Smartphones and Compacts – Technical Fundamentals Course

Let’s talk about the different types of camera out there. There’s an almost infinite variety of cameras you can buy, so for obvious reasons, in this beginners guide, I’ve kept things fairly simple and stuck to the most common types. Starting with smartphones and compacts.

I’ve owned dozens of cameras in the 20+ years I’ve been a photographer, and they all have their uses. Nowadays, and for at least the next few years, the DSLR is still the most versatile tool for the job, and it’s what I use for my daily job. Along with a mirrorless, it’s also the most ideal camera if you’re taking this course, with a decent compact that will let you shoot in manual mode a close second. Smartphones, whilst great, offer almost no manual control, so lots of what we’ll be covering won’t be relevant.

Don’t be drawn in by the biggest, most expensive, shiniest camera you can. True, you’ll get more features with a high-end DSLR (and pay a lot more money) but the best camera is the one you’ve got with you. Something big, heavy, and bulky, which also requires you to carry lots of spares and accessories, WILL get left at home or in the car a lot of the time!


How Smartphones work.

It’s highly likely that you’ve already got a decent camera, and it’s somewhere inside your phone. Camera phones work by having a (usually) fixed lens on the back of the phone, which projects the image onto a very small digital sensor inside the phone. You view the image on the phone screen, and either take the picture by touching the screen or using a function button on the side. The image is then saved to either the phone’s internal memory, or a memory card. There is often a second lens on the front of the camera that allows you to take selfies (great!) but it’s usually a much lower resolution, so we’ll ignore the fact it’s there for now. Everyone’s pretty familiar with these nowadays, but it’s worth describing how they function so we can compare their functionality to others.

A smartphone camera – you’re probably quite familiar with one of these!

On the plus side, smartphones are:

  • Small, portable, and as such, you usually have it on you.
  • They’re very quick to share photos, whereas many other types of cameras have to go through a couple of steps before images can be shared.
  • Their increasingly high resolution means that when shot in bright daylight they can produce high quality images
  • In a strange way, they’re often very affordable, since for many of us it’s technically free as they come as part of a phone contract!    

On the downside:

  • They have tiny image sensors (more detail on this in the next post) means that without apps almost everything is in focus, and that low-light performance is generally awful.
  • They usually have a fixed lens – the only “zoom” is cropping in to image, therefore chewing up resolution.
  • They can be tricky to integrate with a “system” – yes, you can get tripods etc, but adding things like a flash, longer lenses and so on isn’t easy.
  • They’re usually very slow to react – there’s a massive shutter lag, not ideal for action photography
  • Above all, you have no real control over images – you can make them darker/lighter, and do basic image editing in apps, but nothing compared to being able to shoot in manual mode.

Compact or “Point and Shoot” Cameras

How Compacts work:

Compact cameras cover such a broad range that I can’t go into specifics with too much confidence. There are a few similarities though. They often have a built in lens, which is generally a zoom, but sometimes a fixed focal length. Some modern high-end ones have interchangeable lenses too.  They’re sometimes known as “point and shoot” cameras, due to their simplicity and convenience.

A high end compact camera. Small enough to fit in the pocket, but with a high degree on control and good image quality.

The lens projects onto a sensor within the camera and that data is then projected onto a screen at the back, or to some sort of electronic viewfinder. Usually you take pictures by pressing a shutter, but increasing numbers of cameras offer some sort of touch screen functionality on the back. The image is then recorded to a memory card

Compact Camera Pros and Cons


  • Sit between cameraphone and SLR – they’re becoming rarer, as cameraphones have pretty much taken over the cheaper end of the market.
  • Smaller and more portable than DSLR/Mirrorless, whilst some still offer things like manual control and some “system” expandability. They can often fit in the pocket – something you won’t be able to manage with a DSLR.
  • Many are affordable, though others are now as expensive as DSLR’s or more so.
  • Some offer a great range of control (different file formats, exposure modes etc) – though not all do.    


  • Sensor still small, so more depth of field. Likewise, not great low light performance.
  • “System” expandability usually limited – may be stuck with the lens it came with, built in flash etc.
  • Shutter response time better than cameraphone, but still lags behind DSLR/Mirrorless, therefore not ideal for action or high speed photography.

Next week I’ll be looking at the pros and cons of the more serious, bigger cameras – DSLRs and Mirrorless.

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