Chase Jarvis once said that the best camera is the one you have with you. Given the advent of smartphones and their built in cameras, nearly everyone has the ability to take a picture at any given moment. Couple that convenience and portability with social sharing and creative filtering, and you've got millions of new photographers creating art and learning basic principles of the craft. However, even an amateur photographer using their phone casually will inevitably begin to wonder what else is out there and how they can get started down the path towards becoming a more professional photographer with a more appropriate camera to take better pictures.
To really understand why a DSLR will give you creative freedom over your smartphone, we first have to understand exposure. This simply means the amount of light allowed to fall on the camera's sensor based on the control we have over said light.
There are three main components to exposure:
ApertureThe size of the "hole" we allow the light to pass through as it hits the sensor. This is extremely important and can be tough to understand when getting started in photography. All you need to know now is that the larger the hole, the more light we allow in, and the quicker we can achieve the proper exposure. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the longer it takes to gather the necessary light. Things start to get complicated when you add the fact that as our aperture gets larger, our depth of field, or cross-section of the photo that is in focus, becomes less deep. As we reduce the size of our aperture, you guessed it; our depth of field becomes wider and more of our photo will be in focus.
This control is one of the key differences between smartphones and most other cameras. The variable control we gain with a DSLR is not available to us on a camera phone, as they have "fixed" apertures. Although good smartphone cameras don't have terrible specs when it comes to aperture size, control of our aperture gives us the freedom to take creative liberties with our photos.
Shutter SpeedThis is the duration we allow light to hit our sensor. The faster the shutter speed, the easier it is to "stop" motion. Similarly, the longer we leave the shutter open, the more we see the effects of motion in our pictures. However, as is the case in many poor smartphone photos, these longer durations are what make photos look blurry. Our hands and arms move, our subjects move, and we miss moments. Even at speeds that sound fast, 1/20th or 1/40th of a second, we'll almost always get blurry results. Smartphone cameras choose shutter speeds automatically based on the amount of available light and the fixed aperture setting. The sequence below was taken with various shutter speeds while shooting a rolling car to highlight the stopping power of a fast shutter.
The brighter the scene, the faster the sensor will be able to gather the light, and the camera will be able to use a faster shutter speed. On the other end of this spectrum, dimly lit rooms and shots at night require much more time to expose the sensor, and we're more likely to be left with blurry pics. In these night shots especially, you'll start to see some "noise", or colorful pixels that generally detract from your photos. This is all tied in with the third area of exposure - ISO.
This third variable deals with the sensitivity of your camera's sensor
to light. When plenty of light is available to us, our sensor doesn't
have to guess or amplify light to provide a nice image. However, in
darker situations, the need to amplify the electronic signal to gather
light introduces unwanted noise - not unlike a microphone at a concert.
ISO numbers typically range from 100 all the way up to 3200 on the iPhone 5, and even higher on high end DSLRs. The higher the number, the more amplification and the more noise you'll see. With smartphones, since we don't have the ability to
"open up" our aperture to gather more light, and if we can't slow down
our shutter to collect the necessary light, the ISO must therefore be
increased, generally resulting in noisy and poor quality images. Of course, we can
take noisy pictures with a DSLR as well, but the expanded control we're afforded allows us to avoid this scenario.
Understanding how these three aspects of exposure work and interact together is the key to being a technically proficient and confident photographer. Playing and experimenting with these controls is the greatest benefit of using a DSLR over a smartphone. As with all creative endeavors, control, possibilities, and options are key. Control allows you to express your vision without compromise. At the risk of getting too deep here, loss of controls and variables can often be beneficial to creative types. Limitations force us to explore alternate methods and tricks to achieve unique results.
Additional Benefits of DSLRs
Interchangeable LensesBeyond the control you gain from manipulating all aspects of exposure, a DSLR will also allow you to change lenses as necessary. Most entry level kits provide a standard zoom lens, which will allow you to photograph a wide variety of subjects. From there, you could choose to buy an additional lenses depending on what you enjoy shooting or to assist with tricky shooting situations. For example, one of my favorite lenses is actually very inexpensive: a 50mm f/1.8. The number followed by the f denotes the lens's aperture. The lower the number, the larger the hole for the light to pass through, the faster we can gather light, and the shallower the depth of field becomes; which is generally a very pleasing look for portraits. The 50mm focal length is very close to what the human eye sees, meaning your shots will feel very natural and true to life. If you want to gain additional reach, your next lens could be a telephoto zoom lens. An affordable and versatile option would be the 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens. Between this, the 50mm, and a typical 18mm - 55mm kit lens, you'll have incredible flexibility. Something important to keep in mind is that "zooming" done on your smartphone is digital zoom, which ultimately degrades the image quality and is the equivalent of enlarging and cropping a file on your computer. Optical zoom through lenses is a far superior way of bringing the action closer, resulting in a crisper image.
