Great debate: Have smartphone cameras killed the DSLR?

Great debate: Have smartphone cameras killed the DSLR?

Summary: No, smartphones will not replace serious cameras anytime soon. Here's why.


This week, I participated in a ZDNet great debate against fellow columnist Jason Perlow. Jason and I faced off on whether smartphone cameras will kill off the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera market. Although not this blog’s usual fare of IT, CIO issues, or leadership advice, I'm a serious photographer and cameras are an important topic for many of us.

Regarding my credentials to engage in this camera debate, my photos have appeared in the press, magazines, websites and other venues online, and in print; also, various columnists here on ZDNet have used my photos with their posts. And, for full disclosure, I regularly use a Nikon DSLR, a Fuji mirrorless camera, and sometimes even the camera in my smartphone.

My debate position is clear: I don’t believe that smartphone cameras are good enough to stop people from buying “real” cameras such as DSLRs, which is a position that research supports. For example, research reported in BusinessWeek shows the DSLR market is growing, even though smartphones have caused sales of point and shoot cameras to decline. In addition, data compiled by the Camera & Imaging Products Association, a trade group for manufacturers, demonstrates the growth in cameras that can take an interchangeable lens, which consists primarily of DSLRs. This graph tells the story:

Interchangable lens camera market

Although the DSLR market remains vibrant, we must acknowledge that smartphone cameras offer two advantages: if you already carry a phone, the built-in camera adds no extra weight and it is always at hand. Given the size and weight of DSLRs and lenses, those are big convenience factors.

Nonetheless, today’s smartphones cannot approach the quality of a DSLR and decent lens. For example, there is simply no way a smartphone could take this photo:

DSLR with telephoto lens
Photo showing the telephoto effect of "compression." (Image credit: Michael Krigsman)

Aside from image clarity and sharpness, notice that distance in the photo seems compressed. The cross streets look like they are close together, especially in the distance, because I used a telephoto lens to create this optical effect. Try that with the phone in your camera! Actually, don't bother because it will not work. The camera geeks may be interested that I took this photo with a Nikon D800 DSLR camera and 400mm lens.

Here is another example of a real camera, meaning a DSLR, in action:

DSLR with portrait lens
Photo with a DSLR portrait lens. (Image credit: Michael Krigsman)

The dog's face is in sharp focus, while the back of his head and the background are completely blurred out, emphasizing only the important part of this image. Again, a mobile phone cannot take this kind of photo. I switched to an 85mm 1.4 portrait lens for this one.

In summary, smartphone cameras are ideal for casual snapshots and pictures of friends as you walk around. However, serious photography requires greater camera horsepower than even the best smartphone.

Topics: Great debate, After Hours

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  • Agreed...

    Mind you - there's a parallel trend going on with a move from DSLRs to so called 'Mirrorless' cameras (a term I hate because it implies a camera should have a mirror) such as FourThirds and Micro FourThirds.

    Those cameras have most of the advantages of a full DSLR camera (interchangeable lenses, larger sensors, RAW) but with less bulk, weight and cost.

    Phone cameras are indeed wiping out the low end P&S camera but in truth, they don't really stack up to even the low end P&S cameras for image quality. I carry a Samsung SH100 in my pocket because while the phone's camera is ok for quick shots, even the SH100's pix look better and it has optical zoom. My Olympus E-PL2 is for serious photography.
    • Mirrorless

      I agree that mirrorless is the future. I currently use a Fuji x100s, which is a great camera. I also had a Fuji X-Pro1 but sold that. I love the small size, but still want a DSLR. Eventually, the mirrorless cameras will become mature enough to replace a DSLR, but they are not quite there yet.
      • Mirrorless is great, but what about price?

        The X100s costs about 1000 bucks, depending on where you look, and has the same features as a Nikon D5100 which costs about 400 bucks. It's a DSLR stuck in Live View. It's nice to have a small camera like that, I just think it's ridiculously overpriced.
  • Late to the party

    but great rebuttal of the other articles using conjecture to make the argument.

    So many people commenting on here seem to think today's smartphones can equal a DSLR without understanding how wrong they are. Maybe it's this fascination with mega pixels and the incorrect assumption that 20 is better than 18 regardless. The number is higher so it must be!
    Little Old Man
    • To beat the filter

      I really do believe that anyone who thinks smartphone cameras offer the same as DSLR's, either has never invested in one or has never taken their's off auto. It's not even the same market. I would say the best analogy would be for someone to say electric cars are killing the ATV. Both have 4 wheels but certainly don't fulfil the same user requirements.
      Little Old Man
      • Perfect example of how stupid the spam filter is

        Second comment cut from first, pasted into new comment and both accepted. Together they trigger the filter and won't post.

