Best phone camera

Which smartphone has the best camera? We test six of the best smartphones' cameras to find out.

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.

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 >>

We put six smartphone cameras to the test to answer the question: what's the best phone camera?

Best phone camera: Apple iPhone 5

  • Sensor size: 1/3.2in
  • Megapixels: 8
  • Resolution: 3264x2448
  • Video: 1920x1080, 30fps, MOV (Mono audio @ 64Kbps)
  • Aperture: f/2.4
  • Focal length: 4.1mm (31mm equivalent)
  • Flash: One LED
  • Stabilisation: electronic
  • Geotagging: yes

iPhone 5 rear camera

The cameras on iPhones and iPads have been hit and miss, but the iPhone 5 has the best pair yet. The main camera on the rear has the same back-illuminated 8Mp resolution as the 4S and, in truth, there's little difference between the two (the shorter focal length means the 5 has a slightly wider angle of view).

Few people will need to print poster-sized images from their smartphone, so 8Mp is fine. The default camera app has few features - you can't change the quality of photos or videos, for example, but you can display a grid, enable HDR or panorama modes. It also has face detection and you can choose the focus/exposure point by tapping and holding somewhere in the viewfinder.

An interesting fact about the iPhone 5 is that in extremely low light, the sensor switches to a mode where four pixels are combined into one in order to provide an effective increase of 2 f-stops. What that means is that photos taken in this mode will have a much lower resolution, but won't be as noisy.

Taking photos on the iPhone 5 isn't as easy as it could be because there's no dedicated shutter button, but you can use the volume up button instead of the on-screen button.

iPHONE 5 PHOTO QUALITY:

In most circumstances, the iPhone 5 does a great job. As long as there's enough light, photos are sharp and have good colour depth and tone. The HDR mode improves the dynamic range (useful when you have a dark subject and a bright background) but isn't great if people are moving around in the photo.

In general, the iPhone captures motion well when HDR is disabled, as long as there's plenty of light. That means it's good for kids and sports.

Like all smartphones, it struggles in low light. However, in our tests, the iPhone 5 managed to capture sharp images with a surprising amount of detail.

Panoramas require a steady hand, but it's possible to get excellent results with a bit of practice.

iPHONE 5 TEST SHOTS

Click the displayed images to see these crops at full size. Click the links below to download the full images.

iPhone 5 outdoor

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iPhone 5 outdoor

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iPHONE 5 VIDEO QUALITY:

Like the iPhone's photos, videos have nice, natural colours and plenty of detail. The electronic stabilisation does a great job, but can be a bit jerky if you're intentionally panning the camera vertically (and you can't switch this off).

One of the best things is the rear-mounted microphone which does a much better job of recording what's happening in front of the camera than other smartphones. However, it's a shame audio is in mono and at 64Kbps (though it doesn't sound highly compressed).

While shooting video, you can tap the on-screen photo button to capture stills - a handy feature.

iPHONE 5 TEST CLIP:



Best phone camera: BlackBerry Z10

  • Sensor size: 1/3in
  • Megapixels: 8
  • Resolution: 3264x1836
  • Video: 1920x1080, 30fps, MP4 (Mono audio @ 192Kbps)
  • Aperture: f/2.2
  • Focal length: 4mm (31mm equivalent)
  • Flash: One LED
  • Stabilisation: Electronic
  • Geotagging: yes

BlackBerry 10 rear camera

Like the iPhone 5, the BlackBerry Z10's rear camera has an 8Mp back-illuminated sensor. It has electronic stabilisation which can handle four degrees of movement to help keep your pictures sharp.

The headline feature, though, is TimeShift which shoots a burst of photos in order to allow you to scroll forwards or backwards in time. This means you can open someone's eyes to avoid a blink, and you can select each face in the shot individually and choose the best one without altering the rest of the photo. Clever stuff.

It's thanks to some dedicated memory and an image processor, which also allows the Z10 to shoot continuously at 5 frames per second.

We like that the entire screen is used as a viewfinder, and that you can drag the focus point to where you want it and then tap anywhere to take a photo. The volume button can also be used as a shutter release.

It's a shame there are no HDR or panorama modes, and that face detection works only in timeshift mode. Another gripe is that the camera doesn't wait for the auto-focus - it just takes a photo when you tap.

BLACKBERRY Z10 PHOTO QUALITY:

Outdoors in good light, the Z10 takes pretty good photos. Most of our shots were well exposed, sharp (right to the corners) and had good levels of detail. Dynamic range is lacking, though, with detail lost in dark areas.

