Can an iPhone camera match a DSLR?

Full disclosure, I love my DSLR.  I use a Canon EOS 60D most of the time and edit my photos in Lightroom and/or Photoshop.  But the 60D with an 18-200 mm lens weighs almost 3 pounds and is approximately 6 inches long.  It’s not going to be in my pocket when I’m dashing through an airport, spending time with friends, or walking the dog.  But my sturdy little iPhone SE will be!  For those who don’t know, the latest generation iPhone SE has almost the same camera as the iPhone 6, although the aperture on the SE is not quite as small as the 6.

The iPhone vs DSLR Test Photo

Since I enjoy iPhone photography, I decided to put the iPhone camera to the test and do a side-by-side comparison.  To keep the test fair, I focused on aspects both cameras can control similarly in automatic mode, specifically light metering and exposure.  I also tested the free iPhone camera photo editing app, Snapseed, against Lightroom.  I didn’t try a test that requires manual control of the camera’s shutter speed, fstop/aperture, or zoom, since the iPhone can’t do that without specialized apps. 

On a bright but overcast day, I sought out a difficult photo, one that would give any light meter fits -- I snapped photos of a dark building against a white sky.

Unedited iPhone and DSLR photos

Here are the original, unedited photos.  iPhone photo first, DSLR second. 

Unedited iPhone SE photo of test scenario (dark building & white sky) - both the sky and building are incorrectly exposed.

Unedited iPhone SE photo of test scenario (dark building & white sky) - both the sky and building are incorrectly exposed.

Unedited DSLR photo of test scenario (dark building & white sky) - both the sky and building are incorrectly exposed.

Unedited DSLR photo of test scenario (dark building & white sky) - both the sky and building are incorrectly exposed.

The Results of the iPhone vs DSLR Test

Both cameras were used in full automatic mode.  The iPhone exposure erred on the side of the sky and the 60D did the opposite. They’re both bad photos – blown out sky, overly dark subject – neither is going to win you a photography award. But, the point is the DSLR and iPhone cameras struggled equally.  Neither was able to expose both the building and the sky correctly.

 

Editing iPhone and DSLR Photos: Snapseed vs Lightroom

Then I edited the photos.  The DSLR photo was edited with Lightroom and the iPhone photo with Snapseed.  In both scenarios, I used the brush capability to control the exposure of the building independent from the sky. And to keep the contest somewhat fair, I did a quick job in Lightroom, limiting myself to the functionality that Snapseed also includes.  Here are the edited photos, iPhone first. 

iPhone photo edited with Snapseed - exposure corrected to see detail in sky and building

iPhone photo edited with Snapseed - exposure corrected to see detail in sky and building

DSLR photo edited with Lightroom - exposure corrected in both building and sky

DSLR photo edited with Lightroom - exposure corrected in both building and sky

The Results of Editing Challenge: Snapseed vs Lightroom

Still neither is a great photo. Also, Snapseed gave me an odd yellow tinge to the photo, which I probably could have edited out if I had been willing to spend more than a minute on it, but I wasn’t.  However, in both cases I was able to get the building and the sky exposed so that I can see detail in both.  Snapseed did a pretty good job of holding its own against Lightroom! 

When Do you Need an DSLR?

That being said, I’m not about to give up on my Canon any time soon.  The level of creative control I can get from my DSLR, that I can’t from an iPhone, is significant.  The ability to select aperture and shutter speed allows me to create images that I could never get on an iPhone.  But, when it comes to snaps of friends and family an iPhone is going to give you a 90% solution. 

Also, if you plan to go on a safari, don't even consider taking an iPhone.  You'll need every millimeter of zoom that you can get out of your DSLR.  Finally, think about the final size of your images.  Do you only view your photos on a phone or tablet?  If so, the iPhone camera will be fine.  Any larger and you'll want a DSLR. 

The Final Conclusion?

Grab that iPhone with pride and come join me on a photography tour!

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