A Head-To-Head-To-Head Comparison of an iPhone, Full Frame Digital, and Medium Format Film: Can You Tell the Difference?

For some, the “magic” of film, medium format especially, or the benefit of full frame digital is all hype. Is it really just hype or can you tell a difference?

In this article, I am going to share the results of a series of photographs that were each taken with an iPhone, a full frame digital camera, and a medium format film camera. All photographs were taken on the same snowy day in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. Each photo was edited as I would normally would and is presented with a letter in the bottom right corner of the frame to be able to consistently judge across the different images which camera took which photograph. Each photo was cropped to be a 1:1 format so as to not completely give away the answer based solely on the aspect ratio of the image. In addition, while I don’t have lenses for each that are in perfect equivalence, I used the widest good lens I had for the digital camera and film camera to at least try and not have the focal length give away the results either.

For consistency between the digital camera and film camera, the shutter speed was metered using the digital camera using the same aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Lastly, it should be noted that I did not attempt to edit each photo to look identical to one another. Instead, I edited the shots as I normally would given the camera/film stock. 

Equipment

  • iPhone X and images edited in LR Mobile
  • Sony a7R II equipped with a Nikon 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S shot at ISO 400
  • Mamiya RZ67 paired with a 65mm f/4.0 W using Portra 400, shot and processed at 400 ASA, scanned using Epson V600 (a review can be found here) and inverted/edited with Negative Lab Pro

Results

For our first comparison, we are looking at Ash Cave, which provides an excellent opportunity to really exercise the dynamic range of each camera. In addition, the cave itself is quite enormous and looks beautiful after a fresh coat of snow. Camera A really struggled with this photo as the shadows got quite muddy and just about all of the details south of the bottom of the trees are also quite muddy. Between Cameras B and C, the color palette is different but overall, they both seemed to perform well. If I were to be really picky, I may say that the edge goes to Camera B where the shadows seem to have kept more detail. 

The second comparison is of a broken tree in the woods. I don’t know what attracted me to this scene, but I really liked it. For this comparison, Cameras A and C were much closer than in many of the others — the color palettes are very similar. Camera B was also close but a tad warmer.

The third comparison, of Lower Falls, had similar results as the previous set of photos with one exception. Camera A produced a slightly warmer shot than Camera C, and once again, Camera B was warmer than both of the other two. Overall, I think all three cameras performed quite well, and trying to say one is better than another would come down to splitting hairs. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the results of the fourth comparison are much like that of the previous ones. Camera A just isn’t as sharp as the other two, and the color palette of Cameras A and C produced similar images, while Camera B is a good deal warmer. 

The last comparison is of a barn just outside of Hocking Hills. This comparison was much closer than just about all of the others, I think. The main difference was in sharpness, where Camera A is not quite as sharp as the other two. The second difference was in the tendency for Camera A to be cool and Camera B to lean a bit warm. 

Final Result

So, do you think you know which camera is which? If you’re at all familiar with Portra 400, you have probably guessed that Camera B is the Mamiya RZ67 loaded up with Portra 400. For film enthusiasts, the tones of the Portra series are pretty hard to mistake. In addition, if you’ve been looking at the images closely, you’ve probably noticed that while Camera A had sufficient clarity for a small print, the resolution is nowhere close to that of Camera C, which means, you guessed it, Camera C is the Sony and Camera A is my iPhone. 

Limitations

There are, of course, limitations to any comparison like this — most notably would be with the representation in the film category. That is, the choice of format (e.g., 645, 6x6, 6x7, etc…) would have a pronounced impact on the perceived sharpness of an image. In addition, the choice of the film itself can have a large impact on the final results. As you may recall from a previous article outlining the different types of film, slide film would offer substantially more clarity and more vibrancy but suffers from a much-reduced dynamic range. In addition, even a move from Portra 400 to Ektar, another color negative film, would have resulted in better sharpness and more saturated colors. 

In addition to the choice of film stock and film format as ways to get substantially different results, the specific digital camera and lens used could also substantially alter the results of a comparison. That said, I only own one digital camera, and my Nikon 28mm is an exceptionally sharp lens and the widest good lens that I own.

Beyond the limitations presented by the choice of cameras and film stock, I would like to also acknowledge that all of my comparisons are made on landscapes only in a snowy Hocking Hills. For a portrait photographer, the comparisons I’ve made would be of limited to no utility. Even for a landscape photographer, drastically different scenes could present their own challenges would potentially better highlight the differences (or lack thereof) between the different cameras. 

