It all started when I asked myself a simple question- do I have to carry my monster DSLR, or can I rely on my smartphone-camera to do the job? I reasoned, my smartphone can do panoramics, can upload the image to a site or my computer, can even edit the image to some extend. So I reasoned if I can compose well, can shoot in good light, I might be able to bring home winning shots with one of the smartphones like my daughter does? Can I get professional results out of these smartphones? The problem with that argument is that it totally ignores a few facts- the lens of the DSLR is 1,000x bigger and better than the smartphone, I cannot control the camera exposure much beyond the +/- exposure control buttons and who knows what would happen if I wanted to blow up the image beyond say, an 8×10. Therefore, I started to look at the smaller point-n-shoots and the mirrorless cameras. Can they do the job? The answers are quite unsurprising, but I thought I’d publish my rationale anyway.
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To do a semi-objective assessment, I set up a flower vase about 5′ from a tripod, left about 20′ of space behind it to check for bokeh (more on that later). I then gathered all the cameras we had- an iPhone 5S, a Samsung Galaxy S5, a Sony RX100 II, a Sony A6000 with a Carl-Zeiss 16-70mm f4 lens and a Canon 7D coupled with a Canon 24-70mm L f/2.8 lens. Before I start, a note to the (nerdy) readers that are concerned about megapixels, sensor type, sensor size, RAW to JPEG conversion, etc. please see my footnote about these parameters2. For now, it is suffice to say that I was more concerned about portability and final use of the print than what sensors there are in the market or how many megapixels my cameras had. Also note, I could not normalize the f-stop or aperture because when a device is set to “automatic” (e.g. smartphones), the ability to control aperture is lost. However, I did try to mimic the apertures in all instances as best as I could. Since the cameras were on a tripod (or jammed against one) their shutter speeds did not matter (they were high enough to be hand-held). One last note- I did not analyze HDR in many of these cameras since the DSLR does not have a native HDR ability.

I decided to do a 5-star rating1 using the parameters that I thought were important to me and some of my friends:

  • Portability: 1 star for bulkiest of the lot; 5 stars for smallest
  • Cost: 1 for high cost; 5 for low cost
  • Image bokeh: 1 for sharp; 5 for soft. Bokeh is sharpness of unimportant (out of focus) areas. In the tables below, you will see a cropped portion of the image showing a corner of the credenza (top circle) that was behind the flower stem. Ideally, the stem should be in focus and the credenza should be out of focus.
  • Image noise: 1 very granular/noisy; 5 least granular/smooth. In the tables below, you will see a cropped portion from one of the darkest part of an image around a yellow flower (bottom circle). For this photo, the camera was in automatic mode and set its own sensor sensitivity (or ISO) between 400 to 3200. Note: Higher the number, grainer the image.
  • General/web use: 1 for worst of the lot; 5 for best of the lot.
  • Print/professional use: 1 for poor; 5 for excellent (I judged this by allowing the camera to set the sensitivity/ISO and looking for noise in dark regions)
vase-marqeed

To interpret the following tables, view the overall image to see if you like it subjectively compared to others. Next, look at the thumbnail images in the table.  In the first first one, look for detail in the petals; the more detail, the better. In the second one, look for soft focus that does not show detail.; the less detail, the better. For other parameters, simply read my interpretation/notes.

iPhone 5S
This is one ubiquitous camera! Every other person seems to be carrying it. So how good is it really? Here is the image resized ‘for web’. I personally find the image a bit darker than others and the details are a bit muddy.

 

iPhone5S ISO64 f2.2

My observations-

Overall: A great emergency camera but generally cannot be used for enlargements/professional use. Having said that, I have to admit that I have a huge 3’x2′ enlargement of the Eiffel Tower taken by my wife using an iPhone 4 hanging in our living room. The image looks more like pop-art than one with details and that is what makes it beautiful.
Portability
starstarstarstarstar
iPhone 5S No need for a bag, extra batteries, lenses, etc.
Cost
starstarstarstarstar
 Approx. $700 Even as a dedicated camera, the cost is not bad, but then iPhones are phones first and cameras later.
Image noise
star
iPhone5S-64 Not good at all. A lot of detail in the petals is lost. This translates into bad enlargements and overall “muddy” images (as compared to others of course).
Image bokeh

starstar

iPhone5S ISO64 f2.2 The credenza edge is clearly defined and therefore, not a good bokeh at all. In fact, you can see quite a lot of detail in the credenza.

Samsung S5

This is probably the second most popular smartphone in US. The camera software interface has a lot of bells and whistles. For the following image, I used default settings. I personally find the image brighter than the iPhone, but everything seems to be in focus, even distant objects.

My observations-

Overall: Another great emergency camera but like the iPhone, cannot be generally used for enlargements/professional use.
Portability
starstarstarstarstar
Just like the iPhone, no need for a bag, extra batteries, lenses, etc. Whip it out of your pocket and within a second or two, you are ready to take a shot.
Cost
starstarstarstarstar
 Approx. $600 One of the cheapest of the lot tested here but just like the iPhones, these are multifunctional devices and being a camera is secondary to its main function.
Image noise
starstar
Quite noisy. There is some detail in the petals, but compared to others, it is pretty bad. Again, this translates into bad enlargements and overall soft images.
Image bokeh
starstar
Just like the iPhone, the credenza edge is clearly seen and therefore, not a good bokeh at all.
General/web use
starstarstarstar
Considering the portability of this phone, it’s ability to edit and upload on the go, it is a pretty good performer. The image quality on a typical browser looks good.
Print/professional use
starstar
Unless you “remake” the image that does not show noise (“illustration” effect), or enhances the noise as an “art” element, the image cannot be used professionally.

Sony RX100 II
The cheapest camera in the line up. This is a true point and shoot camera. However the camera has a lot of bells and whistles for advanced user. Again, I simply used the standard settings to take the image below. I personally find the image quite pleasing to the eye. Distant objects are quite a bit in focus but this is probably because the widest that the lens can open is f/5.6 (Note: smaller the number, less the depth of field or better the bokeh). As for noise, read on to see what that looks like.

Overall: The RX100 comes with a wonderful Carl-Zeiss lens which in itself is responsible for very sharp pictures. Coupled with the fantastic sensor and almost artificial intelligence-like software that can not only detect faces, but even knows when it the shot is of an infant, or if the shot is being backlight. The only down side of this camera is the lens. Despite being a premium lens it is still quite (as photographers call it) “slow”. The widest aperture on this lens seems to be 5.6 which makes a nice bokeh difficult.
Portability
starstarstarstar
This being a true point and shoot, it can be carried in a shirt pocket and yet be ready within seconds of needing to take a shot.
Cost
starstarstarstarstar
 Approx. $500 Cheapest of the lot tested here but since the device does only one thing well, produced better images than the smartphones.
Image noise
starstarstar