Viewing at 100 percent, compression artefacts are visible, but that's the case with most smartphones.

In dim light, the Z10 doesn't fare too badly. As long as you have steady hands you can largely avoid blur, but the dreaded noise tends to obliterate detail.  

BLACKBERRY Z10 TEST SHOTS:

Click the displayed images to see these crops at full size. Click the links below to download the full images.

BlackBerry Z10 indoors

Download BlackBerry_Z10_indoor.jpg

BlackBerry Z10 outdoors

Download BlackBerry_Z10_Outdoor.jpg

BLACKBERRY Z10 VIDEO QUALITY:

The Z10 is capable of great video quality. There's lots of detail and footage is nice and sharp, too. Colours are a bit oversaturated for our liking and, despite stabilisation, there's still some camera shake evident in the clips we took. Audio quality is good, though, and overall there's not a lot to choose between the Z10 and iPhone 5.

BLACKBERRY Z10 TEST CLIP:

Keep reading to find out about the Nexus 4 and Lumia 720's cameras >>

We continue our quest to find the best phone camera with tests of the Nexus 4 and the Lumia 720.



Best phone camera: Google Nexus 4

  • Sensor size: Not stated
  • Megapixels: 8
  • Resolution: 3264x2448
  • Video: 1920x1080, 30fps, MP4 (Mono audio @ 96Kbps)
  • Aperture: f/2.4
  • Focal length: 5mm
  • Flash: One LED
  • Stabilisation:  No
  • Geotagging: yes

Nexus 4 rear camera

For an inexpensive smartphone, the Nexus 4 can still fight with the big boys (on paper) when it comes to its main camera. It's another 8Mp snapper, capable of shooting 1080p video too.

Crucially, the Jelly Bean 4.2 OS brings with it an updated camera interface. This is much easier to use than before, and also introduces a raft of new settings.

Features include face detection, smile detection, exposure compensation, ISO control, white balance presets, a continuous shooting mode, HDR and panorama modes (Photosphere allows you to capture a full 360-degree scene in all directions), scene modes and effects and even voice activation.

The Nexus 4 also has a powerful photo editor for enhancing your shots. What it lacks, however, is any kind of stabilisation, so you'll need steady hands especially in dimly lit rooms.

Another mark against the Google phone is that is takes a long time to focus compared with more expensive smartphones such as the iPhone 5. At least it's relatively fast to take a photo even when your phone is locked, as the camera app is available from the lock screen.

NEXUS 4 PHOTO QUALITY:

For an inexpensive smartphone, the Nexus 4 takes reasonable photos with natural colours which aren't oversaturated. However, closer inspection reveals plenty of flaws.

Even outdoors in good light, noise and compression artefacts spoiled details and left fine textures looking smeared and blurred. Faces weren't exempt from this and took on a plastic-like sheen.

It low light, detail levels were worse as expected – leaving photos looking soft - but noise levels weren't too bad. Overall, it really doesn't compare with the Samsung Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5.

NEXUS 4 TEST SHOTS:

Click the displayed images to see these crops at full size. Click the links below to download the full images.

NEXUS 4 indoors

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NEXUS 4 outdoors

Download Google_Nexus_4_Outdoor.jpg

NEXUS 4 VIDEO QUALITY:

Anyone hoping to use their Nexus 4 as a replacement for a camcorder will ultimately be disappointed. 1080p footage lacks detail and is also highly compressed (a paltry 12Mbps). It looks fairly sharp, but that's merely down to an aggressive sharpening algorithm, rather than lots of resolved detail. Plus, as there's no stabilisation, video can be quite shaky. Audio is also relatively disappointing for similar reasons: it sounds highly compressed, despite having a 96Kbps bitrate.

NEXUS 4 TEST CLIP:



Best phone camera: Nokia Lumia 720

  • Sensor size: 1/3.4in
  • Megapixels: 6.7
  • Resolution: 3088x1744
  • Video: 1280x720, 30fps, MP4 (Mono audio @ 96Kbps)
  • Aperture: f/1.9
  • Focal length: Not stated (26mm equivalent)
  • Flash: One LED
  • Stabilisation: No
  • Geotagging: yes

Lumia 720 rear camera

Although the Lumia 720 has a 6.7Mp sensor rather than 8Mp, which some smartphones have, it isn't a big disadvantage as the sensor is roughly the same size. It's also paired with a Carl Zeiss-branded lens which has a big aperture of f/1.9 - good for letting in lots of light.

