Why the Latest Cameras Blow Smartphones Out of the Water

When you were a kid, seeing a photo come out of a seemingly ordinary little box was like the best magic trick in the world. Were there tiny elves in that Polaroid?

I felt the same kind of wonder and enthusiasm when I got my first smartphone. It can do almost anything and do it well. But as much as I love my phone, I’ve come to the conclusion that using it as my only camera just isn’t cutting it.

For over a year, I put my camera aside and shot almost exclusively with my phone. I loved how lightweight it was, and that I could log my life on Instagram for all the world to see. Then I left my camera behind when I took a trip to Thailand — and kicked myself when I saw my friend’s photos from the same trip, all taken with a mirrorless camera. It may be true that the best camera is the one you have with you, but when I saw my photos next to my buddy’s, I had one of those “aha moments” Oprah always raves about. I realized it’s not just about the camera you conveniently have with you, but the camera you actually want to have with you.

What was it that broke the camel’s back when it came to using my phone as my primary camera? It’s pretty simple: 1. image quality and 2. being able to control what my photo looks like from the get-go. When it comes to capturing my 30th birthday or a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Thailand, I want my photos to be as high-res as my memories.

Devices are rapidly getting better and better at creating glorious high-res photos (oh hi, big beautiful retina screens), and I want to capture all my daily adventures with a camera that can keep up with the Joneses. So I’ve been investigating mirrorless cameras. They’re basically the perfect medium, giving you the portability of something lightweight without sacrificing superb image quality.

Maybe you’ve come to the same conclusion I have. We deserve better, and we want to do something about it. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is one of the latest mirrorless cameras, so naturally, it’s going to be outfitted with all the best tech. I’ve been making comparisons and weighing what it can do compared to my phone.

Quality

In terms of image quality, a phone can’t compete. The 16.3-megapixel sensor easily beats the standard 8-megapixel sensor of a camera phone. This means that when you look at your photos on anything larger than a phone screen — say a tablet, a laptop, a monitor or even a print (remember those?) — your images will be sharper and more detailed, with no pixelation in sight. Add interchangeable lenses, and your photos will be getting the sharpness they deserve.

Speed

Another key to better image quality is the camera’s new image processor, the TruePic VII, which optimizes your photos according to your lens settings. Plus, it lets you shoot incredibly fast. Like ten photos in one second fast. It also combines two kinds of autofocus detection to pretty much guarantee that whatever you point your lens at is in sharp focus. One of my least favorite parts about my phone is missing the shot because it just took too long to get the focus right.

Control

Getting my photos to look good from the start is my second major priority. I was spending way too much time staring at my phone screen, trying to edit my photos with the tiniest flick of a finger. More often than not, I never really got my phone photos to look exactly how I wanted them to, even with editing apps. A camera like the E-M1 gives you control over your photos while you’re taking them. A wide range of ISO settings means you won’t get ugly grain in low light, and being able to set your aperture, shutter speed, exposure metering, and white balance cures so many issues — motion blur, off colors, awkward flash, and loss of detail when your phone can’t deal with extreme shadow or brightness.

The shooting modes of the E-M1 allow you to make the camera as hands-off or hands-on as you want it to be, and its customizable controls take this versatility to the next level. You can actually assign specific functions to the camera’s eight buttons and dials on the camera do. You can switch them up when you find yourself in a particular shooting situation, or keep them locked on your favorite setup. This is all to make shooting that much more intuitive. As someone who likes to vary their settings (from auto to semi-auto to completely manual), I appreciate the complete control this camera hands over to the photographer.

Sharing

For me, one of the few bonuses about shooting with a phone is being able to upload my photos straight to Instagram and Facebook. What good is a photo if nobody sees it? What’s rad is that cameras these days let you do just that. For example, you can use the E-M1’s built-in Wi-Fi in combination with Olympus’ app to sync your phone to your camera. From there you can share photos between the two, and that’s just the beginning. You can use your phone as a live viewfinder, or as a remote to change your camera’s settings or trigger its shutter.

The E-M1’s kinda like the DSLR I always wanted (except, y’know, not). If you’re looking to level up from your phone, this camera may very well be the one to help you do it.

Totally over your smartphone's lame attempts at being a camera? Try the Olympus E-M1.

Lisbeth Ortega is a writer based in San Francisco. She was head editor at Photojojo from 2010 to 2013. Her specialty is cameras, mobile photography, and tech. She waits years to develop film.