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Quick and Easy Photos: Smartphones vs. Point-and-Shoot Digital Cameras

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More and more people are taking pictures with their smartphones and leaving their digital cameras behind. In this article, Michael Miller examines and pros and cons of taking pictures with a smartphone vs. a traditional digital camera, and recommends when to use each.
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Here’s an interesting set of facts. More pictures than ever are being taken today, even as sales of traditional digital cameras are dropping. What’s behind this conundrum? It’s the influx of smartphones with built-in cameras; smartphone users are ditching their standalone cameras and shooting pics with their phone cameras, instead.

If you work for one of the major camera manufacturers, this is a disturbing trend. Sales of compact digital cameras (so-called “point-and-shoot” cameras) fell by 30% in 2011, and are predicted to keep falling. Research shows that 45% of consumers use their smartphones to shoot photos, while only 40% use a dedicated digital camera. Flickr, the big photo-sharing site, says that the top three cameras used for photos on its site aren’t cameras at all, they’re the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5. It’s fast becoming a world of phone photography.

(For what it’s worth, this trend does not seem to be affecting more feature-laden digital cameras. Sales of “megazoom” cameras – with more than 10X optical zoom lenses – actually increased by 42% in the same period. And sales of higher-end digital SLR cameras continue to be strong, as well.)

Given these trends, should you throw away your digital camera and rely solely on your smartphone to snap your important pictures?

It all depends.

Comparing Digital Cameras with Smartphone Cameras

Why are more and more consumers using their photos to snap digital photos? It’s a matter of evolving technology – and convenience.

On the technology front, today’s smartphones have become pretty good little picture takers. Compared with the primitive cameras built into early smartphones, today’s phones boast cameras with near-professional performance. You get high enough resolution (measured in megapixels) to create pictures that you can print at large sizes – a minimum of 5 MP, with the Samsung Galaxy S4 moving all the way up to 13 MP. You get built-in LED flash, auto focus, and even rudimentary picture editing built in. This means that the pictures you take look pretty darn good, in most circumstances.

As good as today’s phone cameras are, however, they’re still not as good as a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. Dedicated digital cameras have better lenses that result in sharper pictures, especially in low light. And these lenses are zoom lenses, which let you zoom into the picture. A basic point-and-shoot camera typically offers a 5X zoom lens; so-called megazoom cameras have even more zoom, up to 30X. That brings you in real close to the action.

Figure 1 The Nikon Coolpix S3500 point-and-shoot digital camera

A smartphone camera, in contrast, has a fixed lens. There’s no optical zooming, period. If the action is far away, that’s how you shoot it. If you want to get closer to the action, start walking.

(Don’t confuse optical zoom with digital zoom, which you do find on most smartphones. Digital zoom is no substitute for lens-based optical zoom; all digital zoom does is blow up the existing picture, warts and all.)

Figure 2 The Canon PowerShot SX500 IS megazoom digital camera

Dedicated digital cameras also offer multiple shooting modes which optimize settings for different types of shots; smartphone cameras don’t do this, either. Many digital cameras even let you manually adjust aperture and shutter speed, for precise artistic control of your shots. Again, not available on a smartphone camera.

Point-and-shoot cameras also help you shoot better-looking photos by reducing shake and the red eye effect, via optical image stabilization and special red eye reduction flash modes. Some smartphone cameras offer digital shake reduction, but that doesn’t work near as well as optical-based stabilization. Don’t expect to find red eye reduction on your smartphone, either.

What this means is that while you can take good photos with your smartphone camera, under most conditions, a dedicated digital camera will let you take better photos. If quality matters, keep your smartphone in your pocket and buy a point-and-shoot or megazoom digital camera.

But there’s another factor that comes into play – convenience. Let’s face it, snapping off some quick pics with your smartphone is a lot easier than hauling a separate digital camera around with you everywhere. You always have your smartphone in your pocket; you don’t always have a digital camera handy. That’s a big deal, and one of the main reasons why smartphone photography is growing by leaps and bounds. For many people, the trade-off in picture quality simply doesn’t outweigh the convenience of having your phone to double-duty as an instant camera.

Still, there are definitely some compelling reasons to use a digital camera for at least some of your photo needs. The following table compares the camera specs for two of today’s most popular smartphones with the specs of two typical point-and-shoot and megazoom digital cameras.


iPhone 5

Samsung Galaxy S4

Point-and-Shoot Digital Camera (Nikon Coolpix S3500)

Megazoom Digital Camera (Canon PowerShot SX500 IS)

Picture quality (megapixels)





Lens aperture





Optical zoom





Digital zoom










Manual shutter and aperture control





Red eye reduction





Image stabilization system










So which device should you use to shoot your pictures? It depends on what’s important to you – and when. Because you don’t have to limit yourself to just a phone or dedicated camera.

