Battlemodo: The Best Smartphone Camera

A zillion new smartphones are going to be announced soon at Mobile World Congress, each promising camera advancements that may or may not live up to the hype. But before we get there, we wanted to take stock of how good the cameras are in the smartphones you can buy now. Here's how the flagships measure up.

For this battle we ran five top-end smartphones through a gauntlet of tests to see what's working and what's not. We focused our efforts on the Apple iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920, Samsung Galaxy S III, LG Nexus 4 and the newly announced Blackberry Z10. Following our last big smartphone camera battle in September 2012, we were convinced of two things. First, that the Nokia 808 PureView is better than anything else, but you're never going to buy a Symbian phone. Second, HTC's flagships come with rubbish cameras. So we didn't bother with those this time around.

We tested each of the camera's abilities under a few of the most common situations, making sure each photo was taken in an equal, controlled environment, and taking care that the photos were taken from the same location, and with the same focal point. For each shot we needed we took a few and selected the best from the batch to control for anomalies in camera performance. You can see each of the images in their uncropped glory at the very bottom of this post.

Low-light

First, we recreated the quick camera test we did for the BlackBerry Z10 a few weeks back, but under the most precise conditions possible. In very dark conditions with no flash, the Lumia 920 takes the best photos. As you can see above, the Lumia's optical image stabilisation helps the camera achieve a passable photo even under the toughest circumstances. There's no graininess, and the statue is more or less properly exposed despite the lack of light. The iPhone also picked up decent light, but the photo is a noisy horrorshow. The rest of the phones perform within reach of one another, with the Nexus 4 being the worst of the bunch. The Z10 did better this time around than the last, but still fell short of the frontrunners.

Winner: Lumia 920


Low-light with Flash

You should avoid using your flash under any circumstances, but we know that most people are going to deploy it sometimes, anyway. So we took the same photo above, except with flash to see if any of them could illuminate the scene without ruining the photo.

The Z10's "hard" flash really shined in this test. The photo above is accurately exposed, and the details are crisp and sharp. The Lumia 920 comes in a close second with an accurate exposure, slightly softer flash, and less noise. Softer light is preferable when photographing people, but the harder flash of the Z10 is great for objects. The Galaxy S III's flash performance is borderline decent, while the iPhone and Nexus fail the test for blowing out the details of our collectible friend.

Winner: BlackBerry Z10


Daylight

Based on our Instagram feeds, least 93-percent of smartphone photos are of beautiful skies during the day. Because the sun is such a lovely source of light, most cameras should perform reasonably well in this situation. In this test, we were looking for the camera that evenly exposed highlights and shadows throughout the image. We also wanted to make sure a camera could shoot during the day without catching lens flare.

The Lumia accomplishes both of these the best. In the image above, you can see there's even exposure on the building and sky. The camera's wide-angle lens provides a great field of view and it has no problem resolving the sun without creating an awful lens flare. The iPhone 5 is a close second, with even exposure a slight flare washing out the contrast of the image. The GSIII handles the sun well but the image looks unnatural owing to the excessive contrast and saturation. As with the flash test, the Z10's photo has the sharpest details, but the lens doesn't handle the sun well, and a flare washes the image out quite a bit. The Nexus 4 is dead last, with a horrible lens flare and completely washed out exposure.

Winner: Lumia 920


Indoor Portrait

Finally, we did a little indoor portraiture with our friend Lindsey Jaffe from the Gawker Ad Sales team — just to remove the battle from the level of complete abstraction. The idea here is to see which camera could handle colour balance to really capture the proper skin tone hues when shooting a person. We shot Lindsey against a white background so that the camera had a clear reference point for white balance perfection. Failure under these circumstances is inexcusable.

The Galaxy S III did the best at representing accurate colours in this situation with a very clear and colour correct image. The Lumia came out a little on the blue side but still very accurate with a healthy level of contrast. The iPhone balanced more to a yellow-pink colour and the image came out foggy. The Z10 shows up blurry and a little on the yellow/pink side in its colour balance, which is odd because in our other tests it captured the sharpest details. The Nexus 4 once again underperforms by a large margin with a washed out, blurry image with a very pinkish-yellow colour tone.

