DSLR vs Mobile: What's better for wildlife photography?

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Can you tell the difference between a photo shot on DSLR and a photo shot on a phone?

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Behind The Scenes
A Hindu Business Line Photo Essay
Last update
July 2020

Can you use a phone to shoot wildlife and birds? Sanshey Biswas and Manon Verchot experimented with this on a trip to the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan India. Their photos were published in the Hindu BusinessLine.

Though phone camera technology has dramatically improved in the last decade, the zoom capability remains limited. So phones are rarely used for wildlife photography and videography. Instead, DSLRs and specialised equipment are the go-to. The thing is, DSLR and special lenses are really expensive, and not very accessible. Phones, on the other hand are really accessible. An estimated 3.5 billion people have smartphones, and the number is rising rapidly every year. And as smartphone penetration worldwide increases, we're also seeing a rise in additional tools to improve the photo capability on these devices.

For example, telephoto lenses are now available for phones.

Phone telephoto lenses, which cost around USD 50, are way cheaper than DSLR telephoto lenses, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Though Sanshey and Manon didn't have a mobile telephoto lens, they were prompted by the guides in Keoladeo National Park to shoot photos through binoculars and bird-watching scopes. Can you tell the difference between which photo of a hoopoe was shot on a DSLR and which one was shot on the phone? The answer is at the bottom of this article.

Which hoopoe photo was shot on a DSLR?

Sanshey and Manon submitted both DSLR and mobile photographs to Hindu BusinessLine for publishing. The editors at the publication selected an almost equal number of DSLR photos as mobile photos. Even though they weren't told which was which in advance.

Newsrooms are increasingly using a mix of mobile and DSLR photos and videos. And there are many reasons for these changes. In breaking news situations like protests, it's easier for a journalist to reach for their phone. Newsrooms are also using a lot of photos and videos from the general public (also known as User Generated Content or UGC). And most UGC is shot on the phone.

While an expert may be able to tell the difference between a photo shot on DSLR and one shot on mobile, most people can't. Many of the platforms where people are consuming videos, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are compressing the videos published by newsrooms. Watch this fun experiment by tech YouTube Marques Brownlee, where he downloads and uploads one YouTube video 1,000 times to better understand how platforms compress videos.

For Sanshey and Manon, understanding how platforms compress files and understanding how audiences consume content on these platforms is crucial when they're thinking about how to tell a story and which tools to use to tell that story. That's why they experimented with both mobile and DSLR photography in Keoladeo.

"We just wanted to challenge ourselves and see if someone would notice," said Sanshey. "It's the storytelling that matters in the end — the information and how it's conveyed.

Answer: Left: DSLR; Right: iPhone 7 Plus through binoculars
Disclaimer: Sanshey is a regular contributor to In Old News.