The Smartphone — Camera or Communication Device, a Crisis of Identity

by | Jul 29, 2021 | Essays | 0 comments

JM Headshot2014Med
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the July 2021 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)

SmartPhoneT2The question of what to call the smartphone/camera reminds me of the famous dialogue at the finale of Chinatown, “She’s my daughter…She’s my sister…She’s my daughter…My sister, my daughter….She’s my sister AND my daughter!”  It’s my camera and my phone!

I remember my first “cell phone;” it operated on a nascent cellular network, but it may more rightly be called a car phone.  It was about the size of a brief case with an old fashioned corded handset that needed to be connected to an external antenna to get even spotty connections.  It was 1984 and I was getting my mobile assignments to cover New Zealand and Mainland China at the Olympics happening all over Southern California.  As a phone, it did the trick, but obviously the technology has come a long, long way since then.

1991 Radio Shack AdThis Radio Shack add from 1991 features a little more modern version of the “Mobile Cellular Telephone,” but look at all the other things being sold at the time.  Today’s cell phones include all the functions of the other advertised devices, and out performs them; from computers to camcorders, portable music players, audio recorders, clock radios, etc., etc., etc.  The line continues to blur between all the things a modern mobile device can be and what we call the cell phone.  Nowhere is this more true than with the photographic capabilities that become evermore sophisticated with each new release.  Not only can they take better pictures than many standalone mini cameras, they are web connected which adds infinitely more layers of functionality.

The latest product announcement to blur the line between a high-end photographic capture device and mobile communicator is a Leica-branded phone called the “Leitz Phone 1”.  Many phone camera systems have bragged about using Leica lenses, but the Leitz Phone 1 is the first one fully branded with the iconic Leica red dot.  Whether you want to call it a phone or a camera, the photographic hardware is impressive.   The electronics are manufactured by Sharp and the Leitz Phone 1 seems to mirror the Sharp Aquos R6 in most respects.  Both feature a single 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor, which is the largest of any phone on the market, with a 19mm-equivalent f/1.9 ultrawide lens.  (I gather this means it is a fixed focal length with other focal lengths virtually achieved using a digital zoom.)  It also features a 120HZ OLED 6.67” screen with 2,730 x 1,260 pixels and HDR up to 2,000 nits of brightness — the highest available on any smartphone.

SmartPhonebyLeicaThe device runs on Android 11 and the electronic specs are impressive including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, 12GB RAM, and 256GB of storage.  However, there are a few added touches and accessories that separate Leica’s phone from the standard Sharp Aquos R6.  The Leitz Phone 1 features a monochrome interface that’s been customized by Leica with the camera app featuring various ‘Leitz Looks’ and a magnetic, circular lens cap. The Leitz Phone 1 is currently only sold in Japan with an MSRP of 187,920 yen (around $1,705US).  This rebranding of an existing phone may be more marketing exercise than true innovation, but I would be interested to see what a storied company, known for their design aesthetic, as well as their photographic quality, could do with a ground up rethink of the camera phone.  More on the Leica designed phone here:

RedhydrogenoneLeica is not the first to attempt to add advanced photographic capability to the smart phone.  Jim Jannard, the Founder of the hugely successful Oakley and RED Digital Cinema companies introduced what he described as “holographic media in your pocket” with the RED branded “Hydrogen One” in 2017.

JannardYaks400He received advance orders from RED devotees for the sight unseen product with advance payments of $1,200US for the aluminum version and $1,600US for the titanium model. Jannard had brought this refundable deposit scheme to the digital cinema camera world more than 10 years earlier with the RED One.  In fact, having a little advance knowledge of the camera, I was the fifth in line to plunk down my $1K at NAB 2006, and all things considered, it worked out pretty well.

HydrogenLensMountHowever, even with a host of impressive media creation features including an auto stereoscopic, (no glasses required), immersive viewing experience, a 5.7 inch 2560 x 1440 display, virtual surround sound via stereo separation, support for high-end cinema glass, and “Holo Chat,” sort of a 3D version of Facetime, the project was cancelled not long after delivery of the first units.  Jannard credits “a few health issues” for shutting down the project and for his subsequent retirement, but you gotta give the man credit for trying.

Apple announce iphone12pro 10132020 big.jpg.largeSo, let’s look at Apple who are said to control 90% of the world’s mobile phone profits, earning $21.7 billion for the quarter that ended in June; the most successful quarter in the company’s 45-year history. The large majority of those profits come in on the back of the iPhone.  And the photographic capabilities of the devices only keep improving with each generation.  The top-end iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with a triple-camera setup, and uses a larger sensor for the standard-wide and tele-lens, and achieves 12 MP in all three cameras.  Other key camera specifications include a 26 mm-equivalent f/1.6-aperture lens,  a 13 mm-equivalent (14mm measured) f/2.4-aperture lens and a 52 mm-equivalent f/2.0-aperture lens, LiDAR depth sensing, Dual-LED flash and 4K Dolby Vision HDR video at 24/30/60 fps.

But it’s not the specs, it is how you can make use of technology that is important, and the beauty of these devices lies in their ease of use.  Most of the original photos I take for DCS are via my iPhone, and last Halloween night, our neighbor was having an impromptu Jazz concert in his driveway.  I pulled out the iPhone, put it in full auto, (what I call monkey mode), and started covering the performance in one continuous roving shot.  Admittedly, the video gets a little noisy as it was starting to get dark, but it amazes me what quality is achievable with just an iPhone; no gimbal, no AC pulling focus, no fuss, no muss.  I came home next door, made one edit to shorten the piece, and had it to share with the musicians in less than 20 minutes after I shot it.


With easy access to a camera, everyone with a phone, and that is everyone, can potentially become a citizen journalist supplying user generated content of newsworthy events all over the globe.  It would have been hard to imagine the impact that a young women’s recording of a violent arrest had after it turned out to be the murder of George Floyd.

So, I don’t care whether you want to call it a phone, a camera, holographic media in your pocket, or whatever, I’m a big fan.  I’m not ready to replace my high-end digital cinema cameras with a camera phone just yet, but at the pace that photographic and communication technology keep overlapping and melding, it might not be too much longer.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Posts

Archived Posts