How Good Are Smartphone Cameras?

Smartphone cameras have never been better. The technology has come a long way. They’ve been used by professional photographers to shoot magazine covers. Apple has built a billboard advertising campaign around photos taken with the iPhone. Obviously smartphone cameras can be used to take good photos in the right circumstances, but how good is the actual camera? Let’s find out.

The Spec Sheet

Before digging in to any comparisons, let’s have a look at what we’re working with. For this article, I’m going to use the camera in the iPhone 7 as the base for a smartphone camera. It’s one of the best available, although most high end Android have cameras that are as good, or almost as good. Mid-tier Android phones are only a year or two behind.

The iPhone 7 has a 12MP camera with a fixed focal length lens that’s equivalent to 28mm on a full-frame camera, with an aperture of f/1.8. The camera has a shutter speed range of 1/3rd of a second down to 1/8000th of a second. It’s got an ISO range of between 34 and 1500. The sensor is 6.25mm by 5.16mm.

We’ll come to what those specs really mean in a moment, but let’s set a baseline to compare them to. Compact cameras are pretty much dead, so we’ll use an entry level DSLR. This DSLR is obviously going to be better, but that’s the point: we’re just interested in how much better it is.

The Canon EOS 80D has a 24.2MP sensor and can use any of Canon’s EF and EF-S series of lenses. It has a shutter speed range of 30 seconds (even longer with Bulb mode) to 1/8000th of a second. The ISO range is 100 to 25600. The sensor is 22.5mm by 15.0mm.

Your Smartphone Is Great…If Conditions Are Great

In the right conditions, smartphone cameras are great. To anyone who’s not a professional or zooming in incredibly close to inspect every, they’ll be difficult to tell apart. Look at the two photos below, can you tell which one was taken by a $5000 camera and lens and which one was taken with an iPhone 7 Plus? I can barely tell, and I took them! There are obviously some slight differences in color and framing, but that’s just in how the cameras handled different things. Neither photo is clearly superior to the other.

(Answer: the first one is the iPhone with the white balance set to daylight and everything else on auto. The second is a Canon 5D MKIII with a 17-40mm f/4L lens set to 28mm at f/11 in aperture priority mode with the white balance set to daylight.)

That’s because these photos were taken in pretty ideal conditions. There’s lots of light, no really deep shadows or bright highlights, and I’m not looking for a shallow depth of field.

The DSLR file is about twice the size of the iPhone file, in pixels, so I can zoom in closer and see more details, as you can see below.

Megapixels, however, really don’t matter that much. The iPhone image is still large enough to be used on a billboard. If I needed to crop a little tighter, I’d have more flexibility with the DSLR photo, but as long as you get the shot you want in camera, it makes no difference.

Your Smartphone Has Harder Limits

The problem with smartphone cameras isn’t that they take bad photos all the time, it’s that they struggle at the extremes. The most obvious one is in low light.

While megapixels don’t really matter, the size of the photosites on the sensors—each one of which is responsible for a single megapixel—do. The 80D has twice as many megapixels on a sensor roughly ten times the size of the iPhone 7’s, which means each photosite is about five times the size. This means five times more light fall on each one. This makes a huge difference in low light.

Let’s compare two photos again. Rather than try to match things exactly, I took the best possible picture with each camera. For the iPhone, this meant 1/30 a second at f/1.8 and an ISO of 1250. For the DSLR, this meant 1/20 a second at f/3.5 and ISO 1600. Both were shot as RAW files. I tweaked the exposure and white balance a little in Photoshop to make them easier to compare.

With all that done, it’s pretty obvious that the first one was shot with a DSLR and the second with the iPhone. The iPhone photo is a lot rougher and grainier, even though it used a wider aperture and lower ISO. I didn’t even use a modern DSLR for the comparison; I shot this with my four year old Canon 650D, a predecessor of the 80D. With a newer camera, the difference would be even starker.

Your Smartphone Camera Is Less Flexible

Smartphone cameras are also a lot less flexible. Pretty much everything about the iPhone 7’s camera is more limited than on a DSLR.

The maximum shutter speed on both the iPhone and the 80D is 1/8000th of a second, but the minimum on the iPhone is only 1/3rd of a second. This means you can’t take nice long exposure shots—like the one below where I used a shutter speed of 30 seconds.

Similarly, the 80D has a much wider ISO range. Although the iPhone can go lower to 34, which means the fixed aperture f/1.8 lens is still usable on bright days, it’s maximum ISO is 1500, and the photos you get, like the one below, are noisy and practically unusable. An 80D will take decent images at ISO 3200, and usable ones even higher.

Finally, the biggest difference is that a DSLR allows you to change lenses. If you want to take portraits you can use a telephoto lens with a wide aperture. For landscapes, you can go with a wide-angle lens. If you’re not sure what you’re going to shoot, grab a nice zoom lens that gives you a huge amount of flexibility. Although the iPhone 7 Plus makes some move to fix it with it’s dual cameras and portrait mode, you’re always going to have more options with a DSLR.

What Does This All Mean?

My iPhone 7 Plus is one of my favorite and most used cameras. I take a few photos with it most days. I’ve taken plenty of photos I love and that are as good as the ones I’ve shot with my DSLRs.

As long as you work within the limits of your smartphone, it’s got an incredible camera. Even smartphones that are a year or two old have great cameras. You might hit a few rough spots if you’re working in low light or just can’t get close enough to your subject, but otherwise you’ll be good. The days of having to slap an over the top Instagram filter over every image to make them look good are well gone.

Harry Guinness writes occasionally when he’s not busy skiing, sailing, partying, lifting weights, or otherwise dodging responsibility. His main areas of interest are himself, gin, and crazy people with interesting stories to tell. When people won’t pay him to write ill-thought-out opinion pieces, he covers photography, technology, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter.