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At the current rate by which technology is improving, I believe that mobile photography is not far behind their DSLR counterparts, generally speaking. However, for amateurs like me, it is quite impossible to judge or even know properly how to buy a decent smartphone within $500 (US). And almost every phone these days have OIS, Laser Focus, PDAF, etc. as the bare minimum features. However, different media channels rate the phones (-- speaking from the point of view of photography only) differently. And often, it is hard to detect which source is credible enough if there is a huge gap between the citations therein, given the aforementioned budget limit.

A setback, in this case, is also because of the DxOMark scores for phones, and it is obvious that the phones with extremely good scores are not economically feasible for people with the aforementioned limit. So, my question is how can a person who is new to photography, is really enthusiastic about it, and wants to use his/her smartphone for that learn or research from credible sources given the rate at which technology is changing in our society so that the relevancy of this question remains valid even in near future.


EDIT:

Many people here may have a misunderstanding that I do not know about the basic differences between DSLRs and smartphone cameras. I did know the basic differences. Anyway, this is not their fault, but because of the limited information I put forth in my question as well as the way how I put it. I somewhat do know more now thanks to the inputs I have received thus far as well as after reading these articles, and their likes. To be short, I am saving money for an extended trip after few months and also need a new phone. So, if the details don't matter much now, there's that.

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    "I believe that mobile photography is not far behind their DSLR counterparts" How so? – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 19 '16 at 10:11
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    A great quote somewhat related to your situation is that "the best camera is the one you have with you" (possibly by Chase Jarvis, he at least has a book out titled the same), meaning it is better to have something you could capture a photo with than not having anything at all. Don't get too tied up in decision making and end up delaying a purchase and missing out on all those photographic opportunities that will pass you in that time and that would help you learn more about photography and what you really want from a camera. – mccdyl001 Aug 19 '16 at 11:06
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    I think the biggest issue with mobile photography vs DSLR is the lack of optical zoom - I have a Huawei P9, with dual Leica lenses, and for the majority of 'snapshot' pictures, the quality is more than adequate, and I've taken some fantastic pics, however it is tricky trying to get a good picture of a subject at medium range. – SeanR Aug 19 '16 at 13:37
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    I have to climb on the anti-heresy bandwagon :-). Re ", I believe that mobile photography is not far behind their DSLR counterparts,..." -> Many people believe all sorts of interesting things. Compare the (1) sensor size and cost plus (2) the lens size and cost and mass of a "DSLR" (or LT or mirrorless camera | with the phone equivalent and note that the camera is only part of the phone cost, then ask "Why?" – Russell McMahon Aug 19 '16 at 16:24
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    Hi all, please lay emphasis on the word "belief". I didn't claim that I know for sure with a more than 5 sigma certainty that smartphone cameras are better than DSLRs given their stark differences in technicalities as well as price ranges. With that being said, I should have added with my aforementioned cited statement that the stark differences between picture qualities, et al. are getting narrower than what it was a decade ago, or two. – Janus Boffin Aug 19 '16 at 18:26
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If you're on a tight budget and want to get the best "bang for the buck" you need to select the phone that has a camera with strengths in the areas you need them the most while letting go of other features or capabilities that won't affect the kinds of photos you wish to create. Which is more important, sensor size or focal length? Image stabilization or focusing speed? The answer to such questions will vary highly depending on exactly what you want to photograph. Do you want to capture an image of a sculpture in a dimly lit room or do you want to capture your kid in the outfield the instant he makes the home run stealing catch over the outfield wall?

So what is a person such as yourself supposed to do when selecting a phone based on the quality of the camera it includes? You don't know enough about photography to make an informed decision on what is more important for a camera's capability based on the specific types of photos you wish to take. You may not even know what kinds of photos you will eventually become attracted to taking the most. The only way you're ever going to learn how to decide which camera is better for you is to start shooting with any camera and begin to learn a) what kinds of photos do you wish to take and b) what technical features are most important to successfully capture such photos.


So why do the phones with better cameras cost more?

Photography is concerned with capturing light. Although creative photography is concerned with much more than the physics of light and how to record it, the physics of light is still the starting point for every photograph.

While it may be true that technology is rapidly advancing and it may even be true that some of the best smartphones can, under certain conditions, produce photos that are "not far behind their DSLR counterparts," as long as light follows the same laws of physics that it has always followed then cameras with lenses with larger entrance pupils casting light circles onto larger sensors or film will have an inherent advantage over cameras with smaller entrance pupils and sensors.

Any technology that can be applied to a smartphone to allow it to perform better in collecting light can also be applied even more so to those cameras that can collect even more light under the same conditions. In situations where there is more than enough light for either, the difference may be hardly noticeable. In other cases where light is more scarce and collecting every single photon possible can improve the final result then the camera that can collect more light has the potential to allow the photographer to create a better final result.

So the question really isn't, "How much do I have to spend to get a smartphone that takes pictures just as good as a DSLR?" The question is more along the lines of, "How much do I have to spend to get a smartphone that takes pictures that are good enough for me?" The problem with that question is there is no correct answer. The answer will depend both on how good is good enough in terms of the technical capabilities of a camera to produce a certain image as well as what type of photos one wishes to take.

