Travel Shoot-out: iPhone 8 Plus vs. Sony A7R II

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I have always been of the opinion that if you have a camera and you understand the limitations of what it can and cannot do, you can take acceptable—if not very good—photographs with just about anything that goes “click.” With this thought in mind, I recently went on vacation with two cameras: a “real” camera, specifically a Sony A7R II, and a smartphone, specifically an iPhone 8 Plus. With an increasing number of photo-literate friends telling me they only took their phones on their last vacation, I was curious to see how photographs taken with a smartphone compare to photographs taken with a pro-quality camera under similar travel conditions.

My Cameras

Apple’s iPhone 8 Plus features dual 12MP cameras—a default image-stabilized 28mm f/1.8 (35mm equivalent) lens and a 56mm f/2.8 (equivalent) lens with 10x digital zoom. It also captures 4K video and comes with an extensive set of editing tools. Considering we're describing a device intended for phone calls, texting, and ordering pizza while streaming kitten videos, this is impressive.

The Sony A7R II packs a full-frame, 42MP full-frame sensor and accepts a wide range of dedicated and third-party lenses. It has a 399-point AF system, 4K video, 5-Axis image stabilization, RAW capture, and ISO sensitivity up to 102400 wrapped up in a metal-alloy body. It cannot make phone calls, text, or order pizza while streaming kitten videos. Again, nothing is perfect.

My lenses included a Zeiss Milvus 25mm f/1.4, an amazing lens by any standard, along with a pair of 55mm f/2.8 and 200mm f/4 Micro-NIKKORs, which by plan closely complement the optical parameters of the iPhone's dual lens system. Neither the camera nor my lenses fit in my pocket. Two points for the iPhone.

Ergonomics and Functionality

The differences between the Sony/Zeiss combination and Apple’s iPhone 8 Plus are glaring. For starters, the iPhone 8 Plus is a phone. It does take impressively good photographs and it does fit in one’s pocket but, as a phone, it’s ergonomically dysfunctional and awkward to use.

You can’t slip a Sony A7R II in your pocket, but it looks, feels, and performs like a camera. Smaller than comparably equipped DSLRs, Sony A7-series cameras fit comfortably in my medium-sized adult hands with enough heft to steady them. Sure, the edges are sharp and the menus are annoying, but there’s no question it’s a camera.

Aside from blown-out highlights, the differences between pictures taken on bright sunny days with an iPhone 8-Plus (left) and a Sony A7R II with a Zeiss 25mm f/1.4 Milvus lens (right) are not obvious until you start increasing image size.

Image Quality

Just like the point-and-shoot cameras they’ve all but replaced, current-generation smartphones take impressively good, if not great, photographs. Placed next to comparable photographs captured with higher-resolution sensors up to 7-times larger in physical size, they can and do fall short. Smartphone photographs have narrower dynamic ranges, which is most noticeable in the shadows and highlights.

My iPhone is notably happier in daylight, though depending on the level of ambient light, I was able to capture sharp, detailed, albeit sometimes noisier photographs long after the sun had set.

Even in low light, handheld pictures captured with the iPhone (left) hold up well, compared to handheld pictures taken with the Sony A7R II (right). The highlights in the iPhone photos blow out quickly but the mid-tones and shadows look good.
Two additional handheld comparisons between the iPhone 8-Plus (left) and the Sony A7R II (right)

Viewing Systems

The Sony A7R II offers two choices for composing and chimping—a glare-free eye-level 2.36M-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a 3” 1,228.8k-dot tilting LCD. The camera’s EVF allows for steadier 3-point camera handling. The tilting LCD allows for arm’s distance composing and reviewing and shooting from non-eye-level camera positions. Composing and reviewing photos and video with the Sony is a piece of cake regardless of how good or bad the lighting is or how awkward your camera position may be.

The advantages of a tilt screen and full aperture control are well illustrated in these two photographs, taken with the Sony A7R II with a 25mm lens.

Apple's iPhone 8 Plus has a 5.5" 1980 x 1080-dot tap-focus Retina display. Being a fixed display, there’s little choice but to use it straight-on at arm’s distance. Depending on the ambient light levels, the screen can be wonderful or impossible. Two points for the Sony.

Lens Choices

Most smartphones have a single wide or semi wide-angle lens with digital zoom. The iPhone 7-plus, 8-plus, and X feature separate wide-angle and a normal lens with digital zoom. The problem with digital zoom is that the more you zoom, the worse the image quality.

