Why Phone Cameras Still Cannot Replace Dedicated Cameras
The smartphone is one of the most common personal devices in the world today. It can do so much; and the camera function of today’s smartphones get a lot of attention. The earliest smartphone cameras were good for catching a grainy image, but times have changed incredibly quickly. The best smartphones on the market have features formerly reserved for dedicated cameras. Optical image stabilization, better autofocus systems, shutter speed adjustments, and tons of creative photo apps make them very attractive. And the number one reason of all is that you’re always going to be carrying your phone with you. So having your phone do double-duty as a camera seems like the obvious answer, right?
A smartphone is a generalist device. It can do a lot of things decently. And for people who want average pictures in a convenient package, it may be your best option. But if you’re looking for superior image quality and a better photography experience, you really can’t beat a dedicated digital camera. Let’s dive deeper into this topic.
Table of Contents
Optical Zoom versus Digital Zoom
A theme that will come up repeatedly is how the compactness of smartphones work against them as cameras. This is very obvious when exploring how the zoom functions of smartphones and dedicated cameras work. There are two types of camera zoom: optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom is how a telescope or microscope magnifies objects. They manipulate light by moving glass lenses around. Optical zoom can also be thought of as “true zoom,” as you’re making the image larger without losing image quality.
Digital zoom is just like cropping and expanding a photograph. It creates the illusion of a larger subject, as software fills in for the extra pixels created with the expansion. But that software is only so good. We can see the results as blurry and missing detail compared to the original picture. Nearly every smartphone has a degree of digital zoom available. But most consumers don’t realize that digital zoom is something you can do on a computer or even the phone after taking the picture. It’s not really an impressive feature at all.
So why don’t smartphones simply offer more optical zoom? Well, remember how optical zoom works. It requires moving glass components, and more moving parts means the smartphone body needs to be thicker. The trend in smartphones is very much the opposite; the thinner, the better. Some specialty smartphones have gone this route; the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom has an incredible camera for a smartphone. The retracting lens offers 10x optical zoom, which in a market still dominated mostly by digital zoom, is excellent. 2x to 5x optical zoom is still premium in today’s market. The Galaxy K Zoom pays for it with a thickness of 20 mm, over double that of the 8.5 mm Google Pixel. The Pixel is consistently rated as one of the best smartphone cameras, yet it doesn’t even have optical zoom.
Compare that with the point-and-shoot Nikon COOLPIX A900. The A900 has 35x Optical Zoom, and 2x Dynamic Fine Zoom, bringing us to a whopping 70x total zoom. Dynamic Fine Zoom is an improved digital zoom that fills in the extra pixels more intelligently. At 114 mm long, it’s well within smartphone range of convenience, though at 41 mm, it’s thicker with that powerful lens. Both the Galaxy K Zoom and the A900 have 20 megapixel sensors. But the more powerful optical zoom and dynamic fine zoom of the A900 makes better use of that resolution.
So if I want zoom, why buy a specialty smartphone that still has a lot less reach than a dedicated camera? Compared to other smartphones, the Galaxy K Zoom has an impressive reach. But clearly the user is interested in good photography, and a dedicated camera offers far more in this regard.
Sensor Size and Why it’s Important
Smartphones as a whole suffer from having incredibly small sensors. Of course, it’s necessary as the phone is smaller and thinner than any dedicated camera. But reading an advertisement, we see numbers like f/2.2, 13 megapixels, ISO 1600, and it all sounds good. Just how much is your photography compromised?
Smartphone sensors range in size from 1/3.6″ sensor (4.0 x 3.0 mm) to the same as the smallest Point-and-Shoots, at 1/2.3″ (6.17 x 4.55 mm). A tiny sensor means your Dynamic Range is much lower, because you’re capturing less light. Dynamic range is how many colors your sensor can accurately produce. Larger sensors increase the range of colors captured accurately. Even large smartphone camera sensors like the 1/1.5″ Nokia Lumia 1020 (8.80 x 6.60 mm) are only half the size of the 1″ sensors (13.2 x 8.80 mm) of a quality point-and-shoot like Sony’s DSC-RX100. And even a large point-and-shoot sensor is roughly a third the size of the APS-C sensors (23.60 x 15.70 mm) used by DSLRs.
Larger sensors mean higher dynamic range, and also decreased noise levels in low light. The sensor’s innate sensitivity to light is called ISO. The iPhone 7 Plus has a decent camera for a smartphone, and it peaks at ISO 1600 at its highest setting. A basic point-and-shoot with a similar sized sensor might only have the same setting. Most mirrorless cameras and DSLRs in the sub-$500 range peak at around ISO 12,800-25,600. And many more can go much higher than that thanks to their larger sensors.
