Can the iPhone Ever Get as Good as a Professional Camera? Probably Not

Can the iPhone Ever Get as Good as a Professional Camera? Probably Not

Having just seen the new iPhone 14 release, I noted that one of the selling points what the “best camera ever on a phone”. The specs, as well as a new raw file format, look impressive. But, no matter what Apple does to their phones, they will hardly be able to beat a proper camera. Here is why.

It seems like each year, Apple invents their best camera yet, which makes sense as the camera is pretty much the only thing that always changes on the iPhone. So much so, that even Steve Jobs’s daughter posted a meme about the new iPhone 14, and how it essentially looks the same. Nonetheless, in their “best camera yet “the Pro models can capture 48MP files in raw format. That sounds great on paper, but in practice, it may not be as impressive as it seems at first. As someone who owns a studio-grade 5Ds camera (50MP), I asked the following question: should I scrap my setup in exchange for an iPhone 14 Pro? Well, the answer is no. No matter how many megapixels in whatever formats iPhones may capture, they won’t ever get as good as proper cameras. On a technical level, image quality goes far beyond the number of megapixels and the format they were captured in. So, what does affect image quality?

The Big Megapixel Lie

I clearly remember buying an 8-megapixel Canon 1D Mark II camera at the start of my journey, which was not too long ago. Well into the 20+ Megapixel age. The “my phone has more” phrase haunted me. Yet, I knew very well that although my sensor is older, it is physically larger and captures better color than a phone’s sensor. Sure, I couldn’t print large-scale images, but I could work in low light (ISO 3200) way better than someone with a phone.

More megapixels have become a synonym for better image quality. However, that is as big of a myth as bigfoot. Many amateur photographers strive to buy a camera with as many megapixels as possible. Phone companies release 100+ Megapixel phones for the same demographic of people.

Sure, if used properly, a high-resolution camera can deliver stunning results, but it has to be in the right hands. As someone who owns a Canon 5D Mark IV (32 MP), and a Canon 5Ds (50MP), I often use the lower-resolution camera. There is a reason the 5Ds is called a studio camera. The amount of detail captured is staggering, but so is the amount of imperfections. The higher the resolution the less tolerance there is for imperfection. Even if you’re slightly off on the focusing, it will be noticeable. If your subject is slightly blurred, people will recognize that a lot faster. This is why a lot of the things I shoot, I tend to shoot in lower resolution. Not every image needs 50 Megapixels. Sure, a lot of my work is shot in the 5Ds, but when I get that camera out, I also get out world-class lighting, and crew, and create an environment where that resolution will enhance the image as opposed to ruin it.

Physics That Affect Image Quality

First and foremost, sensor size. There is debate on this online, but an APS-C sensor will never be as good as a full-frame, and a full-frame will never be as good as a medium format. If the opposite were true, a lot of photographers, as well as camera companies, would not spend extra money on larger sensors. If anything Hasselblad would’ve been out of business, and not released their X2D.

The size matters because the photosite size matters. If you’re curious, a photosite and pixel are not the same. Not just the physical dimensions of the sensor, but the physical dimensions of the individual photosites. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the photosite, the better the dynamic range of the image. Dynamic range is responsible for color accuracy and color transitions. That’s why medium format cameras have remarkable color reproduction: the photosite size is larger than in full-frame cameras. That is why my Canon 5Ds will be superior to the iPhone 14 Pro, but inferior to a Phase One.

Another factor that matters in image capture is the resolving power of the lens. Camera lenses have dozens of elements that work together to create the perfect shot. Lens construction is also largely dependent on hardware, not software which means that a professional lens will outperform any glass that Apple may have put in their iPhones. Zoomed in, iPhone images will likely have imperfections such as chromatic aberration and purple fringing. A different question is, does it matter?

The Photographer

The photographer is often the most important factor in image quality. You can get the best crew and gear on set, but ultimately if the photographer is trash, their image will be trash. A photographer who invests in gear instead of themselves is a very disappointing sight. I may be at the extreme end of this, as I went from obsession over gear to conservatism. Eventually, I hope to end up somewhere in the middle. In any case, photographers should pay less attention to what camera they have. Sure, an iPhone won’t be as good, that’s the point of this article, but at the same time, if you put the right subject in front of an iPhone, the image will be stunning. You just need to have taste, an eye for good things, and a little creativity to create such things.


