Can You Tell the Difference Between a Medium Format Camera and a Cellphone?

Can You Tell the Difference Between a Medium Format Camera and a Cellphone?

The cameras in phones have come a long way, but can they stack up against the best of the best? When they both have over 100 megapixels, do they compare?

Cellphone cameras have come a long way since the Kyocera VP-210 (The first commercially availible cellphone with a camera), and with the help of computational photography making them reach even greater heights thanks to HDR, night mode, and the like. While 12 megapixels seems to be about average some phones, like the Samsung Note 20 Ultra I will be using in this comparison, have upwards of a whopping 108 megapixels on the "standard" lens. And that got me thinking, just how good have cellphone cameras become? What is holding cellphone cameras back, if anything?

I was recently sent the Fujifilm GFX100 and 30mm f/3.5 to review, which is coming soon, and felt it was a perfect combo to compare to my Note 20. The Note 20 has a full frame equivalent of 26mm at 108 megapixels, while the GFX and 30mm combo is 24mm full frame equivalent at 102 megapixels. This is just for fun, and not to be taken seriously in any way.

The Images

I wanted a mix of images for this comparison as the 24/26mm focal length is very versatile. However, as someone that mostly photographs people, I was definitely heavy on that front. I didn't shoot any street images because, frankly, I'm trash as a street photographer. So the question is... Can you guess which is which? Answers will be written down below!

With this first image, I wanted to shoot something that has lots of detail, with all of the bricks and glass, and the wispy clouds in the sky, I feel that detail is one thing this photo doesn't lack. Overall a nice, simple, image.

For the second image, I wanted to really push dynamic range, with deep shadows and the bright sky, and even some dappled light. I really like the leading line here, and you can see how the different camera lenses render the scene differently, with some parts stretched and others squished from distortion, or lack thereof.

This third photo I wanted to do something relatively editorial, and I have to say... I actually prefer the shot from the phone on this one! But the question is, which one is the phone, and which one is the Fuji, can you tell? The model for this shot is Lincoln Linker who killed it!

This shot, and the last shot, are probably the easiest shot to guess if you know what to look for. Starring Emerjade in an awesome Canadian tuxedo. Two shots left to go, then I'll reveal the answers!

This penultimate shot was the hardest to expose, placing Emerjade right under the pink umbrella with the sun just off camera left made things very tough, even for the medium format GFX 100. The dynamic range in this photo was extreme but both cameras, in the end, held their own.

And our last photo, something simple and symmetrical. Another easy shot if you know what to look for! 

The Answers

Here are the answers, how many did you get right?

Shot 1: Left - GFX, Right - Note 20 Ultra

Shot 2: Left - GFX, Right - Note 20 Ultra

Shot 3: Left - Note 20 Ultra, Right - GFX

Shot 4: Left - GFX, Right - Note 20 Ultra

Shot 5: Left - Note 20 Ultra, Right - GFX

Shot 6: Left - Note 20 Ultra, Right - GFX


There are a few things that give away different shots. For one, Samsung really likes to over sharpen their images, so for example, in shot 6 the trees, and shot 3 in Emerjade's jeans, you can really see the over sharpening. On the Note 20 Ultra, in the 108 megapixel mode you are also locked to jpg, with no raw option. The lack of raw, coupled with Samsung's over-processing means that when it comes to cropping in too far, or editing too much the image breaks apart rapidly.

There is also the matter of resolving power. While the GFX and Note 20 can both take fantastic images, things break apart when you try to zoom in. I think this is simply because a plastic lens just cannot resolve that much detail, especially on a sensor that small. In order for the cameras to be able to be truly comparable, we would need raw output of the full 108 megapixels, as well as real, high quality, glass lenses. 

In the 100% crops, you can see, very easily, which image belongs to the Samsung, and which belongs to the Fujifilm. The Samsung image is full of this wormy noise, and lacks the true resolving power of the fantastic GFX 30mm (Review coming soon). Because of this, Samsung over-sharpens the image to try and compensate for the lack of detail, and it looks fine most of the time, but if you zoom in too far, things break apart.


Overall, I think that this little test really shows that Chase Jarvis was right when he said "The best camera you have is the one you have with you." While the 100 megapixels of the Note 20 Ultra is really more like 50 when you account for resolving power, it's a fantastic camera but I think I'll use it more in the 12 megapixel pixel binned mode. 

Something I noticed was that on top of the high megapixels, the dynamic range of the Samsung actually overpowered that of the Fuji. You can see this best in image number five, in which the sky is totally blown out on the GFX, and the detail is still there on the Note 20 thanks to the automatic HDR and the computational photography, and all of the behind the scenes magic that we take for granted on our cellphones. 

While cellphones have computational photography on their side, mirrorless cameras and DSLRs have interchangeable, glass lenses, bigger sensors, full raw capability, the ability to easily use flash, etc., so it's not necessarily apples to apples.

How did you do? Did you guess all of the images right, or did you get some wrong? What do you think of the advancements cellphones have made? Sound off in the comments below!

