The verdict

Gun to head … time to come up with a number. How many years are smartphones behind the best $2,000 DSLRs? Comparing detail resolved, I'll say the iPhone 5S currently sits 8-9 years behind the DLSRs in bright light, while the Nokia trails by less than 6 years — probably nearer to 3. This is even when you allow the DSLRs the luxury of a $1,700 lens, and shooting in raw. In bright light, the Nokia came close to competing with the detail from the best DLSR yet made.

Step into candlelight, and the gap between phones and DSLRs widens and becomes more a matter of taste, pivoting around your preferred tradeoff between speckly noise and smeary noise reduction. From our ad-hoc panel of 15 non-photographers, the iPhone trails the DSLRs by about 10 years, and the Nokia about 8. 

Splitting the difference between candlelight and daylight, around 6 years of technology has made up for the massive difference in the size of the lenses and sensors between the best phone and the $2,000 DSLRs.

I was stunned.

This isn’t saying that the Nokia is a better camera than a 2007 Canon EOS 40D. It’s not. Detail makes up just a tiny fraction of the goodness of a camera, and none of what makes it a pleasure to use. The Nokia is much slower, can’t focus on moving targets, can’t easily defocus part of the picture, can’t change the perspective and feel of pictures by zooming or changing lenses, and can’t capture the same range of brightness in one shot that the latest SLRs can. Yet.

The curious thing about this list is that everything on it except one — changing lenses — can be fixed with faster processing. The iPhones, Galaxies and LGs have shown it already. And we know that faster processing is inevitable. The physical design of SLRs gave them a huge headstart over phones for both picture quality and usability, but advances in on-board processing are now quickly eroding that lead.

DSLRs aren’t standing still — they’re improving all the time too. But are they improving fast enough?

Looking forward

The graph below charts the progress of still image quality over time for the Canon EOS 10-series camera models, iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones. It uses different scales for the cameras and the phones: DXOMark and DXOMark Mobile, respectively. These are the closest anyone has yet come to condensing the myriad facets of image quality into a single objective number. The graph is misleading at first glance because the phones and the cameras sit on different scales. So it’s not saying that the phones are better than current DSLRs, despite scoring higher. You can only compare phones to phones, and DSLRs to DSLRs.

Improvements over time in DXOMark and DXOMark Mobile scores for Canon EOS DSLRs and two ranges of smartphones. Note that the scales for the DSLRs and the phones are different and not directly comparable. See DXOMark for scores for lots more cameras and phones.

But it does suggest that improvements in pictures from smartphones compared to other smartphones is happening at a much faster clip than improvements in these DSLRs compared to other dedicated cameras. These numbers don’t directly show that image quality from phones is improving faster than image quality from DSLRs, but they give a pretty strong hint in that direction. I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.

I’d wager that a lot more research and development money is directed at improving phone cameras than improving dedicated cameras. Manufacturers currently ship 13 times as many phones as cameras, and phone sales are going up, while camera sales are going down. Where would you invest?

Looking back

It’s sobering to look back at the old reviews of the cameras that we included. The earliest, the Canon EOS10D was a marvel of 2003. Phil Askey from DPReview described it as “the absolute best in its class, with the best image quality, lowest high sensitivity noise, superb build quality and excellent price.” He described the “Excellent resolution”, the “Noise free ‘silky smooth’ images”, with “very low noise levels even at ISO 1600.” The EOS 10D ran rings around the film that we’d been using for 50 years in terms of clarity and freedom from grain.

Yet it’s comprehensively humbled by modern phones. The iPhone out-shoots it, and the Nokia out-resolves it, all by huge margins.

iPhone 4S, 1/30s, f/2.4, ISO 64,
The ingredients for photos come from inside you. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The Nokia 1020 has redefined what I thought possible from a phone. I used to think of smartphones as a separate branch of ‘wannabe’ cameras, doomed to forever play catch-up with real cameras. I used to think like Takafumi Hongo, a Canon spokesperson who told the Wall Street Journal "Taking photos with smartphones and editing them with apps is like cooking with cheap ingredients and a lot of artificial flavoring. Using interchangeable [lens] cameras is like slow food cooked with natural, genuine ingredients.'' He has a point. With a smartphone you'll miss a lot of the joy of learning to cook traditionally. But in photography, the important ingredients come from you. Smartphones are now good enough not to need artificial flavoring from apps.

I now see smartphones as like the early steps in the evolution of premium, prime-lens compact cameras. Good quality, convenient, with huge depth of field, but compared to DSLRs, they’re still slow and inflexible, and their pictures aren't as 'malleable' to change in editing. Their results are good, but if you're used to a DSLR, the feel of smartphones — how pleasant and transparent they are to use as a craftsperson's tool — is still a work in progress. Like those prime compacts, phones have subjects that they excel at (landscapes, street shooting), along with subjects that they’re hopeless at: traditional sports, portraits, action and wildlife — anything that benefits from a longer lens or limited depth of field.

iPhone 5S, 1/30s, f/2.2, ISO 40
Smartphones excel at discreet street shooting.

Ironically, as dedicated cameras, prime lens compacts remain niche products with no aspirations to popular appeal. They're aimed squarely at discerning users. But as phones they’ve become the tool of choice in everyone’s hands. We accept their limitations as the price of extreme convenience.

But many of their limitations will disappear in a few short years with zippier processing. Only their fixed lens remains as an Achilles’ heel, with no obvious technology on the horizon to rescue it. Yet.

I’m loving this new breed of smaller, super convenient, high-quality prime-lens compact cameras that make phone calls. They help me heed the call of my favorite photographer, Elliott Erwitt, who said “It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.” Photography can enhance your vision, your enjoyment of the world, your interactions with other people, and your life. If your photography isn’t doing all of these for you, I’d argue that you’re not demanding enough of it.

I find that smartphones help me to reap these benefits at least as well as many dedicated cameras. For me, it’s merely an added bonus that they can now make pictures that compete with those from most DSLRs up to about 6 years ago. And I predict that the gap will shrink further.

If you’ve never considered smartphones as tools for "serious" photography, I'd argue that we’re fast approaching the time to look again.

Dean Holland is a photographer and educator based in Brisbane, Australia. You can learn more about him at Take Better Photos

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.