Small and Simple vs. Big and Powerful: What’s the Smarter Choice?

The camera that’s built into the smartphone you’re already carrying in your pocket may be a much more powerful image-making tool than you realize.  With every passing year, the technological innovations that make their way into our mobile devices are closing the gap between high-end digital SLR cameras and the smartphone cameras we use to take selfies and food photos every day. For photos taken under typical conditions, you may not even be able to tell the difference anymore. Smartphone cameras still have their limitations, of course, but since they’re becoming more versatile and giving you more creative control than ever before, it means you’ll have more room to grow as a photographer, even if you never make the leap to a “real” camera.  Here, we discuss the ways in which smartphone cameras and DSLRs are similar and different, so you can make an educated decision on what works best for your photographic needs and desires.  

Common Settings & FEATURES: SmartphoneS & DSLRs

An HDR image made at our Beginner's Bootcamp workshop in Moore State Park.

An HDR image made at our Beginner's Bootcamp workshop in Moore State Park.

  • Can adjust exposure

    • You can use exposure compensation to make the image brighter or darker. Usually, you swipe left or right/up or down on your camera app.

    • iPhones make this especially easy because you just click on the spot that you want to adjust, and so the exposure of the whole photo will be based on the part that you most want to expose properly, making it the focus of your image.

  • HDR mode

    • Shooting in HDR, or High Dynamic Range, allows you to take multiple photos with varying exposures and overlap them, thus creating a perfectly balanced exposure and many times a dreamlike image. It allows you to capture well-exposed images at times that you wouldn’t normally be able to, such as when the sun is direct and very bright. Each exposure captures part of the full tonal range.

  • White balance

    • Smartphone technology makes it so you never really have to worry about the white balance, however sometimes you like to be in total control and show ‘em who’s boss. Ask yourself “how did that white object look in real life?” If it was more blue because of an overcast day, or more yellow from the sun, you may consider adjusting the white balance to get a more accurate representation. When you take out your camera or phone, give it a few seconds to read your environment’s conditions and make adjustments. Pointing the camera at another area, then bringing it back to your subject may also adjust the white balance. If all else fails, try adjusting this yourself by setting it to sunlight, overcast or shade.

  • Color balance
    • All cameras, whether it be a DSLR or on your phone, inherently have differing color balancing. If you take the same photo with both an iPhone and an Android phone, you may notice the iPhone image looks warmer and vice versa. However, they’re making it easier to tweak the colors using just about any photo editing app and go to the color area. If the tones of your image are cool, or more blue, you can raise the red tones to make skin look more natural.
An unedited photo of the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland.

An unedited photo of the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland.

You can also convert your photos to black and white on your phone.

You can also convert your photos to black and white on your phone.

  • Shooting in RAW (depending on your phone/operating system)
    • This technology for smartphones came on the market in 2015, and is great if you like to have complete control over the editing process. Raw files don’t compress your photos like JPEGs do, but instead keep all of the information for you to interpret later. Having much more infomation means a much larger file size, yet it is also much easier to “rescue” a photo that didn’t have a good exposure to begin with.


The Differences

  • DSLRs have better depth of field (DoF)
    • Combination of small sensor and wide angle lens leads to much greater depth of field. It is difficult to naturally blur the background except when really close. It can be done with certain apps, like Instagram, but it still doesn't look like a natural short depth of field and you have less control over this aesthetic.
  • You can’t actually change the aperture to control DoF

    • You have significantly more control over your DoF with a DSLR camera. For example, you can utilize techniques like Hyperfocal Focusing, which we teach during any multi-day workshop. This is impossible using a smartphone camera.

    • Many smartphones these days use autofocus by way of 'clicking' the part of the screen or image you want to put in focus. However, it is very hard to blur out the background to emphasize your main subject, unless you are shooting at very close distances.  Portraits with blurred backgrounds this way are pretty much impossible.

  • Can focus much closer (for macros) than a typical SLR lens

    • The combination of a small image sensor and wide angle lens found in smartphone cameras means that you can get very close to your subject and still produce a sharply focused image.  But, since the lens is a wide-angle, the subject tends to look bulging and distorted compared to the image produced by a DSLR with a dedicated macro lens.  

A unedited smartphone photo taken with a Motorola Moto X Pure at the turf farm in Glaumbaer, Iceland.

A unedited smartphone photo taken with a Motorola Moto X Pure at the turf farm in Glaumbaer, Iceland.

  • Smartphone (small) sensors produce more noise when shooting in low light

    • Phone cameras have tiny sensors, which means the pixels that capture image information are crammed into a small space.  This generates heat, and heat produces “noise,” which looks like grain in your pictures. Even more noise is produced In low light situations, because the sensor must work harder to amplify the light, giving your photos a low-quality look.

    • Modern DSLRs have bigger sensors with excellent low-light shooting capability. When matched with a wide-aperture lens, you can make some fantastic photos with not much light at all.  

  • Can’t change focal length unless you purchase add-on lens

    • It is possible to change the focal length with the help of some new little friends. The Olloclip and the Photojojo are mini lenses that you attach onto your phone in order to take telephoto or fisheye shots, for example.

    • Here's a link to check out some accessories!

  • You crack your phone lens, you’re done. Just go home.

    • Unless you’re under a warranty plan that covers accidental damages, you will be paying a good amount of money to fix or replace your damaged phone, and it certainly won’t be fixed immediately, if you’re out and about.

    • DSLR lenses are interchangeable, so that if one ever cracks, yes it will be expensive to replace, but you won’t be out a camera that could potentially capture the best moments of your life(Ok, now I’m being a drama queen.)  If you own a couple of different lenses, you can attach one of your other ones, and even if it’s not the right lens for every situation you encounter, at least you don’t have to stop taking pictures completely.

The benefits of Mastering your Phone Camera

  • You can share polished/professional-looking photos in an instant

    • With apps like Instagram, Facebook, and more, it’s so easy to edit and share your photos in a jiffy.

  • Results minus the bulk - weight, size, speed.

    • While the BlueHour team is very biased toward DSLR cameras, anyone will agree that the best thing about a phone camera is how minimalist and light  it is to carry around. It’s so easy to throw in your pocket and go, giving you the spring and speed you need. Best of all, your significant other won’t resent going on vacation with you anymore because of all the equipment they end up lugging for you.

So what's best? If you prefer something lightweight, that you can take anywhere, and all-in-one editing and sharing, a smartphone camera is all you need. If you want to have complete creative control and have sharp, crisp images during both the day and night, go with a DSLR. Regardless of your tool of choice, it's worth learning the full capabilities of your smartphone; ultimately, it will make you a better photographer.

We just had to include this picture.

We just had to include this picture.