Should Your iPhone Be Your Only Camera?

Are point-and-shoot cameras, especially ones at the low end of the price range, reaching the end of their useful life? Is it time to declare that, for the majority of iPhone 4S owners, the phone’s camera is all they need? Should you be readying to sell your old point-and-shoot on eBay?

In brief: Yes. But not without a few important caveats.

The first caveat is that “majority of users” does not equal “all users.” Clearly, there are professional photographers and dedicated amateurs for whom nothing but a digital SLR, or something close to it, will do. These users may be content with a smartphone camera on occasion — but will never want their smartphone as their only camera. They may be a minority, but they are a sizable one. This column is not for such people.

At the other extreme, there are those who are already using a mobile phone as their only camera — and have done so for years, even when the phone’s photo quality was worse than that of a pinhole camera. For these users, there is no decision to be made. It’s already done. Again, such people need not read further.

My focus today is on the broad middle group. These are the mostly casual photographers who own a point-and-shoot camera but have never considered their smartphone to be adequate for all their photography. Their point-and-shoot cameras range in quality and price, coming from companies such as Canon and Nikon. The demands of such users vary accordingly. While many of them place their cameras in Automatic mode and shoot away, some take advantage of the options available in the semi-automatic Program mode. Regardless, these users depend on their point-and-shoot when quality matters most — such as on a vacation or at an important family event. Count me in this group.

Times change. For iPhone users, Apple upped the ante considerably with the release of the iPhone 4S. Apple’s latest smartphone features an 8 megapixel (MP) camera with improved optics and significantly better low-light capability than its iPhone 4 predecessor. This is (or should be) getting those middle group photographers to reconsider the merits of an iPhone 4S as their only camera.

To help you come to your own decision on this matter, here’s what you need to know:

Everything but picture quality

For the moment, let’s leave picture quality out of the picture. Are their any non-picture-quality reasons to prefer a point-and-shoot camera? No. Not really.

Price. If we assume that you intend to own an iPhone whether or not you also have a separate camera (a reasonable assumption for most iPhone owners), you save significant money by going just with the iPhone. Whatever you would have otherwise spent on a camera and its accessories is now money in your pocket.

Advantage, iPhone.

Carry convenience. If you have an iPhone, chances are that you have it with you all the time. Your iPhone will thus be the camera you depend on for any unexpected photo opportunity. It also means that, if and when you decide and remember to take your point-and-shoot camera with you, you’ll be carrying around the extra weight and bulk of two devices instead of one.

One minor exception: If you are on a trip outside the U.S., rates for using your iPhone (as a phone or Internet device) are often so high that you might leave the phone in your room, taking just a camera instead.

Advantage, iPhone.

Import photo convenience. If you use iCloud’s Photo Stream, getting your photos from the iPhone to your iPad or Mac is automatic and (when you have a network connection) nearly instantaneous. Unlike with a point-and-shoot, there’s no need to connect the camera to your computer via a cable, or use a card reader, or anything. Yes, you can get an Eye-Fi card for Wi-Fi transfers from a camera; but that’s an extra expense and still not as convenient or reliable as Photo Stream.

Advantage, iPhone.

Internet access. Do you want to share photos with family and friends, on the fly, almost immediately after you snap the shutter? If so, you’ll want to take pictures with your iPhone rather than a separate camera. For posting to social media such as Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, the ubiquitous Internet access of the iPhone can’t be matched by any point-and-shoot camera.

Advantage, iPhone. Yet again.

Editing. For those users who regularly edit their photos (crop, adjust contrast, etc.), I expect most will do so on their Macs. However, if you want the option to edit photos directly on your camera, you’ll want the iPhone. Especially with Apple’s iPhoto app, there isn’t any point-and-shoot camera (or other smartphone for that matter) that comes close to what you can do with the iPhone.

Advantage, iPhone.

Third-party apps. Manipulating photos on the iPhone doesn’t stop with the apps that come from Apple. Via dozens of apps from third-party developers, there are more ways to take and edit photos than you can count. For starters, with TourWrist or PhotoSynth, you can create panoramic shots that exceed, in terms of ease and options, anything possible with a standard camera. With apps such as Snapseed and CameraBag, you can select from a host of filters and other cool effects. Again, while  point-and-shoot cameras may offer a smattering of these options, they don’t come close to the iPhone.

Guess what? Advantage, iPhone.

Displaying photos. Do you want to display a slideshow of your photos right on your camera or phone? If so, the iPhone is the better choice. With its 3.5 inch Retina display, photos look better on the iPhone than on any point-and-shoot camera’s LCD. Plus, with the iPhone, you can sync photos from your Mac’s iPhoto library; you aren’t limited to just the photos you recently took.

This is getting too predictable, but once again…Advantage, iPhone.