Conclusion

To start, I’ll admit that had I really put forth effort to try to mimic film with my digital shots; I think the comparison would have been much harder between the Mamiya and the Sony. That said, I have a pretty consistent editing style at this point in my life if for no other reason than that I strongly prefer for the film stock to do the talking when it comes to the color palette and sharpness. As a result, editing my digital images have similar results in that they have minimal edits to them, letting the color tendencies of the specific camera/lens shine through. At the end of the day, the best camera is the one you have on you. Should you have more than one camera one you at the time, particularly if you’re counting your phone? How do you decide which to use?

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36 Comments

James S's picture

The choice of Portra 400 for this comparison is confounding. It has a recognizable and idiosyncratic color palette that is compounded by the complex subjectivity of inverting the digital colors after scanning. A fine-grained slide film would have been better for comparison's sake. It would make the most of the lens and format, and allow you to check the digital colors directly against the film.

People today shoot Portra 400 not because it competes with digital, but because it gives an obvious "this was shot on film!" look that is particular to today's photo culture. So putting it up against a Sony Alpha is like testing a restored 1969 Dodge Charger against a Tesla. While they're both fun, they're so different they don't even compete with each other.

D Porter's picture

Thanks for posting this. Your mini-experiment led me to understand more.

El Dooderino's picture

So, do people buy iPhones for mainly photography?

Not everyone owns (or wants) an iPhone.

Charles Mercier's picture

The newer iPhones get raves for the camera. (Apparently, the quality goes way down when you zoom in or crop in comparison to decent dedicated cameras.)

AJ L's picture

People buy iPhones for photography. Personally I only use it when I want to text a snap, because I have real cameras for everything else, but a lot of people are happy with the iPhone camera.

Christian Monnet's picture

Photographers use cameras. People who take photographies use their phone.

El Dooderino's picture

I do the same. The camera wasn't the biggest factor in my decision on which phone to buy.

Chris Rogers's picture

Yep mostly "influencers" and people who love posting on social media. With iPhones you can take photos or video with the highest quality mobile phone camera around and then edit and upload with one of the most powerful mobile phone processors and nicest screens all from one device. Not trying sell any one on iPhones as I hate them with a passion but I understand why so many people use them. Obviously your work would have to lend it's self to this type of work flow but If you can have your entire work flow on one device and it generally works well then why not?

El Dooderino's picture

Well, I'm an "amateur enthusiast" and an "old" and hardly an "influencer". I can see why these people would be more concerned with the abilities of their phone camera. I just use mine if I see something that needs a quick pic and I don't have any of my other camera gear with me.

Chris Rogers's picture

Wurrd. I'm a gen z'er but that's about all I use my phone camera for as well. That or to have a digital version of some notes I wrote down since I know for a fact imma lose that paper pretty quick lol. I honestly can't stand cell phones. I hate'em with a passion. They are the cause of many wrecks and lives lost. 100% preventable. It's the reason some knob rear ended me a couple months ago. His face was buried in his phone. Then he RAN! >:[ AAAAAaaany who, any photography I wanna make I do on my dedicated cameras. The flexibility, form factor, and quality just can't be matched on a phone with their tiny sensors. At least not yet anyway.

Kurt Hummel's picture

Back in the summer I shot a sunrise at the shore with a Pentax 645Z Canon 5dsr and an iPhone. You could definitely tell the phone shot, the full frame and medium format were really close, but the medium format gave more flexibility in post.

Ed C's picture

Finally, somebody that is posting 1:1 instead of trying to trick people into thinking iPhone is the same by only posting small re-sized version.

Taylor King's picture

Love this comparison, obviously not apples to apples but a great experiment in how these cameras look side by side. Definitely can tell the difference in sharpness and overall feel.

Tristan Robert's picture

Sorry but comparing Portra scanned with an Epson v600... is just a joke...
At least take a real scanner like flextight x5,
you’ll see the benefits of medium format and Kodak negative !

Timothy Roper's picture

Yes, but the real question is: how do the photos from that 4x5 camera look?

Momchil Yordanov's picture

It really depends of how big the pictures will be printed/published. For social media use or small print, lets say A5 paper size or smaller, the difference will be harder to spot. The bigger they get, more obvious it will be.

Eduardo Bernardes's picture

On the next comparison: a Lamborghini, a bus and an M1 Abrams tank. Final result: all of them will take you to the mall at about the same time.

Kirk Darling's picture

Well, the bus should be the consistent slowest by far, but you get to read a book on the way.

Thomas Nielsen's picture

While these comparisons are always fun, both to watch and definitely to make, they almost always cater to one particular assumption that I fervently disagree with, namely that of the end-goal always justifying the means.

I would almost always pick the camera that fit the process of getting to where I want rather than the one that happens to reach the goal. Simply because most cameras *will* get to where you want, just not equally easily. The problem is more often the gymnastics you need to go through to get where you need to go. And that is where cameras show their real differences. It could be interfacing with a complicated lighting rig, or crawling on your needs for 4 hours in the the same one square meter of forest bed with a focus rail, or shooting rally cars at split-second margin, needing zero latency. These workflow decisions are much more important to me than the camera itself. I may then very well choose to use my phone or setup an intricate rig. It would depend on what I want. Knowing my equipment, I know exactly what each will get me. That goes for my phone too.

Vito V's picture

Everytime my Aunt tells me her iphone can do what I went to college for I politely tell her. "Would you have liked me to shoot your wedding with my iphone" and she stays silent

Scott Kiekbusch's picture

Your aunt sounds like a jerk

Vito V's picture

She kind of is.... But she's married into the family so she's not my real aunt so that's good haha

sam w's picture

using that film kind of made it a 2 horse race to guess the iPhone.

surprisingly the iPhone handled the shadow on the cave very well, as compared to the Sony. but then the iPhone did poorly on the barn photo, as compared to the Sony.

that being said, every shot with the iPhone the exposure looks a little over.

Tom Reichner's picture

For some types of photography these comparisons are viable, but for what I shoot, I don't see how such comparisons make any sense.

When shooting wildlife that is in action, requiring fast and accurate autofocus performance, and in low light situations, at a distance requiring long telephoto focal lengths, how in the world would one consistently get stellar images with the iPhone or the medium format film camera?

I think the same goes for fast action sports images ..... if your editor expects that you get 2,000 to 4,000 technically perfect fast-action images from each football game you shoot, then how in the world are you going to do that with an iPhone or MF film rig?

These comparisons only make sense for certain kinds of photography - things that are pretty much stationary, or moving slowly, and that you have a little time to work with at "normal" distances, and do not need extreme telephoto focal lengths. Unfortunately, these types of subjects have no interest to me. and I have no desire to shoot such things. So such comparisons are fairly useless for the type of photography I am interested in.

Mischa Seb's picture

Fun idea for a comparison. However using a v600 to scan the negatives... A potato does a better job.

Yan Kuzik's picture

I love this site for those stupidest posts but I love comments even more! Don't stop, please!

Dan Jefferies's picture

I was thinking of getting a Sony RX10 mk4 for the wife. Did a little real world comparison. It's not even close even with that "yuge" 1 inch sensor. Even a 16mp Olympus M/43 stomps that 1 inch sensor with ease. I can't imagine that tiny dot of a sensor the iPhone uses would be acceptable in any way.

thomas LaPointe's picture

Our V600 “potato” works just fine! For archiving it
has helped us greatly. Currently scanning boxes of negatives from the 1940’s.

Max Hibbs's picture

IMO with the iPhone 11 and 12 Pro, the point and shoot pocketable camera is dead.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Your Sony A7rII has two gain settings for ISO: 100 and 640. You're leaving DR on the table and adding noise when you're shooting between them like you are here at ISO400.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Ektar would be a better choice, you can spot portra way to easy

Robert Edwardes's picture

The first set of photos it's really oblivious A is the iPhone because something is wrong in the rocks and i wonder how big you can get it till it shows up because i missed it until i enlarged it.

Juan Isaias Perez's picture

I have posted about this subject on another photo comparison “challenge”. My same concerns apply here: how you display the images makes a world of a difference. You can’t appreciate the details that makes an image unique on a small size file or on a low quality file. My photos posted online look completely different (and far inferior) to the same image printed to a decent size. So this kind of comparisons looking into a set of small JPEGs are not very relevant.

Tom Reichner's picture

I agree with you that the final presentation is what really matters, and is how comparisons should be judged. I like to have my photos printed big on metal - anywhere from 36" by 24" up to 60" by 40". I think that if I used a camera phone for such prints, that they would not look nearly as good or as crispy detailed as those huge prints that I use my DSLR for.

GLENN JOHNSON's picture

The problem I see with this test is that the film had to be scanned for the article. Whereas with the iPhone and Sony the files are directly out of the camera with no intermediate step. There is no way around this of course, but it then is a test of the quality of the scanner more than the film. That said, as someone who spent thirty years shooting film before digital entered the market, I liked the Sony images best.

MIchael DiGregori's picture

I can't think of many times I was out with my camera, with my iphone in my pocket, saw a shot and decided to use my iphone for it. Those times were mostly moderate close-ups, well-lit, and requiring a wide angle when I had the wrong lens on my "real" camera. The sources of the resultant pictures were truly hard to guess later.