Phone Camera or Proper DSLR* Camera?

Which camera do you need?

It really depends on what you want to do with it.  Snapshots for Instagram or something more comprehensive and original.

With the advances in phone cameras, people use their DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex *see end of article for full description) cameras less and less.  Small carry around digital cameras, a thing of the past, are pretty much invisible these days.  

I’m not going to argue whether the Samsung phone camera is so much better than the iPhone, as good as they both are, they still don’t come close to competing with my Nikon or my son’s Canon.  

One of the biggest benefit of your phone camera is convenience.  You always have it with you anyway.  And it takes pretty good photos if you know what you are doing.  

It all really depends on the quality of photo you want to have. If you really want to learn photography, shooting with just a phone camera is going to hinder you.  Even an entry level DSLR will gives you much more functionality than your phone camera.

Some of the drawbacks of a phone camera:

1. The lens Quality. When light passes through a lens, you want as little distortion as possible.  Companies like Nikon, Tamron, Cannon, Lieca (and many others) that create lenses for DSLRs, spend millions on research perfecting and making the glass in the lens of such a high quality that there is minimal distortion.  

Many camera lenses on phones are made of plastic instead of glass, which in no way, shape or form will compare to even a low quality glass lens. 

2. The lens Size.  The amount of light that passes through a real camera lens is a hundred times what will pass through a phone camera lens.  So, the sheer magnitude of data that gets to the sensor and recorded is immense on a ‘real’ camera compared to your Samsung or iPhone.  Big window in a room, lots of light, small window, very little light.  

As a result, of these two factors, with a DSLR and the quality and volume of data, you will have much more to work with in your image.  Take for example shooting outside on a very bright day.  With your phone camera, you will have a little play in improving the image, but not much. On the other hand, with what is called a RAW image from the digital camera, you will be able to see the detail in both the very light and very dark parts of the image.  And you can adjust the image so that you can see both at the same time!

In low light, your phone camera will show the photo but hugely degraded quality.

It has been said the RAW images, in that state are kinda dull.  True to some extent, but a very small tweak here and there makes it pop.  A  RAW image is not designed to be a final view.  There is so much more information to work with. You can be a little or a lot more creative.

One of the things that I love, in working with RAW images, is editing in black and white.  I used to do a fair bit of darkroom processing of my photos.  Printing black and white.  That was really magical.  Using Adobe's Lightroom editing program, there are these sliders for each colour, yes, even in black & white, that you can use to adjust areas of your photo.  For example, you have a scenic shot, you can adjust the greens of the trees, again, yes, in black & white!  Adjust the sky the way you want by adjusting the blue.  You will be amazed at the adjustments that you can work with even in a black and white image.

The ‘how-tos’ of processing is not the point of this article but the fact that you have much more flexibility is.  You can be so much more creative.   

But before you can process the photos, you have to have something decent to work with.  

With your Nikon or Canon or whatever, you can capture amazingly high quality images even in very low light.  There is a bit of learning curve but most of these techniques are fairly simple and easily learned with a bit of practice.  

Speed, Aperature and Sensitivity

These three factors can improve your creativity greatly.  


First of all sensitivity, which is the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) setting on your camera.  This term is a carryover from film.  It was basically a measurement of how sensitive to light a certain film was.  The higher the number, 100, 200, 400, 800 and up the more light would be allowed. So, you could basically shoot in much darker environment with an 800 ISO film than you could with a 100 ISO.  The problem, though, it was necessary that each piece of pigment that reacted to the light was larger to make it effective.  So the more sensitive film, the grainier the final photo.  

This translates similarly to the sensor in your digital camera. Even though you can still get a pretty good photo when it is darker using an 800 or 1600 ISO, the photo will be grainier.  

The wonderful thing about digital is that you don’t have to change your film every time the light changes, which you had to do with film.  Sun goes down or you go inside, you can still get some pretty decent photos by first pressing a button, moving a dial and then you are all set.  

Speed Setting

By adjusting the speed you can freeze or blur action.  You have all seen the photo of the river rapids blurred smooth.  That is someone setting their camera on a tripod and using a slow speed on their camera.  

You do have to have a balance between the speed and aperture though.  If you slow the speed to let more light in, you will have to make the aperture smaller otherwise too much light will come in and over expose the image.  

Aperture Size

The larger the number the smaller the hole or aperture.  This is because they were originally meant to be fractions.  1/16, 1/8, 1/2, etc.  So now, you just see the numbers without the ‘1’ on top: 16, 8, 2, etc.  The size of the aperture affects something called depth of field.  This will be what part of the image, front to back, is in focus.  Your phone camera will make everything in focus.  You cannot create a photo like the close up of the horse with an iPhone or Samsung.  Well, you can go in and blur out certain parts of the photo afterwards but it looks very unnatural.  


So, for the photo of the horse, I would have used a wider aperture, maybe 1/4 or some such.  If you are shooting an outdoor scenic shot and you want everything in focus from amsterdam bicyclefront to back, you would likely shoot 1/16.  Or as small as possible depending possible depending on the amount of light.  This next photo of the Amsterdam canal was shot with a narrow aperture allowing most of the photo to be sharp.


So you see that is all about balancing the three: Speed, Aperture and Sensitivity  (ISO).  If you are shooting with a small aperture, you may have to slow the shutter speed down to allow more light in.  

You can make minor adjustments with your phone camera, generally, to adjust light or dark or focus on a particular area.  

So, for your real camera it brings us to the next step.  

Manual or Auto?

I will say here, and I may mention it once or twice more, when you are learning with your DSLR, shoot only in Manual.  It will slow you down at first but you will understand what your camera can do.  Some techniques you will never learn fully otherwise.

If you ever learned to touch type, you know that you had to force yourself to NOT look at the keyboard.  Same concept here.

Shooting in manual all the time forces you to actually learn.  You will make mistakes.  But you will learn to use your camera and understand how these three functions all work together.  There are many more aspects of your DSLR that you can learn but get to know how the speed, aperture and sensitivity work together, and go from there. 

You will need to edit your photos a bit to get the most out of them.  You DO NOT need PhotoShop.  You really don’t.  It is way beyond what you need for processing your photos.  

There are many different editing tools out there but the one you need is Adobe's Lightroom.  It is very easy to learn the basics with this program.  You load your photos and there are sliders on the right so you can start messing with your photos.  Keep it simple to start.  It is quite user friendly.  I’m not getting into the how to’s of Lightroom here as there are tons of videos out there.  I just want to stress that for processing or editing your photos please don’t feel you need Photoshop.  

So, if you really want to take a step up, or several steps up from your phone camera, you need a digital camera that shoots RAW and a basic copy of Lightroom.  


(* Definition of DSLR or Digital Single Lens Reflex.  This from

"‘DSLR’ stands for “Digital Single Lens Reflex” – a type of camera. The DSLR format provides the user with a direct view of the scene through the main lens. The viewer will therefore see the same scene the sensor captures."  There is a good photo on that page which shows light from the object reflecting from a mirror, through a prism to the viewing eye.  So, as a result, with a DSLR camera, you see what the camera sees.)

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