A Terrible Camera Comparison.

What I did.

I was packing my bags for a weekend photo adventure, so there they were, all my cameras, all lined up. And lenses, too. And then there was my crotchety, half-blind old Chihuahua staring out the window. So, I just went ahead and grabbed each camera and shot him, exactly as I would with each camera — not as one would with a true apples-to-apples test. The ISOs are different to accommodate the different set-ups. The lenses are different. At one point, I used two different lenses for one of the cameras. The apertures are different. Everything is all wrong with this test. Which, I think, is what makes it so right. But you can be the judge:

The iPhone 6S. Standard 28mm lens. In Noir Mode.

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“Dog Test 1.” iPhone 6S.

The iPhone is really good at just getting the whole scene. No coincidence that this is the only one that also features a cat — a testament to its versatility, ease-of-use and always-available-ness. You see something, you capture it. You can tell a story with this camera and capture the moment. It also handles a very difficult scene fairly well — managing to cover both the outdoors and indoors. In some ways, this is even better handled here than with the competition.

Well, as you’ll see as we step up in equipment, the image is simply the image here. You get the dog and the terrible blanket, too (there was a recent pee incident, I don’t want to name names). It’s severely lacking in the detail that I witnessed with my own eyes. And while it caught the scene, there’s more I don’t like than do here: blown out highlights, uninspired renderings of walls and lack of dynamic range (blacks all crunched together at the low end, whites all crunched together at the high end). All told, to get VERY good shots with the iPhone, you actually have to compose perfectly and you have to be fortunate with the lighting. The camera isn’t going to do any heavy lifting for you — it’s all on you. If the situation is tough, like this one, you just lower your standards and move on.

The Fujifilm X-T1. 23mm at 1.4. Using Miniature Mode.

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“The Dog Test 2.” Fujifilm X-T1 with 24mm/1.4.

Miniature Mode is a bit of a trick, but when I’m shooting shallow depth of field and the subject is in the middle, it just enhances the look a bit more — as it blurs the top and bottom of the image. I think this looks pretty nice, actually. The dynamic range (amounts of whites and blacks at the extremes) is good, especially in comparison with the iPhone. The mood comes across and, in particular, my vision of showing him looking out the window, maybe even forlorn as he contemplates his aging bladder, is well accomplished. Besides the sharp eye and face, I like the rendering of the front legs here, too, as they falls out of focus. I like the rendering of the dirty areas of the window in front of him. Also, the separation of his nose from the window is nicely accomplished as it goes from the black of the nose to the bright highlight to the window sill.

The look of the window to the right of the image is less inspired. Also, the shapes of the fireplace (top) and window sill (left) are blocked out in a kind of rudimentary, not very attractive way. And finally, the range at the top (whites) and bottom (blacks) are just not tip top. There’s little distinction between the darkest areas of the dog and little to distinguish the darks of his body from the darks of the fireplace above him. And even the dark area where his elbow goes into the couch and then the shadow is a bit of a filthy mess. I like the look of the fur on his face here, but in fact the detail of his face is far more nuanced than this image is capable of depicting, forcing a kind of high contrast look.

The Nikon D800, with 70–200mm lens, at 70mm/2.8.

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“The Dog Test 3.” Nikon D800. 70–200mm/2.8.

There’s a lot to love about this. The detail in his face is ridiculously good. And it follows through in his ears and paw. But what is really great about this shot for me is the dynamic range and the way the sensor, along with the lens, creates a uniformity of image throughout — along with that incredibly high detail. The effect is stunning. Also, as you get into the parts of the image that aren’t in focus, that range of blacks and whites creates an incredibly smooth and appealing look. Gone is the high contrast look of the Fujifilm or the plugged-up image we got from the iPhone (although I could certainly achieve it, if I wanted to, with a few moves in Curves). This is pro quality stuff and usable anywhere. And printable at any size.

It’s worth giving an extra special nod to the detail available from this camera. Here’s the same shot, but instead of zoomed out at 70mm, it’s all the way in, at 200mm.

