As the well-used photographer aphorism goes: “The best camera is the one you have with you”. Yet, if you had a choice, is a smartphone all you need?

Photography is at the heart of every story we tell here at Arete. We tell stories with the intent to evoke emotion, to invoke action. Therefore how an image is perceived is paramount.

Without a doubt, the quality of the camera on the average smartphone has increased hugely in recent years; however, if you are a storyteller, be it an NGO, business or photojournalist, is there a time and place for smartphone photography or does the DSLR camera still reign supreme?

In this month’s Arete’s Stories, we broached this subject with two photographers who work in the field, Ishaq Ali Anis, and Anthony Upton:

Ishaq Ali Anis

Born in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan, Ishaq spent a number of years living as a refugee in Pakistan, before returning to Kabul in Afghanistan in 2012 to pursue higher education, enrolling at Kabul University to study photography. 

Since graduation in 2016, Ishaq has worked with a variety of organisations as a photographer, such as the Afghanistan Photographers Association. Ishaq is an award-winning photographer, taking first prize in the Silk Road Photo Competition in Korea and Kazakhstan, and selected among the top 30 photos in the UNESCO Biennial Photos Competition and Photo Exhibition.

More recently, Ishaq documented his escape from Afghanistan to France following the Taliban takeover, which you can read in our From the Photographer blog here:


Ishaq, what do you tend to use for photography, a smartphone or a DSLR?

“The most recent story I documented was the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Whereas I would usually opt for my d600 NIKON DSLR camera, I chose to use only my smartphone on this occasion, as my camera is quite large and obvious.

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a DSLR. Ziarat-e Sakhi is one of the landmarks of Kabul and every year, people on the first day of the year come together to celebrate the new year in this mosque. 2016 Kabul, Afghanistan

It was a very chaotic time in Afghanistan, and things were getting worse by the day. I wanted to capture the story, but I also feared for my life. In public, people in Afghanistan would not react well to a camera, so instead, I used my smartphone to take photos more discreetly.

For me, it was important this situation was recorded; I knew these photos would be a part of our history. Everything is changing.

I witnessed many journalists being targeted, and I heard many reports too. But, everyone has a smartphone these days, so I knew it wouldn’t create much suspicion if a young man is seen with a smartphone.

In Afghanistan, most people do not consider that someone with just a smartphone could be a photographer, so it helped me capture the story covertly.” 

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a DSLR. An old man working in the old Kabul City “Murad Khani” Kabul, Afghanistan 2015

So would you choose to use a smartphone in the future over a DSLR?

“To be honest, I do like using a smartphone. It is very easy and very handy, and because you are connected to the internet, once you take a photo, you can immediately start editing it, captioning it, and send it to the cloud.

When I was in Afghanistan, a lot of my friends were photographers for different agencies. They would often solely use smartphones, particularly for news. A DSLR doesn’t compare for immediate and urgent online news stories. You can send the photos or videos from the scene immediately. So I would say smartphone photography has improved journalism in this way.

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a smartphone. Portrait of Mehrad, 2, an Afghan boy. Kabul, Afghanistan. 2020

However, what can be very disappointing, is lacking the versatility to take  the diferent shots that a DSLR gives you. You can’t use a photo lens, which means you can’t zoom without using digital zoom and digital zoom destroys the quality.

It is important if I want to sell or exhibit my photos that they are captured in the best possible way. So for me, I like to use a mixture of both my smartphone and my DSLR camera, using each for the advantages they provide. A smartphone really doesn’t compare quality-wise. But it did allow me to at least capture something versus maybe nothing.

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a smartphone. Children play in a back street in Hazara Town area in Quetta, Pakistan 2021

In the future, I hope for smartphones to improve in camera quality. It would be so useful and handy to be able to use something so small and discreet when documenting stories!”

Anthony Upton

Anthony has been an editorial photographer since 1990, starting in local papers and within a year graduating to British national newspapers, working for seven years at The Times of London before setting up a photo agency concentrating on sports marketing.

After seven successful years, Anthony returned to his editorial roots, freelancing for The Daily Telegraph and NGOs such as the UNICEF, TRUK and the British Red Cross, while maintaining a strong roster of corporate clients and thinktanks who require photos destined for publication in the media.

During this time, Anthony has volunteered as an Emergency Responder for the British Red Cross and worked in the logistics cell for UNWRA.


Can a good photographer make up for a poor quality camera?

“An experienced photographer brings so much more than their knowledge about how to use a camera to a photographic commission. For one, they’ll have a range of technical solutions to suit the different environments in which they work.

However, their greatest asset is their ability to see storytelling moments within each situation. Everybody is looking at the same event, and most won’t see what the photographer sees; it is the photographer’s job to distil from the multiple possible vignettes, the ones which convey the message to tell the story of the event. 

Photo: Anthony Upton. General Views of the Cisco; Intel and Cohesity evening event in Barcelona.

Gone are the days when a photographer needed to capture everything in one photo, however even with online galleries, every photo needs to support the others and tell the viewer the story behind the photos – to explain the narrative.

Sometimes the photographer will welcome the greater creative options available with a dedicated camera, and sometimes the small size and immediacy of the smartphone will be the correct tool for the job.

It is part of the photographer’s pre-job planning to understand which will serve them better, alongside dealing with the logistical problems associated with the job.

And of course, the most important part of being a photographer is the ability to connect with the subject and treat them with dignity no matter the subject’s circumstances.”


And how about purely from a technical perspective?

“A DSLR Wide and Long Lens give creative options and low light capabilities that a smartphone simply cannot do. ISO agnostic sensors mean that more detail is available in both highlight and shadow areas of the image. This level of quality is what a professional is expected to provide.

There are further advantages to using a DSLR, such as using an off-camera flash rather than relying on low powered internal flashes.

Photo: Anthony Upton. The London Ballet Company performs 'Poppy' at the Bridewell Theatre in central London. The ballet commemorates the soldiers who fought in WW1 and the subsequent wars ahead of Remembrance Sunday.

The advanced sensors in a DSLR allow for better colour grading in post-production, which leads to photographs with huge file sizes when they are uploaded to a digital device, but an unrivalled level of detail and quality.

Using a viewfinder in bright light is far easier than a phone screen, and it provides three points of contact for greater stability.

What the smartphone lacks in technical prowess, it makes up for in discreetness. People see a smartphone as non-threatening as they are much more used to seeing them. In the analogue film days, we would carry a little point and shoot pocket camera to carry out this job. The smartphone has replaced this, so it will always have a place in the camera bag.”

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