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Bang for Your Buck: A Comparison of Smartphone, MILC, and DSLR Cameras for Product Photography


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Take a quick walk through your local camera shop or browse through an online electronics store and one thing becomes immediately clear: there are endless options and specifications to consider when you are looking for a new camera for your product photography.

And not only do you need to understand at least some of the technical aspects of the cameras themselves, you need to understand yourself as a photographer. Do the shots you need require truly professional quality? Are you shooting for a client? What type of budget are you on?

To help you with all of this, we broke down three different camera options, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each, the type of photographer they are best for, and camera recommendations at different price points.

Smartphone Camera: Cheap and Convenient

What Is It?

Normally your go-to selfie camera, your handy smartphone camera can also function as a relatively high-performing product photography camera if you know a few tricks to maximize its performance (don’t worry, we show you how to use your smartphone for product photography).

Who Is It Good For?

This option is ideal for photographers on a budget who are shooting still product photography under perfect lighting conditions.

Our Smartphone Recommendations:

Black and Silver Apple iPhone 5S Price Comparison

Apple iPhone 5S and future generations (including Plus versions)

Price*:$355 USD

Blue Samsung Galaxy S5 Price Comparison

Samsung Galaxy S5 and future generations

Price*:$329 USD

*Prices for unlocked phone direct from manufacturer. Effective cellphone pricing is dependent on carrier and contract options.

The Upside

The quality of your camera is a surprisingly small factor when it comes to the quality of your final images. Your skill as a photographer, your lighting setup, the lenses you use, and the editing you do in post-production will contribute far more to the quality of your final images than how much you paid for your camera. This means that you can achieve a fairly high quality image without lugging around a large thousand dollar DSLR camera with a bag full of extra lenses.

Product shot of pink earrings dangling from wall before post production edits are made.

Before Post-Production: A good camera app and quality lighting can go a long way to achieving great product photography with your smartphone.

Pink earrings dangling from wall after post production edits are made.

After post-production: Post-production can help make up some of the quality lost when using your smartphone as a product photography camera.

Is the right camera for you already in your pocket? Compare smartphone, MILC, and DSLR cameras.
The Downside

While you can get fairly nice photos using a smartphone camera, their small sensors and limited functionality (as we will see compared to DSLRs) simply cannot capture the same amount of light and detail as larger, higher-end full-size cameras. You are also going to need to make sure your lighting and backdrop are perfect in order to make up for the lack of power in your smartphone camera.

Square diagram showing the difference in sizes between full frame lenses, 1/1.2'', 1/3'' and 1/3.2.

Image showing the typical size of a smartphone sensor (1 3/.2’’) compared to DSLRs (full frame) sensors. Credit: gizmag.com.

The Verdict

If you do not have hundreds (or even thousands!) of dollars to spend on a brand new DSLR camera, your camera phone is not a bad option. It is incredibly convenient, far cheaper than a new DSLR, and can take surprisingly high quality images. To get the most out of your smartphone camera, head over to our blog post How to Use Your Smartphone to Take High Quality Images and find out how to maximize its potential.

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC): The Next Step Up

What Is It?

Unlike a DSLR, MILC cameras do not have a mirror system inside the camera body, meaning that you can only view a representation of the image on the camera’s LCD screen, making them less accurate than their DSLR counterparts. You can think of these cameras as being between a compact (also known as point-and-shoot) camera, and a fully-equipped DSLR.

Who Is It Good For?

Photographers who want higher performance than a smartphone or compact camera, but want easier portability and lower cost than a DSLR.

Lighter, cheaper, AND high performance? Are MILC cameras the answer you’ve been looking for?
The Upside

Because MILC’s do not have the complicated mirror system found in the body and hood of DSLRs, they are more compact, lighter, and affordable than DSLRs.

The other benefit is that unlike compact cameras, MILC’s can be fitted with different lenses (and these can even share lenses with DSLRs), offering similar functionality to DSLRs in a smaller, lighter package.

