Smartphone photography – Is a Smartphone all you need?

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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At Arete we source and manage local experts in photography, video, digital and written content from around the world to help you tell stories that make a difference.

Contact us to find out how we can help you make an impact through exceptional storytelling and targeted communications strategies

"Confidence and trust" - My approach

Nafkot Gebeyehu is a 26 year old photographer from Ethiopia. She recently went on assignment with Arete to the Wolaita Sodo region in Southern Ethiopia on behalf of one of Arete’s clients- Tearfund. In this blog she discusses how her training in journalism influences her work; helping her obtain pictures with ease and integrity.

I did not know photography was going to be my career. I grew up with people’s stories all around me because my dad is a writer. I thought I would be one too.

Before university, I studied to be an engineer. In Ethiopia if you have high grades they automatically make you a science student. So I was placed in an engineering school. I hated it. I didn’t know what to do – I knew I loved working with people and telling people’s stories.  Eventually I dropped out of the course and took things from there.

During Covid-19 I was a freelance photographer. I was also employed as a communication and marketing officer. I had a lot of shoots that involved travel and all of these were cancelled. But it ended up being a good time for me. I could work out what I really wanted to do.

When I first started taking photos, my interest was centred around telling ‘people’ stories. I had mentors that worked for NGOs and they taught me the skills involved and I would put them into practise whenever I could. I would stop people in public spaces, and introduce myself as a photographer, and ask them if they would mind telling me their story and if I could take their photograph.

While at university I started a series called AAU stories (Addis Ababa University). The university was a hard space to navigate. Its infrastructure was very undeveloped; this led to a lot of problems with students, so a friend and I started to document this.

After university, I ended up working in fashion as I was surrounded by people working in that industry. I didn’t think I was going to go in that direction, but this was a nice challenge for me. In fashion you must portray the story the designer wants to tell. It is a very specific subject and a very controlled environment. This taught me a lot of skills that I apply in my work today.

Meti models for a shoot for the fashion designer Yonael Merga in his collection 'chereka/moon' showcasing native Ethiopian hair styles and fabrics, Ethiopia.

When photographing someone the first thing I try to do is make them feel comfortable. They can be intimidated when there is a big camera in front of them, so I establish trust with them first. The first thing I do is compliment them on what they are wearing and tell them they look great. Then, I take a couple of candid shots when they are not looking which I then show them. Once the trust is established it takes me about two to three minutes to get the shots I need.

While on assignment for Tearfund, Nigist Meckonnen was initially hesitant, and her daughter and her daughter were particularly camera shy. I managed to capture a few shots. When I showed them to her, she instantly became more receptive and relaxed.

Nigist Meckonnen (50), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s agricultural training programmes, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, cleans her compound in Farecho village of Sodo, Ethiopia.
Nigist Meckonnen (50), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s agricultural training programmes, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a photo in Abala Farecho Village in Wolaita Sodo, Ethiopia.

On the shoot I particularly remember Lebso Lemena’s story. Lebso was a farmer from Abala Farecho village. You could tell the family was extremely close. He explained to me that when Covid happened he could no longer send his children to school. This hurt him most of all.

With the help of Tearfund’s agriculture training he was able to increase his income and pay for their fees again. He was smiling and laughing when he told me this and I knew that this was what I wanted to capture. So, I kept telling him to recall this moment when I was taking his photos.

Lebso Lemena (50) and his wife Amenech Asale (45) pose for a photo with their family (left to right), Cherenet Lennao (18), Lemlem Lenao (15), Sintayehu lebso (6), Kidist Lebso (12) and Yonas Lenso (24) in their front yard in Abala Farecho village, Sodo, Ethiopia.
Lebso Lemena (50), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s climate change programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait on his farm in Abala farecho village, Ethiopia.

The key to photography is knowing how to communicate with someone. My journalist training has taught me to be in tune with a subject’s consciousness. When someone hasn’t had this training – this is where you can see the ethical imbalance. Their focus may be more about the technical skills; how to take it, the focus, the right light – so the human element gets lost. Training helps with treating people more than a photo but as a human being.

Tamarat Ganta (22), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s Church based community programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait at the backyard of Abala Farecho Kalehiwot church, in Sodo, Ethiopia.
Ukume Waltena (32), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s Church based community programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait at the backyard of Abala Farecho Kalehiwot church, Ethiopia.
Bizunesh Mandedo (40), a member of the Kalehiwot church that is a part of Tearfund Canada’s Church based communities programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait in the backyard of Abala Farecho Kalehiwot church, in Sodo, Ethiopia.

The best advice I could give to someone starting their career is get a mentor. Shadowing someone was where I did the majority of my learning. I could ask questions on the job and learn by following their guidance. Secondly, start with a personal project, use you family, someone you can read well, then try to learn how to build that relationship with a stranger.

At the moment I am working on a personal project with my dad. He is a wildly acknowledged writer but is suffering from Alzheimer’s and recently has started forgetting his whole career, so I have started documenting his life’s work.

