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.