The image quality produced by good smartphone cameras is absolutely staggering compared to the early 2000s camera phone. Software optimizations, sensor improvements, and overall innovations have turned smartphone cameras into a genuinely good option for taking beautiful photographs.
So what’s the point in a digital camera then? If smartphone cameras are so great, why spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a redundant product? Well, because that’s an over-simplification. Digital cameras still outperform smartphone cameras in several key areas.
It’s less about which is better, and more about which is better for you. This article will explore the camera phone VS digital camera debate. We’ll outline the different types of digital camera available, comparing image quality, low light performance and everything in between.
Types of Digital Camera
Not all smartphones are created equal; the same is true of digital cameras. If we’re going to settle the camera phone vs digital camera debate, we’ll need to understand the kind of cameras we’re comparing smartphones to.
Digital Cameras – DSLRs
A DSLR camera is still a photographer-favorite around the world. DSLR is a digital camera format that’s reached a strong level of maturity over the past five or so years. What this means, is that the number of available cameras and accessories is huge.
The main strength of DSLR cameras that smartphones lack is the ability to physically change the camera lens you’re shooting with. It’s true that most flagship smartphones come with two or three lens options these days, but a DSLR can accommodate endless variety.
Want to boost your dynamic range? Low-light performance? Image quality? There’s a lens for that. Of course, this all comes at a premium, but the versatility that comes with an interchangeable lens system makes these cameras worth it for the committed photographer.
Digital Cameras – Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are a more modern format that uses a mirrorless system to take photos. The main advantage of this type of camera is that they’re much lighter and compact compared to your typical DSLR.
A good mirrorless camera uses an interchangeable lens system for the same level of versatility as a DLSR. Similar to a smartphone camera, these devices use a digital shutter, which allows for silent image capturing.
The max frame rate on a high-end mirrorless option will far outpace your average camera phone, however.
Digital Cameras – Point-and-Shoot
Point-and-shoot cameras are often outpaced by a high-end camera phone these days. They’re designed as easy-to-use, entry-level devices that still produce decent image quality.
The main reason that this type of camera is sometimes outperformed by a camera phone is that they’re typically marketed at the cheaper end of the price spectrum. A premium point-and-shoot camera can still run circles around a camera phone in certain contexts.
Camera Phone vs Digital Camera – Sensor Size
The sensor of a camera, whether in a camera phone or a digital camera, is what determines the capabilities of the machine. Camera sensors on a flagship smartphone are a masterclass in efficient design.
They have to be capable of producing stunning shots in a comparatively minuscule form factor. The past five or so years of camera phone development have truly pushed the envelope when it comes to sensor performance.
The thing is though, sometimes size really does matter. A high-end digital camera sensor just has so much more real estate to work with. A larger sensor size means that every pixel your digital camera has to work with is more responsive to light input. In short, more size means more power.
A full-frame digital sensor expands things to a range that a smartphone camera can’t get close to. One day, new advances in camera technology will make the dedicated digital camera a distant memory. For now though, sensor size is one of the things that keeps them relevant.
Larger sensors and more powerful lenses allow digital cameras to perform much better in low-light conditions. A good digital camera comes with an ISO range that camera phones just can’t touch. ISO range determines a camera’s sensitivity to light.
The more range you have to play with, the more flexible your camera will be in a range of lighting conditions. Backlighting can be a huge challenge for camera phones. When light is coming from behind your subject, automatic settings like exposure and ISO adjustments can kick in and wash out your image.
A powerful camera performs much better at adapting to these tricky shooting scenarios.
While it’s true that low-light performance is still an area where camera phones struggle, it’s worth mentioning that some incredible progress has been made in the past few years.
Google’s development of “Night Sight“, a post-processing feature that dramatically improves low-light performance, has redefined the camera phone vs digital camera debate when it comes to poor lighting conditions. Smartphones still have some catching up to do, but they’re getting there.