Storing photos. I’m guessing that most point-and-shoot users have a digital card that is 8GB or less. Why? Because this can typically hold more than 1000 photos, which should be adequate for just about everyone. Still, if you want more storage, you can get a 16GB or 32GB card for less than $30. If you have a 32GB or 64GB iPhone, you may have a similar amount of free space left for photos. However, with a point-and-shoot, you can carry around more than one digital card. If one fills up or goes bad, you can easily swap it out for another. You can’t do that with the iPhone.

Surprise! Advantage point-and-shoot.

Batteries. If you’re a wise point-and-shoot camera owner, you keep a charged spare battery in your camera’s case. This means if the battery in your camera runs out while you’re “in the field,” you can replace it with a fresh one.

With an iPhone, if the battery dies and you are not near an electrical outlet or don’t have a Dock connector cable with you, you are out-of-luck. Even if you can charge the iPhone, it will take awhile (at least 30 minutes, more likely an hour) before it is sufficiently charged that you are ready to use it again. Yes, there are battery boosters you can buy for an iPhone, but they add bulk and expense. And most iPhone users don’t have one.

Advantage, point-and-shoot.

Summing up. If the above criteria were all that mattered in making a decision, there would be no contest. The iPhone would be the winner by a knock-out. Point-and-shoot cameras would be on the canvas, waiting to be carted away. But there is more to consider…

Picture quality specs

For most photographers, the quality of their photos is a critical, perhaps paramount, concern. When you print or display a photo, it doesn’t matter what device was used to take it, what the camera’s settings were, how much storage space you had left at the time, or anything else. All that matters is how good the picture now looks.

One way to anticipate the potential quality of your photographs is by assessing a camera’s technical specifications:

Optics. More than anything else, a camera’s lens quality determines the overall sharpness and accuracy of its images. Although the lens quality of iPhone cameras keep improving (the 4S is especially good for a smartphone), it can’t compare to the better point-and-shoot cameras. Why? Because point-and-shoot cameras don’t have to make as many compromises as an iPhone must, in terms of overall size and sharing the device’s insides with non-camera components.

Megapixels come into play here, but are not necessarily a significant factor. Today’s point-and-shoot cameras have MP values in the double-digits. While it may seem that more pixels are better, giving point-and-shoots an edge, the iPhone 4S’s 8 MP should be more than sufficient in most situations — unless you plan to enlarge an image to poster size or crop it down to a very small portion of the image.

Advantage: Point-and-shoot.

Sensor size. A camera’s sensor affects how much light the camera can absorb when taking a photo. With a bigger sensor, the camera picks up more light, ultimately leading to better quality pictures — especially in dim illumination. David Pogue nicely covers the details of this somewhat obscure topic.

Apple claims that the iPhone 4S’s “camera captures low-light…moods beautifully.” Still, similar to the situation with optics, limitations of design prevent smartphones from having sensors as large as in the better point-and-shoot cameras. At least in theory, point-and-shoot cameras should exceed iPhones here. On the other hand, both iPhones and most point-and-shoot cameras pale in comparison to the the larger sensors in SLR cameras.

Advantage: Uncertain, but probably point-and-shoot.

Zoom. Surely, the biggest disadvantage of the iPhone’s camera is that it has no zoom capability. Yes, there is a zoom feature…but this is a digital zoom. This means that you are simply blowing up the image on the display, similar to what you would do if you enlarged the photo in iPhoto. The more you “zoom” in with an iPhone, the greater the loss of resolution, which means reduced picture quality.

In contrast, point-and-shoot cameras have true optical zoom. This means you can zoom in on an image while maintaining the same overall resolution and quality. The range of optical zoom varies depending on the camera, with at least 5X quite common today. While you can get bigger optical zooms, you may not want them for casual use. A magnification greater than 5X requires increased stabilization of the camera to prevent a blurry image. Even with a camera’s image stabilizer in effect, a tripod may be required.

Point-and-shoot cameras not only have better zoom but also typically have a wider wide-angle than does the iPhone’s camera.

While there are add-on lenses that provide wide-angle and telephoto options to the iPhone, they are not cheap. They also require that you remember to carry them with you and attach them to your iPhone when needed. Overall, I don’t see these becoming widely popular.

Advantage: Point-and-shoot.

Program options. With a point-and-shoot camera, if you are willing to stray from Automatic and shift to Program mode, you are rewarded with a range of options that go far beyond what the iPhone can do. With most point-and-shoot cameras, you can separately set the “film” speed (ASA), aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, white balance and more. This can allow you to, for example, capture a moving subject without blur or obtain a depth-of-field that just brings a desired portion of an image into focus.

In contrast, the iPhone’s camera is, at best, the equivalent of a point-and-shoot camera’s Automatic mode. The iPhone offers some of these controls via its focus option, but it remains limited.

Advantage: Point-and-shoot

Summing up. When it comes to picture quality specs, point-and-shoot cameras are the clear winner, a reversal of the prior situation with non-picture quality features. [Update: An important point, that I mostly overlooked here, came up in the Comments section below: how you intend to use your photos. For example, if all you ever do with your photos is post them to Facebook, then image quality will matter a lot less than if you regularly print out 8X10s to frame and mount on your wall.]

