Movements like the ‘Shot on iPhone6’ campaign make some DSLR owners tremble with the fear that, at the end of the day, their expensive equipment is overkill compared to the recent high quality of cell phone cameras. But tremble not, you DSLR enthusiasts. Because, although the newest cell phone cameras might have breathtaking quality, they will never – or at least no time in the near future – live up to the power and complexity of a DSLR.
As cell phone technology advances, and apps like Instagram become more and more popular, everyone now thinks they’re a professional photographer. Gone are the days of complicated large format cameras and hours spent working over chemicals in a darkroom with expensive sheets of film. Gone, even, are the days of photography being limited to those with the gear and the know how. Now, with just a tap of a screen and a quick filter selection, everyone can have a photo portfolio. But no matter how easy phone photography is, it’s still nowhere near replacing the power of DSLR photography. See this comparison for example.
The advantages of phone cameras are obvious. Cell phones weigh next to nothing, they fit in your pocket and are often a fraction of the cost of a DSLR and professional lenses. And now with the iPhone 7+ you can buy attachable lenses that create that dreamy shallow depth of field that was previously only possible with expensive professional lenses.
But the exact thing that seems like phone cameras’ biggest advantage – their small size and portability – is actually their biggest drawback. One of the most important aspects of photography is light, and the amount of light a camera can take in to expose an image. Well the bigger the camera, the larger the hole that lets in the light. And the average DSLR camera has a hole almost 30 times as large as the iPhone camera. Suddenly your iPhone’s portability might not seem like such an advantage.
This difference becomes most obvious when you’re shooting in low light situations. As you bump up the ISO, which affects how sensitive your camera is to light, you’re able to shoot in darker situations, but the trade off is that you’re images become noisy or grainy, meaning the quality is lower and the individual pixels are more visible. While this can be a nice stylistic effect, it’s not always the look you’re going for. But when shooting with an iPhone, this effect isn’t always a choice. That grainy look appears as soon as you change your ISO setting to a mere 800. But with new DSLR cameras, you can achieve crisp and clear images at ISO settings as high as 20,000 – or even higher.
Even with phone cameras that can shoot in RAW, the files are still often too small with not enough information to fix the exposure in post processing. When we look up at the sky on a partly cloudy day, we can see detail in both the bright clouds and the darker shadows, but when we take a picture of the same scene, our cameras will often blow out the highlights or erase the shadows. This happens even more so with phone cameras than it does with DSLRs – and with phone cameras, there’s not enough information in those small files to change it in post processing.
Another seemingly obvious difference between phone cameras and DSLRs is the amount of settings they have. As phone cameras advance, they offer more and more setting options, but those settings are often awkward or difficult to change quickly. And making quick snap decisions is the key to successful photography. A professional photographer who’s intimately familiar with the dozens of easily accessible settings on their DSLR will – ten times out of ten – be able to capture important moments better than the average cell phone photographer.
Even when phone cameras try to imitate these settings, they often do a poor job. If you ever wonder why your iPhone pictures look so weird with a flash, it’s probably because your camera doesn’t use a real flash – which is an extremely quick release of energy that creates light – it uses a flashlight. A DSLR’s real flash setting will always be more powerful and achieve higher quality effects.
And when it comes to telephoto lenses, phone cameras are no where near being able to handle anything like an 80-300mm lens. This means that with a phone camera you won’t be capturing detailed moon shots, close ups of the winning touch down or distant wildlife.
All of this isn’t to say it’s impossible to achieve a stunning photo portfolio using a phone camera. Instagram has shown us this is more than possible and there are thousands of people out there with incredible #shotoniphone portfolios. But at the end of the day, there are certain areas of photography that are still dominated by DSLRs – and will remain the domain of DSLR until a far and distant future.