Advantages DSLRs Have Over Smartphones, and Why They'll Always Have Them

Advantages DSLRs Have Over Smartphones, and Why They’ll Always Have Them

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I love watching the annual press events of Apple, Google, Samsung and others where they show off their latest high-tech gadgets, including mobile phones. With each new iPhone, Pixel, and Galaxy they seem to repeat a common refrain: “And the camera is the best one ever in a smartphone”.

Are DSLRs fading away with modern advances in smartphone camera technology? Or are they primed and ready for an entirely new life?

Mobile phone cameras are mind-blowing marvels of modern technology. With some of the tech showcased in the recent Pixel 3 announcement, you might be wondering if traditional DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are even relevant anymore.

The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Before you get too deep into this post, I want to make one thing abundantly clear. No-one can tell you which camera is best for you. If you have a 3-megapixel point-and-shoot that does what you want, then, by all means, keep using it and don’t let anyone stop you. Also, if your smartphone takes selfies and Instagram-worthy photos of your morning coffee, then keep snapping away.

In this article, I’ll be looking at some advantages traditional cameras have over smartphones. However, I won’t be telling you which one to buy, and I certainly won’t be telling you to stop using the camera you already have. Too often, the point is missed entirely when people get caught up in silly arguments on internet forums and message boards about whether such-and-such camera is better.

It’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of different cameras, so you have enough information to choose one that best suits you and your needs. However, please don’t think I’m trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t buy.

In almost every way I can think of, modern smartphones can take incredible images compared to those from just a few years ago. These days they have real-time HDR, depth mapping, background separation, multiple lenses, machine learning, portrait mode, selective bokeh adjustment, and even computer-assisted sub-pixel digital zooming. It’s enough to make even the most staunch DSLR owner feel a tad envious.

Still, don’t toss out your Canon or Pentax just yet. DSLRs and other traditional cameras have a treasure trove of advantages no current smartphone can match, and some features they may never be able to achieve.

Lens Selection

What’s the essential advantage of DSLRs over smartphones? I couldn’t tell you, but lens selection would undoubtedly be near the top of the list. Despite all the advances in smartphone photography in recent years, some laws of physics and photons are only overcome when switching lenses like a traditional camera. Most mobile phones have lenses roughly equivalent to a 28mm lens on a full-frame DSLR, although some dual-camera models roughly mimic a 50mm field of view to try and recreate professional-style portraits. Even though you can get adapters (such as the Olloclip) that let you do some creative experimentation, they rarely hold up to dedicated lenses mounted on interchangeable-lens cameras.

By comparison, DLSRs can use hundreds of different lenses, each designed for specific photography needs and situations. No matter what you need from a DSLR, there’s a lens that does it – from wide-angle primes and telephoto zooms to basic kit lenses, tilt-shift, and specialized macro lenses.

A photo like this, which requires a telephoto lens with a wide aperture, isn’t currently possible on any smartphone (and may never be).

The AI-powered tricks and computational somersaults modern cell phones are capable of can work wonders for different photographic situations. But when it comes to choosing the perfect lens for the job, smartphones simply can’t compete. If you want to shoot close-up images, far-away wildlife, fast-moving sports or pleasing group portraits, your mobile phone will probably come up short. Sure, you can’t install apps on most DSLRs. But you can change out lenses which, when it comes to photography, is infinitely more useful.

The portrait mode on mobile phones is amazing. But it doesn’t come close to what you can achieve with a portrait lens on a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Customizable Settings

While phones can produce amazing photographs in lots of different conditions, you’re fairly limited in terms of settings. You usually can’t change the aperture or focal length (and no, digital cropping is not the same as changing focal lengths). All you can really control are the ISO and shutter speed, and the native camera apps rarely even let you do that much.

When you press the button to take a picture on your phone, you’re letting the computer do most of the thinking it terms of white balance, shutter speed, ISO, and even which part of the image should be properly exposed.

One of the biggest selling points of DSLRs and other dedicated cameras is that (while they have auto modes that do much of the heavy lifting) they have manual modes that let you choose everything – aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and even the focal length if you’re using a zoom lens. Admittedly, not everyone wants that much control, and you can choose to shoot in auto or semi-auto if you want. But having such fine-grain control is a huge advantage over smartphones.

