Every year, mobile camera technology improves, and every year, I see more articles comparing phones to professional cameras. I decided to carry out my own comprehensive test to finally decide which device is better, the phone or the DSLR.
It's fair to say that cellphone cameras have become very impressive imaging devices in their own right. Modern phones produce quality images, often using computational photography to make up for the relatively small sensor sizes. As phone cameras improve and the image-processing software improves, every year, I see more and more articles comparing cellphones with dedicated cameras, either in an attempt to prove that cellphones are now superior to dedicated cameras or trying to prove that small sensors can never match the performance of a full-frame imaging device. Regardless of the conclusion in the articles, there's always a disagreement in the comments section around whether anyone cares about pixel-peeping or that you'd struggle to make a sharp, large image from a cellphone capture.
I decided to perform a comprehensive set of real-world tests to finally settle, once and for all, which device is superior: the cellphone or the DSLR.
For my tests, I'll be using my own devices, an iPhone 12 Pro Max with a 12-megapixel sensor and a Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR with a 30.1-megapixel full frame sensor. And that's all the specs I'll be comparing, as this is a real world use test.
First up, what are the images like? I was very impressed at the photo quality from the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but the files simply don't have the same level of information for highlight and shadow recovery.
Here are two different images taken on the DSLR:
Both of these images were taken in relatively low light, and they demonstrate how well the full frame sensor handles images taken at high ISO. The second image also used an off-camera flash, which I have struggled to get working efficiently with the iPhone. So far, the DSLR is off to a strong start.
Here are two different images taken on the iPhone:
The first image demonstrates an excellent feature of the iPhone, and that's the front-facing selfie camera. Despite the image being a bit mushy because of the low light and small sensor combination, it is incredibly practical to be able to easily compose selfies with the 6.7" screen. Many modern cameras, especially mirrorless cameras, do feature articulated screens which allow gratuitous selfies to be taken on cameras costing thousands of dollars. The second image was taken while having a picnic by the river at sunset last summer. The available light allowed a fast enough shutter speed to capture sharp enough images of the birds in flight.
It's a tough competition: the DSLR produces large, detailed raw files which allow a lot of latitude in post-processing. The iPhone, however, produces perfectly acceptable images for posting to social media with often only marginal loss of quality through filters and in-phone image processing.
This one seems like a no-brainer. The iPhone fits in my pocket: it's 7.4 mm thick and weighs 228 g. The 5D Mark IV is 75.9 mm thick and weighs 800 g without a lens attached! I very rarely leave the house without my iPhone, but I need to specifically pack the DSLR and a lens or two into a bag, charge batteries, and format cards before use.
It's often said that the best camera is the camera you have with you, and I usually have my phone with me.
The iPhone has 5G connectivity, as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which can easily be set up through a simple touchscreen menu system. The 5D Mark IV also has Wi-Fi support for file transfers, but sadly, there's no browser for reading the news or checking your email on the 3.2" touchscreen.
The iPhone comes with the Apple App Store pre-installed, and this allows access to thousands of third-party apps ready to be downloaded instantly. Unfortunately, there's no built-in App Store on the Canon DSLR. I was able to download software updates, as well as third-party firmware, such as Magic Lantern, but these required use of a computer to save files to an SD card to use in the camera.
Ergonomics and Appearance
It's fair to say that the iPhone was designed with photography in mind, whereas the DSLR was designed with photography as a primary use. The DSLR has all the controls at my fingertips I need to change exposure and adjust the image I want to capture. That said, it's not difficult to take a photograph or control imaging on the iPhone. It simply doesn't feel as though it was built with photography as its primary function. The DSLR also looks a lot more like a camera than the plain glass slab of the iPhone. When going on professional shoots, the client will generally expect the photographer to arrive with a dedicated camera. You're likely to impress clients a lot more if you have a camera instead of just using a cellphone.
Now onto the real world tests. I chose these real-world situations I encounter on a regular basis where I use these devices to finally decide which one is better.
Despite having a Portrait Mode on the iPhone, the artificially blurred backgrounds and lighting effects just don't match up to a large sensor with a suitable portrait lens. While the iPhone might be slightly easier to set up and start shooting with, the DSLR really does win in this category, if nothing else than for the compatibility with a number of off-camera flashes. When I'm booked for a portrait shoot, I'm taking the DLSR every time.
This is a very common real world application which I'm sure we're all familiar with. I'm at home, my partner is at the store, and she texts me asking which products we need to buy. Using the iPhone, I can take a quick shot of the product and send it to her instantly. With the DSLR I had to take the shot, then connect to my laptop and process the image, before sending the image back to her. I found that in most cases, she had left the store before receiving the image, not a strong point for the DSLR. I was able to streamline this method somewhat by tethering the DSLR to my iPad, then sending the JPEG from the iPad to Tasha.
Posting to Social Media
Another very common use for the DSLR and the iPhone is posting content to social media. In a world where people measure their value as a human being by how many likes and followers they have, it's incredibly important to be able to post high-quality content to your preferred social media platform quickly. While many people do still aim to produce high quality social media content using professional gear, I've definitely noticed a shift towards posting quantity over quality. There are some amazing creators out there who don't seem to get as much recognition as they could if they just took more selfies because they "felt cute" (might delete later). I find it shocking that Canon haven't yet added a dedicated Instagram app, complete with filters, to their legacy cameras. The iPhone really is the winner here when it comes to posting masses of mindless content to feed the insatiable appetites of social media users.
As mentioned above, at the time of writing, there's no Instagram app, no Twitter, no Facebook, and no YouTube available on the Canon 5D Mark IV. While we can hope that Canon rectify this in a future firmware update, I'm fairly certain that they won't implement phone functionality due in part to the placement of the microphone and speaker and the lack of any cellular connectivity. As I use my iPhone daily for communication as well as imaging, until Canon allow voice calls and texting from their range of interchangeable lens cameras, I'll take my iPhone out every time I leave the house.
There we have it, iPhone is conclusively the best of these two devices in my comprehensive real-world tests. There's no further discussion to be had, despite some minor compromises around image quality, the iPhone is absolutely a better device than the Canon 5D Mark IV.
While researching for this article, I found a lot of articles comparing various cellphones to various professional cameras. I was very surprised that the other articles focussed almost exclusively on image quality, videography, and photography, when the cellphone is such a highly versatile device, which led me to come up with my list of real-world scenarios.
While performing my tests and writing this article, it did occur to me very briefly that perhaps these two devices might have been built for completely different purposes, then I thought that can't possibly be the case with so many tech journalists desperate to compare them to each other over and over again.
What are your thoughts? Are you going to throw out your camera gear and buy an iPhone instead? Let me know in the comments.