Smartphones v. Digital SLRs v. Film - How far have we come?

How do phone cameras compare to 'proper' cameras?

With a deluge of three new cameras released every week, I'd completely lost perspective. Just how far have we come since film? Where would a modern smartphone camera fit into the evolution of digital SLRs? Would it be like DSLRs of five years ago? Ten? Or not on the same page at all? I wanted to get a feel for the pace of progress, to look back and see how far we’ve come, to get a handle on where we’re going.

I’m lucky enough to have a company with lots of cameras, so we decided to find out.

Panoramic sunset on 1st January 2012, taken with an iPhone 5

Sunset, 1st January 2012. iPhone 5, 1/120s, f/2.4, ISO 50

We took two of the latest smartphones, and pitted them against digital SLRs from 2003 to today and, for reference, film.

The phones were the sprightly 8 megapixel iPhone 5S which has the fastest camera on any phone, and the 41 megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 which is the undisputed heavyweight champion of phone imaging.

They couldn’t be more different. The iPhone 5S worships at the alter of convenience and speed, while the Nokia devotes everything to the best possible image quality. In the 7 seconds you took to read this paragraph, the iPhone could have taken 70 shots. The Nokia? Two. With another coming… wait a moment… almost there… now. Their camera apps are polar opposites too: the Nokia offers you full-time manual control over all the camera settings; the iPhone gives you almost none.

In the other corner, our SLRs contenders were:

  • Canon EOS 10D (6 megapixels, 2003)
  • Canon EOS 20D (8 megapixels, 2004)
  • Canon EOS 30D (8 megapixels, 2006)
  • Canon EOS 40D (10 megapixels, 2007)
  • Nikon D800 (36 megapixels, 2012 and not yet seriously bettered)

Nikon FM2 film camera with Fuji Velvia 50 transparancy film, and Fuji Superia 1600 print film

Why these cameras? The Canon DSLRs each represent the pinnacle of picture quality available in their day for less than $2,000 without a lens. Each earned DPReview’s coveted Gold Award, and reading back through their glowing reviews, I found myself wanting to buy them… again! I chose DSLRs from this era, as I guessed that the phones would slot neatly among them. I was wrong. We included the Nikon D800 as an upper reference point for the current state of the art for DSLRs, and we added film to anchor it all in an historic perspective, to give us old-timers a place to mentally hang the results.

A cat and a child snuggle together. Taken on an iPhone

iPhone 5, 1/20s, f/2.4, ISO 125,

fill light from another phone.

Are phones only good for shooting cats?

We tested them all twice, first in glaring subtropical sunlight (EV 15 to photographers), then under the equivalent of romantic candlelight, 6,000 times darker in Queensland Museum (EV 2.7). In bright light outside, I expected a fair fight between the phones and DSLRs. In dim light, I expected the DSLRs to eat the phones for breakfast. DSLRs’ enormous lenses concentrate light onto vast sensors, adding up to a colossal advantage. Low light is what they were born to shoot. In comparison, the phones have minuscule lenses and tiny sensors with teeny-weeny pixels, so only the most fanatical photons can find their way to a pixel. But the phones have an extra 6-10 years of technology on their side. Can technology make up for what they lack in size?

iPhone 4S, 1/750s, f/2.4, ISO 64
Smartphones limit you. With their wide lenses, you need to get awkwardly close to shoot animals...

iPhone 5, 1/750s, f/2.4, ISO 50
... or limit yourself to large, tame things

A Technical aside: How do you compare Apples to Oranges?

Comparing smartphones to DSLRs is like comparing apples to oranges. They have different views, give different amounts in focus, different possibilities for editing, capture different ranges of brightness, and there’s a whopping six-fold difference in the size of pictures between these devices. So how do you compare them?

At first, we struggled to find a test that would be completely fair to both, and eventually realised that fairness would limit us to shooting a flat black-and-white chart in a studio. Fascinating for Mr Spock, but meaningless to most humans. So instead, we shot normal scenes, and we’ve tried to spell out the biases involved. Here is one of the biases to give you a flavour, and we’ve added a separate page with all the technical notes here if you want all the details.

