Smartphones versus DSLRs versus film: A look at how far we've come
1 Smartphones versus DSLRs versus film
With a deluge of three new cameras released every week, I'd completely lost perspective. Just how far have we come since film? Where would a modern smartphone camera fit into the evolution of digital SLRs? Would it be like DSLRs of five years ago? Ten? Or not on the same page at all? I wanted to get a feel for the pace of progress, to look back and see how far we’ve come, to get a handle on where we’re going.
I’m lucky enough to have a company with lots of cameras, so we decided to find out.
We took two of the latest smartphones and pitted them against digital SLRs from 2003 to today, and, for reference, film.
They couldn’t be more different. The iPhone 5S worships at the altar of convenience and speed, while the Nokia devotes everything to the best possible image quality. In the seven seconds you took to read this paragraph, the iPhone could have taken 70 shots. The Nokia? Two. With another coming … wait a moment … almost there … now. Their camera apps are polar opposites too: the Nokia offers you full-time manual control over all the camera settings; the iPhone gives you almost none.
In the other corner, our SLRs contenders were:
- Canon EOS 10D (6 megapixels, 2003)
- Canon EOS 20D (8 megapixels, 2004)
- Canon EOS 30D (8 megapixels, 2006)
- Canon EOS 40D (10 megapixels, 2007)
- Nikon D800 (36 megapixels, 2012 and not yet seriously bettered)
- Nikon FM2 film camera with Fuji Velvia 50 transparency film, and Fuji Superia 1600 print film
Why these cameras? The Canon DSLRs each represent the pinnacle of picture quality available in their day for less than $2,000 without a lens. Each earned DPReview’s coveted Gold Award, and reading back through their glowing reviews, I found myself wanting to buy them … again! I chose DSLRs from this era, as I guessed that the phones would slot neatly among them. I was wrong. We included the Nikon D800 as an upper reference point for the current state of the art for DSLRs, and we added film to anchor it all in an historic perspective, to give us old-timers a place to mentally hang the results.
We tested them all twice, first in glaring subtropical sunlight (EV 15 to photographers), then under the equivalent of romantic candlelight, 6,000 times darker in Queensland Museum (EV 2.7). In bright light outside, I expected a fair fight between the phones and DSLRs. In dim light, I expected the DSLRs to eat the phones for breakfast. DSLRs’ enormous lenses concentrate light onto vast sensors, adding up to a colossal advantage. Low light is what they were born to shoot. In comparison, the phones have minuscule lenses and tiny sensors with teeny-weeny pixels, so only the most fanatical photons can find their way to a pixel. But the phones have an extra 6-10 years of technology on their side. Can technology make up for what they lack in size?
A technical aside: How do you compare apples to oranges?
Comparing smartphones to DSLRs is like comparing apples to oranges. They have different views, give different amounts in focus, different possibilities for editing, capture different ranges of brightness and there’s a whopping six-fold difference in the size of pictures between these devices. So how do you compare them?
At first, we struggled to find a test that would be completely fair to both, and eventually realized that fairness would limit us to shooting a flat black-and-white chart in a studio. Fascinating for Mr. Spock, but meaningless to most humans. So instead, we shot normal scenes, and we’ve tried to spell out the biases involved. Here is one of the biases to give you a flavor, and we’ve added a separate page with all the technical notes here if you want all the details.
One of the subtle biases is that smartphones naturally get lots in focus, but DSLRs have to stray far from their best settings to get the same look. In tech-speak, the iPhone 5S gets the same depth in focus as a full-frame DSLR at f/18. With a phone, you can freeze everyone along the length of a candlelit Christmas dinner table, and keep them all in focus. None of these DSLRs can do that, as f/18 and short shutter speeds don’t mix in candlelight. But the DSLRs can capture beautiful blurry-background portraits in that same light — something none of the phones can ever do. In short, they're each good at different things.
To get around this particular difference, we chose tests where the depth in focus wasn’t relevant, creating a bias in favor of the DSLRs, as we allowed them the indulgence of picking their optimal aperture, rather than forcing them to use a realistic one.
In the technical notes page, you can read about the steps we used in the tests, the settings, how and why we standardized the sizes of all the pictures to about 20 megapixels and how we processed the images. You can also download the original photos from Flickr to check our conclusions.
So, how do they compare? I thought I knew. It turned out that I was completely wrong. Read on to find the answers.
|scrum break away by al booth|
from Sport competition
|Parking Deck by Olaf R|
from Your City - Parking Garage
|Communication Tech by alberto_b|
|With & without by OBellini|
from Empty - Full
The new store will be located at the Fotografiska center for contemporary photography in Stockhom, Sweden and carry the full range of Hasselblad products.
