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Want a Phone With a Good Camera? Here’s What You Should Know..

You may be a casual smartphone photographer or professional photog on the run — everybody appreciates having a good camera in their phone. Smartphones are making headlines for being able to attain processing speeds as fast as full-fledged computers these days. They now sport 2K displays and are on the verge of replacing point and shoot cameras and even some entry level DSLRs. Smartphones have transformed photography drastically. “Smartphone photography” is now a trend and has lots of followers. They are the best way to be social and are so much more compact and hassle free. While the high-end camera range are still struggling with the idea of a “connected camera” with NFC/WiFi functionality, smartphones are already ahead of its game by having seamless connectivity built-in. A phone camera for most people is the only camera they own. Even pro photographers are starting to mainly use their iPhones for making short-films or photo series.

Since smartphone’s camera specifications are very closely related to DSLRs, let me help you decide on a perfect camera phone by comparing them with the terms that are usually used to judge a DSLR!

For DSLRs, first thing we look at is the size of the sensor  — a large one is better (and costly), smaller ones are for entry level market. Then we move over to lenses — a fast//prime lens has a large aperture while a slower kit lens is not as good. Lastly we look at megapixel count and that’s about it. Features other than these are good to have, but they won’t really make a remarkable difference.

Sensor & Lens

TL;DR

  • Large sensor size (1/2″ or 1/3.15”) will give better quality.

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  • Large pixel size (1.5µm) and Large aperture (f/1.8~ f/2) will give well-lit low light shots and is better to have over high megapixel count.

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  • Slimmer the phone, smaller the sensor size.

FYI

  • Please remember to see the denominator when you’re looking at sensor size, as the lower the denominator, the bigger the sensor size. For e.g, 1/2″ is larger than 1/3.15”.

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  • Aperture is the opening on the lens through which lights travel to the sensor. The larger the diameter, more light travels through the sensor. Since this is a ratio, again a smaller f/ number will indicate a bigger aperture. Meaning, f/2.0 is larger than f/2.2.
  • Larger number of pixel size will denote that pixels are physically bigger, thereby they’re able to capture more details for eg. 1.5µm is greater than 1.2µm.

Camera on phones as of today sport high aperture values (about f/2.0), which gives a good depth of field and bright photos. But, it’s because they don’t have any other option. As the phones get slimmer, manufacturers don’t have enough space to fit a huge sensor in it. They have to go for sizes above 1/2″ to fit into a phone. Large sensors drastically improve the photo quality as seen on phones like the Nokia Lumia 1020 or even the PureView 808 which had bigger 1/1.2” sensors!

Huge sensors make the phone bulky, against today’s trend of slim phones. Manufacturers can’t have large sensors on slim phones and the relatively smaller sensor won’t capture enough detail. Since they have already cut down on the sensor size, they compensate with a fast lens atop. By fast lens, I mean a lens with wide open aperture. Larger the size of the sensor, more information/details it manages to capture. Pixels will be refined and will contain more shadows and depths. Lets talk about small sensors on phones that still manage to capture good images.

Sony are the pioneers when it comes to sensors on slim smartphones these days and they call it Exmor. Other manufacturers don’t boast a Sony Exmor logo, you can only see it on Xperia devices. But the truth is that even the  well-applauded  iPhone runs a Sony sensor within. If you are buying a compact camera phone today, you should definitely opt for a Sony Exmor RS sensor. Exmor RS is twice as sensitive than the regular CMOS sensors. Sony’s IMX 135 and IMX 134 were the most widely used, seen running in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, LG G3, Moto X 2014 and so on. ISX 014 are used on the latest iPhones and they too are based on Exmor RS. For cost cutting, manufacturers opted for a cheaper Exmor R sensor like IMX 214 seen on phones like the OnePlus One and Oppo Find 7. Sony uses the IMX 220 sensor for its home-grown Xperia line up since the Xperia Z1 and they generally churn out the best in class quality. The top of the line Sony sensor today is the IMX 240, which is seen on the Galaxy Note 4.

HTC makes their own sensors, they experimented with a larger pixel size and compensated on megapixel with their UltraPixel technology. It will obviously produce some well lit shots, but it seem to have launched in wrong era as 4K TVs are a norm and good phones at least have 1080p resolution, for which a smaller 4MP resolution seems insufficient.

It will be interesting to wait for IMX 230 as it will come loaded with 4K HDR video recording abilities but right now, the best sensor on a phone is the IMX 240.

Of course you won’t find long optical zoom lenses like you find on DSLR cameras. A few phones have optical zoom but they are a little bulky to carry around. When compared to the software-based digital zoom trickery, optical zoom is a lot better. But if you don’t mind buying a bulky phone, pick one with a large sensor over the one with optical zoom. You can take the photograph in the highest resolution which you can crop in later (Which fulfills zooming). But for that, you need to know about mega pixels.

Megapixels

TL;DR

  • High megapixels will only matter if you have to print posters or if you’re going to be viewing them on a big, high-resolution display or if you prefer cropping and using portions of a large canvas.
  • Do not fall for a phone that has just higher megapixels, but inferior lens features that are mentioned above.

The first camera spec you’d hear about a phone is the number of megapixels it has. You might have read articles about megapixels, but  I’ll quickly explain. Pictures are made of pixels, megapixels are the multiplication of pixels a photo has horizontally and vertically (2016 x 1512 =3048192 = 3MP). Manufacturers boast about it because in layman terms, a higher megapixel rating would translate to better photographs. More megapixels are good to have, provided the rest of the camera modules (like a larger sensor size & large aperture) are also up to the mark. If you are into pixel peeping, phones with large size pixel will help you in low light situations and faster focus. Oppo recently came up with a 50MP equivalent image captured using an 8MP camera. That was a software trick that stitches multiple images. But, again, Nokia’s PureView camera phones like Nokia 1020 or 808 have the highest rated megapixel count for real, and not via software stitching.

