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Retire the DSLR - does the Huawei P30 Pro signify the end is nigh?

Last Updated 2022/04/12

The Huawei P30 Pro smartphone has just been released to high acclaim. Some very impressive technology involving a rotating prism has enabled optical zoom instead of the (frankly pointless) digital zoom usually offered by smartphones. In addition, impressive low-noise capability plus the option of a wide-angle lens means that this must be the most versatile camera available in a phone.

The question is: is it good enough to replace your DSLR?

The answer is: it depends! Are you using a DSLR as a consumer, just trying to get the best pictures you can for a reasonable price, or are you a professional whose livelihood depends on getting the highest quality available?

Let’s have a look at why DSLRs are used in the first place:

  1. Depth of field - This is possible due to a large 23mm/35mm sensor, and often taken to its extreme, dreamy look (the out of focus area is called bokeh)with the use of large aperture prime lenses.

  2. Lens variety - There are a huge range of zooms and prime lenses that can be used to photograph something as far away as the moon close up, or even a super wide field of view as provided by fisheye lenses.

  3. Noise performance - Some of the latest DSLRs have borderline night vision. With ISO’s up to 512,000 and beyond (for comparison, traditional film ISO would top out at 1600!)

  4. Durability/Reliability - DSLRs are usually made of Magnesium Alloy with a rubber and plastic surround. Some are waterproof and drop-proof, but the lenses tend to be variable.

  5. RAW vs. JPG - The key differentiator in image quality: RAW files are lossless information about everything the camera sensor sees which allows you to modify the exposure and white balance quite considerably. Jpg is however a compressed, lossy version of the information, and will not allow the same degree of editing or resolution.

  6. External peripherals - Many flashes, microphones, grips, stabilisers etc can be fitted to a DSLR making it a part of a considerable variety of workflows

example of bokeh effect

However, what generally makes a phone camera more useful?

  1. Always with you - A DSLR is quite cumbersome, whereas a phone just slips into your pocket. As the saying goes: "The best camera is the one that is with you!".

  2. Discreet - If you don’t want to be noticed as your subject is sensitive, then a phone is far more innocuous and unimposing.

  3. Waterproof - Nearly all phones now come with some degree of waterproofing (IP68 or above), but this is still mostly the reserve of top consumer DSLRs

  4. Not limited by physical mirror so fps can be just as quick as DSLR - The iPhone 5s was capable of 10 frames per second (fps) and this is only really a standard for top professional DSLRs. Slow-motion video is also much more advanced on phones thanks to the more powerful dedicated processor.

  5. Bokeh Mode has been around for a couple of years - Many flashes, microphones, grips, stabilisers etc can be fitted to a DSLR making it a part of a considerable variety of workflows

  6. RAW - These files are now available thanks to the use of apps like Adobe Lightroom. However, a lot of what makes the pictures work so well is tied up in the algorithm that creates the jpg, so things like bokeh effect are not available.

example of  smartphone bokeh effect

How has P30 changed the game?

  1. Zoom function and bokeh mode - Getting a proper head-shot is now more like a DSLR. Plus you can change the amount of bokeh AFTER the shot has been taken: something not possible with DSLRs.

  2. Wide Angle - We are now talking about a similar range of lenses for 99% of use cases with a DSLR.

  3. High ISO - The P30 is capable of ISO 409600, and even though this isn’t as good as a DSLR in aesthetic terms (although the ISO numbers are a close call) it’s certainly good enough for most consumers in low-light.

Moonfaker...

The logical extension of using Artificial Intelligence (in low-noise processing and bokeh mode, historically) to construct a photo is the argument that the photo isn’t actually a true reflection of reality. There has been recent controversy over beautifying selfie camera pictures by Apple’s new iPhone, and now there is fresh hand-wringing over Huawei’s ‘moon-mode’. This camera option allows you to apparently photograph the moon without a tripod. However, the camera software actually takes over when the mode is selected and maps a pre-existing picture of the moon over your image! If they are cheating here, how far are they willing to go?

So what's the big picture?

I used to think we would be looking at late 2020’s before phone cameras supplanted DSLR’s. I don’t think we are there yet, but it is not far away, amazing for a pocket camera but thanks to lack of RAW bokeh effect, unreliable focussing on telephoto end, and colour artifacts, professionals will still want to have reliable workhorses. Prosumer DSLRs will have to look out however, as phones completely have already completely killed the point and shoot market, so novices may save up for a decent camera-phone instead.

Eventually - and maybe soon - DSLRS may become like film cameras: used by select professionals with the ultimate quality enough of a trade off for the inconvenient size and weight.

Adam Sykes