Cameras, especially higher-end mirrorless systems and DSLRs, can be pretty complicated to shop for, since you have to consider not just sensors and megapixels, but lenses, viewfinders, screens, and the many factors that affect the usability of the camera. But what if you didn’t actually need to research cameras and lug around a bulky DSLR to create high-quality images? You might find it reassuring that the photographers’ aphorism “the best camera is the one you have with you” is looking more plausible by the day, since smartphones are increasingly able to produce professional-looking images. (And when is the last time that you left home without your smartphone?)
Lee Hutchinson reports for Ars Technica that the publication initially explored the idea of whether a smartphone camera can out-shoot a DSLR back in 2014, when the staff learned that “a smartphone does take awesome pictures, so you don’t need a DSLR, two bags of gear, and a tripod unless you really need an expensive DSLR, two bags of gear, and a tripod.” Ars Technica concluded at the time, however, that there are situations — particularly those that offer anything other than ideal outdoor lighting conditions — in which an expertly operated DSLR with thousands of dollars’ worth of lenses and skilled post-processing can produce images that you’d find nearly impossible to create with a smartphone.
With 15 months elapsed after the initial comparison, Hutchinson returned to the topic of whether a smartphone camera can take on a DSLR. On the smartphone side, Hutchinson used the iPhone 6s Plus, which features a 12MP rear camera with maximum f/2.2 aperture, an 8.47mm sensor with 1.2μm pixels designed to reduce crosstalk, optical image stabilization, plus native software aimed at producing well-exposed images in every situation. For a DSLR, he used the Canon 5D Mark III, accompanied by three zoom lenses and two primes: the Canon EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, the Canon EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM, the Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM, the Canon EF35 f/1.4L USM, and the Canon EF50 f/1.8 II.
For people who aren’t familiar with Canon’s lineup, that’s more than $5,000 worth of lenses. The 24-70mm zoom lens and the 35mm prime lens are what Hutchinson characterizes as “extremely high quality,” which is why he rented them for the test. The 24-105mm and the 70-200mm zoom lenses are “solid workhorse lenses that you’d find in most Canon shooters’ kits,” and the 50mm prime is “pretty crazily affordable for the image quality it yields.” Add in the $2,500 DSLR body, plus flashes and a tripod, and you get $9,000 worth of equipment — which makes the 64GB $849 iPhone 6S Plus sound like a bargain, especially since it can do things the DSLR can’t, like shoot 4K video.
Ars Technica took the iPhone and DSLR to several indoor and outdoor locations, using the iPhone’s built-in camera app and both Manual and Program mode on the DSLR. The RAW files taken by the DSLR were then processed in Adobe Lightroom and DxO Optics Pro. After shooting outdoors in the daytime, outdoors at twilight, indoors in “normal” light, indoors in dim light, and in a studio setting, Hutchinson concluded that “One of the reasons some of the DSLR shots look massively better than the iPhone counterpart images is because of post-processing.”
It also doesn’t hurt that in order to mimic the framing of the DSLR shots, Hutchinson relied on digital zoom on the iPhone, which significantly degrades image quality. He notes, “If you have to zoom in on a smartphone to get the shot you want, you should either get closer to your subject or just give up. If I’d realized how bad some of the digitally zoomed images were going to turn out, I wouldn’t have taken them in the first place.”
But even on images without digital zoom, the iPhone had a difficult time with situations like an outdoor zoo image, with a fence between the photographer and a bird. Because a DSLR can capture images with a shallow depth of field, it could focus through the fence, something that the iPhone can’t do. The iPhone is also at a disadvantage with regards to noise reduction and fine detail, though in his assessment, “those areas are heavily overbalanced by the fact that the iPhone is far less expensive and far more portable than a giant bag of camera gear. In most situations today, people already carry a smartphone; unless you’re a pro photographer, though, you won’t likely haul a DSLR kit everywhere you go.”
Hutchinson crowns the iPhone the winner, writing, “The DSLR triumphs technically, and it will produce better images under almost any circumstance, but it’s just hella hard to stack it against the iPhone’s portability and ‘good enough’-ness.” But he acknowledges that the DSLR and its impressive lenses produce higher-quality images; it has to, considering that the DSLR is equipped with a full-frame 35mm sensor that dwarfs the iPhone’s sensor, which measures about 8.5mm.
Ars Technica argues that while a smartphone can’t produce the same images that a full-frame DSLR can, the smartphone is good enough for many users, who primarily want to take photos to post on Facebook or to send to friends and family. He writes, “that smartphone in your pocket is almost certainly more than enough camera to capture just about anything you’re likely to encounter, day or night, indoor or outdoor. Unless you specifically need it — and you’d know it if you did — you don’t have to lug a DSLR around to take amazing images.”
Ultimately, that’s a conclusion that makes sense for many kinds of users. The things users give up by choosing a smartphone over a DSLR — high image quality and complete control over the images produced — are things that casual photographers aren’t going to miss. And users who regularly carry around a camera, or would be willing to do so in order to get the best possible images, have already made up their minds that a smartphone can’t compete with a DSLR. It’s going to be an uneven comparison for the foreseeable future, and which device comes out on top depends on whether you prioritize technically superior images and full creative control or a convenient device and image quality that’s adequate for most purposes.