If you were looking for this post on the Retrograde Photography website, I’ve combined the two sites into one. All content from Retrograde is now here. Enjoy!
At the start of the summer holidays 2018, we took the girls for our annual trip to Bath for them to spend some time with their grandparents. While we were there, I took the opportunity to have a trip to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It’d been a few years since my last trip and I wanted to get some photos to add to my collection.
Based in the centre of the city, Bristol Museum is a fun day out. The Egyptian galleries (the closest dedicated Egyptian display to Bath) are medium in size. They have an interesting collection on display, including, a rare, beautiful Coptic-era child’s hooded top. (Bristol Museum is well worth a visit, if you can!)
The gallery is a large room, but uses the long, tall display cases to create narrow walkways. This not only maximises the use of the space, but also brings that tomb-like feel to the room.
Most of the information about objects are on computer displays in front of the cases. These are good, in that the displays are not packed full of information panels, but as all computers do, sometimes they decide to not work. As one of them did on this occasion. (Luckily, the coffin in question had is accession number on the front, so I could go and find it on the museum’s online collection afterwards.)
Then there’s the lighting. The room has incredibly low ambient lighting and it really puts my photography skills to the test.
So, because of this very low lighting, I decided that a fun exercise for this trip would be to do a comparison between my camera and my mobile phone. Not a ‘which is better’ test; that would be completely unfair to my mobile phone. I just wanted to see how well they both work in such low light.
I took a few photos on both camera and mobile phone and have paired them up here as a bit of a fun comparison.
To be honest, it’s a bit David-and-Goliath, but I just wanted to show to you why I love my camera so much and don’t use my mobile phone in these conditions, if I can.
What equipment did I use?
If you’re interested in the technical side of things, here’s what equipment I had (if not, please just skip on the photos themselves).
I had with me my Fujifilm X-T2, which is the camera I use for all my photography at the Garstang and most of the other photos I share online. The X-T2 is a mirrorless camera and is one of Fujifilm’s ‘flagship’ models. The X-T1 (its previous iteration) was one of the first cameras to boast good low-light capabilities in a mirrorless camera, and the X-T2 has improved upon its predecessor.
The camera has a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor (slightly smaller than full-frame sensors).
As for lenses, I had two: the XF 16 mm (equivalent 24 mm with the crop factor) with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and the XF 80 mm macro (equivalent 120 mm with the crop factor) with a maximum aperture of f/2.8.
(Crop factors are an explanation for another day. Suffice to say, that when your sensor is smaller than full frame, it’s the equivalent of zooming in a bit.)
My mobile phone is a Sony Xperia XZ (bought new in 2017). It has a 23-megapixel 1/2.33″ sensor.
(There’s a little more about sensor size towards the end of this piece.)
Smartphone and camera photos, side-by-side
I’ve chosen photos of six objects. For each object, I’ve included a photo taken with the Fujifilm and a photo taken with the mobile phone.
I’ve tried to process each pair in as similar way as possible, and have cropped the mobile photos to a 2:3 ratio to match the Fujifilm camera (mobile photos are usually slightly squarer at 3:4). I’ve put most of them into black and white purely for aesthetic reasons. I love black and white and am not ashamed to admit it 🙂
I’ve downsized all the photos to be 1000 pixels on the longest side, otherwise the page will take an age to load and you will have clicked away before even getting this far. The original Fujfilm images are 4000 × 6000 pixels; the mobile photos, 4140 × 5520 pixels.
OK, that’s the tech stuff out of the way. Here’s the photos!
The stela of Meni, 6th Dynasty, Dendera (H487)
This 6th Dynasty stela is a good subject to photograph. The high relief in which it’s carved, along with the position of the lighting, makes for some lovely high-contrast photos. The mobile photo has come out relatively well, but it does look a little plastic-y. The Fujifilm has really picked out detail which you just don’t get when using the mobile phone. In particular, if you look at Meni’s kilt and some of the hieroglyphs such as the owl and the bee, they have some super bits of detailed carving. These are mostly lost in the mobile photo. However, if you were sharing the photo on somewhere like Instagram, where you’re only looking at it on a mobile phone screen, you’re really not going to notice the loss of the smaller details.