A recent vacation gave Richard a chance to think about the needs of travel photography – and how our reviews might recognize the perfect travel camera.
Need more evidence that 2017 is the year analog begins its comeback? Well, welcome another new film stock to the world.
The winners of the 10th annual iPhone Photography Awards have been announced, and they're striking.
If you were disappointed by reports that the Sony a9 struggles with adapted Canon glass, you might be able to take some comfort from Metabones' latest update.
Blackmagic Design has dropped the prices of its Video Assist external monitor/recorders for a limited time. Prices of the SD card-based recorders will be reduced in all markets, while supplies last.
Instagram has started testing a new feature called 'favorites' that enables users to share photos with only certain people. Only a small number of users have access to the feature at this time, though it may roll out to everyone in the future.
Lensbaby has announced the Velvet 85 F1.8 for interchangeable lens cameras. The lens is available in Canon, Nikon, Sony E, Sony A, Pentax K, Samsung NX, Fuji X and Micro 4/3 mounts.
It's the end of an era. Parent company Micron has announced that they are discontinuing the Lexar retail brand. This includes 'memory cards, USB flash drives, readers, and storage drives.'
Youthful trainspotter turned adult photographer, John Sanderson has traveled across the United States, documenting the country's railroads. But you won't find any trains in his pictures.
Sony's new CMOS sensor is backside-illuminated and offers an all-pixel global reset function which should drastically reduce rolling shutter effect when panning.
Shoulderpod has converted its offerings into a lego-like modular system by offering all individual parts of existing products separately, allowing users to build exactly the rig they need for a specific project or simply replace a damaged part.
Photographer Felix AAA has spent the past ten years touring the world with a variety of musicians, capturing behind the scenes shots and portraits. He talks about some of his favorite images on the FujiFilm Blog.
A roll of film discovered in an Argus C2 from an Oregon Goodwill turned out to contain some incredible images – and has been re-united with the original owner's family.
Nikon's 28mm F1.4E ED appears to roundly complete the company's updated lineup of fast, professional prime lenses. We've already seen some initial images from a Nikon ambassador, but we've worked through a gallery of our own, with a lens of our own over the past week. Take a look.
Google is holding a competition that could see your Pixel photos gracing millions of screens.
Nikon's 100th birthday party continues worldwide as a distributor in Italy organized a one-of-a-kind feat: assembling the world's largest 'human camera' from over a thousand volunteers.
Ricoh has dropped the price of its Theta SC 360 spherical camera by to $199, a reduction of roughly $50. The camera features two 12MP sensors and can record Full HD video in addition to stills.
Photojournalist Pete Souza served as the presidential photographer for both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. In an interview with fellow photographer Marcia Nighswander, he discusses several of his most noteworthy images.
Photographer Michael Wolf has been documenting the crowded conditions of Tokyo's subway trains since the 1990s. The photos have gone viral regularly in the years since he started the project, and he just published the final edition in the series.
The just-launched OnePlus 5 is getting a minor update that should improve camera function.
A Belgian camera shop is showing off an extremely rare, limited 'Rex Edition' Nikon D500. The cosmetic alterations were provided by a customer's German Shepherd Rex, who got ahold of the camera within a day of its purchase.
Adobe says that many of its users have been relying on SkyBox for VR editing and it therefore made sense to make the plug-ins available to all subscribers through Creative Cloud.
The Pictar grip provides a number of customizable physical controls for your iPhone camera, but at its price point we would like to see better materials and build quality.
Peak Design's 'consider every detail' approach shines in the Everyday Backpack. While expensive, it's one of the best options out there for a photographer who needs to pack a lot of stuff in addition to gear.
If you're thinking of using Canon's sports glass on the Sony a9, think again. The ultra-fast camera slows way down when you attach off-brand glass.
The Polish town of Katowice is not famed as an area of beauty, but as all photographers know, that doesn't mean that beauty can't be found if you look in the right places. Mariusz Pietranek used a drone to look down on the colorful sedimentation tanks at an ironworks.
New York Times video journalist Ben Solomon spent a harrowing three weeks accompanying Iraqi Major Sajjad al-Hour as he and his men fought to retake Mosul from I.S. forces.
The 3D VR camera launched through a crowdfunding campaign in 2015 goes on sale beginning June 26.
Noctilucent clouds, a crescent moon and Venus were visible in the pre-dawn sky over Budapest yesterday. Photographer György Soponyai captured NASA's astronomy picture of the day.