If you’re carrying your phone with you all day, chances are a time will come when you'll want to take photos. Whether it’s for documenting your daily activities, taking gratuitous Instagram selfies, or just capturing a nice sunset, you want your phone to take the best photos possible.
This is the latest instalment in Gizmodo Australia's big Smartphone Buying Guide which we'll be rolling-out on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout October / November.
What you want in a smartphone camera is simple: a high megapixel count, good low-light performance, and a swathe of features to make your phone more versatile. A good set of manual controls can also make a world of difference in snapping a good photo.
We put together a comparison of some of the best smartphone cameras back in February, but plenty of new phones have arrived since then, and it’s worth knowing exactly what each phone’s software is capable of.
iOS / iPhone
The changes to the camera in the iPhone 5s compared to the iPhone 5 aren’t much to look at on paper, but there’s a lot more going on under the hood than you realise. The new camera on the iPhone 5s doesn’t boast more megapixels than that of its predecessor, the iPhone 5, but Apple has gone down the route blazed by HTC’s Ultrapixel camera seen on the One by making the pixels on the sensor larger. It’s hoped by making the pixels bigger that the camera works better in low-light. Those hopes have been fulfilled: the iPhone 5s is the best low-light shooting iPhone we’ve ever seen.
The 8-megapixel photos from older iPhones and the iPhone 5c are good in both bright and low light, although the 1.2-megapixel front camera isn’t great.
Apple’s iOS 7 update revamps the Camera and Photos apps, adjusting the interface to make it easier to switch between camera modes like video and panorama, and adding an Instagram-friendly square crop mode and live photo filters.
All your photos in iOS 7 are automatically organised into Moments and Collections, and sharing directly to iCloud and other iPhones is seamless.
Android: Great Specs, Greater Choice
With so many different phones available, Android offers the widest variety between smartphone cameras. The stock Android camera app is simple but powerful, letting you choose scene modes, adjust exposure, shoot in HDR, set a countdown timer, and use a novel Photo Sphere mode that creates a 360-degree spherical panorama.
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 is a strong performer, with a 13-megapixel camera that’s capable in a variety of conditions. The camera on the Galaxy Note III is also 13MP, however, it can also record close to 4K video: 3840×2160 resolution, as well as slow-motion at 1080p. In general, Samsung’s custom camera app adds a huge number of scene modes, and a nifty Dual Shot mode that snaps a photo using the phone’s front camera at the same time as the rear, taking your portrait and inserting it into the scene you’re photographing.
HTC has taken a completely different approach to the camera in its smartphones, trading megapixels for mega-sensitivity, with a 4-megapixel sensor that is far more useful in low light than almost any other competitor. This UltraPixel tech found in the HTC One and One Mini has an optical image stabiliser and wide aperture, so the camera is able to capture clean and detailed photos even in dim light. HTC also has a camera app with a sequence shot to capture the best possible action photo, smart object removal to get rid of accidental intruders into your photo backgrounds, and a Zoe mode that captures a 3-second ‘moving photo’ video.
Sony’s Xperia Z1 also deserves special mention. Its 20.7-megapixel camera has a whole lot of tech behind it. The camera boasts a 1/2.3-inch sensor, roughly on par with the one in the Galaxy S4 Zoom (a phone that is possibly more camera that phone, with 12MP snapping in 16:9). And if ultra-high-def video is more your thing, Acer’s new 13MP Liquid S2 has confirmed 4K video support.
Windows Phone: All The Megapixels
If taking photos is high on your list of uses for your smartphone, Windows Phone offers some useful features. Burst mode, panoramas, various scene modes, filter effects — all are built into the standard Windows Phone photo app.
These days, HTC 8S’ 5-megapixel camera is nothing special, but the range-topping 8X’s 8-megapixel sensor is better and is joined by an ultra-wide-angle, 2.1-megapixel front camera, which can record 1080p Full HD video and comes in handy for handheld group photos.
Its Nokia that is really owning the smartphone camera arms race right now — the Lumia 920, Lumia 925 and Lumia 1020 all have excellent cameras, that are easily the equal of anything that Apple, Samsung or HTC can offer. The 1020 stands out with its 41-megapixel PureView snapper, but all three high-end Nokias have dedicated shutter buttons and use the Lumia Pro Camera app, which offers the most natural, manual control over camera settings like ISO, focus and exposure that we’ve seen.
Of course, the Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel specs first appeared on Nokia's Symbian-based 808 PureView phone in 2012.
BlackBerry: Solid, But Uninspiring
BlackBerry’s latest smartphones, the Z30, Q10 and Z10, have 8-megapixel rear and 2-megapixel front cameras. The new Z30 and Z10 camera's also have a constant f/2.2 lens for a wider image and better light.
The new BlackBerry line-up does an acceptable job of everyday photography, but fall down when compared to the higher-resolution, more versatile cameras of competitors. There’s no especially exciting features on offer, but the standard set of camera toys — HDR mode, burst mode, a photo editor — all work well.
BlackBerry’s only big selling point is a ‘Time Shift’ feature, which captures several photos a few milliseconds before and after you hit the button. You’re then able to stitch elements from these photos together - it’s useful for group photos, where you might have one friend’s eyes open in one photo, but another friend’s grin in another.
The new HTC One mini: small in size, not in power: