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Cameraphones VS Cameras: The Key Differences

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With the growing popularity of cameraphones, we’re increasingly leaving our cameras at home. In this article, we look at whether picture quality on smartphones has matched that on dedicated cameras. We’ll also look at the key differences between cameraphones and separate standalone cameras.


Sensor Size & Low-Light Performance


Digital cameras make use of a sensor to convert particles of light (photons) into an electrical signal. The sensor is divided up into a grid of pixels. When a photograph is taken, your camera measures the amount of light landing on each pixel. It then combines the data from all of the individual pixels to produce a photograph.


If you’re taking photos in low-light conditions, sensor size can be an important consideration. If there’s not enough light landing on the sensor, photos will lack detail and will look noisy or grainy. With a larger sensor, this becomes less of a problem as more light can be collected. When taking photos on an overcast day, at night or indoors, it can be particularly beneficial to have a standalone camera with a bigger sensor.


On a cameraphone, the sensor size is approximately half of that on a typical point-and-shoot. The following diagram shows a to-scale comparison of the sensor size on smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras:
Sensor Size Comparison 1.pngComparison of sensor sizes on digital cameras (to scale). Compared to cameraphones, dedicated cameras tend to have a bigger sensor. This means they collect more light and are better for low-light photography.


When compared to the sensor size of an SLR camera, the differences are even more striking:
Sensor Size Comparison 2.png

Comparison of sensor sizes on digital cameras (to scale). Professional cameras have a much larger sensor. This makes them a much better choice for low-light photography.


Digital cameras make use of several techniques to take better photos in low-light conditions:


Using Flash


Camera Flash.jpgUsing flash is often the easiest way to take photos when it’s dark. The flash on your camera provides an additional source of illumination. This light bounces off the subject and is reflected back to the sensor on your camera. With a larger amount of light, the subject should be clearer in the photo. The disadvantages of flash are that it can make the photo look unrealistic. Flash can also consume your battery incredibly quickly.


Cameras have traditionally used a xenon-powered flash but most modern cameraphones now use an LED-powered flash.


Xenon flash is typically used in professional photography. Compared to LED bulbs, xenon bulbs can produce a burst of light that’s brighter and faster. Xenon emits 1,000 times more light in well under 1 millisecond. As it’s brighter, you’ll capture better photos especially when the subject is further away. Due to the speed, there’ll also be less blurring in the image. Subjects are essentially “frozen in time” by the quick flash. In contrast, an LED flash lasts for about 100ms giving plenty of opportunity for people to move.


Longer Exposure Time


Increasing the exposure time is another way to take photos in low-light conditions. By allowing more time for light to collect on the sensor, the signal-to-noise ratio can be improved. This gives photos with more detail and with less grainy noise.


Long exposure times can also be problematic. This is because it’s often difficult to hold your camera still: small movements and camera shake will lead to blurring in the image. Most standalone cameras feature optical image stabilisation which can correct for shaking. In contrast, cameraphones usually lack this feature (though it’s recently appeared on the Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC One). Standalone cameras can also be attached to a tripod. This helps when taking long-exposure shots.


Larger Pixels


Rather than using a bigger sensor to collects more light (and subsequently taking up more space within the phone), it’s possible to increase the size of individual pixels on the sensor. This comes at the cost of having fewer pixels. With bigger pixels, each pixel can collect more light. This can give better quality photos in low-light conditions. The HTC One has taken this approach.


Pixel size compares as follows across different types of digital cameras:



Sensor Size


Pixel Size

Entry-Level Smartphone

9.6 mm2

5 megapixels

1.9 µm2

High-End Smartphone

15.5 mm2

8 megapixels

1.9 µm2

HTC One (2013)

17.5 mm2

4 megapixels

4.0 µm2

Point & Shoot Camera

28.5 mm2

12 megapixels

2.4 µm2

Consumer SLR Camera

384 mm2

16 megapixels

24.0 µm2

Professional SLR Camera

864 mm2

16 megapixels

54.0 µm2

Comparison of pixel size on sensor for different types of digital cameras.


Depth of Field


When taking photos on a dedicated camera (in particular, SLRs), it’s possible to take photos with a shallower depth of field. This isolates the subject from the background which would otherwise compete for attention. Due to the small sensors found on cameraphones, the photos that are taken will always have an extended depth of field. The entire image will be in focus.