For wide-angle shooting, the iPhone 8-Plus (left) and Sony A7R II with a 25mm f/2.8 Milvus (right) both do a fine job. The Sony image packs more detail when you start eyeballing the pixels.
Photos like this narrow angle-of-view desert landscape, take with the Sony A7R II and a 200mm lens, are beyond the abilities of the iPhone 8-Plus. At this magnification, the image would pixelate, and, unless the image were intentionally underexposed, the highlights would undoubtedly burn out.

To get around these limitations there are a number of third-party wide, telephoto, and fisheye attachments you can attach to your phone’s prime lens that can expand the optical your range, but at the end of the day these are add-ons that often fall short on clarity and color rendition, especially toward the edges of the frame.

As convenient as smartphones may be—and they are convenient—real cameras leave smartphones at the starting line when it comes to lenses, especially if you have a need for longer focal lengths. Manufacturers offer lenses ranging from ultra-wide fisheyes to super-telephoto lenses up to 800mm and longer. With a real camera, you can photograph anything regardless of how big, how small, or how far from the camera it may be.

Two points for the Sony.

Additional Side-by-Side Comparisons between the iPhone 8-Plus (left) and Sony A7R II (right)

Size and Weight

Viewed from behind, the iPhone 8 Plus and Sony A7R II appear similar in size, but turn them sideways and it's a different story. The iPhone 8 Plus measures 0.3" thick, while the Sony is 2.4" and that's before you add a lens. The iPhone fits in your pocket. The Sony doesn’t.

Before you mount a lens on it, the Sony A7R II weighs about 220 ounces compared to 7.13 ounces for the iPhone 8 Plus. I always had the iPhone 8 Plus with me. I cannot say the same about my larger and bulkier Sony system.

Two points for the iPhone.

In Use

The Sony A7R II looks, feels, and performs like a real camera because it is a real camera. Ergonomically and functionally, the iPhone 8 Plus is the opposite. Its primary function is to make phone calls, etc, etc. As a camera, it’s awkward in use and you're limited in terms of exposure control compared to the controls built into real cameras.

Selective focus is possible with the iPhone, but it’s difficult in bright light, and you have to work fast.

A tilt screen might not make it easier to order pizza but it does come in handy when trying to taking pictures from positions other than eye-level.

Selective focus with narrow depth of field was easy to exploit using the 25mm Zeiss lens. Although I was able to capture similar selectively focused photographs with the iPhone, it took additional time and effort.

Additional samples of selectively focused photographs, captured with the Sony A7R II

One iPhone feature I found to be handy is the Live Photo mode, which captures 1.5 seconds of video before and after you click the shutter. Comparable to a long burst of images captured with a high-speed winder, by scrolling through the individual frames, you can select the true precise moment, the best facial expression, best lighting, or best composition, and save it as the primary image of the series.

In Summary

The images I captured with the iPhone 8 Plus—as amazing as they are, place second when it comes to fine detail and exposure latitude. Highlights tend to blow out faster and shadows yield less detail than comparable photographs taken with the Sony A7R II.

Stainless-steel sculpture at night in a Jerusalem park, captured with the Sony A7R II. The white spots in the sky are stars.

If your goal is to be able to produce sharp, vibrant prints larger than 13 x 19" or 16 x 20", the Sony is a better choice. The images you can capture with any of the current iPhones or comparable smartphones from other manufacturers are amazingly good and often rival the results I obtained with premium point-and-shoot cameras.

Something that greatly elevates the iPhone's picture-taking abilities is its advanced post-capture editing tools, which I found enormously helpful for optimizing many of my photographs. After reviewing photographs captured over the course of my two-week adventure, the number of select images captured with my so-called real camera system and my smartphone was fairly equal. With some photographs, the only obvious giveaway as to which pictures were taken with which camera often has to do with the aspect ratio—Sony images are 2:3 and iPhone images are a boxier 4:3.

Resolution and related small-sensor issues aside, the iPhone 8-plus and Sony A7R II both qualify as competent travel companions in a wide range of light. The Sony wins over the iPhone 8-Plus, but regardless, the iPhone stands tall on its own.

Though the Sony A7R II photographs are unmatched for image quality, many of the iPhone photographs appealed to my visual senses more than the greater-detailed, though less visually provocative images taken with the Sony. Detail is one thing, emotion is another.

The inability to use longer focal length lenses with smartphones is a big disadvantage. Digital zoom is acceptable to a point, but ultimately the image quality of the photograph degrades rapidly as you dial up the image magnification.

