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I have a 10-year old "upper-entry" level DSLR. I am considering upgrading to a new camera, but I am interested in knowing what sorts of things to look for that will allow it to match the image "quality" of my recent phone camera.

Here is what I mean by my question. I realize that the camera sensor is larger and thus should provide a higher quality image (e.g. less noise, etc.) but my fairly recent phone often provides higher quality images in low light as well a high contrast scenes (seemingly performing some kind of "instant HDR" that my camera requires a tripod to even attempt, and still with inferior results). I can often just "point and shoot" and get a great picture, whereas even with a lot of fiddling with manual settings on the DSLR - assuming that the moment hasn't passed - I often get photographs that look inferior. I like full control to be there if I need it (and even being able to program shooting sequences in some kind of scripting language if that was possible) but I find that I often do this just to try to get around issues I have with the camera. For instance, it's not uncommon for me to overexpose by 2 or 3 stops when shooting objects in the sky like planes or birds so they don't turn out underexposed.

Why don't I just use my phone then? I do in a lot of cases, when things are informal, when I don't need a lot of control, and when I don't need a safe ergonomic design that I can shoot for long periods of time without worrying about dropping and breaking something. No phone can really have the telephoto range that a DSLR has and make a decent picture. On the camera right now I am limited to shooting portraits (and this it does very well), time lapse animations, anything requiring zoom or telephoto, and large (approaching gigapixel) panoramas.

I don't know how much of my issues are because of the age difference (e.g. 1 year old phone versus 10 year old DSLR is a 9 year window in which technology has improved) and what I should be looking for now, as I haven't really kept up with new camera technology since I bought my current camera.

I have really only identified one hard criteria - any new camera I get will not have an "optical low pass filter" because I have never been satisfied with the natural sharpness of the pictures I have taken. Another criteria is that I would like GPS coordinates to be automatically recorded, although in some new models this only works if you pair your phone to your camera, which I am okay with. I also have had various issues with focus (losing a lot of shots because the camera decided to go focus hunting when I tried to press the shutter with the target already in focus) or cases where it inexplicably couldn't figure out the focus either due to low contrast or not figuring out which moving object to focus on.

I know that new phones are coming out with a lot of sophisticated software to improve image quality - for instance, the Pixel line has "night sight" mode which combines multiple shots, sensors, and some kind of AI algorithm to produce phenomenal handle-held images with very little noticeable blur (at least in my experience!) Some phone cameras also have an internal burst mode that takes a whole string of full resolution pictures back to back and then picks the best one to show you by default. I don't know how much camera software (or firmware / image processors) have advanced to keep up.

From what I have read, it appears that a mirror-less camera may be superior in some respects and allow it to approximate some of the good points of a camera phone while providing a better sensor and lens system. My concern with a mirror-less camera is that I often need to shoot through the lens - for instance, when shooting panoramas with telephoto I rely on the markers in the lens to line up my next shot which may be harder to do on an LCD screen. With time lapses I might have the camera taking pictures all day. Often these are not possible unless I shoot without the screen on to conserve battery life.

I'm not sure I have given enough details for specific make/model recommendations (although I can add my current make/model/lenses), but generalizations or comparisons would be welcome when they illustrate what the trade-offs different makes and models and even grades of cameras have. For instance, is there a sweet spot where I should pay a bit more for a mid-grade camera to get a specific feature, and where would I just be wasting my money.

Edit: Per the comment, my current setup is a Nikon D5100 with a Nikon 35mm f/1.8 prime lens, and a Tamron 18-270mm f3.5-6.3 VC macro zoom lens. (I realize the latter is considered by some to be a pretty crap lens, but fit my budget at the time for the focal ranges I was targeting. In the future, I would prefer something a bit higher quality in the range of 150mm-600mm as most of my shooting is at the high end of my current range and in some situations I would like to go further.)

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    As written, this is very (too) broad. Specifically, the only question mark in your question follows "what do I mean by that?", regarding your opening paragraph. I understand that you haven't kept up with camera tech in the last 10 years. But answers are likely to be as broad and nonspecific as your question is. So... 1. Why do you want the full control of an interchangeable lens system, that you feel limits you on phone cams? 2. What do you primarily shoot (landscapes, birds, portraits, run-and-gun street style, ...)? Try to distill your problem to a single focused question that we can answer. – scottbb Jan 13 at 21:43
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    @Michael, my point is, that automatic tweaking of the RAW can be done automatically by newer cameras -- that's exactly what your phone is doing for those pseudo-HDR images -- but if you don't mind doing it manually, you can do so with your current camera. JPEG is always throwing away some of the dynamic range, but it doesn't know by default which part of the range is important to you and which can safely be discarded, though modern AI algorithms like your phone has can guess pretty well. Post-processing manually in a RAW converter can be even better through. – Nate S. Jan 13 at 22:35
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    And your zoom lens will never be a good low light lens, but you should be able to get decent low light results with your 35mm prime. – Nate S. Jan 13 at 22:37
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    Upvoted. OP is most certainly not the only one with this problem. +1 for the effort to post this question. This can help many. – Orbit Jan 14 at 20:04
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    People really underestimate how much work the in-phone post-processing is doing these days. Much of which doesn't seem to be readily available in free RAW tools, and I'm not sure it's even available at all in paid ones: blog.halide.cam/… – pjc50 Jan 15 at 13:37
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TL;DR - Pretty much everything in your post indicates that you don't really need a new camera, but need to learn how to use the equipment that you have.

I haven't used RAW... it still boggles my mind a bit that the RAW to JPEG conversion can't have an option to do this automatically.

This is like driving a race car and never shifting past second. The amount of information available in a RAW file is astronomically more than a jpeg. The conversion to jpeg kills off some data - exactly what data you care to keep is an artistic question and responsibility of the shooter - not something to be outsourced to a camera software developer.

I can often just "point and shoot" and get a great picture, whereas even with a lot of fiddling with manual settings on the DSLR - assuming that the moment hasn't passed - I often get photographs that look inferior.

Your phone is assuming that you want a certain style of photo, and it's apparently not wrong (for you, in this case). A DSLR makes no such assumption - you need to tell it what you want. How does it know whether you want a blown sky or not?

Additionally, your phone is doing some quick edits assuming that your end goal is viewing on a phone...a tiny phone. While this is largely true for most phone photos...many DSLR shots are destined for larger viewing, possibly even printed and hung on the wall in sheer 24"x36" glory or larger. Lower quality can often be hidden with images viewed at small sizes.

If you want to do some quick and dirty HDR later, you don't really need the tripod even. Turn on Auto-Bracketing and Multishot and simply hold the release down for 3 frames. You may move a tiny bit that won't align in all photos, but you can just crop this little bit off.

You don't have to set up a tripod, take careful meter readings, align a gradual neutral density, etc. These are options available to you if you so choose - so is the quick and dirty method...and there are pros and cons to all of them.

Exactly how you choose to combine the HDR is also an artistic choice. It's on you to learn how to use the tools of your choice to get the result that you want.

I like full control to be there if I need it (and even being able to program shooting sequences in some kind of scripting language if that was possible) but I find that I often do this just to try to get around issues I have with the camera. For instance, it's not uncommon for me to overexpose by 2 or 3 stops when shooting objects in the sky like planes or birds so they don't turn out underexposed.

You're full of contradictions. Shooting RAW is full control, yet you don't? Shooting in Manual mode does open up control, but it is wasted if you don't know how to use it. I guarantee you that shooting a bird in the sky is possible without blowing the sky by 3 stops, while still getting great detail on the bird, and without using HDR.


I don't think you need to go shopping just yet. Your post indicates that you don't know how to get the most out of your current gear and are not comfortable in post processing. Solving these two issues will yield drastically different, and better, results than simply throwing money into a new rig.

Start by learning about metering, exposure, and how to read a scene. Learn how to use a histogram. Definitely shoot RAW.

If there is some result you are trying to get to but you can't figure it out in post, then ask on this site or others how to get your file to where you want it to be. Many people out there will start with your RAW, edit to what you're asking, and then post the steps to the process. The more you do, the more you learn. It all becomes second nature at some point.


Edit to add:

I did a panoramic shoot yesterday with over 2000 pictures... no way I have enough SD cards to store all that RAW, or time to process NEF to JPG on that many pictures.

Yea, that happens. These are the times when I would shoot a grey card, custom set white balance, exposure, vibrance/contrast/sharpness settings...shoot a test and check the histogram and really dial it in. By all means, go for jpeg in these cases - just realize the trade off that you are making.