I could choose a slow shutter speed to get this shot on my Fuji X100F, whereas most mobile phones would have used a much faster shutter speed resulting in a vastly different image.

Smartphones and the software that powers them are so advanced and sophisticated that people are perfectly happy letting them make the decisions and do most of the heavy lifting. But if you want more control you won’t get it on a mobile phone. Even the dedicated camera apps run up against physical limitations such as focal lengths that can’t be changed.

There are times when the photo you want to take isn’t the photo your camera wants to take. In those situations, a dedicated camera will let you change aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get the exact photo you want.

I shot this image at 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, and 1/4000 second, which is impossible for any mobile phone.

Low-Light Shooting

DSLRs will always have the advantage over mobile phones in low light due to the way camera sensors collect light. Larger sensors mean larger photosensitive sites, which means they can capture more information about incoming light when there isn’t a lot of it.

At Google’s recent Pixel 3 announcement they demonstrated a feature that vastly improves its low-light shooting. But it only works with still subjects. It also runs into the same limitations all mobile phones have such as fixed focal length and limited options for changing settings.

I took this deep under the earth in Mammoth Cave National Park, 23mm, f/2.0, 1/20 second, ISO 6400. While some phones could have taken a shot similar to this they would have needed much longer shutter speeds, which would make the people a blurry mess.

Try it for yourself to see what I mean. Even with the best night-mode options on the newest mobile phone, you’ll still struggle to get clear shots of moving subjects. It’s great if you only require pictures of static compositions such as buildings or parked cars. But if you want to capture shots of kids, animals or anything that moves around, your mobile phone will probably leave you wanting more.

As the technology advances, low-light photography on mobile phones will improve. But there will always be physical limitations inherent in the platform that DSLRs and mirrorless cameras simply don’t have to deal with. Much of it stems from their larger image sensors, which collect much more light data per pixel. But the fact cameras let you specify the ISO value you need to get the image you want is also a big advantage.

Model train in a dim basement, shot at 50mm, f/2.8, 1/60 second, ISO 3200.

Not Quite There… Yet

I’m a big believer in the promise of computational photography in mobile phones. If the best camera is the one you have with you, then for hundreds of millions of people around the world their mobile phone is the ideal choice. But even with all the rapid advances in technology, there are still plenty of reasons to own a traditional camera.

If you have one that’s been relegated to a dark closet or dusty shelf and replaced by a high-tech mobile phone, get it out and see what it can do. The results may surprise you and have you wanting to use it more and explore the possibilities it offers.

What about you? What are the advantages of using traditional cameras that keep you coming back to them time after time? I’d also like to hear your thoughts about mobile phones and the technology they offer photographers.

One thing is clear. No matter where you stand on this issue, we certainly live in exciting times for photography.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • dabhand

    Your quote “No matter where you stand on this issue, we certainly live in exciting times for photography.” is so true, but DPS (and other similar sites) continue to churn out articles which reflect the attitudes and approaches of years gone by, seeking the ‘safe spaces’ of risk averse discussions regarding FF, mirrorless, compositional ‘rules’ etc which are acceptable to the narrow world of monied photographers and major manufacturer’s advertising agencies, rather than reflecting the types and nature of photography pursued by the majority.

  • Nizmo

    Unless Apple produce fast autofocus zooms like 24-70 f/2.8 which you can mount on stabilized pdaf iPhone sensor no one will take then seriously. And I don’t think it will happen any time soon.

  • Albin

    Nothing to disagree with about hardware limitations of even the best current smartphones, but reading some enthusiast forums there’s increasing dissatisfaction with the in-camera “intelligence” available for shooting SOOC jpegs with serious DLSR, mirrorless or prosumer large sensor compacts. Certainly the smartphone AI is mainly limited to achieving results in a narrow range of family snapshot, postcard landscape, flower blossom or selfie bokeh conventions, with some “fun” art or lens distortion filtering – and certainly much better is available from serious hardware, and post-processing, especially for print or large screen display.

