Smartphone Camera Vs DSLR/Mirrorless Cameras

So this article at Petapixel happened few days ago, a photographer pitted the Huawei P20 Pro against a 50MP full frame DSLR, Canon 5DS R. I did skim through the article and did not intend to react considering how clickbaity the title of the piece sounded like, but then I received emails and messages via social media seeking my opinion and feedback on the current hot topic: is the current smartphone camera good enough to replace traditional dedicated camera?

My current smartphone the Moto G5S Plus. All images shown after this were taken with this smartphone. 




Instead of tackling the Petapixel article headon or any other previous incarnations of meaningless smartphone camera vs "insert your professional camera of choice" comparisons, I would like to just look into a simpler question:

Is smartphone camera good enough for me? 

After all, I cannot speak for you, I cannot generalize the whole photography crowd, and certainly I cannot assume that what works for me will work for you too. I am a photography enthusiast, actively shooting almost every day now with both mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras as well as smartphone camera. As an experienced photography blogger and imaging products reviewer, I think I have a thing or two to say about the sufficiency of smartphone camera as a photographer's tool.

To just cut straight to the point, my easy answer is no. No, the best smartphone camera today is still not enough to justify me throwing my Micro Four Thirds System (OM-D, PEN cameras and M.Zuiko lenses) away.

I acknowledge that smartphone camera is the most popularly used camera now on the planet, with convenience of using one everyday device that you take with you everywhere you go to. The best camera is the camera you have with you at all times, right? Also, I see that smartphone camera is evolving rapidly, and in time with advancements it may surpass what a traditional dedicated camera can do. Nevertheless, at this time of writing, there are still many limitations in smartphone cameras which seriously restrict what I can accomplish for my photography needs.

We are going to talk about these inadequacies of smartphone cameras in this blog entry.


1) FIXED LENS, NO OPTION TO CHANGE FOCAL LENGTH

The most frustrating limitation on a smartphone camera is the focal length being stuck at a fixed wide angle at all times. No matter how the current innovation of using "intelligent zoom" or having a second lens for a longer focal length, or the option to attach "miniature tele-converters", honestly, nothing beats the real advantage of being able to change lenses and use whatever focal lengths that can provide the required field of view.

Dealing with wide angle is not easy, certainly not for every single shot. It works for scenery/landscape, group shots of people and maybe that "selfie", but when it comes to general photography, I prefer to work with something longer in focal length, such as 50mm or narrow in field of view, allowing more perspective compression (less background to deal with) as well as better distortion management. You know how when you shoot with wide angle everything looks out of proportion (the sides being stretched wider, or the head of a person appear too large for the body), using a longer focal length drastically reduces this problem. Controlling perspective is crucial most of the photography that I do, and using a smartphone with wide angle on all the time just does not work for me.

Here is an idea, since now multiple cameras on a smartphone is a thing, and I do not see the numbers of cameras dropping anytime soon: why not make each camera with a different lens, covering different focal lengths? Latest Huawei has 3 camera modules, why not make it camera 1 with 28mm, camera 2 with 50mm and camera 3 with 85mm?

2) AUTOFOCUS AND SHUTTER LAG

I am a run and gun photographer, I need my camera to be fast and able to respond immediately. After all, street photography (that I do all the time) is all about capturing that fleeting moment, you blink and you miss it kind of scenario. As much as I applaud the processing power of a smartphone (it is now more powerful than a PC 8 years ago, maybe?) it still hesitates and struggles in autofocus! No way it is as instantaneous in response as current DSLR and Mirrorless camera AF capabilities. After the AF lock, then there is the annoying shutter lag, which can be anywhere as bad as half a second to a second long, depending on lighting condition and what phone you are using. Yes I have tested some of the best phones in the market and there is still that minimal lag, not enough to be noticeable by non-photography obsessed people, but enough for me to miss important moments if I relied on the smartphone camera to do any critically timed shooting. Oh you would not believe the "marketing" phrases, using "laser-assisted AF, Phase Detect, X-ray scan, heat vision with whatever crap alien AF technology" yet when it matters, the AF misses, or the camera just lags.

To confidently get the shot, no, smartphone camera is still not there yet. Though I do see improvement from generation to generation.




3) NO MECHANICAL SHUTTER OR PHYSICAL APERTURE 

In order to truly make the camera tiny enough to fit into a smartphone which is ever getting uncomfortably slimmer in design, the cameras are stripped off from their important parts. The mechanical shutter is replaced with just electronic shutter and the lens is left fully open all the time with no option to control the aperture. Not having mechanical shutter means external flash use is almost impossible to do. Using electronic shutter itself is problematic, as the images tend to suffer in terms of noise penalty at higher ISO use as well as the jello-effect (rolling shutter effect) when shooting fast moving subjects. Furthermore, not being able to change the aperture at all seriously limits creative execution of the camera, for example when I want to do long exposure shooting, slowing down the shutter speed to capture motion of moving water, or light trails along a highway at night, it was impossible to do. Being stuck at wide open F1.8 was just too bright to slow down the shutter speed.

