It’s safe to say that modern smartphones, especially flagship models, offer excellent camera specifications which are extremely appealing for photography. For example, the Xiaomi 12T Pro smartphone was released with 200MP camera in October of this year.
Those models that are the best smartphones for photography give plenty of flexibility and may even leave you questioning whether you need a “real” camera anymore. Certainly it’s true that the smartphone has all but killed the basic compact camera market, but what about other types of cameras?
While there are a lot of benefits to using a smartphone for photography. It is the one camera you’re likely to have with you almost all of the time, which makes it ideal for street photography for instance. But there are plenty of downsides too.
When you shoot with a proper camera, you’ll generally get better image quality, a more tactile experience and the ability to change lenses to match what you want to shoot. What you lose is portability, convenience and instant connectivity to social networking apps.
In this piece, we’ll be looking at the pros and cons of shooting with your smartphone vs shooting with a dedicated camera, such as the best mirrorless cameras or the best DSLR cameras.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Sensors
The most important part of any camera is its sensor, with the general rule for the best sensor size for high-quality imagery being the bigger the better.
With many smartphones now featuring multiple camera arrays on their backs, there’s actually multiple sensors in one device, with none of them having the room to be particularly large.
By contrast, cameras of course have much more room to house a dedicated sensor. Even relatively small cameras, such as the best compact cameras have a sensor which is several times larger than a smartphone sensor, while if you step up to mirrorless or DSLR, then sensors are larger again.
In real terms, what this means is that, without a doubt, image quality from the average dedicated camera is better than the image quality from the average smartphone.
How much this matters is down to the individual, as well as what you like to shoot, and in what conditions. If, for example, you only ever shoot sunny shots of your travels, and only ever share them on Instagram – it’s likely the small sensor inside your smartphone is more than capable of delivering what you need.
If, however, you like to shoot in other conditions – such as low light for example, you want highly detailed imagery, you want to create large prints (or have the capability of doing so in the future), you want to create certain effects, then a digital camera will be much better suited to that.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Resolution
There are lots of smartphones with very high-resolution sensors these days. The latest iPhone 14 Pro has a 48-megapixel sensor, crossing the 12-megapixel barrier for the first time. Similarly, the Google Pixel 7 Pro has a 50MP sensor, while the Samsung S22 Ultra goes even further by having a 108MP device.
By contrast, digital cameras are usually a bit more conservative in their resolution. Many average somewhere around 24 megapixels, but you can get higher resolution counts if you are particularly keen on shooting detail. These are usually found in expensive, professional-level cameras, such as the Sony Alpha A7R IV, which has a 61-megapixel sensor.
That said, resolution isn’t everything – the size of the sensor is more important for high image quality. Most smartphones with high-resolution sensors use pixel-binning to group together pixels, meaning that the output is usually around 12 megapixels, unless you choose to specifically shoot in a high-resolution mode. To find out more, read our guide to pixel binning and smartphone sensor technology.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Lenses
Most high-end smartphones these days feature at least three lenses, with even mid-range options having two or three lenses on the back.
What that usually means is that you get a “standard” lens, as well as an ultra-wide, and often at least one telephoto (zoom) lens. This gives you a good degree of flexibility to capture images in a variety of different focal lengths. Many of the mid-range and cheaper smartphones plump for a wide and super-wide angle only.
When it comes to “real” cameras, compact cameras will have one lens, but usually this is an optical zoom lens which covers a variety of different focal lengths (though you won’t usually get an ultra-wide, not without some kind of converter).
DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses, meaning there’s dozens of different options available, depending on what you like to shoot. Some lenses are fixed or “prime” lenses, meaning they have just one focal length. Others are zoom lenses, giving you the option to use a variety of different focal lengths.
This can mean you end up with a whole bag full of different lenses, which is of course less convenient than shooting with your phone – but with much higher image quality. There are also some “all-in-one” or “superzoom” lenses which are useful for travelling light.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Ease of Use
Many prefer the tactility of a “proper” camera, with dials and buttons giving you direct access to settings and the like. There’s also something to be said for pushing a physical shutter release – for many it makes them feel more like “photographers”.
By contrast, a smartphone camera usually is controlled by on-screen buttons and menu selections. Many smartphones will allow you to use a physical button for the shutter release, but of course there’s no grip or chunky body to get your hands around.
Another thing worth considering is manual control. Some smartphones have this capability within their native apps, meaning you can change settings such as ISO, shutter speed and so on. Some smartphones, such as Google and Apple phones, don’t have this capability directly within the native camera app, but you can download additional apps to give you that functionality.
