Phone-based photography has had a massive impact on the dedicated digital camera market. Buyers looking for cheap cameras often rely on the one they already own in their phone, which is great news for photography fans, as it means manufacturers of standalone cameras have focused extra attention on high-end specs.
For some savvy shooters, the most important specification when buying a new phone is the quality of the camera. But it’s still the case that digital cameras are in a class of their own when it comes to high quality photography. They offer hardware and controls that simply aren’t available in smartphone cameras.
These benefits aren’t worth it for everyone, but for photography lovers there are still reasons to splash out for a standalone camera. Here, we give you the three most important ones.
If you’re thinking of buying a bridge, DSLR, compact or mirrorless digital camera, make sure you get the best model for your budget – check out our expert digital camera reviews.
1. Dedicated digital cameras take better quality images — usually
There’s a fairly basic truth when it comes to cameras: dedicated cameras have bigger sensors which means they take better, crisper photos.
Mobile phones are small, thin, and need to dedicate processing power to a lot of non-photography functions. Cameras are packed full of hardware designed just for photography, and among their hardware is a sensor with a size that corresponds to the amount of photons it’s able to absorb.
High-end digital cameras use three different sensor formats, which are essentially three different shapes and sizes: full frame sensors, APS-C sensors, and micro four thirds sensors. Many compact cameras will have smaller sensor sizes than this, like 1-inch ones.
Mobile phones, for all their advances, do not have these sensors – these sensor formats are simply too big to fit and too expensive. With various different sensors that are a fraction of the size, their image quality is limited, especially in low-light.
You can compare common sensor sizes on our chart in camera sensor sizes explained.
What this means for your photos
A higher resolution image has more information in it, the building blocks of a digital picture. It can capture broad dynamic range of colours, intricate details, and crystal clear minutia.
You won’t always notice the difference when you’re looking at a phone screen, but blow your image up for a bigger display or even a print-out, and there’s a world of difference.
This is most obvious in challenging conditions. When light is scarce, quality takes a nosedive. Bigger sensors that can absorb as much of the limited light as possible will do better than small phone sensors.
But the biggest skill for any photographer is still composition. An incredible photo on a camera with a small sensor will still be better than a mundane photo captured in stunning resolution.
Find out which are the best photo album books on test.
2. Digital cameras let you preview your image at eye-level
Many DSLR, mirrorless and bridge cameras have a viewfinder – you can hold this tiny screen up to your eye and preview your picture before you snap.
This is an important compositional tool for photographers, especially when it comes to fast reflexes and small details. By using a viewfinder, the image fills your field of vision.
When you don’t have a viewfinder, like when you’re using a mobile phone, compact camera or budget mirrorless camera, you have to use the monitor of your device to preview the image.
This means holding the camera away from your body so you can see the screen and contorting into a position that keeps the camera steady but which gives you good vision of the preview.
When you do this, your preview’s only as good as your monitor. Our tests find that low quality monitors can become hard to see in daylight, don’t represent colours accurately on their screen, and refresh with the smallest of lag which can throw off your composition.
Find out more by reading optical vs electronic viewfinders.
3. DSLR and mirrorless cameras provide you with more lens options
Camera lenses are fairly big and they extend outwards, whereas phone lenses are tiny things usually locked behind tempered glass for protection, nearly flush to the body of the device.
Not every digital camera has lenses you can swap out. Only DSLR and mirrorless cameras allow you to do this, while bridge and compact cameras have lenses welded onto their bodies.
Swappable lenses gives you more control over your shot because they let you choose your preferred focal length. Depending on what you’re shooting, from broad vistas to human portraits to tiny still lives, you may want to use a different lens, or a good zoom lens that can alter between different focal length ranges, from wide to close-up.
For example, we just tested the Sony ZV-E10, which came bundled with a 16-50mm lens. As a zoom lens, it can extend or retract between these two focal lengths.
- At 16mm, it provides you with a shot that’s zoomed out so far it’s known as a ‘wide-angle’ shot. This lets you capture as much of the scene as possible.
- At the maximum 50mm focal length, the camera will give you a much tighter image that appears closer to the subject and which fills up the frame with the subject more. This is ideal for portrait photography.
With an interchangeable lens camera, you can customise this even more. For example, you could buy a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 100mm or even 200mm for an incredibly close shot.
This also means that an accident which destroys your lens doesn’t make your tech a write-off. Drop your camera on the cement with the lens jutting out and you can keep your beloved camera, as long as the lens is removable.
Looking for a camera with an interchangeable lens that won’t break the bank? Read our guide to the best cheap DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
Zooming with a phone camera and why you should be wary of digital zoom
You can’t properly customise lenses with a smartphone. Some, such as the iPhone 12 Pro, offer multiple fixed lenses – it gives you three cameras with 13mm, 26mm and 52mm lenses respectively.
Some phones don’t offer lenses longer than wide-angle options. For example, the OnePlus Nord 2 5G’s longest camera is just 24mm.
Smartphones offer zoom options that are different than extending the focal length – this is called digital zoom. It kicks in when the phone hits the maximum focal length it can reach and it starts to enlarge the image by cropping it.
You’ll feel like the subject is filling the frame, but you’ll be losing quality by the bucketful as your phone enlarges the image by cropping it and blowing it up. This works up to a point, thanks to post-processing tricks, but quality-loss is simply inevitable.
Zooming in by physically extending the lens, such as with the zoom lens on a digital camera, is known as optical zoom.
Manufacturers should make it clear what type of zoom they are talking about this when they publish specifications, so watch out for the distinction. An 8X magnification that sounds tantalising may rely entirely on digital zooming.
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Are digital cameras always better than phones?
The advantages that smartphone cameras have — their availability, ease of use and cheapness — are ideal for most people.
In fact, an astonishing amount of the photography we see in our day-to-day life, including on the internet and in newspapers, stem from humble camera phones. There have even been multiple covers of Vogue shot on mobile phones.
But remember there’s a huge variety between different camera phones, as much as there is between digital cameras. If you’re a keen shooter, check out the specs and make sure a prospective purchase is proven to perform well in rigorous tests.
Find a mobile phone with a great camera — and software support that will keep your tech safe for years to come — by reading our mobile phone reviews.
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We’ve just reviewed two mirrorless cameras fresh from our test lab. Read our expert reviews to see how they performed when we tested their image and video quality, ease of use, autofocus and more.