Cell Phone Versus DSLR - Can you tell which is which?

Cell Phone Versus DSLR – Can you tell which is which?

We live in weird times as photographers. Paradoxes abound and when it comes to the idea of cameras and whether or not cellphone photographic performance is on par with dedicated digital camera systems is an issue which sees even learned opinions hopelessly polarized.

“Cellphone cameras are killing photography!” – “It’s such a great time to be a photographer since we have cameras right on our phones.” – “A cell phone is not a camera!” – There are many opinions on this topic!

I have a good friend who photographed his way through Europe with nothing but his cellphone while editing along the way using Lightroom Mobile. His photographs are nothing short of incredible.

At the same time, even I sometimes get tired of all the “cellphone artists” who seem to bypass the fundamental nature of photography with their tiny little gadgets held out in front of them.

Canon camera and a smartphone - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

So with the debate still raging over whether or not a cellphone can match the performance of a more traditional camera…an idea suddenly came to me. Granted, I’m not the first person to ever think of this but it’s a new idea for me nonetheless and one that I wanted to share with all of you fine people.

I decided to put my own cell phone up against one of my standby full-frame DSLR camera bodies and do some blind comparisons of the images.

I want you to come along for the ride. Can you tell which images were shot with the DSLR and which were done with the cell phone? Could it be that a cell phone will ever be capable of producing images that are close to or dare I say even exceed the results obtained from a “professional” grade DSLR?

The Test

For this fun little evaluation we will be looking at the core quality of both RAW and JPEG files from a DSLR and a cellphone. The test camera is a Canon 5D Mk3 and the phone is the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active.

The comparison is for image quality only. Pay attention to the sharpness, the color, and the contrast presented in each one of the images. I’ve numbered each photo so you can make your guesses down below in the comment area if you like!

And yes, before you mention it, lenses play a huge role in final image quality. To me that makes this test even more interesting because the glass of the cell phone camera isn’t interchangeable; meaning the lens you have on your phone is the essentially the only one you can use (unless you go with aftermarket attachments) which makes its fidelity all the more crucial.

Let’s talk sensors…

As far as image sensor size is concerned there really isn’t much comparison between one inside a full-frame DSLR image and the one that fits inside of your cellphone. This is what interests me. Dimensionally speaking the image sensors from the 5D MK3 and the S8 Active is like comparing grapes and watermelons.

That being said, deciding how that impacts image quality is completely up to the eye of the beholder depending on your definition of “professional quality”.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Active

Samsung phone - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

The camera on the Galaxy S8 Active sports a 12MP sensor which has a physical dimension of 1/2.55 inches or about 12.7mm with individual pixels measuring 1.4 microns. I assume the 12.7mm is the diagonal measurement but I have found no information directly indicating this.

The lens of the S8 Active has a maximum aperture of f/1.7 and fixed (??mm) focal length.

Canon 5D MK3

The Canon 5D MK3 has a 22.3MP full frame sensor featuring a diagonal measurement of approximately 1.7 inches (about 43.27mm) with a pixel size of 6.1 microns. I used a (??mm) lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4.

Canon camera and 50mm lens - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

I know I know…there’s no focal length indicated for either the S8 Active or the one I used with the 5D MK3. This is because some of you astute readers would probably connect the dots for each image and that would ruin the fun!

So, I’m keeping everyone in the dark as far as the focal lengths for both lenses are concerned.

RAW Versus RAW

Just like the estimable 5D MK3, the Samsung S8 (like many others) has the capability to record both RAW and JPEG image files when shooting in “Pro” mode.

So the first series of photos will be comparing the typically drab RAW images from both the 5D MK3 and the S8 Active. Each image was shot at ISO 100 with the shutter speed being matched as closely as possible.

Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs - red fire hydrant

Image #1

Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs - puddle reflection

#2

Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs - cat

#3

#4

brick wall - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

#5

JPEG Versus JPEG

Moving into the realm of non-RAW (uncooked?) image files, it’s time to take a look at the JPEG photos from both the Canon 5D MK3 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active.

Just like the RAW files before, each one of these images was shot with the same ISO setting except this time at ISO 400. The 5D MK3 was set to Adobe Standard Fine JPEG and the S8 Active was set to its “Standard” profile mode as well. Again, shutter speeds were kept as close to uniform as could be achieved.

Toyota car logo - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

#6

shadows of door handles - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

#7

door handles - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

#8…These two looked so similar that I had to include them both.

laptop keyboard - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

#9

fence design - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

#10

Peeping at Pixels

Alright, you know you want to do it. Let’s really take a close look at the images from my S8 Active cell phone and the tried and true 5D MK3.

Just to refresh ourselves with the rules of the game here, we are looking at overall image quality. First, let’s have a look at a RAW file of a leaf lying on a bed of grass.

leaf on grass - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

Then I cropped and got extremely up close and personal with said leaf…

Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

11a (left)
11b (right)

And here’s one more for those of us who like to hold a magnifying glass up to each one of our photos. This time let’s take a look at a side-by-side zoom of a JPEG image from both the 5D MK3 and the S8 Active.

Here we have a photo originally shot as an in-camera JPEG.

Sony camera - Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

Now zooming in on those knobs and buttons.

Mobile Phones Versus DSLRs

12a (left)
12b (right)

Final Thoughts

I realize that it’s somewhat of a risky move not telling you which one of the images are which here at the terminus of this article. Alas, that is exactly what I’m going to do.

Have a look at each one of these images which I assure you were, in fact, each shot with both my everyday-carry Galaxy S8 Active cell phone and my trusty 5D MK3. As you look at the photos examine them closely and pick which one you think came from which source.

I also encourage you to evaluate where you stand on the idea of whether or not cellphone photography is a good or a bad thing for the medium as an art. Do you think cameras and cell phones will forever remain separate pieces of technology or do you feel that some day they will be one in the same?

I’d love to hear your ideas on the future of camera tech and your opinions on the photos from the above tests. Please post your thoughts in the comments below. And yes, eventually I will provide an answer key so you have to forgive me.

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!