Practical Ecommerce

Product Photography: DSLR Cameras vs. Smartphones

High quality product photography is key for building customer trust and increasing conversions on ecommerce sites. A topic that comes up a lot at Arqspin, my 360 photography company, is whether it’s worth investing in a DSLR camera for product photography or if a smartphone’s camera can get the job done. Many people think they need a DSLR to take product photos, but with each new generation of smartphones, the quality gap is narrowing.

There’s no doubt that a DSLR camera with a good lens will beat a smartphone camera every time if you get down to the nitty gritty. DSLRs are far more versatile with a range of interchangeable lenses to accommodate the project you’re working on — such as a macro lens for shooting small objects. Most importantly, the lenses in a DSLR are much larger than the lenses in a smartphone, which helps capture sharper images with a shallower depth of field, especially in low light situations.

Despite their capabilities, DSLRs are bulky and lack the connectivity of smartphones for instant photo sharing. And you can’t forget about post-production work. DSLRs require you to upload the files to your computer, edit them using expensive software, and move them to your server or website. They’re also a hefty investment — the price of a quality camera can be in the thousands, as can be the cost of a collection of lenses. Since you’ll probably be buying or upgrading your smartphone anyway, a better investment is finding one with a good camera and purchasing a tripod and better lights instead.

So which smartphones on the market have cameras competitive enough for product photography?

1. iPhone

iPhone 6

iPhone 6

Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus release last month came with an 8-megapixel iSight camera. Though its competitors offer up 13, 16, and even 41-megapixel cameras, what the iPhone lacks here it makes up for in features. The new models have Focus Pixels, which give you a faster and better autofocus. iPhones also have exposure control, so you can lighten or darken a photo up to four f-stops in both directions. The iPhone 6 Plus has optical image stabilization, which allows the lense to move and compensate as you move or shake, creating crisper photos, especially in low light.

The latest iOS 8 update also has a new photo app, so you can instantly edit, adjust, or apply photo filters to your image. The new generation of iPhones is available in the usual 16GB and 64GB of storage, but now offer a 128GB model as well, giving you a range of options for storing your photos. Despite the updates and larger screens of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, there’s still love for the iPhone 5S, which also has an 8-megapixel camera that takes quality photos even in low lighting. The iPhone is a good option for product photography due to its large storage capabilities and editing features. If you want to shoot, edit, and share images all on your phone, the iPhone will allow you to do that.

2. Samsung Galaxy S5

GalaxyS5

GalaxyS5

Fan favorite Samsung Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel camera with a 0.3-second autofocus capability. It features Samsung’s Isocell image sensor, which helps with image and color quality in low light situations. A unique feature of the S5 is its selective focus system, which lets you change the focus of a photo after it’s been taken. It also has a continuous autofocus mode that helps capture fast moving objects — great for action shots. With a 5.1-inch display, it gives you more room to work than the iPhone 6, but not quite as much as the iPhone 6 Plus. It’s available with 16GB and 32GB storage, depending on how many photos you plan on storing. The S5 puts out high resolution images big enough for any kind of product photography, and would be a good option for action shots if you need to show your products in motion.

3. Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

This photo buff smartphone comes with a whopping 41-megapixel camera. It can seem a bit bulky due to the protruding camera on the back, but its 4.5-inch screen gives you enough space to work on the high resolution, detailed images it produces. The 1020 takes high-resolution and creative mode shots (lower-res for easier sharing) at the same time. It’s built to excel in low light settings and like the iPhone 6 Plus, offers optical image stabilization. It’s only available in 32GB storage, which is a bit small for a phone developed around photos. This is a competitive option for product photography, and has megapixels that compete even with the top DSLR cameras. The 1020 would work well for close up or very detailed product shots.

4. Nexus 6

Nexus 6

Nexus 6

While it isn’t in anyone’s hands yet (pre-orders began on October 23), the highly anticipated Nexus 6 has a 13-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization to capture high quality photos in daylight and low light. Its large 6-inch display makes it easy to capture and edit photos, and with 32GB or 64GB of storage, should be able to hold all of your product photography needs. Early reviewers of the Nexus 6 praise it for its ability to shoot high quality photos at nighttime. The Nexus 6’s “phablet” size would make it easy to edit product photos right on the device. It also operates well in almost any lighting, which would be good for that lighting kit I hope you consider buying.

Which to Choose?

Not only do these smartphones capture high quality photos, but the range of apps that can extend their capabilities make it easy for anyone to make images look professional. And since they’re already connected to a data network, sharing photos with others or uploading them to your website is virtually seamless.

