A Practical Test: Mobile vs. SLR Photography

In the last two years I have grown a bit tired of always carrying around my heavy SLR camera that I normally use to capture places and events in Berlin. I would still take pictures, but with my smartphone. I felt the quality was quite good and the convenience of it was too tempting. Also you just look less suspicious with a smartphone than with a real one.

But the fact is, I never really put it to the test how good the quality of mobile phone cameras really is compared to the big ones. A few weeks ago I joined a comprehensive workshop with famous photographer Paul Ripke who showed us some basic tricks on how to improve your photos and he also introduced one particularly interesting new development of smartphone photography which is the professional manual mode. We got to play around with the Huawei P9 and brand new Mate 9, both of which have quite remarkable cameras with a double lens by Leica. I took one of these two with me on a photowalk around Berlin and took direct comparison shots with a medium-sized SLR camera. The results will probably surprise you…

Obviously, comparing a SLR camera with a big lense with a small smartphone camera seems a bit unfair. But in the frame of my work this actually is quite possible: I take my photos mostly for the blog and for my Instragam account. This means they will be published in a quite small format anyway, so all those extra pixels a SLR will supply are not even required. Also, I edit all my photos in Lightroom or in the VSCO app, also the ones in this test. Editing means, adding a VSCO filter, cropping, tilting, adjusting white balance and brightness if required. So nothing major really, no retouching.

Below you will see the results taken with the Mate 9 on the left, overlaid with the results taken with the Canon 600D with a Sigma Art Lens 18-35mm f/1.8 on the right. You can use the slider to move back and forth between the same photo taken with the two different devices. I tried to use the same filters on both, only minor adjustments like brightness and white balance differ.

Details and Resolution

At first sight the results with the Mate 9 are pretty impressive. The richness of details in this format is practically the same. The Mate 9 has a 12MP color sensor and a 20MP monochrome sensor which brings it pretty close to the 18MP of the SLR camera I was using. In practice the smartphone photo comes out a bit smaller than the SLR one, but as mentioned above, if you don’t actually use the pixels you won’t feel a loss.

In the case of the second and third photo below I actually think the results with the Mate 9 were better because the interpolation of the bringt sky and the more shadowy areas closer to me worked quite well which I wasn’t able to accomplish with my SLR on the fly.




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Low Light Situations

The bad quality of low light photos is a major bummer about smartphone photography. It’s totally understandable when you consider the size of the lens. Obviously a big SLR lens is gonna bring in much more light to the sensor. Or so I thought…

For Instagram I have already been using low light smartphone photos more generously because the displays and the filters kind of make it work. But I wouldn’t use the same photos on the blog because on the computer screen you could just see the noise in the dark areas of underexposed areas. The Mate 9 did actually do the job. On first sight the results can live up to the ones of the SLR (please not I was using a particularly light sensitive lens with a f/1.8 aperture on the big camera, so the comparison is really really unfair here), only on second sight you will see there is a bit more structure in the reflections on the water and on the asphalt in the photos shot with the Canon.



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Bokeh Effect

Here’s one feature that’s trending right now in mobile photography: The so-called Bokeh Effect. This means you have a sharp object in the foreground and the background is totally blurry which gives the picture a certain depths. Normally smartphones focus on both back and foreground which has also something to do with the small lens. With the Sigma Art lens I can create a very extrem Bokeh Effect thanks to the large aperture.

With the Bokeh Feature of the Mate 9 there is now a way to simulate the nice effect. You can see some examples below. Note that the one on the smartphone is merely a simulation that blurs the background with automated digital editing on the fly. You can even later on change the strength of the blurriness or refocus between fore and background. It works quite well on objects that have a clear shape on a relatively calm background. You need to try to avoid high contrast structures in the background to get the best results. I kinda like the results and they get quite close to the SLR ones.



