With a deluge of three new cameras released every week, I'd completely lost perspective. Just how far have we come since film? Where would a modern smartphone camera fit into the evolution of digital SLRs? Would it be like DSLRs of five years ago? Ten? Or not on the same page at all? I wanted to get a feel for the pace of progress, to look back and see how far we’ve come, to get a handle on where we’re going.
I’m lucky enough to have a company with lots of cameras, so we decided to find out.
We took two of the latest smartphones, and pitted them against digital SLRs from 2003 to today and, for reference, film.
The phones were the sprightly 8-megapixel iPhone 5S which has the fastest camera on any phone, and the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 which is the undisputed heavyweight champion of phone imaging.
They couldn’t be more different. The iPhone 5S worships at the alter of convenience and speed, while the Nokia devotes everything to the best possible image quality. In the 7 seconds you took to read this paragraph, the iPhone could have taken 70 shots. The Nokia? Two. With another coming … wait a moment … almost there … now. Their camera apps are polar opposites too: the Nokia offers you full-time manual control over all the camera settings; the iPhone gives you almost none.
In the other corner, our SLRs contenders were:
- Canon EOS 10D (6 megapixels, 2003)
- Canon EOS 20D (8 megapixels, 2004)
- Canon EOS 30D (8 megapixels, 2006)
- Canon EOS 40D (10 megapixels, 2007)
- Nikon D800 (36 megapixels, 2012 and not yet seriously bettered)
- Nikon FM2 film camera with Fuji Velvia 50 transparency film, and Fuji Superia 1600 print film
Why these cameras? The Canon DSLRs each represent the pinnacle of picture quality available in their day for less than $2,000 without a lens. Each earned DPReview’s coveted Gold Award, and reading back through their glowing reviews, I found myself wanting to buy them … again! I chose DSLRs from this era, as I guessed that the phones would slot neatly among them. I was wrong. We included the Nikon D800 as an upper reference point for the current state of the art for DSLRs, and we added film to anchor it all in an historic perspective, to give us old-timers a place to mentally hang the results.
We tested them all twice, first in glaring subtropical sunlight (EV 15 to photographers), then under the equivalent of romantic candlelight, 6,000 times darker in Queensland Museum (EV 2.7). In bright light outside, I expected a fair fight between the phones and DSLRs. In dim light, I expected the DSLRs to eat the phones for breakfast. DSLRs’ enormous lenses concentrate light onto vast sensors, adding up to a colossal advantage. Low light is what they were born to shoot. In comparison, the phones have minuscule lenses and tiny sensors with teeny-weeny pixels, so only the most fanatical photons can find their way to a pixel. But the phones have an extra 6-10 years of technology on their side. Can technology make up for what they lack in size?