I would like to thank Tearfund and Arete for this shoot and their clear guidance, making my life easier. It is really rare to find clients like you and I am grateful to have worked with you.


Photos by Nafkot Gebeyehu
Text by Izzy Morshead

Arete’s Stories: Documenting a changing world; how reporting on the climate crisis impacts journalists’ mental health with Siegfried Modola & Aaron Palabyab

COP26 is coming to Glasgow on the 31st of October, and with it, the eyes of the world as the UN brings together world leaders to discuss and align on climate change action.

Around the world, storms, floods and wildfires are intensifying. Air pollution is affecting the health of tens of millions of people and unpredictable weather Is causing untold damage to homes and livelihoods.

In the lead up to the 26th Conference of the Parties, we sat down with two of our photographers that have spent years documenting natural disasters. We sought to discuss how, as environmentalists, they handle the personal and emotional weight of photographing worsening climate events year after year, how they justify what they do in light of climate grief and journalistic burnout, and more.

We start with Siegfried Modola…


Siegfried Modola is a Kenya raised independent Italian/British photojournalist and documentary photographer focusing on social, humanitarian and geopolitical events worldwide. He is based between Nairobi and Paris.

Siegfried has reported in over a dozen countries across Africa and worked in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America, and regularly contributes to news agencies such as Reuters and humanitarian organisations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and others via Arete. His photographs have appeared in some of the most prominent international publications such as Time, the New York Times, L’Express, Le Monde, Liberation, Figaro, Paris Match, Geo, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Siegfried is currently working on a long-term personal project on the impact of air pollution on marginalised communities around the world. You can read Siegfried’s piece on air pollution in Afghanistan here:


Siegfried, can you tell us a little about the environmental disasters or events that you have covered over the years?

“Much of my work over the years has involved climate change-induced events. Being based in East Africa for a while meant that I have covered a lot of droughts. These are not new, but in recent years they have been reoccurring at a higher frequency and with more intensity.

Events that really stick in my mind are the major drought in Somalia in 2011, where thousands and thousands of people died, and the work I did covering the fleeing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Rohingya refugees shield from the rain in Balukhali, Camp 10, part of the refugee camp sheltering over 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Bangladesh suffers intense cyclonic storms and some of the heaviest monsoon rains on earth.

This event in Bangladesh, in particular, is where you witness that climate change isn’t necessarily caused solely by industry or the burning of fossil fuels. covered one of the largest refugee camps in the world on the Bangladesh border with Myanmar, which housed almost 1 million people.

This sprawling camp led to complete destruction of the local environment in a country where climate change and rising sea levels have already had a devastating effect. There are no natural barriers left to halt the floodwater, and the refugees have no way to defend themselves; they aren’t even allowed to build any form of concrete structure to protect them from the rising sea levels and flooding.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. A mother gestures in grief as others stand close to the beds of their children suffering from lung infections at a government-run hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Doctor Farid Ahmad Andishmond, a paediatrician at the hospital, believes that the spike of cases of pneumonia and other lung infections among children is directly linked to the increase of pollution in the capital and other cities in Afghanistan. Many families in the city cannot afford electricity. Instead, they are left with no other choice but to burn whatever they can find to keep their homes warm, he explains while doing the rounds through the room, between the beds of sick children.

In more recent years, I have been working on a personal project to understand, through photography, how the issues of air pollution are affecting the world’s most marginalised communities. It is often one of the impacts of climate change that can fly under the radar, as it is much more difficult to visualise versus something as dramatic as a flood or hurricane.”


How contributary do you think climate change is to these environmental disasters you have witnessed?

“Certainly, with something like air pollution, it is clear that the burning of fossil fuels and dirty fuel is the cause, and causing an impact, on the climate as a whole. We cannot argue this anymore; we can see world events getting worse every year.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Coal merchants wait for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan. The capital Kabul, a city of some 6 million, ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world — contesting amongst other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Many cannot afford electricity and so burn coal, garbage, plastic and rubber in their homes to keep warm during the cold winter months. Old vehicles and generators that run on poor quality fuel release vast amounts of toxins into the city’s air.

In my opinion, the climate has definitely shifted, it has become more violent, and it is the poorest communities around the world that are suffering the most. In East Africa, where I have lived and grown-up, the droughts are getting worse and worse. Crops might not grow because of the lack of rain, and it is the people who depend on these crops to survive who are dying.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Women herd goats towards one of the few water points in the drought-stricken region of northern Kenya. Malnutrition among children is peaking at dangerous levels, and herders fear that it is a matter of weeks before their cattle start to die.

As a photojournalist it is clear that the climate is changing, I see it everywhere I go.”


How does it make you feel, witnessing these events year on year, while in some places around the world, climate change is touted as a myth?

“I am not a scientist or an expert. I prefer to be a visual narrator. I use the photos and stories I capture to help raise awareness of these issues, to show the world there is a problem, there is an issue — and let them build their own opinion.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Sadi, starts to prepare food in her kitchen’s home in Malkoruqua village, northeastern Kenya.

