How does the iPhone hold up against a serious camera?

It's Fujifilm's X-T1 against the iPhone 5S in a showdown for the ages


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Everyone knows that the iPhone 5S has a great camera. I say it myself all the time, even as someone who’s spent too many thousands on cameras and lenses over the years. What does that really mean, though? It’s true that the iPhone 5S does take better pictures than just about any other smartphone. But how close am I to throwing away my dedicated photography setup? I decided to put the 5S against a “real” camera — taking near-identical snapshots across a day and night in Harajuku, Tokyo — to see how things shake out in practice.

In the blue corner, we have Fujifilm’s wonderful X-T1, our favorite mirrorless camera to date and the one more suited to pros than any other. It has great image quality, well-thought-out controls, and an amazing viewfinder — when a camera’s biggest fault is how clicky the buttons on the back are, you know it’s good. In the red corner, we have Apple’s iPhone 5S, the latest iteration of the world’s most popular smartphone. While Apple touted a bigger sensor and faster lens when introducing the 5S, it’s still more space-constrained than even the cheapest point-and-shoot on the market. But Apple has a secret weapon in the A7 chip and its excellent image signal processing, with tight integration between software and hardware.

A couple of notes on my methodology. One of the main advantages of interchangeable lens cameras is that, well, the lenses are interchangeable, letting you obliterate backgrounds into nothingness with wide apertures, or shoot far-off subjects with telephoto zooms. Another advantage of pro cameras is the vast array of manual control you have over the exposure parameters, letting you tweak your image in detail before you’ve even taken it. Obviously, a smartphone can't match up to this. So to make things more interesting, I thought I’d turn my X-T1 into as much of an iPhone as possible.

is the difference enough for you to buy a serious camera?

I used the 18mm f/2 lens, which has a similar field of view to the 5S. I made sure the cameras would be handling light in the same way by keeping the X-T1’s aperture locked in at f/2.2, like the 5S’ fixed lens, and leaving ISO and shutter speed controls on automatic, just like iOS does. I could have gotten better results with the X-T1 on certain occasions by using a different setting, but hey — I’d probably be able to say the same for the 5S if it were running iOS 8 with its more advanced exposure controls. This way, we can see how the two cameras deal with the same situations and judge the image quality as such.

So with that said, make up your own mind by using the slider tool on the photos below. The iPhone photos are on the left, the X-T1’s are on the right; all the images are JPEGs that haven't been edited in any way beside minor cropping for aspect ratio and alignment. You won’t be surprised by which comes out on top, but is the difference enough for you to buy a serious camera?

This comparison highlights one of the biggest differences in capability between a DSLR or mirrorless camera and a smartphone: the ability to control depth of field. The amount by which backgrounds can be blurred depends on the aperture of the lens, the focal length of the lens, and the distances between both the camera and the subject and the subject and the background. Since the iPhone 5S has a fixed f/2.2 lens with no zooming capability, pretty much the only way to achieve real background separation is to take close-up shots of objects that don't have much behind them, and even then the effect is limited. The XT-1 can throw the whole background out of focus, though, even when dialed into the same aperture and shooting from the same distance — that's because the much larger sensor requires a longer lens to capture a similar field of view.

The difference is much less pronounced in this landscape shot taken in broad daylight. While the X-T1 produces an image with better contrast, even tones, and less flare, the iPhone shot is impressively sharp and even renders more detail in the sky thanks to the automatic HDR mode. I prefer the X-T1 shot, but the 5S' is more than serviceable.

This daylight shot is essentially a wash at this size unless you really look close. Beside the difference in color temperature — the iPhone's is a bit warmer — the X-T1 resolves more detail from a distance, which is to be expected given that its sensor is twice the resolution.

Another decent showing from the iPhone, but you can see again how the X-T1 is better in the fine details. This shot also shows the dynamic range benefit brought by a larger sensor — both the dark and light parts of the XT-1 image are well-exposed.

In lieu of a traditional portrait, this vampire bear will have to do. The iPhone shot isn't bad, but the colors are a little dull and the inside of the store is too dark. This is also another situation where background separation is useful to draw your eye to the subject. Even using a wide-angle lens like the 18mm f/2, the X-T1 is able to throw an attractive blur behind the bear.

Judging by the average Instagram timeline, food is the most popular thing to photograph with phones, so it's an important thing to get right. This burger, from a Harajuku joint not inappropriately named The Great Burger, looks quite a bit tastier on the X-T1, though the iPhone picture isn't bad either — slightly flat colors given the unusual lighting, and some distracting foliage in the background, but otherwise more than sharable.

Color balance aside, it's quite hard to tell these shots apart at this size, even on a MacBook Pro with Retina display. The iPhone actually renders more shadow detail than the X-T1, though the latter is a little sharper overall.

This is a tough photo for any camera to pull off — sun shining through the trees, with light and dark areas in the scene. While the iPhone picture is warm and hazy, the X-T1's is cool and colorful with more detail in the shadows. The Fujifilm lens suffers from some pretty severe chromatic aberration here — check the purple fringing around the leaves in the top left — but in real-world shooting that could be reduced with a smaller aperture or removed in Lightroom. The X-T1 shot is more in line with how I remember the scene.

The X-T1's dynamic range advantage makes itself apparent here again. The iPhone puts in a decent showing, though, and you could even make the case that the silhouette-like buildings give a stronger composition.

Another example of the more pleasing out-of-focus rendering made possible by the X-T1. The iPhone shot is also washed out a little due to flare from the setting sun.

7pm outside the new Omotesando Apple Store. The iPhone has jacked up its ISO sensitivity to 320 here, and has done a good job retaining detail. The X-T1, however, is shooting at ISO 2500 — the iPhone 5S' maximum — while producing a really clean image almost devoid of noise. It's from here on out where the iPhone starts to have problems.

The iPhone tries to limit noise here by sticking at ISO 320 and going for a slow (but still hand-holdable) shutter speed of 1/24 seconds. The X-T1, meanwhile, produces a brighter and cleaner image even at ISO 5000 and 1/60 seconds. That's maybe a little too sensitive — I could see some people preferring the moodier iPhone shot — but even without controlling the exposure settings myself, the result is pretty good.

Things fall apart for the iPhone here without bright lights in close proximity. At ISO 800 and 1/15 seconds, the sky turns into mushy noise — usable for Instagram but not a lot more. This is where the optical image stabilization systems found in phones like Nokia's high-end Lumia range come in handy: by cutting down on hand movement, they let you use longer shutter speeds so that the camera gets enough light to avoid noisy high ISOs. Not much use for anything that moves, but perfect for pictures of cities at night. The X-T1, meanwhile, does a good job at ISO 6400 and 1/38 seconds, producing a clean image with great colors.

The noise situation becomes even more extreme on the iPhone at ISO 2000 and 1/15 seconds.

These photos were taken in near-pitch darkness. The iPhone's ISO 2500, 1/15 seconds shot isn't really useful for anything beyond confirming that yes, at one point I did stand next to a tree. The X-T1, meanwhile, slowed the shutter speed down to 1/6 seconds at ISO 6400, resulting in a picture that barely even looks like it was taken at night.


The iPhone 5S is a ton of fun to use as a camera, and I've taken some of my favorite photos with it. It's more than adequate for regular snapshots when out and about during the day, and Apple's image processing does wonders for such diminutive hardware. But when the sun goes down, or when I need more creative control, or when I just want the more intimate experience of turning an aperture dial while looking through a viewfinder, the iPhone's going to stay in my pocket and the X-T1 will be hanging from my neck. And, even with a new iPhone expected next month, I don't expect this to change in the near future.

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