Most dedicated cameras have semi-automatic and manual controls, giving you even greater scope to change any setting you want to. It’s worth remembering however that for many, the simplicity of a smartphone’s operation will be appealing too.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Screens and Viewfinders
With smartphones, it’s generally all about the screen – as that’s how you’ll operate most of its functions. Screens on high-end smartphones are incredibly good now, with ultra-high resolutions and brightness. Although this doesn’t apply to every phone, often they’re also tough as they’ll use materials such as Gorilla Glass – manufacturers have become all too aware how easy it is to drop a smartphone.
By contrast, screens on digital cameras are a different beast altogether. While resolutions have been creeping up over the years, it’s unlikely you’ll find a camera screen which matches the resolution of a mid-range or high-end smartphone. That said, the screens are generally much smaller (3 or 3.2-inches is the standard), so it won’t be as noticeable.
Some cameras have fixed screens, which is not particularly helpful if you want to shoot selfies and video content. Then again, with smartphones, the only way you can do that is by switching to the front-facing camera, which is generally not as good as the rear-facing camera. Many cameras have tilting or articulating screens, meaning you can face them forward when photographing or videoing yourself – making them ideal for content creators.
On top of that, many cameras also feature an in-built viewfinder, which many find preferable to shooting through. Electronic viewfinders have seriously improved over the last ten years, too, so there’s no longer such a battle between optical and electronic devices.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Size
The best travel cameras will be those that offer you a good degree of flexibility that exceeds the quality of your smartphone. You can now get excellent (relatively) small cameras, which make great travel companions without having to compromise too much on image quality. Even some modern full-frame cameras are surprisingly small.
That said, there is no getting away from the fact that smartphones are much more pocket-friendly. Especially since you’ll be carrying a smartphone regardless, if travelling as light as possible is the top priority, smartphones are the obvious winner.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Video
Smartphones are great tools for capturing video, mainly due to their simplicity and with a range of tools readily available to create certain types of video – such as time-lapse, slow-motion and so on. Lots of smartphones even offer video editing as a native app, and there’s hundreds of apps you can download to also do that job for you.
Most modern smartphones offer 4K video shooting as standard, with some, such as the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra even offering 8K video recording capability.
Digital cameras are also excellent for video, but as a rule perhaps require a little bit more specialist knowledge to get the best from them. You will almost certainly need a third-party video editor to work with your footage.
Again, most modern digital cameras offer 4K as standard, with 8K available on some models, such as the Canon EOS R5. Take a look at our guide to the best cameras for video, vlogging and videography for more information.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Connectivity
Almost all modern cameras have inbuilt Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, meaning you can connect them up to your smartphone for quick sharing of your images online or via email and the like. Some are easy to use and transfer images, while others are frustratingly fiddly and don’t always work the first time.
That’s simply not a problem for the smartphone, which of course has the connection baked right in. If you’re a social sharer, there’s no quicker way than shooting on your smartphone and sharing straightaway.
If you’re somebody that prefers to get home, edit their pictures and take their time – it’s less of a concern.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Price
Price is a bit of a tricky one, as is considering value for money. Both smartphones and cameras are available at a range of price points, with some more affordable than others.
High-end smartphones can cost in excess of £1000/$1000, but you do of course get more than a camera for your money. By contrast, some digital cameras can be picked up cheap as chips (especially second hand), but it’s also equally true that some cameras can cost many thousands of pounds/dollars.
While it’s true that the smartphone offers the most flexibility, and arguably therefore the best value for money. Again, it’s likely you’re going to need a smartphone whatever you do, so if you’re buying one anyway, it might be worth getting the best smartphone for photography. However, it’s also true that you could buy yourself a low-priced smartphone and invest the money you save on better camera gear.
Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Which is better?
Some questions in life are harder to answer than others. Smartphones are great, so are digital cameras – but the answer to which is better for photography is subjective and will depend on a variety of factors.
It’s safe to say that – for now at least – the digital camera – or at least the best cameras for photography – are still king when it comes to image quality. However, there’s no getting around the fact that the smartphone is best for those who don’t want to be weighed down with heavy and cumbersome gear.
Digital cameras give you more flexibility when it comes to lenses and accessories, but smartphones are much better for quickly sharing your images and video online.
In deciding which is best for you, you’ll need to decide which factor is most important for you. For the average photographer, it’s a fair assumption that a dedicated camera is still what you need. For those who are more casual snappers, the smartphone likely serves their needs perfectly well.
Featured image credit: Marco Xu and Victor Larracuente via Unsplash.