iPhone for their listing photos today. Want to guess how I figured that out? Yep, there's a photo of it in a bathroom mirror. The entire gallery of images are also very poor so while it's possible to make a reasonable image with a cell phone, it's not all that hard to make very poor ones as well. With the top end iPhone going for around $1,200, it's not much of a bargain over a mid-priced mirrorless.

  18. I can imagine the look of an agent's face if I walked into a million dollar home, pull out a cell phone and start taking photos. You've got to be kidding. I might as well bring my guitar and start playing. For that matter I probably should put on a clown costume to complete the act.

  19. I've shot my last five dozen videos with a Galaxy S10 and Zhiyun Smooth Q. None of my clients (luxury apartments) or viewers have commented on the difference in quality from my GH5 / 7-14mm / Zhiyun Crane.

    My purpose for using the phone was to encourage my advertising clients to conduct real-time interactive video tours of apartments with prospective renters. Next step is teaching them how they can get very acceptable photos using a smartphone with a wide angle lens, a gimbal and an app.

    Some of you are going to be shell-shocked by how quickly disruptive technology obsoletes your very considerable skills.

  20. I think this is an interesting topic and one with many opinions. I re-read all the posts and I am struck by the rather rigid approach many pro's have to equipment. Sure, the more professional equipment a photographer has, the more up to date it looks, the more of it often, the more it adds to the perception of a pro so the money being charged appears more justified. Good for branding and client confidence. That being said, having the highest end equipment does not guarantee anything but high costs to the photographer. A good photographer can take great shot with almost anything although he/she has to accept tighter limits of what they can shoot and how. I have had a client stand alongside me with his full frame Nikon with a lens that I would l have to mortgage my house to buy, and then ask me why his shots don't look like mine since he has better equipment and the same Photoshop that I do. My reply, couched in as diplomatic language as I can find, is "its the photographer, not the equipment".

    Personally I have never formed a love affair with my equipment, even the old Nikons from the 1960's although I have to admit some affection in the deeper recesses of my heart even though they are mainly used now as door stops along with my Hasselblad system. Instead I see equipment as a tool to achieve the images I want to take and I will make sure the ones I am using will do that. Including my GoPro 5 Black which I can use to rise up under water in a pool, spa or water fall. Something I never use my Sony or Canon for. So can a cell phone with a great camera take pride of place in my camera bag? Well probably not anytime soon, but that does not mean that if it will do something my other gear does not, I might just use it, add it or buy one with current bells and whistles.

    But these things are just things that achieve the image we have in our heads where they should be, as Scott so correctly points out, taken first, then by the equipment. Otherwise you are putting the donkey before cart. Or is it the other way around? Or is it a horse? Well never mind. We just must pick the right tool for the job. Not the job for the right tool or we limit ourselves. Frankly the only thing I use my cell phone for on shoots is as a remote monitor and/or controller for one or more of my cameras. Either that or my tablet which generally works the same way and gives me a bigger picture. And then only when my monitor does not fit the bill. I even prefer the tablet for use with my drones since I can actually read the read outs. Useful that.

  21. @Wayne Capili I never thought I'd say "seriously Adobe, wtf are you thinking?!!", but that day has come.

    There isn't much point to having a full version of PS CC, if we are forced to work with a substandard version of LR Mobile. It's the bottleneck in the workflow now.

    There are 2 very annoying dealbreakers with LR Mobile-
    - you can't sync adjustments across multiple images at one time using the IOS version, instead of WorkFlow, they have created WorkClog with it.
    -even more annoying is that you can't export back to a card, and even if you upload to Cloud, LR mobile doesn't seem to interface with LR CC, and the desktop version of LR Mobile lacks the features we use that speedup productivity, another dealbreaking bottleneck. I don't see a feature in LR CC that lets you access the cloud.

    I find it unbelievable that Adobe, who's reputation is built and based on productivity and workflow, has shortsightedly created excitement about... a cluster__k of an imaging traffic jam? C'mon, are they smoking crack down there these days ?

  22. @ Kelvin --- perhaps you should consider the possibility that you aren't as familiar with Adobe's new offerings as you think you are.

  23. Be sure to do your research on the phone companies. Google just pulled Huawei's Android license.

    The Chinese telecom giant may have run into its biggest trouble yet in 2019. Late January saw the US Justice Department unsealed indictments that included 23 counts pertaining to the alleged theft of intellectual property, obstruction of justice and fraud related to its alleged evasion of US sanctions against Iran.

    The core issue with Huawei has been concerns about its coziness with the Chinese government and fears that its equipment could be used to spy on other countries and companies. It's the reason why the US banned companies from using Huawei networking equipment in 2012 and the company was added to the US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List on May 15, following an executive order from President Donald Trump effectively banning Huawei from US communications networks.

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