For wide-angle photographs like the iPhone image at left, smartphones are fine. Distance photographs are another matter. With the iPhone digital zoom feature, I could have matched the 200mm AoV of the Sony, but it would be pixelated and not as detailed.

Am I ready to surrender my penchant for real cameras for slick shiny devices I can slip into my pocket? No… at least not yet. But while I will always own a real camera system, there’s little doubt it’s going to become increasingly easier to head out on vacation with nothing more than a phone in my pocket. I’m not there yet but…

What’s your take on the issue? I’d be curious to know.

8 Comments

Nice article! I also agree with Greg O. If I still had my Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2.8, that would have also been a great combo with the Sony a7rII. That combo is super small and capable. Unfortunately, I sold that lens and now I regret it. On a recent family vacation to Austria I took my Leica Q as my only camera. I also took my iPhone 8 Plus. I left my Sony a7rII at home because all of my remaining lenses for the Sony system are huge fast primes. With two kids in tow, I couldn't manage all that. When I look back at all the photos I took, I can say without a doubt that the iPhone 8 Plus did a great job outdoors for snapshots, panoramas and video. The Leica Q was just overkill for outdoor family snapshots. Plus, the iPhone panoramas and videos are better and easier. The panorama mode was great for times when I couldn't fit everything in the iPhone's frame. But for the indoor photography, in lower light, and for the winning images of my kids that I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life, the Leica Q takes the cake. Of the hundreds of shots, I got two clear winners from that trip and both images were from the Leica Q. Hands down, it made taking a real camera totally worth the extra trouble. Those two images made it all worthwhile and the iPhone lens could never have rendered the scenes the way the Leica Q did. And the rendering is what made those shots. Sure a real camera is not as small as my iPhone, but if you take a very small kit, it's worth it.

On a recent family trip through Rome and many towns in Umbria and Tuscany, I wanted to travel light, enjoy my time with the family but also capture great images.  I carried a Sony a7riii with a Zeiss Sonnar 35m prime almost everywhere.  I also brought a GM24-70 but only used it twice (at the Vatican and for outdoor sculptures at night on a tripod).   When i wasn't wearing the Sony on a strap, the form factor was so small it was in small general purpose shoulder bag. I used a Google Pixel 2 as a project Fi phone and used that camera whenever I wanted a little wider angle shot and for whatever reason wasn't able to physically back up in the scene.  And some evenings, particularly in Rome if I didn't want to worry about an expensive camera when the purpose wasn't shooting, I shot only with the phone.  I have lots of excellent images from both cameras.  Yes, the extra pixels from the Sony to use in Lightroom particularly when cropped is so far ahead of the pixel for prints but that's well after the moment when at home.  Meanwhile, the ability to make striking images for social media after quick editing on the phone from the Pixel is amazing.  Both great options for different purposes and easy to carry both given the sizes

I have done a lot of learning on how to get the best pictures possible out of my iPhone 7+.  After carrying a back up camera for two years, I finally left it at home.  The iPhone is so good at 90% of the pictures I want to take, that I could just go without bigger heavier camera and look a little less like a vulnerable tourist.  However, we took a trip to Antarctica a few months ago and my landscapes are wonderful, but I just could not get great pictures of whales.  Now we are planning a safari and I am looking at maybe a Panasonic P1000 - strictly for distance shots, like lions that I don't want to get physically too close to, but photographically, I want to be in their face!  Comments or suggestions?

I own a Nikon D810 and an iPhone 7.  In many places where I travel, it's just not practical to carry a big heavy DSLR camera.  Granted the D810 takes much better pictures and I can do post-processing but the iPhone is also a multi-function device.  Besides being a phone and a camera, it's also a notebook, map, compass, voice-recorder, encyclopedia, etc.  When traveling or backpacking and weight becomes an issue, I will just take my iPhone 7.  Better to have some pictures than no pictures.

One thing I like about the Sony A7RII vs. the iPhone is that with the A7RII while shooting I am never interrupted by a phone call. 😁

I solved that problem early on - I glued my iPhone case to the bottom of my Sony A7R II - didn't miss a single call!

I am curious: Did you use RAW capture with the iPhone 8 Plus? That would make a big difference and should have been mentioned in the article.

Can't argue with you. The problem is tat I purchased the iPhone days before leaving and never had an opportunity to explore RAW options until I returned from my trip.

Maybe next year with the iPhone 12 and Sony's A7R IV...  stay tuned...

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