With a deluge of three new cameras released every week, I'd completely lost perspective. Just how far have we come since film? Where would a modern smartphone camera fit into the evolution of digital SLRs? Would it be like DSLRs of five years ago? Ten? Or not on the same page at all? I wanted to get a feel for the pace of progress, to look back and see how far we’ve come, to get a handle on where we’re going.

I’m lucky enough to have a company with lots of cameras, so we decided to find out.

We took two of the latest smartphones and pitted them against digital SLRs from 2003 to today, and, for reference, film.

The phones were the sprightly 8-megapixel iPhone 5S, which has the fastest camera on any phone, and the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020, which is the undisputed heavyweight champion of phone imaging.

They couldn’t be more different. The iPhone 5S worships at the altar of convenience and speed, while the Nokia devotes everything to the best possible image quality. In the seven seconds you took to read this paragraph, the iPhone could have taken 70 shots. The Nokia? Two. With another coming … wait a moment … almost there … now. Their camera apps are polar opposites too: the Nokia offers you full-time manual control over all the camera settings; the iPhone gives you almost none.

In the other corner, our SLRs contenders were:

  • Canon EOS 10D  (6 megapixels, 2003)
  • Canon EOS 20D  (8 megapixels, 2004)
  • Canon EOS 30D  (8 megapixels, 2006)
  • Canon EOS 40D  (10 megapixels, 2007)
  • Nikon D800 (36 megapixels, 2012 and not yet seriously bettered)
  • Nikon FM2 film camera with Fuji Velvia 50 transparency film, and Fuji Superia 1600 print film

Why these cameras? The Canon DSLRs each represent the pinnacle of picture quality available in their day for less than $2,000 without a lens. Each earned DPReview’s coveted Gold Award, and reading back through their glowing reviews, I found myself wanting to buy them … again! I chose DSLRs from this era, as I guessed that the phones would slot neatly among them. I was wrong. We included the Nikon D800 as an upper reference point for the current state of the art for DSLRs, and we added film to anchor it all in an historic perspective, to give us old-timers a place to mentally hang the results.

We tested them all twice, first in glaring subtropical sunlight (EV 15 to photographers), then under the equivalent of romantic candlelight, 6,000 times darker in Queensland Museum (EV 2.7). In bright light outside, I expected a fair fight between the phones and DSLRs. In dim light, I expected the DSLRs to eat the phones for breakfast. DSLRs’ enormous lenses concentrate light onto vast sensors, adding up to a colossal advantage. Low light is what they were born to shoot. In comparison, the phones have minuscule lenses and tiny sensors with teeny-weeny pixels, so only the most fanatical photons can find their way to a pixel. But the phones have an extra 6-10 years of technology on their side. Can technology make up for what they lack in size?

iPhone 4S, 1/750s, f/2.4, ISO 64
Smartphones limit you. With their wide lenses, you need to get awkwardly close to shoot animals...
iPhone 5, 1/750s, f/2.4, ISO 50
... or limit yourself to large, tame things

A technical aside: How do you compare apples to oranges?

Comparing smartphones to DSLRs is like comparing apples to oranges. They have different views, give different amounts in focus, different possibilities for editing, capture different ranges of brightness and there’s a whopping six-fold difference in the size of pictures between these devices. So how do you compare them?

At first, we struggled to find a test that would be completely fair to both, and eventually realized that fairness would limit us to shooting a flat black-and-white chart in a studio. Fascinating for Mr. Spock, but meaningless to most humans. So instead, we shot normal scenes, and we’ve tried to spell out the biases involved. Here is one of the biases to give you a flavor, and we’ve added a separate page with all the technical notes here if you want all the details.

Nudgee Sunrise. iPhone 5,1/40s, f/2.4, ISO 64.
Smartphones have huge depth of field.

One of the subtle biases is that smartphones naturally get lots in focus, but DSLRs have to stray far from their best settings to get the same look. In tech-speak, the iPhone 5S gets the same depth in focus as a full-frame DSLR at f/18. With a phone, you can freeze everyone along the length of a candlelit Christmas dinner table, and keep them all in focus. None of these DSLRs can do that, as f/18 and short shutter speeds don’t mix in candlelight. But the DSLRs can capture beautiful blurry-background portraits in that same light — something none of the phones can ever do. In short, they're each good at different things.

To get around this particular difference, we chose tests where the depth in focus wasn’t relevant, creating a bias in favor of the DSLRs, as we allowed them the indulgence of picking their optimal aperture, rather than forcing them to use a realistic one.

In the technical notes page, you can read about the steps we used in the tests, the settings, how and why we standardized the sizes of all the pictures to about 20 megapixels and how we processed the images. You can also download the original photos from Flickr to check our conclusions.

So, how do they compare? I thought I knew. It turned out that I was completely wrong. Read on to find the answers.