Nikon Z 7II vs iPhone: Can an iPhone Really Replace a Full-Frame Camera?

A popular topic on photography blog sites these days is someone posting about how the modern smart phones can now just about take the place of a full-frame camera and the phone camera photos are so good that most people can’t tell the difference anyway. Why bother with all those cumbersome camera bodies and lenses anymore? This always irritates me, and not just because I blew a bunch of dough on a full-frame camera and lenses, but because it just isn’t true in my opinion. But what’s my opinion worth anyway? So, I finally got irritated enough to see whether I had a point or was just being a sore-head and not giving modern phone cameras their proper due respect.

The smart phone

The smart phone I am using for this comparison is my personal phone, an iPhone 13 pro from last year. It has 3 cameras built-in, each with a 12MPsensor, to give you three different focal lengths as it doesn’t support changing lenses. There is a telephoto, wide, and ultra-wide giving you stated 35mm equivalent focal length and aperture options of 13mm f/1.8, 26mm f/1.5, and 77mm f/2.8. I’m not sure I buy those aperture numbers, but who knows. The iPhone also performs a great deal of automated post-processing on any picture you take to correct for short-comings of the built in camera.

The iPhone 13 Pro cost about $1200 last year, if I remember correctly. It has recently been replaced by the 14 Pro, but the camera should be about the same.

The full-frame camera

My camera is a Nikon Z 7II full-frame camera with a 45.7 MP sensor and for this comparison I am using the Nikon Nikkor Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR lens. This lens is a medium quality lens and it provides the focal length of the main camera on the iPhone. The sensor on this camera is several times larger physically than the phone camera sensor and the lens should be much better so it should be no contest.

The full-frame camera can produce JPEG images that have a particular profile added to enhance them, but I have it configured to just give me a maximum resolution RAW image file that I will edit manually in Lightroom. A more cumbersome process than just having the phone make a finished image, but maybe I’ll get better results.

From Nikon’s website, the Z 7II currently goes for $2600 and the Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR lens goes for $800. So, quite a bit of cost difference compared to the iPhone.

Comparisons

So, with my confirmation bias securely in place, I carried both of these devices with me on a recent hike at the wildlife refuge and took a few photos with each, trying to match the focal length and composition as closely as possible. The first photo was taken along the trail while there was still some sunlight left in the sky. A brightly lit scene tends to help hide the noise and imperfections of a camera as the sensor is working in its optimal signal quality range and the shutter is fast enough to reduce motion blur.

First is the iPhone camera photo. All settings and processing automated by the camera and out of my control.

Next the Z7II photo shot hand-held as with the iPhone photo. I did all the work with camera settings and editing. It took me a while to get the focal length correct so I had a bit less light on the little tree in the foreground.

When I look at these photos full size, I don’t think the iPhone photo looks terrible in comparison to the Z 7II photo, but the phone photo does look to me like it has had a lot of contrast and saturation applied, as well as noise reduction and heavy sharpening correction. If you look at the rocks in the iPhone photo you can see the results of the contrast and sharpening algorithm.

In the camera photo, there is zero contrast added, reduced highlights and boosted shadows, +12 vibrance, and +7 saturation as I was trying to match the iPhone photo. If I wanted to heavily adjust the texture, I could make the rocks look as harsh as in the phone photo. I made no noise correction or sharpening adjustments in Lightroom.

If I crop in on the little tree along the path, you can really see how the contrast and noise correction have kind of made a mess of it in the iPhone picture. There is clearly much poorer dynamic range and tree looks very harsh compared to the Z7II photo.

I would call this a victory for the full-frame camera though you might not immediately notice the difference unless you look. I think you would notice the difference quite a bit if printing the photos.

Next we have a photo of some stepping stones across a dry creek bed. The sun is behind the hills and everything is in shade. This provides a bit more challenging situation for the cameras as they need to increase the light sensitivity, which also increases noise sensitivity. First is the iPhone photo directly below. From the full photo you can see that the iPhone has really saturated the sky and put a lot of contrast in the stones of the creek bed to the expense of color information.

Next is the same scene shot with the Z 7II shown directly below. I tried to boost the saturation in the sky to match the iPhone photo above. You can see a lot more color depth in the Z 7II photo as is has much more dynamic range. The foliage is greener and the rocks in the creek bed show their natural color without the extreme contrast applied to them.

