The Delicate Nature of Comparing Smartphone Cameras and a Dash of False Equivalence

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

Here’s how most smartphone camera comparisons go:

  1. Frame up two phones with the same shot
  2. Take photo

That’s it, no editing or tapping the screen to focus or set exposure, just point and shoot. In many ways that probably the most fair ways to do it, and it does line up relatively well with how many people use their cameras.

But here’s what gets me: this is not how we review any other camera, and if someone did it this way we’d call them the worst camera reviewer in the world.

I completely agree that mainstream smartphone cameras should get a great shot when you point and shoot, there’s no question about it. But at the same time, if that’s all we allow these cameras to do then we’re selling them very short and are providing a very limited view of what they are capable of.

What if by default an iPhone exposes better for shadows and a Pixel exposes better for highlights? Photo comparisons are going to make one or the other of those phones look bad just by selecting types of shots that favor one’s default behavior. Whether intentionally or not, it’s going to happen. But what if you can simply tap on the thing you want exposed correctly and then snap? Does this make the comparison unfair? Yes? No? Maybe?

I guess what I’m saying is that a camera is a tool and I personally use it to take what I hope are good photographs. The problem is that these aren’t the sort of photos that I use in photo comparisons. I, and pretty much everyone else, take relatively bland shots that don’t do anything exciting.

Takeaway: I’m reassessing how I do camera comparisons. I want to do less of this:

And more of this:

And this:

And this:

My photo comparisons are going to try and be more fun and yeah, I’m probably going to run them though Lightroom here and there to add some style (which I will of course always disclose). Does it make things less “objective,” sure, but it also lets me get a little more creative and have a little more fun with them.