Smartphone or DSLR Photography?

One thing that cannot be argued is that Smartphones, and in particular the iPhone, have changed not only the technology and social landscape but has completely transformed the digital camera marketplace. So I’m often asked by friends and family, do I even need a camera or is my smartphone good enough? A few of my thoughts below….

As I approach my 50th birthday I’ve seen a lot of changes in photography. My 1st photography experience was with a film camera (Canon A-1) in high school back in the 1980s. It was in this class I learned how the camera worked, developing film in a darkroom, building a pinhole camera and much more. I picked up my 1st digital camera in 1999….Canon PowerShot s10 with a whopping 2.1 megapixels!

Image credit to Check them out!

Through the 2000’s I upgraded cameras every few years through the Canon D series DSLR line eventually making the switch to the 5d full frame digital line ending up at my current Canon 5d mark iv.   But it was in 2007 when the 1st iPhone released that everything changed. Apple decided that the camera shouldn’t be an afterthought on a phone as it was on most flip phones of the day, it was treated as a 1st class citizen. And with each new release, the camera, lens and software got better and better and people took more and more pictures. All this time the camera manufactures just viewed a smartphone as a toy and not really competition in their business.  Fast forward to today and with few exceptions, most modern smartphones are completely capable of replacing a fixed lens point and shoot digital camera, like the Canon PowerShot cameras I used to own.  There is almost no reason for anyone with a smartphone to invest in an entry-level point and shoot camera. This is evidenced by the rapid decline in the sale and production of these entry level types of cameras.

In addition to the smartphone, one thing I’ve observed is young people have no nostalgia for the old ways of taking photos the way I learned back in the 80’s with a complex camera with switches and dials and archaic terms like F-Stop and ISO!   They want fast, touch screen, convenient, internet and social media connected devices to take photos.  And they aren’t alone. More images are taken with smartphones than any other device by a longshot. Why?  Quite simply virtually everyone has a smartphone and it’s always with them. It is expected that by 2020 nearly 2.9 Billion people will own a smartphone (* This growth in smartphone ownership, combined with ubiquitous internet access and free or low-cost cloud storage, has allowed everyone to photograph everything they see. With the power of these devices…why wouldn’t you capture every cool thing you see in the world around you.

So, does this mean the death of the DSLR camera as we know it? Not necessarily. Should a young person or someone just getting into photography even bother with buying a DSLR or learning all the terms and techniques of DSLR photography? My short answer is it depends. If you are happy with the quality of images you are getting from your smartphone….don’t change. A good smartphone is expensive enough without investing in a DSLR, lenses etc. It’s a very expensive hobby getting into DSLR photography. I can attest to the thousands I’ve spent on cameras, lenses, photo software and mountains of accessories.

If you are still reading on, it means you may have found a photography limitation in your smartphone. Maybe you want to go pro, shoot professional portraits, weddings, product photography, sports/action photography, fine art photography, astrophotography or one of the many other types of photography.  Or maybe you just have a passion for photography and feel you’ll get your best images with a DSLR. All great reasons to consider a DSLR.

Going pro. If you plan to become a paid professional photographer you will quickly find a smartphone just won’t cut it. The reason I state this is that when someone is paying you for your images, the stakes are higher.  Quality images matter. Printing images or at least having high-resolution digital images that have been painstakingly edited are very important to buyers. There is a big difference between posting a 2 mb jpeg image from your iPhone on Instagram that will viewed in a little screen vs a 30mb professional image that will be printed on a 30x 60 canvas or used in a national advertising campaign. The imperfections and limitations of small file format jpeg smartphone images come to light when compared to what you can do with a DSLR. Most new photographers or those who didn’t come up in the era of digital cameras are likely unaware of those differences until they delve deeper into the craft of photography.  The image quality that comes from small files/low megapixel smartphones, just can’t match modern DSLR cameras (some in the 20-50 Megapixel range). Also DSLRs have a wide variety of high quality lenses that can’t currently be matched by smartphones.  That said, there may come a day when smartphones are advanced enough to replace a DSLR…but I think it will take some time.  For now the tool of choice for pro photographers is a DSLR or a Mirrorless Interchangeable lens camera. I won’t got into the details of each of these…see some of my prior blog posts on equipment.