One of the subtle biases is that smartphones naturally get lots in focus, but DSLRs have to stray far from their best settings to get the same look. In tech-speak, the iPhone 5S gets the same depth in focus as a full-frame DSLR at f/18. With a phone, you can freeze everyone along the length of a candlelit Christmas dinner table, and keep them all in focus. None of these DSLRs can do that, as f/18 and short shutter speeds don’t mix in candlelight. But the DSLRs can capture beautiful blurry-background portraits in that same light - something none of the phones can ever do. In short, they're each good at different things.

To get around this particular difference, we chose tests where the depth in focus wasn’t relevant, creating a bias in favour of the DSLRs, as we allowed them the indulgence of picking their optimal aperture, rather than forcing them to use a realistic one.

Nikon FM2 film camera with Fuji Velvia 50 transparancy film, and Fuji Superia 1600 print film

In the technical notes page, you can read about the steps we used in the tests, the settings, how and why we standardised the sizes of all the pictures to about 20 megapixels, and how we processed the images. You can also download the original photos from Flickr to check our conclusions.

So, how do they compare? I thought I knew. It turned out that I was completely wrong. Read on to find the answers.

Dawn at Nudgee beach on an iPhone 5

Nudgee Sunrise. iPhone 5,

1/40s, f/2.4, ISO 64.

Phones have huge depth of field

Bright sunlit scene

We set all of the cameras to their best-quality settings, and shot them on a tripod without zooming the phones. Each of the DSLRs used a current $1,700 professional lens and also the cheap 18-55mm kit lens that came with most of them, to see how much difference it would make. The images here are tiny snippets from the centre and the edge of pictures that would stretch almost 1.5 metres wide on a normal computer screen.

Photo of Brisbane City in sunshine, used to test the cameras

Brisbane city, taken with an iPhone 5S



Fuji Velvia 50 transparency film
1/250s, f/8, Nikon FM2, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 professional lens

Canon EOS 10D ($2k in 2003)
1/350s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II professional lens, jpeg

iPhone 5s
1/320s, f/2.2, ISO 32, jpeg, Apple camera app

Canon EOS 20D ($2k in 2004)
1/250s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 30D ($2k in 2006)
1/320s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007)
1/250s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007)
1/500s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 18-55mm kit lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007)
1/250s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II professional lens, raw

Nokia Lumia 1020
1/2000s, f/2.2, ISO 100, jpeg.

Nikon D800 ($3.5k in 2012)
1/250s, f/8, ISO 100, NIkon 17-35mm f/2.8 professional lens, jpeg

How do they look?

I’ll turn to the technical differences in a moment, but first I need to get a few things out of my system: "Just look at that Nokia! Wow!", and "Is that all the difference between four models of Canon camera??", and finally "I’d forgotten film had so much detail and grain!".

When I first saw the images from the Nokia Lumia 1020, I did a double take. Clear and crisp, lots of detail, and super-strong colours that you’ll either love or wince at. I loved them. And did I mention the detail? After years of seeing bigger cameras perform better, I couldn’t believe that a tiny plastic and glass Zeiss lens could resolve so much from the centre to the edge of the image. It was close to the Nikon D800. I was stunned. I’ll list the shortcomings of the Nokia below, but first, some more stand-out results.

The Nikon D800 clearly belongs in its own league, with unmatched sharpness, smoothness and dynamic range, let down at the edges only by this 1999-era (but still current) professional lens which couldn’t keep up with the sensor. Arguably, the Nokia catches up with jpegs from the mighty D800 at these softer edges, albeit with more noise.

The Canon DSLRs steadily increased in detail from 2003 to 2007, but - and I’ll emphasise that this is entirely my subjective opinion - the total improvement across four models seems relatively modest in this sunlit scene. It’s eclipsed by the gulf between the iPhone and the Nokia. It left me wondering “Did we really pay that much just for that improvement?”. Put into its historical perspective now, seeing what the Nokia and the D800 can do, it doesn’t square with the excitement I remember feeling with the release of each new model. Did I really get that excited about such tiny differences? Sure, the cameras got more responsive with each model, particularly the 20D and 40D, but in sunlight these jpegs look pretty similar. Perhaps the improvements in low-light will be more pronounced? See the low-light results below.

Putting the cheap lens on the Canons didn't make much difference at the centre of the picture on these settings, but it softened the edges dramatically (see the pictures above on the 40D). This brought the iPhone into the game. To my eye, the iPhone 5S looked better than the 10D with the professional lens, but not as good as the 20D or later cameras. But with the cheap kit lens, the iPhone looked similar to the 20D and 30D at the edges, while still losing out to both at the centre.