The stela of In-amun-nay-es-neb, Thebes, 26th Dynasty (H506)
Quite honestly, this has come out really well on both mobile and camera. Although the inscription is carved in a very shallow sunk relief, you can make out all the details (the lighting really helps with this). When you start to zoom into the picture a bit more, the Fujifilm version looks better because the lines of the carving transition a little more smoothly. But, if you have to start zooming in to tell the difference, then I think the mobile phone’s done well here.
Limestone head (H799)
This limestone head sits atop a pedestal in the gallery and is beautifully lit. It comes from the palace of Merenptah at Memphis, and I think he has the most wonderful, expressive face.
When you see the photos side-by-side here, they look good. However, when you open them a little larger, you can really start to see the difference. The mobile photo just doesn’t have as much detail in it, and it was much harder to get smooth transitions between the brighter parts and the darker parts. It also hasn’t focussed very well …
The coffin of In-amun-nay-es-neb, Thebes, 26th Dynasty (H4555.1) (exterior)
This is another photo in which the Fujifilm has far outperformed the mobile phone. Again, there’s just much more detail (the Fujifilm has picked up the brush strokes on the face, which the Xperia has missed, for example) and there’s better distribution of tones from light to dark. The mobile photo has bright, almost-blown-out highlights on the forehead and cheeks, which just can’t be rescued. The mobile photo also looks soft and not very well focussed. The Fujifilm photo has parts out of focus, but that’s due to narrow depth-of-field and a bit of artistic choice; the focus around the eyes – where I most wanted it – is bang-on.
I think the mobile photo would work shared on Instagram, but anything much larger than that and I just wouldn’t be happy with it.
You may also notice that the coffin itself looks a bit different in the two photos. She looks a little more pointy and narrow in the mobile photo. This is because of lenses. I used a much longer lens with the Fujifilm than is in the Xperia. Although I’m not going to tackle the subject in detail here, it’s worth noting that wide-angle lenses can distort what you’re photographing – if you’ve seen photos taken with an ultra wide-angle that gives a photo that ‘fish-eye’ look, you’ll know what I mean.
It’s for this reason that a lot of photographers won’t do portraits with wide-angle lenses; they can be a little unflattering because of this distortion.
The coffin of In-amun-nay-es-neb, Thebes, 26th Dynasty (H4555.2) (interior)
The inside of In-amun-nay-es-neb’s coffin is filled with hieroglyphs painted in black ink. The difference between the two photos is undeniable. However, I don’t think the mobile’s done a hugely bad job (I was expecting it to be much worse). The Fujifilm has picked up all the texture in the surface of the coffin, which the Xperia’s missed, but the mobile’s picked up the details of the actual hieroglyphs.
To get the equivalent framing of the Fujifilm, I had to zoom in with the Xperia. Mobile phones (unless you get one of those external, clip-on lenses) use digital zoom, which I’ll explain a little more towards the end of the post. Digital zoom does degrade the quality, so all-in-all, the phone’s not done a bad job. If you just need to record the hieroglyphs or, again, the photo’s only going to be seen on a small screen, you’ll do OK.
Tomb models of bakers and brewers, Beni Hasan, 11th Dynasty (H4596)
Words can not begin to express quite how much I hate the mobile version of this photo. It has absolutely no redeeming features at all. Sure, the Fujifilm version isn’t the jewel in my photographic crown, but it’s picked up enough detail for you to be able to see the grain of the wood, and I’ve been able to focus the image properly (this corner of the gallery was particularly low in light).
The depth-of-field (how much is in focus) is narrow, but that’s because a) I had to use a wide aperture to let in light, and b) I was quite close up. However, I chose to focus on the face of the little guy on the left and let other parts fall out of focus. I didn’t have that choice with the Xperia. The light was so low in that part of the museum it just couldn’t focus. And again, I had to use digital zoom, otherwise you would’ve got a photo of half the display case.
If I weren’t using this photo for this specific post, I would’ve deleted it without a second’s hesitation. But, I think it proves the point that when conditions get really difficult, the phone just couldn’t cope.
Why are the photos so different?
