Should You Use a Mobile Phone Camera or a Traditional Camera in 2020? – Smartphone vs Mirrorless Camera vs DSLR

So, you’re choosing between a smartphone, a mirrorless camera, and a DSLR (otherwise known as a digital single-lens reflex camera). We get it – it’s a tough choice to make. But, as smartphone photography continues to grow as a discipline, the choice is getting even harder.

A mobile phone camera is comparatively inexpensive, and it’s 2020 – you’ve got to have a smartphone already. For $300, you can outfit yourself with the best smartphone photography gear there is, and for $100, you can get just the essentials. You’d spend thousands of dollars for the same amount of quality gear from a traditional photography company.

On the other hand, experts argue that smartphones – no matter how good their cameras become – just will never be able to compete. So, do you still need a DSLR? Should you buy a mirrorless camera or smartphone with a really good camera?

Neither, the gap is closing, and it’s closing fast. Today, it’s the most unclear it’s ever been as to what the best camera for professional photography is. For example, did you know there are smartphones available in 2020 that feature 100MP+ cameras?

We’re going to give it to you straight here so that you can shut those pesky know-it-alls down when they try to argue DSLR superiority with you in the future.

Here we go – who reigns supreme in Smartphone versus Mirrorless versus DSLR Cameras?

Smartphone vs Mirrorless Camera vs DSLR – Do Point-and-Shoot Cameras Still Beat Smartphones?

Smartphone Camera

Pro Easy to shoot and share in seconds
Pro Phone camera + gear is much less expensive
Pro The best camera is the one you have with you
Pro Smaller and lighter than the competition
Con Struggles in low light (though new phones have greatly improved this capability)
Con Lacks traditional camera ergonomics
Con The friggin’ stigma

DSLR Camera

Pro So many settings means so much control
Pro The technology and those who service it have been around forever
Pro Comparatively durable
Pro Super-high performing
Con Large and heavy when compared to the two other camera types
Con Has experienced a serious decrease in market share thanks to the other two camera types
Con Expensive

Mirrorless Camera

Pro New tech allows for crispier auto-focus
Pro Large sensor with less bulk
Pro Impressive photo and video specs
Con Very expensive + lack battery life
Con Start-up lag present
Con Must use the small LCD screen to preview shots as there is no viewfinder

Before we get into the arguments for and against each style of camera, we have to take some time to point out something else.

Any professional photographer worth their salt is using serious gear, right? To help them with their craft, they have a full toolbelt of high-grade lenses and a tripod that could keep their rig still in a hurricane.

Why should you treat your phone photography differently?

Actually, this question is what inspired us to create the Mobile Creator’s Series – where we sit down with the industry’s best and discuss gear, tips and tricks, and the age-old question – smartphone vs mirrorless camera vs DSLR.

There are loads of differences between smartphone cameras and traditional cameras, and we’ll discuss them at length below, but you need comparable gear for the comparison to be fair.

Before moving on, however, it’s imperative to comprehend the similarities and differences between mirrorless and DSLR cameras (it’ll help you to understand when we crown a winner later). The video does a great job of explaining enough without delving too deeply into the technological specifics.

So, shall we settle the debate between smartphones and dedicated cameras once and for all?

Smartphone Cameras vs Traditional Cameras – Mirrorless

Mirrorless Camera
Digital Camera World

Mirrorless cameras appeared in the photography world about a decade ago. While for awhile, they remained relatively unknown – used only by the fad chasers – today they’re starting to dominate the industry.


Well, the live view – which is the preview not reflected off a mirror – is used to create an electronic viewfinder image. Which, as you can probably guess, gets rid of the need for the mirror and sensor altogether.

So, the whole concept of mirrorless just gets rid of a few camera parts – theoretically making the machine less expensive. At the same time, it will take a few years until we know whether the price is really all that different.

The jump in technology, however, hasn’t been all good. The methods of autofocus used in DSLR’s for decades no longer works with mirrorless cameras. New technologies have to get developed, and – as of yet – the jury is still out as to how they compete.

As far as other issues go, users also cite a lack of comparative battery life and a bulky un-ergonomic design with mirrorless cameras.

Even still, there are other pros to consider before moving away from potentially purchasing a mirrorless camera.

