Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Joe Rosensteel

Have you considered using a camera?

A hedge of jasmine in bloom.

Look, there’s no interesting Apple news. We’re all waiting on tenterhooks for the big hardware announcement so we can find out the only thing anyone cares about: Will the 15″ MacBook Air come in a chip configuration that supports two external displays? While we wait for that—and only that—to happen, we might as well take advantage of this spring weather and go outside to shoot some photos. Snap some pics. Record those photons.

I’ve been on a little bit of a camera hardware kick, as you could tell from my last, thrilling post about tracking camera information with spreadsheets. But something also seems to be in the air (along with the pollen), because the fellas over at the Accidental Tech Podcast have been talking about cameras for a few weeks. Additionally, there’s a simmering dissatisfaction that people seem to have about the over-processed nature of their iPhone photos, and some hand wringing about iPhone camera modules for this September.

Perhaps it’s a good time to take a step back. Rather than just thinking about photos, what about taking a bunch of ’em? Open that closet and get out that neglected SLR, DSLR, or point-and-shoot from yesteryear. This isn’t just some sort of luddite “it used to be better” thing. This is also to make you appreciate what a magical little device your iPhone is. I am deeply uninterested in pitting the iPhone against other cameras, but feel the need to remind people that they’ve got some options in their life, and there are no wrong answers. (The images I’ve included in this story are unlabeled, resized to typical social media resolution, and stripped of metadata.1)

For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to talk about cameras that take SD cards, as that is basically 20 years worth of cameras, and SD cards are the easiest things for most people to deal with. You can spend $100 to buy and develop a single roll of Kodak Gold if you want that warmth two to three weeks from now, but let’s try for some immediate gratification first.

Charge the battery, pop in a SD card, and have an SD card slot or adapter ready to receive your photos. Personally, I recommend making the investment in Apple’s Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader. You can, of course, use any other SD card reader you’re comfortable with, but I find that having the reader at my side is easiest. Don’t waste your time with Wi-Fi apps—they’re always a terrible experience, and making the attempt will ruin your fun photo adventure.

But Joe, you say, won’t an old camera have—gasp—a low resolution? Yes. However, you’re not using these images to print a large-format photo mural, and up until the iPhone 14 you were only working with a 12 MP sensor, anyway. Chances are good that you’ll uploading the end result to a failing social-media company to data mine details of your life from, and they’ll show the images at much lower resolutions. Even early six megapixel cameras can get good images—you just can’t crop in a lot. Lower than six is a little iffy, but gen Z would say it’s very aesthetic. Some people really lean into what are generally considered to be defects.

Prime time to kit zoom

If you’re taking a camera out with you, odds are it either has a built-in zoom lens, or an interchangeable lens mount that came with at least a kit zoom lens. Maybe you also picked up some other lenses once upon a time. I find, personally, that it’s helpful to at least have a zoom lens with you. Just bring two lenses at most. You’re not trying to take up juggling.

Another reason I recommend bringing a zoom is to do a little back and forth comparison with your iPhone, and it’s the fastest way to hop around a range of focal lengths. It can also help you get an idea of what you do and don’t like about your lens(es). You can quickly google your iPhone model, and “35mm equivalent” to get the answers you seek (or divide the 35mm equivalent number by the crop factor for your sensor, such as 1.5 for APS-C), but here’s the info for the iPhone 13 and 14:

  • iPhone 13 “wide” lens: 26mm on a full frame (35mm) camera, 17mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera
  • iPhone 14 “wide” lens: 24mm on full frame, 16mm on an APS-C sensor camera.
  • iPhone 13 Pro and 14 Pro “telephoto” lens: 77mm for full frame, 51mm for APS-C
  • iPhone 13 Pro and 14 Pro “ultra-wide”: 13mm on full frame, 8mm2 on APS-C.

Again, this isn’t about generating an A/B comparison library to quiz your friends with. It’s just to build an personal understanding of how things translate.

On a later date, move on to the lenses that can do things your iPhone can’t do. Like the 70-350mm lens for my Sony that is equivalent to a 105-525mm zoom on a 35mm camera. Great to take photos of birds, or the moon with. Eat your heart out, Samsung.

Get in the zone

Photo of an Auto Zone sign with high contrast highlights

Get in the zone Auto Zone by walking around with your hand holding the camera grip, not just letting it dangle from your neck and bounce off your stomach every time you take a step. Head somewhere with some flowers, interesting shadows, varied textures, something that makes you think “what if I drew a little rectangle around that and it was a photo?” This might trigger some muscle memory from the last time you used that old camera.3 There’s no shame in auto modes, either, if you’re a little rusty—but try and go back and see what settings the camera picked and whether you agree with it.

