Amy Davies aims to settle the question once and for all: smartphone vs digital camera. Which is better for photographers and videographers?

Smartphone photography has radically transformed over the past decade. Phone cameras have gone rapidly from being an interesting novelty, to a convenient tool, to a fully-fledged means of artistic expression. There are plenty of professional content creators who exclusively use smartphones for their photos and videos, and frankly, it’s pretty easy to see why. At AP we run a regular smartphone photography spotlight feature, and it’s a joy to see the incredible images the community is capturing using the devices in their pockets.

The digital camera industry has been scrambling to react to the smartphone boom from the moment it happened. We’ve seen a fair few false starts and blind alleys (anyone remember Sony’s QX cameras from 2013, the ones designed to be physically attached to the back of your phone? No? Just us?) and things have ultimately settled in a shaky truce. Smartphones are recognised as the cameras of convenience – they’re small, they’re light, you always have one on you, making them ideal for street photography. Digital cameras, meanwhile, are recognised as the quality option, with bigger sensors and the option to change lenses, hence why you’d use likely one for professional portrait photography.

However, while the smartphone has effectively killed off the basic compact camera market, the same isn’t quite happening at the other end, because the quality of smartphone cameras is getting higher and higher. Our regularly updated list of the best smartphones for photography includes phones with 200MP cameras, with support for RAW format shooting, with the ability to shoot 8K video and more. With all these cutting-edge features on the top-end phones, is there a place anymore for the digital camera?

iPhone 14 Pro, Night mode.

An image taken using the iPhone 14 Pro, Night mode. Even a few short years ago, the idea of getting a night image this clear using a smartphone felt unthinkable. Photo credit: Amy Davies

In this guide, we’re going to find out. We’re running through the pros and cons of shooting with a smartphone vs shooting with a dedicated digital camera like one of the best mirrorless cameras or best DSLRs. We’re going to be completely fair and impartial in our judgement – at AP we care about the photograph, not what it was taken on – and if you’re struggling to decide whether to upgrade from your phone to a full system camera, hopefully this guide will help you.

Let’s run through the key strengths and weaknesses of smartphones and cameras as we aim to settle the question: smartphone vs digital camera: which is better?

Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Sensors

Panasonic Lumix S5II sensor

A look at the full-frame sensor in a recent popular hybrid photo/video camera, the Panasonic Lumix S5 II. Photo credit: Andy Westlake

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.

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra now boasts the world's most effective imaging sensor in a smartphone

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is described as having one of the world’s most effective imaging sensors in a smartphone.

Smartphone sensors are, of course, improving. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra, announced last year, sports the largest sensor ever seen in a smartphone, a 1-inch type sensor of the kind you’d previously have only seen in mid-range and premium compact cameras like the Sony RX100 series. Though to put it in perspective, this is still a significantly smaller sensor than you’d find in any system camera – full-frame, APS-C and Four Thirds sensors all have more surface area.

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.

Winner: Camera

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. However, the current kings of the hill are the Samsung S23 Ultra and the Xiaomi 12T Pro, both of which sport sensors bearing a whopping 200 megapixels of resolution.

Taken with the main wide camera on the Xiaomi 12T Pro using the night mode.

An image taken with the main 200MP wide camera on the Xiaomi 12T Pro, using the night mode. Photo credit: Joshua Waller

Does a smartphone need 200MP of resolution? No, not particularly, and they’re generally not going to be used to shoot 200MP images. The main advantage of these skyrocketing pixel counts is pixel-binning –combining the data from multiple pixels into one in order to simulate the larger pixels that bigger sensors have, improving performance in low light (read our explainer, what is pixel binning, if you need some help getting your head around it).

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 or plan to print your images. These are usually found in expensive, professional-level cameras, such as the Sony Alpha A7R IV and Sony A7R V, both of which have a 61-megapixel sensor. The form factor of a camera makes them easier to wield at these high resolutions and still get sharp shots, and they tend to come with features like high-speed card slots designed to handle the large volumes of data created by shooting these large files.

Winner: Draw

Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Lenses

Most high-end smartphones these days feature at least three lenses, with quad-lens arrays currently the standard on flagship models. Even mid-range options will generally have two or three lenses on the back.

Samsung S23 Ultra vs Samsung S22 Ultra side by side

A look at the comprehensive camera arrays on Samsung’s last two flagship phones, the S23 and S22 Ultras. Photo credit: Amy Davies.

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.

There’s also an array of specialist optics, such as those which are good for shooting close-up images (macro lens), ultra-wide angles, tilt-shift lenses, and so on.

smartphone vs digital camera Sony Alpha A7R IV with third-party lenses

DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses, meaning there’s dozens of different options available, depending on what you like to shoot. Photo credit: Andy Westlake.

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.

Winner: Camera

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”.

smartphone vs digital camera Fujifilm X-T4 ISO / Shutter speed dials, Andy Westlake

Many prefer the tactility of a “proper” camera, with dials and buttons giving you direct access to settings and the like.  Photo credit: Andy Westlake

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.

Winner: Camera

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.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra

We’re all familiar with a smartphone display at this point. Photo credit: Amy Davies

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.

Canon EOS R3 viewfinder

An articulating screen, like this example on the Canon EOS R3, can be hugely useful for vlogging or for shooting from unusual angles. Photo credit: Andy Westlake

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.

Canon EOS R6 Mark II viewfinder

A close look at the electronic viewfinder on the Canon EOS R6 Mark II. Photo credit: Andy Westlake

Winner: Draw

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.

A hand holding the Sigma fp black camera

The Sigma fp L is a full-frame camera that fits in the palm of a hand. Photo credit: Andy Westlake

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.

iPhone 14 Pro

The iPhone 14 Pro being held in hand. Photo credit: Amy Davies.

Winner: Smartphone

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 and Samsung Galaxy S23 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.

Canon EOS R5

The Canon EOS R5 is a benchmark for modern video quality. Photo credit: Michael Topham.

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.

Winner: Draw

Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Convenience

One of the oldest adages in photography is that the best camera is the one you have on you. As such, you can see the innate of advantage of a camera that you’re pretty much guaranteed to always have on you – and have immediately accessible. Inspiration to shoot can hit at any time, as can the perfect light, and even if you’re someone who’d always rather use your camera, a smartphone shot is invariably better than no shot at all.

Of course, smartphones don’t have it all completely their own way. There are some advantages to having a device that’s dedicated to shooting and shooting only – you’re never going to run down your camera’s battery by watching YouTube or scrolling TikTok. Overall, however, there’s a lot to be said for a high-quality camera that slips into a pocket.

Winner: Smartphone

Smartphone vs Digital Camera: Connectivity

Almost all modern cameras have in-built 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 social media. 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. And if you want a camera so you can email and share pictures straight away, then a smartphone is your best choice.

If you’re somebody that prefers to get home, edit their pictures and take their time – it’s less of a concern.

Winner: Smartphone

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.

Winner: Smartphone

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.

Related articles:

Follow AP on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.