At the same time, the hefty price tag attached to these bad boys makes them a no-go for many a photographer.

Smartphone Cameras vs Traditional Cameras – DSLR

DSLR Camera
Digital Camera World

In layman’s terms, when you hit the button light travels through the lens (not lense), then to a mirror that alternates to send the image to either the viewfinder or the image sensor depending on the camera’s design.

The SLR – the predecessor to the DSLR – was invented during a time before digital sensors. So the design was a major breakthrough in photography – it vastly improved the time it took to take a photograph. Historians and photographers alike argue over when, in fact, this invention was. Still, the most basic of SLR cameras appeared in a limited capacity around the turn of the 20th century.

In the case of DSLR cameras, the whole process outlined above was mechanized. Before with an SLR, we used the film to capture the image as opposed to it being stored on a file like it is today. The use of SLRs occurred up until the mid-1990s!

For example, I still have memories as a kid of my grandmother shooting with film.

At this point, twenty-plus years into the digitalization of the SLR, though, many argue that the DSLR has become outdated.

That debate, however, is for another time and place and probably on a different website.

Like mirrorless cameras, DSLRs typically have interchangeable lenses and allow for both auto and manual focus. The prism or mirror that made DSLR’s famous provides an accurate shot preview that compares to that in a mirrorless.

Haven’t you ever wondered why when you look through a DSLR, it’s almost always focused?

DSLR fanatics argue that their babies are of an optimal size, possess a competitive optical viewfinder, and a superior battery life

As a result, they are still the most common kind of camera in the game.

What makes DSLR & mirrorless cameras different from your mobile phone?

A Smartphone versus a Mirrorless versus a DSLR Camera
Digital Camera Central

So, where is your phone on the spectrum between DSLR and mirrorless?

Interestingly enough, your phone lies somewhere in the middle. It utilizes the same shutter idea used in DSLRs – that is that when you hit the ‘take photo’ button, the aperture lets the light into the sensor, exposure occurs, and then the photo is moved to an ISP to become a JPEG file – but with some modifications.

The phone also moves closer to the DSLR and mirrorless side when accompanied by a Moment lens or two! Seriously, you wouldn’t shoot with a Sony or Nikon without a full accompaniment of gear.

Why treat your phone photography any differently?

Your phone doesn’t have shutters or mirrors like a DSLR and might not be creating massive raw data files like a mirrorless camera (this doesn’t mean you can’t shoot in RAW!), but it can still compete.

It’s worth noting that smartphones are starting to use RAW data files and store photos as JPEGS. Both of which aid in the control of the editing process and make your phone more like a DSLR.

However, there are certain things that phone cameras aren’t able to do yet. Here are some interesting comparisons from TechRadar on the topic, though they do cede that phones will likely eventually be able to replicate the results.

3 Tips to close to the gap between your smartphone and a mirrorless or DSLR –

  1. Give your phone cameras time! – Seriously, phone photography didn’t take off as a discipline until the last two years. Think of how much of a head start even mirrorless cameras have. With that in mind, phone cameras are pretty legit at this point, right? If you don’t believe us, then check out our post on the best phones for night photography. For years, smartphones struggled to shoot in low light, but the newest offerings solve this problem for good. Give the producers and designers of the cameras time, and they’ll solve the problems.
  2. GEAR. You need it, and it’s much more cost-effective -Why treat your phone photography any differently? Seriously, it’s almost too easy to take great photos on your phone if you’re utilizing the right gear. If you pair your phone’s camera with a few pieces of 2020’s best equipment for smartphone photography, then you’re pretty much at DSLR and mirrorless quality. Oh, and you’re there for 1/3 the price!
  3. Shoot a lot (and edit even more!) – If we’ve learned anything from our Mobile Creator’s Series interviews, it’s that experimentation – when shooting and editing – is imperative to success. Seriously, every participant mentioned it. So, the next time you go and shoot, keep this in mind. When someone goes to shoot with a DSLR or mirrorless, they take the time to make sure their settings are correct, the lighting is optimal, and the shot is perfect. For the love of God, do the same with your phone photography!

Crowning The Winner: Smartphone vs Mirrorless Camera vs DSLR

Canyon Awards, Trophies & Engraving

So, what is the best camera for professional photography?

