Comparative Analysis between Smart Phone Cameras and Digital Cameras

In Which Sense Smart Phone Cameras Cannot Replace Dedicated Cameras?

Jiaxin Liu

CCTP 820 Leading by Design

Instructor: Dr. Irvine Martin


With the rapid development of digital technologies and optimization softwares that can mimic the look and “style” of film camera, the smart phone cameras seem can replace digital cameras now. And hence my research question is whether smart phone cameras can replace digital cameras? For which kinds of customers, the cellphone cameras can replace the digital cameras? And for which kinds of customers, the cellphone cameras can never replace the digital cameras? Therefore, this paper is basically a comparative analysis between digital cameras and cellphone cameras. And my argument is, for normal customers, the cellphone cameras are more portable, convenient, and useful; the optimization softwares in cellphones can help reprocess to “perfect” the size, color, and quality of image. However, for the professional photographers, the graphic artists, and anyone who chase the high-quality of image, the smart phones cameras are not enough for them, they still need DLSR to take hight-quality photos. I will collect the past data, survey, and case studies, and I will prove my argument through analyzing those data, survey, and specific cases.


Nowadays, the smart phone camera companies are constantly working on simulating the standard camera: to create the filters consumers are using to processing images, to improve the quality of images, and also to develop the optimization softwares to mimic the “look” and the feelings of film camera gives people. It’s irreversible trends that smart phone cameras are taking the market and fewer people will choose the heavy and thick, and relatively expensive digital cameras, especially DLSR. And thus some people argue the smart phone camera can replace the standard camera, and they’re more portable and easy to process. But that from a normal consumer’s level, not for the real photographer, I want to explore in which degree smart phone cameras cannot replace standard cameras from a designing perspective.

In this paper, I would like to firstly introduces the shared history of smart phone cameras and digital cameras, to demonstrate the common ground for them, and to explain why some people argue smartphone camera can be the replacement of digital camera. And in the second part, I will demonstrate the trends of the rapid development of cellphone cameras and how smartphone camera developers are working on softwares that stimulate the standard camera, and explain for which kinds of customers the cellphone cameras can replace digital camera by analyzing the data I collected and surveys. However, for a few of customers who prioritize the quality of image, for example the professional photographers, the cellphone cameras can never be the replacement of Digital Single Lens Reflex (DLSR).

And therefore, in the next part, I will distinguish the difference between smart phone cameras and DLSR, and explain why cellphone camera can not replace professional using case studies and also data analysis. The major difference between them: consumers’ control over ISO, aperture (i.e. the smart phone camera has fixed aperture, but photographers can change aperture based on their position on their DLSRs), and shutter. In addition a high-quality DLSR have more ability to capture more light information. With a DLSR, the professional photographers can have deeper focus to create the artistic effect and smaller aperture to capture fast motion. As DLSRs, they have larger size sensors which allow professional photographers to take extremely high definition photos. In the last, I also want to point out the design difference in the outlook of smartphone camera and DLSR. A well-designed camera will “meld” into people’s hands and allows a line of sight connection with people’s subject. The design of digital camera follows the affordance design principle, people can “intuitively” know how to use it when they hold the camera and look the landscape through the viewfinder.

The Common Ground for Digital Cameras and Smart Phone Cameras

Tracking back to the history, the word photography was derived from two Greek terms: phos and graphe. The first term means light, and the second means writing and drawing (Osterman, n.d.). And thus from these two root words, photography can be literally interpreted as using light to write and draw. Painting, writing, and drawing, or we say 2D image substrate technology, simulate the monoptical projected image. And light is the essential element in the photo-making process. According to Dr. Irvine, “photography is based on a lens projection from light reflected off a three-dimensional spatial source, the photographic image will always embody a direct analogy with the human eye (n.d.)”. For human beings, photograph is necessary for them to record their significant moments in time, and for the human world, photography as part of semiotic system is necessary to record the history.