Closing Thoughts

You may remember an article of mine from a year ago, where I said that phones have replaced cameras in a lot of fields. With startups such as RecNGo, which focus solely on using phones to replace cameras for streaming and recording video, it is safe to say that phones will only get better. Profoto has figured out a way to sync flash with phones using AirX, making it even easier to create stunning photographs with the gear you have. Yet there is not much you can do about sensor physics. Image quality can be enhanced with AI, but AI won’t make the photo look like it was shot by a medium-format camera. The AI can’t add bit depth or make the pixels larger. There is a limit to how good iPhones can get. Who knows, maybe after they Max(pun intended) out their cameras, they will focus on making the speakers sound like a high-end stereo system. In the meantime, the iPhone 14 is a great image-capturing device, but it won’t be as good as a professional camera. 

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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100% not possible but IMAGINE if someone made a camera that could apply the same level of internal INSTANT post processing to a FF or MF sensor. That would be one amazing camera.

Sadly camera companies have to work with much tighter budget than phone companies.

- talking as R&D personnel in one of the mentioned camera company, who talked with an ex-colleague working for a phone company in that area -

Definitely would be a welcomed addition to cameras! AI has done miracles on phones, especially Apple. Imagine what it can do with a full-frame sensor.

Ooh yes. Just imagine something like Apple's Proraw in camera.

IF and ONLY if you could turn AI off. Apple (and presumably the others) relies on AI to take what would otherwise be a hopeless image and turn it into something acceptable. That AI is hugely powerful, and overcomes much of the gap between phone cameras and real ones. OK for some, but if I'm in the car, I prefer to drive it myself!

I had a hugely funny experience with this a while back - shooting a panorama of an island nearly 20 Km off the coast. Someone from the other side of the street along the foreshore saw me and toddled over, to find out what i was doing. He then asked how he could get hold of a copy, and I said sorry, not for sale. So he said oh well, I can do that anyway. Took out his iPhone - and produced a ghastly image, like a bright blue banana with a heavily serrated edge (the corners of the frames the phone had used to create the panorama). Fully 2 inches/5cm wide and about half an inch/1 cm high . Buerk! Mine is now finished - 8 feet wide and about 6 inches high, hanging above our bed, because that was the only expanse of wall I could find that was big enough to take it.

Balls to the idea of doing it with a cellphone!

But when you get down to the wire, and you're juggling all the sliders on post processing, to send the shot to a printer, AI would not help all that much. OK to get "approximately" right, but because much of this stuff is irreversible and you have to go back to the start if you don't like it, AI really gets in the way much of the time.

And that's IN post processing. God help the lot of us if the cameras start taking over, before we can even look at the image!

What is " professional camera"? You can earn money by shooting phone images only, so that's already done... Right?

I can't bring myself to shoot with a phone. When I shoot, I want to look through a viewfinder, feel the grip, and press a shutter button.

With that said, sometimes, phone portraits surprise me like the one Patrick did a couple of years ago with off camera flash.

You can play any keyboard or play grand piano... The instrument isn't responsible for quality of the performance... I can't /I don't want to find a way

Is that an excerpt from Yoda? :D

What is Yoda? 🤣

I disagree, the instrument does play a role in performance quality. Otherwise, there would not be need for high-end concert pianos.

Like there is need to build F1 cars if you want to compare 😉 now how many people will hear the difference is the question of businessman...

Yes, totally! Phones are pretty awesome when combined with lights. Here is from when I did something like that as well.

The problem is not if the iPhone matches a regular DLSR or mirrorless camera to perfection. The question is rather at which point is a client "ok" with the outcome of the iPhone image and does not need the "output" of a bigger camera.

I had a client – an architect – and her problem was that the handover time of some objects she worked on was so tight that there was no time to hire a proper photographer.
I gave her a photography "crash tutorial", she bought an iPhone 12 Pro at that time and I taught her to make proper exposure bracketing. Than I photoshopped those images and put them side by side with the ones of a professional photographer she had hired. Sometimes you could not see the difference - on the website.
There was a lot of postproduction work involved. But I guess with future generations of phones this is not needed anymore because most of it happens pre-RAW output on the chip.