Photo comparisons

Tech specs tell you what to expect in terms of picture quality. But there’s no substitute for real world testing. So I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera (Canon SD3500 IS) and my iPhone 4S. I placed the Canon in Automatic mode and snapped pictures, followed by taking similar shots with the iPhone 4S. I then compared the photos (with no editing) on a 24” Apple Cinema Display. If I had used a different point-and-shoot camera, used Program mode or compared printed rather than digitally displayed output, results may have been different. But this offered a good approximation of the differences I could expect based on how I take and view photos. Your mileage may vary.

Outdoors. The two photos shown below, admittedly taken at different angles, were shot outside Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville CA. The details are a bit sharper in the Canon, while the iPhone has richer color (some may say it is too warm). Still, as a memory of my visit, I would be happy with the results from either camera.

Outside Pixar

A similar scene taken with my Canon camera (left) and iPhone 4S (right). Click to see enlarged images.

Indoors. These next two shots were taken inside the Pixar building, both without a flash (the light coming in from the windows was more than sufficient). Once again, given my limited demands, I was more than satisfied with the results from both cameras.

Inside Pixar

A similar scene taken with my Canon camera (left) and iPhone 4S (right). Click to see enlarged images.

Outdoors again. These two shots were taken in front of my home. In both cases, I was standing at the exact same spot, attempting to duplicate the scene as much as possible. Both cameras were set to their widest possible view. Right off, you can see that the Canon is capable of a wider wide-angle than the iPhone. As for color, I slightly preferred the richer more vibrant colors on the iPhone shot. The sharpness of the two shots seemed about equal. I was satisfied with the iPhone photo here, although I preferred the Canon shot overall.

Outside my home

The same shot taken with my Canon camera (left) and iPhone 4S (right). Click to see enlarged images.

Zoom. Next, I zoomed in on the fountain seen in the previous photo for two more shots. With the Canon, the photo was taken at its maximal 5X optical zoom. I matched about the same degree of zoom with the iPhone’s digital zoom. The Canon’s photo was by far superior, as expected. You can see that the details are sharper and the colors more accurate (although even the enlarged view doesn’t show the differences as well as the original images).

Zoom in on fountain

The same shot taken with my Canon camera (left) and iPhone 4S (right). Click to see enlarged images.

More indoors. I took several additional comparison shots, with and without flash, in relatively dark locations inside my house. Overall, the iPhone was adequate in low light without flash, sometimes even seeming to exceed the capabilities of the Canon. This appeared to be because the Canon defaulted to such a slow shutter speed that I could not avoid significant blurring with a hand-held shot. If I had shifted to Program mode, I might have been able to work around that. On the other hand, the iPhone’s photos were noticeably more grainy, even though they were less blurry. You can see these differences somewhat better in the enlarged view of the photos below. With flash, photos were more similar to each other, but the Canon’s shots were again noticeably sharper, with crisper details (text was more readable, for example).

Inside my home

Identical shots, no flash, taken with my Canon camera (left) and iPhone 4S (right). Click to see enlarged images.

Summing up. For the widest possible wide-angle, for any time when I want zoom, for indoor shots in dim illumination, or when shooting moving objects…the Canon is clearly the preferred choice for picture quality. Those situations account for a lot of the photos I take.


In all of the above discussions, I restricted myself to the cameras’ still photography. However, iPhones and point-and-shoot cameras both take video as well. For my limited video needs, the quality from either device was very good. However, with its 1080P capability together with apps for editing video and Internet sharing, the iPhone 4S gets a slight edge overall. One thing is certain: dedicated video cameras are dead to me. I will never buy another one.

Bottom line

There’s no doubt about it. Going just with a smartphone, even one as good as an iPhone 4S, requires a sacrifice in picture quality compared to a good point-and-shoot camera. That’s not to say the iPhone’s picture quality is bad, just that it is not as good. In almost every other way, however, the iPhone 4S is superior.

So…should you abandon a point-and-shoot camera altogether if you have an iPhone 4S? Ultimately, it boils down to a subjective question: Even though the iPhone’s picture quality is discernibly inferior, is it good enough to satisfy your needs? If the answer is yes, the time has come to toss your point-and-shoot aside.

For more and more users, I believe the answer is yes. That’s why I expect camera makers to gradually abandon the low-end point-and-shoot market, ceding it to smartphones. 

For me, I remain on the edge. I’ll be going on a travel vacation in a few weeks. I know there will be times when I will want my Canon. There are just too many situations where the Canon does a better job. Still, it may not matter enough. I am seriously thinking of leaving my point-and-shoot camera at home, trusting my iPhone 4S to handle the job, so as not to have another device to carry around and worry about. Convenience means a lot to me when I’m a tourist. I’m willing to make some sacrifice in picture quality to get it.

As Apple continues to improve the iPhone’s camera, user preferences (including mine) will surely tilt more and more towards the iPhone. For me, if Apple ever finds a way to fit an optical zoom in the iPhone, it will be game over for sure.