Updated: Jan 31, 2019
Smartphone camera technology has come a long ways in recent years, and logically, as the technology improves our phone camera should be able to replace the DSLR, right?
Not so fast Usain.
Ok, it is true that Smartphones have all but killed off point-and-shoot cameras. But can smartphones ever replace a DSLR?
Spoiler alert. In my humble opinion, the answer is No.
But, you say, many professionals are ditching their pricey DSLR’s and using their high-end smartphones to make a living. I would counter by proposing they probably didn’t need the DSLR to begin with.
You see, the question shouldn’t be the smartphone or the DSLR, rather it should be the smartphone and the DSLR. They are two very different things.
(You can listen to a podcast about this comparison with my colleague and friend Tony Avila over at Aperture Priority.)
First of all, DSLR’s have vastly superior sensors that are capable of capturing an incredible amount of information. In the world of Digital Photography, sensor size matters. Comparing the sensor size of a smartphone with a DSLR is like comparing a marble to a basketball. DSLR wins hands down.But what does that big sensor really do for me that I cannot do with my beloved smartphone? I am glad you asked. Here are a few advantages:
Low light – larger sensors collect more light, so they do a better job in low light situations. DSLR’s are getting very good in reducing noise in low light images. Smartphones struggle in low light and the noise? Meh.
Cropping – since there are more pixels in the data you can crop your images and still have excellent resolution. Try cropping a smartphone image and you’ll discover the meaning of the term pixelate.
Image size – again, larger sensors capture more data allowing for larger, tack-sharp prints.
Bokeh – smartphones with smaller sensors struggle to blur the background while keeping the subject in focus.
A Comparison of Sensor Sizes:
Technology changes everything
If you think that technology will someday improve the smartphone cameras so dramatically that it will kill DSLR, consider these two points.
The same technology used to boost the smartphone camera’s capability will also be used by DSLR manufactures to improve their performance. This leads to the second point.
Technology will improve our expectations of quality. So, if you expect, and get, a higher level of quality from your DSLR you'll naturally consider your smartphone to be inferior. Because it always will be when compared to a DSLR.
DSLR technology is quickly moving to a video future where it will be possible to grab a single frame of video and using computational power produce a high-quality still image, a photo, that exceeds what our present day DSLR’s are capable of producing.
Technology improvements will allow us to someday have multiple focus points in the same image. You want sharp images from your feet to the horizon? No problem. Or maybe you want to have a nice bokeh in the same image. No problem, just click and change it.
Another future improvements in camera software will give photographers complete control of the dynamic range of the scene by allowing the photographer to vary the exposure for different areas of the scene within the camera. Talk about high dynamic range!
What Lens Are You Looking Through?
One huge advantage of the DSLR over the smartphone is the glass in front of the sensor. With their interchangeable lens, DSLR’s have an incredible range of capabilities to capture images in all kinds of conditions.
Using that expensive glass on a DSLR will always produce significantly better image quality than even the best smartphones. Add the ability to use interchangeable lens that make it possible to shoot a wide range of subjects:
Present day smartphones are just short of awful when attempting to zoom in to photograph a distant object. The digital zoom feature of every smartphone I have used looks terrible.
The technical quality of the lens to resolve the subject. More glass, more light, better image.
Fast prime lens that produce a shallow depth of field in portraits and still life.
Macro for extreme close-up photography, perspective control for architecture.
Smartphone manufactures have countered with offering multiple cameras, each with a different lens. Sounds impressive, but I refer you to sensor size discussion above.
Comparing image quality
The best way to compare images from smartphones and a camera is to compare shots taken at the same location, and at the same time. So we did.
Not A Smartphone Hater
Many smartphones are now capable of shooting raw files as well as JPEGs. Those RAW files give you a great deal more control in editing and ultimately how an image looks. Mobile apps like Adobe Lightroom CC allow you to produce images that look fantastic on the web, or printed in smaller sizes.
Smartphones will never replace DSLRs, but they'll remain powerful tools that you can carry in your pocket at all times that compliments the quality and control provided by DSLRs.
The cliché “the best camera you have is the one you have with you” is true.
Does It Even Matter
The real question is whether it really matters that smartphone image quality is inferior to that of DSLRs. In the end it comes down to three things:
what expectations you have for quality,
how much control you need over things like exposure and lens choice you need,
and what you’ll intend to do with your images.
For some people, a smartphone is just like the basic compact camera we used to use.
Besides, how cumbersome is it to take a selfie with a DSLR?
About the author: JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."
Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.