Your smartphone is the camera that you always have with you, so next time you upgrade make sure you get one with a decent camera. Here we look at the Best Smartphone Cameras of 2014...
Much has been written about the demise of the camera at the hands of the smartphone. Of course this is very wide of the mark – as every photographer knows, a good camera offers superior image quality, variable lens focal lengths, faster operation and more creative control, to name but a few benefits.
Nevertheless, smartphone cameras are getting better and better, and long ago passed the point where they were good enough for casual snaps to post on Facebook and the like.
The best smartphone cameras now offer innovative features that most cameras can only dream of, and the image quality has now reached the stage where in good light conditions only a skilled eye can spot the difference between the images from a phone and a basic compact.
For proof, look no further than the respected US newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, which has just laid off all its staff photographers and given its journalists iPhones to use instead.
We’ve gathered the current five best smartphone cameras currently available to compare their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Best All-Round Cameraphone
£549 (16GB, non-expandable)
While the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera still only offers the same 8MP resolution found in its predecessor, it does benefit from some notable upgrades. The sensor is slightly larger, which in turn means the individual light-capturing pixels that cover its surface are wider and thus more efficient in low light situations.
In addition, the 5S also sports a dual-LED ‘true tone’ flash that’s designed to capture more accurate skin tones when you need to call upon it. The aperture has also been raised slightly – from f/2.4 to f/2.2 – making the 5S slightly faster than the iPhone 5. You also get built-in image stabilisation and 1080p video capture, plus automatic HDR and Panoramic modes.
Despite the fact that many other top-end smartphone cameras offer greater resolution, the iPhone 5S remains a solid all-round performer. In practical terms this means you can rely on it to take a great shot in all kinds of conditions. Armed with the iPhone 5S you can expect consistently sharp images, with vibrant and accurate colour.
Best for Features
Samsung Galaxy 5
£570 (16GB, expandable)
Powered by a quad-core 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is a real powerhouse. And befitting its status as Samsung’s top-end phone, the S5 also benefits from a fantastic built-in camera that uses an ISOCELL sensor for more accurate colours. With a maximum resolution of 16MP the Galaxy S5 is able to capture plenty of fine detail, while the f/2.2 aperture also enhances its capability in low light.
Furthermore, Samsung has fitted the S5 with a hybrid contrast/phase detect autofocus module that greatly speeds up focus time. Add in automatic HDR and Panorama modes, selective focus (background blurring), multiple-exposure noise reduction technology and the S5 certainly packs plenty of useful features. Last but not least the S5 also offers 4K video recording (in addition to 1080p Full HD). To date this is the highest video resolution attainable, although you will need a 4K-enabled TV to fully appreciate the results.
Image quality is very good overall. Many users have reported that the S5 is especially good at capturing green hues. Deep blue skies, however, can sometimes look a little washed out compared to the iPhone 5S, while the single LED flash isn’t as good at capturing accurate skin tones. Still, for an all-round cameraphone with excellent resolution and plenty of features the Galaxy S5 is about as good as it currently gets.
Full review of the Samsung Galaxy S5 to follow soon
Best For Use Outdoors
Sony Xperia Z2
£550 (16GB, expandable)
Coming only six months after the release of the Xperia Z1 it’s no great surprise to find that the Z2 uses the same 20.2MP Exmor RS sensor found inside its predecessor. At 1/2.3in it’s larger than the 1/3in sensors used in the iPhone 5S and HTC One M8, or indeed the 1/2.5in sensor of the Samsung Galaxy S5. One thing to note, however, is that the Z2 outputs images at a standard 8MP of resolution when used in any of the automatic modes (including Superior Auto). To shoot at full resolution you need to put the camera in ‘Manual’ modes and select the full 20.7MP.
In terms of features, the Z2 comes loaded with useful tools. There are plenty of pre-loaded digital effects filters to play around with and, in addition, the Z2 also sports automatic Panoramic and HDR modes. Built-in image stabilisation comes as standard, as does the ability to shoot 4K and 1080p Full HD video. What really sets the Z2 apart from the competition though, is that it is sealed against water penetration, meaning it can safely be used underwater (fresh water, not salt water) at a maximum depth of 1.5m. If you’re looking for an all-weather cameraphone the Z2 is by far your best bet.
Full review of the Sony Xperia Z2 to follow soon
Best for Resolution
£550 (32GB, non-expandable)
If overall resolution tops your priorities then there really only is one camera for your – the 41MP Nokia 1020. The pixel density is largely made possible by the fact that the 1020 uses a 1/1.5in PureView sensor – currently the largest sensor found inside any smartphone. The 1020 doesn’t actually shoot at 41MP however, as the sensor is of the multi-aspect variety. Instead regular 4:3 aspect images are actually captured at 38MP and then over-sampled (squashed together, basically) to produce a final 5MP result, which makes file size much more manageable without sacrificing resolution. The other benefit of this approach is that you can also take advantage of the camera’s 3x digital zoom and still retain a minimum 5MP of resolution.
While performance can be a little slow and shutter-lag times aren’t comparable to more expensive digital cameras, the Nokia 1020 nonetheless excels compared to other camera phones. Used in good light oversampled 5MP images display huge amounts of fine detail that you wouldn’t be able to capture using other cameraphones. Low light performance is also class-leading compared to other smartphone cameras, with higher sensitivity settings such as ISO 800 and ISO 1600 both surprising usable. Throw in a number of useful features, including high-speed and 1080p Full HD video recording and the Nokia 1020 is just about the best cameraphone in the market.
Best for Low-light Photography
HTC One M8
£535 (16GB, expandable)
While other manufacturers have been keen to boost the megapixel counts of their cameraphones, HTC has gone in the opposite direction; decreasing overall resolution in a bid to enlarge the individual light-gathering pixels that populate the sensor. HTC calls these Ultrapixels and the basic premise is that, because they are larger, the M8’s camera is better equipped to capture superior images in low light without being plagued by noise. The downside to this approach, as has been well documented, is that the M8’s overall resolution is limited to just 4MP. While this doesn’t manifest itself on the M8’s 5-inch screen, blow your images up any larger and you will quickly notice the lack of fine detail.
Ultrapixels isn’t the only novel approach taken by the HTC One M8 either. HTC has also taken the step of fitting the M8 with a separate depth sensor just above the main camera sensor. The main purpose behind this is that it allows the user to create selective blurring effects after an image has been taken. HTC calls this U-Focus, and it’s capable of producing quite good results when used in the right context (but also poor results when used in certain situations).
Elsewhere, other highlights of the M8 include blisteringly fast performance, a glut of built-in digital filter effects, one-touch Panorama and HDR image creation and, last but not least, 1080p Full HD video capture. Overall, if you’re more interested in low-light photography than overall resolution, then the HTC One M8 is undoubtedly the smartphone camera for you.