There was a time when shooting something really nice with a smartphone camera was a big deal. The cameras were sluggish and the images low-resolution, with bad compression and terrible low-light performance. But, it’s 2016 and smartphone cameras are undeniably good. That hasn’t stopped media outlets, however, from trying to ride the train with “You won’t believe these photos were shot on a smartphone!” written on the side. The latest edition of this trope comes from Sports Illustrated, which recently trusted is Dwayne Johnson cover to the talented photographer Michael J. Le Brecht II and a Moto Z Droid smartphone with an add-on camera module.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the Moto Z system, LaBrecht was using a device called the Hasselblad True Zoom Moto Mod attachment, which snaps onto the back of the Moto Z mothership smartphone device. The True Zoom is basically a full-fledged compact camera with a 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch BSI CMO sensor and a 10X optical zoom lens.
Typically, for a high-end shoot like a Sports Illustrated cover, a photographer would reach for a big dedicated camera, sometimes even a medium-format rig costing as much as a luxury car. But, in this case, the only option was the smartphone, as the whole thing seems to be part of a large advertising initiative for the Moto Z device itself.
So, yes, the images was taken with a mobile device, but the True Zoom isn’t exactly a normal smartphone camera. The sensor is roughly the same size as other smartphone cameras, but there’s a whole arsenal of lighting on hand at the shoot (as you can see in the behind-the-scenes video), so low-light performance was not a factor.
The True Zoom also has quite a few other features that a typical smartphone camera wouldn’t, such as a mechanical shutter and an actual zoom lens (which can be important for reducing distortion on a portrait like this one).
Perhaps the most important difference, however, is that the True Zoom has a real xenon flash instead of an LED flashlight like most other smartphone cameras. As a result, it’s able to trigger honest-to-goodness photo strobes when they’re set to slave mode.
Ultimately, using the Moto Z with the Hasselblad True Zoom attachment is a lot like using a dedicated camera while using a smartphone or tablet to control it, something a huge number of dedicated cameras already do. In a way, it’s a lot like using something like the Dxo One for Aoole’s iPhone or Sony’s QX cameras, which were decidedly bigger but offered interchangeable lenses (in some cases) and bigger sensors while still using the phone’s screen for composition and menu navigation.
Could you shoot this with a typical smartphone camera? The wide-angle field of view might be a little problematic and you would have to use hot lights instead of strobes (unless you use an external solution for firing them), but it’s certainly possible. It’s more a question of motivation.
A dedicated camera would have offered more lens options, a higher-resolution file, a better tethering experience (which can be very important on a shoot with a creative department), and more flexibility in terms of light triggering.
I know, this is an ad for the Moto Z and the camera module that goes with it, but I think this still points to a lingering trend in the photo world in which people are reluctant to accept the fact that smartphone cameras are, in many ways, good cameras. I think Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign is rather brilliant because it shows images taken in places where smartphone cameras really can shine, and the quality it offers is more than enough, even for big print ads. But I think we should already be past this idea of being impressed when a great image is made with a smartphone camera. If the most interesting thing about a photo is the camera with which it was taken, then it’s probably not a very interesting photo. Luckily, that’s not the case here, but maybe this is where that kind of clickbait approach should stop.