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 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max each have three rear-facing lenses with 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 13mm f/2.4, 26mm f/1.8, and 51mm f/2.0, while the iPhone 11 has two rear-facing lenses with 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 26mm and 51mm. Each of these phones also has 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.
Smartphones are also being built with faster lenses to allow for a greater intake of light. The 26mm and 51mm lens on the iPhone 11 respectively open to f/1.8 and f/2.0, and the Samsung S10+ allows for an aperture value of f/2.2 with its 12mm lens. These faster aperture values capture 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.
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 11 Pro Max, with its 12-megapixel sensor. 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 Nokia 9 PureView TA-1082, with its 20-megapixel front camera, or five 20MP rear cameras? 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.
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.
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. Electronic viewfinders (EVF) and shutters let you see exactly what the camera sees, so you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your exposure will look like, including the highlights and shadows, so you can make adjustments on the fly. However, final images and their EVF previews 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.
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.
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.
I've been an SLR photographer (since 1980 with the Canon A-1), long before there were even cell phones, so that has been a bias for landscape versus portrait orientation. In the past, I've forgotten that I can take photographs with my smartphone when I see interesting, or stupid stuff. I'm doing more shooting photos with my smartphone than I have in the past, and shooting videos even though my 5D is capable of videos. But I do most of my phone photography in landscape orientation than portrait. In 2016, my wife and I were traveling in Alabama by the Tennessee River and Lake Guntersville to Huntsville. I had my Canon 5D III on the console between the seats, ready for drive-by-shootings; I notice my wife taking photos of the river and lake with her phone in portrait position. I mention to her "You could probably take better photos in landscape mode."; she said "You're probably right." and switched. The majority of her photographs from the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center were in portrait mode.