We are not quite there yet but a certain amount of photography will shift into that direction because the clients are "satisfied enough" with the result...

And as Jason Levine writes above: I think the only way to compete with phone photography in the future is if the big 3 (Sony, Nikon, Canon) will implement computational photography on their cameras. Or at least offer a close integration with the computing power of the iPhone (or Samsung or whatever).

Exactly. The client (paying or just a viewing consumer) will actually not care in 99+% of the times. And that is the greatest financial threat to the camera companies in the future, and not whether they are better at this or that. Everyone is so comfortable with what the ever-better smartphone cameras are putting out, that they are quite happy with what those smartphone photographers are doing out there. The product, by itself, is all that will matter, and if it is good enough for the consumer, then it's good enough. Sure, the specialized need for cameras and long lenses will always be there for some, but the rest of the 7+ billion people in the world, will be just fine with a smartphone camera and all the other lifestyle/communication technologies that accompany it. Oh, and it fits in your pocket too. It will not be the "better camera" that will sustain all these companies, but rather the financial realities of the market. Judging by the financial and market figures of the past five years, my money is with the smartphones as a better financial investment for the future. All the airplane carry-on limitations, as well as people's sensitivity with having traditional cameras/lenses pointed at them, will only make smartphones that much more appealing. The ship has already left the port.

Imagine you can create your very own preset collection in your favorite software. Then load them into your mirrorless full frame/medium format camera. Edit in-camera with your presets and output directly to the cloud as a JPEG or TIFF (depending on end use). That would be a great differentiator between phones and dedicated cameras by providing a look unique to the photographer with the immediacy of a phone output.

I am all for expanding/improving/enhancing the OS of current fullframe cameras. I think that in terms of optics/software those cameras are more or less developed to a very high degree. All newer models will be very slight improvements concerning the hardware.

But as one sees with smartphones the software side is completely underdeveloped. I have the feeling the manufacturers have halted in the mid 2000s. There is much room for improvement.
And if those manufacturers are not able to do it themselves they should partner with Apple/Android.
Think of carplay for cameras. "Cameraplay". ;)

And if we are at it – they could introduce something like a fingerprint sensor (theft protection), alarms and a built in "airtag" kind of device...

Isn't this what the Zeiss ZX-1 hoped to achieve by inlcuding Lightroom in the camera? It seemed like a great idea but not only is it bloody expensive, after reading a review it appears the implementation isn't as user friendly as people hoped. It really doesn't take that much longer to offload raws onto a tablet and use exactly the same version of lightroom there instead.

You have gotten me thinking now, however. Many cameras are capable of in-camera raw processing. I wonder if you could apply and save a custom "picture style" to achieve a similar, albeit more basically edited result?

Isn't this basically what Fuji does? You can load film simulations into the camera and edit raw images on the camera itself, export as JPEG or TIFF depending on the camera, and transfer to/publish from your phone.

Yes, but your very own unique custom style. Sorry I am not familiar with Fuji cameras.

No problem! I actually wish Fuji (and others) would somehow "tether" their in camera raw development and editing to a smartphone app. Would make it easier than fiddling on camera joysticks.

It is good enough, but certainly, not better I guess.

Sort of like asking if a Tesla is better than a Ford F150. They seem to serve different purposes.
In today's photo world a huge percentage of images wind up online. And some images are posted within minutes of being taken.
I know magazine journalists, who since downsizing need to shoot their own photos since the publication won't hire a photographer shoot with their iPhone.

And, I may be going out on limb here but in a studio situation with constant light source and a not too wide, not too long focal length, and the intended use is online or SM there's little need for real cameras.

They're different tools.

A professional camera isn't much good for when you need something in your pocket, when you go shopping or whatever.

The question is whether mobile phones are good enough to make quality prints from; which I believe has been demonstrated more than once now.

