When I was young, I only dreamed of being able to achieve what professionals can. Equipment was far too expensive, so I would have to settle for simpler creations. In the realm of photography though, the barrier between professionals and amateurs has been breaking down, partially because of accessibility. For years, professional DSLR cameras were the only way to get high quality images. Now though, with the sophisticated hardware of smartphones, the progressive interplay between professionals and amateurs has increased.

Especially with the introduction of the iPhone 7, Google Pixel, and the Samsung Galaxy 8, smartphones have presented competition for DSLRs. How good are these new phones when they go toe-toe with DSLRs? Do smartphones make DSLRs irrelevant? Let’s see! By comparing the dynamic ranges, depth of field, shutter speed, and image quality of these technologies, a clearer conclusion can be drawn.

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Photo credit: (Hutchinson)

Dynamic Range

High end DSLRs usually strive when it comes to dynamic range. The dynamic range of an image is basically the amount of tones the camera can pick up. Notice how the DSLR is better able to gather details in the shadows casted inside of the stapler and below it. The smartphone does a decent job at capturing the tonal range, but it does not do a great job at capturing those shadows without grainy results.

Some smartphone cameras are able to achieve higher dynamic ranges. Rishi Sanyal explains how the Google Pixel accomplishes this: “expose for the bright regions, while reducing noise in static elements of the scene by image averaging, while not blurring moving (water) elements of the scene by making intelligent decisions about what to do with elements that shift from frame to frame” (Sanyal).


Depth of Field

Shallow depths of field are what smart phones struggle most with. The physical distance from the lens of DSLRs to their own bodies is what accomplishes this blurry phenomenon. Brittany Hillen and Rishi Sanyal talk about the smartphone alternative, “Dual-camera phones paired with a stereo algorithm get around this limitation by matching points in images from both cameras to determine depth within the captured scene. Having acquired that depth data, some pixels can be selectively blurred to produce the shallow DOF effect…” (Hillen and Sanyal).

This person sitting on this colorful bench illustrates the difference between dual-camera phones and DSLR capabilities. Although the phone is able to achieve a certain amount of boca blur, it lacks the organic graduated blur that the DSLR has. Instead of gradually becoming blurred, the background of the smartphone photo becomes instantly blurred just past the subject’s shoes. The smart phone’s digitalized look is decent, but it does not quite hold up against the smooth boca blur of the DSLR.

Photo credit: (Camerota)


Photo credit: (Abbott)

Shutter Speed

In particular lighting situations, there often times isn’t much that can be done to adjust the exposure manually on smartphones. There are certain apps that unlock the manual settings, but out of the box, smartphones do as they please when adjusting the exposure. This means that smartphones automatically increase the shutter speed when it is bright out, or decrease it in darker scenarios.

But what do I do if I want to take a sharp image at night, without any motion blur? Or get that silky water effect on a lake when it is bright out? The automatic shutter speed of smartphones restricts this access. This image on the right shows how the bright sunlight increased the shutter speed, sharpening the waterfall, which removed its opportunity to capture smooth water liker with the DSLR.

Thankfully, as John V. says, “we’re increasingly getting smartphone cameras that offer full manual modes – specifically being able to adjust the shutter speed” (V.). Shutter speed allows photographers to set the mood of their scene. Do they want it to be crisp and frozen in time with a higher shutter speed? Or do they want it to be smooth and flowy, portraying the passage of time through a slower shutter speed? These artistic technicalities are becoming more accessible, and allowing for more thoughtful images.


Image Quality

Megapixels are always a topic for discussion when it comes to image quality. As smart phones get more megapixels, DSLR cameras proportionately get more as well. Although the Samsung Galaxy S8 may have twelve megapixels, the Nikon D610 has twenty four. The discrepancies become obvious when looking close at the images of this lake. The intricate details that appear in the DSLR photo are muddled in the more chunky smartphone photo.

Still though, smartphones continue to tag not far behind DSLRs. Jeremy Horwitz elaborates on the upcoming 48-megapixel Sony IMX586, “With an 8000 x 6000 resolution, the new chip delivers more than twice the pixel count of current smartphone cameras” (Horwitz). This resolution will be greater than many DSLRs currently available.

Photo credit: (Abbott)



Looking back, we have come so far with technology. It is a marvel to see how smartphones have made high quality photography tools accessible to the greater population of modern culture. The question stands, will smartphones ever be able to eclipse DSLRs? The answer is probably “no,” but with a catch. When early DSLRs were standing up against early digital compact cameras, they were bounds ahead in terms of quality. Today though, DSLRs are not necessarily bounds ahead of smartphone cameras. With improved dynamic ranges, depth of field filters, adjustable shutter speeds, and greater resolutions, smartphones come near to DSLRs.

Smartphones will likely never be able to catch up to DSLRs though, because proportionately, as smartphone cameras improve, so do DSLRs. Similarly, the lens effects that come because of the physical shape of DSLRs and their accompanying lenses will never be obtainable by phones, unless if they somehow physically change shape.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that smartphones are irrelevant, because as we know, they are so convenient. They may not be the best way to take a photo, but they are also much better than the smartphone cameras available a few years ago. Jordan Bishop sums up the dwindling relevance of DSLRs, “If your DSLR is like a tuxedo—great for special occasions—the iPhone X is like your favorite t-shirt: infinitely more useful, and something you don’t mind having on you every day” (Bishop).


Works Cited

Abbott, James. “Techradar.” Techradar, Future US, Wales' Snowdonia National Park, 9 Mar. 2018, www.techradar.com/news/smartphones-vs-cameras-do-you-still-need-a-dslr.

Bishop, Jordan. “The IPhone X Is Poised To Replace DSLR Cameras.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 20 Oct. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/bishopjordan/2017/10/19/iphone-x-camera-replace-dslr-travel-camera-wide-angle-telephoto-portrait-mode-lighting-face-id/#b1963532627f.

Camerota, Patricia. “Reviewed.” Reviewed, USA Today Network, Italy, 26 Mar. 2019, www.reviewed.com/cameras/features/is-your-iphone-camera-just-as-good-as-a-real-camera.

Hillen, Brittany, and Rishi Sanyal. “Google Reveals How to Simulate Shallow DOF from a Single Mobile Camera.” DPReview, DPReview, 18 June 2018, www.dpreview.com/news/4850302495/google-reveals-how-to-simulate-shallow-dof-from-a-single-mobile-camera.

Horwitz, Jeremy. “Sony Debuts Record 48-Megapixel Camera Sensor for 2019 Phones.” VentureBeat, VentureBeat, 23 July 2018, venturebeat.com/2018/07/23/sony-debuts-record-48-megapixel-camera-sensor-for-2019-phones/.

Hutchinson, Lee. “Ars Technica.” Ars Technica, 10 Sept. 2014, arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/10/smartphone-camera-vs-dslr/3/.

Sanyal, Rishi. “Why Smartphone Cameras Are Blowing Our Minds.” DPReview, DPReview, 15 June 2018, www.dpreview.com/articles/8037960069/why-smartphone-cameras-are-blowing-our-minds.

V., John. “Battle of the Shutter Speeds: the Longer, the Better.” Phone Arena, PhoneArena, 11 June 2015, www.phonearena.com/news/Battle-of-the-shutter-speeds-the-longer-the-better_id70328.