The best phone cameras on the market


WhistleOut
07 May 2014

The smartphone market is always changing, so it’s hard to keep up with what’s best and what’s old-news. To make things easy, we’ve decided to round up our top 5 smartphone cameras on the market and update the list once a month to make sure we stay on top of things.

This list is in no particular order, as each phone has its own ups and downs that will appeal to different users in their own way.

If you'd like to see some examples of the prowess of these fine gadgets then feel free to follow the full review links below.

Samsung Galaxy S5

The Galaxy S5 sports a fantastic 16MP camera that takes great photos at lightning fast speed. The combination of shutter and autofocus alacrity makes it one of the best point and click smartphone cameras out there right now.

Image quality is also nothing to turn your nose up at. It's even better than the Note 3, which was one of our favourite cameras on any phone released last year.

Strangely, it does tend to get a little weird in-doors and in low-light conditions. Photos come out a bit flat. It's not enough to ruin the impact, but it can be a little off-putting. Still, every camera has its quirks and the GS5 does a lot more right than it does wrong.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 sports a fantastic 16MP camera. It takes great pics during the day and boasts impressive night-time capability. It’s not the best camera after-dark, but it gets the job done.

The shutter speed is very fast and you rarely need to manually focus.

There are also some cool S-Features if you want to use them, but statistically you’re more likely to use the default point-and-shoot far more often. Whichever is your style, you can’t go wrong with the Note 3.

HTC One (M8)

The One (M8)'s camera deserves to be on this list as much as does that of the original One, despite there not being too much difference between them in terms of raw image quality. We were admittedly a little disappointed at the lack of upgrade between one generation and the next, but to be fair the newer M8 does have some advantages.

For one (ha), it's faster. The One (M8) achieves focus and can take shots at an impressive speed. This makes it a great point and click camera.

Secondly, the One (M8) sports a depth sensor above the camera lens. Thanks to this there are some funky editing features that you won't find on other devices. They don't always work and you generally need direct sunlight to pull them off, but they can serve to spice up a photo if its taken in the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, the One (M8) still suffers from the same light bleeding effect as its predecessor. Low-light shots generally turn out very well, but if there is a bright object like a streetlamp or headlight then you're going to get some flare.

Nokia Lumia 1020

The Lumia 1020 really is the best smartphone camera on the market. You could say that the S4 Zoom beats it, and you’d be right, but the S4 Zoom is too fat to be considered a viable every-day smartphone in so it’s going to miss out on making the list.

The Lumia 1020 is a camera-centric device. Its 41MP PureView camera doesn’t actually fit in a normal phone casing, so it sticks out noticeably from the back. It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds and you get used to it pretty quickly.

The PureView image sensor doesn’t actually generate 41MP photos. What it does instead is generate two pictures; a 36MP photo and a 5MP photo (if you’re shooting 16:9). The 36MP pic is a sort-of template from which other pics are generated. No touching-up or sharpening is done to this 36MP image after it’s recorded, so the 5MP picture that is created from it often actually looks better.

The great thing about the bigger image is that you can zoom in on any part of it and generate a new 5MP picture that still looks fantastic. Alternatively, if you were already zoomed when you took the photo, you can zoom out and then zoom back in on another area. It seems like magic but it’s not. The camera simply takes a normal-sized image, even when you’re zoomed-in, and displays that zoomed-in view by default because that’s what you wanted. The rest of the data is still all tucked away in there, waiting for you to access it.

Images are crisp, clean, have ok colour accuracy, and night shots come out great. There is some minor light bleeding, more so than on most other high-end cameras (with the exception of the One and One Max), but it’s tolerable.

Video is also fantastic. It’s not a commonly-used feature and we don’t usually comment on it, but in this case it’s so good that it’s worthy of mention.

The only downside to the Lumia 1020 is that, as a Windows Phone, it takes longer than other devices to achieve focus. WP employs a half-press method for focusing. This takes up to a second and is followed by a slower-than-average shutter speed. All in all it takes around 2 seconds to take a photo, as opposed to the under half a second from modern Androids and iPhones.

iPhone 5s

The iPhone 5s’ 8MP camera’s best virtue is colour accuracy. In every head-to-head we’ve done it’s come first in that respect.

Photos are crisp and come out very clearly. Frame-wise, they come out thinner along the longer axis than on other devices. It’s not a widescreen 16:9 picture, but whether or not that’s a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder.

As for shutter speed, the iPhone 5s is unsurpassed. From hitting the shutter button to image capture is very snappy, but where things get impressive is how quickly the 5s lines up the next shot. You can fire off pics in rapid succession with the 5s if you want to, just by tapping your finger repetitively.

HTC One

The HTC One and One Max both technically sport the same camera, but we’ve had better experiences with the original One, so that’s the One we’ve decided to include.

The Ultrapixel camera is low on pixels, only coming in at about 4MP. HTC has done this to improve low-light photos. The bigger your pixels are, the more light you can detect and convert in to an image.

This makes the One a fantastic low-light shooter, especially with the flash turned off. Night time photos are still a little grainy, as they are from all phones, but they capture details that would go totally unmissed or at best poorly defined from another camera.

Light bleeding can be a bit of an issue, and broad long-range nature shots are not a strength.

If you plan on keeping to medium and close-range shots, as most smartphone users do, then the One is a fantastic option.


Nokia Lumia 1520

The Lumia 1520 is a 6-inch phablet that features a similar camera to that found in the Lumia 1020, except this time it’s only 20MP. It uses a similar technique, in that it creates one high-data image and another smaller image on which it employs sharpening and touch-up techniques.

It’s a fantastic camera during the day. It’s a worthy successor to the 1020 with sharp detail and great digital zoom capabilities. It’s not as good as the 1020, but in sacrificing camera quality it also ditches the 1020’s distinguishing lens bump.

Night shots are a weakness. The Lumia 1520 is almost useless in very dark shots. The flash seems to be off-set from the shutter timing, so that the photo is taken in between the quick, staccato bursts from the flash bulb. The resulting image is almost pitch-black.

Night shots without the flash come out greenish and grainy.

This is only for almost totally-dark photos. An in-door setting lit by house lights (or even sparklers) is still beautifully captured by the Lumia 1520’s PureView camera.


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