Phone camera vs. full camera: Which is a better deal?

Cameras, editing tools, and photography apps have nearly become a necessary accessory for smart phone users today. But does that mean you should invest in a souped-up smart phone for photography over a standalone camera?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A father takes a self portrait photo of himself and his son with his smart phone in a park Sept. 16 in Rio de Janeiro.

High-definition video, 41 megapixels, and 10x optical zoom, may sound like excellent camera features, but lately they can be found on a device you stash in your pocket every day: the smart phone.

Smart phone cameras have taken off in recent years as point-and-shoot technology has fused with mobile innovations. This has ushered in an unprecedented era of portable photography – every day more than 4.5 million photos are uploaded to Flickr, and the most popular devices behind the shots are the iPhone 4, iPhone 4s, and iPhone 5.

This poses a tough decision for shutterbugs: should you put your money into a new smart phone with the latest gadgetry or a high-end camera focused only on taking the best photos possible? The first step is to assess your photography personality.

“I think it's very important for camera buyers to ask, ‘Where are my photography skills at?’ and ‘What kind of pictures am I going to be taking?’” says Lana Douglas of photography blog and online store Photojojo via e-mail. “It's easy to be suckered into a really expensive camera with all the bells and whistles, but if you are going to be taking photos at family events and vacations you aren't going to use 70 percent of the features.”

Not to mention, many smart phone cameras now offer the bells and whistles previously only found on standalone cameras. Terry Sullivan, associate electronics editor at Consumer Reports, says the advantage of smart phones is that they offer automatic settings that correct mistakes – auto-focus, scene modes, and even outstanding zoom. The recently released Galaxy S4 Zoom features 10x optical zoom, unlike most prior phones, which came with digital zoom that sacrificed clear, crisp photos in exchange for magnification.

Plus, image enhancing and social media apps can quickly enhance shots. Professional photographer Kim A. Thomas recently shot a wedding all on her iPhone (at the request of a the bride and groom) then edited on Instagram.

If automated photography sounds up your alley, Mr. Sullivan says you should go with the top of the line iPhone (the 5S starts at $199 with a contract, the 5C starts at $99), Galaxy Note 3 (starts at $299), or the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 (starts at $199). Ms. Douglas adds that accessories such as smart phone lenses and tripods can elevate your mobile photography game.

But convenience isn’t everything. Mike Gikas, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports, points out many people see their smart phone as the “Swiss Army knife” of devices, quickly converting to a GPS, MP3 player, or camera with the flick of a button. That much tech crammed in one small device doesn’t leave much wiggle room for quality shots of important events.

“For those special moments in life or if you just want to have a creative experience, the stand alone camera is what you want,” he says.

This is where it gets tricky. Standalone cameras range from basic point-and-shoots to top-of-the-line DSLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. Should you go all out, or stick with the basics?

“Smart phones are causing point and shoot cameras to become obsolete,” says Douglas. “Why carry around an extra device with similar quality to a smart phone when you already have those capabilities in your pocket?"

Mr. Gikas and Sullivan agree, but say if you're hesitant about making the DSLR jump, look for unique features that don't fit in the already-overloaded smart phone or bulky DSLR package. Rugged, waterproof models such as the Nikon Coolpix AW 110 (starts at $239), which can go 60 feet underwater, or Sony Cybershot HX50 (starts at $327), which has 40X optical zoom, are good examples.

Sullivan says that a barrier holding some back from higher end cameras is that DSLRs look complicated. Actually, he says, these devices offer a foot in the door to extra features.

“A lot of people get intimidated by the SLRs,” he says. "But from the top of the market, you can set [cameras] on auto and you’re using it like a smart phone. Camera manufacturers have done a good job at [making] the learning process [more versatile], and a much better job of offering easy to use features.”

A new innovation in higher-end cameras also cuts down on the bulk of DSLR cameras. Sony recently released the first mirrorless camera with a full frame sensor. Translation? These new cameras don’t need a bulky mirror, which cuts down on body size, while a full frame sensor offers the best image quality and great low-light performance. This means you have the quality of a DSLR combined with a compact body. The downside is that the latest technology comes at a cost.

“Basically a mirrorless is all you need now, but they're not cheap,” says Shelby Chen, product buyer at Photojojo, over e-mail. “The really good ones will set you back more than an entry level DSLR.”

For example, the price on that new Sony Alpha 7 model? $1,700 for the body alone. On the flip side, for DSLR cameras, Gikas and Sullivan recommend the Canon SL1, which is one of the smallest DSLRs, and retails for $750 with a kit lens, or the slightly bigger, but more powerful Rebel T5I which retails for $850. If you’re looking to invest for the long haul, Ms. Chen says mirrorless is the way to go despite the price. Otherwise, DSLRs offer a bit more flexibility.

“Putting in money to high end systems is always worth it, but only if you see yourself doing it for a long time,” she says. “There's a long preached rule to sink money into lenses not bodies, so buy lenses and upgrade your body. With mirrorless this is a bit harder – different sized cameras need different sized lenses. With DSLRs you pretty much buy into a one-size-fits-most thing.” 

With new tech coming out almost every week, it can be a bit intimidating to make the decision. However, Chen says there will always be a “next big thing” and that means that if you’re ready to invest, whether it be in a phone or standalone camera, every second you waste could be a missed photo opportunity.

“Any camera you buy will always be ‘old’ in a year or two,” she says. “Might as well squeeze in more time shooting rather than worrying.”

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