The Downside

MILC’s have two downsides when compared to DSLRs. First, although they have good sized sensors (anywhere between 28mm to 225mm depending on what you pay) they generally do not have sensors that are as big as you would find in a DSLR. This makes for a lower quality photograph and less ability to shoot in dimmer light. The second drawback is aesthetics: without the large hood and sheer size of the DSLR, you may find MILC’s do not look as “professional” as you would like to present yourself, especially if you are shooting for paying clients.

Our MILC Recommendations:
Entry Level

Black and Silver Nikon 1 J5 MILC Product Photography Camera

Nikon 1 J5

Price:$500 USD

Middle of the Road

Black and Silver MILC Fujifilm x-10 product photography camera.

Fujifilm x-T10

Price:$900 USD

Professional

All Black Samsung NXI MILC product photography camera

Samsung NX1*

Price:$1000 USD

*Image credit: dpreview.com

*Prices are estimated based on Google Shopping and PC Mag.

The Verdict

As time goes on, the sensors in MILCs are only going to get bigger, putting more pressure on DSLRs. For now, you probably aren’t going to get the same photo quality as a DSLR, but the money that you save with an MILC might be worth the sacrifice in image quality, especially when you take into account the weight and size advantages you get with an MILC.

DSLR: Going All In

What Is It?

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. The name refers to how the camera captures an image: light passes through the lenses and is reflected off mirrors in the hood of the camera body, eventually passing through the viewfinder where it hits your eye. This means that unlike the LCD representation on the MILC, the image you see in the DSLR viewfinder is exactly the image you will be capturing. This, coupled with an enormous sensor and tons of setting options, allows for the camera to consistently capture high quality images.

Who Is It Good For?

Semi-professional and professional photographers who want the absolute best image quality possible (and need advanced functionality) and are willing to pay for it.

DSLRs are product photography champs, but do you really need one? Consider your smartphone or MILC.
The Upside

As far as image quality is concerned, these full-sized cameras have a few advantages over your smartphone (and MILCs). By being much larger physically, DSLR cameras are able to fit a much larger sensor (a full-frame DSLR sensor can be as big as 850 mm2, while your smartphone is likely closer to 16 mm2). The advantage of a large sensor? You will be able to collect far more light, allowing for not only a more detailed image, but also better images when shooting in lower light situations. A DSLR camera also provides far more setting options, allowing for you to make important adjustments to ensure you are getting the very best quality for every shot.

The boot on the left was taken with an iPhone 5 and the heel on the right with a DSLR.
The iPhone is good, but it certainly can’t beat the DSLR when it comes to quality.

The Downside

As you can see from our recommendations below, when you start looking into DSLRs, especially if you want to buy new, you are looking at an investment of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. DSLRs are surprisingly durable, so the option of buying used (as long as you are careful) is not a bad one. It is up to you to decide if down the line the extra image quality is going to offset the initial price tag.

Our DSLR Recommendations:
Entry Level

All black Nikon D5300 DSLR digital camera

Nikon D5300*

Price:$500 USD

Mid-Range

All black Canon EOS 7D Mark II digital camera

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Price:$1500 USD

Professional

All black Nikon D800 digital camera

Nikon D800

Price:$2300 USD

*Image credit: dpreview.com

The Verdict

For a professional photographer who needs the power, quality, and functionality of a DSLR, the cost is worth it, but for an amateur the increase in quality may not be enough to offset the cost.

What Does it All Mean?

Ultimately, the type of camera that is best for your product photography depends on what situations you are expecting to use it in, your budget, and your skill as a photographer. Once you know the answer to those questions, it becomes much easier to determine which camera is right for you.

When you finally make your big purchase and are ready to start shooting, be sure to check out some of our DIY posts like 3 Lighting Setups for Your Apparel Photography that Will Make Your Photos Shine and Warning: Are You Making These 7 Mistakes in Your Apparel Photography to make sure you are shooting the highest quality images possible.