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“The Dog Test 3b.” Nikon D800. 70–200mm/2.8.

I mean, that is a marvel. And that you can get these two from the same lens, in sequential shots, is nothing short of fantastic.

If anything, it’s too perfect. Almost clinically so. Most pros will call this a non-problem, but artistically-speaking, it’s a highly-predictable image from corner-to-corner and there are no surprises in it. This is all a plus when it comes to journalism or commercial photography, but the artist tends to want to transcend it, in some way. It feels just a bit antiseptic.

The Nikon D800, with Zeiss 85mm/1.4.

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“The Dog Test 4.” Nikon D800 with Zeiss 85mm/1.4.

Same camera but different lens just to show that you can actually “art up” the clinical nature of that camera, if you want. Here you really want to look at the out-of-focus areas. A beautiful interpretation of each end of that couch, especially when compared to the other images. The brick of the fireplace is unrecognizable, but somehow my mind understands it anyway. This is what makes this artistic, for me. It’s small and subtle, but it has the effect of drawing you more effectively and, dare I say, emotionally to the subject, while still referencing the surrounding elements. Also, while it doesn’t have quite the range of tones of the 70–200mm, slightly blowing out those highlights, it also gives up the clinical-ness of it in favor of a more flowy and slightly painterly way of rendering out the fur.

Conversely, it is not a tack sharp image and the range right at the tip of the highlights is not quite as good. The result is that the face doesn’t pop as much, it’s a softer feel. But those are small quibbles — this, to my eye, is nearly as good as you can hope for in a more creatively-rendered image. If it has a weakness, it’s simply that, while opinionated, it’s not a very big opinion. Many fast lenses can do this.

The Leica 240M-P with 50mm/0.95.

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“The Dog Test 5.” Leica 240M-P with 50mm/0.95.

Now that’s an opinion. Yes, to some degree that’s a reflection of getting even wider open than pretty much any other lens is capable of. However, there’s also the way it is doing it. The bottom of the screen is like an abstract painting, done by a master. The window sill on the left is an artistic wonderland that conveys reflection and light in a way that doesn’t just make my brain happy, but my whole soul. The bokeh at the window isn’t just artistic but surprising and almost (a word I dislike) magical. Similar things are happening at the top of the screen that just feel like a camera and lens that are working together to bring something very interpretive to the table. And it’s worth noting that it still maintains very nice detail at the center of focus and renders out the areas surrounding it with a great range of tones and even more artistically than the Zeiss. Take a look at the bottom right corner as the blanket fades subtly and gorgeously into the darkness. Or the bottom left as the couch and molding of the window dance about each other and resolve their differences with grace and ease. Truly incredible and unique.

The other shots are great photographs. This image, for me, is better described as a beautiful image.

This lens isn’t as sharp as the others, especially wide open. So, it lacks a bit of that popping detail. Also, as with any strong opinion, you are stuck with this look. This appeals artistically, but can easily fail the needs of many other desired looks. And what’s more, a trained eye can spot this lens’ feel from a mile away and even dismiss it as, in its own way, “just a look.” Most don’t, on account of just the obvious beauty of the image’s rendering, however, the beauty of photography is its range and too much shallow depth of field can get boring, too.

In Conclusion.

I think this points out a few things. First of all, I’d be an awful professional photography reviewer. Much of this makes no sense — like comparing smaller aperture settings of an iPhone to incredibly wide ones on bigger cameras. It’s flat out wrong and verging on unhelpful.

I also think it points out how subtle the differences are between things with extremely different price points. These are all good photos in their own rights. Like wine, it gets almost comically nuanced as you really get into it. But also like wine, it can be highly-intoxicating.

But my major conclusion is this — cameras are awesome. They really are. I still marvel at what they are capable of and just how fun it is to shoot and do things like this, which is why I’m packing all of them for the trip. Hopefully that’s what comes across most — just my enduring love for cameras, imagery and even that grumpy old dog.

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A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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