Can a smartphone really rival a DSLR for the average photographer?
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
I wrote this post, Putting the smartphone camera through its paces. Can it rival a dedicated camera? a year ago and since then I have come to appreciate my smartphone as a real alternative to using a dedicated camera, rather than seeing it as a poor substitute. This is not primarily due to the convenience of having the phone camera with me at all times, although this is a bonus, rather it is because of all the opportunities it provides to practise my photography skills. As a learner in photography my primary aim has not been to learn about the camera but to learn about the art of photography. I am interested in creative composition, in storytelling through images, in looking for interesting subjects, in experimenting with different techniques, and the phone camera provides a tool to do this just as the dedicated camera does. It does help that the camera technology is improving dramatically with every new phone and the image quality of the latest phones can rival, if not surpass, most of the entry level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
I have recently been in the market for a new phone and my priority has been to review the camera on each of the current phones as I wanted to get the best possible camera available at the moment within my price range. For many years I have been a dedicated android user. I like the phones and the cameras have been decent. However, this time I couldn't get away from the fact that the iPhone 11 Pro seemed to top all the review lists for the consistency of its images, so I have made the move to Apple. One over-riding factor in my decision was the fact that there are numerous iPhone photography courses online, which I intend to avail of in the coming weeks and months. I am particularly drawn to seeing what I can learn about iPhone landscape photography, and in particular how to use the wide angle lens that my phone now has. In addition, I really like the teaching of Clifford Pickett, who has provided some free previews of his iPhone Landscape Mastery course.
Preview YouTube video How To Shoot More Dramatic Landscape Photos - iPhone Landscape Mastery How To Shoot More Dramatic Landscape Photos - iPhone Landscape Mast
Recently I was driving in the countryside at sundown when the sky in front of me lit up in the most beautiful colours. I had to stop and admire the beauty. The capture of this image was made possible by having a phone camera at hand
Below is my original post discussing the merits of a smartphone camera compared to a DSLR or mirrorless camera. All photographs were taken with my Samsung Galaxy S9+.
One of the best aspects of photography is capturing interesting and unique images while away from home, whether these are candid photographs of people which give a glimpse of a different culture or unusual views of landmarks and scenery. It is essential to have the best tool for the job that we can have, yet carrying a bulky DSLR camera around at all times can spoil the enjoyment of a relaxing trip, not to mention contribute to back strain! So, we use the camera that is always at our disposal – the smartphone camera. But is it up to the task? Or will we end up with images that are not quite satisfying because we couldn’t see what we were doing in bright sunlight or because we zoomed too far to get that closer view and ended up with a grainy image?
It is true that smartphone cameras are becoming more and more sophisticated all the time, and with every new phone launch there is greater and greater emphasis on the camera part of the phone. All of the high end models take good, sharp images that rival those of many dedicated cameras. They have all but replaced the lower end point and shoot camera, with an added bonus being that they are always with us, ready to snap that unexpected moment. Undoubtedly, they are the camera of choice for many people as they are the ultimate in convenience, but the danger is that we will end up just taking snapshots, allowing the camera software to make all the choices, or, if we are more serious about photography, we will bemoan the fact that we missed a super photo opportunity by ‘just’ having our phone camera with us. However, with a little bit of creative thinking smartphone cameras can in fact become an effective tool for the serious photographer.
A lot of my smartphone images are snapshots to create memories of places that I have visited
Making the most of the camera that is always with us.
Unless I am unique in this area, which I very much doubt, there are many out there who, like me, are not making the most of their phone cameras. I am not even talking about adding extra filters or lenses because, while there are undoubtedly options to add filters and lenses to phone cameras, they are first and foremost phones and most people don’t tend to carry extra paraphernalia with them on a daily basis. Indeed, most camera phones are really kept on auto mode to capture those unexpected moments, and that’s really where their strength lies. That is not to say, however, that there is not a lot we can do with our phone cameras other than taking snaps on auto mode. In fact, most of us only realise a fraction of the potential offered by our phone cameras. I have been doing some research into the technology behind the latest phone cameras (although it is hard to stay bang up to date, things change so quickly in this world!), and in this blog I will share some of the tips and tricks I have discovered that will make phone photography more creative and interesting and that will allow those of us who are serious about photography to feel that we have a good alternative to our dedicated camera always on hand, rather than just seeing it as a poor substitute simply used to grab an image when we have no other camera available.
One of the main ways in which we can become more creative with our phone cameras is in paying attention to composition. Whether we take our photos with a camera or smartphone, there are well composed photographs and badly composed photographs. By paying attention to some of the ‘rules’ of composition, such as using rule of thirds, leading lines or natural framing, by looking for symmetry or reflections and by ensuring we have a clear subject, we can immediately produce images that are more pleasing to the eye, and this can be done regardless of the camera we use.
