Mobile Photography vs. the DSLR


There’s an old saying that goes, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” Just spend some time browsing the Internet and you can find beautiful photos taken with a wide variety of cameras, including DSLR and smartphone systems. Now, perhaps you’re a professional who sees a smartphone photo and can’t help but think, “Imagine how much better that would look if it’d been taken with a pro-level camera.” Consequently, maybe you’re a photo enthusiast who is perfectly happy with smartphone captures and can’t imagine why someone would not only want to sell their car to purchase a full-frame rig, but then lug all that heavy gear around. After all, a smartphone will fit in your pocket, right? However, I don’t think it comes down to whether DSLR cameras are better than smartphones. It comes down to which is better for you. Let’s explore.

Smart Smartphone Cameras

Smartphone cameras are powerful tools that have essentially replaced point-and-shoot cameras, and to be able to use one device for basically all your tech needs is incredibly convenient. On top of that, many of the pro-level features that smartphones once lacked are being incorporated into the more recent iOS and Android devices. While older smartphones were limited by a single lens with a fixed focal length and digital zoom—and there still aren’t many phones with optical zoom—it’s now more common to see smartphones with multiple camera lenses. For example, the iPhone Xs has two rear-facing lenses with 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 26mm and 51mm, plus a Portrait Mode to deliver soft backgrounds associated with longer lenses and wider-open apertures. If you’d like to expand beyond that, there are several clip-on lenses available that allow your smartphone to be adapted for fisheye, macro, wide-angle, and telephoto photography, plus anamorphic video. Even if you opt to carry four smartphone lenses with you, the weight will be non-existent when compared to carrying around four DSLR lenses. B&H does offer a wide variety of mobile add-on lenses and filters, which are available here.

Moment Wide Lens

Smartphones are also being built with faster lenses to allow for a greater intake of light. The Samsung S9+ allows for an aperture value of f/1.5, which captures more light and can produce softer backgrounds for greater control over which part of the image you’d like to be in focus. When paired with manual exposure, whether natively built into your phone or controlled using a third-party app, you’ll have more control over shutter speed, ISO, and JPEG or raw captures, with the approach being reminiscent of a DSLR. One popular app that gives smartphone users a great deal of control is Lightroom CC, which enables users to shoot HDR images in Adobe’s DNG format, and can also output high-quality images for the Web or small prints. Users of Adobe Creative Cloud software even benefit from syncing. If you need flash for your shots, many phones are also now built with LED flash units that better blend in with existing ambient light sources.

Samsung Galaxy S9+ SM-G965U 64GB Smartphone

DSLR Cameras or Smartphones Are Good, but…

There’s no arguing that smartphones are a very user-friendly photo solution—and now the inevitable BUT—there are some areas in which they can’t complete with a DSLR system. The first is their small image sensor size. Take the iPhone Xs, with its 12-megapixel sensor and 1.4µm pixels. As good as it is, it will never be able to match or replace the high-resolution, 24 x 36mm full-frame sensors from Nikon or Canon, such as the D850, 5DS R, or 5D Mark IV. So, why not just opt for a smartphone camera with more megapixels, such as the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, with its 20-megapixel sensor? Yes, more megapixels give more resolution, but on a sensor that small and with the pixels packed more closely together, the results won’t be representative of a larger sensor, and image noise will be more apparent, especially at higher ISO values.

Huawei Mate 10 Pro BLA-A09 128GB Smartphone

If you’re someone who shoots DX or APS-C formats, these cameras will likewise give you superior resolution when compared to a smartphone. DSLRs’ larger sensors also provide a greater dynamic range, which is especially useful in low light or scenes with high contrast. Furthermore, nothing beats being able to change lenses and use whatever focal lengths you want.

Nikon D850 DSLR Camera

Another difference between DSLRs and smartphones is the DSLR’s physical shutter and optical viewfinder versus the smartphone’s electronic shutter and display. This isn’t necessarily a negative and is a matter of preference. While electronic viewfinders and shutters let you see exactly what the camera sees, images can get noisier at higher ISOs, there can be rolling shutter with fast-moving subjects, and using external flash units can be challenging. Smartphones also often have slower autofocus performance and can experience shutter lag.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR Camera

Storage Solutions

No matter your method of capture, the images must be stored somewhere. DSLRs use memory cards and smartphones generally use integrated storage, although there is a growing number of Android devices that also have a microSD card slot. The pros and cons of this are straightforward. DSLRs and their card slots let you swap out storage as need be, but if you forget to bring any media with you (it happens), you’re out of luck. Integrated storage means you don’t have to worry about grabbing memory cards as you run out the door, but once it fills up, you’re done. However, there are options for offloading storage from your device, even while on the go. SanDisk, Transcend, Silicon Power, Gigastone, and Verbatim all make USB drives with a Lightning connector that interface with your iOS device. B&H’s full lineup of memory cards is available here, or if your Android device supports microSD media, browse that here. Alternatively, you can use wireless hard drives to download your memory cards while in the field, or transfer images from your smartphone using an app. For more information on this and to see the options that exist, check out my Explora article, Roundup of Wireless Hard Drives.

SanDisk 128GB iXpand Flash Drive

In Conclusion

As someone who actively shoots, I find that my DSLR and smartphone complement each other. I don’t think smartphones will ever supersede cameras, unless the size of their sensors increases, but they will always remain powerful tools. Again, it’s not entirely about which is technically better, but which is better for you. Technology rapidly evolves and, as smartphone cameras continue to improve, we can expect the same from DSLR systems.

If you are interested in procuring a DSLR or mirrorless camera system, check out my Explora article, Back to School: Recommended Cameras for Photography Majors.

What are your feelings on DSLR systems versus smartphones for photography? Feel free to jump into the conversation in the Comments section.