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Modern smartphone cameras are amazing! They have facilitated an explosion in photography that shows no signs of stopping. Mobile phone cameras, apps, editing, and sharing have given people access to creative outlets that were unthinkable a mere 15 years ago. If the best camera is the one you have with you, then 9 times out of 10, the best camera is right in your pocket! Despite the advances in smartphone cameras, there are still few things smartphone cameras lack. So, in this article, we’ll explore why dedicated cameras are better than smartphones for photography. In other words, there are some photos you just can’t get with a smartphone.
The first of the 5 reasons why dedicated cameras are better than smartphones for photography, is software vs physics.
I don’t want to sound like an old man yelling at clouds, decrying all modern technologies that might make my life better. Smartphone cameras and computational photography are incredible! They can use software and artificial intelligence to capture incredible images of night skies and portrait-style images with blurry backgrounds.
But digital trickery and software manipulations are no match for a mastery of light and physics, and this is where dedicated cameras still have an edge.
Most smartphones have lenses that approximate roughly a 28mm field of view on a full-frame camera. Some have second lenses that go a bit wider, usually about 15mm. It’s also not uncommon for higher-end phones to have a telephoto lens as well, which is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens.
Nearly all smartphone cameras are stuck at a single aperture value as well, which gives you limited control over a key element of exposure. While there is much that can be done in software to overcome the inherent limitations of these lenses and focal lengths, sometimes you just need a separate camera to get the shot.
Any smartphone can take pictures of flowers. This particular image shows a backlit flower whose petals are glowing with sunlight streaking in from above and behind, and a mobile phone could capture that just fine. However, there is one key element of this image that’s impossible on a smartphone – the foreground blur.
Smartphones have come a long way with so-called portrait-style photography. Portrait mode involves software combined with depth data that allows a smartphone to blur the background.
But not the foreground.
This is one of the things smartphone cameras lack. Try it for yourself!
Take a portrait-style photo with your smartphone but include objects in the foreground that you would like to blur. The background will get blurry, but the foreground will remain in focus.
Blurring both the foreground and background is a time-honored technique to add a sense of depth and perspective to your photos. Perhaps one day the software and AI techniques used on mobile phones will be able to replicate this. But, for now, if you’re using a smartphone, you’re stuck with just background blur.
While smartphone cameras have had pinch-to-zoom capabilities for over a decade, it amounts to little more than just cropping your pictures. Modern smartphones do a better job of interpolating data between pixels and adjusting exposure values on the fly, but at the end of the day, you’re still just cropping.
In the process, you lose a lot of detail. And even then, you just can’t zoom in very far. It’s definitely one of the things smartphone cameras lack, despite some recent advances.
One classic example of this is a picture of the moon.
Smartphone lenses, and the laws of physics, make pictures like this impossible. You have probably noticed if you have ever tried to do a pinch-and-zoom photo of our nearest celestial neighbor.
You’ll need a dedicated camera if you want to get crisp, detailed photos of faraway objects. And this is just another reason dedicated cameras are better than smartphones.
Smartphones aren’t great for most long-distance shooting scenarios, such as this picture of a horse in the pasture.
While pinch-and-zoom can make it seem like you’re getting closer, you won’t get a tack-sharp, high-resolution image suitable for printing and framing.
Like everything tech-related, this is getting better and will improve with time. Some phones now are using stacked periscope-style lenses combined with software and AI processing to mimic 10x or even 100x zoom lenses. Right now, these make interesting tech demos, but the results don’t have the same level of clarity, color, and fidelity as you would get from a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a zoom lens attached.
Another reason dedicated cameras are better than smartphones is background compression.
Something interesting happens when you shoot photos with a telephoto zoom: the background appears to move closer to your subject.
It’s called background compression and is a time-honored compositional technique to make your subjects stand out and take your images up to another level. It’s also impossible to do on a smartphone.
In the picture above, the building is very far away from the woman walking in the foreground. Shooting with a telephoto lens compresses the background and makes it seem much closer.
In this family photo, you can see the trees and leaves in the background, which are very far away. However, they appear closer as a result of background compression.
While some smartphone cameras do have some limited zoom capability, their smaller lenses and image sensors simply do not allow for these types of pictures.
Before I get too far in this section, I want to point out that smartphones are good at capturing some types of fast action. These conditions are fairly limited, though.
You have to be close to your subject, which isn’t possible in a lot of action situations. It also helps if you can lock focus on a specific area where you know the subject will be, or else have a smartphone with amazing autofocus capabilities. And if you can meet those challenges, then your phone could produce some good results.
For a lot of fast action, though, you need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. It helps to have a good lens attached too.
This will let you stand on the sidelines while getting up close and personal with your subjects. It helps to shoot with a wide aperture too, which will let you get a fast shutter speed and freeze the action.
These types of action shots are impossible on smartphones because pinch-to-zoom just can’t get the job done. You’ll get pictures that are pixellated, blurry, or out of focus because smartphones are not able to match the speed and capability of a dedicated camera.
In the picture below, I was sitting in the stern of a boat zoomed in to 200mm. I had to use tracking autofocus to keep the picture sharp. My brother was also in the boat with his smartphone, and he didn’t like any of the shots he got.
The last of my reasons that dedicated cameras are better than smartphones relates to portrait photography.
This one might ruffle some feathers because phones have gotten so much better at portraits in recent years. In fact, some people can’t even tell the difference between portrait-style images shot on mobile phones and actual portraits taken with a dedicated camera. I have trouble sometimes too. In the coming years, mobile phones are going to keep getting better and better.
For now, and into the foreseeable future, dedicated cameras still have a significant advantage.
Software and AI, and computational horsepower can do a lot, but they can’t keep up with a good lens and physics.
In the picture below, the girl’s eyes are tack sharp but there is a subtle falloff as you look towards the edge of her face. Her hair goes from sharp to blurry in a smooth, even fashion.
The background isn’t just blurry – it’s obliterated. Mobile phones can’t do that.
You don’t need expensive gear to take great portraits either.
In fact, you can spend far less on a used DSLR or Mirrorless camera than you would on a mobile phone with portrait mode.
The shot below was taken on a Nikon D200, which came out in 2006, and can be found today for about $150.
The lens is a cheap 50mm f/1.8. And the results blow away anything you can get from a mobile phone.
All the subtle details, like the way her eye is in focus but her ears are slightly blurry, to her hair slowly fading away, to the bokeh in the background, make this image a cut above what you could get from a smartphone. Just another reason that dedicated cameras are better than smartphones for photography.
Before anyone gets out a bucket of tar and some feathers, please understand that I think smartphone cameras are amazing!
Despite the things smartphone cameras lack, they can take incredible pictures and technology will only make them better with time. I just think it’s important to understand their limitations and have a sense of some of the pictures they can’t yet achieve.
What about you?
I’m curious what your experience has been with smartphone pictures. Does your smartphone take the kinds of shots you want, or have you found that it can’t yet replace your DSLR or mirrorless camera?
I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share your thoughts and example images in the comments below.