Leading lines is a familiar photography technique which can be used on a phone camera just as easily as on a dedicated camera. Keeping this technique in mind can help us make the most of these opportunities when they present themselves. I also love images that show reflections.
Again, natural framing is a technique that is easy to use with a smartphone camera and is all about being aware of the surroundings, perhaps moving position to ‘frame’ the image in a certain way.
Rule of thirds
This photography ‘rule’ suggests that images can be more pleasing to the eye if the subject is not dead centre but is rather placed at intersecting lines of a nine square grid. Often, when there are two subjects, placing them diagonally can be a pleasing composition.
Sometimes being in the centre of the image is just the right place for the subject! Unfortunately the signpost is an unwanted element but this can be removed in Photoshop.
Landscapes can be beautiful to the eye but often don’t make good photographs. The addition of a subject such as this man looking out to sea adds a bit of interest to the image.
Getting down low and shooting or 'shooting through' something can give a different perspective to our image, or we can shoot high and portray a subject in a way that it is not normally seen.
This image was taken through a second floor window and gives a clear image of the interesting rooftops nearby.
Using our smartphone and taking advantage of a photo opportunity can result in an image that may have otherwise been lost, but it pays to add a bit of creativity rather than just ‘snapping’ aimlessly. I was passing this lake on a foggy morning in April. I took some photos with my phone camera as well as my DSLR. The phone camera produced some decent images which captured the atmosphere.
Some photographers suggest that shooting odd numbers can add more interest to an image than having an even number of subjects in an image. I like to shoot in threes and it is often possible to come across three objects unexpectedly.
While being able to adjust depth of field is a significant advantage of dedicated cameras, it is possible to do this to some extent on the phone camera using portrait (iPhone) or live focus (Android) mode and we can blur backgrounds to produce a more ‘professional’ looking photograph.
These images were taken with regular photo mode and live focus mode. The live focus mode does give some background blur.
One technique I particularly like in the phone camera is burst mode, where we can take a quick burst to (hopefully) capture the action in a shot. I need to practice this technique some more as my image is not clear, but it is worth working on the technique.
One of the things I have learned is that the quality of an image is significantly reduced when we use digital zoom on our phone cameras, so for this reason I have begun to make more use of the telephoto lens, and I find that this gives a good close up view of my subject in many cases.
Maybe one of the most important advantages of learning to become more competent with our smartphones is that we can begin to pay attention to photo opportunities all around us, and in so doing develop our photographer’s eye, knowing that we can take an acceptable image with the phone in our pocket if the opportunity arises. Our images are instantly available to view and can even be enhanced using mobile photo editing apps. One of my favourites is Snapseed, which can be used to make subtle improvements to my images, particularly to colour which can at times look a little artificial straight out of camera. Photo editing can give us some creative control by fine-tuning our images to our own preferences or by using filters to experiment with different effects. The following images are examples of before and after Snapseed editing:
So, what’s the verdict?
My question at the start of this blog was whether the smartphone camera can rival the dedicated camera for our everyday photography needs. Obviously, because of its small sensor the phone camera won’t deliver the same high quality images as a DSLR with a much larger sensor. However, I found the image quality to be very acceptable although the colours were more artificial than those produced by my camera. A few sliders in Snapseed helped to give more realistic colours. One drawback was shooting in sunshine, where the lack of a viewfinder was a real disadvantage. I found the inability to see the screen in the glare of the sun to be very frustrating, although shooting in full sunshine is not optimal for photography in any case.
Prior to taking part in what I call my ‘smartphone project’ my attitude towards my phone camera was rather dismissive and I often missed what could have been a good photo opportunity because of assuming that my phone would capture an inferior image. By changing my attitude I have opened myself up to new opportunities. I found that I did have some degree of creative control while using my phone camera and that it was possible to overcome the difficulties and use my phone camera as another photography learning tool. For my purposes the smartphone camera works. I won’t get professional standard photographs from either phone or real camera as I am not a professional photographer. What I do get is learning opportunities, a chance to experiment with composition, with framing a scene or subject properly to get the best result and a chance to improve my photography skills on a daily basis, which is my overall aim.
My advice to anyone learning photography is not to rely exclusively on the smartphone camera but not to dismiss it either. Someday it might capture that image which will make you very proud!
“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” — Karl Lagerfeld (German creative director and photographer)
I have never regretted taking a photograph, but I have regretted the ones I didn’t take. And the only moment we have in which to take that photograph is the one right now.
Update July 2020
My new phone has a wide angle lens which I am looking forward to exploring. With the latest technology I now have a camera with three lens which can easily slip into a pocket or bag. This does indeed add to the attractiveness of a smartphone camera for everyday photography.
Thanks to the amazing improvements in phone camera technology in recent years, most of us now have a camera to hand that is capable of capturing incredible images. This Ultimate Guide to Smartphone Photography (link below) contains tips for getting the most out of your phone camera, in particular it will guide you through some of the best ways to capture great business photos from your smartphone.