Smartphones versus DSLRs versus film: A look at how far we've come
Bright sunlit scene
We set all of the cameras to their best-quality settings, and shot them on a tripod without zooming the phones. Each of the DSLRs used a current $1,700 professional lens and also the cheap 18-55mm kit lens that came with most of them, to see how much difference it would make. The images here are 100% crops from the center and edge of the screen, from ~20MP files.
20MP files, you say? Yes. Because the output resolution of our various cameras is so different, we resized each photo’s long edge to 5,400 pixels (in Photoshop CC using ‘bicubic preserve details’ for enlargement and ‘bicubic sharper’ for reduction) giving 19.4MP for cameras with their 3:2 ratio of sides, and 22.5 MP for the cameras with 4:3 sides. Feel free to download and play with the original unretouched pictures here.
How do they look?
I’ll turn to the technical differences in a moment, but first I need to get a few things out of my system: “Just look at that Nokia! Wow!”, and “Is that all the difference between four models of Canon camera?”, and finally “I’d forgotten film had so much detail and grain!”.
When I first saw the images from the Nokia Lumia 1020, I did a double take. Clear and crisp, lots of detail and super strong colors that you’ll either love or wince at. I loved them. And did I mention the detail? After years of seeing bigger cameras perform better, I couldn’t believe that a tiny plastic and glass Zeiss lens could resolve so much from the center to the edge of the image. It was close to the Nikon D800. I was stunned. I’ll list the shortcomings of the Nokia below, but first, some more stand-out results.
The Nikon D800 clearly belongs in its own league, with unmatched sharpness, smoothness and dynamic range, let down at the edges only by this 1999-era (but still current) professional lens which couldn’t keep up with the sensor. Arguably, the Nokia catches up with jpegs from the mighty D800 at these softer edges, albeit with more noise.
The Canon DSLRs steadily increased in detail from 2003 to 2007, but— and I’ll emphasize that this is entirely my subjective opinion — the total improvement across four models seems relatively modest in this sunlit scene. It’s eclipsed by the gulf between the iPhone and the Nokia. It left me wondering “Did we really pay that much just for that improvement?” Put into its historical perspective now, seeing what the Nokia and the D800 can do, it doesn’t square with the excitement I remember feeling with the release of each new model. Did I really get that excited about such tiny differences? Sure, the cameras got more responsive with each model, particularly the 20D and 40D, but in sunlight these jpegs look pretty similar. Perhaps the improvements in low light will be more pronounced? See the low light results below.
Putting the cheap lens on the Canons didn't make much difference at the center of the picture on these settings, but it softened the edges dramatically (see the pictures above on the 40D). This brought the iPhone into the game. To my eye, the iPhone 5S looked better than the 10D with the professional lens, but not as good as the 20D or later cameras. But with the cheap kit lens, the iPhone looked similar to the 20D and 30D at the edges, while still losing out to both at the center.
Did the film fall where you expected? I’d forgotten how much detail film could capture — the Velvia 50 was right up there with the Nokia and the D800. I’d also forgotten just how intrusive film grain could be. It used to look much more attractive in my rose-tinted memory. Sharpening in Photoshop has accentuated the grain, but it’s a powerful veil of noise across the image even before sharpening. Unlike digital noise that obscures the details, film grain seems to ‘texture’ the details. But it still looks downright ugly to me now that I’m used to silky-smooth digital. The film’s colours are sensational, though, and I remember the original Velvia from 1990 being like crack cocaine to landscape photographers. It was our ‘saturation’ slider in the days when Photoshop was an obscure Mac-only program.
Turning back to the Nokia, its pictures made such a rosy first impression that I had to look closely to spot their shortcomings. The first was a low dynamic range. Compared to the DSLRs and the iPhone, bright parts easily blanched white while dark parts stayed stubbornly black. It felt like using slide film again — the Fuji Velvia 50 film suffered from this even more strongly. And just like with slide film, it made getting the right brightness a knife-edge proposition. The next problem was that some details were smeared away by noise reduction. Nokia chose a balance between tolerating speckly noise, and smearing the noise. Low-contrast details got caught in the crossfire, and rubbed out. In the center picture, the fine bricks and leaves go soft, while the higher-contrast bricks keep their detail.
Both of these limitations should be eased in a few weeks. Nokia have promised to update the firmware of the 1020 in the New Year [UPDATE - they brought it out early! The Nokia "Lumia Black" update is now available in the U.S. through AT&T, and it'll be coming elsewhere soon]. The update lets the camera record raw format pictures. And two virtues of raw are better dynamic range and more control over noise reduction, as long as you’re prepared to play with the photos on a computer. Judging by their public test shots, it will do both, and dramatically improve the results. I just hope that shooting in raw doesn't slow the camera down much further.
A third challenge with the Nokia was its fixed aperture which gives the same depth of field as a full-frame DSLR at f/9. With the Nokia’s wide 27mm lens, f/9 gets a fair amount in focus, but not everything for critical landscapes. I don’t mind the iPhone’s fixed f/18 look — I only point it at scenes that need everything in focus like landscapes and street shooting, and it does the job. But f/9 is more … middling, and it might or might not suit your taste.