The old maxim that bigger is better hasn’t held true in the tech world for quite some time, especially in photography. Cameras have gotten smaller, better and more powerful over the years, so much so that the mini cameras built into our phones are capable of producing images that rival some professional shots.
“The quality of photos taken with a cell phone has become so good that it meets almost 100% of personal snapshot needs,” said Kevin Yatarola, a New York-based professional photographer. “[Phones] don’t have the control you get from dedicated cameras, so they won’t replace cameras for high-end, professional use, but control over those attributes is beyond most casual photographers anyway. “
Is Yatarola right? Are our camera phones really all that most of us need to capture high-quality shots? The answer is yes, for the most part. Here’s why.
FTW digital sensors
The “biggest” advantage of professional digital cameras over smartphone cameras is the size of their sensors. Due to their larger form factors, DSLR and mirrorless cameras can handle larger sensors. This means the camera can capture more visual information and deliver better images, especially in difficult lighting situations, that you can zoom to meaningful sizes without losing fidelity. You can also experience much less noiseespecially when shooting in low light scenarios.
Although smartphone cameras can never compete with the sensor sizes of big cameras, they have steadily improved in terms of the amount of data they can capture with each shot. For example, the first large camera phone to be sold in the United States was the Sanyo SCP-5300, which had a resolution of 0.3 megapixels (MP). By comparison, the Google Pixel 3a has dual 12.2MP cameras, which means it can capture over 40 times more visual data.
But megapixels are only part of the story. Pixel size and apertures also play into the quality equation – and standalone cameras can get ahead of your smartphone camera in this regard. If your camera’s standard lens is not good enough for your needs, for example, you need a lens that supports larger openings for better night shots, you can buy and install something else, as long as your camera supports interchangeable lenses. It takes five seconds to do, allowing you to carry multiple lenses for the different types of images you could be able take a shoot.
In terms of sensor size and lens quality, professional cameras will always outperform camera phones. But unless you need to enlarge your images to extremely large sizes (which most casual camera users rarely need to do), or are planning to buy super lenses expensive and bulky for specialized shots, you’re going to be more than fine with the camera in your pocket for everyday use. DSLR cameras allow you to specialize (and have more consistent image quality during a photoshoot), but your smartphone camera will still give you plenty of gems, especially with computational photography helping.
Speaking of software…
While the physical components of your camera phone will never be able to compete with those of professional platforms, advancements in software, both inside and outside of your phone’s camera, begin compensate for the material difference.
For example, stand-alone cameras are able to create a sharp foreground and blurred background through the use of long lenses with different aperture sizes. However, you can also achieve a similar effect on your smartphone through the use of split-second analysis and processing of your images.
The way camera phones do this is through the previously mentioned “digital photography” feature. Essentially, the algorithms do the heavy lifting to give you great photos instead of relying exclusively on your camera’s lenses and sensors.
Consider Google’s Pixel phones, which save multiple frames of images when you tap your device to take a photo. Your phone then breaks down those images, picks the best bits from each, and stitches them together into the photo you see. This results in less blurry photos, with nice dynamic range (sharp highlights and rich shadows) and good color and contrast. Likewise, many iPhones can analyze which part of a composition contains a face, allowing you to isolate it and blur the background to create its “Portrait Lighting” depth of field effect.
Camera phone software can compensate for your shaky hands, take images with no shutter lag and, thanks to the dual camera setups in many phones, even mimic quite extensive optical zooms, all features that used to belong only to big cameras.
Plus, the software lets you control more shooting components with your camera phone than ever before. Previously, settings like ISO, white balance, and aperture were the domain of standalone cameras alone. Now, the native camera app inside almost every smartphone allows for these kinds of advanced adjustments, making them pretty much commonplace.
Do you still need an SLR?
Unless you’re an avid hobbyist or professional, a high-quality phone camera should be all you need to take vibrant, creative photos that will display beautifully online or even in size prints. regular. Unless, of course, you’re shooting in low-light or tricky-light scenarios; in which case you might still be better off with a DSLR camera, but you’ll also be paying for killer lenses that can help you get those shots right.
While camera phone hardware will never be as good as standalone cameras, software will continue to advance and compensate for that fact. Of course, as the technology that powers your phone’s camera continues to improve, so will DSLRs and standalone mirrorless cameras. But when you factor in the cost of stand-alone cameras and the ultimate convenience of having a camera built into your phone, the latter simply comes out on top most of the time.
After all, the best camera is the one you have with you – as the saying goes – and even if you own a badass DSLR, you’re 98% more likely to have a smartphone on you when you come across one of those random moments of life that demand to be preserved for posterity.
For more on photography, watch the video below:
Correction: This post has been updated to correct an erroneous reference to “film” cameras in the title and to clarify references to DSLR versus film cameras.