RAW filesA RAW file taken from a DSLR contains more data that a flat .jpg file shot from a smartphone. These files are far more forgiving, even allowing us to lighten or darken an image's exposure without degrading its quality. As much as we all love Instagram filters, even the greatest effect can't bring back an overexposed image back to life.
FlashSure, smartphones come equipped with a small LED flash, but these pale in comparison to the flash you'll find built in to most entry level DSLR kits. Taking this one step further, you can choose to add an external flash or "speedlight" to your camera to really illuminate the scene. Learning how to tame and modify light is critical to taking great pictures, and I'd actually advise against going too flash crazy when first learning how to wield your new camera. Think of your on camera flash the same way you do an oxygen mask on an airplane: it's good to know it's there, but you hope you don't have reason to use it.
I've always hated trying to focus on my subject with a smartphone. Auto
focus is always too slow, and as great as the concept of tap to focus
is, I've been spoiled by the robust focusing systems built in to DSLRs.
Smartphone cameras use contrast detection to discern what is crisp,
while a DSLR uses multiple focus points and projected infrared grids to
gather information about the distance and position of subjects. Although
I don't use it often, I also really appreciate the ability to manually
focus on what I'm shooting. Removing the technological assistance can be
uncomfortable at times, but is ultimately very empowering to be in
complete control of what is in focus. Lastly, a quick auto focus system,
or skilled manual focusing, cuts down on the time between seeing
something worthy of shooting, and taking the actual shot. I can't think
of anything worse than missing a smile or glance from a subject because I
had to wait for my smartphone to clumsily detect what I was trying to
shoot. Second to that frustration is trying to gauge what I'm looking at
on my smartphone's LCD on a blazing sunny day.
Image size and quality
Quality over quantity doesn't just apply to the photos you take and the
lenses you own; it is also a great way of understanding megapixels and
the images you shoot. Although most smartphones boast cameras with 6, 8,
16 and even 41 megapixels, this doesn't mean a whole lot unless they're
good pixels. Sensor size means a lot when talking about the quality of pixels and how they're interpreted. A typical smartphone camera sensor is about the size of a Tic-Tac mint, while an entry level DSLR has a sensor closer to the size of a normal postage stamp. Both cameras could offer you a 16 megapixel file, but the larger sensor can more accurately translate what it has seen because the "pixel density" is closer to a 1:1 ratio.
What should I buy?
Without going too in-depth about the merits of every camera released in the last ten years, all I'll say is that you don't need the newest camera on the market to learn and practice photography. In fact, I suggest the opposite; buy the most affordable yet capable DSLR kit you can get your hands on. Don't be afraid to buy a used or refurbished camera, or even one that is a few years old. With the exception of minor enhancements and video features, most entry level cameras haven't improved by leaps and bounds that would matter to someone just starting out. One of my favorite cameras to carry around on a day out is an 8 year old, 8 megapixel Canon that I don't need to worry too much about dropping and abusing. Save your money for an additional "fast" lens, like the 50mm f/1.8 I mentioned earlier. Both Canon and Nikon offer this lens for less than $120. Mine is nearly 10 years old and works as well now as the day I bought it! The most important thing is to buy something you're comfortable with and get out there!
I'm sure that nobody reading this is pretending that their smartphone can take a better picture (technically speaking) than a DSLR, and it shouldn't be expected to (yet). Hopefully this post has shed a little light on the subject of making the exploratory jump to a DSLR if you're really enjoying the freedom and creativity that your smartphone camera has afforded you. In the end, the best camera is the one you have with you, so why not try carrying a better camera with you wherever you go? Personally, I've had a long time love of photography, and I hope that anyone trying to flex their creative and artistic chops will take the leap to photographing with a camera that will best serve their passion.
I've intended this post to be just one in a series of helpful photography lessons. I look forward to exploring more on controlling exposure and thinking differently about how you shoot pictures. The more you understand how your camera functions, the easier it becomes to take great pictures. Thanks for reading!