This is where plugging in the SD card to your phone can come in handy in 2023, because you can more accurately assess the image the camera took on an iPhone screen. All camera screens are garbage, even new ones, when compared to the iPhone’s display. Your iPhone will give you the most accurate view of what you shot. When you get used to a camera, you can use the bad display to make relative judgments, but don’t assume that your photo will exactly look like that. This is very true when it comes to evaluating lens glare/flaring which might not look like much on the crappy display.

The mascarpone coffee drink from Loquat Coffee in a glass with a stainless steel spoon on top on a bright yellow table.

Shoot a couple shots with your iPhone too. Any photo you take will have metadata, and you can apply that to your older camera’s shots that might not have location data or accurate time. Also, while shooting, consider using one of the many third-party camera apps (like Halide or Obscura) to make the same kinds of shooting adjustments you were doing on your camera.

The aperture stuff, as it relates to bokeh, is going to be different, but it’s going to be the same as it relates to light hitting the sensor. The blur is based on distance of the object to the sensor, and sensor size, not just the amount of light coming in. This is why Apple invented Portrait Mode. Feel free to shoot with that too. Don’t take photos of wine glasses, and while it’s gotten better at handling some subjects, it’ll still cut off an ear or do weird stuff with drinking straws, even though it’s not as bad as before.

Photo of an iced matcha latte in a clear plastic cup with a black straw. The drink is on a wooden table, and a hedge is behind.

You’ll also notice, after being in the zone, that even at relatively similar exposures your images will have different dynamic ranges and tonality. The iPhone does some tricks to boost certain subjects, and drop those blown-out skies… and your old-school camera is probably not doing any of that. Also, your camera might have a larger sensor than the iPhone, but that sensor might be very old, limiting the potential range between the brightest brights and darkest darks it can record. Images may wind up looking more like slide positive film, but with an unpleasant highlight roll-off. Try shooting RAW and exposing for the highlights in your image (or using exposure compensation to force it down a notch), then take up the darkest parts of your scene in post if you want. Camera companies also added adjustment features to help boost the darkest areas too in-camera. Look up things like Nikon’s Active D-Lighting, Canon’s ALO, or Sony’s DRO, etc.

Lower range can also be something you can lean into in creative ways, like purposefully silhouetting subjects, or letting shadows completely fall away. Your iPhone will try to make everything a bright, even tone with some contrasty edges and highlight pops. Sometimes it looks a lot like what your own eyes are seeing, and other times it can appear a little boosted. But maybe what you really want is just to direct the viewer’s eye with your exposure—in which case, you’ll have to use a third-party app to control that exposure. I do wish the default camera app had exposure compensation.

Backlit street light on the right hand side of the screen in daylight. Record store facade with rough stucco on the left.

Working for your work of art

The big thing that you’ve probably noticed from shooting stuff back and forth between the camera and the iPhone is just how much more effort and thought needs to go into your camera shots. Even if you’re using a third party iOS camera app, it’s still doing a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Your camera, mostly as a product of its age, is going to be hella slow.

It also means having to manage a lot of settings that you weren’t previously thinking about, and dealing with files you didn’t have to bother with before.

Ask yourself if any of it would be improved if you changed something about that camera, like a different lens, or getting more familiar with settings and modes. Maybe it’s the circumstances you used it under. Was it daylight or night? Is it a crappy underwater camera that you should only use at the beach? Do you like everything about the lens and shooting experience but wish autofocus was snappier? There are solutions to these problems, sometimes even with relatively inexpensive used equipment from KEH, MPB, or the riskier eBay. Maybe just rent something from Lens Rentals.

Even if you put the camera back in the closet, I hope this experience has reminded you why the iPhone is such a popular camera, and why every year people clamor for even incremental advances in the ever-deepening camera module. Despite objections about “over-processing” images, it’s doing a lot of work you’d manually have to do. For being a camera for everyone, and every situation, it has to put on one hell of a show.

But sometimes it can just be a little fun to shoot with something else on the side.

  1. Cameras used in this post include an iPhone 13 Pro using both “wide” and “telephoto” cameras, a godawful underwater camera from Panasonic called the DMC-TS25 with a 16 MP type 1 CCD sensor that only shoots JPEG released in 2013, a Nikon D3200 DSLR with a 24.2 MP APS-C CMOS sensor shooting RAW released in 2012 with the 18-55mm kit zoom lens, a Nikon D40 DSLR with a 6 MP APS-C CCD sensor and even worse 18-55mm kit zoom lens, and a Sony a6400 mirrorless camera with a 24.2 MP APS-C CMOS released in 2019 with the 18-135mm kit zoom lens. 
  2. LOL. 
  3. I’m sure a large majority of the people reading this bought the cameras to take photos of their newborn babies and gave up, but pretend you used to be artsy. 

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

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