Is a digital camera or a phone camera better?

For as long as mobile phones with cameras have been around, there has been a never-ending debate about whether they can realistically compete with digital cameras. The argument was easier to make in favor of the latter in the early to mid-2000s, but that isn’t the case anymore.

Advancements in mobile phone technology meant that not only did the capabilities of phones improve but the internal cameras did as well. But that isn’t to say that digital cameras were left behind. On the contrary, improvements in the sensors and internal software meant that more adjustments were possible than ever before. However, even with all the upgrades and customizability, bigger isn’t always better. 

Digital camera

The first digital camera commercially available was the Dycam Model 1, which launched in 1990. Until 2003, the digital camera was the most trusted way to capture the moment. However, something surprising happened in the early 2000s: Sales of phones with cameras overtook that of digital cameras.

Around the same time, traditional film cameras were replaced with digital devices. So, there was a definite shift in technology and what consumers needed. But as digital itself started to make way for mobile, the once stable method of photography moved toward professional usage rather than for the everyday consumer. 

Pro: Internal technology

Digital cameras are understandably more complex than mobile phone cameras. Where everything is taken care of through software in the latter, digital cameras still have some mechanical parts.

But it’s all the elements combined that give photographers the freedom to adjust settings as they need. Tweaks in the aperture, shutter speed and focal range can dramatically change the tone of an image. 

Then, as mentioned, the interchangeable lenses are a big drawcard for professional photographers. This trumps mobile phone cameras, as you can attach a different lens depending on the circumstance. From up-close macro photographer to shooting far-away wildlife with a telephoto lens, there are no distances that a digital camera can’t cover while keeping the subject in focus.      

Con: Price

The overwhelming reluctance for some users to get a digital camera is the price. An entry-level camera body retails for $300-$800, and then you still need to add lenses. A complete camera kit can retail for $800-$2,000, and if you want to use interchangeable lenses (depending on the model), these range from $100-$500. 

But with the steep initial investment comes the comfort that the camera body is a one-time purchase. If you take care of your camera, it should last for at least a decade. After that, the only other investment you could make is for accessories, such as a flash, a tripod or larger capacity memory cards. 

Best digital camera

Sony a7 III Full-frame Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera

Sony a7 III Full-frame Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera

This digital camera is one of Sony’s best-selling models and features a powerful 24.2-megapixel sensor. To adjust the camera to the perfect scenario, it has a 15-stop dynamic range and integrates the BIONZ X image processor for crisper photos. It can autofocus on 693 points in the viewfinder and capture 10 frames per second. The camera body comes with your choice of a 28-70 millimeter or 16-35 mm lens.

Sold by Amazon

Phone camera

By 2008, mobile phones had such advanced cameras that they seriously started to compete with available digital cameras. For example, the Samsung i8510 was the first mobile phone to have an 8-megapixel camera, and only a year later, the company launched the first 12-megapixel camera in a mobile phone.

Development stalled for a few years as manufacturers raced to perfect mobile technology. The resulting advancement saw software play a huge role in mobile photography with filters, panorama mode and Time Shift giving users a new experience. 

Pro: Price

Mobile phones are incredible value for money. You get a sophisticated communications gadget, but you also have a powerful camera in your pocket. The latest iPhone 13 mini retails for $699 for the 128-gigabyte version, and the top iPhone 13 Pro Max 512GB retails for $1,399. 

That is almost on par with a digital camera. However, once you factor in the accessories and additional lenses for digital cameras, mobile phones quickly become the more affordable option.  

Con: Internal technology

You could argue that the internal technology of a mobile phone in no way hampers its ability to take perfect photos. But it’s a factor that must be analyzed, as mobile devices have a wide range of capabilities. Where a digital camera has but one purpose, a phone has plenty. 

From browsing the internet and playing games to taking photos, every aspect requires processing power. Unfortunately, there is only so much space inside the housing, so all parts must divide the power. 

On the other hand, makers like Samsung and Apple have been investing in more technology to increase the camera’s abilities. The iPhone 13 Pro is the first Apple model capable of macro photography, focusing on objects just 0.79 inches away. The lens also captures twice as much light as previously, making it excellent for low-light conditions. 

Best phone camera

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

The latest mobile phone from Apple packs a tremendous amount of power. It has a 6.7-inch OLED display, and the internal memory is available in 128GB, 256GB, 512GB and 1 terabyte. There are three lenses in terms of the rear camera: a 12-megapixel primary lens, a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens capable of three-times zoom with a 77 mm focal length. The internal software allows night photography, studio-quality lighting effects and a Portrait Mode.

Sold by Amazon

Should you get a digital camera or phone camera?

Mobile phones must split the computing power between applications and processes, but that has become more efficient over the last few years. To spend over $800 on a mobile phone seems ridiculous, but it is well worth it if you are doing so for photography.

Digital cameras still have a place in the world but are now the preferred method for professional photographers. Consider your needs before deciding between the two, but the mobile phone camera wins in an overall shootout based on capabilities.


Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.

Charlie Fripp writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

Copyright 2022 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.