David J. Fulde's picture

David J. Fulde photographs people. Based in Toronto, ON, he uses bold lighting and vibrant colours to tell people's stories. His work in the film industry lends a cinematic energy to his photographs and makes for an always-colourful studio -- whether he's shooting portraits, fashion, or beauty.

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Can You Tell the Difference Between a Medium Format Camera and a Cellphone?

Well, first off, my phone fits in my pocket...

depends on the pocket! ha ha

I have a whole bunch of Medium Format cameras that fit in my pocket too :)

There are even 6x9 medium format cameras that fit in my pocket!

If I had custom pockets I could fit my Horseman VH-R in it. haha

Oh, it's time for one of those article again :-)

Why do comparisons like this continue to be a thing? Medium format vs cell phone during mid day viewed at 1024px? Pfft.

The reason is pretty clear. There are a huge number of people trying to be influencers or find some kind of fame so they write ridiculous articles in the false hope they will make it big. Then sites like this one post them because why not post them. They will get some clicks and comments regardless of how trite the subject is or inane the article is.

Once again the comments don't dissapoint. Where's my popcorn?

In order to pit the "cameras" against each other, they must have the same lenses mounted. In this case the "100mp" phone camera has the image quality reduced in the lens.

Social media had as much to do with the shrinking of dedicated cameras as smart phones did because it allowed for lower resolution and HDR/computational photos to be possible given the size we started to view the majority of images on, and the last side by side make that real clear.

The difference for me was clear as day. Not so much in the highlights and shadows (the examples here had pretty diffuse lighting in most cases, no direct light, so, very forgiving), but in the depth of field. It was a dead giveaway in most shots. There was a subtle depth of field here but it really made the GFX stand out and give a much softer, more appealing quality to the images. The last shot especially was blaringly obvious.

As I said, the lighting conditions in all these shots really made it easier on the phone pics. Now shoot in a setting with direct sunlight, or direct light in general and the differences become even more obvious.

Fun read though. I would say most non-photographers wouldn't notice a difference at all.

Absolutely agree. Now lets see if people can tell the difference between shots taken with my Google Pixel 3XL and my Horseman 45FA. lol

Well as long as the most popular photo sharing site is still displaying images like it's 2005, these articles will continue.

Sorry, did you reply to the wrong comment? I'm a bit confused as to what the relevance of your comment is to mine? Cheers

I was replying to another phone / pro camera comparison. I don't see a rush of photographers selling their gear for iphones even though phone pics look nice in the tiny display which is Instagram.

Whoa, weird, it looked like you had been replying to me directly in my comment above, forgive me, I must have not had enough coffee this morning. Clearly not seeing things right. Have a nice day!

No worries.

Although I see your point, and it's certainly not wrong... Instagram wasn't designed to display high end photography on a desktop screen. It's designed to display mobile shots on mobile.

Yeah the Zuckercrew hasn't updated anything in years besides how to jam more ads in, hide likes and screw with selected reach.

I no longer recommend cameras for my friends who just want casual photos. Phones are now officially good enough.

Definitely. I do a lot of international traveling. If I know for sure I will be shooting something that I want spot on, I'll still lug all of my stuff for my 6x9 field camera with me and shoot film, but if its just a vacation and something fun to do? No way. The cell phone shooting in RAW and running the good shots through photoshop for post is WAY adequate, even for sharing on social media.

So David, just why was this article written??? I can't seem to find the PC - flash socket or the HDMI or the USB or the tripod sockets anywhere on the phone. And just where is the interchangeable lens, the hot shoe, the battery grip, the interchangeable battery, the aperture & shutter speed dials??? Where is the removable memory card slot? Hard to compare 2 things that are not alike in any regard. Go back to your basement and come up with a useful article.

Can [I] tell the difference between a medium format camera and a cellphone?
Yeah, sure, no problem.
But I'd never be able to tell the difference on web page while looking at the pictures on my laptop.
I might be able to see the difference if I was looking on a 27 inch desktop computer screen.
But truly the only way I could see the difference is if I were looking at prints on glossy paper larger 8x10 inches!

Yep, that’s the truth right there. If your work is never intended to make it off the computer screen, it’s hard to argue against the convenience, size and computational abilities of a nice camera phone.

The greater depth of field on the medium format was a tip-off in several of the images.

Normally I refrain from commenting on articles here, but your comment in the comparison is absolutely bonkers.
"... a plastic lens just cannot resolve that much detail,... In order for the cameras to be able to be truly comparable, we would need ... high quality, glass lenses."

The lenses are not the problem, they are fine EVEN if they are plastic. You do know how many types of plastic there are right? Plastic moulding lets them have extreme shapes that can counter abberations far better than glass lenses can when polished. Try doing a google image search and see their wonderful lens construction.
I can also recommend finding the Zeiss lenspire article (2018) where they compare a biogon lens shrinked down to the size of a compact mobile phone lens and see that the phone lens design has better performance!

The origin of the poor performance of the phone pictures arise from the sensor size. A small sensor is more prone to noise and phone makers do a ton of post-processing to make pictures look decent. Hence why only the jpg output is available.

So to summarize
Mobile phone lenses are fine, small sensors are shit and small plastic lenses can be just as good as big glass lenses if not better.

