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Compact camera vs smartphone shootout: It's not even close
Point-and-shoot camera sales have seen a significant decline worldwide according to many studies. With smartphone cameras improving exponentially in the past few years, it raises the question: Are point-and-shoot cameras actually worth it anymore, or should you just buy a top camera phone? We decided to put it to the test with a compact camera vs smartphone shootout.
We pitched a high-end compact camera (the $600 Sony RX100 IV) against a couple of the top camera phones of 2019 (the Google Pixel 4 and HUAWEI P30 Pro). We took the same photos and videos with each device in “Photo” and “Auto” modes from the phones and camera, respectively. Portrait mode was also used where labeled. To put the devices through their paces, we shot a range of subjects in a myriad of lighting conditions. Low light, landscape, HDR, portrait, color, detail, selfie, video, and zoom aspects were all tested in this experiment.
We highly recommend clicking on each image to more closely examine the details. Also, all test images are available at full resolution in a Google Drive folder here.
For low light, I shot the front of a supermarket at around 6PM. At this point in the UK, the sky was completely black and the lights in the foyer were very bright. This would challenge the dynamic range and low-light capabilities of any camera system.
From a distance, the standout photo comes from the Pixel 4. It retains the color information in the store logo, whilst still showing the most detail in the car park. The Rx100’s image is easily the worst here. From the overexposed logo, to the lack of any detail in the shadows, the RX100 falls on its face compared to the other two. The HUAWEI phone sits in the middle as it keeps detail from both the highlights and shadows, but can’t quite get the color right on the blue banner in the middle of the frame.
Related: How are smartphone cameras becoming so good in low light?
To test the color quality and accuracy of each camera, I leaned my mountain bike up against a bench in a park. This was on a relatively sunny day in an open space, to also push the dynamic range capabilities.
Instantly, the Sony’s image stands out due to its heavily overexposed sky, big flare on the fork, and lack of detail on the tires. The Pixel 4 seems to be the darkest image of the bunch, yet still retains more detail on the tires than the RX100. The winner is the P30 Pro as it captures the most dynamic range, whilst keeping the scene well exposed, and the colors accurate.
Next, I went to the beach and took a photo of a river running down into the sea. This would test detail in the tiny waves, as well as dynamic range. For the best look, I recommend clicking on each image to examine the finer details.
This set of testing is a little harder to compare, given that you really have to zoom in to see the difference in detail. The Rx100 really got to stretch its legs here as it has the only native 24MP sensor of the bunch and so its detail resolving capabilities are the best. The Pixel 4 provides a brighter image, but its version is a lot muddier when zooming in. The P30 Pro is, again, a middle ground. When looking closely, it doesn’t quite have the sharpness and detail of the Sony, but has more accurate colors.
I took a selfie with each phone in my bedroom with a warm color source on the left and a cooler one on the right. I was stood in front of a 5600K softbox light. Naturally, the Sony is the favorite to win due to the fact that its main sensor is also the selfie sensor. The shots were taken on “Portrait” and “Auto” modes from the phones and camera, respectively.
With these selfies, I wanted to test skin-tone capturing performance as well as the portrait effect of the smartphones. Straight away, the RX100 has a tough time getting my skin right, giving the image a blue cast throughout. Granted, the sharpness is the best by a long shot, but it isn’t enough. The Pixel 4 gives the shallowest depth of field, but my skin is a bit too orange and the highlight reduction is a bit too aggressive. The best image is by the P30 Pro, thanks to its accurate color across the frame.
Related: Best selfie sticks for smartphones
To test the HDR capabilities to the extreme, I shot almost directly at the sun with a rocky wall and some buildings in the foreground.
Right off the mark, the Rx100 flares incredibly easily and has the least shadow detail. Seeing the buildings in line with the sun is relatively light work for the two phones, but the standalone camera really can’t handle it very well. The Pixel 4 seems to retain the most shadow detail as seen in the rocky wall. However, the P30 Pro handles highlights a lot better as illustrated in the clouds at the top of the image.
My house’s chimney happened to be the subject of this set of tests. Each camera was dialed into its maximum optical zoom. The fine details in the bricks and chimney stacks should help us determine the camera with the best zoom.
At 135mm (Full Frame equivalent) the P30 Pro zooms in far further than either of its competition — it absolutely steamrolls the others in this test. The RX100’s 70mm and Pixel’s 50mm are woeful on paper when compared with the P30 Pro. However, even though the Sony zooms further than the Pixel, the difference in clarity, dynamic range, and color is crazy. I’d take the Pixel’s image over the RX100’s every day of the week.
Read more: HUAWEI P30 Pro camera review: Next level optics, low-light champion
My friend Ross with a bucket on his head is the subject with floodlights above and a driving range behind him. There are wet golf balls on the grass reflecting light to create bokeh balls. The shots were taken on “Portrait” and “Auto” modes from the phones and camera, respectively.
The Pixel 4’s image doesn’t quite get the white balance right, opting for more of a warm tone. The background blur, however, emulates a much faster lens and produces larger bokeh balls. The RX100 pulls back the saturation a little too far and offers the greatest depth of field, here. The P30 Pro is a great representation of real life in terms of color, along with giving a nice soft background.
For the video tests, I ran all three devices in video mode, handheld, as I stood above a beach near sunset time. All devices were set to a matched resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 or Ultra HD at 30fps.
I was fully expecting the RX100 to beat the other two. However, I was surprised to find the P30 Pro to be the best at taking video in this scenario. The stability is most gimbal-like, the dynamic range is the best, and the exposure is near perfect in this scene. The Pixel 4 gets close but isn’t quite sharp enough due to the less-than-perfect conditions. In the upset of the decade, the RX100 loses this test due to its footage being the most shakey, the worst exposed, and having the worst dynamic range.
Compact camera vs smartphone: The verdict
I came into this shootout predicting that the RX100 would win more than one test. In fact, I would have thought that at the very least, it’d smash the others in the video comparison. Little did I realize just how far smartphone photography had come and how much better the images would come out compared to the compact camera. One pattern that reoccurred is that the P30 constantly gave the most accurate result, even if it wasn’t the prettiest. What I’ve learned is that there is little justification for an expensive compact camera in 2019. Your phone will likely do everything you need to it do, even better than the likes of the RX100.
Higher quality RAW photos are definitely the strong suit of the RX100, allowing for more data to be pulled from an image, allowing for far more processing headroom after the fact. But that’s not the idea of a point-and-shoot camera; the idea is to pick it up, take a photo, and put it down knowing that you don’t have to fiddle with settings or editing.
Smartphones are designed from the ground up with point-and-shoot in mind as evident in their heavy processing pipelines. Whilst compact camera makers like Sony are attempting to strike back (the RX100 Mark 7 has a 24-200mm zoom range!), the EIS, HDR+, portrait, and night mode innovations that we’ve seen on smartphones are straight-up outpacing them.
Compact, point-and-shoot cameras might not be dead, but that gap is closing and manufacturers like Canon, Sony, and Panasonic really need to wise up.