The Ultimate Smartphone Camera Battle

The Ultimate Smartphone Camera Battle
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Smartphone cameras are becoming increasingly powerful – many, in fact, are fully capable of taking very sharp and professional-looking photos. But are these phones capable of holding their own against more sophisticated equipment? And which phone does it best?

To make a fair comparison, we compared smartphone shots taken in a bevy of different lighting scenarios, including controlled and low lighting, and also tested flash capabilities. We didn’t have all of these phones at exactly the same time, but we did make a concerted effort to control the lighting as much as possible.

You’ll also notice that the size of some of the images appears different. We wanted to show you the native dimensions of the images these cameras take and their respective dimensions as well. 

The Contenders

HTC Droid Incredible: Features Galore

From a features standpoint, the Incredible’s camera takes the cake, offering an incredible amount of customisable options including meters that let you adjust brightness, contrast, saturation and sharpness, all in real time.  The Incredible also offers a ton of effects, including Sepia, Solarise, Posterise and more. 

Most impressive, however, is the actual manual control you are allowed if you happen to be photo geeks like us.  If you want it, full control is yours. This includes control of ISO, white balance, resolution output, and a heap of other awesome features usually only reserved for the latest, full-blown point-and-shoot cameras.  On paper, it’s one of only two phones that sports an 8MP camera – three up from the rest, in case you’re planning on printing larger-than-normal images.

Samsung Galaxy S (Epic 4G): Killer Screen, Killer Flash

The Galaxy S is an impressive phone with an impressive camera. The flash in particular performed admirably, even in low-light scenarios.  A common problem for many phone cameras (and point-and-shoots) when shooting in low light is the censor often has difficulty speaking to the flash, often resulting in washed out images that are far too lit. 

The Galaxy S also offers a pretty broad range of camera features and customisable options – you can manually set the ISO, use light metering (a feature often reserved for digital SLR cameras), and adjust white balance and resolution settings, to name a few options.  It also comes preloaded with four effects, which is appreciated, but not nearly as many as the HTC Incredible. 

Finally, without a doubt, the Galaxy S has the best-looking in-camera screen of all of the phones in the test, hands down, bar none. 

iPhone 4: Snappy and Simple

I’m probably just preaching to the choir at this point, but I’ll say it anyway: It’s really simple to use. In fact, it’s the simplest of all the phones to load up the camera and also features the snappiest auto-focus sensor we tested. 

We did, however, run into a few problems with the built-in flash that we’ll talk about during the comparison, and, like the BlackBerry, there’s only a limited amount of customisable options. The lack of options is partially saved, though, by an HDR mode that actually works pretty well under the proper lighting conditions.

BlackBerry Torch: The Underdog

The BlackBerry’s camera capabilities, much like the phone itself, can be pretty impressive but kind of frustrating to use. On the plus side, the Torch comes with a huge range of scene modes, including face detection, Portrait, Landscape, and even more obscure environmental settings like Snow and Beach modes. Speaking of environments, the Torch did a phenomenal job recognising shifts in the environment when the scene mode was set to Auto – it alerted us when we were in an environment with low light, for example. 

Unfortunately, the customisation sort of ends there. There’s hardly any manual control offered at all. This didn’t used to matter, but with the recent upswing in mobile camera technology, manual customisation becomes a desirable option. 

Droid X: Beastly

Far and away the largest phone in the roundup, the Droid X is the only other phone in this roundup that also includes an actual shutter button, which, when coupled with the massive 4.3-inch display, makes for a very solid feeling camera that’s also easy on the eyes, thanks to the massive screen. The Droid X camera also has a pretty decent amount of features, offering seven effects, eight scenes (portrait, landscape, sports, etc) and a controllable flash.

Unfortunately, it lacks much of the manual control and abilities of its Droid-based competition, the Incredible, but it’s still the only other phone in this roundup that matches it at 8MP. 

Droid 2 (Milestone 2): Beastly Jr

The Droid 2’s camera settings are identical, feature for feature, to the Droid X. We’re figuring that’s because they were released around the same time and made by the same company, but there is one puzzling difference: The Droid X features an 8MP camera, while the Droid 2’s features a 5MP camera. [imgclear]

Test #1: Controlled Light

These cameras have more than enough megapixels to capture some pretty exacting detail, so, if we set up a soft box and wanted to take a dramatically lit portrait, could the phones pull it off? We wanted to find out how these devices would react to a controlled lighting environment.

Such an experiment will test a couple of important factors. Can the sensor in these cameras colour balance for dramatic light, without blowing the image out? Also, the pictures were taken in relatively low light, so are the shutters in these tiny little lenses fast enough to avoid motion blur?

We’re going to use a digital SLR shot as a reference point. The portrait of features editor Amber Bouman below was taken with a Nikon D300 and is as close to the actual lighting configuration we set up in our lab as humanly possible.

This was taken with a 12MP Nikon D300. Dramatic light could potentially confuse a point-and-shoot sensor, so we were curious as to which phone could re create this dramatic look. Results below.

As we’ll be doing with the majority of our tests, we’re going to take the best two and compare their image quality. The top two images from this test are pretty clear. Let’s scrutinise the two best pictures to find out which one comes out on top. (Hint: it’s not the BlackBerry).