Phone VS Digital – Manual Controls
Automatic settings are fantastic… until they get in your way. In certain contexts, the photographer will simply know better than the camera. In these situations, you need good manual controls. The available options vary wildly from smartphone to smartphone but in general, they leave a lot to be desired.
A good digital camera will let you control every aspect of your image. Lighting conditions, composition, white balance, colour palette and movement are all incredibly hard to predict from moment to moment. Being able to adjust on the fly can take your photography to the next level.
The manual control options on smartphones can still offer some great functionality. It would be unfair to say that all phones aren’t photographer friendly. Even the “simple is better” iPhone has some decent manual controls these days.
The “Ultra” line of phones from Samsung come with some very granular settings options for tweaking photos to your heart’s content. If you can get over the idea of controlling them with a slippery touchscreen, they do a great job.
Third-party android apps can take your smartphone camera controls to the next level. While they don’t necessarily offer the same level of control as digital cameras, it would be unfair to say that every smartphone is bad with manual controls.
The trouble is that even with all the tweaking in the world, the smaller sensor on a smartphone still might not be up to scratch.
Smartphone VS Camera – Auto Modes
This is one area that smartphones can sometimes hold their own in. Developments in deep learning AI and automatic software on smartphones over the past few years has lead to some seriously high-quality automatic performance.
The names that spring to mind include Google’s line of Pixel phones, Samsung’s flagships and, of course, the iPhone. These three names continue to test the limits of what is possible on a high-quality smartphone camera.
While automatic settings aren’t always enough, they do a fantastic job for a large proportion of most reasonable photography scenarios. The power that comes with being able to point your phone at something, press a button and trust that it will know what to do is hard to deny.
This isn’t to suggest that digital cameras don’t have good automatic modes themselves, it’s just that smartphones aren’t always outshone so obviously in this category. Brands like Sony are well-known for delivering mirrorless camera after mirrorless camera that consistently delivers excellent automatic performance.
Canon’s line of cameras, with excellent “scene” modes, also deserves an honorable mention. One area of the automatic world where a traditional camera still does much better than a smartphone is autofocus.
We’re about to oversimplify things in this section, but bear with us. As a general rule, the more autofocus points a camera has, the better it is at keeping things in focus. Typically, phone cameras use three types of autofocus:
- Contrast detection
- Phase detection (higher-end models)
- Laser autofocus (rare – some camera phones)
While these three phone camera systems work well, they’re just not the same as what a professional photographer is used to.
The scope for autofocus on a digital camera system is much, much broader. A camera used by a professional photographer will likely have upwards of 50 focus points. This is especially useful for photography focused on moving subjects.
The higher the focus point count, the easier it will be to keep moving things in focus.
Phone VS DSLR – Optical Zoom
The iPhone and its competitors are capable of some jaw-dropping photography. Even a complete novice can take a photo that impresses on a flagship mobile phone. One area of photography where a phone can struggle, however, is zooming in on a subject.
In perhaps the past three years, cameras on mobile phones have exploded in terms of performance. Most flagships now sport two or three incredible portable lenses. One of these is typically an “all rounder” lens and another is often a wide angle or telephoto option.
These lenses have certainly made it easier to take great photos, but they still rely on digital zoom. As is often the case in this kind of discussion, it all comes down to size. Mobile phones just don’t have the space to include a proper optical zoom lens.
For example, Samsung’s top-of-the-range flagship, the S20 Ultra, offers a 4X zoom. While impressive for a phone, this is absolutely tiny compared to even an entry-level compact camera. When you use a software-based zoom, you’re essentially cropping a pre-existing image.
It doesn’t take long before your photo begins to suffer. Phone cameras can zoom fairly well these days, but it will be a few more years at least before they can compete with traditional cameras.
The sensor and lens is only half the battle when it comes to good photography. Image processing can work wonders and turn even a mediocre photo into something beautiful. Both traditional cameras and smartphones take advantage of some staggering software magic.