Another bonus is the two-stage, dedicated shutter button. Like a 'real' camera, it means you can half-press the button to focus the shot before fully pressing to take the photo.

As you'd expect, you can touch anywhere to select the focus point. Other features include auto and manual exposure, and both auto and manual white balance.

If you're not familiar with Nokia's range of Windows Phone 8 smartphones, you might not know about the add-on mini apps for the camera which are called 'lenses'. Smart Shoot, for example, takes five shots in a burst and lets you choose the best one. Another is panorama, and yet another is Cinemagraph which lets you add moving elements to still photos - a nice novelty.

Some of these lenses aren't free, though, and it's disappointing that panorama and HDR modes aren't part of the main camera app.

Another slight issue is that it can capture only 720p video, although it does so at 30fps.

LUMIA 720 PHOTO QUALITY:

Outdoors, the Lumia is capable of delivering sharp, well exposed shots. Detail levels weren't noticeably worse than the best smartphone cameras, and apart from the common compression artefacts and a little noise, they are almost on a par with the iPhone 5.

In dim light, the 720 is too keen to use its LED flash. This makes colours look unnatural and doesn't really help to boost detail levels. Although our test shots were mostly sharp, look at the 100 percent view and you'll see that noise reduction has taken its toll on detail levels, giving everything a soft-focus effect.

LUMIA 720 TEST SHOTS:

Click the displayed images to see these crops at full size. Click the links below to download the full images.

Lumia 720 indoors

Download Lumia_720_Indoor.jpg

Lumia 720 outdoors

Download Lumia_720_Outdoor.jpg

LUMIA 720 VIDEO QUALITY:

As you'd expect, video quality is one of the Lumia 720's weaker points. The reduced detail compared to smartphones that shoot in 1080p is noticeable. Compression artefacts also blight image quality and colours are oversaturated, unless you like your videos to look super-vibrant. Audio quality doesn't shore up the weak pictures much: the mono soundtrack is passable but certainly not the best sound available from a phone. The only real saving grace is the wide-angle view so you don't have to step back as far as with an iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4 to fit your subject into the frame.

LUMIA 720 TEST VIDEO:

Turn the page to find out how good are the cameras of the Galaxy S4 and the Xperia Z >>

What's the best phone camera? We take a look at the Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z.



Best phone camera: Samsung Galaxy S4

  • Sensor size: 1/3in
  • Megapixels: 13
  • Resolution: 4128x3096
  • Video resolution:  1920x1080, 30fps, MP4 (Stereo audio @ 128Kbps)
  • Aperture: f/2.2
  • Focal length: 4mm (31mm equivalent)
  • Flash: One LED
  • Stabilisation:  electronic
  • Geotagging: yes

Galaxy S4 rear camera

If a great camera is one of your priorities when choosing a smartphone, no doubt the Galaxy S4's 13Mp rear snapper has piqued your interest. It's not the highest resolution to be found on a smartphone (that would be Noka's 808 Pure View with 41Mp) but it's considerably more than most.

Plus, the camera app gives you a level of control normally found only on higher-end compact cameras. If you so desire, you can manually select ISO sensitivity, metering mode, white balance and exposure. The menus let you enable or disable face detection, framing guidelines, flash, continuous shooting and a timer - useful for group shots in which you want to be included.

Like the iPhone 5, you can take photos while shooting video, and there's electronic stabilisation.

Samsung has added extra features such as Dual Shot which allows you to overlay a photo of your face (taken with the front camera) on another taken simultaneously with the rear camera. Sound & Shot lets you record a comment with a still photo (like old digital cameras used to) and Drama Shot takes a sequence of photos and merges them into one frame.

Voice control means you can take a photo or start a video without touching the phone, and an enhanced geo-tagging mode notes the exact location (such as a street name) and the weather at the time of the photo. There's also a selection of scene presets to play with.

Best Photo and Best Face lets you pick from a series of images captured in quick succession - it's similar to the BlackBerry Z10's TimeShift.

GALAXY S4 PHOTO QUALITY:

The Galaxy S4 is pretty much in a class of its own when it comes to photos. Although it can't compare to a DSLR, it will give most compact digital cameras a good run for their money. Our test shots were well exposed and had an impressive detail levels. Noise was all but absent as were compression artefacts.

Even fine details were resolved and colours were accurate, too.

