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iPhone vs. DSLR: Which is the Best Beginner Camera in 2020?

A smartphone, a camera and printed photos on wood background illustrate iPhone vs. DSLR debate.

Reading Time: 10 minutes read

Searching and shopping for professional cameras are always popular once fall colors appear. The lure of big lenses and special equipment is appealing. Countless photographers tout the benefits of a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. Naturally, many amateur photographers want to use what the pros use. However, a high-priced setup may not make sense for everyone. Let’s take a closer look at how each camera performs in various settings to help settle the iPhone vs. DSLR debate. 

Using iPhone in Motion Pictures

Pros:

Widely accessible – Many people already have an iPhone. Improvements to its camera over the years has made it a powerful and affordable video tool. It offers amateur filmmakers a chance to break into the industry.

Portable – When filming a video, the camera lens often needs to move and change angles. With a larger camera, fluid movement can be challenging. However, the lightweight, compact design of the iPhone eliminates these pain points when shooting motion video. Plus, the iPhone can be taken anywhere, as it fits in your back pocket.

Image quality – Thanks to 4K resolution, the iPhone 11 offers sharp, high-quality video images. It also provides the flexibility of 24, 30, or 60 frames per second (FPS), depending on the type of video being shot.

Award-winning – Sean Baker’s indie film Tangerine, released at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, was shot on an iPhone. It earned awards for its high-quality production. The Academy of Motion Pictures was so impressed that it requested one of the iPhones used be placed on permanent display at the Academy Museum.

Senior woman films cooking demo in kitchen with an iPhone vs. DSLR because of image quality.

Cons:

Inferior zoom function – While the iPhone 11 has more camera lenses than previous generations, it still doesn’t have the zooming power of a professional camera.

Lack of lighting – The iPhone’s camera sensors do not detect as much light as a more professional camera. Additional lighting sources are sometimes required to set the scene with an iPhone correctly. This is especially true when filming at a high frame rate.

Using DSLR in Motion Pictures

Pros:

Autofocusing – In nearly every motion picture filmed, there’s some form of fast movement. Whether it’s a car speeding by or a sports game being played, the DSLR’s autofocus captures quick, sudden movement with ease.

Longer shooting times – DSLRs can shoot film without the use of an LCD screen, which consumes a lot of power. This saves on battery life. If the batteries do run low, it’s not a big deal. DSLRs run on replaceable batteries. Simply swap them out for a fresh set and keep rolling.  

Slow-motion effects – Some DSLRs shoot at 120 FPS or higher. High frame rates allow you to slow down footage for dramatic effect. This is a trendy technique among YouTube videographers.  

Cons:

Bulky design – DSLRs tend to be bulky because they house a mirror and prism. It is a larger, heavier device by design, even compared to other professional, mirrorless cameras.

Video quality – Video quality is one of the most important features to consider. Unfortunately, a DSLR camera falls short in this category. When in video mode, DSLRs operate with a slower, less accurate contrast-detection focus. This can create blurriness in the middle of a scene, as the DSLR tries to refocus.

Using iPhone for Low Lighting Photography

Pros:

Portable – The portability of the iPhone is just as important in low lighting photography as it is in videography. For those who want to take a moonlit stroll and capture twinkling stars or a cool wildlife photo idea, the iPhone is a great option. With an iPhone in your pocket, on-the-spot low light photography is possible.

Night mode – For new owners of an iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro, it’s important to learn how to use Night mode. This new function analyzes the amount of available light and automatically determines the appropriate frame rate needed to create a clear image in low lighting situations.

Cons:

Limited lens capability – Most smartphone cameras offer the equivalent of a 28mm lens on a DSLR. While that’s sufficient for everyday photos, extremely low light photography may require more specialized equipment.

Image quality – Night mode is a big step in the right direction. Certain iPhone camera settings can be adjusted. But the smartphone still doesn’t produce clear shots of moving subjects in low lighting.

Using DSLR for Low Lighting Photography

Pros:

Large image sensors – The large image sensors on DSLR collect more light data per pixel than an iPhone. This is fundamentally important when shooting low lighting photography.

Customizable settings – A lot is working against photographers in low lighting. The ability to adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed helps find the right combination of settings to capture the perfect photo.

Cons:

Size and weight – The only real disadvantage is the size and weight of a DSLR. These cameras are not meant to be carried around all day, every day.  The DSLR would lose many of its great features if it was reduced in size.

Up-close image of a butterfly on lavender illustrates iPhone vs. DSLR debate for macro photography.

Using the iPhone for Macro Photography

Pros:

Mobility – The iPhone is a mobile device, which is handy for macro photography. This allows photographers to get up close and personal with the subject – something not as easy to accomplish with a DSLR.

Image quality – In recent years, Apple has really focused on the iPhone camera. The upgrades they’ve made have specifically impacted image quality. Thanks to the high-resolution camera, the images are sharp and colorful. 

