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  • Patrick Stoll

The Best Camera?

Updated: Mar 28

We’ve all heard the cliché about the best camera – that it’s the one you have with you when you need it. It may be a cliché but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. In the last couple of years, I’ve developed some real appreciation and respect for the one camera I almost always have with me.

Mt Jefferson
Image made with a 6x7 cm medium format film camera on backpacking trip in Oregon's Mt Jefferson Wilderness many years ago.

I have been making photographs for over 40 years. Like anyone who has been making pictures that long, I started with film cameras. Taking it to an extreme, there was a time when I used a medium format film camera with 3 massive interchangeable lenses. It’s hard for me to imagine now that I used to carry that monster with me on backpacking trips. Combined with a medium weight tripod, the camera gear alone probably weighed more than the backpack I use for most trips today. Once I accepted (and then grew to appreciate) the inevitable, I made the switch to digital.

I have also been a runner for about as long as I’ve been making photos. I can’t begin to count the number of times I wished I’d had a camera with me on a run. About three years ago I decided that the camera on my smart phone was better than nothing. I bought a small pouch that slips over the belt of my water bottle carrier. Since then, I have developed a huge amount of respect for the image quality and capabilities of my iPhone 12 mini.

Logger Creek pond in Boise, daho
Panoramic photo made with iPhone 12 mini

These days, I wouldn’t go for a run (or a hike, bike ride or car trip) without my iPhone. Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of times when I rely upon the larger sensor, manual controls, and longer focal length lens of my traditional digital cameras. The little iPhone has just become a compliment to my other gear. Recognizing its limitations, my main frustration is the same issue photographers have been confronting since the earliest days of landscape photography.

Yaquina Head Ligthouse
The dynamic range of this scene was beyond the ability of my film camera to capture it accurately.

Landscape photographers often work with scenes that have a wide dynamic range. In other words, the range between the light tones (highlights) and the dark tones (shadows) can be very wide. Imagine a beautiful coastal sunset illuminating the evening sky while the secluded cove where you are standing is in shadows. One of the amazing things about our vision as humans is that we can usually see the entire range. The same is not true with film or a digital sensor. If you expose for the highlights, the shadows will be too dark. If you expose for the shadows, the highlights will be blown out and have little, if any, detail. For years, photographers used a number of tricks to try to overcome this limitation and capture as much of the range in a scene as possible. Using graduated neutral density filters or making a number of exposures and blending them together in an imaging program like Photoshop were two of the most common techniques (many of the digital cameras on the market today have a High Dynamic Range setting built in that can perform the latter function though not without certain drawbacks). There is another tool used by most landscape photographers today that can do an even better job of expanding dynamic range (more on this in a moment).

Yaquina Head Lighthouse
This is how I saw the scene. To create this image of Oregon's Yaquina Head Lighthouse, I made two separate exposures (one of the sky, the other the cliffs and rocky beach) with my medium format film camera, digitized the transparencies, and painstakingly blended them together in Photoshop.

Returning to the problem of dynamic range, my iPhone 12 mini has a feature that is intended to address this issue. It is referred to as “Smart HDR 3” (many other smartphones offer a similar feature). The feature relies on the incredible power of the phone’s imaging processor to make a number of different exposures and blend them together to make one properly exposed photo with the tap of the shutter. The results are often very impressive. The biggest problem with this feature is that, under certain conditions, it can introduce artifacts such as halos or other elements that, upon closer inspection, look more like a painting than a photograph.

In trying to deal with the dynamic range of this setting, the Smart HDR of my iPhone 12 mini has introduced artifacts around the leaves of the trees. As the photo below indicates, this is particularly noticeable in the upper right corner.

Earlier I mentioned another tool that allows photographers to expand the dynamic range of their photos. This involves capturing the image as a RAW file as opposed to a JPG or an HEIF (the file format Apple uses on its iPhones)). One of the best explanations for RAW files appears on an Adobe web page titled “Raw vs, JPG: Which format should you shoot in?”. Here's a partial quote from that page:

A RAW file is lossless, meaning it captures uncompressed data from your camera sensor. Sometimes referred to as a digital negative, you can think of a RAW file as the raw “ingredients” of a photo that will need to be processed in order to bring out the picture’s full potential. As you might expect, the tradeoff for these detailed files is that RAW files are quite a bit larger than JPEG files. Still, most professional photographers shoot in RAW because it gives them more information to work with in the post-processing phase. For more, click here:

Given how useful RAW files are, you might think that all smart phones would have the ability to capture images in that format. Unfortunately, that is not the case. While there are now a few very high-end smart phones that offer the RAW format, most do not. This is certainly the case with my iPhone 12 mini. Fortunately, there are camera apps that can replace the camera app that came with the phone and enable RAW capture. The one I purchased for my iPhone is the Halide Mark ii. I use it now at least 90% of the time. The exception would be if I wanted to make a panoramic image with my iPhone or just a snapshot-type photo.

The Halide Mark ii does require a subscription. When I first bought mine a few months ago, the cost was $9.99 per year. You can also make a more expensive lifetime purchase. To take advantage of the RAW format, you can use the editing tools that come with the app. I prefer to take the additional step of transferring the image(s) to my computer and making all the adjustments in Adobe Lightroom. Below are examples of photos I made with my iPhone 12 mini using the Halide Mark ii camera app.

Coast Live Oaks, Garland Ranch, Carmel Valley
I made this photo of Coast Live Oaks using the Halide app on a morning run at the Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel Valley, California.

Side channel along Boise River
This photo was made using the Halide app on a cold winter morning along the Boise River.

Seven Gables Inn, Pacific Grove, California
Seven Gables Inn in Pacific Grove, California made with the Halide camera app.

Time and again I have appreciated the one camera I almost always have with me. Having the ability to capture images in the RAW file format adds a new dimension to the experience and makes my smart phone even smarter.


1 commentaire

29 mars 2023

Great article.

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