When Taking Smartphone Photos Makes Sense

Let’s face it. Taking a picture with your smartphone is much more convenient than carrying around and learning to use a more complex digital camera. (Not that point-and-shoot cameras are that difficult to use, but still…)

You may not always have your camera with you when an interesting photo opportunity arises. You probably have your smartphone with you. Plus, your smartphone fits right in your pocket; a digital camera, not so much.

So when you’re at a family gathering or at the playground, it’s easy to take your smartphone out of your pocket and start shooting. Same thing if you’re going to a sporting event or concert, where you might not even be allowed to take in a separate camera; you will have your smartphone with you.

Price is also a factor. You already have a smartphone. Do you really need to pay $100-$200 or more for a separate digital camera? Especially if the pictures you take with the smartphone are good enough for you?

Pictures you take with your smartphone are also more easily shared than those stored on your digital camera. The smartphone’s camera is connected to a phone, after all. All it takes is a few taps on the screen to send any photo you take to your friends and family, either via text message, email, or social media. If you want to post a photo to Facebook or tweet it on Twitter, there’s no easier way to do it than from a smartphone camera. Try to do the same thing with pics you take on a separate digital camera and you end up spending ten minutes or more transferring your pictures to your computer and then connecting to the Internet and then doing the upload thing. It’s just a lot easier with a smartphone camera.

So if your photography is primarily casual in nature (that is, you’re not doing anything particularly artsy or need pro-level results), and if you want to easily share your photos with others, use your smartphone camera. You can’t beat it.

When Ditching the Smartphone for a Digital Camera Makes Sense

The appeal of smartphone photos begs the question: If you’re already carrying around a smartphone with built-in camera, why add a second, bulkier, dedicated camera to your load?

The answer is simple. Dedicated digital cameras, even the lowest-priced point-and-shooters, take better pictures than any smartphone. Period.

That’s because a dedicated digital camera has a better lens than does a smartphone camera. A better lens means better-looking pictures. It doesn’t have anything to do with megapixels (today’s smartphones have more than enough of those to ensure high-quality reproduction), it’s about what those megapixels capture. And the lens has everything to do with that.

The quality lens (and larger image sensor chip) in a dedicated digital camera lets in more light, which lets you take much better pictures in low light conditions. It results in less grainy pictures with more detail in the background. It produces brighter colors with more accurate white levels. It lets you achieve different depth of field effects, so that your subject remains in focus against a slightly blurred background.

In short, your pictures just look better. All of them.

A dedicated digital camera also includes an optical zoom lens that lets you zoom anywhere from 5X to 30X into the action without losing a bit of resolution. Smartphones don’t have zoom lenses. If you want to zoom into a picture with a smartphone, you can blow up the picture with the built-in digital zoom, but that dramatically reduces the resolution and results in a very grainy, pixelated picture. The zoom lens in a digital camera functions much like a telescope, providing crisp images at full zoom.

This makes a digital camera a must if you’re shooting far-away scenes, such as at a sporting event. You can’t zoom into the players with a smartphone; you can with a digital camera. (And a megazoom camera zooms in even closer!)

You also get a better and more versatile flash unit on a digital camera than the relatively crude digital flash found on most smartphones. Better flash means better lighting of your subject which means a more natural picture, without being washed out. Digital camera also incorporate red eye reduction technology, which typically emits a “pre-flash” to get rid of the red eye effect. Plus, most digital cameras feature optical image stabilization to reduce lens blur. (You take a lot of blurry, red-eye pictures with your smartphone, don’t you?)

So here’s the deal. If picture quality matters (and it doesn’t always), shoot with a dedicated digital camera. And if you want the best quality pictures, go with a better quality camera, such as a megazoom model or a higher-priced digital SLR.

The Bottom Line

It boils down to what you need. If you take your photography very seriously, then a dedicated digital camera will deliver better results than what you can get from any smartphone. If, however, you are just shooting the moment and want to quickly and easily share that moment with others, then use your smartphone camera.

Personally, I use both. I shoot with my smartphone when I’m in the moment and don’t have my camera with me. I also use my smartphone to snap shots to share on Facebook and Twitter. But when I’m recording something that matters – my grandson’s first soccer game, a family holiday, or another equally important event – then I carry a separate digital camera.

It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all world.

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