The only weakness was in dim light where the S4 struggled to deliver sharp shots and even when there was no movement, photos looked soft.

GALAXY S4 TEST SHOTS:

Click the displayed images to see these crops at full size. Click the links below to download the full images.

Galaxy S4 indoors

Download Galaxy_s4_indoor.jpg

Galaxy S4 outdoor

Download Galaxy_s4_outdoor.jpg

GALAXY S4 VIDEO QUALITY:

As well as shooting standard 1080p video, the S4 has slow- and fast-motion modes for getting creative. In our tests, the S4 produced videos that were both sharp and stable. Colours were pleasingly accurate and a real bonus is the good-quality stereo sound (the S3 and S2 also record in stereo), although the lack of a rear-mounted mic means it can be hard to hear what the people you're recording are saying in noisy environments.

GALAXY S4 TEST CLIP:



Best phone camera: Sony Xperia Z

  • Sensor size: 1/3in
  • Megapixels: 13.1
  • Resolution: 4128x3096
  • Video:  1080p, 30fps, MP4 (Stereo audio @ 96Kbps)
  • Aperture: f/2.4
  • Focal length: 4mm (28mm equivalent)
  • Flash: One LED
  • Stabilisation:  electronic
  • Geotagging: yes

Xperia Z rear camera

With 13.1 megapixels, the Sony Xperia Z matches the Samsung Galaxy S4 for rear camera resolution. Its lens has a slightly smaller aperture, but the two are pretty equally matched on paper.

The 5in Full HD screen makes it easy to compose photos, and the high resolution means you can see whether photos are in focus or not (the Samsung Galaxy S4 also has a 5in 1920x1080 screen, though).

Unfortunately, there's no dedicated shutter button as on some previous Xperia models, and the volume buttons control the digital zoom, so you have to tap the screen to take every single photo.

The camera app itself is easy to use with big buttons, and it's available from the lock screen. You get a menu system similar to Sony's compact digital cameras, and there's plenty on offer. Continuous shooting (at 10fps), HDR, sweep panorama, effects and scene presets are easily accessed, but it's a shame the app always launches in the 'Superior auto' mode rather than Normal.

You can select the focus and metering mode, white balance and exposure correction, and there's a handy self-timer. Smile detection and stabilisation can be turned on or off.

XPERIA Z PHOTO QUALITY:

We expected good things from the Xperia Z, but our test photos left us disappointed. Outdoor images often suffered from a hazy look and weren't as sharp as we'd have liked. Excessive noise also spoiled pictures, even though detail levels weren't bad at all.

In dimmer light, photos looked reasonably sharp until you zoom in and view them at 100 percent. Here, noise - and the effects of noise reduction - were big problems and left textures with no detail at all in some areas. For example, the lines between tiles on the floor in St Pancras station disappeared entirely.

XPERIA Z TEST SHOTS:

Click the displayed images to see these crops at full size. Click the links below to download the full images.

Xperia Z indoors

Download Xperia_Z_Indoor.jpg

Xperia Z outdoors

Download Xperia_Z_Outdoor.jpg

XPERIA Z VIDEO QUALITY:

The Xperia Z's videos weren't on a par with the Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5, either. Although the stabilisation is good, detail levels were noticeably worse than the other two. It's worth noting, though, that the Xperia Z shoots video at a much wider angle than the Galaxy S4.  Colours are fairly muted, but you can increase saturation in a video editor, of course. Audio quality is decent, and the Sony records in stereo like the Galaxy S4.

XPERIA Z TEST CLIP:

Over the page we reach a conclusion and answer the question: what is the best phone camera?

What's the best phone camera? We explain all...

BEST PHONE CAMERA CONCLUSION

Although we weren't expecting a clear winner, Samsung's Galaxy S4 really does stand head and shoulders above the competition for both photo and video quality. The fact that its video has stereo sound is the icing on the cake.

Plus, Samsung also provides lots of options and creative shooting modes, making the S4 the best choice if you're choosing a smartphone based on its ability to double as a digital camera.

The iPhone 5 is still a robust choice, producing decent-quality photos in most situations and sharp, good-looking video. Although it records only mono audio, the fact that there's a microphone next to the camera lens means you can better hear what people are saying, without the distraction of other background noise.

If you're not set on an Android or iOS device, BlackBerry's Z10 is a solid choice. We like the Blackberry 10 operating system and the Z10's camera is also capable of good quality photos and videos.

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