I need to use flash in my photography and I want to play with slow shutter speed from time to time, hence, having mechanical shutter and real physical aperture control will make a world of difference in my photography. The smartphone camera lacks both. (that dual LED thingy on your phone is NOT qualified to be a real flash, sorry).

Oh the new Samsung S9+ allows 2 aperture settings, F1.5 and F2.4.... which was completely useless in my opinion. F2.4 is still too bright for any slow shutter creative use. Hey Samsung, make it F8 next time, then we are talking.


4) SMALL IMAGE SENSOR SIZE

I will not make a big deal out of this, because I can actually live with the smaller sensor size if all the above issues have been resolved. However, if the smartphones can pack in at least a 1 inch image sensor, I think they can shake up the photography world real good. I acknowledge the existence of a Panasonic Android smartphone that features a 1 inch sensor camera, but that was several years ago, and it was not even made available to the worldwide market.

I don't care about megapixels. Heck, the megapixel race is getting ridiculous, that 40MP stunt from Huawei P20 Pro is questionable. I'd take a fully optimized 8MP image sensor with optimized per pixel sharpness, good dynamic range control as well as decent high ISO performance (usable ISO1600) over a half-baked, over-hyped and honestly disappointing anything over 20MP image sensor on such a tiny sensor for a smartphone.



5) LENS QUALITY

Hey what is with all the rage on having ridiculously bright aperture on the smartphone camera? You can find F1.8, F1.7 and even F1.5 now on latest camera iterations for smartphones. Really? Are you kidding me, that F1.5 is not gonna give you much advantage over F1.7. And that F1.8 is no different than F2, stop measurebating on such meaningless numbers.

What matters more, is optical quality, the lens construction itself. A high quality lens matter more than how wide the aperture is. I will take an optically superior F2.8 lens, with great sharpness, clarity, contrast and good technical controls (corner softness, chromatic aberration, distortion, etc) over an overcompensated F1.8 lens with all the flaws that could have been easily fixed if it was not F1.8. Also, the fact that the aperture cannot be changed makes me wonder if the lenses could have performed better if they were not that wide open. Having narrower aperture may actually improve overall image quality.


Of course, I have not talked about JPEG processing, the constant over-sharpening problem as well as too aggressive of noise reduction to create the painterly look that obliterates any useful fine details in the images.

Well, this article was not about bashing the smartphone camera as a photography tool, I was merely highlighting some valid points why I thought smartphone camera was not sufficient for my own photography needs, and I still carried around with me an Olympus OM-D at all times.

I am not asking for ridiculous demands, which most smartphone manufacturers are getting it wrong: they go for more megapixels, higher ISO numbers, wider aperture on lens and putting multiple camera modules on their phones.

Hey, instead of putting so many cameras, just include one with a 1 inch image sensor, a truly optimized optically superior lens at F2 or F2.8 instead of a questionable F1.6 lens, and include the essential parts that make a camera complete, such as mechanical shutter and a physical aperture control. Oh and while you are at it, please fix the shutter lag. Make the camera fast. Make it as fast as any DSLR/Mirrorless cameras, then we are talking. Maybe then, I will leave my dedicated cameras behind.

What say you? What is your stand when it comes to smartphone cameras?

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21 comments:

  1. You know the biggest weakness the smartphone camera has compared to a standalone camera? The standalone camera won't ever ring when you are taking a shot. :)

    By the way, the aperture on those little lenses can't go to f/8 without experiencing severe diffraction and image softening. Maybe f/4 is the limit.

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    Replies
    1. The same goes with any DSLR/Mirrorless cameras, just because at F16 or F22, we have severe softness due to diffraction, it does not mean we should exclude such small apertures, because in some situation, we just need to cut the light by using smaller apertures. For example, to smoothen the flowing water under harsh sun, having smaller aperture helps to create the motion blur, and in this regard, the softness is forgiveable.

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    2. Yes, I know what you are saying with mft lenses at f/22. But given the actual diameter of a current smartphone sensor, the absolute diameter for f/8 would not only be seriously soft, it would be mechanically difficult to implement operationally and consistently, even avoiding 5 blades and using 2 blades. I haven’t done the diameter match in absolute mm for a smart phone sensor. For point and shoot compact cameras, they have avoided mechanical blades and used ND filters in some cases

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    3. From my understanding, the compact cameras (tyically 1/2.5 inch sensor or smaller, in general) have their lenses mechanically stopped down to F8, though like you said, this would result in soft images. From my experience (using multiple Kodak compact cameras in the past) even at F8, the images were perfectly usable.

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  2. And you forgot to mention that one cannot hold a phone properly for taking photos! I know there a special grips one could buy and attach to the phone to get around that issue but still...

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    Replies
    1. True that, ergonomics and handling of the camera is superior to phones.

