It’s a great question, isn’t it? For years people have been telling photographers, what’s the point? Smartphone cameras are amazing and so much more compact and easy to carry with you.
And yes, in large, that’s true. But ask any serious photographer and they will probably tell you it’s all about the image quality. Often the smartphone cameras oversaturate the colors and blow out the highlights. They don’t quite get all the available data in the shadows, and invariably not as sharp. But is that really the case?
That’s really the main difference between the two — the image quality. DSLR and mirrorless cameras still have superior image quality, and that is thanks to the sensor size. But it doesn’t end there. Especially when it comes to mirrorless cameras, they have incredible sensors that capture every tiny detail. They capture more details in the highlights and shadows. Ask any concert photographer, and they’ll be the first to say they completely outperform phone cameras in low light conditions.
Optical vs. digital zoom
Smartphones have a digital zoom, which means that when you zoom in, you are actually losing pixels. Enlarging your subject often means a loss in picture quality. You have to physically move in closer to your subject.
Mirrorless (and DSLR) have amazing zoom lenses available, which means you can zoom in without losing picture quality.
This brings me to the other benefit — the interchangeable lenses. Phones might have a great lens (or two). And while there are adapters and attachable lenses, they aren’t quite the same. If you can afford it, you can get a lens to do just about anything for a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Below is a comparison between a 200mm and a 300mm lens, and 20x or 30x digital zoom on a Samsung S20. It’s horrible! True, you would not normally use a digital zoom that high, but some do.
Look at that beautiful creamy bokeh from the 300mm lens on the flowers — you just can’t get that on a phone. That bokeh is another feature that many photographers adore.
High-end cameras are usually weather-sealed, they are often more durable than a standard cell phone. How often do you see phones with cracked screens? You can even take some cameras up to 15 meter underwater. And you can’t really do that with a cell phone (yet). Traditional cameras are much more tolerant of the elements and can handle a little more rough use.
True — you can get underwater cases for smartphones. But I am yet to actually meet anyone who raves about them.
Let’s face it. Between apps, calls, text messages, social media, music and everything else we demand from our phones these days, by the end of the day the batteries are close to dead. Even if you aren’t using them constantly.
Traditional cameras tend to last longer (unless you’re shooting non-stop). You can throw in a spare battery, or two. Or three. The vast majority of phones have a built-in battery that you can’t replace.
Advanced camera settings
Something else smartphones aren’t quite as good as yet is offering advanced camera settings. Mirrorless (and DSLR) cameras have so much more scope to offer when it comes to settings. Changing modes, controlling shutter speeds, aperture, white balance and more gives you the creative freedom to do so much more.
It is still a little limited on the phone. Don’t get me wrong — they’re not all bad shots off a phone, and in the hands of a dedicated smartphone user, they can be downright amazing.
Where does a smartphone really shine?
Put a smartphone in the hands of someone who has never picked up a mirrorless or DSLR camera will result in some great photographs. For food or still life photography, they can be amazing, too. I find myself using them more and more.
You can capture terrific photos with a phone. There’s no real argument there. But is it the same as a mirrorless or DSLR camera?
Will phones ever replace the camera?
We don’t quite know what the future holds, but somehow I think the handy smartphone will still remain in the pocket of serious photographers. Does that mean you won’t see a photographer using their phone? Of course, we use them, after all. I know I use mine for scouting locations, test shots and using apps like light meters, TPE and PhotoPills.
It has become a way of life for many of us. Some of us even snap behind the scenes images, videos and holiday snapshots on our phones. Sometimes it is just easier than carrying all our gear everywhere we go.
This one is up for debate, but I bet if you ask any serious photographer what they like most about their camera … it’s how it FEELS in their hand. It just feels right, doesn’t it?
Disclaimer: I am admittedly a bit of a hack when it comes to cell phone cameras. It’s altogether possible that a dedicated smartphone photographer will take photos that are so much better than mine. I spend so little time on mine that it feels wrong! If you use an app like Lightroom Mobile, you can set the aperture and ISO on many phones. But not everyone has those loaded on their phones, or feels comfortable using them.