If I crop in on the stones, you can really see a difference. In my opinion the iPhone processing (left below) does some extreme work trying to correct for the dynamic range limitation and noise, and the result lacks color and shows blocky artifacts of extreme sharpening. The Z 7II photo (right) was shot at ISO1250 so I could hand-hold it, but even at elevated ISO, it has good color range performance. I did some noise correction in Lightroom as well, but it isn’t really much of a problem.

I think again, this shows what the iPhone is doing to correct for a small sensor with limited dynamic range, but there is only so much you can do with over-saturation, noise correction, and sharpening. This isn’t always as big a problem with good lighting conditions, but I don’t always shoot with good lighting conditions.

This next subject shoot actually surprised me quite a bit. In this scene we have a santa figure only lit by a Christmas tree. Very tough conditions for hand-holding a photo as there is very little light to work with. You either need a longer exposure, which is difficult hand-held or you need to boost the sensor gain, which results in increased noise in your photo.

Directly below is the photo shot on the iPhone. The iPhone actually does some amazing computational image stabilization while you are taking the photo and hand-holding the camera. I suppose they have put a lot of effort into this as people often take photos indoors under poor lighting conditions. The below is a pretty good photo.

Below is the same photo taken hand-held with the Z 7II. It was shot at ISO6400, which is quite high, in order to get a shutter speed that I could hand-hold (1/25th second) and even then I can see a little motion blur if I go looking. One thing the Z 7II does a lot better is capturing the light bulbs on the Christmas tree as they get mostly blown out on the iPhone. Also, you can’t see it because of the reduce resolution of my exports, but the textures in the iPhone photo get kind of harsh and crunchy as you zoom in.

Overall, I would have to call this one a draw though. This scene is quite a challenge for my lower cost lens and I’d much rather have a faster prime to let more light in and drop the ISO. The iPhone software did an amazing job in this circumstance.

Lastly, zoom. On the iPhone you get “digital zoom” which really means that it is cropping your image for you. With a full-frame camera and a zoom lens you get optical zoom, in which the lens reduces the angle of view and you get a “zoomed” image projected on the sensor instead of cropping part of the sensor. So, in this situation you would expect to lose a lot of resolution in the iPhone photo and you’d be correct.

In the photos below I have a zoomed in photo of a bird house taken from the same spot. The birdhouse was moving in the breeze so it changed positions between shots. The iPhone (right) was at 12x digital zoom and the lens on the Z 7II (left) was at 200mm.

You can tell the digitally zoomed photo (right) is lacking a lot of detail as it is cropped. The texture of the wood is a garbled mess and the image lacks color depth. Also, you can see that you don’t get the focus depth fall off that you get with an actual zoom (left). I have always considered the digital zoom to be a useless feature and I am still of that opinion.

My point with all of this was not (only) to make myself feel better about buying an expensive dedicated camera, but to demonstrate to myself that all of the articles that I seem to see in the photography blogosphere that argue that you can replace your camera with a smart-phone are ridiculous. The iPhone photos look fine, until you see them next to a similar photo taken by an actual camera. If you want snap shots of the kids or whatever scene to share on social media, the smart phone is fine for those low-resolution mediums. If you want photos of anything that you want to print or appreciate for years to come, there is still not substitute for a good dedicated camera.

12 thoughts on “Nikon Z 7II vs iPhone: Can an iPhone Really Replace a Full-Frame Camera?

  1. I used to work in a photo processing plant, and I worked with the machines that took the negatives from customers, and printed them to the silver treated paper we’ll call photo paper. I got to see the differences in the different negatives provided, and was impressed by the results of the 135 mm negatives along with the old camera sized negatives that our plant could process back in the mid 70’s (I don’t know if any can process them now).

    I could only use instamatic cameras back then, because I’ve never had the money to learn how to use the cameras you use, nor the money to buy any of the cameras/lenses you describe. I found some instamatic 135 mm using cameras in the early 80’s, and noted that the film emulsion made a HUGE difference to my printed photo results. I was surprised, but not really since I had seen that happen in my job.