If I had to choose one smartphone for my product photography, my vote is for the iPhone. While its camera doesn’t have the highest resolution, its features promise consistently good photographs. Combined with Apple’s user-friendly iOS 8 interface, using an iPhone for your product photography will help you get the job done with a tool you probably already have.

Summary

If you’re looking for the best photo quality you can get with no qualms on budget, then by all means invest in a DSLR camera. But if you want to create great product photography that is budget and time friendly, give your smartphone a try.

I tell people who are serious about making an investment in their product photography equipment to spend it on a tripod and lighting. As I’ve said before, I like the Elinchrom D-Lite 4 Kit. It includes two lights, tripods, and attachable diffuser squares. A good lighting kit can set the stage for high quality product photography with any of these smartphone cameras.

Jason Lawrence

Jason Lawrence

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Comments ( 13 )

  1. Mike November 6, 2014 Reply

    If only it were that simple, at the end of the day it’s not the camera it’s the talent of the person holding it, their eye for composition – yes composition is important in product photography – and don’t forget the lighting.
    Smart phones are great for the quick shot but if you want your customers to get a real feel for the purchase they’re about to make, it’s all about the detail and how well they can see what they’re buying.
    Many purchases are returned because the customer didn’t get what they expected from the picture, so it’s often worth the investment in high quality photography from a professional product photographer

  2. Michael Atman November 6, 2014 Reply

    Can you comment on aperture values of these phones? If I am not mistaken, the iPhone for example uses a fixed aperture of 2.2.

    I would be concerned about showing depth in my object and keeping my entire product in focus.

    Also, entry level Canon cameras start at only $350 brand new with a great lens. Used DSLR’s can be found for under $200 with a lens.

    Thoughts?

    • Jason November 8, 2014 Reply

      Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. You are correct, the iPhone 6 camera is listed as having an aperture of f/2.2. However, the Depth of Field (DoF) of the camera, which is the range of distances in the scene that are captured in focus, the aperture is only one part of the equation. The DoF also depends on the focal length, focal distance, and the physical size of the lens and sensor. Due to those other factors, the iPhone 6 camera still produces a wide DoF, which is what you want if the goal is to capture your entire product in focus.

      In fact, the most important difference between smartphone cameras and DSLR cameras is the size of the glass lens. The bigger the glass lens the shallower the achievable DoF (which is desirable in many situations).

      Yes, entri-level Canon cameras are becoming less expensive, but I’d still put them against the iPhone 6 camera in a blind side-by-side comparison. I just don’t think the performance differences merit a second investment (I’m assuming you will likely already be buying a smartphone). Take that $350 and buy studio lights.

      Jason

  3. Steve Story November 6, 2014 Reply

    Well, yes, new phones can take fairly good pictures. The author then says you can add apps to “extend their capabilities”. What the author is not apparently aware of is you do not have to spend money at all on expensive Photoshop-like software to manipulate images nor are you required to put your images on any other computer to share the pictures.

    For example, my Nikon D-5300 has built in (in the camera) Wi-Fi. I can simply, immediately wirelessly send my images to any smart device for instant sharing and viewing. Furthermore, I don’t need to send my images to a different computer for enhancing. I can adjust many parameters such as contrast, lighting, mood, color balance, sharpness, etc. in camera very quickly. Also, to take HDR pictures is simple. I select HDR and the camera automatically takes and combines two images, one underexposed and one over exposed, to make one much better image. Multiple exposures on one image are easy.

    You can auto-bracket easily. You can easily use multiple flashes. You can take High Def video with stereo sound if you want. You can easily choose from a bunch of preset picture taking settings such as nature, portrait, night vision, vivid, landscape, etc. which vary things like color balance, color saturation, sharpness, ISO (sensor sensitivity (film speed & graininess)), monochrome (black & white) … sheesh, the list is much longer. Try color space options on a phone. Pixel count is important for marketing but image sensor size and image quality is ultimately much more important. Try adding different size and quality lenses to a phone.

    Bottom line, phones are indeed amazing calling contraptions today. You can call and surf the web. You can even take pictures. New DSLR cameras can Wi-Fi seamlessly, alter pictures in-camera, and are a much, much better option if image quality is important.

    • Jason November 8, 2014 Reply

      Steve,

      Thanks for the comment. Fair enough: you often don’t need additional apps to make great photos, but I’m not sure I agree that smartphone cameras aren’t more than adequate for creating professional-grade product photos.

