Does the Camera Matter? SLR versus Mirrorless versus Smartphone

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Camera comparisons

When our wonderful editor Darlene asked me to write an article comparing camera types my first thought was to show you a series of photos just like the following, and ask you to guess which ones were taken, with which cameras. It’s a fun idea, so let’s do it.

This is the list of cameras.

1. Olympus D345 (5 megapixel compact, purchased 2006)
2. EOS Digital Rebel XT (8 megapixels APS-C dSLR, purchased 2006)
3. EOS 40D (10 megapixel APS-C dSLR, purchased 2007)
4. EOS 5D Mark II (21 megapixel full-frame dSLR, purchased 2010)
5. iPhone 5
6. Fujifilm X-T1 (16 megapixel APS-C mirrorless, purchased 2014)

Here are the photos:

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camera-comparisons-3

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camera-comparisons-6

Camera comparisons

How did you do? Here are the answers.

A. EOS 5D Mark II
B. Olympus D345
C. Fujifilm X-T1
D. EOS 40D
E. EOS Digital Rebel XT
F. iPhone 5

Now, this isn’t a fair comparison, for several reasons. One is that these photos are reproduced here at 750 pixels wide. You really need to see them uncropped to appreciate the difference in quality and size (for example, the photo taken with the 5D Mark II is four times the size of the one taken with the Olympus D345).

Also, these photos don’t tell you much about the dynamic range capability of each camera, or how well they perform at high ISO settings. The Olympus D345 doesn’t even have a high ISO setting – all photos are taken at a fixed ISO of 50 (something I didn’t realize until after I bought it).

Then there’s the variable of lens choice, which also affects image quality, plus post-processing (clarity and sharpness adjustments in particular can make a big difference to the apparent sharpness of an image).

All this exercise does, is tell you that if all you want to do is post photos online, then just about any camera will suffice. John Lennon is quoted (probably apocryphally) as saying:

“When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

To paraphrase, anybody who asks what camera you took a photo with probably doesn’t understand photography. Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but it’s a question that misses the point. Nobody who matters cares what camera you you used to take the photo.

If you submit a photo to a magazine, a photography competition, or a gallery, unless there’s a specific reason they need to know (good luck sending a photo taken with a Canon camera to Nikon Photo magazine) they don’t care.

All that matters is the strength of the photo – did you capture an interesting subject? Is the composition strong? Is the lighting beautiful? Does your photo move people, inspire emotion? None of this has anything to do with the camera, and everything to do with the photographer.

So, why do we have this endless discussion about cameras? Well, for most of us photography is a hobby and discussing gear and lenses is all part of the fun.

But sometimes the discussion is more purposeful. Cameras are tools, and good photographers learn to either adapt to the tool at hand, or choose the best one for the job. The question is not what camera is best, but which camera is best for you, and the purpose you have in mind. Discussions about what cameras are best for what subject can go on a long time!

So, bearing in mind I’ve been asked to write about SLRs vs mirrorless cameras vs smartphone cameras, let’s take a look at which each of these tools does.

The Digital SLR

SLR cameras replaced rangefinders sometime in the 1960’s, as the camera style of choice for most photographers. The main advantages of SLRs is that, unlike rangefinders, the viewfinder shows you exactly what the lens sees (or 95% or so, of it anyway).

Until about six years ago the digital SLR was the undisputed king of 35mm and crop sensor camera designs. You get an optical viewfinder that shows you what the lens sees, no matter which lens you use on the camera, and fast and reasonably accurate autofocus in an ergonomic body. Sizes range from small (such as the EOS 100D/Rebel SL1) to massive (the Nikon D5) and the specifications range from entry level, to high-performance professional.

Where digital SLRs excel (high-end ones at least) is with autofocus tracking of moving objects. That, plus the wide range of available super-telephoto lenses, makes them the camera of choice for most professional sport and nature photographers.

Camera comparisons

Digital SLRs are good for capturing photos of fast moving subjects like this knight on horseback.

The Smartphone

Apple more or less invented the modern smartphone with its first iPhone back in 2007. Since then smartphones and their cameras have improved immensely. The appeal of the smartphone camera is fairly obvious – most people carry their phone just about everywhere.

An antidote to the large, heavy SLR, smartphones bring a degree of freedom that photographers hadn’t experienced before. When I asked a friend once how she was going with her EOS 40D (she bought one about the same time as me) she replied that she was “sick of lugging that thing about” and just used her iPhone now.

Throw in apps like Instagram and Snapseed, and the ability to share photos instantly, and you can see why smartphone cameras are popular. If you’ve seen Apple’s iPhone posters you’ll also know they are capable of creating insanely good images in the right hands.

The Mirrorless Camera

The mirrorless camera fills the gap between smartphone and digital SLR that was previously occupied by high end compacts. The best mirrorless cameras have the lens choice, image quality, and functionality of professional digital SLRs in a lighter, cheaper, and smaller body. The biggest difference between the two, in terms of performance, is accurate autofocus tracking of moving subjects, and the gap is getting smaller (whether it will ever be reduced to zero is something we will see in the future).

Mirrorless cameras appeal to photographers who want high performance cameras in a small body. They are great for street and travel photographers.

Camera comparisons

Mirrorless cameras are great for street and travel photography, helping you take photos like this.

