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Updated: Jul 8, 2022

As cell phones continue to compete and improve, more and more people are getting quality cameras with their new phones. These phones can take pretty amazing images under the right circumstances. They are compact, easy to use, do not require any real photography knowledge, and are always on hand. Most people have become so reliant on these cameras that they consider them for the most important events in their lives; weddings, parties, reunions, graduations, etc. But is this a good idea? Unless you are very skilled and knowledgeable about photography, I would say no! There are many reasons why it could be a disaster if you don't know what you're up against, but that could be an entirely separate article.

There is a lot more that goes into photography than most people think. A cell phone makes it all seem easy and simple for the most part, so why even bother hiring a professional? What is the difference between a cell phone and a DSLR camera? This article will hopefully help answer these questions.


So why should you hire a photographer when you have a great cell phone camera? This is an understandable question. We pay a lot of money for these phones and they all brag about their cameras! Cell phones can take some great photos, but unless you really know photography and the camera's capabilities, you likely will not have amazing results.

While you can certainly get some great candids, fun selfies and even decent portraits, with a cell phone, they also have an abundance of limitations. The same applies when using a DSLR if you don't understand photography. I have met people who have gone out and purchased expensive cameras assuming "the nicer the camera, the better the photos". They put them on auto mode and "the camera does all the work"....Until it doesn't. Eventually they wonder why their photos are blurry, not properly exposed, crooked, distorted, someone is cropped out, etc. In perfect situations, auto mode is great, but when conditions get tricky or lighting isn't good, auto mode can fail you. What so many people don't realize it that great photos do not happen because you have an expensive camera, no matter how much you paid for it. Understanding how a camera works, knowing the exposure triangle, understanding lighting and composition can all become confusing and overwhelming, but not knowing can ruin a photo forever.

When it comes to family portraits, or any portraits really, there are a lot of things to consider, such as sun, shade, background, harsh light, dark shadows, composition, posing, etc. A professional will likely have off camera fill flash, back lighting, scrims, reflectors etc. Sounds like a lot, but all of these things can be the difference between a basic cell phone image that is flat, or a dynamic image that has depth. It will also help deal with almost any situation. Here are a few examples.

In the above image, there is no real depth. It's a nice photo and captures a great moment, but I felt it needed more. This was taken with a nice camera, but because it is so flat and one dimensional, you might have gotten a similar look with a cell phone. I was still in California where the wildfires were raging. The entire area had smoke filled skies and there was no visible sun. The family I was photographing was hoping for sunset type images, but the skies were grey and smokey so getting any sunset shot was not an option, or was it? Because I brought off camera strobes, triggers, gels and stands, I knew I could at least give them the the appearance of the sunset they were seeking, so I decided to create it.

In this next image, it appears there is a sun setting in the distance with sunlight beaming off of the kids. This was the look I was going for. It required an assistant going up the hill, which was very unstable ground, holding a light stand and placing it in the right position. Because the ground was so unstable, we could not just place a light stand. I placed an orange gel on the light. I also added a small amount of front lighting to balance exposure. These are the scenarios where cell phones fall way short. A quality photo has to be done creatively and takes a little more time to get it right, but you can see and feel the difference between the two images. I also removed a power line tower that was in the background during post processing.

The image below is another example of creating a sunset. It also helped give depth and separation to the fountain behind her. I also used small fairy lights to create the orange glare effect and again, I used rear off camera flash with a gel to create a sunset while using another off camera flash to light the subject. Had the family chosen to just take photos with a cell phone, this image would have little character.

Another situation where cell phone cameras don't cut it is when you want to take that distant shot but need off camera flash to properly light your subjects from a different angle. Yes, cell phone cameras have zoom features and flash, but you tend to lose image quality when zooming, you also get camera shake the more you zoom and your flash will never work for you in this scenario. You could use a constant light and place it where needed if you had to use a cell phone camera, but it would need to be adjustable to make sure you get the exposure you want.

I took this next photo from a good distance away. The family was in shade and as a result, they were underexposed without lighting. To remedy the underexposure, I set up off camera flash in front of them and off to the side a bit. I used the natural sunlight in this case to help me out by illuminating the family from behind, which created a nice rim light. I wanted to frame them using a tree as a foreground element to break it up a bit. Could they have gotten a nice photo with someone holding a cell phone? Probably so. Would they have been able to balance the exposure, create depth and separation all while using foreground elements from a good distance away? Very doubtful.

This last image is another example of a scenario where a cell phone would never be enough. Could you take this photo with a cell camera? Yes, but it would likely be improperly exposed. In this image, I wanted to bring the couple forward a bit. This can create issues with not only your focal point, but with shadows from your flash hitting the rest of the family, so you need to think it out a bit. The family was backlit with the sun which I wanted and I liked the shadows coming forward from the sun, but I needed to also light the family from the front or they would have been underexposed. A cell phone flash would never be able to compete. There was also another slight issue to consider. By having the couple up front, using just one light would not have worked well to illuminate everyone. I posed everyone strategically, keeping in mind that I did not want to cause unnatural shadows from my lights. The photo would not work if shadows from the sun were going one way, then shadows from my lights going the opposite direction. I used two lights with umbrellas and placed them carefully to illuminate everyone equally while casting very minimal shadows from my lights.

As a photographer, you need to get results that people can't easily get with a cell phone. Why hire a photographer if just anyone can get the same result with a cell phone? When you want family photos, you should never take short cuts. Your family is worth the extra time, effort, planning and yes, money to make sure you get quality photos. When choosing a photographer, ask them what gear they use, what their style is, etc. You don't have to have special knowledge or know photography to ask these questions. Any photographer should be more than happy to answer any questions and make sure they are right for your needs. I wrote an article about how to choose a photographer which covers basic questions you can ask. If you live in the Mooresville or surrounding Lake Norman area and are thinking about family photos, senior portraits, engagement photos or any other portraits, feel free to contact me with any questions. I would love an opportunity to be your photographer. Visit or call (704) 437-6807

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