      I spend a lot of time coaching e-commerce merchants on how to make better product photography and, by and large, the biggest impediment are almost always factors other than the camera: (1) basic understanding of photography/scene composition (2) using a tripod (3) using studio lights and (4) using a backdrop. We spend a lot of time on our blog trying to help people learn these important lessons: http://arqspin.com/blog

      In this article I was trying to call attention to the common misconception that “I’m only a nice camera away from being able to take professional-grade product photos.” Unfortunately, as you and others have noted, it’s not as easy as that. I’m also pointing out that the camera in your pocket is most likely good enough to get the job done, once those other important factors are addressed. Take a look at this comparison between the iPhone 6 and $8,000 worth of Canon DSLR gear: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/10/smartphone-camera-vs-dslr/3/

      Jason

      • Steve Story November 9, 2014 Reply

        From the link you supplied, Jason:

        “… Comparing the iPhone’s best picture to the DSLR’s shows that the iPhone is hopelessly outclassed. …”

        I would agree, Jason, if all you have is a phone camera then use what you have. Heck, some film, and shoebox, and a small hole in the box will take pictures.

        To says a camera phone, and they are decent, is a suitable alternative to a “real” camera; to me, is to suggest two cans and some string can be made to be a suitable alternative to a cell phone. :)

        • Jason November 10, 2014

          Steve,

          That article goes on to conclude that:

          “We’ve definitely got enough here to show that under many conditions, a smartphone that costs a few hundred dollars is mostly as good as a DSLR that costs eight-to-ten times as much.”

          and

          “…raise your iPhones up high and snap away—unless you need to spend a lot on a camera, you’re almost certainly fine. Step away from automatic shooting and learn the camera’s settings a bit, maybe, but don’t feel like you need to spend thousands to take better pictures. Instead, remember this photography aphorism: Amateurs worry about gear; professionals worry about money; masters worry about light.”

          There is a performance gap, sure, but string+can vs telephone sized-gap? No way.

          Jason

  4. Mark November 6, 2014 Reply

    I agree with Mike, it comes down to user ability to shoot the images – correct camera settings for the lighting environment. And lighting being one of the most important variables involved..

    Speaking of photography, anyone see this kickstarter project for 360 product photography? https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1078288849/360-product-photography-turntable-and-software

  5. Jason November 8, 2014 Reply

    Mike,

    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree: a camera will only take you so far. The most important thing is, of course, the operator. The point I was trying to make was that smartphone cameras have gotten really good, certainly good enough to create great product shots (that include high detail), and that buying a smartphone is a purchase you’re most likely already going to make so take the money you save by not buying a separate DSLR and invest that in other important (often overlooked) equipment like a tripod + lighting + backdrops, etc.

    Jason

  6. James Cooper December 14, 2014 Reply

    I am confused about the comparison man! Is it really comparable of any shots taken by a DSLR camera and by a smart Phone. I guess the quality vary in a huge amount of the shots between two of them. After taking pictures the post processing requires a high resolution image for making over something like http://www.clippingpathspecialist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Completed-image-using-background-eraser-tool.jpg . I guess shots taken in smart phone are not good enough for any kind of photography.

  7. Arnstein Bjone February 15, 2015 Reply

    I once made a comparison between my DSL and my 3 other cameraes. I was quite how well my phone perfermed (in daylight..): http://www.bjonefoto.no/2013-05-17_DSLR-vs-compact-vs-camcorder-vs-mobile_9600p_.jpg

    See also http://www.bjonefoto.no/Foto/2013-05-17_DSLR-vs_Compact-vs-Camcorder-vs-Mobile_1920p.jpg

  8. John April 24, 2015 Reply

    I disagree. As a professional photographer if getting the job done means replicating what a DSLR can do then ABSOLUTLY NOT. Even an entry level DSLR with a kit lens will out perform a smartphone.

    And when you say the gap between the two is getting smaller, once again i disagree. I own a 5D mark III and i dont think cellphones will replicate its quality within the next ten years.

  9. David Stone February 1, 2016 Reply

    Good article but I was a bit surprised at your reliance on tripods. With a decent modern camera…say a Nikon D3300 ($350) and a 35 mm f1.8 prime lens ($200) you can shoot sharp hand-held photos at night with just a touch of ambient light. Tripods in 2015 should only be needed for long night time exposures. I can’t imagine why you need them for shooting brightly lit scenes.