Last week, Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 7 and its 48-megapixel camera were revealed to the world, bringing forth memories of the 41-megapixel cameras of the Nokia 808 PureView and its later Windows Phone sibling, the Nokia 1020. Just a few months before this, Samsung’s Galaxy A9 was shown to have four rear-facing cameras.
Years of technological advances in the cameraphone world have transformed smartphone imaging capabilities from barely usable to almost professional quality. It’s becoming more and more difficult to recommend a standalone digital camera for the average consumer.
Of course, due to electronic and optical constraints, a DSLR or other compact camera with a larger sensor and lens will always have superior image quality. But that is far from the only concern that anyone could have with a camera, especially among non-professionals.
Let’s take a look at the various differences between phone cameras and dedicated cameras, and see how they stack up against each other in the consumer space.
Phone cameras have been capable of huge image resolutions for years, with even some front cameras having 24MP sensors. At least in this way, they can certainly match up to the best DSLRs out there.
However, the first thing that any camera enthusiast ever learns is that megapixels aren’t everything. The smaller lens and tiny image sensor of a cameraphone simply can’t optically resolve the same amount of detail as a proper dedicated camera. Blowing up a photo taken with a cameraphone to view the tiny, zoomed-in details, you’ll find the characteristic speckles of chroma noise, or a nasty blur that wouldn’t be there on a larger camera.
That said, in broad daylight, you might find a smartphone camera photo virtually indistinguishable in clarity from that taken with a dedicated camera, which is often what matters.
Low Light Performance
One of the greatest differences between a dedicated camera and a smartphone is found when the sun sets. To take a photo in low light, cameraphones have to blow up the ISO gain and decrease shutter speed, leading to grainy or blurry photos in the evening that are hard to get right.
Meanwhile, dedicated cameras have larger lenses and bigger image sensors that lead to more light being collected, allowing for greatly improved detail in low-light situations.
That said, a variety of low-light modes in modern cameras, such as Google Night Sight and the rumored Samsung Bright Night, utilize some high-tech image stacking to produce good low-light images. While they’re still not quite as good as a proper camera’s photos, they allow great night shots that were previously difficult to capture with a phone.
Portability and Convenience
In this field, phones have no contest. Being able to slip your camera into your pocket, purse, or even your wallet is not something that you’d associate with even the smallest of compacts.
Phones are also far more convenient to use, as you already carry them around for day to day use in other situation. On top of that, they’re easier to set up than a camera, which you’d have to turn on and wait on for it to boot. Modern cameras have shaved down the boot time to a second or two, but it’s still a hassle when you need to capture something that just now appeared in front of you.
In photography, dynamic range refers to the maximum difference between the brightest and darkest details of an image that a camera can capture. Dynamic range is often measured in “stops,” where a single stop is a power-of-two difference in brightness. For example, a camera with “7 stops” of dynamic range can capture bright details that are up to 128 times (27) brighter than its darkest details.
Ever take a photo with your phone, which features the sky and the ground in the same frame? Oftentimes you’ll find that either the ground is underexposed, or the sky and other reflective highlights are overexposed. This is the result of a low dynamic range, and it’s a limitation of phone camera sensors, which have around 10 stops of dynamic range.
In contrast—pun intended—old-school film has around 13 stops of dynamic range, according to a Kodak study. The average digital camera has about 12, and the highest-end DSLRs can go all the way to 15 stops. Phone cameras simply don’t stand a chance against regular cameras in this field, and probably never will simply due to their size.
To remedy this limitation, most mid-range-and-up phones use a technique known as high dynamic range (HDR), which photographers know as the process of stacking images at various exposures to improve the dynamic range of a single composition.
Phones can do this automatically by rapidly taking three different photos at three different exposure values, then seamlessly combining them. It’s not a perfect solution, but the most advanced implementations are driven by high-end image processing algorithms that can look incredible.
A highlight of many digital cameras that is found lacking in smartphones, for obvious space reasons, is optical zoom. With this, you can capture details that otherwise would have required you to get closer, or create a unique sense of perspective against the background.
When smartphones zoom in, they use digital zoom, which means that they’re pretty much doing the same thing as you pinch-zooming on a photo you took. This is why you shouldn’t use the zoom feature on most phones – it just throws away detail.
Some phones with multiple cameras have different focal lengths, or zoom levels, on each of their cameras, and allow users to select which camera they want to use to capture, marketing it as a form of optical zoom.
The problem is that increasing optical zoom reduces the amount of light available to the camera sensor, which is already a problem for larger, dedicated cameras, and an even bigger problem for small cellphone image sensors. It’s best to only use this feature during the day.
In each of our image quality comparisons, we’ve shown that cameraphones lose ground to dedicated cameras in some way. This is an inevitable result of the sacrifice for portability that phones make.
However, we also note that phone technology is advancing in various ways to overcome at least some of these limitations. Indeed, it’s come to the point that the cameras we carry around in our pockets often exceed the capabilities of dedicated compact cameras maybe 8 to 10 years ago.
Whatever the case, image quality isn’t all that matters. An oft-repeated saying among photographers goes, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” Smartphones might not be able to take professional photos, but they’re certainly good enough to capture the moments that matter.