Low-light scene

Low light is the DSLR’s home ground, and I expected the SLRs to walk all over the phones. Wrong again.

We wanted to see how well each camera could crank up its sensitivity to capture sharp shots of people in the equivalent of candlelight (EV 2.7). So we leveled the playing field by shooting them all as close to 1/15th sec as we could — that’s a practical maximum for shooting living, breathing humans without losing most of the shots to blur. At 1/15th sec, I’d normally expect over half of my shots of people to be blurred, especially if the people are moving. But most smartphone manufacturers have more relaxed standards (or possibly everyone just moves really slowly at their parties), and they set 1/15th sec as the longest shutter speed on their phones. On Auto, the Nokia wanted to show-off its image stabilizer and shoot for even longer, but we wouldn’t let it. Parties at Nokia HQ are clearly not very animated affairs.

Diarama scene at EV2.7 (equivalent to candlelight) in the Queensland Museum, showing the area chosen for enlargement. The people are wax!
Fuji Superia 1600 print film (rated at 800) 1/8s, f/2.8, Nikon FM2, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens
iPhone 5s 1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 1250, jpeg, Camera Awesome app
Nokia Lumia 1020 1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 3200, jpeg. +0.66 Exposure in Camera Raw
Canon EOS 10D ($2k in 2003) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg
Canon EOS 10D ($2k in 2003) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, raw
Canon EOS 20D ($2k in 2004) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg
Canon EOS 30D ($2k in 2006) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg
Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg
Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, raw
Nikon D800 ($3.5k in 2012) 1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg

In candlelight, the DSLRs could strut their stuff, and pulled further ahead of the phones. The Nikon D800 kept its crown by a country mile, and even with one hand tied behind its back by limiting it to 1/15th second, it could almost challenge what the Nokia could do at its very best settings.

But it wasn't the walkover that I expected. The phones put up a fierce fight. The iPhone lent heavily on noise reduction, giving a smooth but detail-starved picture. The Nokia didn't use as much noise reduction, giving tighter noise and better detail, but its low dynamic range lost lots of detail in the shadows.

Unsure of how to judge the noisy, detailed DSLRs against smoother, less-detailed phones, we asked 15 non-photographers to do it for us. They ranked the iPhone, Nokia, film and Canon EOS 10D from best to worst, without knowing which was which. The Nokia emerged as the popular favourite, but more striking was how much people disagreed. We got every possible ranking, based around peoples' preferences for smoothness versus detail. People who liked the Nokia picture also tended to like the iPhone, while people who liked the 10D also tended to like the film. It seems that we're all either smooth people, or noisy people.

The Fuji Superia film suprised me. It looks ugly up close with this size of englargement, but analogue grain is different to noise ... try sitting back from the screen — way back. When I do that, it looks better than many of the others.

Candlelight also shows off how the Canon EOS cameras have improved throughout the years in raw and jpeg. 2007's EOS 40D looks much better than 2003's EOS 10D. Perhaps we didn't waste all that money on upgrades, but it shows how the benefits in that era were mainly in low-light shooting.