Putting the iPhone Camera to the Test – Compared to a DSLR

Recently I attended an event that I didn’t expect to be anything more than something I had to go to because it was expected. It turned out to be much more fun than anticipated and I started wishing I had brought my camera with me. Since I didn’t I took out my iPhone and started shooting away. To my surprise, some of the images were quite good.

This experience got me to thinking about the iPhone as a camera in ways I hadn’t thought about it before. I know people that believe that the iPhone is a great camera and they wouldn’t have any other while other people I know scoff at the idea of the iPhone being a “serious” camera.

I have a DSLR that I use for most photo opportunities so I decided to compare the two for myself. As luck would have it, at about the same time I was given this opportunity to write a series of articles generally talking about putting the iPhone as a camera to the test. This is part one where I compare and contrast the two types of cameras to emphasize the strengths and limitations of the iPhone camera.

In some ways, comparing the camera in the iPhone 4 to a high end DSLR is like comparing a hamburger from the local pub to an 18 oz. porterhouse from Peter Luger’s Steak House in New York. Yet, the hamburger is pretty darned good and most people eat hamburgers more often than they do expensive prime grade steaks. A comparison of this nature is unfair to the iPhone. It’s not designed to compete with a DSLR and to expect it to compete at that level is unrealistic. However, it is a camera, among other things, and we compare cameras of different levels all the time.

Limitations of the iPhone

Snowy Egret

You can’t take a photo like this one with an iPhone for a number of reasons, the main two are the focal length of the lens and the sensor size. This image was captured using a Canon 7D and a 300mm telephoto lens. The iPhone sensor is miniscule compared to the 7D’s sensor and the lens on the iPhone is equivalent to a 28mm wide angle lens on a 35mm camera or possibly a 45mm on the 7D. Of course, most people wouldn’t try to take a photo like this with an iPhone.

The image was also cropped so that the bird was the dominant part of the image. Because of the small sensor size of the iPhone, cropping an iPhone image to show the bird as large as in this photo would result in so much noise in the image that it would be rendered unusable.

Now that you have an idea what I’m talking about when I mention limitations of the iPhone when compared to a DSLR, I’ll list all the ones I can think of.

1. No interchangeable lenses
2. The user can’t control/adjust the shutter speed
3. The user can’t control/adjust the aperture setting
4. Small sensor limits the ability to produce quality prints larger than 8X10
5. Image quality degrades in low-light situations
6. Only 5 megapixels
7. No on-camera white balance control

Because the lens is a fixed focal length lens, the only way you can “frame” the photograph before taking it is to move closer to or farther away from the subject. To be fair, the iPhone4 has a 5x digital zoom slider. However, if you use a digital zoom you will lose image quality. You would probably achieve better results by not using the digital zoom when taking the photo and cropping the image in any number of image processing software products like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, iPhoto, etc.

Like many smart phones, the lens has a fixed aperture of f/2.8 which fixes the depth of field. However, the iPhone automatically adjusts the shutter speed and ISO to get the best exposure. Tests have indicated that the ISO can range from 80 to as high as 1000 and the shutter speed can vary from a low of 1/15 of a second to a high of 1/1000 of a second.

Most point and shoot cameras have the same limitations except a majority of them now have more than 5 megapixels. Granted image quality (IQ to us photography geeks) isn’t solely dependent on the number of megapixels and the size of the megapixels is important, but a higher number of megapixels is one indication of potential IQ of a camera, so don’t expect the iPhone to perform as well as the higher end P&S cameras.

Advantages of the iPhone

Portability is one of the iPhones greatest advantages. I always have my iPhone with me. It easily fits in my pocket and if I want to take a photo it’s extremely easy to use.

The iPhone is a consummate multi-tasker. Ten years ago you would see people that carried a pager, a PDA, a cell phone and if they wanted to take photos they also carried a camera of some type. The iPhone, and other smart phones, take the place of all those gadgets and they do a much better job.

The iPhone is much less intrusive than a DSLR. Imagine going out to dinner with a group of friends and pulling out a DSLR with an external flash attached. It’s overkill for the kind of photos you’ll be taking and you’ll more than likely attract attention from everyone else in the restaurant. If you’re taking photos with your iPhone, most people won’t even notice. Cell/smart phone cameras have become so ubiquitous that people tend to ignore them which can facilitate great candid shot opportunities.

You can take a photo with the iPhone and immediately email it to someone. Try that with a DSLR or P&S cameras. I took these two photos at a whisky tasting I was attending so I could send them to a friend, mostly to make him envious. I sent them as a text and received confirmation via return text message that they had the desired effect within minutes after taking the photos.

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009

When you’re not trying to exceed it’s capabilities it actually takes good, clear photos. Frankly, 5 megapixels isn’t something to scoff at especially given the physical size of the iPhone’s sensor. Here are a number of photos taken with iPhones where you can easily see that there are users out there taking very good images with the iPhone.

Boats at Spadina Quay

iPhone 4 portrait of Emma

[iPhone] Don't fall in..

[iPhone] Sunset over Glen Garry, New Year's Day 2010

Day43

Howth sunrise

I believe that these images show that a lot of people are producing very good quality images using their iPhone. What is also interesting is how the various apps and available gadgets are being used to create various effects with the iPhone. I’ll talk about those in the next article.

Photo credits:
Snowy Egret by Steve_Russell_Photography on Flickr
Glass of Scotch by Steve Russell on Flickr
Five Glasses of Scotch by Steve Russell on Flickr
Boats at Spadina Quay by fortinbras on Flickr Commons
Emma by JaredEarle on Flickr Commons
Don’t fall in… by slynkycat on Flickr Commons
Sunset over Glen Garry by slynkycat on Flickr Commons
Day 43 byyuki on Flickr Commons
Howth Sunrise by Damo B on Flickr Commons

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