Light as one root has an irreplaceable role in photography. All cameras, including digital cameras, film cameras, and cellphone cameras, are sharing the same optic principle. In the 11th century, the principle of Camera Obscura was found by Arab scholar Alhazan. The principle of Camera Obscura as figure 2 shows the image can be projected through a small hole on the wall in a large room. For Camera Obscura, the image of one object will be projected through a small hole in a screen, but in a reversed and inverted version. Lights travels in a straight line, the light rays reflected from a object travels straightly through a small hole in a membrane. And because the light rays reflected from the object is below the hole travels upward through the hole and continues a high point on the wall, the light from the high point will travel down to a low point on the wall while the light from the low point will travel up to a high point on the wall; and also the light from left or right will do the same (Sagers & Patterson, 2010). In the 19th century, the Camera Obscura box had been developed into photographic camera, and the hole in the membrane functions as the aperture in the lens of modern cameras.

In the modern time, photography is being fitted into digital sense. With the appearance of binary code, the digital photography is the process of assigning numbers in a binary code to form an image from light. For the digital image, pixel is the smallest unit that forms a picture can be shown on the screen. Though the technology to record an image has changed, but the principle of managing light to record correct exposure of an image remains the same. In 1975, the first digital camera was invented by Steven Sasson, an engineer working for Eastman Kodak. This camera weighs 8 pounds, and the shutter speed is much slower than most camera today. It would take about 23 seconds to record a 10,000 pixel photograph. However; it is a milestone in the history of cameras and is being considered as one of the most important cameras in the world, because it is the pioneer for taking the first digital image in black and white (Sagers & Patterson, 2010).

During the 20th century, the digital cameras has been developed: flash, color photographs, telephoto and wide angle lenses. But the basic parts for any digital camera remains the same: lens, IRIS or diaphragm, shutter, and medium (Ron, 1944). Different objects will release different light rays, and the lenses focus and capture the light rays and turn them into image. Diaphragm or IRIS determines the amount of light can be entered in the medium, this device is to control the depth of field. Shutter speed determines time of exposure (White, 2007). The medium is the materials in where the light rays can be transferred into recored images.

With the development of digital technologies and smart phone, people find that they can make high-quality photos with their cellphone. The design of digital cameras are more heavy, less portable, and relatively expensive for the consumers. The goal of taking photos for the normal consumers is to record and preserve the significant moment in their life, but now the smart phone can do the same thing with a smaller cost. We can take Apple and Huawei as examples to see what smart phone companies have done for improving their built-in cameras. In 2007, the traditional digital camera company treated iPhone camera as a joke when it firstly launched. In 2010, Apple started to pay more attention to the cellphone cameras because this year Instagram came out and created a trend of recording lives thorough taking photos. Comparing to digital cameras, smart phone cameras are more accessible to normal people. And smartphone itself can work as the interfaces for smart phone cameras and Instagram. Photos taken by cellphone cameras can be directly imported to Instagram. In the same year, iPhone 4 came out and it’s the first time for cellphone cameras to add an additional front-facing VGA camera and a backside rear-facing camera, a 3.85 mm f/2.8 lens and an LED flash. The rear-facing camera is capable of recording HD video in 720p, which is equivalent to a point-and shot camera at that time.

And Apple keeps developing its camera after tasting the big success of iPhone 4. The iPhone 7 Plus has improved its lens, it has two lenses—a 28-mm 12-megapixel lens and a 56-mm12-megapixel telephoto lens. Apple also managed to pack a lot of premium features—longer exposures, better aperture, and the ability to shoot digital negatives, which professionals call DNGs. A DNG is, essentially, a photo file that captures all the visual information possible for further manipulation, such as enhancing shadows or removing highlights. The new iPhone uses circuitry, software, and algorithms to create images that look and feel as if they came out of high-end cameras.

Apple is not the first and only smart phone company that put efforts on improving cameras, Huawei has been working with Leica for a long time. Huawei has shown its ambition by trying to creating the best “cellphone camera ever”.  The following photo was taken by Huawei P9. We can tell that the the lens can capture more light information, and thus the color is more naturally. There is one feature I want to highlight is the “pro” mode: a fanciful name for manual control mode. It simulates the professional cameras and allows the users to set ISO (from 50 to 3200) and shutter speed (from 1/4000th sec to 30 sec) (Tan, 2016). The appearance of this kind of smart phone cameras reveals the future of smart phone cameras. Their features will become more similar to the professional cameras.


