Camera Face-Off: Can an iPhone Beat a DSLR?

Smartphones have already driven point-and-shoot cameras to the point of extinction. Will DSLRs soon join those cameras on the endangered species list?

The logic makes sense. After all, when you already have a phone in your pocket capable of capturing high-quality images, why lug around another device? If you believe what phone makers like LG say, smartphones already rival their big and bulky brethren in picture quality.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

However, DSLR cameras have some distinct advantages, including larger sensors, more megapixels, better controls and interchangeable lenses.

To see whether smartphones are good enough to compete with DSLRs, we put our top-rated camera phone, the iPhone 6s Plus, up against our favorite sub-$500 DSLR, the Nikon D3300. The results were closer than we expected, but there’s still a clear winner.

The Combatants

The iPhone 6s Plus starts off with a pretty sizable disadvantage, and we’re not just talking about the device’s higher price tag. Starting at $749, a 16GB iPhone 6s Plus costs $300 more than a Nikon D3300, which goes for about $450, and that’s with the Nikon’s 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens.

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Of course, the iPhone offers more than just its camera features, which helps put the price difference in better perspective. But Apple’s phone also suffers from a lack of resolution when compared to the D3300, as it features a 12-megapixel sensor versus 24-MP for the Nikon.

The iPhone 6s Plus claws back some ground due to its much more portable design, wider f/2.2-aperture lens and greater ease of use. The latest iPhone also has some appealing capabilities, such as the GIF-like Live Photos feature, better options for sharing and impressive optical image stabilization.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide


Still, it’s pretty hard for even a high-end phone to beat a camera in a specs showdown. The D3300 offers better ergonomics, more full-featured controls and other advantages over a smartphone. In the end, though, it comes down to one simple question: How do the photos look?

How We Tested

A lot of photography face-offs end up comparing pictures of boring test patterns and staged setups with carefully planned lighting. While those types of experiments can be useful for picking apart every last detail, they’re not a realistic re-creation of how you’ll put a camera to use.

Instead, we went out and captured 10 of the most common types of photos, to see how each camera type fared out in the real world. To keep things even across the devices, we left the iPhone in auto mode while we locked the D3300 into aperture-priority mode at its widest available f-stop. That makes shutter speed and ISO adjust automatically on the D3300, just like they would on the iPhone.


The Landscape

I would have preferred some greenery, but freezing temperatures and 2 feet of snow on the East Coast made shooting a traditional landscape with chirping birds and a happy tree or two pretty much impossible. This landscape still provided a challenge, as both cameras needed to nail color and white balance while preventing the bright snow from getting blown out.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

Both the D3300 and iPhone 6s Plus did an admirable job of avoiding pure-white hot spots. But the D3300’s photo featured a more neutral white balance that was both more accurate and more visually pleasing than the iPhone’s yellowed and less detailed shot.

Winner: Nikon D3300

The Nightscape

When night falls, we begin to see two very different approaches to low-light photography. The iPhone leverages its optical image stabilization (OIS) in order to keep the ISO and shutter speed low (ISO-80 @ 1/10 of a second) without sacrificing too much on sharpness. The D3300 opted to boost ISO all the way up to 6,400, which resulted in a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

As a result, the iPhone produced a brighter, less grainy picture, while the Nikon did a better job saving the detail on the water in the fountain, which got blown out by Apple’s camera. This one is really close, but I have to give the edge to the Nikon for doing a better job capturing the most interesting part of the scene.

Winner: Nikon D3300

The Portrait

If you ask someone to take a head shot for you and the person has only a phone camera, just turn around and walk away. In this portrait comparison, the D3300’s shot features way more detail, especially in Cherlynn’s hair and face, which leads to a much more attractive and engaging shot than what the iPhone produced.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

The 4:3 aspect ratio on the iPhone (versus 3:2 for the Nikon) also hurts this portrait shot, as the increased vertical height brings in too many distracting elements, making the overall composition less pleasing.

Winner: Nikon D3300

The Food Shot

When I went out looking for some bao, the iPhone crushed the D3300 when I used them to capture this delicious Asian treat.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

The 6s Plus’ pic is sharper and better-exposed, and makes that delicious braised pork look juicier than in the D3300’s shot. The iPhone’s camera even did a better job handling white balance. When asked, literally every single person in our office picked the iPhone’s photo without hesitation.

