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.
HTC Droid Incredible: Features Galore
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 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
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
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
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
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).
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.
Samsung Galaxy S
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.
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
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.
AND THE WINNER IS…
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.