5 reasons why you should use a DSLR camera over a smartphone camera for serious photography

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For most casual photographers, travel provides an infrequent opportunity to lug around a DSLR camera on the move. As smartphone cameras improve in image quality and technical performance, few have reason to carry along an extra 3kg.

But ask any professional, and they’ll stand by their purpose-built camera (despite those snazzy commercials by Apple showcasing professional photographs taken by an iPhone). Besides the fact that DSLRs are (over) engineered solely to take photos well, here are 10 more reasons to ditch your smartphone camera if you’re serious about photography.

Reason 1: Less artificial image processing artefacts

Smartphone camera photos look good, because there’s a lot of intelligent image processing and noise reduction that goes on behind the scenes. You won’t notice it easily on the small screen of your mobile phone, but zoom in a little and you start seeing tell-tale signs like:

  • Blurring / ghosting of edges
  • Increased contrast of images (dark areas are made darker, while bright areas are further brightened)
  • Oversaturation of colours
  • Blotches throughout the photo

While the overall result is a pleasing sense of vivid colours and dramatic contrast on an electronic screen, you may find it looking less aesthetically pleasing when printed out.

With automatic post-processing, you may also find yourself working with an image that does not adjust well with an image editing software afterwards. Once the contrast is boosted and the colours are modified, it’s very difficult to scale back the amount of modification done. Some examples, from both my Samsung S7 Edge and Canon 6D, are shown below:

Samsung S7 Edge

Golden Triangle Smartphone
Signboard at the Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand (taken with a Samsung S7 Edge smartphone)
Golden Triangle DSLR
Signboard at the Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand (taken with a Canon 6D)
comparison between dslr and smartphone cameras
Comparison of image quality after zooming in (Samsung S7 Edge vs Canon 6D)

Reason 2: A larger image sensor matters more than the megapixel count

While smartphone advertisements tout their megapixel count, that’s just one part of a complex equation for photography. If you’ve ever compared two photos of almost similar megapixel count, taken by both a smartphone and a DSLR, you’ll notice the huge variance in quality after zooming in.

The reason for this is the image sensor size, which is used to capture incoming light. As the smartphone has to fit nicely on your hands, the sensor needs to be very small and efficient. For example, the iPhone 6S has a ~17 square millimeter sensor.

A DSLR, on the other hand, gets away with integrating large sensors to capture a lot more light per pixel. As a comparison, a full-frame DSLR sensor stretches out at a whooping 860 square millimeters!

sensor sizes in cameras
Difference in sensor sizes in different types of cameras (source: MCP Actions)

Reason 3: Get the right bokeh effect

Bokeh is the Japanese term for the blurry effect caused by a shallow depth of field. It’s an important compositional technique in photography to separate the foreground from the background, and helps the viewer focus the attention on the subject of the photo.

Sunflower field in Saraburi taken by Smartphone
Sunflower field in Saraburi (taken by Samsung S7 Edge)
Sunflower field in Saraburi taken by DSLR
Sunflower field in Saraburi (taken by Canon 6D)

The depth of field is adjusted by the aperture size, which is (inadequately) explained as the size of the opening that allows light into the sensor. Basically, a small opening (large f-number, e.g. f22) focuses more of the image, and the depth of field is far. On the other hand, a large opening (small f-number, e.g. f2.4) increases depth of field and causes more blurriness.

To complicate matters, the f-number on a smartphone camera and a DSLR is not directly comparable. Traditional f-numbers are based on a 35mm film camera (remember those guys?), and the size of the sensor will affect the actual value.

So for example, an iPhone 6S has an aperture of f2.2 (wow!) with a sensor diagonal of around 8.32mm. Adjusting to the f-number of a full-frame DSLR, this works out to somewhere around f13-f14, which is pretty mediocre in creating that gorgeous bokeh effect.

Reason 4: Photography in challenging conditions

No, this is not about using your DSLR in the middle of a blizzard in the North Pole (which a DSLR should still be able to manage, actually). Rather, in low-light or high-speed photography, the automatic image processor of a smartphone camera seldom interprets the scene correctly. For example, a night scene usually comes out with increased noise (increased ISO), fuzzy subjects (unfocused or excessive noise reduction) and dark splotches (incorrect noise reduction).

While some camera apps allow you to adjust the various settings of your smartphone camera, there’s a limitation to the hardware adjustments, like focusing on stars across an almost entirely dark sky, for instance.

In comparison, a DSLR comes with dials and buttons that allow manual configuration of the camera. In low-light, you can insist the camera use the lowest f-number and longest shutter speed with just a flick of a dial. For a high speed sporting event, you can turn it the other way and set the shutter speed to trigger faster, compensating for the reduced light exposure by opening up the aperture wider or increasing the ISO sensitivity.

Night scene in Mae Salong, Thailand (taken by Smartphone)
Night scene in Mae Salong, Thailand (taken by Samsung S7 Edge)
Night scene in Mae Salong, Thailand (taken by DSLR)
Night scene in Mae Salong, Thailand (taken by Canon 6D)

Reason 5: Get the right frame with telephoto and wide-angle zoom

One of the biggest advantage of the DSLR is its disadvantage as well. Most cameras, even those with in-built telephoto lens, are limited in the range it covers. To manufacture a lens that can zoom in and focus on distant objects, while zooming out and covering a wide angle… that’s technically challenging to build and is probably expensive.

Instead, photographers can buy interchangeable lenses that, in total, will cover an extensive zoom range. In doing so, you can start with a large telephoto lens to zoom in on a sleeping lion 100 meters away, and then switch to a wide angle 18mm lens to capture the beauty of the sleepy African savannah. 

Zooming out using a wide angle lens
Zooming out using a wide angle lens
Zooming out using a telephoto lens
Zooming out using a telephoto lens

Now try doing that with your smartphone, even with all its fancy device-specific camera attachments!

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