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The Final Verdict

The technological progress of smartphone photography is really impressive, especially with devices like the Huawei Mate 9. I was really not expecting the results to be as good as they turned out to be. I see a few things as clear advantages of the new Huawei smartphone:

  • There seems to be much less lens distortion towards the borders of the pictures which make them appear more even. The SLR photos often bend straight lines towards the borders.
  • With the SLR, even in manual mode I sometimes find it impossible to make the sky break out in white and the rest of the photo seems almost underexposed. There might be a way to avoid this, but I certainly haven’t figured it out. The Mate 9 already finds a good balance between very bright and more dark areas of the photo.
  • The focus on fast moving objects works really well without much effort. This is perfect for #driveby or #walkby photos. For street photography this is quite important. The focussing of my SLR, especially with the Sigma lens, is too slow for that.
  • The low light capabilities are the best I have seen so far in a smartphone.

And where does the SLR camera win?

  • Obviously in size. The photos are approximately 1/4 larger than the smartphone ones and if you need the bigger size you will need to use a SLR.
  • If I compare the manual mode of the SLR with the smartphone one the SLR has a better usability. I did use the manual mode with the Mate 9 a couple of times when I didn’t like the automatic white balance or the brightness. But changing these settings on the touch screen will take you a moment. It’s great that it’s possible, but not likely that I will use it as often than on the SLR.

My final verdict is, that given the format I need and considering what is possible with digital editing, the results with the smartphone are equal to the ones with the SLR, no exceptions. The photo series you see here is the entire tour, I didn’t leave anything out that didn’t fit the narrative. I think my SLR will probably stay home even more now.

And one last piece of advice: Should you consider getting one of the new Huawei devices and wonder if you should get the Mate 9 or the P9. Technically the two are quite similar. The only major difference for me is the size. The Mate 9 is quite large, so unless you have big hands or are really into these large phones, you might wanna pick the P9 that has more of a regular smartphone size. Enjoy!

Thanks for the support by Huawei!

Frank by
on December 29th, 2016
updated on December 30th, 2016
in Photos

2 Responses to “A Practical Test: Mobile vs. SLR Photography”

  1. Karsten Says:

    Salut Frank,

    sehr schöne Idee, dieser Artikel. Ich nutze auch immer öfter nur noch mein Handy (Google Pixel) zum fotografieren, weil ich festgestellt habe, dass es für die meisten Zwecke völlig ausreichend ist.

    Für mich und wahrscheinlich auch für viele andere Leser wäre es allerdings hilfreich, wenn man sich die Original Bilder in voller Auflösung anschauen könnte (am besten so verlinken, dass sie sich im neuen Tab öffnen). Denn erst dann offenbart sich wirklich, wie gut oder schlecht die Bildqualität ist.

    Trotzdem vielen Dank!
    Ciao Ciao Karsten

  2. Frank Says:

    Hi Karsten,

    die Auflösung einer Handy Kamera und einer SLR sind natürlich sehr unterschiedlich (meinem Fall Beispiel 1:4), das in jeweils voller Größe zu vergleichen da würde die SLR natürlich besser abschneiden, weil sie einfach mehr Pixel einfängt. Mit dem Test hier wollte ich die beiden Technologien aber auf einer fair vergleichbare Ebene herunterholen und zwar in diesem Fall mit der Seitenbreite meines Blogs von 640px. Ich hätte das auch in 800px oder 1200px machen können und die Ergebnisse wären ähnlich. Ich hab’s jetzt nicht ganz genau ausprobiert, aber es wird sicherlich im Bereich 1500-2500px irgendwo einen Punkt geben, wo man bei den Smartphone Fotos unterbelichtete Bereiche oder künstlich erhöhten Kontrast mehr erkennen kann, das sind für mich so die typischen Malessen von Mobile Photos. Aber das is auch nix, was sich nicht mit Lightroom noch korrigieren ließe um auch schöne Ergebnisse zu erzielen. Letztlich zählt wirklich der Anwendungsbereich ob nun Mobile Photos als SLR Ersatz in Frage kommen. Bei mir nach wie vor schon 🙂

    Danke für dein Feedback!


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