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DSLR Vs. iPhone — Fight!

So I recently bought my first ‘proper’ camera: A Canon 550D and it is a joyous, wondrous thing, but my love of photography has only really developed since I’ve had an iPhone.

My first ‘Hey this is kind of cool’ moment actually occurred with my Nokia N95, which had a Carl Zeiss lens and took photos well enough to pique my interest. I started a Flickr account and joined a few groups.

Then came the iPhone. Like a lot of people I got interested in faux Lomography via Hipstamatic. I loved the immediacy and quirky outcome.

Next came Instagram, which changed everything. Like a combination of Flickr, Twitter and Hipstamatic, it made me want to go out and take photos. The 3GS gave way to the 4S and with the jump in quality, my interest increased exponentially.

So now here we are — a proud owner of an iPhone 4S (and an Olloclip,) AND a Canon 550D, but which is better? Sounds like a silly question doesn’t it? Fair enough, I’ll get my coat …
BUT WAIT! Let’s take a look anyway:

They say the best camera is the one you always have with you, so the iPhone wins.

Ok? Go home. Nothing to see here.

More detail? Sheesh, fine.

Round One — Quality
Let’s get this one out of the way straight off. The iPhone doesn’t really stand a chance here. Despite being phenomenal quality for a camera phone, with improved lenses, better sensor and 8Mp, the DSLR is always going to take the iPhone out behind the school, slap it, and take its lunch money. Better optics, better sensors, and in the 550D‘s case, 18Mp, means it trounces the iPhone in this category.

Result: DSLR wins, hands down. As good as the camera in the 4S is, it can’t hope to compete.

Round Two —Versatility

Difficult round this one. Obviously the DSLR is more adept at handling different lighting conditions and has a wealth of lenses available to cope with everything from wide angle landscapes, close up portraits, long range telephotos to fisheyes and everything in between. Add to that the vast array of flashes, tripods, remote release hardware and all the other gadgets – well, you’ve got a pretty versatile setup, providing you’ve got the cash.

On the other hand the iPhone is available at around the same price as I paid for my Canon 550D (SIM free,) and you can kit that out pretty cheaply. It also has a stock of accessories, including my personal recommendation of the Olloclip, which is 3 lenses built into 1; a wide angle lens, a fisheye and an amazing macro lens, of about f/1 or so, giving you amazingly shallow depth of field.

Of course the iPhone’s biggest advantage in this field is it’s extensibility via apps, of which there are no shortage of for the iPhone’s camera; from instant ‘in-camera’ effects like Hipstamatic or Powercam, through easy click-to-coolify post-processing apps like Swankolab, Camera + or Snapseed, to ones for more advanced users like 645 Pro, Filterstorm (more on that in another post,) and The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This allows for image editing on the fly whilst out and about, (I do a lot of my edits for Instagram on the train to/from work,) as well as an almost unlimited amount of styles and looks.

Also, although it’s a bit unfair to include this in a photography test, the iPhone is also a phone, a portable games console, a PDA, internet device & lots of other things besides.

Round Three — Portability

The Canon comes with a neck strap, making it easy to carry around with you, depending on the lens you have mounted. I also bought a pouch for mine, keeping it safe and hoistable over one shoulder.

The iPhone fits in a pocket.

Result: The iPhone, being smaller and lighter, wins this one.

Round Four — Ease Of Use

Again, another difficult round, but more due to the unfairness of it.

On the one hand we have a device made by a company that prides itself on innovative, intuitive interfaces so simple and transparent, that people who have never seen one before can pick it up and use it.

On the other hand, we have a company that also makes photocopiers and printers. Such items not being traditionally known as paragons of user interface design:

Office Space printer scene

Smash it!

To be fair, the DSLR has a lot more going on. It’s taken me some time to get used to changing a load of settings before firing a shot and I usually forget and start shooting with the white balance off, or the autofocus in AI Servo mode or something. There is a quick settings change button and I’m starting to use that a lot but there’s still a load of buttons, a menu system, a scroll wheel and the half depress of the shutter button to remember when composing shots.

With the iPhone, I tap to focus. If I’m being particularly creative, I tap and hold to lock the focus and exposure. If I’m being REALLY creative I’ll use 645 Pro app to have the power to lock the exposure, white balance and focus separately, as well as have the choice between evaluative and spot metering and have a live, onscreen histogram giving me feedback as I shoot. Of course, at that point, I almost might as well use the DSLR.

The bottom line is that although the DSLR comes with an easy-to-snap full auto mode, if you buy one and only use that, you’ve wasted your money.

Result: With great power, comes a great big manual on how to use it.

Round Five — Ease Of Sharing

Many of the apps mentioned previously on the iPhone contain easy sharing, either through a native app or often including sharing to other apps/services like Instagram, Flickr, 500px and Facebook. If you want to, you can take a pic, edit it and share it online in about 2 minutes with 3 or so taps.

Sharing photos from my Canon 550D involves plugging it in to my Macbook Pro, importing the images into iPhoto or Aperture, then editing them in either Aperture or opening them in Adobe Bridge, then Camera Raw, then Photoshop to export to a jpg of reasonable size, then importing them back into iPhoto and synching my iPhone to get the new pics onto it, THEN using the same simple processes on my iPhone to share them. Basically, a lot more work.

(Edit – I now tend to use Apple’s Aperture for collecting my photos into one library, which not only has some sharing options built in, but also allows me to edit non destructively as well as externally in Photoshop if I wish, before bringing the edited version back into Aperture.)

My camera does purport to support Eye-Fi, allowing wireless sync of images to my computer or “Upload them to an online service via wireless LAN”, but does not guarantee to be able to support all functions and doesn’t say how to upload directly online or which services support it. For all I know it would still be a case of synching to my computer, then using the Flickr uploader or iTunes to my phone again.

Result: The iPhone’s apps take the red tape here.


It’s pretty simple really. If you want a phone that can take pictures and a lot more besides, an iPhone is a good investment. It can be a great inroad to photography, as I’ve found. Having a single, static lens is like having a prime lens – if you want to reframe your shot, you need to move because you can’t zoom in. (Digital zoom is about interpolation of pixels – essentially zooming in to the little coloured squares you already have, so resolution suffers, unlike with optical zoom,) You can experiment with apps for lots of different looks and with iOS 5.1 it’s easier than ever to go from lock screen to photo. It’s lightweight, you generally have it on you and it is capable of taking interesting and creative photos and editing them all on the same device.

However, if you want more control over your settings and therefore how your shots come out and also high quality, then a DSLR is a no-brainer.

  • Fen on May 21, 2012

    Get yourself a good prime lens for the DSLR – a 50mm or something. I adore my prime lens, it takes brilliant photos. I was into photography before cameras on phone came along, so a proper camera wins hands down for me. I recently acquired an SLR. I need to get it cleaned up and get some film for it and see what I can do!

    • Narshada on May 23, 2012

      50mm f/1.8 is next on the cards, but at £80-£95, I can’t afford it right now. Hopefully soon.

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