        Someone please look at the filter!
        Little Old Man
  • I agree

    I agree and as I said yesterday, shallow aperture is only one aspect of why I couldn't space my E-PM2 with a smart phone camera. Higher ISO, RAW, 8 FPS, faster focusing, better glass, custom white balance, better metering, and overall better image quality.

    As for mirrorless, I think their only real advantages are the size and weight when compared to DSLRs. Live view used to be but, now most DSLRs have that feature. Also, Full Frame have significant DOF advantages over most mirrorless bodies.
  • DLSR

    DLSR will always, in some form, be around for the professionals and serious amatuers. In the film days SLR cameras were marketed to the professionals and serious amatuers. Both groups either need or appreciate the capabilites of a SLR camera that can be matched by either a smartphone or a P&S camera.

    DSLR will never be the most popular cameras available becuase most people are not interested in photography but just want to take pictures.
  • RE: Mirrorless SLRs

    Unless a camera has a viewfinder (preferably optical), I wouldn't consider it. Taking photos outdoors in sunlight with an LCD screen is an exercise in frustration. There is a mirrorless camera that has an optional electronic viewfinder, which might be OK, but I haven't seen what the image quality is on it. I'll be using (and loving) my Nikon D40 for as long as it keeps on clicking!
    • I concure

      I notice that problem when when I keep the sun to my back; I can not see the lcd screen
  • Phone cameras

    are just different tools. I use multiple cameras; the one on my phone (Nokia 920), my DSLR (Nikon D800), my SLR (Nikon F6) and my field camera (Chamonix 45N-1). I use all four cameras, but realize that each has a different role.
  • Agreed!

    Completely agree, there is still a market for those of us who appreciate great photos. Camera phones work in a pinch to capture a moment for social media.
    Hudnalls Huddle
  • The problem with the first graph

    Is it doesnt show the second graph on that web page which shows total camera sales and interchangeable camera sales have fallen below 2007 sales. Which, oddly enough, exactly coincides with the explosion in smart phone sales.
  • Thank you!

    I agree completely. Right now there is no way that smartphones have killed the DSLRs. They produce nothing but fuzzy snapshots that are great for sharing online but if you want something to hang up on your wall they are just no good.
    And what about RAW files? Smartphone photos have a lot less potential for post processing.

    I have no clue how things are gonna look in the future. If anything mirrorless cameras have a shot at taking down DSLRs. Because they essentially are very small DSLRs without the R. They just need to fix their focusing issues and get rid of the ridiculous pricetags.
  • Perhaps it would be helpful to define the market when making such claims.

    Each serves a different audience. I think it is important to define which audience when having this discussion.
  • Exactly right...for now

    It's absolutely true that even the best smart phone cannot substitute for DSLR or even a compact system camera. But that's only true right now. Will that still be true five years from now?

    Twenty years ago, I suspect most photographers thought digital was just a fad. Ten years ago, I doubt most photographers could foresee the advent of compact system cameras. Five years ago, camera phones were almost toylike. So never say never.

    That said, while most of us can see the improvement in sensors right before our eyes, what would really make a difference is innovations in lenses! There have been some attempts...the Samsung Galaxy Zoom, but that seemed like a non-starter. My pocket-sized point-and-shoot camera has a 10x zoom lens (and now they're starting to make pocket cameras that can do 20x and more). It just collapses inside the body of the camera when not in use. The collapsible lenses in point-and-shoot cameras can do macro, wide angle and telephoto. It's really just a question of quality and if we can make them compact enough to work on a cell phone. I'd be willing to trade off A LITTLE thinness if my smart phone had a collapsible long zoom lens built in. Alternatively, the 41 mp sensor on the Nokia Lumia 1020 can zoom in to produce excellent (even in relatively low light) lossless images at 5 mp without any additional lens hardware. It's no DSLR yet, but it's a great preview of what may be to come. (I ended up getting a Google Nexus 5 because I don't care for Windows Phone and because I wouldn't even know where to buy a Galaxy Zoom...the Nexus 5 was a tremendous deal unlocked.)

    As sensors get better and better, flashes will become less and less necessary, and that's a good thing. An EVF would be nice too, but the primary advantage of an EVF is for shooting in direct sunlight, and improvements in LCD screens have made that less important as well.
    Daniel Dougan