DSLR is the winner – for now.

The industry preference just beats out the mirrorless camera in terms of performance. The latter will likely pass the former in popularity over the coming year or two. Smartphone cameras lag slightly behind (but in a tortoise and the hare sort of way).

At this point, you may be saying, “PWP, aren’t you concerned about your viability as a business?”

We appreciate your concern, but we aren’t worried.

To explain, as technology continues to evolve, so will all camera tech. While this probably means that DSLR and mirrorless cameras will continue to be superior, it also certainly means that smartphone cameras will improve to where their competitors are today.

The DSLR and mirrorless companies are resting on their laurels, just like the hare. Phone photography is pushing limits and improving leaps and bounds every day – just like the tortoise.

Essentially, your phone camera is good enough now for professional photography. And it will only get better over time.

The Stigma – Smartphone Cameras vs Real Cameras

So, we established that today’s smartphones don’t have the best camera for professional photography. But it’s also been proven that these cameras are improving and improving fast. And that by pairing your smartphone with some high-quality gear, you can get DSLR or mirrorless level results.

So, what does a loss for phone photography mean? Well, not much in our opinion, and here’s why.

When someone shoots with their DSLR or mirrorless, they’ve got lenses, a tripod, filters, and a host of other gear if they take their photography seriously.

Why would you treat your phone photography any differently?

At the same time, there will always be people that look down on smartphone cameras just as there are people today that look down on mirrorless cameras.

They’re photography purists, and no matter how legitimate smartphone photography becomes, they’ll never take it seriously as a discipline. They’ll never consider your smartphone to have the best camera for professional photography.

It’s just the nature of the beast.

It is worth noting, however, that as camera technology improves, our expectations of said technology will increase. By this, we mean, in a few years, your phone will perform up to par with today’s DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

It is unlikely that your phone’s camera will ever outcompete the DSLR or mirrorless offering of the day. On the other hand, it will undoubtedly be good enough for you to take high-quality photos, edit them, and more easily share them with the world around you.

We here at Photos with Phones think this is better anyway.

That is, after all, the main goal of photography. In this way, phone photography will always be superior.

3 thoughts on “Should You Use a Mobile Phone Camera or a Traditional Camera in 2020? – Smartphone vs Mirrorless Camera vs DSLR”

  1. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you then they fight you, then you win”

    This is the history of smartphone photography since the first iPhone. We’re currently in the “fight” stage in 2020 but the winner is already very clear.

    In another few years nobody except the ignorant and specialists will carry dedicated cameras. Fewer and fewer people already do and rightly so. Already the iPhone is far far superior for most people most of the time. There are vanishingly few scenarios where a DSLR is actually necessary to get a shot. The iPhone eliminated the compact camera market and is now eating DSLRs – low and high end. Mirrorless interchangeables are a stopgap for those in denial about the future. Now the “experts” argue over more and more edge cases and pixel peep as DSLRs get eaten alive, trying to delay the inevitable? The same “experts” who were confident a few years back that their DSLRs are king of the hill – so sure now?

    People look back now and say, “wow look at all that gear you used to have to carry and all that time wasted in post” and click an iPhone shot in a few seconds that is great. And why not?

    The real question is not iPhone vs DSLR – it is: do you want to create great pictures easily or are you a pixel peeping gear fetish masochist? I don’t mean that as an insult either (I love you guys) but it’s how it is.

    Welcome to the future!

    1. Hey Wang – absolutely love the enthusiasm! It’s amazing how much growth we’ve seen in the smartphone photography and filmmaking industries since we started this website. It seems like every new phone and piece of gear that we get, there’s a substantial jump forward in quality and ease of use. Smartphone manufacturers are, as you said, eliminating the compact camera market and we don’t see that slowing down any time soon.

      The trajectory that we’re on currently is crazy – 8k video, 1000+fps slo-mo, and 100+ mp cameras in your SMARTPHONE. Truthfully I wouldn’t have imagined that we’d be here today, but here we are – the argument of the pixel peeping gear fetish masochist slowly going out the window.

      We’re excited to be able to share the journey with dedicated creators like you. WE are the FUTURE!

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