You don't even need to print as a professional photographer.. All depends what is your main focus.. Even wedding can be delivered in digital form only and for 6x4 photos... This is only a clickbite... People can't be serious with this anymore... Professional camera is nothing more than any piece of tech which is good enough to produce photos which can be sold to clients... Doesn't matter of its sensor size, max aperture, focal length, etc... If one want, there is tons of photography jobs you can cover with phone only... This reminds me of old joke... " the bigger camera and lens you have, the better photographer you are" 😂😂😂

Most people commenting on this article seem to be rather short sighted in terms of how they view photography. Sure you can use a smart phone for event photography, maybe even a portrait or two. However, any sort of action photography including sports and wildlife as well as macro and astrophotography all require more professional gear. Can you imagine trying to get a picture of any sort of bird in flight with a smart phone? Bokeh is an issue with smart phones as well, while some clients may not notice the lack of bokeh in phone images, more discerning clients will. Smart phones have a rather limited use case, the iPhone 14 for example has 3 rather limiting lenses; 13mm, 24mm or 77mm. A MILC with a 24-120 (if you shoot Nikon) will give you way more flexibility than any phone. Also, regardless of what some may say, the image quality of a phone is not anywhere near an MILC. For creating and printing high end images, smart phones are way behind and likely always will be, unless you like the results of portrait mode!

I understand that you can print fairly large from some smart phone models. That said, Why doesn’t Nigel shoot phones exclusively now it they’re sooo good? There are serious creative limitations with smart phones even for landscape. The first limitation is the inability to take telephoto shots. Also sun flares look like crap on those tiny lenses. Smart phone cameras have less dynamic range and it looks like Nigel accounted for that in this video as almost all the shots he selected are cloudy “moody” images. HDR mode doesn’t solve every problem. Smart phones are good but can we please stop pretending that there are not limitations to a 1/2inch lens and tiny sensor!

Let me know how you go putting a Hassy and tripod in your pants pocket.

Haha, I don’t and never would shoot medium format, so that’s not a problem form me. Truth is, there are many ff cameras and lenses that are pretty light. Not iPhone light, but light enough that they won’t bother me on a hike.

Fine, let me know how you go putting an A6600 and tripod in your pants pocket.

You're a moron

Let me get this straight, you are calling me a moron because I’d rather shoot landscape photography with something other than a cell phone🤣🤣🤣. Guess your buddy Nigel is a moron too?
When I hike I always have a backpack for water at the very least. Carrying a camera in my pack isn’t difficult at all. Also, if you want to take decent landscape shots you really should have a tripod for your cell phone as well.

No, genius.

I called you a moron, because you were apparently too obtuse to understand the very simple point I was making.

At no stage have I said you *should* shoot landscape on a mobile phone.

Maybe you go everywhere with a fully loaded camera bag, most people don't. And often, you'll see photographic opportunities when you don't have your full kit

Go away.

PS. apparently you don't realise you don't necessarily need a tripod to produce high quality landscape.

I'd love to see some examples of your "high quality" work but you don't have any pics in your portfolio🤣

I don't really care what you want to see.

I tried being a good faith member of this community, which is fine until you say something that upsets people. The day I went from a 4.5 to a 2.3 really drove the point home.

No one here is a potential client, and I don't care whether you people draw adverse inferences with respect to my work, or lack thereof.

This absolute garbage you are going on about is nothing more than gatekeeping. People like you convince beginners they have to have thousands of dollars of the newest gear, and you represent the worst of the photography community.

But since you decided to go for the ever so predictable 'you have no work, therefore...'; I've seen a great deal of work produced on a phone which is vastly superior to yours.

You didn't like me calling you a gatekeeper? Good.

There are a small number of people here who make this place toxic. People like you are why I'll never post another photo here again.

Kick rocks.

I would say that no matter if it's a view camera like Ansel Adams, an Hassy or an A6600, you bring these with a plan and probably a back pack. This said, we all carry phones, so we are all prepared the same way for the unexpected.

My biggest issue with people like him, is they run around convincing people you need a bunch of really expensive kit to take a decent image.

It's just crap, but beginners believe it.

The biggest problem of understanding articles like this is the confusion in the term "professional camera"... Easy answer to it is.. Yes, you can run a photography business with smartphone only today... Its not about what the camera can't do.. its about a professional photographer as a business...its basically like comparing aps-c with medium format... shoot sport and wildlife with medium format..... ?

