Can I use a mobile phone to photograph birds?

We often get the question and comment that “Oh, I’ll just use my phone!” or “I am very happy with my phone images and I don’t need a DLSR!” And for us that is just fine. In this blog post, we will be looking a little deeper into the comparison between bird photography from a DSLR camera and bird photography with a mobile phone camera.

At the end of the day, each person can and should use whatever they feel is best to get the results that make them happy. After all, photography should not be about who’s got the best gear or who is the better photographer (there is still plenty of that egotistical nonsense, especially in the bird photography world), but to us, photography is about enjoying the creative process.

A good thing to take into account is that there are cameras, and then there are cameras with interchangable lenses or fixed (hyper zoom) lenses. Which one is right for you? The answer is, whatever you can afford or whatever you are willing to pay for the equipment.

Is there really that big a difference when photographing birds with a DSLR camera versus a mobile phone camera?

In this series of images, we chose to photograph Rainbow Lorikeets in our backyard. For this specific purpose, we used a semi-peeled apple on a vegetable stake. Never, EVER feed bread to birds, it causes all sorts of health problems that can be fatal.

Samsung S21 Ultra, 30.6mm focal length (full frame equivalent of 240mm or the 10x zoom available), ISO125, f/4.9, 1/50th, distance to subject approximately 3 meters.
Olympus OM-1, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro @ 150mm (full frame equivalent of 300mm), ISO400, f/4, 1/200th, distance to subject approximately 4 meters.

At a glance it won’t take much to work out which image was taken with a phone and which with a professional level mirrorless camera. You may even say the test is unfair, as both birds look different in the frame and the background looks different and so on and so forth. However, that is the reason for the test. No two cameras will represent the image the same way. With the phone, I would need to be about 3 meters from the lorikeet to get an image similar size on sensor as I could with the mirrorless camera from around 4 meters away.

Why is distance from the bird a big factor?

You can clearly see the lens’ different optical characteristics as well with the professional grade lens giving beautiful, smooth bokeh (pron. BOW-kay) which are the out of focus areas in the image) as opposed to the jumbled messy background offered by the 10x zoom from the Samsung phone. And that is clearly visible in both top two and bottom two comparison images.

Samsung S21 Ultra, 30.6mm focal length (full frame equivalent of 240mm or the 10x zoom available), ISO64, f/4.9, 1/100th, distance to subject approximately 2 meters. You can really see the lack of detail in the feathers, the hazy areas around the beak and the orange feathers appear as a solid block of colour.
Canon EOS 1DxMkII, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary zoom @ 600mm, ISO1600, f/8, 1/1600th approximately 4 meters away from bird. Image was cropped close enough to roughly mimic size of bird in phone camera shot above, then upsized during web conversion. It’s still much higher quality!

What is the importance of image quality and sensor size when comparing a DLSR to a phone camera?

This is determined by a number of key factors. Sensor size, pixel pitch, lens quality, ISO used as well as light and photographic skill.

If we only take into account the size of each pixel on the different sensors used in the three different cameras showing the sample images we can see the massive differences.

First of all, the Samsung phone uses a very small sensor even compared to the micro four thirds of the Olympus OM-1, and absolutely tiny compared to a full frame Canon EOS 1DxMkII DSLR body. The below table illustrates the size differences and the pixel pitch of each sensor. A larger sensor has larger pixels and more light gathering capability while minimising digital noise, especially at high ISO values.

The technical specs above speak for themselves really. The Samsung phone’s tiny sensor is simply no match for the light gathering capacity of even the Olympus OM-1, which is much better than expected, considering that despite its smaller sensor size when compared to the Canon EOS 1DxMKII, it’s a much newer model camera body. The 1DxMkII was released in April 2016 and the OM-1 in February 2022, so six years later. This means that with the advancement of sensor technology, the OM-1 sensor is actually quite good, even when used at high ISOs that I would have used with the 1DxMkII.

What do we think about DSLR cameras versus mobile phone cameras for bird photography?

Does this mean phone cameras are useless? Absolutely not! In fact, during our day-to-day outings with family, friends and so on, our phones are used way more often than our professional cameras. Why? Because phones fit in the pocket, and let’s face it, they can do a reasonable job in many instances and do well enough.

Where they will instantly fail is when we try to shoot fast moving subjects in low light where you need fast lenses, cameras with high ISO capabilities and superior AF systems to capture the images that phones simply cannot.

But as we say – the best camera is the one in your hand!

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