Phones for photos

Smartphones are getting better and better, and more and more people are now using them. We compare four flagship models to find out which one has the best camera

It doesn't seem five minutes since our last cameraphone group test but such is the turnover of new models in this sector we now have a trio of new handsets all boasting about their photographic prowess.

The Apple iPhone 5 we tested back in the September issue is now yesterday's news, replaced by the iPhone 5s with a bigger sensor and faster operation. Sony was quick to update its disappointing Xperia Z with the Z1, which also has a larger sensor, though unlike Apple, Sony has also added more pixels - there's now 20 million of them. Then there is the Nokia Lumia 1020, which aims to batter its rivals into submission with its whopping 41MP sensor.

Samsung's flagship cameraphone remains the Galaxy S4 so we've dusted it down after its last scrap and put it back into the ring with these new kids on the block. (There is also Samsung's strange phone/camera hybrid that is the Galaxy S4 Zoom to add to the mix, but we'll look at this model in a separate review.)

Obviously when it comes to choosing a phone the quality of the camera is not the only consideration, and it may not even be the main one, but if you're a keen photographer it should at least figure high on your list if only for those occasions where you don't have your camera with you and a great shot presents itself. So when the time comes to start looking for a new handset, we recommend you narrow your search to one of the four models featured here. Which one? Read on to find out...

Nokia Lumia 1020

Price: £579

A 41MP monster sensor, optical image stabiliser and manual control. Is this the perfect photographer's phone?

The Lumia 1020 has the largest sensor of any current phone.  At 1/1.5in it's also bigger than the sensors in most compact cameras. This enables it to accommodate 41MP, producing huge 38MP images (or 34MP in 16:9 mode).

By default though the 1020 produces smaller 5MP images by over-sampling, in which seven of the sensor's photo-sites are grouped to make five million ‘super-pixels', producing superior detail and lower noise. This also means that you get a 3x digital zoom with no loss of quality, and you can even go back to that full size image and re-crop later.

The six-element Zeiss lens has a focal length of 27mm (25mm in 16:9 mode), and optical image stabilisation. Also present is a Xenon flash, which is brighter than LEDs and better at stopping movement, though the LED is also retained for video.

Like the Z1, the Nokia 1020 provides a dedicated shutter button with a two-stage release, like a camera. The Windows Phone 8 interface looks great on the 4.5in, 334ppi Gorilla Glass screen and is very intuitive to use, but apps, photo or otherwise, are thin on the ground at present. For example, there's no Instagram yet.

The phone comes with several camera apps, but it's the Pro Cam that delivers those high-res files. It also provides a class-leading degree of manual control: White Balance, Focus, ISO, Shutter Speed and Exposure Compensation are all user adjustable using a really cool interface. The Smart Cam app shoots bursts of ten frames at 4fps and then offers a range of clever tricks, such as the ability to swap heads in a group shot if someone blinked.

Image: Slow to use but the images are worth the wait, whether using the 5MP over-sampled or 38MP files

Nokia Lumia 1020: Performance

The Nokia Lumia 1020 screen is among the best available, and the easiest to see in bright sun. The shutter button gives it camera-like handling, but it's slow to get going and the shot-to-shot times are sluggish. If you're shooting moving subjects and you want to take more than one frame the Smart Cam app is pretty much a must.

Nokia Lumia 1020: Image quality



Image: Good low-light shots, though with no HDR mode highlights can blow out

The Lumia's default 5MP files look great - clean, crisp and free from noise at low ISOs. Even at the higher sensitivities they have much lower noise levels and greater sharpness than its rivals. The dynamic range is the widest of the group, but detail can still be lost in high-contrast scenes due to the absence of any kind of HDR mode which most of the others offer. At small sizes the 5MP images look better than the 41MP versions and are fine for web use and small prints, while the 38MP files can be printed at up to 60x45cm at 300ppi.



Image: The 1020 delivers punchy colours and the finest detail even in the 5MP shots

Apple iPhone 5s

Price: £549

A larger sensor and faster processor, but still only 8MP. Is that enough to compete with the best?