Low light environments are very challenging for smartphone camera image quality as a result. Also, noise can come from heat sources, such as the smartphone itself. Keeping the sensor small means it cools faster and soaks up less heat, which reduces image noise. But it also means there’s less light to make it into a photograph. Again, we want larger sensors because it means more light to work into an image.
Too Much Depth of Field
When we talk about image quality, we often think about blur, megapixels, and noise. But image quality has a lot of components to it, and versatility in your shooting options is a big one. Specifically, versatility in depth of field. Compare a portrait taken by a smartphone versus one taken by a mirrorless or DSLR camera. If the mirrorless/DSLR had the right lens, one thing that will really stand out is the background. Smartphones can’t really capture a sharp subject with a creamy blurred background like a mirrorless or DSLR can. And the reason is the depth of field, which is how much of a scene is in focus.
Once more, the tiny sensors of smartphones limit their photography ability. The fully open lens of the iPhone 7 with its 1/3″ sensor (4.80 x 3.60 mm) is equal to that of a 28 mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. 28 mm is a wide-angle field of view meant to keep everything in sight nice and sharp. Given that a smartphone camera is supposed to be versatile, much like a point-and-shoot camera, that’s intentional. Most people don’t think about depth of field; they just want to capture a quick moment. So it’s best to have everything in it sharp.
There are also apps to fake an effect like background blur that may or may not get it right. But if you’re looking to fully control photo composition, it matters a lot. A few point-and-shoots also offer similar control over depth of field. But mirrorless and DSLR cameras with their versatile lens choices, are the kings of this court. The Nikon D3300 is one of the best budget DSLRs on the market, and will beat any smartphone when it comes to depth of field control.
Battery Life and Build-Quality
When it comes to battery life, a dedicated camera has a significant advantage in that it’s only taking pictures. Some point-and-shoots have a battery life of around 250 images, which is considered low in the camera world. Some DSLRs top out at around 1200 images per charge. But your smartphone is doing triple duty. If you want it to be your phone, your camera, and handle other app-based tasks, then your battery life will suffer. Most of us don’t make it through an entire day of heavy smartphone use. At least, not without a top-up or switching to power saving mode. Making it your dedicated camera means there’s an excellent chance you’ll run out of battery for a picture. Even if you get pictures, you’ll also be without a phone for the rest of the day that much sooner.
Also, dedicated cameras are designed to last years, even decades in the case of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Digital camera users certainly aren’t immune to being lured by the trendiest, newest devices. But replacements are generally because people want something new, not because they are slow or broken. A good way to determine how long a camera will last fresh out of the box, is the shutter actuation rating. This is how many “clicks” you can get out of a shutter before it needs replacement. An entry level camera might have a shutter rating of 100,000 clicks. If you take 1,000 pictures a month as a casual photographer, that’s nearly 10 years of use without fixing anything.
Smartphones, as we all know, will show signs of age in 2 to 3 years maximum. Batteries eventually fail to charge fully and their more complex operating system will slow down. Planned obsolescence is also increasingly common. Many companies stop offering updates to their devices and use software and hardware that will fail within a set lifespan. That way, you’re “encouraged” to upgrade to the newest phone of the year. Digital cameras are built to last, and even the cameras of 10 years ago can offer quality photography. If you love photography, then invest in a device that will always be ready to shoot when you are. And know that it will last for the foreseeable future, instead of maybe a few years.
Smartphones versus Point-and-Shoots
This is where smartphones are the most competitive. Most compact cameras are in the point-and-shoot category. They have the fewest features and the smallest sensors of the dedicated cameras, and the lenses are not removable. Smartphones with their apps and equal sized sensors just might beat out the cheapest point-and-shoots in most ways except for zoom reach. Point-and-Shoots remain competitive with higher end compacts as they offer larger megapixel counts. The lower end models average 14-16 megapixels, which is very close to the 12-13 megapixels of higher end smartphones. 20+ megapixels can be found in the higher price ranges. They also compensate by not having to compete for battery life like a smartphone camera does. And the 1″ sensor size of the best point-and-shoots give you further advantages. Remember, you want the best dynamic range, megapixel count, lowest noise levels, and depth of field you can afford for good photos.
Bridge cameras are a category of point-and-shoots sometimes forgotten about. A bridge camera is a camera that has a non-removable lens, but is styled in features and body like a DSLR. If you don’t mind it taking up more space than a smartphone, bridge cameras like the Nikon COOLPIX P900 offer up to 83x optical zoom. 4x Digital zoom beyond this gives a total zoom of 166x; you’ll never be too far from the action to get a great photo. But for sheer portability and convenience, they lose ground to smartphone cameras. They have all of the size of a DSLR but they don’t have a large sensor to get the best images from. Nor do they offer the creative control of swappable lenses. Point-and-Shoots have stiff competition from smartphone cameras, but they do have advantages as well.