Did the film fall where you expected? I’d forgotten how much detail film could capture - the Velvia 50 was right up there with the Nokia and the D800. I’d also forgotten just how intrusive film grain could be. It used to look much more attractive in my rose-tinted memory. Sharpening in Photoshop has accentuated the grain, but it’s a powerful veil of noise across the image even before sharpening. Unlike digital noise that obscures the details, film grain seems to ‘texture’ the details. But it still looks downright ugly to me now that I’m used to silky-smooth digital. The film’s colours are sensational, though, and I remember the original Velvia from 1990 being like crack cocaine to landscape photographers. It was our ‘saturation’ slider in the days when Photoshop was an obscure Mac-only program.

Turning back to the Nokia, its pictures made such a rosy first impression that I had to look closely to spot their shortcomings. The first was a low dynamic range. Compared to the DSLRs and the iPhone, bright parts easily blanched white while dark parts stayed stubbornly black. It felt like using slide film again - the Fuji Velvia 50 film suffered from this even more strongly. And just like with slide film, it made getting the right brightness a knife-edge proposition. The next problem was that some details were smeared away by noise reduction. Nokia chose a balance between tolerating speckly noise, and smearing the noise. Low-contrast details got caught in the crossfire, and rubbed out. In the centre picture, the fine bricks and leaves go soft, while the higher-contrast bricks keep their detail.

Both of these limitations should be eased in a few weeks. Nokia have promised to update the firmware of the 1020 in the New Year [UPDATE - they brought it out early! The Nokia "Black" update is now available in USA on certain carriers, and it'll be coming elsewhere soon]. The update lets the camera record raw format pictures. And two virtues of raw are better dynamic range and more control over noise reduction, as long as you’re prepared to play with the photos on a computer. Judging by their public test shots, it will do both, and dramatically improve the results. I just hope that shooting in raw doesn't slow the camera down much further.

A third challenge with the Nokia was its fixed aperture which gives the same depth of field as a full-frame DSLR at f/9. With the Nokia’s wide 27mm lens, f/9 gets a fair amount in focus, but not everything for critical landscapes. I don’t mind the iPhone’s fixed f/18 look - I only point it at scenes that need everything in focus - landscapes, street shooting, and it does the job. But f/9 is more… middling, and it might or might not suit your taste.

Low light scene

Low light is the DSLR’s home ground, and I expected the SLRs to walk all over the phones. Wrong again.

We wanted to see how well each camera could crank up its sensitivity to capture sharp shots of people in the equivalent of candlelight (EV 2.7). So we levelled the playing field by shooting them all as close to 1/15th sec as we could - that’s a practical maximum for shooting living, breathing humans without losing most of the shots to blur. At 1/15th sec, I’d normally expect over half of my shots of people to be blurred, especially if the people are moving. But most smartphone manufacturers have more relaxed standards (or possibly everyone just moves really slowly at their parties), and they set 1/15th sec as the longest shutter speed on their phones. On Auto, the Nokia wanted to show-off its image stabiliser and shoot for even longer, but we wouldn’t let it. Parties at Nokia HQ are clearly not very animated affairs.

Photo of Brisbane City in sunshine, used to test the cameras

Diarama scene at EV2.7 (equivalent to candlelight) in the Queensland Museum,
showing the area chosen for enlargement. The people are wax!

Fuji Superia 1600 print film (rated at 800)
1/8s, f/2.8, Nikon FM2, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens

iPhone 5s
1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 1250, jpeg, Camera Awesome app

Nokia Lumia 1020
1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 3200, jpeg. +0.66 Exposure in Camera Raw

Canon EOS 10D ($2k in 2003)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 10D ($2k in 2003)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, raw

Canon EOS 20D (($2k in 2004)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 30D ($2k in 2006)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg

Canon EOS 40D ($2k in 2007)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, raw

Nikon D800 ($3.5k in 2012)
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, professional lens, jpeg

In candlelight, the DSLRs could strut their stuff, and pulled further ahead of the phones. The Nikon D800 kept its crown by a country mile, and even with one hand tied behind its back by limiting it to 1/15th second, it could almost challenge what the Nokia could do at its very best settings.

