Battle of the smaller sensors, iPhone 5S vs. Fuji XF1 vs. Nikon J1

I’ve been using smaller mirrorless cameras for a while now but on my latest trip to California, I went even smaller. I still carried multiple cameras, as usual, but the camera bodies and sensors continue to shrink.

The Nikon J1 with its 1 inch sensor was the largest but still smaller than my primary Olympus micro 4/3 system. I also used the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot and finally the iPhone 5S. Mainly through Instagram, I’ve shot the iPhone more seriously, lately. The latest generation iPhone has really improved image quality wise — particularly if I post smaller photos.

I was giving a tour of San Francisco to a visitor from abroad and decided to take some tourist photos myself. Since the iPhone has an approximately 30mm point of view, I adjusted the Nikon J1 and Fuji XF1 to a similar focal length. Here is the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. Let’s see how they compare in good light.

Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California (iPhone 5S)
Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California (Nikon J1)
Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California (Fujifilm XF1)

These were post processed in Aperture 3. The Nikon shot in RAW and the other two in JPEG. Which photo was taken with the iPhone, the Fuji point and shoot and the Nikon mirrorless?

With good light most cameras do a fine job these days. Technology wise, the iPhone 5S has the newest and most advanced sensor, though it’s the smallest.

These are not great photographs. It was an overcast day and nothing exciting was happening, lighting wise. However, I think these are typical snaps that a tourist would take. The biggest surprise is how well the iPhone 5S did, which is the first photograph. I liked its colors the most and the lens was sharp edge to edge. I took the second photo with the Nikon J1 which was equally sharp. The third photo, taken with the Fuji XF1, was a bit disappointing. As much as I like the Fuji point and shoot, I found the edges were not as sharp as the other two. The color was also a bit cooler, which I warmed up in post.

So how do these cameras do in dark, challenging light? Here are three more photos.

A Moody Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco, California (Fujifilm XF1)
A Moody Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco, California (iPhone 5S)
Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California (Nikon J1)

Clearly the iPhone 5S, with the smallest sensor, is the noisiest. If you look at the 2nd photo, you can see that the iPhone color is also more dull, probably with less dynamic range. The Nikon J1, the third photo, doesn’t do that much better than the Fuji XF1. The Nikon, with the kit lens at f3.5, is the slowest — the ISO jumped to 2200. Though the Fujifilm XF1 has a smaller sensor, its f1.8 lens really helps and the ISO remains lower at 1250. The Fuji exposed the brightest and I could have lowered it a 1/3 of a stop and increased the image quality. Interestingly, all 3 cameras chose 1/15s shutter speed.

Overall though, the most surprising is how competitive the iPhone 5S really is. It doesn’t quite match the dedicated cameras with larger sensors in darker conditions but it’s hard to believe that this is a smartphone. No wonder point and shoot sales are crashing. Sure, you don’t get shallow depth of field, but for these types of landscapes, that usually doesn’t matter.

Finally, the images at the top are some Instagrams I took with the iPhone 5S and processed directly on the phone. I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of iPhoneography and the creative process can be equally rewarding using the smaller device. With the smaller images sizes, Instagram photos can look quite good in almost any light.

Don’t worry though. I have no plans of turning this into an iPhone photography blog. More photos from my larger cameras coming soon.


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12 thoughts on “Battle of the smaller sensors, iPhone 5S vs. Fuji XF1 vs. Nikon J1

  1. I sometimes capture the photo with an actual camera (either D800/E-PM2/X100s) then download the pic to iPhone/iPad via the SD-wifi card and process/share through Instagram. However, often an actual iPhone photo can make the cut, especially if it’s the only camera handy. It really is amazing how far the phone cams have actually come in the last few years.

    http://instagram.com/sealow08

    1. Hi Sean, thanks for your visit and comment. I’ve considered posting images to Instagram from my larger cameras. For now I’m staying pure iPhone but who knows in the future.

  2. My problem with using phones isn’t the quality. I just don’t like they way they handle. They don’t feel good in my hands. It takes pictures, but it’s no fun for me as a photographer.

    1. Marilyn, I understand. With the lack of physical controls and diminutive size, it is certainly a different kind of device to use.

      But it is certainly handy, especially if you always carry one. It might be different for guys since we typically don’t carry bags on a daily basis. There’s no convenient place to put a camera.

  3. Understanding, of course, that this was casual observation and not a scientific study – I noticed that the J1 was 1 stop down on aperture and 1.3 down on ISO in the daytime shot. The higher ISO and maybe the wider aperture might have had some effect on perceived sharpness in the XF1 shot. I’m guessing that the JPEG mode was standard on the XF1 as well. You might try “soft” i.e. Astia. I find the color and contrast more punchy than the standard. The default sharpening in the Fuji cams isn’t particularly high in my experience. A lot of folks turn it up in camera; I prefer to do it in post.

    In the night shot, the XF1 is exposed at 1 1/3 stops over the iPhone, while the J1 has a 1/3 stop bump via ISO over the phone cam. Night photography certainly pushes the limit of phone cams. At ISO 800 the phone is looking pretty grainy already and doesn’t have a chance of matching the image quality of the J1 or XF1 in low light conditions. Still not bad considering how small that sensor is though. In daylight the gap isn’t so great these days, especially for average use of photos in social media outlets. You’re getting some fun shots with the phone on your trips. I really should take more photos with my phone but I have to agree with Marilyn. It just doesn’t feel right.

    Have you tried the EXR mode of your XF1 yet? I usually avoid auto modes like that but I’ve found it to be pretty decent. I’ve got a few recent shots in my Flickr stream that demonstrate it in high contrast backlit daytime scenes and the typical night scenes that we both enjoy. I think I’m actually going to turn off raw capture on that one and leave EXR on most of the time. I bought that one (in no small part due to your recommendation BTW) as a daily point n’ shoot so I think I can live with the JPEGs, including the scaled down EXR files.

    1. Mike, thanks for doing the exposure equivalence calculations. Regarding the XF1, I see the softness only in the corners so I think it’s a lens issue, and with lens variability mine could be worse than others. Look at the metal truss details on the left side of the Golden Gate Bridge. That said, it really didn’t bother me in other shots that I made. It’s really after pixel peeping, which I usually don’t do, that I noticed it.

      I have used EXR mode earlier on but not usually. EXR is interesting and I have gotten an interesting look with it, especially in high ISOs. I use the Fuji strictly in JPEG mode since RAW looked worse. Still like the XF1 as a small everyday carry around camera.

      1. Ah, OK. That does sound like a lens issue. My eyes can’t discern a difference at the posted size but I wouldn’t be surprised for there to be irregularities in the XF1 lens. It is odd that the raw files out of the XF1 aren’t so good. The noise is terrible and Lightroom doesn’t seem to be able to do much with it.

  4. The Fujifilm XF1 is NOT a point and shoot Camera, as you say. It is a compact Camera with Aperture / Shutter/ priorities and it even has FULL Manual Control. So it’s clearly NOT a point and shoot !!

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