BTW for reason iPhone and flagship highend phones output 12mpx photos from sensors of 48mpx and higher... People don't print as much and 12mpx is just perfect for 4K monitor... Of course it's also because of quad pixels in smartphones, but mostly because of 4K monitor resolution by most people

You could run a business using only a smart phone, you’d just be very limited in terms of focal lengths. Also, it would have to be a event/lifestyle or portrait photography business. I’m not exactly sure what you are saying about apsc/medium format , but I think you are suggesting that you can shoot sports/wildlife on medium format. While you certainly can get wildlife shots on a MF camera MF systems are not ideal for sports/wildlife photography. This is because the telephoto lens selection is poor (longest gfx lens is 200mm FF equivalent), file sizes are too big, max fps is 4.5fps and autofocus is clunky and slow (I’ve shot the gfx 100s extensively as my good friend owns one, he just recently bought a D850 for wildlife). Also, It seems like you guys are trying to argue that image quality is no different between a smart phone and a high end camera and that’s just not true.

No John... As you are answering it yourself here... Limitations... Medium format is limited... You won't shoot fast moving object with it... So limitations of smartphone is the same but its just different angle... You can do product photography, editorial, wedding, portraits, landscapes, reale estate with mobile phone... The only limitation is that it has to be mostly by digital marketing only... For clients who don't want printed images of big size... We are always trying to overcome limitations... Since the start of photography we are.. Ansel Adams zone system is way to overcome limitations... Skin retouching is same... Color grading, sensor calibration, monitor calibration, hdr... There is so much... But we are finding a way... 😉 And we will find a way to make phones shoot better images because we love to shoot images and be creative even though we don't have our camera bag full of gear with us all the time

I agree with everything you say, but for me, the biggest difference is the ability to use quality lenses for specific situations. In this photo, I'm using a Canon rf 100-500 lens. There's no phone out there that could duplicate this photo, not only because of the lens, but also the incredible low light/low noise ability of the R5 sensor.

Great shot! I agree, phones are only competitive at a limited number of focal lengths and even then you are limited creatively.

“There's no phone out there that could duplicate this photo…”

By the same token, there are millions of photos made every day that your Canon could not duplicate because you don’t have it in your pocket. Magazines, newspapers, web sites, TV news, and whatnot are full of iPhone photos every day. That, ipso facto, makes them professional cameras.

Yes Tom.. I agree... But how much money did you make on that photo... Let's focus on business when talking profssional cameras 😉 and as I mentioned earlier here... Even though hasselblad, phase one or mamiya are even better the R5 in low light, they are limited because of focal lengths and speed... Its just the other side of seeing limitations of gear... Btw roomors has it that Canon has RF 12/1.8 on the way... Another move to unknown possibilities 😊

It’s hard to believe that this worn-out subject is still under discussion. We went through this with “will pros ever accept zoom lenses” and “will digital ever replace film.” The real answer is that the iPhone and other high-end smartphones are most definitely capable of taking top grade professional photos. Results depend on lighting and the possible need for special accessories. My wife’s new iPhone 14 Pro Max makes phenomenal photos at 12 or 48 MP.

No, they're not. I can take great photos with my Canon PowerShot A3400 IS if I use CHDK to output DNG raw files and shoot in daylight or studio lighting. That doesn't mean that the physical limitations of the sensor and optics magically don't apply. Being able to take nice photos is vastly different from "capable of taking top grade professional photos." I'm (unfortunately) editing a video shot on iPhones right now. I recently saw someone's travel photo on Facebook with a blurry background. In both cases, I could immediately see that the videos have poor color reproduction with way too large of a focus area and very poor microcontrast while the photo's portrait effect was an egregiously obvious and unattractive Gaussian blur done by iPhone portrait mode post-processing algorithms.

Your iPhone takes phenomenal photos for a phone. My Sigma sd Quattro makes an iPhone 14 Pro Max look like exactly what it is: an obscenely expensive toy. And yes, the attached image is straight out of camera, no editing or sharpening.

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