The latest iPhone benefits from a couple of camera improvements. The first is a larger sensor, which retains the same 8 million pixels but makes them bigger. The second is the new A7 processor, which for the first time on a phone supports 64-bit architecture. This benefits photographers by speeding up the shooting and processing of images, and is most powerfully demonstrated by the phone's ability to shoot continuously, at full resolution, at 10 frames per second until you release your finger, or you run out of space. There's no faffing about in the menus looking for the burst mode, it's always there, and it's very impressive. The phone's other wow feature is slo-mo video at 120fps. You can go from normal speed to slo-mo and back within single clips, like you see in the movies, and move the in and out points for the slo-mo portion at will.

The other changes relate more to the new operating system iOS7, which can also be downloaded by anyone with an iPhone 4 or later. These include a new interface, which allows you to flick through the two movie modes (standard HD and slo-mo) and three still shooting modes (standard, square and panorama) just by swiping the screen. The panorama mode now adjusts the exposure to match the changing scene brightness as you pan, rather than fixing it from the start point and leaving you with under or over-exposed sections. Nine new Instagram-style effects filters can now also be applied before or after shooting. The Photos app has been redesigned too, to make sorting and searching images easier.



Image: Images show good dynamic range, retaining shadow and highlight detail even in difficult conditions

iPhone 5s: Performance

Compared with the iPhone 5, the 5s is noticeably snappier in use. The camera takes a second or so to activate but once up and running it shoots with no discernible lag. Focusing is very fast and decisive and the exposure and white balance rarely put a foot wrong. Of all the handsets here the iPhone 5s is the one you're least likely to shout at in frustration.

iPhone 5s: Image quality

Image: The larger pixels of the 5s help ensure low-light shots are among the best

With the iPhone 5s Apple has produced its best camera yet. Images are consistently well exposed, with good colour rendition, and details are clearly defined thanks to low noise levels and a lens that is sharp across the frame. Skilful processing strikes the right balance between sharpening and noise reduction to produce images that look natural rather than over-cooked. In low light the picture isn't quite so rosy, with fine detail lost to noise reduction but less so than most of its competitors.



Image: The iPhone 5s rarely fails to produce perfectly focused and exposed images

Samsung Galaxy S4

Price: £599

Less than a year old but already the grandad here, can it still hold its own among the young guns?

For its size the Galaxy S4 is the lightest phone here, due in part to its extensive use of plastic rather than metal and thick glass. Consequently it has much less of a premium feel to it, though its specification is anything but second rate - such as a 13MP Sony-built sensor, and a 5in, 441ppi resolution AMOLED screen. Like the iPhone 5s the Galaxy S4 lacks a dedicated camera shutter button, though there is a shortcut to the camera on the home screen, and the volume control can be assigned to that if required. The camera itself is well specified, with a comprehensive set of features, including an HDR mode, burst mode and manual control over the ISO, White Balance and metering, (though less control than the Nokia Lumia 1020 offers). Casual snappers will appreciate the selection of subject-based shooting modes.

‘Fun' features include Beauty mode, which softens skins tones, Sound and Shot which pairs an image with a nine-second audio clip, and Dual Shot, which takes a picture with both the front and rear cameras at once, then drops your face into a postage stamp styled picture-in-picture within the main image. Like several (mostly Android) phones the S4 also includes the multi-burst technology that allows you to create composite group shots using heads from different frames, or remove people walking past in the background, which is great if you happen to be in that mode when someone steps into your shot, but you can't activate it retrospectively.



Image: The S4 delivers an impressive performance in good light, with sharp, well-exposed images

Samsung Galaxy S4: Performance

In use the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a sound performer. The screen is bright and sharp, though not quite as visible outdoors as the Nokia's. On the other hand the S4 is a lot quicker in use than the Lumia, though the AF can be a bit indecisive in low light. One annoyance: if you accidentally press the volume control, which is large and difficult to avoid, this inadvertently activates the digital zoom, though this can also be turned off once you figure out how.

Samsung Galaxy S4: Image quality



Image: Fine detail in the S4's low-light shots is softened a little by lairy noise reduction

In good light the images from the S4 are sharp and well saturated, with good white balance, lots of detail and a generally well-chosen exposure, though it does get things wrong more often than the Apple iPhone. Low ISO images are also noticeably more noisy than its rivals, due to the sensor's smaller pixels, and in lower light aggressive noise reduction results in slightly mushy images. But overall, the average user will be delighted with the photos captured by the S4, especially when viewed on screen at normal sizes.




