Digital cameras are everywhere these days. They're built into smartphones and tablets, laptops and even cars. You probably own several cameras, whether that's a top-notch DSLR, a camcorder or a plain old compact.
However, as someone wise once said, the best camera is the one that's with you. And the device you have to hand most often is your smartphone. That means you're far more likely to end up capturing the moment with your phone than with your expensive DSLR or HD camcorder.
Fortunately, smartphone cameras have come a long way from those first snappers built into feature phones. No doubt you remember the terrible photos and video they took: smudgy, low-resolution pictures that were ridden with noise and smeary videos where you could barely tell one person from another.
But would you choose your next smartphone based on the quality of its camera? For some people, it's one of the top priorities, so we've tested six of the best smartphones to find out how their cameras cope in the real world, taking photos and videos of real people.
What we haven't done is to choose phones because of their cameras. You won't find the Nokia 808 PureView because no-one in their right mind would opt for a phone with a dated Symbian operating system just because it has a 41-megapixel camera.
Instead, we've rounded up six smartphones that most people would consider the best out there, and tested their cameras to find out whether any one stands out from the crowd. Note that our tests were carried out on the main (rear) camera only.
Best phone camera: index
Read on to see all of our best phone camera reviews. Or click the links below to dive straight to your favourite phone or our conclusion.
- iPhone 5 & BlackBerry Z10 cameras tested
- Nexus 4 & Lumia 720 cameras tested
- Galaxy S4 & Sony Xperia Z cameras tested
- Best phone camera: conclusion
Best phone camera: Smartphone vs dedicated digital camera
Regardless of the photo and video quality, no smartphone can truly compete with a dedicated digital camera or camcorder. For a start, no smartphone (certainly none here) has a zoom lens.
Don't be fooled by digital zoom as this is nothing more than cropping: chopping out the centre portion of the image and enlarging it. It's merely zooming in on the captured image and doesn't reveal any more detail than the un-cropped, un-zoomed image. Digital zoom does nothing you couldn't do to a photo (or video) in an editing application on your computer.
What you get with a proper zoom (an optical zoom) is movable lenses which capture more detail when you zoom in. Sometimes this is the only way to get closer to the action, as you can't physically walk closer. The only thing you can do with a smartphone is to clip on a special lens (such as the Olloclip for the iPhone) but it's no substitute for an adjustable zoom lens.
You shouldn't ignore handling, either. Smartphones might have large screens which act as high-resolution viewfinders, but it's tricky to get a good grip on their thin bodies when taking a photo. Some don't have a shutter release button, so you have to tap the screen, and it can be all too easy to cover up the lens with your finger or thumb. In bright sunlight, a smartphone's screen can be hard to see, so you may not even notice you're obscuring the lens.
Controls and settings are also lacking on most smartphones. Compared to a dedicated camera, you'll find a fraction of the options on a smartphone. Some offer focus or exposure lock when you tap the screen, and some might give you control over ISO or some preset scene modes, but most are completely automatic: you point and shoot. You're very unlikely to find control over aperture or shutter speed, but you might find creative features such as panorama and time lapse modes.
Another disadvantage with a smartphone camera is its tiny lens. This lets in far less light than a big lens, so photos and videos can end up with lots of noise, which either makes them look grainy, or noise-reduction techniques scrub out detail and leave everything looking smeary or smudgy, especially indoors or at night.
Some smartphones have LED flashes (which sometimes double as a video light) but these are again no substitute for the real thing. LEDs may look bright, but they're not nearly as bright as a traditional flash and usually light up only people or objects very close to the phone.
While all this might sound like doom and gloom for smartphone cameras, it's not all that bad. As long as you don't expect too much, you'll be pleasantly surprised how good the results can be.
Turn to the next page for our first two smartphone camera reviews, the iPhone 5 and BlackBerry Z10 >>