Stop Relying on Your Phone and Go Buy Yourself a Nice Camera

I wish I had bought a better camera sooner.
I regret using an iphone to capture the best moments of my life.

The past decade — my first date with my wife to our marriage, college, jobs, and everything in between — has been captured on my cellphone camera. Like beer and pop music, it was easy to make do with what’s cheap and available, only to look back on a life of Dave Matthews and Bud Light and wonder why I’d gotten by on “good enough.” I regret that.

On a recent trip to my childhood home, I discovered roughly a dozen shoeboxes buried beneath a pile of winter coats in the closet of my old bedroom. I brought them into the living room where I cut the shoeboxes open one by one with a pair of craft scissors. Each was stuffed with nearly identical materials: two dozen or so sleeves of developed 35mm film featuring younger versions of my family and friends I haven’t spoken with in nearly a decade, beginning around my 13th birthday and ending with a shot from the night before I moved to the City for college.

A SHOEBOX FULL OF CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

Picking through the photos spread across the floor, I had an unexpected epiphany: maybe all late 20-somethings, finally aware that they will actually die one day, become uncontrollably sappy — but I now appreciate the hundreds of photos of my friends more than the countless close-ups of chainlink fences at the golden hour. Because I am aging, and because I have the memory of the original Tamagotchi, I am profoundly grateful to have these clear, high-resolution photos of the people I loved and love.

Most members of my generation don’t have a collection of photos like this sitting in the mustiest corners of their family home. In high school in late 1990s and early 2000s, the cameraphone was an odd, expensive novelty that captured the world with the resolution of a postage stamp. Instead, the disposable camera was king. Like most kings, its dominance had nothing to do with its quality. The disposable camera, made of plastic and cardboard, sucked. Its photos were hideous: the sharp contrast, the weak colors, and the way subjects tend to be blown out or lost in shadow. In close-ups, my school friends’ eyes are always half closed, and you can see the blood beneath their skin. The last thing a teenager needs is a low-resolution camera that works like a highlight marker for acne scars.

I WAS RAISED IN THE DISPOSABLE CAMERA GENERATION

By comparison, the photos from my 35mm camera — the ones that aren’t over or underexposed, of which there are admittedly dozens if not hundreds — are like hand-sized windows into my past. I can see details I’d forgotten in adulthood: the greasy bangs, the Sharpied backpacks, the “I can’t believe we ever looked like that” soft skin, and how even the most beautiful amongst us looked then like a child dressed as a 40-year-old.

As I said, the shoeboxes have a conclusion: college. During my college years in the City, the camera in my cell phone became my memory-maker of choice: first the Sidekick then the various iterations of the iPhone. I never printed the photos, and because I have issues with digital privacy, I rarely uploaded them to social networks. I shot indiscriminately, sometimes blindly, usually in bursts of a dozen or so, assuming I’d find the best when I uploaded the batch to my laptop, which I wouldn’t do for months. When I did get around to unloading my phone, the bundle of pictures would be zipped into a folder and lost amongst a dozen identical zip files on my perpetually almost-full hard drive.

CAMERA PHOTOS LOOKED GOOD ENOUGH

After my trip home, I returned to the apartment I share with my wife and looked through our photos on the computer. It was a process. Out of fear, we’ve copied all of our digital photos onto multiple hard drives. Unlike the shoeboxes, sifting through them is unbearable. There are thousands and thousands of muddy photos. I remember how phone photos looked acceptable — close enough to film that I couldn’t really tell the difference. But now it’s obvious these pictures have their own fussy disposable camera-like qualities. They’re almost universally flat, grainy, and small. And because the phones’ cameras couldn’t handle even the slightest hint of darkness, they’re scorched by the world’s cheapest flash.

I spoke with my wife about how I feared that if we stuck with iPhones for casual photography, then the best moments of the rest of our life would look like fuzzy adver-porn shot by Terry Richardson. I told her I wanted to spend a lot of money on a nice camera, and she respectfully asked me why I always compare everything I hate to Terry Richardson photos.

Just before Thanksgiving, I purchased my first digital camera. According to my countless Google searches of the words “Good camera,” “Best camera,” and “Best camera 2014,” the Fuji X100T is a good camera and arguably the best compact camera of last year. The camera has a permanent fixed lens, meaning I can’t replace its lens with another lens. This is okay because I never learned to use lenses in high school and also because photography is expensive, and if I get in the habit of buying lenses, I will blow through my salary like the candles on a birthday cake.

THE X100T IS ARGUABLY THE BEST COMPACT CAMERA OF LAST YEAR

The Fuji could be mistaken from a distance for my old Minolta, except where I would have loaded film on the back there’s instead a display and buttons, allowing me to perform all sorts of digital trickery. When I take a photo now, the result looks comparable to what’s in my shoeboxes. (Though maybe I’m wrong again, and in a decade these photos, too, will have their own pockmarks — I doubt it, though.) If anything, the Fuji’s images are better. Shooting consistently passable photos is so much easier. I’m not locked into rolls of films, and I can preview an image before capturing it. After a couple days of practice, I was adjusting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and composing a decent shot with a confidence I’ve never really had.

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