We hear this refrain every year: “This amazing new smartphone camera will make your pro camera obsolete!” Every year, it proves to be untrue. Low-light performance always remains a dismal, grainy mess. There are no real lens options. You don’t have nearly the same image control — or if you do it’s achieved by software tricks, not high-powered sensors, robust glass, and truly granular control of your shooting. The megapixels just aren’t there, limiting your adjustment options in editing. The list goes on.
So yet again in recent months, when the new Apple iPhone 7, Google Pixel XL, and Huawei Mate 9 smartphones launched with what each manufacturer claimed was the greatest camera ever — and the only camera you’ll ever need — I sighed heavily.
The time is right for a head-to-head: the best smartphones against a pro-level camera.
But then I saw the images, and… well, damn, they’re pretty good! Low-light images in the Google Pixel XL look legitimately great. The background-blurring bokeh effect on the iPhone 7 Plus is actually kind of nice (even if it is ginned up by software tricks). The Leica lens in the Huawei seems sharp as a tack. The new lenses and sensors generate high-quality images, and they all now possess the ability to shoot RAW images — the uncompressed, unaltered files that pro shooters rely on for truly deep-tissue editing.
Smartphone vs. Mirrorless
So perhaps the time is right for a head-to-head: the best smartphones against a pro-level camera. How do the little multi-tasking marvels stack up against a true NatGeo-grade workhorse? We still know from pure physics that the full-frame beast will spank the upstarts. After all, you can’t beat a huge, photon-swallowing piece of fast glass, or a detail- and color-capturing 35mm full-frame sensor — not with most of the tiny sensor/lens combos stuffed into 5mm thick smartphone cases. I know in my camera-loving heart that it will be a cold day in hell when we see the pro shooters along the sidelines at the Super Bowl running around armed solely with smartphones.
But the point here is not to go bring a gun to a knife fight and then gloat over what will surely be a photographic massacre. The point is to see whether or not smartphone cameras are, finally, at least reasonably competitive with a grown-up rig — whether a smartphone camera can truly be an enthusiast amateur’s go-to shooter, and perhaps even be serviceable enough that a pro can leave the heavy gear at home every now and then and still get usable, professional-quality results.
The Contest Rules
For this informal contest, I put the Pixel XL, the dual-lens 7 Plus, and the also-dual-lens Mate 9 up against a Sony A7RII mirrorless camera, one of the most respected full-frame performers in the business. The challenge was simple: a single frame captured in a challenging environment — a backlit evening landscape with a subject in the foreground, with a reasonably light edit as I’d do prior to sharing on social media. I took 20 frames from each camera, all in 1-2-3-4 sequences in a five-minute period, and touched up contrast, exposure, and clarity in Adobe Lightroom, followed by slight leveling in Microsoft’s Photo Editor.
I know in my camera-loving heart that it will be a cold day in hell when we see the pro shooters along the sidelines at the Super Bowl running around armed solely with smartphones.
To keep the playing field as even as possible, I shot all the images with similar settings, and experimented with spot-metering via touchscreen to try to balance out the background and foreground exposure. (The car is an Audi A6 Competition.) In short, I tried to capture the scene as best I could with each camera, as though I was just out shooting for fun, but still intent on capturing something good.
Each phone’s image next to a 100% crop. Respectively: The Huawei Mate 9, iPhone 7 Plus, Google Pixel Xl, and Sony A7rII
So, Who Won?
The results surprised me, honestly. The setup is my favorite kind of photographic challenge, and I expected bland results across the board from the phones. This is especially true when you look at sample images from smartphone makers and realize how few of them typically show truly difficult compositions. They’re usually beach scenes and bowls of cherries. That’s changed recently — and indeed, all three camera makers show a few low-light scenarios in their marketing — but backlighting is a particularly complex challenge, especially when you’re not using fill-flash.
But all the cameras performed admirably. It should come as no surprise that the A7RII did indeed walk all over the phones — its image has the highest out-of-camera sharpness, the most sophisticated color rendition, and the most even exposure between foreground and background. In addition, its lens produced the flattest, most true-to-life image. (I shot with a 24-70 Zeiss F/4 at 24mm and F/14; the camera has a 42MP image sensor; exposure was 1/400s at ISO500.) Overall, its image required the least amount of already light-handed tweaking I did.
There you have it: Smartphone cameras are finally, truly good.
The Google Pixel XL came in second place, with an excellent color, sharpness and contrast from its 12.3MP sensor. (I didn’t touch color or saturation in any of the images.) With my spot-metering, via taps on the screen, the camera selected a 1/2000s exposure at ISO 73 from its 5mm f/2 lens. The resulting image is absolutely gorgeous, with crisp details and excellent consistency across the image. I would gladly share this on social, and with further enhancement to brighten up the car a bit, it’s certainly good enough for publication in an online magazine — if not a print piece.
The iPhone 7 Plus is not far behind the Pixel XL. The 12MP camera chose a 1/1900s exposure at ISO 20 and f/1.8 from its 4mm focal length lens. The colors don’t pop quite as brilliantly as in the Pixel or the A7RII, and the contrast isn’t quite as excellent, either. Now, it’s also important to note that cloud patterns greatly impact lighting in situations like this, particularly in terms of direct sunlight reaching the ground. But the cameras all had equal shots at the changing lighting, and the fact is that this is the best of the iPhone’s shots — the Pixel simply managed the direct sunlight better, whereas the equal shots from the iPhone were slightly more washed out. It’s still an excellent result, of course.
Now, the image from the 12MP camera in the Huawei Mate 9 came in fourth because the image, shot at f/2.2, 1/450s and ISO50 from its 4mm focal length, was the “blandest” of the three smartphones. Again, this is all relative — it’s still a perfectly competitive shot compared to many other smartphones, and especially those of yore, and I know from experience that the Mate 9 can produce excellent low-light images. But in this specific test, its images didn’t quite match up to the other phones. The camera does, however, get props for having the best user interface and readily accessible manual controls, in addition its rare ability to define spot-metering and focus locations separately.
So there you have it: Smartphone cameras are finally, truly good. They absolutely will not displace my full-frame gear when I’m serious about shooting, but if I venture out into the world with one of these pups in my pocket, I won’t feel nearly the same gravitational pull to my all-around beefier kit that I usually do. I’ll be happy and ready to shoot and share. I’m feeling lighter on my feet already.