Smartphones have revolutionized the way we take pictures and record our lives—it’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t always have a camera with us. For all their convenience though, and all the smartphone camera improvements we’ve seen in the last few years, the dedicated camera isn’t dead yet.
And it’s not just professionals who should think about whether it’s worth investing in (or keeping around) a proper digital camera to complement their cell phone. We’re not saying everyone needs to carry a camera and a phone around with them, just that it’s worth considering.
If there’s one restriction in particular that the slim form factors of today’s smartphones put on a camera, it’s with the optical zoom—there’s just no room for that extending lens. Pick up a Plus model iPhone from this year or last, or a Galaxy Note 8, and you can get yourself a 2x optical zoom, putting you twice as close to the action as you were before. Even the cheapest point-and-shoots have ten times the zooming potential. That’s going to make a difference if you’re shooting your kid’s soccer game, or when you’re trying to snap the birds at the park.
This is actually pretty much the only feature that compact point-and-shoots at the budget end of the market still have in their favor over smartphones.
Today’s top-end smartphone cameras have come a long way when it comes to low light performance, but they still can’t match the size of the sensors inside dedicated digital cameras. Bigger sensors mean more light, even in the darkest of situations.
It’s also worth mentioning flash, because on a smartphone even the best flash systems can’t compete with the evenness and depth of a flash on a fully featured DSLR or even a good compact camera. It can help save a shot in the trickiest of conditions.
Smartphones are catching up fast when it comes to capturing fast-moving objects, when a quick shutter speed and quick autofocus really count. You might not take much note of camera improvements like the Focus Pixels technology introduced with the iPhone 6, but they are closing the gap to DSLRs.
So why are dedicated cameras still better at fast-moving action? Well, the truth is that some top-end phones can match cameras in some situations (i.e. very well-lit situations), but for flexibility and great results every time, a proper camera still wins out.
It is possible for a handset like the iPhone 8 to match a DSLR in the shutter speed department—letting light in for a tiny fraction of a second to capture a fast-moving target frozen in time—but if you’re in low light or the shade the results are going to be less impressive. Obviously if you’re not using the best iPhone camera, then the quality falls further.
And whenever you want to get creative, like keeping a subject in focus while blurring the background, you just don’t get the flexibility of a dedicated camera on a phone, in terms of settings.
So think about that sports day event at your kid’s school, or that wildlife picture, or maybe that shot you want to take out of a moving train. For most of these type of situations, you’re going to be more likely to get the shot you need with a proper camera, as long as you know how to use it.
Again, the very best smartphones are catching up here, and plenty of apps now let you tweak settings like ISO and white balance on a phone while you’re framing your shot. However, you’re still going to get much, much more flexibility on a high-end camera, not least because you can swap out lenses.
One setting you can’t change yet on most smartphones is aperture, the size of the lens opening that dictates how much light gets into the lens. It lets you get creative with depth of field and other effects, and though phone cameras are getting good at emulating the end results, they’re still lagging behind.
Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all work together to control the amount of light that gets let into your camera’s sensor, and while you have options on a smartphone, you have more options and a bigger range of settings to pick from on a proper camera—more options for tweaking colors, brightening shadows, and so on. You’ve got more to work with.
And of course you also have the benefit of physical knobs and dials to quickly flick between modes and settings, rather than having to tap away inside menus and waste precious seconds setting up a shot on your phone.