This is a question that becomes more and more relevant every day. I, in fact, think about it whenever I’m carrying one of my “real” cameras. Camera phones have gotten so good (as of mid 2121) that I think it’s a valid question for everyone to ask. Part of the answer though, should depend on your goal as a photographer on any given day, or for any given outing.
There are rare times when I don’t have my dSLR with me, and I’m very glad to have my phone. But there are also times when I’ve taken photos with my phone, and I wish I would have had my “real” camera.
Let’s explore the reasons I might regret not having my dSLR.
First, and arguably the most relevant, is that the quality of a phone photo is just not near what I get with my digital, or film cameras for that matter. Phones are pretty good for taking photos that will be consumed on a phone. If you look at phone photos on any device with a larger screen, the low quality starts to show up. This depends upon the phone, but it’s not only pixels, it’s also color depth that tends to be a problem, and image sharpness or focus, as well as the lens and sensor size.
Second, I find that I like to shoot with manual settings. Not only adjusting ISO, f-stop or shutter speed manually, but also focusing manually. It’s possible to do with a phone, but It’s not easy, and it distracts me from the subject at hand. Your dedicated camera was made to take photos, and allow you to make adjustments to settings easily, depending somewhat upon which camera you have, without distracting you from your subject. Now, this is a matter of preference. Honestly, if you don’t need to adjust settings manually, if the camera/phone/device you’re using always makes the best choices for settings, then you might as well use that device. I’m just not sure we’re at that point yet, or if I want to depend upon that device 100%.
Now this third reason has to do with the type of photos you take. I shoot sports quite a bit, and I like action photography. It would be very difficult, and maybe even impossible, to get some types of action shots without a camera specifically designed for that type of photography. Other forms of photography – like landscapes, architectural, still-life, and even portraits can be done, and even done fairly well with many phone cameras, but capturing action is a bit more difficult. Some of the new dSLRs can take 8k video, and employ very good eye focus, so focus is locked and held on moving subjects – and, technically, you can get a very high resolution photo by grabbing a frame from the video. I’d have to see how well this works. Would I be able to get a tack-sharp photo from one of the frames? I don’t know. My point is, if technology keeps moving the way it’s moving, I may be able to grab frames from hi res video that are sharp enough, with resolution to get the quality I need – someday, but not today.
Now, that being said, let’s also consider the strengths of a phone camera – since I hate to be all negative.
First and foremost, my phone is literally always with me. On the rare occasion that I forget my phone, it’s very difficult to think about anything else besides how I don’t have my phone… strange, but we feel naked without our phones (or maybe I need to start seeing a therapist). So, in my mind, there is the phone’s greatest strength – it’s always with you and ready to capture a photo when needed. Now, it’s hard for me to imagine not looking through a viewfinder to compose images – but I am getting used to the live view on my camera, and capturing images without looking in the viewfinder. This is actually the way it was (well, not quite, but almost), back in the early days of photography, using a view camera. You looked at your image on a large flat piece of glass. It may have been upside down and backwards, but it was large. There’s something to be said for framing and composing your image on a large, flat surface. And the phone displays it right side up (although I’m sure there’s an app to simulate a view camera). So, I see these as potential pluses for using your phone for photography, and their may be others, but I’m still not sure that I would give up my “real” camera for just a phone. My phone, in many cases, acts like my backup camera. Sometimes I just need to capture something quickly, while I’m driving, for example, and my phone does the trick.
Now I’m getting to my favorite part. I want to actually compare some images from my phone to images captured with, say, my EOS R and 35mm lens. I’m going to take the same photo on my phone and camera, and show them side by side below. So, let’s take a look. I’m not going to get fancy. I’ll use full auto mode on my phone, and set my camera to “P” or programmed mode, and set the focus to fully auto as well. This way it should be pretty close to the same metering and focus for both (but maybe one will do a better job than the other).
Phone photos on the left, EOS R on the right.
The last 2 have an extra comparison each. The first few show normal, and 100% magnification. The last 2 (Mamiya and Nikon) also show a 200% magnified image. You can especially see in the 200% Nikon comparison, the phone image is stating to show some noise, while the EOS R image is still pretty sharp and show low noise.
Ok, well I didn’t do a great job of making the images from phone and camera the same size… I think you can get some idea of the quality differences. My Samsung S21+ grabs 12 MP. My EOS R captures 30.3 MP on a full frame sensor, but resolution isn’t the only factor in evaluating quality of images. Honestly, for many types of photography your phone camera may be the perfect choice – for others, not so much.
If you’re interested, here’s an interesting article comparing the S21 Ultra (108MP) to the Canon 1DX Mark II (20MP): More than megapixels: 108MP Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. 20.2MP Canon 1DX II: Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com) I haven’t read the whole thing, but I have a feeling how it’s going to go.
There’s nothing truly scientific about my comparisons (a real scientist would be horrified with my sloppy process) – just having a little fun. I hope you enjoy the read.