    Move to present day, and I am very happy with my smart phone’s features that move me into a better place. I’m not sure what you describe as “noise”, but I have noticed the complications of getting a shot with the features staying as clean as I can see them. I’m glad you took the time to check out the variances between the camera and smartphone, and how they set the shot for the capture result.

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t do much film photography back in the day. I am quite happy with digital cameras.

      I think that most people wouldn’t care too much about what I pointed out, but I was being nit-picky with the differences in the photos as I am kind of dorky that way. From personal experience I know what happens when I get too heavy-handed with the noise correction and sharpening and I see that all over my phone camera photos.

      I have seen so many blogs on professional sites saying that you can just leave your big camera at home now as the smart phones are so good and that just irks me because that isn’t my experience unless you are shooting in broad daylight perhaps and don’t care about large prints.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that the iPhone camera is good but it lacks contract and a bit of definition. It certainly doesn’t capture color the way your camera does, as one can see in the photos. And one photo of the rocks looks completely different from one another, with your camera taking the better one. The birdhouse also looks like your camera took a better picture. I’m not dissing the iPhone, I have one but it’s cameras are for (in my opinion) for those that use social media a lot and don’t really care how pictures look. And I use mine just to take pictures of my cat….lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Most of us don’t have any professional reason to take photos, like you do. We just have to capture personal moments in time.

    I have to say that one of the losses with digital photos is that most of us don’t bother making albums to review any more. I’m only a bit sad about that since I have no one to view them with, and I don’t like having to take care of them. I learned long ago that saving the negatives (electronic files now) was the best option so they could be printed as desired.

    I’m getting close to 70, now, and I think that my kids will appreciate having the ability to delete those files rather than disposing of albums when I am gone. My sister has an album printed for each year, and they are the same size so easily stored. I’ve thought about doing that, but wonder why I’d bother to spend that money?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, my irritation was about blogs on professional type pseudo news sites. Not for the person taking her own casual photos.

      I don’t think that most of the photos that I have only stored digitally will ever be seen again. I think there is value in printing a physical album for people to hold and look at.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought the first two photos looked very similar. But all the other comparisons demonstrated the superiority of a full-frame camera. The full-frame photos look livelier and more interesting. In contrast, the iPhone photos tend to look drab. And I agree with you about digital zoom. I’ve never been impressed with that feature, and can’t understand why it’s touted so much.

    I’ve used my phone camera in a pinch, but have often felt disappointed with the results. But under ideal lighting conditions, I think it can compare fairly well with a full-frame camera.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Seeing the photos side by side definitely make the differences easier to see. I would agree that your camera wins when it comes to details in the photos and giving the photo a softer look.
    The smartphone as a camera is very convenient but no, it doesn’t take the place of a camera.
    Question on the Santa photo … do you really have all your gifts wrapped already?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice demo. But for most, do they really care. So the next step, printing an 11X14 of an image from each. Of course, one could plug the phone into the computer and download the image as well to work with its full rez image and post process it also in PS or some other editing software.

    I started shooting film in the mid to late 70’s and began work for my first publication in the early 1980’s. Went from Tri-X through Plus-X, Pan-X, and then the TMAX films, the variety of chrome film or slides, and liked Fuji’s best as it had warmer tones than did Kodak. The on to various color negative film, again preferring Fuji for its color palette. Finally in the early 2000’s I bought Nikon’s first digital camera the D1 I believe it was. Seeing the writing on the wall and not missing working with chemicals. Although I do miss shooting and working with a 4X5 camera.

    Today most everything is viewed on a screen and images are good enough, even for major publications or TV. For them content takes precedence ver quality if it’s newsworthy enough. But I still make prints to give to friends and family for Christmas, and recently had printed that small book commemorating a park’s 25th anniversary.

    I’ve decided I really don’t need or should want more gear, but instead want to use my funds to create some more books about places I am currently shooting or have over the recent years.

    Whatever makes one happy, Jason, and does the job. I hardly ever, use my phone to take a photo, unless I need a price check for check out at a local hardware store. I like my cameras and don’t mind carrying the gear because I know how I like to shoot, and just turn a deaf ear.

    OF course, I’m just an old fart these days, stuck in the 20th century. Merry Christmas and may Santa bring you a new toy to use.

    Liked by 1 person

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