Sure, we all know that larger cameras are going to get better-quality photos than mobile phones in low light. But why, technically, is that so? There are three main reasons I can work out:
- The file format you’re shooting in
- The size of your sensor
- How you’re zooming in (optical vs. digital)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If you can, you should have your camera set to photograph using the RAW file format rather than JPG. RAW files contain, quite literally, all the raw data collected by the camera for that photo. JPGs are processed, ‘lossy’, compressed files. The processing and compression means some of the initial data is lost. You have less to work with than RAW files.
At the time of writing, the vast majority of mobile phones only shoot in JPG. One or two high-end mobiles have RAW capability, and I’m sure this will eventually filter down through the ranks. As soon as I’m on a phone that handles RAW, I’m going to go back and do this test again!
When it comes to how much data the camera collects, especially when the light is low, it’s not just about the megapixels (despite the fact that mobile phone manufacturers and retailers only ever talk about megapixels). The size of the actual sensor matters, too.
My camera and mobile phone have almost identical pixel counts (24 MP and 23 MP, respectively). However, my mobile phone has a significantly smaller sensor. This means that almost the same number of pixels are being squeezed into a much smaller space. Therefore, the pixels themselves are physically smaller and can’t collect as much light. The graphic below shows just how much smaller my mobile sensor is. The green rectangle is my Fujifilm sensor (23.6 mm × 15.7 mm – the image is not not actual size – that’s tricky to achieve on screens!). The grey rectangle is my mobile sensor (6.16 mm × 4.6 mm). Big difference!
Optical vs. digital zoom
I said earlier that using zooming on a mobile phone uses digital zoom, which degrades quality. I shall explain this a little more.
My camera has interchangeable lenses. If I want to zoom in, I can use either a zoom lens with a range of focal lengths, or change my lens for a longer (more zoomed in) lens. What happens here is that the camera is magnifying what it’s looking at before it hits the sensor. So, you retain image quality.
On a phone, (unless you have one of the few phones that has a secondary camera with a longer lens), you have to use digital zoom. Digital zoom magnifies what’s already on the sensor. So, when you use digital zoom, it’s the same as taking the photo ‘unzoomed’, then putting it on the computer and cropping it down to the size you want. That’s why zoomed-in photos on a mobile phone often look pixelated and low-resolution.
Does it really matter?
This is, of course, the $64,000 question. Really. Does the difference in image quality actually matter? Yes and no.
Yes, it matters if it matters to you. If, like me, you’re the kind of person who enjoys the process of taking photos and then likes to sit down at the computer and tinker with the look of the photo, then it will matter to you.
It matters if you’re taking photos to use in a book, for use in presentations on large screens or for marketing purposes (crappy photos headlining a professional website looks crappy).
It matters if you feel unhappy with the photos you took on your mobile phone.
No, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter to you . You may have budgetary restraints; cameras can be expensive. You may not want to have to remember extra things to take with you and carry around with you. You may be posting on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, where you just don’t need high-resolution photos.
It doesn’t matter if you’re getting a few souvenir photos for yourself. It doesn’t matter if the photos are a quick reference to take away and come back to later. It doesn’t matter if you’re building up a collection of inscriptions at home to practice your hieroglyph translations :-).
It doesn’t matter if you’re happy with the photos you get on your mobile phone.
I think the main lesson I learnt with this exercise is that more than anything, consistency is the key. Sure, my mobile phone got a few good shots (surprisingly good!), but it wasn’t good all the time. In fact, some of the time, it just sucked.
One of the problems I encountered was being able to identify how well I was exposing the photo. Had I picked the right ISO and shutter speed (the two settings I actually have control over)? I just wasn’t sure in such low ambient light. There was a lot of guesswork.
Conversely, my camera tells me about my exposure. I have the electronic viewfinder, the light meter and histogram to tell me whether my photo is exposed properly or not. I can use manual focus to get my photos properly focussed. I also know my camera so well, that I can have the ISO, shutter speed and aperture set as soon as I go in, and then make adjustments as the light levels around the gallery change.
I can trust my camera. I can’t always trust my phone.
And that’s the deal-breaker for me.
What do you think? Are you a camera person or a mobile phone person? Does the image quality matter to you or are you happy as long as you have a record or what you’ve looked at? Are you thinking of upgrading to a camera for the first time?
How does your mobile phone fare in low light? I only know mine (Sony Xperia XZ); tell me about yours.
Start the conversation in the comments below.
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