Back in 2016, I invested in a beginner-friendly DSLR camera to document a lengthy trip to Italy. My trip inspired me to create a travel blog, and as a novice (but passionate!) photographer, I wanted a DSLR to extensively document my travels and preserve memories in the most beautiful way possible. I couldn’t wait to wield my camera with me through the hills of Tuscany and the beaches of the Amalfi Coast—to snap pictures of every vintage Fiat and Renaissance statue I laid eyes on.
However, whenever it came time to actually use my camera, I ran into some issues:
- It was bulky, heavy, and didn’t fit in my bags.
- It was basically a sign I wore around my neck that said “Pickpocket me, I am a tourist!”
- It was expensive (and not insured), so I was afraid to lose it, break it, or have it stolen.
- In order to get a good picture, I had to hold up my travel group to adjust the settings.
But, these were necessary evils at the time. In the end, I was able to take some breathtaking photos that I still marvel at today (I even printed a few on canvas to hang on my walls).
This year, however, I purchased a new iPhone 8 Plus, and was blown away by what the camera could do. With Portrait Mode, it quickly made me wonder whether or not I needed my DSLR anymore. Yes, the DSLR photos from my trip were gorgeous, and I used them to decorate my home and complement the articles on my website. But as I’ve become better-acquainted with my iPhone, I’ve realized that its photos seem to rival those from my DSLR—only my iPhone is an impressive camera that can also fit inside my pocket.
With my new phone in hand and our professional photographer, Jax, in tow, I set out to find which 'camera' is better once and for all: my iPhone 8 Plus or a beginner-friendly DSLR camera.
How we compared the iPhone and DSLR
As someone who is not a professional photographer, but rather an average human and travel blogger, my goal was to compare the photo quality and convenience of each photography experience. I snapped travel-style photos on each camera to compare the raw images, but also to see which experience is better for an Instagram addict on the go. I’m no Gray Malin (open that in a new tab...I’ll wait), but my travel photos focus on unique and inspiring subjects, typically while pressed for time. The ability to take a beautiful photo efficiently played a large role in this test.
Below, you’ll find four side-by-side photos I would feature on my own travel site, each one taken with both a DSLR and iPhone. See the results for yourself.
Which camera takes better pictures of…
An adorable pork bun in a dark restaurant
Inside Tom’s Bao Bao, I wanted the perfect shot of my adorable bun before tearing into it like the beast that I am. But the lighting was tough to work with—as it is in most restaurants. I tried my best to replicate the shot using both cameras, but because of the bulkiness of the DSLR, I struggled to even hold the bun out to take its picture (hence this heinous photo). The iPhone had an unfair advantage because I could easily position the bun against the light while using it.
A beautiful cappuccino in a bright cafe
Next, I ventured to my favorite local coffee shop to sip on a cappuccino—one of my favorite daily activities from Italy! Natural light poured into the coffee shop making for the perfect photo opp. Portrait Mode on the iPhone effortlessly made the drink look even more appetizing than it did in person. With the DSLR, I had to back away from the table in order to get the cappucino into focus, which was inconvenient for the diners around me.
The Harvard University chapel in broad daylight
When photographing Harvard’s campus, the iPhone and the DSLR both did a good job. Since I was photographing something large and distant, it wasn’t awkward to use the DSLR at all.
A colorful bench and my stylish shoes at dusk
When photographing street style, the weather is always a challenge. The DSLR and the iPhone both did a good job picking up the vibrant colors, but it was easier to get a more interesting picture with the iPhone because again, I was shooting the subject close up. I found the DSLR blew out the highlights from the sun a bit more than the iPhone did too.
Overall winner for on-the-go photography: iPhone
Shooting on-the-go with my iPhone was far more convenient than shooting with the DSLR. Our smartphone expert, Michael, wasn’t shocked by those results. He explained, “A smartphone is packed with all sorts of imaging software tricks that make its cameras competent performers, particularly when it comes to low-light settings, which are notoriously difficult to shoot in.”
However, a DSLR does offer the photographer more options, and there is room to grow in terms of skill level. The iPhone is far more convenient as far as space and ease of use, but it is limiting in terms of settings and capabilities. With more time and expertise I have no doubt the DSLR could've beaten the iPhone in all of these test shots, but that's the thing—I didn't have the time to get it perfect, and most people rarely do.
Overall, when it comes to documenting travels, moments, and memories, today’s smartphones certainly do the trick. They are not without their caveats, including a near-$1,000 sticker price these days, but they can save you from investing in a DSLR camera that could potentially collect dust in your closet as technology continues to evolve.
Still worried you won’t have to best-looking photos possible? There are a number of smartphone camera accessories you can buy to further enhance the experience.