Take Google for instance. The search giant is first and foremost a software company. Decades of software development go into the Android platform. The Pixel line of smartphones in particular, feature some phenomenal processing that turns relatively underpowered lenses into powerhouses.
Artificial focus points, advanced tracking, AI predictions and everything in between go into a device that’s remarkably intelligent at knowing how to make an image good on the fly.
The space available to traditional cameras means they have considerably more power to play with in this area.
More physical space means more room for dedicated image processing chips and color correcting hardware. These lead to an end result that is often far more impressive than that produced by a smartphone.
The more powerful processing options on traditional cameras also give users increased flexibility when editing their shots manually. Saving in the RAW format is a given on basically all modern cameras. With smartphones, it’s hit and miss.
On-Camera Focus Stacking
Focus stacking is a process whereby multiple images of the same subject are combined to produce a superior focus than would be impossible from a single image. Traditionally, focus stacking relied on propriety external software that would be used in post production by professional photographers.
While this is still the case, some of the best modern cameras offer on-board focus stacking. Say you’re taking photos of something super-detailed like jewellery. The intricate lines and details can be very difficult to capture. Focus stacking can make this kind of photo much simpler.
Nikon and Sony produce some fantastic cameras with on-camera focus stacking.
Camera phone Pros
After reading this article, you’d be forgiven for concluding that we don’t like smartphone cameras, but this simply isn’t true! While traditional cameras outperform smartphones in several areas, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth the extra money for everyone.
They’re Always With You
The reality is, the best camera is the one you have with you. If a time-sensitive photo opportunity presents itself, your main priority is going to be capturing it. Quickly grabbing your mobile, which is always in your pocket, and taking a shot will probably produce an amazing photo at least 80% of the time.
A traditional camera is just… a camera. A smartphone can take phenomenal photos while doing a million other tasks for you. For most people, it just comes down to cost. Your average Android or iPhone costs somewhere around the $1000 mark. This is also true for a mid to premium-range camera.
Most people can only afford one or the other, not both. Traditional cameras are increasingly becoming the tool of the enthusiast rather than the casual photographer.
Their Photo Software is Incredible
Some traditional cameras have great on-board software, but their UI and ease of use can be very hit and miss. Mobiles have to be convenient and easy to use or they simply wouldn’t sell. What’s more, the best options come with processing and auto modes that are truly staggering.
The bleeding edge of mobile phone photography is incredibly competitive and will only become more impressive as the years go on.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is Better – a Smartphone or a Digital Camera?
In terms of raw performance, probably a traditional camera. In terms of portability and convenience, a phone is often more than good enough. It all comes down to the individual user and what they need out of their device.
What’s the Best Smartphone Camera?
Either the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra or the iPhone 12 Pro. Both options are seriously impressive and are unlikely to disappoint. In most cases, your favorite will come down to personal preference. Both options have their own approach to saturation and how “warm” their images look.
What’s the Best Traditional Camera?
This depends quite heavily on your use case, but the Canon 5D Mark IV is a phenomenal choice. The Sony A7 III also deserves a mention.
What’s the Best Camera Brand?
For mirrorless cameras – probably Sony. For DSLRs it’s a tough question, but both Canon and Nikon consistently deliver on quality and performance. It’s worth mentioning that your specific photography needs will strongly influence the best camera for you.
Camera phone photography has come leaps and bounds since their inception. While traditional cameras are capable of producing far superior results in many contexts, the question is whether this raw performance is worth it for the average consumer.
If you’re a professional photographer then it’s likely to be no question; a traditional camera will be your best option time after time. However, if your main goal is to take great pictures of your friends and what you get up to, a phone will likely be more than enough.
You can line up countless shots taken by pro-grade cameras and compare them to the results of your average phone and most people probably will be able to see the difference. The question is, does this difference represent $1000- 2000 worth of value? Maybe – it depends on who you are.