Winner: iPhone 6s Plus

The Bar Shot

Your local watering hole may be the place where everybody knows your name, but too often, it’s not an ideal place to take a photo. Most bars are plagued by dim lighting and subjects who don’t want to (or can’t) stand still for very long, making it difficult to capture a nice shot. That means you often get fuzzy, discolored shots that you wouldn’t want to post on Facebook, even as a joke. So which camera can overcome these obstacles?

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

With its yellowed colorcast, the D3300’s photo does a good job capturing the typical bar atmosphere, but that’s about it. The iPhone’s pic features much better focus and more detail. With a shutter speed of just a quarter of a second, the iPhone’s camera produces a textbook example of how powerful good OIS can be.

Winner: iPhone 6s Plus

The Bar Shot with Flash

Still in the bar, I turned on the flash, as many people would in a low-light setting. That flipped the results, with the D3300 trumping the iPhone.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

The Nikon picture has significantly more detail around the subject’s faces and sharper focus; it also features much better color. The only thing I like about the iPhone’s shot is the side-eye Sherri is giving to fellow Tom’s Guide employees Ken and Cherlynn.

Winner: Nikon D3300

The Action Shot

Trains circling intricate displays at the New York Botanical Garden may not be your typical adrenaline-filled action shot, but I wanted to try to capture the moment.

Between the two images, the iPhone’s pic features richer, more-saturated colors and greater detail on the building in the background while still preserving the trains’ sense of movement. The D3300’s photo looks much flatter, and the tree in the foreground has a soft, greasy appearance.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

Had I been allowed to take the D3300 out of aperture priority mode and into shutter priority, I probably would have been able to freeze the scene’s motion, which is often the goal when shooting sports, but that was not part of this test. This would also put the iPhone pretty far in the hole, as you would need a third-party camera app to get a feature like the D3300’s shutter priority mode.

Winner: iPhone 6s Plus

The Pet Shot

Trying to photograph your furry, four-legged companion can be an exercise in frustration, as pets rarely respond to your wishes for a quick pic. That makes having something that’s portable and quick-to-snap a real boon, so you might think a smartphone would have the edge here.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

However, the Nikon’s supersharp focus captured a slightly better version of this feline’s fluffy pelt. There’s better focus around the eyes as well, although I have to give the iPhone props for having face recognition that turned on automatically, even when I was capturing the face of a cat rather than a person.

Winner: Nikon D3300

The Concert Shot

OK, technically this wasn’t a concert, and I’m not sure you’re actually allowed to take photos at the Met, but this backdrop from the “Turandot” opera was too good to miss. This scene also highlights a major weakness of smartphone photography, as the iPhone’s shot suffers from a lack of reach, something the device’s digital zoom doesn’t do much to address. This issue often crops up at sporting events, plays or concerts, and it shows how you can’t ignore the power of optics — especially those that can zoom — when you want the best shot but can’t get up close.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

The iPhone also struggled with exposure due to the vast differences in light; even after I “cheated” and tapped on the screen to adjust exposure and focus, the iPhone’s pic still featured sections that were blown out and fuzzy.

The Nikon D3300, with the 3x optical zoom from its 18-55mm lens, produced a much sharper and better-exposed picture that really brought out all the shades of gold and white of this world-class stage set.

Winner: Nikon D3300


DSLRs often lag behind smartphones (and most mirrorless cameras) when recording video. Not only can the iPhone 6s Plus shoot in 4K, but it also includes a fun super-slow-mo feature. The D3300 lacks both of these capabilities.

The iPhone’s video footage generally looked sharper and featured audio with less crackling and distortion.

More expensive DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can out-video an iPhone, but cameras in the D3300’s $450 price range often play second fiddle to smartphones when shooting video.

Winner: iPhone 6s Plus


Bottom Line

Although the iPhone 6s Plus put up a pretty good fight, it’s not a big surprise to see even an entry-level DSLR like the Nikon D3300 trump our top smartphone camera in a head-to-head competition. Although the final score of 6-4 seems close, it’s actually misleading, as our portrait and opera shots show how far smartphones need to go in order to truly best a DSLR. Still, the iPhone 6s Plus trumped our DSLR in certain low-light pictures, such as our food shot, and when taking video.

That doesn’t mean everyone should run out and buy a DSLR, though. What’s really important is to decide what kind of photographer you want to be. For snapping quick, easily sharable pics that look good, a solid smartphone could be all you need. But if you really care about quality, and want to push your skills and photos even further, you’re better off with a DSLR or high-quality mirrorless camera.


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