So, here’s my answer to the question “Does the camera matter?” No it doesn’t. Most people don’t care what camera you took a photo with. You may be curious – for example, if you see someone creating beautiful landscape photos, it’s natural to wonder if buying the same camera and lens will help you do so as well (the answer is that it may help, but it probably won’t – you’d be better off asking how they mastered their craft and how hard they work to get their images). But ultimately, nobody cares. They only care about the photo.

Should you care what camera you use? Yes, you should, because it is your job as photographer to make sure your tools are up to the job at hand. You need a camera that suits you and your way of working, that fits into your budget, and has all the features you need for the types of photography you do.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

If you’d like to learn more about the basics of photography, then please check out my ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras.


Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week that are Open for Discussion. We want to get the conversation going, hear your voice and opinions, and talk about some possibly controversial topics in photography.

Give us your thoughts below, and watch for more discussion topics each day this week.

See all the recent discussion topics here:

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Click here to enroll in his new Lightroom course for free.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    You can’t pick up any women using an iPhone 5. That’s not the case with a Nikon D4.

  • Andrus Chesley

    Wish I would of read this article yesterday morning before attempting to explain to a person asking what camera I used to take some shots for a contest I was entering. I hope I got my point across to them with saying ” For these shots it was my Canon SX50 , but my G15 or G16 or Minolta Dimage Z6 or Canon T3i would of done the same for me probably. My goal was filling the frame as much as possible with the zoom. And I used LR6 to enhance the pictures. ” They said ” Thank you, you saved me some money” .

  • Glenn Timchishen

    This is a really timely article for me. I live near the Canadian Rockies and last year I bought a Canon 7D mkii. I bought it as an upgrade from a rebel xti and didn’t go to full frame because I didn’t have enough money to replace both the camera and the lens.

    Sometimes I feel the pressure to sell what I have and make the leap to full frame and other times I feel that I’m lucky to have the gear I have and I should just enjoy taking photos, reading up on different techniques and just keep honing my craft. My goal is to take the best shots I can and keep getting better. One day I want my photos to love like the 500px superstars that I enjoy so much. 🙂

    One day I’ll move to full frame but right now I want to keep learning. My next purchase will be higher quality polarizers, and a nice macro lens. 🙂

  • Lynette Erickson

    I have rheumatoid arthritis. It is mostly in my hands. I have a mirrorless camera. It is light weight and takes great pictures. If I had to try to handle a heavy camera while traveling I would end up leaving it in the car. It takes much better pictures than a phone. Sometimes we have to adjust our cameras to our physical abilities. I have never felt short changed with my mirrorless camera.

  • Petar Ili?

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c2cb34a71eb17b0f9462fc7917fc06129b97207ed50137c2947fc7ee36a3a5f0.jpg Being an amateur photographer with tight budget decided for second hand bridge camera Fujifilm FinePix S9600. Reliable camera with reasonable quality zoom lens 28-300mm and 9MegaPix chip resolution has shown as a best choice for what I’m shooting.

  • SupraHornets

    Hi Andrew, I would agree with you that most people take snapshots and are not very critical of the quality of their photos. For them, any camera will work. But for more serious (not necessarily pro) photographers, there are different situations where DSLR vs. mirrorless may or may not matter. I hope to see a follow-up article from you discussing these situations.

  • Pieter

    Dear Andrew, thanks a lot for sharing this article. Being a beginning and aspiring amateur photographer, it’s been a very interesting read indeed. Equally interesting were the discussions that followed afterwards, and the number of times I read you repeating “indeed, SLR gives optimal image quality for professional shots, but…”. From my (beginner’s) understanding, and this is maybe where people get confused, is that a good photo isn’t synonym to good image quality and vice versa. SLR gives you top image quality indeed, but depending on the type of photography you want to do, that’s not always necessary for making good photos. A classic example I suppose is Robert Capa’s iconic photo on the American’s landing on Omaha Beach: terrible image quality to today’s standards, and yet an extremely powerful and timeless photo. In contrast, you may have photos with optimal image quality that remain extremely boring in spite of their being spik and span (wedding photographs for instance). I have a cousin who’s been an amateur photographer for years, who has all the knowledge and equipment, and who’s been the family photographer since many years for all our family gettings, and while his pictures seem technically perfect, I have yet to see his first interesting picture (I hope he ain’t on this forum…). Personally, I inherited a first generation canon 5D with some good lenses from my father. And while it does take really good pictures, I struggle taking the type of picture I want to take, to a great extend because I’m not anonymous with it (I like street photography, and shooting intimite moments of strangers in public places.) People immediately turn different when you point a big black box in their face. So I’ve started using my iphone some months ago (along with the 5D), and while the image quality is rather poor, I was surprised by the freedom it gave me shooting faces and expressions I would’ve never gotten with my 5D. Also, I’m shooting much more spontaneously as I always have it on me. Finally, the best example that the medium doesn’t decide on the level of professionalism: one of last year’s best movies, Tangerine, was almost exclusively shot with an (heavily pimped) Iphone 5!

  • Rico_ET22

    Maybe crop factor? D2X is APS-C

  • Angel

    I’m an award-winning amateur landscape photographer. My photos have appeared in magazines, on journal and calendar covers, etc. Also, I recently became a Shutterstock contributor. Guess what, folks? I use a point and shoot. Yes, you heard me right. It’s what I can afford and serves me well. My Canon G12 may be tiny and beat up but it gets the job done! Someday I’ll graduate to big boy gear but I’ll probably have to win the lottery first!

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