Cameras on mobile devices have come a long way since the smartphone first appeared 11 years ago, and phone makers like Apple, Samsung, LG, and Google keep rolling out new improvements.
Despite these enhancements, experienced photographers and pros still consider phone cameras to be inferior to advanced standalone cameras—particularly D-SLRs (digital single-lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras, which yield high image quality and versatility. But in recent years, smartphone makers have attempted to compete in the rarefied world of advanced cameras.
In the fall of 2016, Apple announced a new Portrait mode for iPhones, which ushered in a new level of excitement (or hype, depending on your point of view) about just how advanced the cameras on a mobile device could be. During that product launch, Apple said Portrait mode would produce images with a particular characteristic—shallow depth of field (DOF): “This effect, also known as ‘bokeh’ and previously only capable on D-SLR cameras, turns the camera you carry around with you every day into an even more powerful photography tool.”
It’s not just D-SLRs that produce this effect. You can get shallow DOF with newer mirrorless models, too. Both camera types work with a wide array of high-quality (and pricey) interchangeable lenses that you can swap out, and both include large sensors in the camera body. Matching a wide aperture on a D-SLR or mirrorless lens with a large sensor is essential to capturing an image with a shallow depth of field, which displays your subject in sharp focus but renders the background in
So how do Apple and other phone makers create this particular optical effect, considering the tiny lenses and sensors on smartphones? On the iPhone, Apple uses computational photography.
With this in mind, I wanted to get a sense of how well a mobile device captures a particular type of shot—an informal portrait—and compare it to what you can capture on an interchangeable-lens camera.
For my test, I set up a photo shoot with my son, Tom, as a model, and used two devices to capture two different informal portraits: one in an indoor setting and the other outdoors. I used a 12-megapixel Apple iPhone 8 Plus set the phone to Portrait mode for the indoor photo and the ProCam app to capture a RAW file, and a 16-megapixel Olympus PEN E-PL9 mirrorless camera shot in aperture priority and set up to capture both a fine-quality JPEG and a RAW file, equipped with an Olympus M.Zuiko Pro ED f/1.2 25mm prime lens. For each device, I turned off the onboard flash and used only available light.
It’s important to note that to compare the two devices, I used the mirrorless camera in a very limited way. The PEN E-PL9 provides a vast array of settings and features. And because it’s a system camera, you can buy a variety of accessories to further expand your creativity.
For this matchup, I focused on just a couple of important features on each device: In one photo I set each device to have a blurred background (using the iPhone’s Portrait mode, and a wide aperture on the PEN mirrorless camera, using aperture priority mode); in the other photo, I captured both images in RAW.
But there are many other features I could have used, particularly on the Olympus. For instance, if I was shooting a more casual candid photo in low light without a flash, any action or movement would be a challenge for a mobile device, but certainly not for a mirrorless camera like the Olympus. Also, mirrorless and D-SLR cameras often come with capable onboard flash features and accept even more versatile external flash accessories, which can’t be matched on a mobile device.
But for this comparison, I wanted a fair test of how well the photos shot on the iPhone compared with what we captured with the Olympus mirrorless camera. So I kept things simple. Here’s what I found.
In my setups, the iPhone 8 Plus and the Olympus PEN E-PL9 both did a very good job of taking a casual portrait. Each captured the subject’s skin tones as well as other colors. The Olympus may have blown out the bright highlights in a bit of the outdoor shot, but I like the crisp, sharp details in both the outdoor and indoor images taken with the PEN E-PL9. The iPhone captured my subject’s skin tone pretty accurately, although it gave him slightly more color in the outdoor shot than he actually has. I also like that in both of the indoor shots, each device was able to provide a shallow depth of field, blurring the background and allowing for the subject to stand out.
The image below is the iPhone 8 Plus indoor portrait.
This indoor portrait was taken with the PEN E-PL9 mirrorless camera.
On the iPhone 8 Plus, I shot the images using Portrait mode, which artificially blurs the background and simulates the type of bokeh you’d get on an interchangeable-lens camera such as the PEN E-PL9. I then exported it and did some minor adjustments to the JPEG in Photoshop.
For the Olympus image, I captured both a RAW image file and a fine-quality JPEG, but for this test, I used only the JPEG.
The tones in both indoor portraits look good. But when you get closer, you can see some problems with the iPhone image. This composite image (above) shows details of both indoor portraits, in which I cropped in on the section just above my son’s left shoulder—the television set and entertainment center. In the top two photos, the Olympus detail (top left) looks clean, but you might notice a bit of noise in the image taken on the iPhone (top right). However, the tones are dark and disguise the amount of noise. In the two lower images, in which I dramatically increased the exposure in Photoshop, you can see a noticeable amount of noise in the iPhone image (lower right). In contrast, the Olympus image is still quite clear and noise-free (lower left).
The outdoor portrait below was taken with the iPhone 8 Plus.
The photo below was taken with the PEN E-PL9.
Another way advanced cameras such as mirrorless and D-SLRs have stood apart, particularly from smartphone cameras, was that they could shoot RAW files. These have been called “digital negatives” since they let you capture an image that isn’t processed inside the camera—unlike a JPEG, which is a compressed file format. You can manipulate a RAW file in Photoshop to truly maximize the photo’s dynamic range and minimize image noise and other artifacts that degrade image quality.
In the past few years, though, many phones (including a number of new iPhones) let you capture RAW files. (Strangely, you need to download a third-party app such as ProCam or Manual to shoot RAW files on an iPhone.)
For my outside portraits, both of which came out well, I shot my subject with his back to the open front door to my house. I placed a vase with yellow tulips in the dark interior of my living room, about 6 feet from the front door.
When I took the photos, the interior was underexposed—not surprisingly, the shadows swallowed up all the details. In this composite image, I shot the left-side bottom photo on the Olympus PEN E-PL9 and the right-side bottom photo with the iPhone 8 Plus. Each top image is a cropped detail of the bottom. In both cases, I adjusted the exposure and other settings to reveal details in the doorway section. You can see that the RAW file from the Olympus did a superior job in recovering the detail in the shadows. The iPhone did a decent job, but the Olympus does a better job of restoring some of the
Do We Have a Winner?
What the tests reveal is that although the iPhone’s onboard software (or firmware) does an exceptional job of mimicking features like shallow DOF, it can’t completely compensate for what it captures in low-light settings, and it will inevitably introduce noise. And a large, more expensive lens paired with a large sensor captures more visual information than a small lens and tiny phone sensor can.
Nevertheless, for the most part, the iPhone 8 Plus did a good job of keeping up with the Olympus PEN in tonal quality, color, and dynamic range. And of course, it’s the kind of camera most people are likely to have with them when unexpected photo ops present themselves. That fact alone brings this contest closer to a tie.