From these cases, we can see how smart phone companies have done to improve their cameras. According to the data from NPD Group, 27 percent of photos shot this year was taken by smart phone cameras, while in the last year, the number was 17 percent. Accordingly, photos shot by digital cameras was dropping from 52 to 44 percent. The figure shows the comparison between the growth in smart phone cameras use and the decline in digital camera. This phenomena shows the rapid growth of smart phone cameras has started to disrupt the use of traditional digital cameras. People now have more faith in smart phone cameras and in the future the comparison between cellphone camera use and digital camera use will become more sharpen.

In the meanwhile, the optimization software has greatly influence. The camera is also an interface for the apps (optimization softwares) to further process the recorded images. For example, photoshop and light room allow people to adjust the brightness, whiteness, effects, and even change the detail of the photo. And therefore, even the cellphone cannot take high quality photos, they can use photoshop or light room to reprocess the photo.

How professional cameras functions different from Smart Phone Cameras

The idea of “Making a photograph” is promoted by Ansel Adams. Instead of passively “take” a photo as to record an image, he argues a well-designed photograph is art which is crafted by the photographer by his or her own genre (Ansel, 1935). The photo here is not waiting to be taken. A professional photographer should have a plan and know what is he or she really want. Namely, it should be an intentional artifact. And the photographers have created a visual culture. Photography reflects numerous human culture: realism, modernism, and postmodernism. It’s not only a visual culture to allow people to appreciate its beauty aesthetically, but have more deeper social meanings. It helps people to memorize. The photography has already rooted in the human society, has deeply connection with culture and politics, namely, becomes a cultural symbol in the human history. For example, this figure was taken in Vietnam War. It’s art, but also associated with politics and society. This photo is to help people remember the horrors of the war. Only the professional camera have the chance to capture one important  moment and record it in a relative high quality, and makes people feel its historical depth.

For professional and amateur photographers, the quality of photo has the priority. The professional cameras, for example DLSRs, they usually have larger sensors. They can gather more light and offer more depth of field control. One of the main criticisms of smartphone cameras is the lack of shallow depth of field. The tiny sensor with wide-angle lens design deliver images with extensive depth of field, frustrating photographers who are used to using shallow depth of field for creative effects. Here I would like to take Canon 5D Mark III as the case. The sensor of 5D Mark III is exactly 50 times bigger than iPhone 6. That large sensor allows photographers to get images that are physically impossible with a phone. The ISO value can reach 6,400 while the maximum value for iPhone 6 is ISO 800. Therefore from this comparison, the constraint of cellphone camera can be tell. Through cellphone camera, the photographers cannot really control the value of ISO, aperture, and shutter in a large degree. And hence the quality of image recorded by cellphone is not as good as DLSR. And for these professional photographers, the use of DLSR has already become a habit, and an obsession. Their control over the design of camera makes them have satisfactions.


Getting a glimpse of the current situation, the cell phone cameras have gradually become the preferred way of recording images for normal customers. However; for many professional and amateur photographers and graphic artists, the digital cameras, especially DLSR, cannot be replaced by smart phone cameras because of the high-quality image and the photography cultural environment they create. Photography has become a cultural symbol rooted in the human society. The smart phone cameras can never replace professional cameras and digital cameras completely.


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Burgin, V., (1982). Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan.

Chris, C., (2012). Between Image and Information: The iPhone Camera in the History of Photography. University of Sydney.

Estes, John E., (2005). The  Camera Obscure. University of California at Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara, CA.

Nelson, T., (2016) Review: The Leica-Branded Huawei P9 is Impressive…for a Phone Camera.

Slivka, E., (June 8, 2010). “A Look at iPhone 4’s Camera Quality”. MacRumors. Retrieved June 20, 2010.

Sagers, S., & Patterson, R. (2010). History of Photography. Utah State University.

White, R., (1994). How Digital Photography works, 2ne ed. ISBN 0-78973630-6