But it wasn't the walkover that I expected. The phones put up a fierce fight. The iPhone lent heavily on noise reduction, giving a smooth but detail-starved picture. The Nokia didn't use as much noise reduction, giving tighter noise and better detail, but its low dynamic range lost lots of detail in the shadows.

Unsure of how to judge the noisy, detailed DSLRs against smoother, less-detailed phones, we asked 15 non-photographers to do it for us. They ranked the iPhone, Nokia, film and Canon EOS 10D from best to worst, without knowing which was which. The Nokia emerged as the popular favourite, but more striking was how much people disagreed. We got every possible ranking, based around peoples' preferences for smoothness versus detail. People who liked the Nokia picture also tended to like the iPhone, while people who liked the 10D also tended to like the film. It seems that we're all either smooth people, or noisy people.

The Fuji Superia film suprised me. It looks ugly up close with this size of englargement, but analogue grain is different to noise... try sitting back from the screen - way back. When I do that, it looks better than many of the others.

Candlelight also shows off how the Canon EOS cameras have improved throught the years in raw and jpeg. 2007's EOS 40D looks much better than 2003's EOS 10D. Perhaps we didn't waste all that money on upgrades, but it shows how the benefits in that era were mainly in low-light shooting.

Black and white shot of a plant taken and edited on an iPhone

iPhone 5
1/120s, f/2.4, ISO 80

The Verdict

Gun to head… time to come up with a number. How many years are smartphones behind the best $2,000 DSLRs? Comparing detail resolved, I'll say the iPhone 5S is equivalent to the DLSRs of 8 to 9 years ago in bright light, while the Nokia trails by less than 6 years - probably nearer 3. This is even when you allow the DSLRs the luxury of a $1,700 lens, and shooting in raw. In bright light, the Nokia came close to competing with the detail from the best DLSR yet made.

Step into candlelight, and the gap between phones and DSLRs widens and becomes more a matter of taste, pivoting around your preferred tradeoff between speckly noise and smeary noise reduction. From our ad-hoc panel of 15 non-photographers, the iPhone trails the DSLRs by about 10 years, and the Nokia about 8.

Splitting the difference between candlelight and daylight, around 6 years of technology has made up for the massive difference in the size of the lenses and sensors between the best phone and the $2,000 DSLRs.

I was stunned.

This isn’t saying that the Nokia is a better camera than a 2007 Canon EOS 40D. It’s not. Detail makes up just a tiny fraction of the goodness of a camera, and none of what makes it a pleasure to use. The Nokia is much slower, can’t focus on moving targets, can’t easily defocus part of the picture, can’t change the perspective and feel of pictures by zooming or changing lenses, and can’t capture the same range of brightness in one shot that the latest SLRs can. Yet.

The curious thing about this list is that everything on it except one - changing lenses - can be fixed with faster processing. The iPhones, Galaxies, and LGs have shown it already. And we know that faster processing is inevitable. The physical design of SLRs gave them a huge headstart over phones for both picture quality and usability, but advances in on-board processing are now quickly eroding that lead.

DSLRs aren’t standing still - they’re improving all the time too. But are they improving fast enough?

Looking forward

The graph below charts the progress of still image quality over time for the Canon EOS 10-series camera models, iPhones, and Samsung Galaxy phones. It uses different scales for the cameras and the phones: DXOMark, and DXOMark Mobile respectively. These are the closest anyone has yet come to condensing the myriad facets of image quality into a single objective number. The graph is misleading at first glance because the phones and the cameras sit on different scales. So it’s not saying that the phones are better than current DSLRs, despite scoring higher. You can only compare phones to phones, and DSLRs to DSLRs.

Improvements over time in DXOMark and DXOMark Mobile scores
for Canon EOS DSLRs and two ranges of smartphones.
See DXOMark for scores for lots more cameras and phones.
Note that the scales for the DSLRs and the phones are different and not directly comparable

But it does suggest that improvements in pictures from smartphones compared to other smartphones is going on at a much faster clip than improvements in these DSLRs compared to other dedicated cameras. These numbers don’t directly show that image quality from phones is improving faster than image quality from DSLRs, but they give a pretty strong hint in that direction. I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.

I’d wager that a lot more research and development money is directed at improving phone cameras than improving dedicated cameras. Manufacturers currently ship 13 times as many phones as cameras, and phone sales are going up, while camera sales are going down. Where would you invest?