Winner: Galaxy S III


Overall

Winner - Nokia Lumia 920: Using only the automatic setting, it gets an accurate exposure and decent image in all shooting conditions. You can't beat it.

2nd Place - Apple iPhone 5 It's not the best at any one thing, but the iPhone 5 performs reasonably well in most settings, but the flash makes photos a total mess.

3rd Place - BlackBerry Z10: The Z10's details are beautifully sharp, which is a refreshing reminder that smartphones don't always have to shoot the fuzzy, soft photos we're used to. Still, the camera underperforms in terms of overall image quality — especially in low-light — compared to the field.

4th Place - Samsung Galaxy S III: Pretty impressive that the Galaxy S III's camera holds its own, despite being nearly a year old. '

5th Place - LG Nexus 4:. For being Google's flagship Android device, the Nexus 4 is incredibly disappointing. Its camera is terrible even under optimal conditions. You have to cut corners somewhere to hit a low price point, and Google obviously skimped on the camera.


Samsung Galaxy S III

Apple iPhone 5

Nokia Lumia 920

LG Nexus 4

Blackberry Z10


Comments

    what did you do to the portrait subject to make her pull that face?!

      Someone offered her the iPhone 5

        "hey, why the long face?! i took you to McDonald's and even got you a LARGE meal, the least you could do is smile!"
        ...
        *snap*

    No idea about whats best specifically, bu that 920 looks good in most settings!

    No prizes for the nokia being at the top.

    BUT - each of the others have their strengths and weaknesses and the ranking really depends on what matters most for you.

    The low light test IMO doesn't mean much - no tiny camera sensor is going to pick up enough light to take a decent picture (same for most compacts as well).

    In the daylight shot, the s3 and nexus expose the image similarly - due to the metering algorithm no doubt deliberately set to reveal shadow detail at the expense of highlights. I actually prefer the iphone shot.

    Unlike the others, in the last test - the s3 is so way ahead of the nexus and z10 it's not funny. Much less so against the Nokia.

    On balance there's a lot less distance between the IP, S3 and Z10 that a clear 2nd/3rd/4th place is harder to call. I'd say IP with both S3/Z10 about the same but not far behind.

      Not a fan of sneaky club shots for next day banter on who your mates hooked in with?

    Outside shot is too ambiguous to judge for changing conditions and human element when taking the photo.

    On the other tests it looks like Nokia 920 and iPhone5 out front.

    Thing is the Nokia 920 has been saying that its camera is the best by far and that doesn't seem to be the case here. It's major feature plug was the image stabilization which was not tested here.

    Also I am not sure if the 920 has a different lense focal length but in the flash test the object is further away from the camera meaning there is potentially a different angle on light reflection which is again prone to potential human error and knowledge of how to use a camera. Then it is closer for the low light shot.

    Would prefer testing done by an impartial website.

      it would have been doing OIS to get the low light shot. How else do you test for OIS with stills? there is some variation between shots. this happens everywhere. unless you want a dxo mark score for camera phones, i dont see what the point of requesting impartiality is since its impossible to achieve anyway,

      True test for image stabilization is taking video from a moving platform, car or boat etc ...check out some of the comparisons on Youtube - Nokia 920 rocks it

        Youtube has image stability built in, you cannot show the true capability without raw footage or without using a different video sharing platform.

        All those videos you have watched on Youtube are contaminated by the stabilization automatically applied to uploaded videos.

        I've seen them I am not impressed, this one of their own press event videos.

        http://youtu.be/ubcVlnDNK7c?t=1m

        He says, the screen is the fastest screen....look at it respond by me flicking the Win8 mobile interface. Gaaaahhhh. Salesmen. You can have the fastest screen you want but if the processor or OS are slow it meant naught. If you go to the start of the video you can see the Youtube image stablization at work as well.

