Why is a smartphone camera “smarter” than a DSLR?

Smartphone cameras and DSLR/mirrorless cameras are nothing more than tools to capture an image. With the dedicated camera being so much more expensive than a smartphone, you’d think the phone would do a worse job, but phones seem to actually focus and expose better than a DSLR under the same circumstances. Why is that? There are several factors involved.

Focusing on a subject is the first thing that comes to mind because it’s one of those things that easily ruins your photos if it’s off by even a little bit. Why is focusing so much better on a smartphone camera? A smartphone has a much larger depth of field comparable to a strongly stopped down DSLR, which means that the phone’s focus is much more forgiving. Phones also have wide angle lenses while DSLR lenses can be all sorts of different focal lengths; a wider angle lens has more acceptable focus depth and reduces the expected detail visible for anything that’s not close to the phone. Phones are designed to try to focus on faces and objects that are larger in the frame while a DSLR often has a lot of different focus modes and options. If you set a DSLR to a focus mode combination that’s similar to the tuning of a smartphone, the focus will work more like a smartphone.

Image exposure issues (too bright or too dark) are another situation where a phone seems to do a better job, but whether this is true or not is entirely dependent on the DSLR exposure metering setting. Most non-phone cameras come with a general “evaluative” metering set by default which tries to expose properly for everything in the frame. This can be changed to other methods such as spot metering which exposes based on a very small spot in the center of the frame. Many dedicated cameras can do face tracking exposure, object following exposure, and sometimes zone exposure which exposes for a portion of the frame that you select in advance. Phones generally favor faces and larger objects because phones are most often used to photograph people and close objects, so they will tend to make better exposure choices by default (such as not darkening due to a bright open window behind the subject) for such objects than a DSLR in the default evaluative metering mode. DSLRs are used for every kind of photography imaginable from macro to long zoom and from landscapes to portraits to product shots, so they require additional configuration to optimize for whatever unique shooting conditions are being faced. Cameras aren’t psychic. Set the DSLR to a similar mode such as face tracking metering and it’ll behave in a similar manner to a smartphone that does the same.

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are much more capable tools than a smartphone camera, but you need to understand how to configure and use them for each unique shooting situation to get good results.

Why do so many YouTube vloggers use DSLRs instead of camcorders?

If you’re wondering why stills cameras such as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are sometimes used for video rather than video-centric camcorders, there are a few reasons.

The biggest by far is the larger sensor size in most stills cameras. My cheap Canon camcorder has a 1/4.85″ sensor which results in a “crop factor” (a number used to represent the reduction in size relative to a full-frame 35mm sensor, so 2x crop means 1/2 the surface area) of 11.68x, while my Canon APS-C DSLR has a crop factor of 1.6x, over ten times larger than the camcorder’s sensor. As a general rule, larger sensor surface area results in more accurate sampling of light hitting the sensor, which in turn means less image noise and higher image quality, though the details of sensor size are more complex than we have room to discuss here. Larger sensors also make it far easier to obtain shots with shallow depth of field, where the background elements are heavily out of focus and the in-focus subject “pops out” by comparison, an effect which is generally pleasing to the eye and is very common in portrait photography.

Another reason is access to interchangeable lenses. Camcorders have permanent optical systems that can’t be changed, so the user is stuck with the engineering trade-offs made by the company when designing the system. Interchangeable-lens cameras like DSLRs allow the user to change the entire optical system beyond the sensor to achieve different results. One huge advantage of this is access to “fast primes” which are lenses with a fixed focal length and a very wide aperture, letting in tons of light and enabling extremely shallow depth of field effects. Prime lenses generally have superior image quality over zoom lenses, and all camcorders tend to be zoom lens systems with a very large zoom range. Primes can also be very cheap despite this high image quality. The “tack sharp” look of a properly utilized fast prime lens is an extremely attractive feature and is considered by many to be mandatory for anyone using a DSLR for filmmaking. Beyond the fast primes, the ability to change to different types of zoom lenses is also useful because (as a general rule) longer range between the widest and longest focal lengths on a zoom results in lower image quality overall. For those with thousands of dollars to spend on a lens, a DSLR enables the use of lenses manufactured for exceptional image quality such as the Canon “L” lenses, which tend to be over $1,000 each. Camcorders rarely have optical systems with the level of quality that such premium lenses provide.

A third reason is simply that of trends. DSLR filmmaking has been a big trend since the release of the Canon 5D Mark II included decently useful video capability in a relatively common full-frame camera for the first time. As this excellent video capability filtered down to lower and lower lines of DSLR, the ability to use DSLR cameras to make professional videos reached more people and the other features mentioned above made these cheap DSLRs very attractive to aspiring filmmakers. It was a novelty when the 5Dmk2 landed that caught loads of attention and today it’s largely fueled by the momentum of the trend. Which leads me to…

Why is a camcorder still a good choice? Why do I often recommend camcorders over DSLRs to so many people with $1,000 and the need to shoot videos? Why would you want to AVOID DSLR or mirrorless cameras for video work?

Camcorders are designed for video first and photography a distant second. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are still photography-centric devices despite being more and more video-friendly. The ergonomics of a camcorder are set up with video shooting in mind. Camcorders are generally more compact than DSLRs and some mirrorless camera setups. Camcorders tend to have long zoom ranges already built in and the lenses used tend to be quite good since they’re permanently installed. The smaller sensors in most camcorders tend to result in more in-focus area and much more forgiving and accurate auto-focus, making focusing dead simple compared to most DSLRs. Camcorders have smaller sensors which means longer battery life and no risk of sensor overheating from prolonged shooting. Stills cameras often have a 30-minute video recording time limit thanks to an extremely stupid EU tax on video camcorders that desperately needs to be repealed. Crucially, video camcorders have full control of the zoom system through a small rocker on the camcorder body itself AND if the camcorder has remote control functions, the zoom can be controlled remotely. DSLR cameras can’t control lens zoom due to the nature of the camera: every lens has a different zoom capability (or none at all.) There are “remote servo” kits that add electronic zoom control to a DSLR video rig, but they’re not exactly user-friendly things to configure and they’re not cheap.