Looking Back

It’s sobering to look back at the old reviews of the cameras that we included. The earliest, the Canon EOS10D was a marvel of 2003. Phil Askey from DPReview described it as “… the absolute best in its class, with the best image quality, lowest high sensitivity noise, superb build quality and excellent price”. He described the “Excellent resolution”, the “Noise free ‘silky smooth’ images”, with “very low noise levels even at ISO 1600”. The EOS 10D ran rings around the film that we’d been using for 50 years in terms of clarity and freedom from grain.

Yet it’s comprehensively humbled by modern phones. The iPhone out-shoots it, and the Nokia out-resolves it, all by huge margins.

The Nokia 1020 has redefined what I thought possible from a phone. I used to think of smartphones as a separate branch of ‘wannabe’ cameras, doomed to forever play catch-up with real cameras. I used to think like Takafumi Hongo, a Canon spokesperson who told the Wall Street Journal "Taking photos with smartphones and editing them with apps is like cooking with cheap ingredients and a lot of artificial flavoring. Using interchangeable [lens] cameras is like slow food cooked with natural, genuine ingredients.'' He has a point. With a smartphone you'll miss a lot of the joy of learning to cook traditionally. But in photography, the important ingredients come from you. Smartphones are now good enough not to need artificial flavouring from apps.

An image of shapes of a rock in tranquil sea, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

iPhone 4S, 1/30s, f/2.4, ISO 64,
The ingredients for photos come from inside you.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Patterns from escalators in a shopping centre, shot in an iPhone

iPhone 5S, 1/30s, f/2.2, ISO 40
Smartphones excel at discreet street shooting

I now see smartphones as like the early steps in the evolution of premium, prime-lens compact cameras. Good quality, convenient, with huge depth of field, but compared to DSLRs, they’re still slow and inflexible, and their pictures aren't as 'malleable' to change in editing. Their results are good, but if you're used to a DSLR, the feel of smartphones - how pleasant and transparent they are to use as a craftsperson's tool - is still a work in progress. Like those prime compacts, phones have subjects that they excel at (landscapes, street shooting), along with subjects that they’re hopeless at: traditional sports, portraits, action and wildlife - anything that benefits from a longer lens or limited depth of field.

Ironically, as dedicated cameras, prime lens compacts remain niche products with no aspirations to popular appeal. They're aimed squarely at discerning users. But as phones they’ve become the tool of choice in everyone’s hands. We accept their limitations as the price of extreme convenience.

But many of their limitations will disappear in a few short years with zippier processing. Only their fixed lens remains as an Achilles’ heel, with no obvious technology on the horizon to rescue it. Yet.

I’m loving this new breed of smaller, super convenient, high-quality prime-lens compact cameras that make phone calls. They help me heed the call of my favourite photographer, Elliott Erwitt, who said “It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby”. Photography can enhance your vision, your enjoyment of the world, your interactions with other people, and your life. If your photography isn’t doing all of these for you, I’d argue that you’re not demanding enough of it.

I find that smartphones help me to reap these benefits at least as well as many dedicated cameras. For me, it’s merely an added bonus that they can now make pictures that compete with those from most DSLRs up to about 6 years ago. And I predict that the gap will shrink further.

If you’ve never considered smartphones as tools for "serious" photography, I'd argue that we’re fast approaching the time to look again.

It’s a good time to be alive!



A person walks through tree shadows in a street scene

Motorola Moto-X, HDR on
Brisbane 2013

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A huge thank-you to the following people who helped-out with this review:

Mark Eustance for lending the Canon EOS 10D
Eleshia Nielsen for lending the Canon EOS 30D
Lois Robertson for lending the Canon EOS 40D
Mitchell Williams for help with the shooting and editing in Photoshop
Sue for patience above-and-beyond the call of duty while I’d spin the photographer’s eternal lie: “Oh… just one more…”

Apple, iPhone and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. Take Better Photos does not claim any endorsement by and receives no sponsorship from Apple Inc. We are Apple developers, but the agreement with Apple does not restrict us from being critical of Apple hardware where warranted. We queued and paid normal full price for the iPhone 5S and the Nokia Lumia 1020. Photoshop and Lightroom are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems. Moto is a registrered trademark of Motorola Mobility LLC.