Over a decade of phone gig photography compared
Gigs have always been one of my favourite options for testing out smartphone cameras as they're inherently challenging environments. They take place in dark venues, they have unpredictable movement, you've got multiple moving subjects on stage, and ideally you're caught in a mosh.
When you combine these factors, getting a good photo at a show isn't easy. Gig photos are a recurring fixture in my phone reviews (at least pre-pandemic) for this reason. They're a good way to assess just how good a camera is.
In the same vein, they're a rather interesting way to see how much phone cameras have improved. Most phones have been able to take reliably good photos in good lighting for over a decade now, but that's not been the case when it comes to lowlight.
As such, we're going to take a deeply specific stroll down memory lane and look at camera samples from bands I've seen more than once but shot with different smartphones.
The vast majority of these photos came from the original image, but there are a few that I had to screenshot from Instagram. These are the square crops, and almost certainly had a filter applied.
Nine Inch Nails
Let's start at the beginning. Nine Inch Nails was my first proper live show, all the way back in 2007 at the Brisbane Riverstage. At the time I was using an i-mate JAMin, a HTC manufactured smartphone running Windows Mobile 5. Dark days. It had a 2MP camera, which as you can clearly see, could barely be called a camera. Out of all of the photos I took at the show, the above is somehow the most coherent.
The following image from the iPhone 5 - taken almost exactly seven years later - isn't exactly outstanding either, but at the very least, it's much much clearer, even if rather noisy.
High on Fire
High on Fire is one of those bands I've seen too many times. By which I mean, still not enough. The first two images in this series really highlight just how good a job Apple was doing with lowlight photography, even a decade ago. The shot from the iPhone 4s isn't very good, but it's much clearer than the following image from the Nokia Lumia 930 which despite being three years newer, really struggled.
Jumping forward to the iPhone X is very much one of those day-and-night differences, and the final image from the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is another step up. While the iPhone X image has noticeable noise and is just a tad blurry, the Mate 20 Pro shot doesn't look like it came from a phone at all.
Capturing movement in lowlight is always tricky, and adding a mosh pit to the situation always makes it harder. Both these photos were naturally taken at the front of the pit (I'm not a coward), but the iPhone 4s shot is very much a blurry mess (kind of like me). The iPhone X shot still has a bit of motion blur on the guitarist in the background, but the increase in ease and quality is abundant.
As much as I live for the pit, sometimes seated tickets are an unfortunate consequence of a cruel and uncaring world. Fortunately, smartphone zoom has gotten far better. The first image is zoomed shot from a Nokia Lumia 930 which is so awful it makes me wonder why I even bothered taking it to a second gig. The second comes from a Huawei P30 Pro's 10x hybrid zoom. A last minute opportunity meant only seated tickets at the back of a rather large Parisian arena were left, but the resulting photo would have most believing anything but.
Of course, working with zoom at a long range makes it very hard to get a sharp photo, but when they land, it's real "a smartphone shouldn't be able to do that" energy.
Live music is lit. Quite literally. Bright lights in dark environments aren't always easy for smartphones to handle, and as you can see in the first shot from the iPhone 6 Plus, there's quite a great deal of unnatural looking blow-out on the green and blue lights. The lighting in the iPhone 7 shot looks far more natural, with the OPPO Reno 5G naturally taking the cake as the newest phone out of the bunch.
At The Drive-In
While the different framing makes it a little tricky to judge, the iPhone 7 image represents a step up in sharpness over the original iPhone SE (which shares its camera with the 2015 iPhone 6s).
Look, these images are mostly just here because I really like the last shot. Both come from their phone's respective zoom lenses, however. I was clearly just a lot closer the second time around.
Six Ft Hick
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro was the first Huawei smartphone where the manufacturer really delivered the goods on camera quality. Despite there being a year between the Huawei shot on the iPhone XR image, there's not a huge difference in image quality. Shame about the whole geopolitics crippling Huawei's consumer business thing.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Bet you didn't see that one coming? Our queen Carly Rae Jepsen sure is a diversion from my baseline of music darker than my heart, but these two shots do a fantastic job of highlighting how the iPhone zoom lenses have improved in a short period.
In the shot from the iPhone X, the image is a little soft. There's some blur on Carly as well as the band, while the image from the iPhone 11 Pro Max is so much sharper.
This article originally appeared on WhistleOut, and has been shared with permission. A huge thanks to Alex Choros for letting us share this story.