Who would have thought it! There was a time when smartphone cameras struggled to click good photos even in bright sunlight. But in the year 2016, we saw that some smartphones were such adapt shooters for their class and size and that they were so good that they almost matched big and bulky DSLR cameras. Phoned like the Google Pixel and the iPhone 7 Plus matched serious cameras, irrespective of the lighting conditions. In fact, good cameras made it possible for most people to shoot better images compared to what they will get with complex DSLR camera. In low light, for example Pixel or the Galaxy S7, took care of the ISO settings or exposure automatically and gave images that most people may not be able to click with a regular DSLR camera and lens.
There are still areas where DSLR cameras lead — I will talk about them in a while — but overall it is easy to see that in good light, purely from usability perspective, we saw phones in 2016 that clicked images that were as good as what you could manage from a DSLR camera. There were a number of phones that proved capable shooters. But of all, the five came closest to proper cameras and these five were: Google Pixel, iPhone 7 Plus, Galaxy S7, Google Nexus 6P and OnePlus 3.
Starting with the Nexus 4, Google started putting special emphasis on the camera performance of the phones it was selling under its banner. But the Nexus 4 had too many inherent weaknesses so it failed on the camera front. The Nexus 5, however, was so much better. But it was inconsistent. Then in 2015 came the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P, two phones with huge image sensor (IMPX 377) inside them. This made them spectacular shooters when used with some care. But the software was still not up there. With the Pixel and the Pixel XL, Google largely fixes the software part too. Just like the Nexus phones of 2015, The Pixels have a large image sensor (IMX378) inside them. This gives them ability to capture more data while clicking images. This in turn makes them a superstar in low light and when it comes to capturing vibrant colours.
The software features, meanwhile, mean that these phones handle the dynamic light in a fantastic way. They also get white balance right, the HDR mode is faster than it was in the Nexus phones, and the software-based image stabilisation works wonders. The Pixel phones are one of the best shooters right now in the market. Sure, they also have the same problems that afflict other smartphone cameras. But yet with good hardware — the large sensor, a big F2.0 lens — and good software, they are excellent cameras for street and everyday shooting.
iPhone 7 Plus
The iPhone 7 Plus doesn’t have that big of an image sensor. But what it lacks in size, it makes up by employing certain tricks in software and hardware. This is the only phone, other than those oversized camera phones launched by Samsung and Asus, that offer optical zoom. This the iPhone 7 Plus does by giving consumers option to use a 56mm lens, which sits beside its main image sensor. Although the low light performance of this 56mm lens — it’s so close to nifty fifty that DSLR shooters love — is not that great, in good light this lens clicks fantastic images. Then there are tricks like the portrait mode, which uses machine learning to click images with creamy bokeh aka blurred background.
Finally, there is Apple’s flawless camera software. It always gets white balance and exposure right to give images contrast colours that are absolutely top notch. Also, the good software and fast image processor inside the iPhone 7 Plus ensures that the phone clicks images quickly, with minimal shutter lag and without heating.
The Galaxy S7 has an image sensor that is not as big as what you get in the Pixel, but it is also not small like the one in the iPhone 7 Plus. This sensor is combined with Samsung’s good camera software and an excellent F1.7 lens. The result is that the Galaxy S7 is not only a great shooter in good light but also one of the best in low light, all thanks to its extremely bright lens. Then there is the manual mode in the phone, which helps users control some of the key areas like ISO and shutter speed for better images.
Google Nexus 6P
Although Pixel is supposed to have a superior camera compared to Google’s earlier phone Nexus 6P , it is not necessarily true. The two phones are quite close to each other when it comes to clicking photos. In fact, the Nexus 6P even shows stronger performance when the light is very dynamic, for example during sunset. The reason why the Nexus 6P is so good with clicking images has to do with its excellent IMX 377 sensor. The IMX 378 in the Pixel is just an iteration of this sensor. The IMX 377 has these big pixels, which help the Nexus 6P click wonderfully detailed images, even in low light.
The OnePlus 3 is similar to Galaxy S7. It’s an all-rounder and an excellent shooter in all conditions, despite its lower price compared to the other phones here. The phone has a decent-sized sensor and a good F2.0 lens. But the magic with the OnePlus 3 happens in the software. It is a phone with one of the most accurate cameras that I have used. It gets the white balance right almost always. It gets the exposure right. It tries to preserve the detail and yet provide enough amount of pop into the images to make them look good. And in low light, it errs on the side of preserving details and getting the contrast right instead of blowing up the highlights and brightening the image unnatural, the way phones tend to do. Top class stuff this.
Advantage DSLR cameras
If any DSLR camera lovers are reading this article I have a feeling that by now they must be thinking that writer here is a dolt. May be. Although, I also love to click pictures, have a DSLR camera and when I want absolute best results, I do take out that big shooter out of the bag. But of late, I have also seen that most of the time if I am using one of the phones mentioned here, they do a fine job even if the fine job is not the best job.
To ensure that this article does send a wrong message, I do want to talk about the best job. If you want absolute top class photos, a nice DSLR camera along with a top quality lens is still the combination you want. There are some advantages that DSLR cameras continue to enjoy over the phones. These are:
— If you want the best quality details in your photos, pick a DSLR camera and a nice lens. Then shoot RAW. Then edit them in an app like Lightroom or Photoshop.
— If you want the best quality dynamic light, and micro-contrast, as the photographers call it, there is no beating a DSLR camera and a good lens. This means, for photos that looks very artistic with cool light effects and breathtaking colours, you will have to shoot with a DSLR camera in RAW and then use an image editing tool.
— If you are shooting wildlife or birds, there is no beating a DSLR camera and a good quality telephoto lens. Only such combo has the reach and speed to capture a running Cheetah in frame.
— If you are clicking hyperactive kids, a speedy DSLR is your only option. The same goes for pets, unless your dog or cat is sleeping or is still.
— If you want absolutely best images in low light, there is no beating a modern DSLR camera like the Canon 5D Mark IV, which can shoot absolutely clean images even at 24000 ISO.
— If you are shooting sports, there is no beating a DSLR camera and good, sharp lens.
But with all this said, it is also clear that all of these scenarios where DSLR cameras still hold advantage are niche cases. For everyday shooting, for street photography, even for clicking pictures during a travel, the iPhone 7 Plus or the Google Pixel do a mighty job, giving you photos that are pretty close to what you will get with a DSLR camera.