Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DSLR or iPhone 6?

A f1.8 shot (Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II)

Many people are deciding between getting a DSLR vs. just taking photos with their iPhones. This “article” will hopefully help in this decision.


To be more specific in my discussion, I will use the following set up
for the DSLR option:

Camera body: 
Canon EOS Rebel T5 (1200D) (Amazon link)

Camera lens: 
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (Amazon link)

At the time of writing (October 2014), they are $420 and $125 respectively.
From here on out I will refer to the set up as “T5+f1.8”.

First of all, I really believe iPhones have come a long way as a camera. In fact, there are so many things that iPhone 6 can do that the T5+f1.8 set up simply cannot do (I’ll list those below). So you might be wondering, why bother?

The answer to that is “bokeh” 暈け (or “background blurriness”), and your decision will ultimately depend on just how much you value this, against all the sacrifices that’ll come with choosing anything other than an iPhone 6.

So here is a concept that’s very fundamental to photography:

smaller f-number = larger aperture = shallower depth of field = blurrier background

iPhones have caught up with (and exceeded, in some aspects) DSLR when it comes to megapixels, shutter-lags, lens-speed (more on this later), and low-light performances. But one area it simply cannot catch up with is this area of shallow DOF, or blurry background. Note that this is not because they haven’t yet developed the technology for this; rather, it’s a limitation set by Physical laws of optics. In fact, there have been some attempts (Google’s Lens Blur for example) to achieve the same effect using software tricks, but I think these are shoddy at best at the moment (maybe in another five years though?). 

Here are two pictures I took using DSLR set up, one using f1.8, and the other f5.6.

A f1.8 shot (Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II)

A f5.6 shot (Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II)

As you can see, the background in f1.8 shot is really blurry, and you can even see some “bokeh” circles in the background to the right. The background in the f5.6 shot is not as blurry, and in fact in this case, some might say it’s better because you can actually make out what the background is. (bad example, sorry!)

The point is, you’ll be able to take shots like the f5.6 with an iPhone 6, but not shots like the f1.8. This might not seem like much, but when you are taking shots of your baby in various settings, you’ll definitely get some shots with the T5+f1.8 setup that will just look amazing, no matter who looks at them. The science behind this is actually because of how our eyes work: our eyes have enormously small equiv. f-numbers, and these low f-number shots are essentially mimicking what we see with our eyes when we focus on something/someone in the foreground. Not only that, it’s especially mimicking what we see when our pupils are dilated, so looking at these low f-number pictures has the effect of “simulating” our physiological response of attraction/attention. Science!

A f1.8 shot (Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II)

Another advantage of having a larger aperture is when you take indoor/dark/action shots. Because you are taking in more light through the bigger hole, you can use faster shutter speed and so you’ll be able to capture the subject in action better (i.e. the baby will be in focus more often and won’t appear as blurred). iPhone cameras until iPhone 5 couldn’t touch T5+1.8f set up in this regard, but actually with iPhone 5S and iPhone 6, I would say they are at least competitive. The low-light performance of 6 is especially good, I think.

And that’s it. You have to consider whether this is worth having, when you have to make the following sacrifices/inconveniences*:

1. iPhone 6 is “always there”. Best cameras are often the ones you have on you at that moment: this is the biggest sacrifice I think, since with a DSLR+lens in a separate camera bag, you are less likely to use it spontaneously.
2. iPhone 6 offers a wider/more versatile lens than the T5+f1.8 set up. This is also a big issue, since with T5+f1.8, you are essentially working with a 85mm semi-telephoto lens. This means anything other than a candid portrait shot (I call them “big-face shots”) will be a pain with T5+f1.8. Especially, “indoor group shots” or selfies are out of the picture (pun intended) with the T5+f1.8 set up. 
3. iPhone 6 is much simpler to use. T5+f1.8 will require some learning curve to really compose the shots you want every time.
4. iPhone 6 offers a much easier automatic online backup/share option (i.e. you don’t have to think about it!). In comparison, the T5+f1.8 option does require some post-processing (importing photos to computer, dealing with large original files, etc.).

T5+f1.8 is definitely not for everyone. To start with, you have to be a true believer of bokeh. But I think T5+f1.8 is only a compelling option if and only if you enjoy this learning aspect, so that the sacrifice no. 3 above actually becomes an advantage.

One more thing. I haven’t mentioned any other compact camera options other than the T5+f1.8 setup. This is because I think that if you are going to make the same sacrifice (no. 1) as T5+f1.8 by getting yet another camera in addition to your iPhone 6, you might as well get the T5+f1.8 set up. So far, at the price point of ~$500, I have not found any other set up that will get you this bokeh effect that will truly differentiate your pictures from iPhone 6. Having said that, I think the recently announced Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 is a *very* compelling option in that it gets rid of all the sacrifices nos. 2–4 above. (But it’s $900 and still doesn’t get the same bokeh as T5+f1.8).

Hope this is helpful! Please leave any comments below especially if you have any questions.

* I recognize that the choice to be made here isn’t “DSLR or iPhone”, but actually “iPhone or DSLR&iPhone”. Perhaps I should change the title to the less catchy “Should I get a DSLR when I own an iPhone 6?”
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