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

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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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

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 or pick up his new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.

  • J.J. Hernandez

    Negligible! The difference is negligible. To think that cellphone and dedicated cameras will be in separate worlds in like being Christopher Columbus thinking traveling the seas on air will be imposible! Technology will always make our life comfortable, technology changes everything, from religion and war to social strata and education!

  • dabhand

    Progress is inevitable and so is people crying “you can never replace XXXX” but you can, just ask Kodak, Minolta, Netscape, Polaroid, Remington, Blockbuster, Pan Am, BOAC, most every American and British radio, audio and TV appliance manufacturer etc etc. Cameras companies are no different, they will have to supply product which meets market demand and as people no longer have the desire / attention span / time to go further than using their phone will in turn mean a consolidation of manufacturers, streamlining of product lines and increase in purchase prices of what will be seen by most as ‘specialist’ cameras. The debates regarding sensor size, pixel density and so on are really pointless when presented to an audience which expects everything to ‘just work’.

  • Triggerpuller

    The real question is why in 2018 is it still nearly impossible get reliable cell reception here in the middle of Silicon valley?

    Oh and I still perfer purpose built stuff. My Nikon may not be much worse than my iphone at cell reception and it may not take much better pictures of random things like door handles and keyboards but I wouldn’t want to try and get the must have sports shot from 100 yrds away with a phone. And my iphone looks ridiculous on my 800 usd tripod and ballhead.

  • Abimanyu Boentaran

    How about printed on art paper hahnemuhle baryta paper at A0? Hahahahah

  • mingliu

    Try some photos in extreme low light environment. BTW, the first one is smartphone photo, because smartphone photo always fail in that spot hard to be noticed.

  • xplorr

    DSLR cameras outperform smartphones in 2 areas: low light (high iso) and bookeh (with the right lens). It’s a pity you didn’t compare those areas side by side.

  • Ian Sommerville

    This seems to me to be a rather pointless debate. Unless you are taking photographs where detailed analysis is critical (eg crime scene photographs) then it’s the picture and the messages conveyed to the viewer that’s important, not the technology.

  • The judge of what image is better between a cell phone and a DSLR camera should be somebody without any knowledge of photography, that way you would get a real practical answer.
    You can make horrible, boring photos with the best DSRL , and you can make very interesting photos with a cell phone. It really does not depend on the camera or the lens it depends on what you have in your head, it depends on what you have been feeding your brain, the more interesting you are the less boring your photos will be.

  • Steve Fink

    Except I can get a Bald Eagle flying a hundreds yards away with a fish in it’s talon with a DSLR and can’t get the shot with a smartphone. That’s an example of a shot missed with a smartphone.

  • John Shattuck

    If images are only going to be viewed on a phone or computer screen, the advantages of high megapixel counts are minimal. Clearly these examples, done with good light and still subjects minimize the advantages of the DSLR. In the end, technology advances and artists create with what they have to work with. If your uses are limited to situations that are not challenging, the phone does a really remarkable job. As mentioned below, if you want to really take control and value the experience of a dedicated tool, the phone is just not very satisfying. I am always tapping the screen and frustrated.

  • fotosbynor

    I think I will take my 18-400mm zoom and compare to my Note8. hehe the Note has a nice camera and I use it for GPS when posting, but it just can’t zoom in like my Canon 80D and Tamron lens can. I do use both though.

  • kennyg357

    All the photos look good but I’d like to see a comparison between the 5D MK3 and an iPhone as well as the Samsung Note 9.

    I think photos 11a and 12a are from the dslr as they are sharper and the dof is smoother on 11a.

  • Robert Bentley

    I’m a totally amateur, late life newby to the world of photography. I’ve enjoyed messing around with different settings and lenses for my low end Pentax . That said, phones will win for the simple reason that everyone nowadays seems to carry a phone as a necessity, and a camera is an optional extra that has weight and takes of space, and requires a certain amount of time to use. In a few years only hard core old-timers and professionals will even consider cameras. A sad thing indeed.

  • Omar Spence

    Cell phone types may brag all they want, but when the sun goes down, you may as well put that cell phone in your pocket. Also, cell phones do not have hot shoes; while you may try to replicate the look of a flash with a continuous light source like a torch or light panel, it will never be as crisp as a proper strobe.

  • RoseWarrior

    The very best camera you will ever have is the one you have with you when the shot presents itself.
    I have four Canons (DSLR & PowerShot super zooms) and three Samsungs including the new S9+. The cell phone is with me pretty much 24/7 so it is getting more use but when I get serious about an art macro project the Canons come out but I have to admit that view finders and articulating screens play a huge part in my choice of which camera to use.

  • pete guaron

    Only a few hours ago I was reading an article by a pro, about “which camera”, “pixel peepers” and the like. His conclusion? – he had NO interest in what gear or pixel counting – all he was concerned with was the photographs, and whether they were “good” or “bad”. Quite – exactly – ditto!
    The arguments these issues generate are a bit like asking whether this cup of coffee is better than that jug of beer is better than this glass of Coca-Cola is better than that martini is better than this glass of wine. It’s all a question of preferences – everyone has them, and it’s part of the joy of living that we are NOT all the same.

  • Steve Fink

    It appears that the author compared like for like (or what he had versus what he didn’t have).

    Sure the Note 9 would be an upgrade over the Gallaxy 8 since it’s newer but the Canon 5D MKIV is newer than the Canon 5D MKIII. Again, like for like in comparison.

  • Thomas

    I would gess, picture 1 and 2 are from the phone. 3, 4, 5 and 6 from the DSLR. 7 is the dslr picture and 8 the smartphone, this focusfail wouldn´t happen with the phone. 9 could be a smartphonepicture, while 10 ist from the dslr. The 11 pics look the same for me, because it´s extremly hard to take the exact same picture with two devices from the same spot with all the gras, perhaps both are from the dslr. 12a seems to be the dslr picture, 12b from the smartphone.

  • Christos

    How about a picture of your kid hitting the winning basketball shot?

  • Steve Fink

    One thing not discussed is batteries. All batteries die and eventually become bricks since they can no longer be charged up. When a DSLR battery dies, you can go out and buy a new one for $50, give or take. When a smartphone battery dies, you have two choices, either buy a new one or send it to the manufacturer at a huge cost to repair or put a new one in, plus you lose time without use of the smartphone while it’s in transport.

    Cost, and convenience, of a DSLR are ultimately a big pluses.

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