Droid Incredible

The Droid Incredible did a magnificent job balancing the light in this image and didn’t blow out or misjudge colour corrections like the other phones. Though the Epic did a pretty good job handling colour corrections, it blew out a part of the background where the softbox was shining. In fact, look at the far right side of Amber’s head. See how natural her hair is lit? Now look at the iPhone’s image, which totally blew out the highlights in her hair. (Sorry Amber, that didn’t come out right.) All in all, the Incredible really did a terrific job balancing all of the proper necessities needed to make this image look the way it does, producing a surprisingly detailed and professional-looking image that we think looks even better than the DSLR snapshot.[imgclear]

iPhone 4

The iPhone’s image is worthy of mentioning, just because of the crazy amount of detail it picked up on. See that catch light in her eye? Notice you can actually see the colour of her eye? However, the image suffered from a recurring problem we’ve found with the iPhone 4: a slight purplish-bluish hue. This seemed to happen almost every time direct light was involved (including use of the iPhone’s flash), and though the images are surprisingly detailed (it’s hard to believe the iPhone’s camera is only 5MP), it can’t compete with the colour clarity and smoothness of the Droid Incredible.

Winner: HTC Droid Incredible – outstanding colour and light balancing.

Test #2: Natural Light

We knew this was going to be hard to gauge, because a nice, bright day looks the same on almost any camera. But it’s an important factor – we reckon the majority of everyday phone users would use their camera in naturally lit environments more so than anywhere else.

As stated above, choosing was pretty difficult, as most of our smartphones delivered some great results (though what’s with the undersaturated image Droid 2?). In the end, the showdown comes down to the two phones that captured exacting detail and saturation levels.

Let’s have a look at the top two from the bunch.

iPhone 4

Shocked again, we had to give the iPhone some praise here for reproducing the most eye-catching image of the bunch, with some pretty vibrant colours. The image itself is a messy one, but Apple’s image sensor picked up on the subjects quickly and precisely – the iPhone 4’s shutter fired faster then any of the other phones when taking this particular picture. As you can see, it was an extremely bright (and hot) day, and the iPhone did oversaturate the image just a smidge, but not enough for any major concern.

Samsung Galaxy S

As you can no doubt tell from this picture, the Samsung Galaxy S has a super-wide lens, and we really really like it for that reason but were also very impressed with the amount of detail picked up in this photo, especially the spot-on colour match on the actual little Droids. Unlike the iPhone 4, which produced rich colours but oversaturated the image, the Galaxy S captured the correct look of light (around 5.15pm or so) quickly and easily. And since this is a natural light test after all, the Samsung takes it.

Winner: Samsung Epic – most accurate reproduction of natural light.

Test #3: Colour Saturation

In the world of cameras, the accurate reproduction and saturation of colours is an important factor to consider. And, as much as we would’ve liked to take pictures of beautiful, natural things (like bright flowers, autumn leaves, etc) we were limited to what we have in our surrounding environment: PC parts.

So we found the brightest, most colourful PC setup we had in the lab and photographed it with all of the contending phones. This was an important test for two reasons: First, this would give us a good idea at the camera’s colour rendering capabilities; and second, the lighting in the lab isn’t so great, and we were curious to see if the shutters were fast enough to avoid motion blur when pressing the shutter button. Results below.

Let’s have a closer look at the best two images.

Samsung Galaxy S

The Galaxy S accurately reproduced the wide range of colours and hues found in this image and also maintained a snappy shutter (though you’ll notice a tiny bit of motion blur in the boxes behind the GPU). It did, however, slightly oversaturate the light parts of the motherboard, making some of the slots in the mobo look like they’re glowing almost. A very smooth, consistent image overall, though.

Droid X

Having such a large screen gives you plenty of liberties when shooting – by far the widest shot and also one of the best colour matches in our tests, the Droid X really captured the rich colours of the image without blowing anything out. What’s more, the sharpness of the image was unparalleled, due (we ponder) to the conveniently large shutter located on the top right of the phone for better shutter stabilisation in lower light. The shutter works great with the X in your hands – it’s bulky and feels sturdy, much like an actual point and shoot camera.

Winner: Droid X – rich colours and a solid shutter.

Test #4: Flash

We knew this test would be a rough one; it’s hard to get flash right in low light. Images taken in low light require the camera to crank the ISO to insanely high levels, resulting in grainy images that, when coupled with a misfired, overblown strobe, can look truly terrible.

But we wanted to see which phone, with its flash camera settings on Automatic, would produce the best image in low light. Here are the results.

Samsung Galaxy S

Once again, the Samsung Galaxy S just got it right, firing just enough of a flash to illuminate the subject enough to look natural. Also, graininess was at a low in comparison to the other phones (but still visible). Furthermore, this image is the only one of the six to not feature a crazy amount of red-eye from the flash. There was barely any available light in this image, but the auto-focus sensor still picked up what it needed to. Very impressive.[imgclear]

BlackBerry Torch

Just when we thought BlackBerry was down and out of this competition, it delivered! As with the Galaxy S, the BlackBerry fired just enough flash to keep things looking natural, and the auto-focus censor picked up on the subject in a totally dark room. There’s a ton of grain to the image, however, noticeable mostly in the black areas of the photo. A good flash and a great auto-focus sensor go a long way, but the image smoothness of the Galaxy S is just too compelling for us to ignore.[imgclear]

Winner: Samsung Epic – just enough flash for a natural-looking image.

Test #5: Zoom

We’re not going to spend too much time here, because the results of every one of the phone’s images looked identically bad. Digital zooming is a tricky thing to get right, and not even the highest-end digital cameras can produce a sharp image when the zoom is maxed out. So, for this particular test, we’ll call it a draw.



The Samsung Galaxy S, by a nose! In our testing, the Samsung Galaxy S was the most capable camera, handling itself accordingly in the wide range of lighting tests we ran. It may not always have taken the best image, but its range of performance impressed us.

The iPhone 4 and the HTC Incredible are definitely worth mentioning for doing a stellar job as well, and though the Incredible didn’t formally win, it still comes loaded with a staggering amount of camera features, which we thought was cool. The BlackBerry, well, didn’t do so hot, but that wasn’t really a huge surprise – they’re made for business people, not art majors.

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