Disappointed by the camera on your smartphone? Want better low-light performance, battery life, and image quality? It might be time to invest in a “real” camera setup.
Smartphones Are Hampered by Small Sensors
Smartphones are do-it-all devices, which means free space inside your smartphone is at a premium. Most of it is taken up by a rechargeable battery, with the display assembly, system-on-chip, and other core components occupying much of the remaining space. There’s not a lot of room inside, which means sacrifices must be made.
This is why smartphones use relatively small sensors. The iPhone 14 Pro, for example, uses a 1/1.28-inch sensor for its 48-megapixel wide camera, a 1/2.55-inch sensor for the ultrawide camera, and a 1/3.5-inch sensor for the telephoto camera. Outliers like Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-CM1 smartphone shipped with a 1-inch sensor (in 2014), but most smartphones fall into the same range as the iPhone 14 Pro.
The larger the sensor, the more light is captured. Small sensors are the reason that many smartphones struggle in low light conditions. The arrival of “night mode” settings that use multiple exposures and machine learning to enhance dark photos can help, but they’re best suited to static shots and don’t handle movement well.
A smaller sensor also captures less information per exposure compared with larger sensors found on dedicated cameras. The more information you can capture about a scene, the more options you have in terms of editing your photo. This is particularly true when it comes to RAW photos, which let you do things like recover details lost to crushed shadows or blown out highlights.
If you want better low-light performance and more detail in your RAW snaps, choose a camera with a 1-inch, micro four-thirds, APS-C, or full-frame sensor. Travel-friendly all-in-one cameras like the Sony RX100 VII use a 1-inch sensor, while interchangeable lenses can be found on others like the APS-C Fujifilm X-T5.
Sony RX100 VII
The Sony RX100 VII is the king of compact cameras. Its hardware and photo processing software are unbeatable, especially at this size.
Interchangeable Lenses Mean Endless Possibilities
Smartphones have more optics than ever before, with many models featuring three or four different lenses on the back. These allow you to capture a range of focal lengths using real optics rather than digital trickery. Combined with high-megapixel sensors, some cameras offer impressive levels of zoom (at the cost of overall image size).
If you want even more possibilities, you’ll want a camera that uses interchangeable lenses. Pick up a set of sharp prime (fixed focal-length) lenses with wide apertures, perfect for portraiture, low light, and creamy bokeh. Shell out for a do-it-all zoom lens that gives you a range of focal lengths and is ideal for traveling. Have fun with weirdo lenses like fisheye, macro, probe, tilt-shift, or toy lenses for unique looks.
You can even adapt lenses from other camera systems as long as you have an adapter that fits the camera and lens. Give old, antique lenses a new lease of life and get a unique look and feel from them. You can use these in both still and video modes, as long as you’re happy with manually focusing and learning the ins and outs of getting the most from them.
The only limit to your creativity is the size of your bank account. Fortunately, there’s a bustling second-hand market when it comes to lenses. Not only can you save some money by buying used, but you can also recoup money by selling-on lenses that you no longer want. Lenses hold their value better than smartphones do!
Dedicated Camera, Dedicated Battery
Your smartphone does everything. It’s a communication aid, pocket web browser, payment device, media player, personal organizer, note-taker, sat-nav, activity tracker, boredom killer, and a camera. Your available charge has to be shared among all of these tasks, so is it any wonder most smartphone batteries still only last a day?
Dedicated cameras have dedicated batteries, and most of them are swappable. That means you can simply buy more batteries to carry with you if you’re planning on taking a lot of photos or videos. You won’t wear down your smartphone battery so you’ll have plenty of power left for everything else.
This is especially useful if you’re planning on traveling since you probably don’t want to nurse your smartphone battery over an entire trip. If you like to spend time outdoors and need your smartphone for emergencies, you’ll have more battery left over in case something happens. Most cameras also now use USB charging, which means you can use a power bank as a backup charger for both your smartphone and your camera.
Overcome Your Storage Woes Too
Most flagship devices like the iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy S range, and Google’s Pixel devices lack support for removable storage. This may be less of a problem than it used to be with cloud-based solutions like iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos picking up the slack, but you’ll still need somewhere to store your photos and videos while the upload completes.
Sometimes the old ways of doing things are the best, which is what makes swappable memory cards so useful. Flash memory prices have come down significantly over the last few years, so you can now pick up a UHS-II 128GB memory card (like the Lexar Professional 1667x) for less than $40.
Lexar Professional 1667x 128GB SDXC UHS-II
Add 128GB storage to your camera setup with Lexar's Professional Class 3 UHS-II SDXC card.
If you’re caught short while traveling or you desperately need more storage while out and about you can simply buy another card and carry on.
