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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.