    But heads are being scratched as to why the software for the most sophisticated and expensive camera kit has to be entirely proprietary and limited to one rigid OEM’s prescriptions and priorities, when smartphones permit third party devs to sell alternative interfaces with different modes drawing out different hardware capabilities from the same device. (Some Canon users will be familiar with “hacks” to that firmware that model by model offer significant changes to control or enhancements pushing capability that Canon’s software restricts.)

  • What “types and nature of photography which are pursued by the majority” would you like to see articles on ?

  • dabhand

    Can you make it happen ? As you are a professional photographer could you get into the mind of those for whom photography is a pleasing pursuit and a break from the rest of their day to day means of earning a living. In a comment on this page you reply to someone saying “It’s up to you if you want to take snapshots. I prefer to be more thoughtful and careful when taking photographs” which would be a big put down implying they don’t think and are careless – not everyone has the time to be in the right place at the right time with £00000’s worth of gear.

    So articles which did not denigrate them as individuals, nor trotted out outdated or meaningless techno babble but which focused on making the best of their phones, point/shoot, bridge cameras, m43rds etc, could help them get the best of their gear – after all this is supposed to be a ‘school’ not just a resource for those who can afford ‘the best’.

    Flickr, for example, currently hosts 75 million users who upload 25+ million images / day – you may not feel they are ‘real’ photographers who create ‘images’ of any value, in which case that’s a huge population who may benefit from help and advice.

  • @disqus_MJmi6OcCXt:disqus Thanks for your reply. My use of the word ‘snapshot’ was in response to the poster who had used the term to refer to their own photography. I was certainly not intending it to be a put down and I am sorry if it appeared to be one. My intention when I write about and teach photography is to be positive, encouraging and helpful.

    I asked what you would like to see articles on because I realise my perspective is that of a minority – a professional with a lot of experience. I want my articles to be relevant to readers, as I think all DPS contributors do.

    Personally I do not find the words ‘professional’ and ‘ amateur’ any reflection on the quality of a photographers images, or their experience. The main difference I perceive is a professional has the responsibility to produce images editors and clients want and are willing to pay for. I have browsed through many stunning portfolios on Flickr and elsewhere of images made by amateurs and professionals.

  • dabhand

    One of the better articles I’ve read on DPS is Why Your Camera Gear Doesn’t Matter by Stacey Hill. Too many other articles focus on what gear you need to create ‘professional’ images (DPS words not mine) in all genres and in general how that can only be met by DSLR/ FF bodies / f2.0 lense / $500 tripods / etc etc – a better approach to my mind would be to recognise that many cannot afford the time / money to achieve ‘perfection’ by turning that round and for each genre explain how to maximise the potential for better results, if possible, for each general camera type.

  • dabhand

    I think you really miss the point – there’s an upcoming ‘financially powerful’ generation whose focus (pardon the pun) is not on 24-70 f2.8 but on immediacy, accessibility and portability – big dslr’s are not the answer, save for a very restricted audience. Failing to recognise sea changes in technology only leads failing companies – remember Kodak ? Such was a lesson learnt by Steve Jobs at Apple who was publicly resistant and against the idea of Apple making a phone because he, like many other Apple engineers and executives, thought cell phones “sucked”, however once convinced – well the rest is history. Continuing to raise prices is not a long term success strategy.

  • Nizmo

    I don’t miss any point, your iPhone will always be a compromise. Fake bokeh will never work in videos, there’ll never be autofocus zooms for phones and Steve Jobs wasn’t an engeneer.

  • Mike Fewster

    It would be just as true to argue that a dslr will never be able to do some things that a medium format camera can do. That doesn’t mean that medium format will once again become more than a niche market. The question is, will camera phones be able to deliver performance that is acceptable for the needs of most users.
    dslrs therefore make more sense for most people than medium format.
    Camera phones are now getting IQ that would have been thought to be incredible 20 years ago. You’d have to be very very brave to suggest that in another 20 years, the images from camera phone type cameras wont meet the needs of most people. Mind you, another, highly likely scenario is that dslr and especially mirrorless, will start to catch up and add some of the technology from current cameras into their larger bodies and really take advantage of computational image making. This could revolutionize lens design in traditional cameras and the results might look nothing like current dslr design.

  • Richard Tague

    At the end of the day, the ‘best’ camera is the one you have with you at the time.

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