Every phone has a camera these days, but not all cameras are created equal. If you’re planning on carrying a camera in your pocket, here’s what to consider before shelling out your cash.
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[related title=”2014 Smartphone Guide” tag=”smartphone-buying-guide-2014″ items=”3″]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 last year, but plenty of new phones have arrived since then, and it’s worth knowing exactly what each phone’s hardware is capable of.
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 the HTC One M8’s Ultrapixel camera by making the pixels on the sensor larger.
The iPhone 5s’ sensor and the HTC One M8’s sensor are both 1/3″ in size, but the iPhone has a pixel size of 5µm, whereas the HTC One M8 has 2µm. Larger pixels means more light, which means better low-light photos.
Despite the fact that it loses the numbers game to some of its Android rivals, 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.
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 S5 is a brilliant performer, with a 16-megapixel camera (versus the 13-megapixel camera on its predecessor) which also packs in a beautiful wide lens.
The camera on the Galaxy Note III is a slightly lower 13-megapixels, but it can record close to 4K video at 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 M8 and One M7 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 Z2 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).
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, Nokia owns the scene following a buy-out by Microsoft. Despite the fact that Nokia is more or less the only player in the Windows Phone space, Lumia is the final word on camera phone technology. It’s that is really owning the smartphone camera arms race right now — the Lumia 930, Lumia 1520 and the still unbeatable 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.