Smartphones versus DSLRs
DSLR cameras are well established as the tools of a professional, and for good reason. The APS-C sensor of a Nikon DSLR (23.60 x 15.70 mm) is nearly 13 times the size of a large commonly available smartphone sensor, 1/2.3″ (6.17 x 4.55 mm). A full-frame sensor is 36 x 24 mm, or 30 times the size of the above smartphone sensor. All that extra light gathering surface means our dynamic range, light levels, depth of field, and noise levels are all much better. The main competitive edge a smartphone camera has to offer is in convenience due to its small size. A DSLR can’t be put into a pocket; it’s out and you’ll never forget it’s around your neck or in your hands. Another advantage of smartphones is price; the extra lenses you’ll need to purchase with a DSLR can cost hundreds of dollars each.
But the photography experience of a DSLR should not be discounted. The dials on the body give full control over aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and light exposure levels. Pulling up various apps on a smartphone to control settings before an image is taken can be more time consuming. That’s assuming your phone camera even has the same level of control as a DSLR; not all do. The phase detection autofocus system of a DSLR is also much faster. Contrast detection used by most smartphones is accurate, but slower. It has more trouble with moving subjects, as the camera has to pan in and out to find focus. A few smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy 6 and iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 7, and 7 Plus also use phase detection.
Another reason the DSLR finds focus faster is that the DSLR’s processor is not maintaining background functions like a smartphone’s. It exists solely to find focus and take pictures. We’ve all experienced moments when a smartphone has to “think” as multiple processes take up memory and it slows down. DSLRs have much less going on at a time, so they respond instantly. Some DSLRs even have hybrid autofocus systems that use both contrast and phase detection. But they’re generally found in models greater than $800 in price.
Finally, the large body can actually work in favor of a DSLR. What do you think when you see a person shooting with a large camera? A photographer with quality images. If you’re looking for better images and a better photography experience, you can’t beat having a DSLR in hand.
Smartphones versus Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras may offer the most competition to smartphone cameras of all. As the name suggests, mirrorless cameras do not have internal mirrors to direct light. The sensor acts as autofocus system, image taker, and viewfinder all in one, just like a smartphone’s. The base technology is the same; a mirrorless camera simply uses a body dedicated to photography and much sharper and versatile lenses. Also like smartphones, most mirrorless cameras use contrast detection to find focus. Hybrid systems using contrast and phase detection exist, but are generally found in models that cost $800 or more.
The key competitive strength of mirrorless cameras is that they combine the large sensor of a DSLR with a more compact body. Many mirrorless cameras like the Sony a6000 can easily fit into a pocket as well. And with the a6000, you have a 24.3 MP sensor; twice the resolution of the ever-popular iPhone 7. Optical zoom depends on what lens you purchase, and you’ll have to remove the lens to keep it pocket-sized. But with larger sensors, noise control, low light performance, depth of field, and dynamic range, mirrorless cameras are far superior.
The swappable lenses and photography-oriented bodies give the same photography experience of a DSLR camera. You look, and feel, like a photographer. Mirrorless cameras give easy access to every control you need on the body. And like a DSLR, they respond instantly, as their processors are not running background apps and programs like a smartphone’s. One disadvantage is that mirrorless camera lenses are not cheap; each one can cost hundreds of dollars. And you’ll want at least a few to be able to shoot most types of photography. But they don’t share the size issues of DSLRs, and offer the same image quality.
Smartphone cameras are undeniably appealing. In fact, for sheer convenience, they offer stiff competition to the cheapest compact cameras. But the final product, a beautiful photo, will still look better from your dedicated camera. Dedicated digital cameras offer huge optical zoom ranges and higher megapixel counts than smartphones. And these features combined with larger sensors, means better image quality than even the best smartphones. A battery not shared with other functions also means you can always count on it when you’re ready to shoot. Which is much better than having to guess if you’ll have enough battery life to make it through the day.
For sheer convenience in documenting a quick moment, hybrid devices like smartphones have their place. Assuming you don’t have room in another pocket for a point-and-shoot or mirrorless camera, that is. But when it comes to great photos, a smartphone simply can’t beat out a dedicated camera. Smartphone cameras are constrained by having to fit into a compact phone body that has dozens of different uses. Better image quality means dedicated digital cameras will continue to be great purchases far into the future.