Cons:

Stabilization – Being an incredibly small, lightweight device, the iPhone can be more difficult to keep steady in the hands. This can be remedied with a tripod or stabilizing selfie stick.  

Using DSLR for Macro Photography

Pros:

Customizable settings – Macro photography can be finicky. Sometimes, a small f-stop is necessary, and other times needs f/16 or smaller. The focal length is another important setting because it influences the magnification of the subject. There are many helpful setup tips on macro photography. To try these tips, play around with the settings.  

Large image sensor – A large image sensor is important for macro photography because it captures exquisite detail of your subject.

Image quality – Thanks to the large image sensor, customizable settings, and a specialized lens, the DSLR is able to produce high-quality macro photos.

Cons:

Stabilization – Though they may be easier to hold steady than an iPhone, DSLRs are not entirely stable either. These, too, benefit from the use of a tripod.

Size and weight – Just like the iPhone, a DSLR requires a specialized macro lens to capture high-quality images with very fine details. The difference is the DSLR macro lens is much bigger than what you’d attach to a smartphone. Extra accessories add to the bulk of the camera, especially when shooting outside for images worthy of National Nature Photography Day.

Expensive – Adding accessories to a DSLR setup is significantly more expensive than any lens or app purchased for the iPhone.

An iPhone on a tripod shooting video of NY streets proves it wins iPhone vs. DSLR debate.

iPhone vs. DSLR: And the Winner is…

The winner depends on the type of photography you shoot. Filmmakers may gravitate toward the iPhone because it offers movement and flexibility. But for those who shoot low lighting portraits, DSLR is clearly the better choice. That said, there is a third option. By turning your iPhone into a DSLR-level camera, you get the best of both worlds.

How to Turn iPhone into DSLR

Anyone can turn their iPhone into a DSLR. And the accessories are affordable. There is no need to invest thousands of dollars in fancy equipment. All you need is a DSLR lens for iPhone and a dedicated app to get started.

The best DSLR lens for iPhone

Olloclip – The Olloclip iPhone 11 Pro ElitePack comes with three different lenses: telephoto, fisheye, and macro. It’s one of the more expensive lenses, but it produces excellent image quality.

ShiftCam – The ShiftCam ProLens Deluxe Kit includes fives lenses: telephoto, wide-angle, macro, long-range macro, and fisheye. The kit is designed exclusively for iPhone, so mounting is a breeze. It’s also easy to swap out the lenses quickly if necessary.

Xenvo Pro – This kit is very affordable, but only offers two lenses: macro and wide-angle. The macro photos it creates are exceptionally stunning. Plus, it comes with an LED light, which helps with those close-ups.

The best DSLR app for iPhone

The iPhone’s Camera app doesn’t offer manual controls like a DSLR. For the kind of tinkering the pros do, you need a third-party camera app. The best DSLR apps for iPhone include:  

VSCO – This free app lets you manually control focus, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. It also captures photos in JPEG or RAW format. The built-in photo editor and creative filters help to perfect the images.

Camera+2 – This app is best for long exposures, macro photography, and action shots. It’s also great for portraits, where it controls the amount of background blur. Photographers can control shutter speed, ISO, and white balance with Camera+2. It, too, has a built-in photo editor. It’s not free, but $2.99 might be worth the results.

ProCamera – Use ProCamera to shoot videos, low lighting photos, and portraits. Like Camera+2, it can adjust background blur, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. It has an advanced white balance tool to help control the color in your photos. The downside: it’s the priciest app of the three, at $5.99.

A DSLR lens connected to iPhone settles the iPhone vs. DSLR debate.

Connect DSLR to Your iPhone

Another great option for photographers who have already purchased a DSLR is to connect your DSLR lenses to the iPhone.

DSLR iPhone adapter

A DSLR iPhone adapter connects your DSLR lenses to your smartphone. Yes, Canon, Nikon, and Sony lenses can all integrate. And there is good reason to make the connection. Not only does it provide the manual focus and depth of field of a DSLR photo, but it also allows photographers to see the image in real-time on the iPhone. It’s like having a DSLR with a viewfinder. For those who really want to advance their photo-game, use the remote camera control with your iPhone. It offers DSLR-level portraits and selfies without the extensive DSLR setup.

The best part: all the images taken with the DSLR iPhone adapter end up on the iPhone camera roll. Straight from the Apple Photos app, professional-looking images can be shared to social media. Better yet, use the Motif iPhone app, and let those skillful snaps automatically load to a photo book project. If that doesn’t settle the iPhone vs. DSLR debate, nothing will!

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Experience the joy of creating personalized photo projects with Motif. Our photo book app seamlessly works with Apple Photos in macOS and iOS. It does all the complicated stuff leaving the fun creative freedom to you.