There are a lot of people using DSLR cameras that should be using camcorders, but the combination of trendy momentum plus access to shallow depth of field, lower image noise, and interchangeable lenses means that the DSLR video craze is here to stay.

Why would you choose a camcorder over a mirrorless camera? Here’s why.

In a YouTube comment chain, there was a lively discussion about auto-focus on mirrorless cameras in which I suggested that anyone needing good auto-focus would be better off using a real camcorder than a camera in the “stills camera” style of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I wrote the following in response to the question “why do most vloggers use mirrorless cameras then? I have never seen a vlogger with a camcorder. My [Panasonic] G7 has actually been serving me very well, partly because I don’t know much about video.”

Why do so many coffee drinkers buy Starbucks? Why do so many editors use Apple computers to run Premiere when PCs are objectively a better value and have much lower total cost of ownership? Ever since the Canon 5D Mark II made inroads into Hollywood (which, incidentally, is why Technicolor CineStyle exists and why normies shouldn’t touch CineStyle) it has been fashionable to buy a Canon DSLR and use it as a video camera. When mirrorless cameras came out, they simply offered a metric ton more advanced features than Canon cams at the same price point because Canon artificially segments their camera market by literally turning off features in software on cheaper cameras (my old T1i got focus peaking with Magic Lantern, for example).

The Panasonic GH4 was the first mirrorless camera with 4K and it was way cheaper than Canon’s full-frame lineup which had no 4K but still had lots of momentum, so we saw a lot of people jump ship to Panasonic’s GH4 for the cheap 4K with interchangeable lenses. No one cared about Sony mirrorless cameras until they came out with the first mass-market full-frame mirrorless bodies, which somehow magically made their cheap mirrorless cameras seem amazing by pure name association; everyone ignored Sony’s garbage highlight rolloff and heavy video noise reduction that kills most of the fine detail in your shots.

Mirrorless cameras are a trend and the sheep follow the trend. Full-frame mirrorless across the major manufacturers that aren’t Sony was an inevitable trend too, and people are starting the trend, flocking largely to the EOS R system for full-frame mirrorless video. What’s the EOS R system, really? Well, it’s a 5D Mark IV designed with the flange distance of a mirrorless lens system rather than that of a standard DSLR lens system. They had a neat idea to add a general-purpose on-lens electronic control ring to the EOS R system which was very smart, but other than that, it’s ultimately nothing more than a repackaged 5D Mark IV core, and it’s crippled to avoid cannibalizing the market served by the very expensive Canon C-series digital cine camera line. People would get far more features and value out of Panasonic’s FF mirrorless system just as they did with Panasonic’s MFT cameras, but…Canon’s a big name, Canon’s still got 5D Mark II momentum, and Canon announced a little earlier, so the sheep continue to follow the trend.

Smaller sensors and camcorder ergonomics are extremely useful. Small sensors require smaller, lighter optics. Small sensors have a much larger depth of field which means you can’t easily shoot a bokehlicious shot like on a big camera, but you will rarely (if ever) miss focus. Backgrounds are important and DSLR shooters tend to blow the backgrounds too far out of focus chasing that “film look” shallow DOF that usually doesn’t look as cool as they think it does; camcorders don’t do that, so you don’t have to worry about the context provided by the background being lost (if you’re walking around in a city, don’t you want people to see more than just your face and a blur of mush around it?) Small sensors are much easier to stabilize because they’re lighter. They don’t overheat easily. They use a lot less power and their rolling shutter (aka “jello”) tends to be far less pronounced. Because camcorders are sealed optical systems that’ll never be changed, the glass inside all but the cheapest ones tend to be very high in quality.

Camcorder ergonomics are a big deal because they’re designed explicitly for video first. You can comfortable hold a camcorder at the height of your neck for a long time thanks to the right hand strap and the way it conforms to your hand when your arm is locked upright, but you’ll have a pretty hard time doing the same with the grip style of a photo camera. That’s why so many people end up buying handles and grips and cages for stills cameras used for video, which constitutes an added expense and an imperfect solution. Camcorders have a zoom lever at your gripping hand’s fingertips; all stills cameras have those controls as rings on lenses and you’ll have a very hard time zooming on a non-rigged stills camera without wobbling the shot, never mind that it’s hard to move non-electronic lens rings both slowly AND with a fluid motion at the same time.

Camcorders also have a unique advantage when you want to use remote control: if I use my Panasonic G7 in the Panasonic app, I can control the camera and the aperture and focus in the lens, but I can’t control the zoom on the lens at all. There are expensive remote lens servo systems that can do this but again, that’s an added cost over just getting a camcorder instead. The same Panasonic app connected to my Panasonic VX870 4K camcorder can control the zoom remotely. I have actually used this; I mounted the VX870 on top of the floating ceiling of a bar area in a restaurant to point it down at both the dance floor and stage. I needed to change the shot to be closer during the show because it was too wide, but I couldn’t get the 12 foot ladder back out during the show. The remote app let me punch in further and tighten up the shot from the ground, greatly improving the footage.

I’d also like to point out that both action cameras and gimbal+camera all-in-one units like those made by DJI are camcorders, not stills cameras, and are used by quite a few vloggers. I’d also point out that many other people just use a flagship phone on a stick because they already have a fancy phone with a fancy internal camera in their pocket. Sometimes the camera choice just doesn’t matter that much and it’s all about what you can do with what you already have.