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  3. I too prefer nice dedicated camera system for most of my more serious photography (traveling, landscapes, architecture, etc.), but just to play devil's advocate here as to how I can see smartphone photography catching up to or exceeding some areas of traditional camera photography, it's the software. More specifically, how AI, machine learning, and the speed at which the software can chance or improve the tools to deliver the photographers vision. Just look at the Google Pixel 2's portrait mode which works pretty much entirely on software algorithms and results in pretty convincing, pleasing subject separation (and seemingly better than the dual camera + software solutions from Apple and Samsung). It's a pretty nascent field, but given the speed in which software can iterate, plus improving camera hardware in phones, it's pretty obvious why the point & shoot market is all but dead outside of the enthusiast space.

    All of Robin's points are valid, but if a manufacturer did deliver on any of those improvements, plus the software side, it could be a game changer for a lot of people. Even the most active of camera manufacturers at improving their in-camera software (Fuji) can't keep up with that pace of change/software innovation.

    That said, it will take a lot for me to ultimately give up the camera system for smartphones entirely, and I really can't see too many 400-600 mm smartphone lenses... :)

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    Replies
    1. You have a great point, computational imaging is the next evolution for digital photography, and it has been slowly creeping in, but we see most new innovations in smartphone cameras. Who knows what cool and game-changing features there will be next, exciting times ahead indeed. I would be so interested to see how they make a 600mm lens on a smartphone! That should be quite an experience.

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  4. While I don’t disagree with many of your points. I think smartphones have many advantages as well. One is they are always with you. DSLR require planning to take with you. You miss a lot of opportunities for great photos. Second depth of field is greater which allows for more hits on focusing. I can’t tell you how many great shots I have missed because I had the aperture set at 1.8 and missed focus on the eyes. Also size is better and people are more relaxed when taking their photo with a smartphone allowing for more candid shots.

    Computational photography is the future. Not only can backgrounds be blurred fairly well now but upcoming features allowing you to style your photo to any pro photographers style is coming soon. Lighting changes on the fly, etc. This stuff may seem rudimentary now but in 3 years it will become very hard to tell dslr from a smartphone in most situations.

    There are some great cameras on smartphones. IPhone X, Pixel 2, etc. Sony has an upcoming smartphone that takes it to the next level with low light photography. Also there are some really amazing apps like focos.

    I rarely take my omd-em1 anymore. It is just too bulky for the little boost to quality in most cases.

    I see the budget for the DSLR market continuing to go down, so less research and development. Smartphones are one of the largest markets in the world and cameras are currently a distinguishing feature and get lots of R&D dollars. So smartphone camera investment will vastly outstrip DSLR investment in both hardware and software.

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    1. Indeed, smartphone camera is already the most used camera currently, just look at Flickr upload statistics, smartphone takes the majority of the uploads. It has become the most used device for photography, mainly due to only one reason: convenience.

      Good for you then, since you are able to replace the OM-D with your smartphone camera. I still find that to be a long way to go for me. At least not anytime soon.

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    2. I'm with you Robin. No smartphone about to replace my cameras. I've never been comfortable shooting with my phone. It is awkward and slow and just not a good user experience for me. By the way, I also have the moto g5s plus. Great phone. Decent camera. Hate the lag. But good on days, rare, when I decide not to bring a camera because I don't want to shoot, then see something I have to shoot.

      One point. I don't agree about the fixed lens limitation. I had a ricoh GR. I now have the GR v2. I love this camera. With me all the time. Excellent image quality. Haptics just make me smile. I also have an Olympus m1v2 for interchangeable lens convenience. I love my Oly too. And about a month ago I bought a canon g7x markll for the zoom, and to try my first 1" sensor camera. It is amazing how good the image quality is.

      Despite how good my D700 is, it sits in a cabinet mostly unused these days, though the image quality is wonderful. And I have about ten nikon lenses for it. Waiting on Nikon to show us smaller, lighter, full frame bodies. With age and health problems the big and heavy dslr is a bit too much for me these days.

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  5. Funny, I know a lot of people like to write these articles about phone camera vs whatever.
    The first thought when I read it was, boy my Canon is such a horrible camera, my phone is even better.
    But I like to joke.

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  6. Really enjoy your perspective on all matters of photography.Thanks for writing such enjoyable informative articles!

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  7. Robin, I have this same phone (Moto G5S Plus), and in no way does it produce images like the ones you showed in this article. In fact, it has the poorest camera of any smartphone I have ever owned, even inferior to my old first-generation Moto X.

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  9. My case is the opposite: I own a 12 years old DSLR camera (Canon EOS 350D) and I am thinking in substituting it by one of those new smartphones with advanced cameras (Huawei P20 Pro, Samsung S9+, Xiaomi Mi 8, Pocophone F1, ...). I am happy with the performance of my Canon EOS 350D, this is enough for my needs. Would those new smartphones perform as well as my old DSLR camera? (especially in terms of bokeh, zoom, images in movement, ...).
    Thank you in advance.

    ReplyDelete
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