Image: The S4 produces good, detailed images in most well-lit situations

Sony Xperia Z1

Price: £599

Built like a Rolls Royce, with a 20MP compact camera sensor and fully waterproof. Is it too good to be true?

Sony has gone back to the drawing board for the Z1 and upped the ante with a 1/2.3 Exmor RS CMOS sensor - as used in its compact cameras, and much larger than that used in most other phones. This one is home to 20.7MP, putting it second only to the Nokia in resolution.

The Z1 exudes class; it is beautifully made (aluminium and glass), reassuringly heavy and, like its predecessor, fully waterproof to a depth of one metre - a unique feature in this market. Its big 5in Sony TRILUMINOS display offers an impressive 441ppi resolution. Up front Sony has equipped the Z1 with a fast f/2.0 G lens, but no SteadyShot image stabilisation. There is a dedicated two-stage shutter button, enabling the Z1 to be used like a proper camera, as well as providing a shortcut to the camera from the lock screen.

The Z1's camera app offers a degree of control matched only by the Nokia. But only in manual mode. By default the camera goes to Superior Auto mode, which selects the appropriate scene mode for the subject you're shooting, and works well, but allows no user input. In this mode, and all the others besides manual, the Z1 produces 8MP images. The Z1 also offers a range of ‘fun' modes such as sweep panorama and time-shift, which shoots a 60-frame burst at 30fps, starting before you press the button.



Image: Exposures from the Z1 are often a little lighter than the others, but rarely at the expense of highlight detail

Sony Xperia Z1: Performance

The Z1 is responsive in use. The camera is quick to boot up, focusing is brisk (less so in dim conditions, though this is common) and shutter lag is better than average. But there are some frustrations. For example, no matter what mode you used previously the camera always opens in Superior Auto mode, so if you prefer to shoot in manual you have to press the mode button and select it every time, even if you only used the camera a few minutes previously. In the 20.7MP output you lose the HDR feature and can't shoot above ISO 800. It's also odd that the panoramas are of lower resolution than on rivals' phones.

Sony Xperia Z1: Image quality



Image: Images look good small but resemble a Monet at 100% due to heavy processing

The 20.7MP resolution may grab the headlines but at this setting images don't stand much close scrutiny when you magnify them. As with its predecessor they look noisy and over-processed, and the resolution shows up the softness of the lens towards the edges of the frame. Things look better at 8MP, which is perhaps why it's so much hassle not to shoot at this resolution. Images look sharper and cleaner, and you also get the option to shoot at up to ISO 3200 and use a little digital zoom without the image disintegrating.



Image: Superior Auto mode rarely fails, and the default 8MP images look pleasing

Verdict

First the obvious news: cameras on phones are getting good enough to compete with point-and-shoot compacts from an image quality point of view. All four of these cameras are capable of producing photos that to the casual observer would be indistinguishable from those of a compact, especially if they're only viewed small or on a screen.

In our September group test Samsung's Galaxy S4 vied with the iPhone 5 for top spot, but its rivals have now leapfrogged the S4 with their latest models. The camera is still good, but there are better options. The Sony Xperia Z1 is better than the Z, but only marginally better than the older S4, despite its larger sensor. We can't help feeling that when you look at the outstanding cameras Sony is producing these days its flagship phone should be better than it is, both in terms of image quality and functionality. The Xperia team should go and talk to the Cyber-shot team.

Apple has made enough improvements to the iPhone to keep it near the top of the league table. The performance is as close to flawless as phones get, and the images are consistently among the most pleasing of the group, whatever the subject. Its 10fps burst mode is the best of its kind too. But good as it is, it can't compete with the Nokia Lumia 1020 as far as image quality is concerned. It isn't perfect - it's slow to use and you're stuck with the extremely limited Windows 8 app store for third-party apps - but whether you're using the over-sampled 5MP images or the full 38MP files, nothing is around to touch them for sharpness, depth, detail and noise control.