I find it hard not to be a pessimist in all this when you know that during the course of the world’s history that the industrialisation of society has led to a huge amount of fossil fuels being removed from the earth and spewed into the atmosphere.

I feel obligated to cover the effects of climate change, despite how much these stories weigh on my conscience. To approach a story, you need to dive deep into people’s lives. You realise how vital the local climate is to them; when the next rain falls, how their homes would be washed away if a flood were to hit.

On the one hand, it is upsetting covering these stories. You feel that you are always chasing your own tail. Going around covering the same issues, with the same root cause and not enough real action being implemented.

On the other side, I can see that awareness is rising, particularly in the younger generations. We are moving in the right direction. It might still take years, but do we have those years?

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer County, South Sudan

If it is too late, what will this mean? How many more people will I document being affected by these issues? How many more people will die? Now we are witnessing that it doesn’t just affect the farmer in India; it affects almost everyone in their homes, cities in Europe, and America. I am hopeful that this will act as a catalyst for the world to act collectively and make a change for good.”

Next, we spoke with Aaron Palabyab…

Aaron shooting in Dinapigue, Isabela, an isolated coastal town in northeastern Philippines.

Aaron Palabyab is a filmmaker and a photographer specialising in travel-oriented content. He also works as a cameraman/videographer around the Philippines and the world.

Based in Metro Manila, in the Philippines, Aaron has won multiple awards for his film and photography and works for organisations including Fujifilm Philippines, Uniqlo, DHL International, the United Nations World Food Programme, GRID Magazine, UNESCO, Arete, and more.


Can you start by telling us a little about the environmental disasters or events that you have covered over the years?

“Living in the Philippines, I have mainly covered the aftermath of typhoons and a volcanic eruption. In the last four years, I have covered at least seven typhoons. Ketsana was the one that really sticks in my memory.

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Marisa during clean-up operations in her subdivision, which was deluged with mud during major floods during Typhoon Ketsana in 2009.

The eastern side of the Philippines is more affected by severe weather, and the capital Manila is usually insulated from the worst of the weather. But typhoon Ketsana ripped through the capital city. Non-stop driving rain for days, areas of the city buried in mud, and a complete breakdown of social structure — people stuck on roofs, looting, etc. It was an unprecedented disaster, and it has been a very long time since a typhoon of this intensity has affected the capital city.”


How contributary do you think climate change is to these environmental disasters you have witnessed?

“There can be no doubt that the climate has changed dramatically in the Philippines since I was growing up. I remember a strong typhoon in 2009, and even then, it felt like it was a warning; it felt like it was a taste of things to come — and many of us felt that way.

In the Philippines, we have felt for a while it is not a question of if a huge disaster will hit Manila, but when. With each and every Typhoon that hits, you hear that it is record-breaking, more severe than the last. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as issues of climate change are becoming more pronounced, typhoons in my home country are getting more & more intense.”

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. A house by the coast destroyed during Typhoon Kammuri in Pilar, Sorsogon.

How does it make you feel, witnessing these events year on year, while elsewhere in the world, bad practices are continuing?

“In a place like the Philippines, a regard for the environment is just part of your everyday thinking for the most part. We are kind of on the front lines of climate change, next to the Pacific Islands. It is not just typhoons but also extremely hot summers and droughts.

I feel if we don’t all take care of this, if we are not all environmentalists, then we are not taking care of ourselves. In a developing country, priorities can be more about economics than the environment so it is difficult, and I understand that. But at what cost?

We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing to believe in environmentalism. Climate change isn’t a political debate here. There aren’t people saying this isn’t real. But it is definitely something that can be more emphasised.

It is upsetting when you see people arguing climate change isn’t real. When you see the debates happening around the world about whether it is worth attention. I do get angry; it is a matter of privilege to not be impacted by this.

I think that is why the work we do as photographers is so important because we need to do what we can to make it feel as real as possible to people who have the luxury of being insulated from all of this. It is very frustrating to feel that this can still be a political debate when it is so real.

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Villagers calmly wait under cover as a thunderstorm passes in Surigao province in the Philippines

When I go out to the provinces to document the after-effects of the typhoons, it is a wake-up call. In Manila, we are quite insulated, but when I see the devastating effects first-hand, it is unimaginable what people are going through.

It really prompts a lot of reflection and gives a lot of perspective. It prompts you to be extremely humble to have not been touched, but also a huge sense of compassion, I know I am just a photographer, but I want to do what I can to help, to contribute to the solution.

I have discovered on recent assignments, particularly with Arete, when the people you have travelled to help and document see you and see you with a camera. It means a lot to them; they want you to tell their story; they believe it will help them get the support they need.

So if my photos and stories can help get assistance for people, if my photos can make a difference. Then that helps me feel like I have made an impact and certainly helps balance out the sadness and stress of documenting these climate change events year on year.”

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Aerial view of Taal Volcano in June 2021. The volcano is the most active in the country and one of the most active in the world.

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At Arete we source and manage local experts in photography, video, digital and written content from around the world to help you tell stories that make a difference.

Contact us to find out how we can help you make an impact through exceptional storytelling and targeted communications strategies