All that said, Smartphones are not without merit. When it comes to practicing your craft and taking great images, you can still practice core concepts in photography using a smartphone (Subject, light, exposure, background, edges).  For example, just today I challenged myself to go out and take a solid landscape image with my iPhone 6s Plus. So at lunch I hiked out into the forest preserve next to my house and found this interesting isolated set of trees contrasting nicely with the overcast sky and layered color of the tall grasses. I took 4 shots of these trees adjusting my composition, moving in closer, removing distractions, centering and decided this was the best of the four. I shot this in RAW format on the iPhone with a program called ProCam. I did some slight color and contrast adjustments in Lightroom CC and a 16×9 crop.  I’ll let you judge if it’s a good landscape image. My point being, if you want to practice photography, I absolutely think you can do it with a smartphone.  Now would I print this on a large canvas? Not likely…it has a lot of noise in the image and not nearly the detail I know I could get with my 5d mark iv on a tripod, but still not bad quality for a post to the web.


Apps!  One of the most compelling thing about smartphones is Apps.  There are a ton of photography apps and photo editing apps for smartphones. Some are quite good, some not so much. Apps are a unique advantage for Smartphones over DSLRs as they allow you to edit your images right on your smartphone and post them within seconds. While camera manufacturers are getting better in this area…they are way behind in ease of use of their editing apps and even the software in the DSLR cameras themselves…although Mirrorless cameras are a bit more advanced in this area.

Image editing workflow. Most pro photographers who shoot with DSLRs go through a painstaking process of downloading images to a computer, importing them into an editing program (Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) then doing all sorts of edits, then exporting them, posting them to their website, social media, and for the best shots, printing them. Paying customers have different expectations. If someone is paying you for high quality images, the investment in the above workflow and larger image size may be the price to pay to get the quality you need to be a pro photographer. You just need to decide if you want to take that leap, and invest in all there is to learn about DSLR camera and photo techniques.

All of this “workflow” may be overwhelming for beginner photographers…it seems like overkill to most young people I talk to, and I completely understand why they see it this way. The digital workflow of a smartphone is so much faster and efficient. With the above image I chose to download to Lightroom cc and edit on a PC, but I just as easily could have done this on my phone with Lightroom mobile. 

So if you aren’t ready to move to a DSLR, can’t afford it or both, I say keep practicing with your smartphone. Just know that much of the photography advice you’ll find on the web will be biased towards DSLR photography. I think this is slowly changing but just be aware of that bias as you look for advice in online photography groups and websites. Many photographers make the unspoken assumption that if you are into photography that you have a DSLR. I personally don’t follow that edict. I love anyone’s passion for photography regardless of the tool they are using to capture their images.

I’ll wrap with a few recommendations :

  • YouTube- There are many great resources on YouTube to learn about photography. While I haven’t found a great channel dedicated to “smartphone photography” if you search on the term you will find tons of postings. One in particular I thought was fascinating was a competition two pro photographers who run the web site did a few months back. They both took compelling studio model portrait images using only an iPhone and studio lighting. Their results were quite impressive….shared in their Fstoppers YouTube channel.
  • Apps: There are hundreds of photo apps for smartphones…my best advice here is to explore in the app store for your particular smartphone. A few apps I use regularly are Snapseed, Prisma, ProCam, Microsoft Pix. I also use a number of complementary Adobe mobile apps that are companions to their PC desktop editing software such as Lightroom CC,  Photoshop Express..but there are many more.
  • If you do look to other photographers for critiques of your images in online forums such as FaceBook photography groups,  it’s a good idea to let them know you are shooting with a smartphone. I also recommend you provide as much setting detail for the image as you can. All image files taprocamken with digital cameras (smartphone or dslr) include metadata in the file that tell the shutter speed, ISO, F-stop, camera, lens, focal length used when taking the image. The challenge with smartphones is this data isn’t easily accessed while viewing the file on the phone….at least on the iPhone. Some smartphone camera apps (Like the ProCam I use) will give you the option to view the image data as well as manipulate these settings when taking images. (example above).

As always, I welcome any comments and feedback. Keep at it making great images.


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