        The thing is that you cannot judge until you judge for yourself which is hard to do, demos and the videos like this aren't truly controlled conditions and are open to bias.

    This might as well be discussing the best tasting brussel sprout. They are all crap.

      you havent had the brussel sprouts at Porteno in sydney.

        You haven't even been there you forgot the ñ

          It's uñfortuñate that I doñ't kñow how to type those characters oñ my keyboard. It did ñot make the Brussel sprouts añy less delicious though.

      they are phones after all...with about 4mm for focal length.

    Not a single sony phone in the test?

    I wasn't expecting magic from the Nexus 4, but man, this article alone has possibly changed my indecisive mind against it. I've been toing and froing about whether or not to upgrade my Galaxy Nexus since December, and had they had stock I would already have it, but those results are just poor.

    Anyone have the device that can vouch for it?

      I find the display better than the SIII's, and that seems like enough of a reason to upgrade

      I have a nexus 4 - I have taken a bunch of photo's under various conditions and they all look much better than the ones shown. I'm not sure how Gizmodo do these tests but none of my photo's look washed out like that

        I know my N4 is crap indoor, speically when taking pic of people. it's slow. the pic of people always blurry.

        Outdoor... on the other hand is excelent but if you point to the sun... like the sample, obviouly everything will be washed out as the WB is calculating based on the brightness spot. Unless Google patch the algorithm for the WB.

      I have an N4. Absolutely love it as a phone. As a camera... well... if you want to take quality photos, get a REAL camera. That being said, I too have no idea why the N4 photos in this article are so crap. I mean, it's no Nikon D3s but I've taken quite a few photos with it and am pretty happy with the results.

        Is it worth the upgrade from the GNex? I feel like it's just the jump from the 4s to I5

          I be honest, my 4s takes better pic than my N4 indoor. outdoor I can't tell too much different. i5.. if you read few reviews, they have issues with the camera... which not happening with 4s.

          Depends if you use it as a smartphone or as a camera.

          As a smartphone? Yes, upgrade.

          As a camera? Don't bother. Or better yet, do yourself a favour and get a proper camera. I just picked up a Nikon J1 as a toy camera and it kicks ass.

          Cameras in phones are good ONLY because they are with you all the time. I can't stress enough, that if you care about image quality, your phone will never be good enough and you should get a real camera.

      I have the Nexus 4 and while the phone is awesome I would have to agree that the camera isn't great... and by isn't great I mean quite crap.

    Hell yeah Lumia 920 represent.

    It's the video quality on the Lumia that isn't talked about enough. Takes great video.

      I know ay. Nice and sharp, and nothing can really come close to it with the stabilization.

    Following our last big smartphone camera battle in September 2012, we were convinced of two things. First, that the Nokia 808 PureView is better than anything else, but you’re never going to buy a Symbian phone.

    Why the hell not? I finally got around to buying one at the end of last year, and it's friggen amazing. Don't understand at all why (you) people shit all over Symbian all the time, I can't see anything particularly wrong with it at all.

      Tonnes of large names still hitting the Nokia Store even:
      http://www.allaboutsymbian.com/reviews/item/16858_Tennis_in_the_Face.php
      No surprise considering it's still the 3rd largest market in terms of user-base and it's not far behind the big ones.

    .

    Last edited 19/02/13 1:31 pm

    i'm curious if the 920 had the portico update installed. This update fixes the focus issue the 920 had out of the packet. The images don't look very sharp compared to what you should get.

    how can anyone rate teh i5 over the s3?
    flash, the i5 was shithouse
    the portrait it was shit house
    the s3 is a better all round one

    Frankly those are not even close to enough tests imo. Where's the low light outside shots, the sunset shots, landscape, macro shots, and more?

    I thought it was more like:
    1.Nokia Lumia 920
    2. Samsung Galaxy S III
    3. Apple iPhone 5
    4. Blackberry Z10
    5. LG Nexus 4

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