Get Better Control Over Your Photos
Mirrorless and digital SLR cameras may seem a little intimidating to begin with, but they’re powerful tools that allow you to take control of your photography in a way that smartphones can’t match.
You can manipulate shutter speeds to take long exposures, to blur moving subjects like water, lights, or traffic. Prioritize the aperture to shoot “wide open” for a shallow depth of field, for a soft and dreamy look. Alternatively, set a low shutter speed to emphasize motion blur or a high shutter speed to capture fast-moving subjects (like wildlife) in great detail.
Manipulating these settings is easier using the myriad of controls you have available on a dedicated camera. There are wheels for quickly switching between modes, buttons for setting white balance or switching focus modes, and dials for changing aperture or shutter speed. Use the focus ring on your lens to manually focus or zoom with precision.
It’s certainly true that apps for iPhone and Android allow for manual control, but a touchscreen interface is far from ideal (especially in situations that require fast adaptation), manual focusing using a touchscreen can be miserable, and settings are often buried within menus that require several taps and a steady hand to access. Setting apps like this as the default camera requires a hacky workaround (on iPhone, at least) and somewhat defeats the point of simple point-and-shoot smartphone photography.
Accessorize Your Camera However You Like
There are a lot of accessories that work on both dedicated cameras and smartphones, including tripods (including our favorite camera tripods), mounting systems, microphones, stabilizing gimbals, and weather-proof housing. But there are also accessories that you can only really make use of with a “proper” camera system.
Take speedlights (or flash units) for example. These sync with your camera’s shutter to fire either while mounted to the camera or placed remotely for full control over lighting. They’re useful in a studio, in the field when taking portraits, or can be used as fill lights in bright conditions to eliminate harsh shadows. Add diffusers and color gels or experiment with bouncing the light to create unique yet repeatable results.
Lens filters are another useful tool. These allow you to limit or color the light that enters the lens so that you can achieve unique results in all sorts of conditions. For example, if you’re in a brightly lit environment but you want to shoot “wide open” to get a soft blurry background, a filter can prevent the camera from letting in too much light and blowing out the exposure.
Graduated neutral density filters are valuable tools for landscape photography. They allow you to balance the light levels of the sky with the reduced luminance of the landscape you’re shooting so that you can capture as much detail in a single exposure. This prevents you from losing shadow detail in the landscape or cloud detail in the sky. You can also use exposure bracketing to achieve a similar result, but this requires you to combine the exposures after shooting.
Other filters allow you to remove polarized light (for better contrast and less glare), add a star effect to bright lights, change the shape of the bokeh in your scene, and colorize the scene. Some filters exist for the iPhone, like the iPhone Magnetic Filter System, but these rely on the use of a specific case.
There are also a huge number of accessories to help overcome the added heft of using a dedicated camera. These include camera mounts for attaching your equipment to your person to bags for carrying lots or very little gear.
Smartphone Cameras Can Only Improve So Much
Many of the drawbacks highlighted above won’t necessarily be “fixed” in any meaningful way, even five years from now. Sensor sizes are going to have to remain small, though sensor quality will undoubtedly improve. Future enhancements to low-light performance and overall image quality will largely depend on improved image processing.
Proper interchangeable lenses are unlikely to make a splash any time soon beyond the clip-on variety. Though fun, these can’t hold a candle to the best mirrorless lenses or the best digital SLR lenses. This has been tried before and it turns out that most smartphone owners simply aren’t interested. Protruding lenses on the back of your smartphone don’t do an awful lot for pocketability, let alone water resistance and dust proofing.
You won’t be able to divorce your camera battery from your smartphone battery any time soon, though more efficient hardware will help to some degree. It’ll take a real breakthrough in battery technology to meaningfully improve smartphone battery life, and until that happens expect incremental improvements as die sizes shrink and components become more efficient.
Instead, we should expect bigger photo files as megapixel counts continue to climb, cleaner images that benefit from more powerful systems-on-chip, and better video quality particularly when it comes to HDR and in-camera stabilization. These are exciting developments for sure, but they don’t yet spell the end of days for dedicated cameras (which will carry similar improvements on top of their inherent benefits).
Not Everyone Needs a Dedicated Camera
Most of us snap the vast majority of photos and videos on our smartphones for a reason. They’re convenient, the quality is good enough, and having a memory to look back on (in an easy-to-find location) is more important than archiving something in perfect quality.
There’s nothing wrong with doing this, even if you own a few thousand dollars worth of sensors and glass. The future of photography rests heavily on the smartphone, but there’s more to be had if you’re underwhelmed.
If you want to make more of a hobby of your photography, are looking for more control over the outcome, or are simply sick of sharing battery life and storage with your smartphone, consider a mirrorless or digital SLR camera. We’ve got recommendations for the best mirrorless and best digital SLRs if you’re wondering where to start.
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