In general, though, the reason the cameras that take better pictures in more demanding situations cost more is because it costs more to create such cameras. Ratings at review sites such as DxO Mark place a premium on how much light a given camera or lens can collect under strictly controlled conditions and how efficiently that camera can transform the light collected to an electrical signal. The camera that can produce the most usable signal from the least amount of light will be rated higher by such an evaluation. The two things that most influence the ability to collect light are the size of the lens' entrance pupil and the size of the sensor recording the light projected on it by the lens. Technological advances can improve exactly what percentage of the light falling on an image sensor is converted to electrical signal. But technology can't improve on how much light falls on a given amount of surface area of a sensor from the same lens collecting the same amount of light and projecting the same image circle.

The price of an imaging sensor rises exponentially in relation to the surface area of the sensor. There are several technical reasons combined with the economics of manufacturing why this is so. The cost to produce a lens that can collect twice as much light as another lens requires roughly four times the volume of material used to produce the lens elements as the other lens. A lens element is three-dimensional and must be increased in all three dimensions in order to double the surface area collecting light and also maintain the same amount of refraction of that light. As lens elements grow larger, though, the slightly different amounts of refraction the various wavelengths of light are bent as they pass through the lens becomes more significant. So lens elements to correct such problems as chromatic aberration must be added to the optical formula, increasing the cost even more.

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    I was in two minds about whether to upvote this answer as the bulk of the answer doesn't address the question asked - it's only there to address the phones vs DSLRs misunderstanding. However, it's a good, detailed explanation - perhaps the answer could be improved by separating and highlighting the section which directly answers the question. – Harry Harrison Aug 19 '16 at 6:56
  • @Michael, thank you for your elaborate answer. Your last paragraph is of utmost importance to me. I agree and accept the fact that I am very new to photography. To be honest, I want to travel around the world in picturesque places with vivid flora and fauna and visually distinct topography (of sorts). Also, I read an article on photographing the Milky way using a smartphone, so that really doubled my enthusiasm. :) – Janus Boffin Aug 19 '16 at 8:33
  • Great answer. Perhaps add it to a wiki question about phone vs DSLR? – kazanaki Aug 19 '16 at 8:42
  • FWIW, when I was thinking about the phone vs DSLR misunderstanding, I immediately went to lenses and DOF. – Dan Wolfgang Aug 19 '16 at 12:37
  • @DanWolfgang Which is kind of obliquely mentioned in the entrance pupil references. I might have gone into more detail there, but the questions doesn't seem to me to be asking, Should i get a DSLR or a phone with a really good cameras?" It seems to be asking, "Which camera phones for $500 or less are almost as good as a DSLR?" – Michael C Aug 19 '16 at 18:29
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Currently, the Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950 XL are likely to be available in the sub $500 price range. The camera is the same in both and has reasonable specs, can manually focus, shoot in RAW (DNG) and is supported by reasonably good firmware in the Nokia lineage.

Being Windows 10 Mobile devices may or may not be a feature/drawback. Nevertheless, the question states that the camera is top priority. Anyway, my anecdotal datum is I've had a positive experience with Windows phones since WP7, to take nothing away from Android or iOS. The caveat is that I don't really care a lot about downloading a bunch of apps.

In the US, the 950 can be tried out in an ATT Store. Microsoft also sells unlocked versions directly.

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In my opinion the best camera phones are Nokia Lumia phones. here are the advantages(LUMIA 1020);

  1. Carl Zeiss optics
  2. Six element lens(more precise image)
  3. Nokia pro camera (interface) allows manually control ISO, shutter speed, exposure value, focus, zoom etc
  4. optical image stabilization(first time on a smart phone)
  5. Back illuminated sensor (for better low light photos)
  6. xenon flash (more powerful than conventional LED flash)
  7. can take pictures in RAW format.
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Your question is: "How to choose a good smartphone if the top priority of the user is photography?" - part of your definition of "good" is that the Phone cost less than U$500 (presumably the Photos and Features must also be "good") and you state "(You want to) ... learn or research from credible sources ... so ... this question remains valid even in near future.".

If your top priority is Photography and you want a Phone for the lowest possible cost then consider separating the two and getting a free Phone so you can invest the remaining budget into a Compact, Bridge or inexpensive DSLR - for the Phone to be "good" it will only need the ability to connect to the Camera (to use the Phone's Editing APPs and View/Upload to Social Media).

Expecting a Budget Phone to have a premium Camera is going to severely limit the number of Phones from which to choose, then the Phone (not Camera portion) won't be as good.

To get a really good Camera in a Phone almost always requires a premium price, you don't want 1GB of RAM, no GPS, 720P Screen, etc. just so the "Camera" is good and so is the price.

To "learn" yourself and not turn this into an 'Opinion Battle' (though I suspect that would be unlikely as you're limiting yourself to less than a half dozen Phones which we could list and which would change in less than 6 months) simply use the Search Engines to search for "budget compact camera" to find out which Features you might hope to get for a low price and then search for "best budget smartphone camera" to attempt to find a Phone with enough Features to satisfy your needs and budget.

Separate devices will give you the best for the least and the ability to upgrade one without the other.

I was happy enough to pay top dollar to get the best I could afford because it's the last hundred dollars extra that gets the premium Features (which are always limited in all but the most expensive Phones).

Buy used, refurbished, or your Featuritus Friend's phone that is a year old; that will maximize your savings, leaving you a year behind the Bleeding Edge Crowd (which is OK, especially if your focus is "the best for the least").

There are a couple of Cameras that have a Phone in them if the reverse of a Phone with a Camera is an option - their priority is to be a great Camera and not so great a Phone.

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