Smartphone vs DSLR: The better choice for the perfect shot?

Smartphones are convenient and photographically more capable than ever, and now considerably the default choice for many amateur photographers. But to what extent will we be moving away from dedicated cameras in the long run?

There’s an old saying that goes, “the best camera is the one you’ve got with you.” That being said, you’ll find beautiful photos, shot on different sorts of cameras, including DSLR and smartphone systems. The once booming compact camera market may still be alive, but it’s significantly different from what it used to be in the past. Almost a decade ago, the market was rich with options from various manufacturers whose roots might be traced back to several different places, from traditional photographic companies and general electronics ones, to new players keen on disrupting the market with a more leftfield offering.

While a few of these companies still have a hand within the market, their focus has narrowed to only a couple of niche sub-sectors: DSLR-like cameras with expansive zoom lenses built into them; enthusiast compact cameras with large sensors; and cameras which will happily travel underwater. Many of those are still distinct enough from smartphones to warrant their existence, but outside of those, and cameras designed specifically for kids, little else remains.

The sheer number of photos taken on smartphones is one obvious result of their increasing market share overall. By 2013 they were outselling digital cameras by a factor of almost 10 to 1. Initially, it wasn’t obvious that this transition would happen so quickly—and it certainly caught many camera makers flat-footed. But in hindsight, it’s straightforward to determine what caused the rapid adoption of smartphones for photography.

smartphone vs DSLR
How did we go from here…
(Image Credit: Denis Makarenko, Shutterstock.com)

smartphone vs DSLR
… to here?
(Image Credit: hurricanehank / Shutterstock.com)

However, smartphone photography isn’t just limited to being convenient nowadays. With a rapid influx in new innovations and a robust demand amongst the user base, is the modern-day smartphone replacing professional cameras? Let’s explore.

While the primary decade of smartphone innovation saw them catch up to earlier DSLR models and competitive compact cameras, innovation definitely didn’t stop there. Shortly after smartphones began to surpass compact cameras for several use cases, the most obvious question followed, “Can they also surpass DSLRs and their newly-evolved full-frame mirrorless competitors?” That battle began in earnest around 2013 and 2015, so we’ll check out how those technologies have evolved between then and now.

During those years, smartphones continued to make exponential progress in image quality, despite a slowdown of development in basic sensor and optical technology. For instance, check out these crops from a standard target image taken with five generations of iPhone:

Low-light-iPhone-shots smartphones vs DSLR
Low light (5 lux) hand-held pictures were taken with generations of iPhones — 5s to 11 Pro Max. (Credit: DXOMARK)

If progress wasn’t through better sensors and optics, the apparent question is—how was it possible? One of the solutions to improve image quality and reduce noise was increased exposure time. However, simply leaving the shutter open longer causes a variety of issues. First, if the camera isn’t on a tripod, camera motion becomes a problem. To address the issue, smartphone makers began deploying more sophisticated optical stabilization systems. However, a stabilization system by itself doesn’t help with the second issue, which is a motion by the object.

All the big smartphone manufacturers want you to believe that only they have a camera that deserves your money. Apple encourages iPhone users to share their best photos on Instagram with the hashtag #ShotOniPhone and can often share those images in TV ads for the iPhone. Google recently partnered with John Legend to film a music video that was shot entirely on the Google Pixel 2, and Samsung had a contract with the International Olympics Committee to offer every athlete the prospect to record and share their best memories on a Galaxy Note 8 at the 2018 Olympics. Smartphone cameras are good for business.

Smartphone vs DSLR: Advantages of DSLR

Dedicated cameras have tons of versatility and can likely always be ready to do things that a smartphone can’t. For example, you can’t attach a 200mm zoom lens to your smartphone, and even if you’ll, you’d probably look odd doing it.

The resolution of photos taken on DSLR and mirrorless cameras is additionally much greater than the resolution of smartphone cameras because of their larger sensors that number up to 40 megapixels or more. More megapixels doesn’t mean a better photo, but the sensors in dedicated cameras are much larger than smartphone cameras which means they will let in a lot more light and produce better photos, with more dynamic range, in low-light scenarios.

A DSLR also will typically offer you more creative control when it involves exposure. You’ve got absolute control over your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. Smartphones can simulate most of those scenarios, but they’re only as good as the software they ship with.

Finally, DSLR cameras have great batteries that ought to easily last you each day or more. And if you happen to run out, you can quickly replace it with a spare and continue to shoot.

Smartphone vs DSLR: Advantages of smartphone cameras

Case closed? Not yet. Your smartphone isn’t getting to offer you the range of a 200mm zoom lens, but what it lacks in range, it makes up for in spontaneity. People carry their smartphones everywhere they go. That’s not true with a professional camera. 

A DSLR with a 200mm lens proves to be great in many scenarios, but it’s also heavy, a bit cumbersome, and it’ll add extra weight to your neck and shoulders. Done shooting together with your smartphone? Stick it in your pocket and go ahead.

Hi-res smartphone sensors aren’t going to be a common sight in smartphones for at least a while, but most people don’t need that much resolution unless they’re printing poster-sized pictures. If you’re printing photos at 6×4, 5×7, or maybe 8×10, your photos will look great when taken in decent light. If you prefer to look at your photos on a laptop to TV, you’re equally well served.

The batteries in today’s smartphones tend to last for almost a day, but that works out fine because we all charge our phones regularly, and if you are starting to run out, power banks can be used. And, at the end of the day, once you are finished shooting, you can edit your pictures on your phone, post them on Instagram, and backup your photos to the cloud without even removing a memory card or connecting your phone to a computer. Try doing that on your DSLR.

In the end, it all comes back to use the case and fulfilling the notion of being good enough. Whether a smartphone is a perfect option to satisfy your photographic needs? Two or three years ago, the answer might have been a resounding no, but today, a smartphone is that the go-to camera for many people. Proof: check the number one camera brand on Flickr. The answer is the same for the past seven years: the iPhone.

A DSLR isn’t a bad choice, or in any way lagging behind a smartphone, it’s just becoming more of a niche segment product. It is a camera for specific people in specific situations, because convenience may be a huge factor while buying for certain users. Professional photographer, Chase Jarvis, is always seen saying, the simplest camera is that the one you’ve got with you, and that’s exactly the kind of world we are living in

Of course, there’s nothing to mention you can’t have your cake and eat it. The smartphone can often be your everyday camera for spontaneous moments of sharing creativity while your DSLR may often be reserved for those occasions where you know you’re going to need a camera with the very best quality pictures you’ll get. The selection is yours.

Smartphone vs DSLR: Photo comparison

smartphone vs dslr photo comparision
(Image Credit: DXOMARK)

smartphone vs dslr photo comparision
(Image Credit: DXOMARK)

(Image Credit: DXOMARK)

smartphone vs dslr photo comparision
(Image Credit: DXOMARK)


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