Oh yea, and I'm an optical engineer working daily with lens design and sensor performance so shoot.

Actually I seem to remember a lens designer at Olympus stating in an interview the problem with plastic lenses (plastic is very much plural there!) was not the intrinsic optical qualities of the material, but manufacturers not having figured how to shape it in larger size. And that if they would manage, some plastics would actually be better than glass...

And the "I shot the cover of a magazine with my phone" article in 5.. 4.. 3..

However, the bigger picture (sorry) is how much resolution, colour depth, etc. is needed? If the image is just going to be viewed on a small screen, or the viewing distance is considerable, then not much.

I am not surprised by the findings.

I have a Bronica 6x6, DSLR Pentax, Digital Leica, series IIIA 7 IIIB film Leicas and an iPhone.
I enlarge my favourites to 20x24 or 20x30 inches. It is difficult to tell the quality difference between the medium format and DSLR photos at these sizes. Even a small SonyAlpha makes good 16x20s. The quality from the iPhone. 6 is remarkable at 20x24 inches.

Unless you need larger prints, most medium priced cameras available will produce the quality you need. If I earned my living from photography, I would buy the very best - the cost is negligible compared to running costs of a studio.

Leica IIIs won't win sharpness prizes, but they produce marvellous pix.

PS photo is of my with my bow !

I think a lot of people on here would be shocked at how many images published for ads, major news blogs (and print to the extent there is still print), posters, billboards and other 'professional' stuff are taken w/ a phone or pocket cam or similar.

There's still certainly a place for FF and MF and likely will be for quite some time. But there's also a place in professional photography for cell phone cams.

I'm of the opinion that those of us who shoot M/LF don't even necessarily do it because of the quality in the final images. I shoot M/LF film, and I will absolutely admit that the reason I do is because I love the *process* of shooting. The slow, meticulous nature, the skill involved in knowing the technical aspects of shooting (moreso that guessing settings, and then tweaking them when you see the result in your viewfinder), etc. is the addiction.

If I'm on a trip overseas and I'm just out farting around, man.... I'm just gonna be shooting with my Pixel 3XL.

But if I'm waking up before sunrise to get shots of a fjord or a glacier in Iceland? Yeah.... my medium or large format film setup is coming with me. Because the process MAKES the experience for me.

This is so eloquently put that I cannot help but agree whole-heartedly. The final image is but a small part of the experience. It's not even the main part of it for me.

Now that I think about it, when I think of some of my best shots, I'm not reminded that "hey, I got this great photo!". I'm immediately transported to the events that led to its capture. The cold wind, the early morning, the steaming thermos of stale coffee. I don't really remember taking the specific pictures per se, but boy do I remember the moment I was there.

That's what it is to me.

Absolutely! It becomes a religious experience. Sights, smells, feelings.....they all come rushing back. That's why I love photography. It's a time capsule of a period of feeling, and it's personal, even if it's an image of something millions of people see. Because it's YOUR time capsule of how YOU saw it at THAT specific moment.

Most I got right but... sure for quick shots by size and "auto HDR" the Samsung looks pretty nice. But that one blown out image from the Fuji, if taken in RAW would be an easy fix in post work. So if the images are really something you care about, it's pretty clear where you want to be. Not to mention the fact that it'll always be your choice in terms of lens, focal length and a whole lot of other factors that phone cameras just don't have.

Horses for courses really. The vast majority of people are looking at photos on their phone or tablet screens, so the extra quality from the GFX is going to be lost on them. For me, the depth of field is the giveaway in most of those shots. I have several digital and film cameras, but these days when I go on holiday, I take very little gear as my Huawei P30's camera is perfectly good for the vast majority of the travel shots I want. What phones lack in terms of sensor size, they make up for with processing power and indeed, they do it very well these days. However, the old saying remains that the best camera is the one that you have with you. Much of the time, that's my phone!

While I respect your point, trying to tell the difference in images that are 1600 pixels on the long edge isn't an especially fair comparison. If I'm shooting medium format it's usually because I want to print really big. No cell phone would keep up at that point, specifically for the reason you mentioned: the lens.

Yes I can see the difference, if you mean has the photographer taken shots on the medium format camera with its shallow depth of field that are the out of focus on the cropped highlights they have then chosen to pick, or is the sitting model actually devoid of any distinguishing features, wearing a thick facial foundation or actually a plastic mannequin devoid of facial interest?
Yes I can see the difference in the blown out highlights which are a distraction in several of the medium format shots.
Yes I can see the difference in the total lack of focus on the facia of the bridge over the waterway.
No I can't really tell that much difference on the vertical corner of the skyscraper shot, which might be the only picture where the medium format camera was correctly set up.
As for the model under the umbrella with it's massive blown out sky on the left, I've stopped looking for the focus point on the medium camera shot.

The sad news for those who take photographs using 'proper' cameras is that over 1 billion people now have a camera in their pocket, which whilst not as 'good' (what ever that means) as a dedicated camera, does have a large depth of field and usually good auto focus. So the overwhelming trend is for photographs which display those attributes.

The medium format camera appears to be for a different type of photograph.