Depth of Field Comparison.jpg
When images are taken with a large depth of field (left), the background can compete for attention with the subject of the photograph. When a smaller depth of field is used (right), the subject can be isolated from the background. Photos taken on a smartphone will usually have a large depth of field as seen on the left. Images by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos [1, 2]. Used under the GFDL License.


Digital Zoom VS Optical Zoom


As cameraphones lack a zoom lens, the only way to enlarge part of the image is through digital zoom. As digital zoom will simply crop and enlarge part of the image, no further detail can be gained.


A standalone camera with optical zoom will give much better picture quality when zoomed in.

Digital Zoom VS Optical Zoom.jpg

Comparison of a photo that is digitally zoomed (left) and optically zoomed (right). CC-licensed photo by Hustvedt from Wikipedia [3].


Connectivity & Apps


One area where smartphones excel is in connectivity.


Instagram.jpgTraditionally, standalone cameras have lacked connectivity. To share your photos, it’s first been necessary to transfer them to a computer via an SD card. On some of the latest cameras, wi-fi has been added along with some basic applications. This makes it easier to share photos online.


With cameraphones, connectivity has always been central to the experience. Smartphones have both 3G and wi-fi connectivity: this makes it much easier to share photos online. As soon as a photo is taken, it’s possible to upload it straight away to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Applications can also be used to back up your photos in the cloud (e.g. iCloud and Dropbox).


Cameraphones can also be connected to your TV to review photos. You can also use GPS to geo-tag your photos with a location.




The latest cameraphones can capture images at up to 13 megapixels. With standalone cameras, the latest models can usually capture up to 16 megapixels. In reality, this is unlikely to make any practical difference.


The following table shows the number of megapixels required to print a good quality photograph:


Number of Megapixels

Size of Printed Photograph (in inches)

2 megapixels

4” x 6” (standard photograph size)

5 megapixels

5” x 7”

8 megapixels

8” x 10” (approx. A4 size)


An 8 megapixel photo should already be sufficient for a good-quality A4 print. For this reason, there is probably little benefit from saving your photos at a higher resolution.




Micro SD Adapter.jpgIf you’re taking photos on a regular basis, storage can be an important consideration. With most cameras, you’ll need to insert an SD card where your photos can be saved. Once the SD card has been filled up, simply change the card.


With a smartphone, things are not always as simple. Whilst some smartphones have a slot for micro-SD cards (e.g. Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z), others do not (e.g. iPhone 5, HTC One and Nexus 4).


Frequent photographers may prefer a standalone camera for storage reasons. Alternatively, a cameraphone that supports micro-SD cards can do the job.


Your Thoughts…


In this article, we’ve compared cameraphones and dedicated cameras. Without a doubt, dedicated cameras still rule the roost in terms of picture quality. However, cameraphones rate highly on convenience, connectivity and choice of apps.


Has your cameraphone replaced your camera? Are cameraphone photos now “good enough”? Would you use your cameraphone or a dedicated camera when on holiday? We’d love to hear your thoughts… please drop us a comment below and let us know what you think!


Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.

thanks, lots if info

Excellent article. One thing worth bearing in mind, technology advances very quickly and I think it won't be too longer before we see the day when full frame sensors of some kind appear on phones. I do miss the xenon flashes of my K800i though - it made a big difference to the photos I took on the phone.

Good article. Going to be some time before camera phones can compete.
head honcho
Phone cameras don't hold as nicely as a real camera. I never seem to be able to take steady pictures with a phone.

Excellent article. I can vouch for the fantasticness of the xeon flash on the K800i too, superb camera on that thing.


Great info, thanks 


I always take a dedicated camera on holiday and whenever I know I'm going to need to take photos, but a lot of my other photos are taken with phone camera simply because it's available and I don't always have the camera with me.

The quality of the camera photos is better, but it's great to be able to take a reasonable photo any time you want with your phone, and you can improve them such a lot with the editing software available these days.


The key difference is one is a telephone as well as a cameraSmiley Wink


That being said ther are quite a few phones on the market now with pretty good picture (&video) quality.


If I could afford a high end device like a Lumia 920, that'd be great, but for the more budget concious there is better to be had by carrying 2 devices (along with the downside of carry 2 power supplies etc etc).


digital cameras are mostly extinct already, however the market for mid-range or high-end cameras will always be there, but it's not mass market, as average customers are gonna be happy with smartphones as cameras.. just fine...