As for processing times...many a shooter has figured out some defaults that they like and applied them in batch and let the computer run overnight to process. One of my first jobs was all of the editing for a studio - 8 shooters running portraits all day with weddings and families on the weekends. Trust me, 2k may seem like a lot of images...but learning your software better will help - they all have automation features.

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    Is his time really well spent learning how to get more information out of a RAW .... or better spent learning how to put more information IN the image by focusing on exposure, optics, composition etc... – rackandboneman Jan 14 at 12:30
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    @rackandboneman both. That's like saying one should learn all about taking a photo but nothing about printing or developing (in a traditional sense). Post Pro is the new develop and print...Yes, it is critical that digital photographers learn how to use post pro software in order to go from RAW to finished product. – Hueco Jan 14 at 17:28
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    Your conclusion was my first thought as well. I recently upgraded from a D80, which is a DX 5 years older than that D5100. Yet my D80 photos from last year all completely blew away anything my daughter captured on her new Pixel 3 XL. Though it's worth noting that on the phone screen the Pixel photos look great, likely because of the screen size and vibrance. It's not until you start looking at those photos printed or on a larger screen that you see how inferior they actually area. A note on that may make a worthwhile addition to your answer; the difference may just be perceptual. – Nicholas Jan 14 at 20:29
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica, perhaps it's not worded as nicely as possible, but I think the frame challenge is appropriate because the original question was something of an XY problem -- "what DSLR can I buy to get results similar to a phone camera", when the actual answer is that buying any DSLR won't automatically achieve this, but learning RAW post-processing with OP's current DSLR will get very close. – Nate S. Jan 15 at 17:27
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica I see nothing in my post that was impolite. Being stern or up front is not the same as being impolite. Pointing out where OP says that they want to do things manually but then sacrifices manual controls in one of the most important ways is pointing out a psychological contradiction that I hope OP took to heart and really thought about: as in, do they really want manual control or not? – Hueco Jan 15 at 17:53
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Almost any camera system will out perform a camera phone when used properly.

A camera phone uses a tiny sensor so even MFT cameras have a bigger sensor capturing more light so superior in low light conditions. Phones use night mode to overcome their bad high ISO performance. Night mode in most cases is a merge of several images to get more information. This can be done by using a tripod. This is also why night mode works best with static subjects.

Another common feature on phone cameras is the use of Portrait mode to soften skin and create artificial bokeh. A camera with that bigger lens will by default already generate more bokeh than a phone. Maximize your bokeh by getting a tele prime like something around 85mm f2.

Vibrant colors is nothing more than a color profile used when editing your RAW pictures to export them as a final JPEG. Shoot in RAW anyway to get the maximum dynamic range and all the white balance and color options you want after taking your shot.

For GPS you have cameras that come with built in GPS and cameras that come with bluetooth that will connect to your phone to get GPS information. Not all cameras have this though. You could always tag them manually in your catalog/edit tool but that's a lot of work. So if this is important to you double check if it is possible on the camera you're interested in.

For dynamic range again a bigger sensor will have more dynamic range than that small sensor you find in a phone. If you're always taking pictures with way too much contrast you can look into taking multiple shots and stacking them on top of each other.

For battery life I can take around 1.000 pictures with AF tracking fast moving pictures on my FujiFilm X-T2. So unless you'll be taking more than 1.000 pictures a day your camera should last you longer than your phone (which probably barely gets it through the day).

Finally using a camera as point and shoot isn't a bad thing but you'll get better results when actually picking settings yourself. Most modern cameras have similar mode detection features as smartphones have to recognize fast moving subjects for example or faces for portraits in full AUTO mode. And if the camera doesn't have it you can always rely on software for processing that image that has these kind of features.

If you like that kind of "over processed" image looks of smartphones look into your editing software also. Skylum Luminar 4 for example has lots of AI powered tools to get these kind of looks on your camera pictures also.

On your phone, you can use snapseed to generate similar things. Plus that one is free and available for both Android and iOS.

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  • For GPS, good old gpscorrelate is still much more accurate than built-in GPS that's on one of my cameras - I regard the latter merely as a backup for when my GPS logger runs out of battery. – Toby Speight Jan 16 at 9:35

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