Moments are fleeting and difficult to capture, much less remember in detail. Trust me. As the father of a precocious nine-year-old girl, I know this all too well.
I also happen to be an amateur photographer who for decades has been accumulating a collection of both vintage film and modern digital cameras and lenses. I was enamored by the immediacy of photography the first day I stepped into a photojournalism class in the early 1990s. Before that, I spent countless hours with a paintbrush or pencil in hand, trying to capture the movement and emotion that a single press of a shutter button could accomplish.
With all the gear I’ve accumulated, you would think that I’d have a photo library full of stunning photos of my daughter. But the reality is that those photos are few and far between because I lost critical minutes choosing the right camera body and lens and then fiddling with f-stops, shutter speeds, ISO and other settings.
While we’ve all been self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been going through my photo archives to look for any noteworthy shots I might have overlooked over the years. I cringe every time I come across a photo of a blurry elbow ― the only part of my daughter in frame ― or highlights that are blown out or shots where my daughter is staring at me uncomfortably because she spotted me trying to capture a candid moment seconds too late.
Capturing the ‘Decisive Moment’
But those awkward and blurry photos become less frequent in the most recent photos I’ve taken. And it struck me that this is because, over the last couple of years, I have been taking fewer and fewer photos with my DSLR and more and more photos with my smartphone.
Photos of indecipherable blurs have been replaced with dynamic photos of my daughter jumping from jungle gyms and speeding by on her freshly training-wheelless bicycle. These priceless images are captured in vivid detail and shot at the “decisive moment” ― a concept referring to capturing a spontaneous event that was popularized by my favorite photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Modern mobile photography made it possible to capture the moment my daughter jumped from a play structure despite her fear of heights. HDR mode, faster sensors and multiple shots that optimize shutter speed, aperture and ISO ensured that both my daughter and the sky have the optimal exposure for the scene and the movement isn’t blurred.
But it should be no surprise that I increasingly rely on my smartphone for day-to-day photography. The mind-boggling amount of software, hardware and camera technology packed into the small space inside smartphones is improving at what seems like an exponential rate. It’s no wonder that the camera system is one of the top reasons consumers upgrade their phones.
We need the ever-increasing number of lenses and larger smartphone camera sensors to capture our most memorable moments. However, the physical size of a smartphone means lenses and sensors will never be a match for a DSLR or pro-level photography gear.
Overcoming the Limitations of Small Lenses and Sensors
To overcome physical limitations, smartphones harness processing power and computational photography techniques ― instead of optical processes ― to capture our Instagram-worthy photos. Computational photography employs AI-integrated software and digital computation to choose the best settings, correct colors, sharpen images, process portraits and even combine multiple “stacked” photos to create the best photo.
Every precious second I once spent fiddling with knobs and settings on my DSLR or digging through a camera bag searching for the right lens is now handled by software in a fraction of a second ― without the lag that could make me miss a shot. I also spend a lot less time in Photoshop color-correcting my photos while desperately trying to bring details out of shadows and toning down the harshness of bright white skies. Memory, like Micron LPDDR5, is essential to that lag-free experience.
Returning Photography to Its Roots
Counterintuitively, all the advanced technology packed into smartphones has returned photography to its 19th-century roots. In photography’s early days, the worthiness of a photo was determined by how well the photographer composed a shot to record a decisive moment in time and influenced the audience’s emotional reaction to that moment ― not by how much expensive gear they could accumulate or how deft they were at Photoshop.
It was fitting that, when the first exhibit of impressionist paintings opened in 1874, the Paris studio shared exhibition space with the pioneering photographers that inspired and influenced Cartier-Bresson. Capturing the immediacy of a moment is a hallmark of both photography and impressionism.
This immediacy is understood by every dad like me who has hastily reached into his pocket to pull out the smartphone just in time to photograph a toddler’s first galloping steps, or by every mom the first time a training-wheelless bike blurs across her camera’s screen.
I’d be dishonest if I said I’d never again use my DSLR or vintage camera gear. But as smartphone cameras and computational photography continue to evolve, I will rely on them less and less.
Sometime soon, my bulky camera gear will become like the suit hanging in my closet that I pull out only for special occasions. And more often than not, I will rely on my smartphone to capture those decisive, memorable moments.