If you believe the advertisements of smartphone manufacturers, the cameras of those devices are amazing and suitable for professional use. Sometimes (often?) these advertisements turn out to be fake, shot with professional DSLR cameras. But how good are those smartphone cameras really?
I went on holiday to the Sächsische Schweiz, an amazing area in the South of Germany with beautiful shaped rock formations and table mountains. We went to relax, and to scout the area at the same time. Photography was not the most important thing during this short holiday. Nevertheless, we took our cameras with us, and a small travel tripod, just in case we would stumble upon a great scenery. Of course, we found many.
Often we went on a hike with nothing more than a light backpack and my compact Fujifilm X100t. And occasionally I used my smartphone for a simple quick shot, just for the family album. For that I always used the build in camera app, shooting simple jpg images. I shot many photos like this during the previous photo tours at France, Lofoten, and Faroe Islands. Just memories, or for the family album. But I found out, thanks to the videos of Nigel Danson, it is also possible to shoot dng raw files with a smartphone. You can do this with the help of the Lightroom Mobile app, or one of the many other apps that are built for those purposes.
One day we hiked up to a prominent rock called the Gohrische Stein. Because my X100t could not capture the complete rock in one shot, due to the fixed focal length, I choose to capture the rock with my smartphone also, in dng file format. After all, it has a shorter focal length.
After I looked a the result in Lightroom Mobile I was surprised of the quality. Well, on that small screen at least. I shot this photo with the option HDR, thus increasing the dynamic range as much as possible.
The next day we witnessed a great sunset from another amazing location, and after I took some pictures with my X100t, I tried one last shot with my smartphone. And it took me by surprise to see the result.
A few days later I noticed some grass on the banks of the river Elbe, perfect for a nice photo. Since my girlfriend used my tripod at that moment, I took the photo I had in mind with my smartphone. To be honest, I was blown away with the result, since it was shot directly into the sun. At that moment I decided to do some comparison between the smartphone and the Fujifilm X100t, and even the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. I knew it wasn’t a scientific comparison, but it would be interesting to see how well my smartphone would hold up to professional cameras. On the banks of the river Elbe I needed bracketing on my Fujifilm X100t to capture that same shot without flares. You can see the results below.
On another occasion we stood high upon one of the amazing rock formations, looking over the stunning landscape with the sun shining through a thin layer of clouds. This time I had my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with me, and I took a series of bracketing shots to capture the scenery in the best possible quality. It is full of details and a keen eye will even spot a nice sundog at the left side of the sun.
While enjoying the view I thought it would be perfect to take ta similar shot with my smartphone, with the HDR function enabled, thinking it would be another great test to see how the light situation would affect the result. Now, after post-processing the dng file with Lightroom, I have to say the result is amazing, although the feel of the photo does not match that of the Canon. Do not forget, the photo made with the Canon is the result of bracketing.
I also shot some comparison photos under easy light situations. When we visited the famous Bastei bridge, high above the river Elbe, I could not capture the complete bridge in one shot. I made a panorama with the X100t by using six vertical shots. And I used three photos from my smartphone for another nice panoramic view of that famous bridge.
With these results you may wonder if a large DSLR or other (semi) professional camera still has some benefit. The dynamic range that can be captured with a smartphone is amazing, and you seem get stunning results, even with a strong backlight scenery. But what if it becomes dark. Does the smartphone still hold up to the quality you get with a professional camera?
After a long hike we reached the village of Schmilka on the Czech border. At that time it was almost dark, but there was still some color left in the sky. I managed to capture a nice silhouette of the rock formation Kleine Bastei. My DSLR had no problem capturing a landscape under these circumstances, but the smartphone wasn't able to do so. At least, with the Lightroom Mobile photo app I used for this. To have some comparison, just five minutes before I took a quick smartphone shot of my girlfriend when she entered the village of Schmilka. The auto focus wasn't able to lock on, the noise levels are very high, and details are lost. This photo is nearly unusable.
It made me wonder again how the image quality of all those other images was. Up to now these pictures are presented in web sized quality, which is very forgiving. But what if we look a little bit closer, at 100%. Of course it is difficult to make an honest comparison between a 30 megapixel photo from the Canon 5D Mark IV, and a 12 megapixel photo from the iPhone 6s, but I wanted to see the difference nevertheless. Remember, the Canon photo is the result of merging five shots from a series of exposure bracketing, the smartphone is with the HDR function enabled.
I have discovered a few things from shooting with a smartphone during our holiday in the Sächsische Schweiz. The quality of the smartphone images is amazing, from my iPhone 6s, at least. Even shooting with strong backlight, with the HDR function enabled, produces good results. And I am convinced the newer smartphones will have even better cameras.
The photos from a smartphone are very useable for social media and use on websites, and even for the family photo album. But when it comes to professional use, the quality does not hold up to the (semi) professional cameras with larger sensors and infinite better lenses. When the light is fading, a smartphone camera becomes unusable very quickly.
There is another downside to smartphone cameras I did not mention. It is not possible to use tele lenses. And although there are solutions available for that, these will never have the quality of a camera with a larger sensor and interchangeable lenses.
I guess you own a smartphone. Who doesn’t? Please let me know in the comment how you use your smartphone camera. Is it just for fun shots, or in a more serious manner? I would love to hear about your experiences.