Phones Photography

Could a smartphone take a photo as good as this?

Could a smartphone take a photo as good as this
Horsing around: you'd struggle to get shots like this on a smartphone

There is no way of writing this article without it sounding like a humble brag. But reader David Blakemore saw a photo I took of a racehorse this week and asked: “With all the hype around premium phones and camera quality, [it] would be good to know if they could reproduce this quality.” So, could a smartphone take a photo as good as this? The answer’s no and here’s why.

The lens

Smartphones are capable of taking decent photos, no question. But they almost always do so with a tiny, bog-standard lens.

I took the photo above using a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. That lens alone costs more than any smartphone and that’s because it’s capable of taking exceptional images.

What makes the lens so special? Well, firstly the zoom. I was standing about 20-30m from the action, yet I was able to zoom in to fill the frame with the horse. (Zoom in so much, in fact, that I managed to chop the horse’s tail off, which I’m still kicking myself over.)

Your smartphone camera couldn’t do that. A handful of phones do now include optical zooms, but they’re nowhere near as powerful as that of a dedicated zoom lens. And most phones apply a ‘digital zoom’, which isn’t really a zoom at all. Instead, it just crops the image, reducing the overall quality.

The zoom isn’t the only thing going for the lens. It’s weighty and offers image stabilisation. That means I can hold the camera steady while I’m shooting and the lens itself will counter any minor shakes that might result in a blurry image. That’s particularly important when you’re using the zoom as even the tiniest of vibrations will introduce blur. (The blur you see in this image is deliberate, as I’ll come on to explain later.)

Many of the high-end smartphones also offer image stabilisation of a sort, but it’s not as effective. And because the phone itself is light, it’s much easier to introduce shake as you press the screen or tap a button to take the photo. That’s why so many mobile shots end up as a blurry mess.

The sensor

That massive lens is strapped to a Canon EOS 70D camera. This is by no means the latest and greatest camera – it’s around five years old now – but it’s still my day-to-day workhorse.

Inside that camera there’s what’s known as an APS-C sensor, measuring 22.5mm x 15mm. It captures 20 megapixels (20 million individual dots of light), which is fewer than some high-end smartphone cameras, but that only tells half the story.

The camera sensor inside your smartphone will be tiny, a fraction of the size of the APS-C. The main camera inside the Samsung Galaxy S9+, for example, has a sensor size of only “1/2.55in” – it’s so small they start expressing it as weird fractions of an inch.

So, while the sensor in my 70D is about the size of a large postage stamp, the sensor in the top-end smartphones is minute: much smaller than the fingernail on your little finger.

Consequently, it’s capable of capturing less light (especially in conjunction with those tiny smartphone lenses) and so you’re not able to get the full creative effects that are possible with a full-blown DSLR camera such as the 70D.

A bigger sensor capable of letting in more light is also better for action shots. In the shot below, for example, I’ve frozen the fast-moving horse by shooting at 1,600th of a second.

Brighton races; Photo copyright Barry Collins

Your smartphone’s pro mode might be able to shoot at such speeds and (much) higher too, but because the sensor’s receiving less light, it’s much more likely to introduce ‘noise’ – murky, mottled, indistinct images that are caused by the camera cranking up a setting called ISO to compensate for the lack of light.

The autofocus

Finally, let’s deal with another key component of capturing both the images above: the autofocus. The 70D has a superb 19-point autofocus. That means there are 19 different points from within the frame that you can choose to focus on.

It also has an autofocus mode called AI Servo. This means the camera’s autofocus will track moving objects, adjusting the focus as the subject moves. When you’ve got a horse galloping at 35mph, you haven’t got time to manually refocus, so you’re relying on the camera to adjust the focus for you.

The photo at the top was taken using a technique called panning. As the horse moved past me, I was moving my camera at the same speed, so that the horse remained in the centre of the frame. I was shooting at a low shutter speed (an 80th of a second) to create the motion blur in the background and on parts of the horse, while trying to keep the horse’s head in focus. The AI Servo mode adjusted the focus hundreds of times a second to keep that horse’s head sharp, resulting in a dramatic photo.

It would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to pull off the same shot on a smartphone. The autofocuses are slower and less accurate. And because you haven’t got a zoom lens to work with, the phone would have a nightmare trying to work out what you’re focusing on from 20-30m away. Neither would you get such a clear distinction between the in-focus horse and the blurred background.

So, sorry David. If you want to take photos like this, you’re going to need to splash out on some proper camera equipment. And maybe take a photography course.

Now read this: What is the ISO button on my camera?

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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