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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.