You will generally end up with either 8,13 or 20.7 MP camera resolution. While even 8MP photo can be displayed on a 4K resolution display, 20.7MP will be miles better in comparison. You also might want a higher megapixel count to have the freedom to crop your images later.

Auto Focus & Flash Types

Almost all phones above the 7 thousand rupee range have auto focusing capabilities. Some camera software like Apple iPhone’s camera application or HTC Camera also allow user to lock focus and exposure on long pressing an area on the viewfinder. LG recently went a step ahead with Laser auto focus in the LG G3 . A laser focusing system is faster than the traditional auto focus and it is the best focusing system for low light conditions. Upcoming Sony Sensors have features like phase detection focusing which will track focus and give well-balanced (correct exposure) shots.

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If you are looking to be into photography professionally, you would personally not like shooting with the flash on. But it’s always good to have a good flash which might come handy in pitch black conditions where even a wide open aperture won’t help. The last piece of innovation in phone flashes came from Apple with dual tone flash, it was later seen on some HTC phones. The Dual tone setup is comparatively a lot better than a single tone flash. Right now, dual tone flash is the best you can get!

Dedicated shutter button will help you further remove the shake from hand and you won’t struggle to use the touch screen. Xperia devices have a two-step shutter button which is used to focus with half press and capture on full press. A dedicated shutter button will also help to quickly launch the camera (even from the lock screen).

I personally feel Sony Xperia phones have an upper hand over other phones with perks like the IMX220 sensor, dedicated shutter button and a good UI to use.

Stabilization

Even after having a top-notch hardware, chances are that you end up with shaky/blurry images. That is generally because of a missing optical image stabilization module or poor digital stabilization. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS, here on) mechanically stabilizes the camera module by getting data from numerous sensors on the phone like gravity sensor and accelerometer. It will help you get a sharp shot in most conditions. OIS can also help take better low light shots by keeping the aperture open for longer, thereby allowing more light to be captured. Keeping the aperture open for too long in a non-OIS camera will result in a blurrier shot, since our hands aren’t as stable. Thus, although not a requirement, OIS is a good-to-have feature that you could consider in your next smart phone.

Video

Since we are talking about stabilized videos, video might also be one of your need apart from photography. Most phones today shoot at 1080p, but you might find a high-end device that is capable of 4K recording and slow-motion 720p. iPhone 6 Plus tops my list with accurate image stabilization and the best slow motion video capabilities. Note 4 also records some sharp 4K footage with impressive software functionalities. Although not available at the time of writing, Sony will have interesting features in its upcoming sensors in 2015 like HDR in 4K!

Software

  • Let’s start with stock Android. The default camera application you get on Android Lollipop is the Google Camera. It is a simple application that does not let you do much but to focus and switch to HDR Mode. Shooting in HDR is typically slower than taking a regular shot, as it takes multiple shots in different exposures and blends them to give a balanced shot irrespective of the lighting. It lets you take Photosphere and Panoramas and does a really good job to process the same. It gives simple interface that lets you focus more on shooting rather than fiddling with the settings and thats about it. Newer API provide an option to shoot in Digital Negative (.DNG) RAW format but we haven’t seen an implementation in the app. Something that comes close to experience of Google Camera is the Xperia Camera App which offers same functionality and every other add-on can be installed or uninstalled from the Play Store.

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  • Nokia Pro Camera is next on my list. It allows you to use the 41MP sensor to its fullest potential and lets you control various manual aspects like Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO and white balance. It is always good to have these manual controls as they eventually get you a perfect shot. HTC Sense Camera application is a personal favorite as it allows me to have the same level of tweaking like the Pro Camera , but on the Android platform. HTC has some good hardware and their software is just fantastic for most aspiring photographers. You can control the focus but sadly there is no option to control the aperture.

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  • Cyanogen Camera is the next best thing that lets you shoot RAW on some phones that support it. But just shooting RAW is not all, it is downright easy to use the UI and its a matter of flicking up and down to change shooting modes, if you are a fan of effects. It does not let you fine tune controls like adjusting shutter or aperture. You can however download a third-party app known as L Camera that allows you to shoot in RAW right now if your phone is running Android Lollipop. That is experimental application and we won’t recommend you to use unstable version of it.

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With all these facts, you have the guidelines for the things that you need to see, to gauge the camera on your next smart phone. But these are of course just numbers on a spec-sheet, the actual quality also lies in the art of taking a good photograph. Once you have jot down on the device, you can look for photos samples from actual users, on sites like Flickr’s Camera List.

So there you have it! I hope I have busted lot of your camera related jargons. If you have any doubts, send me a tweet at @SwizzleKhan.

Saif Khan

Saif is an autodidact techie and ninja photo-video guy who works for PriceBaba and rhythmic focus. He loves to jolt down his views about tech occasionally. Say Hi to him at @SwizzleKhan on Twitter!

7 Comments

    • Miguel
    • April 1, 2015

    Nice article about smartphone cameras, just wanted to make a correction, the 8MP sensors are generally in 4:3 format and 4K displays are 16:9 so when viewing one of this 8MP image on a 4K display it ends with some black bars on each side because it has not enough horizontal resolution to fill all display pixels.
    I have been enjoying nice HDR+ photos from my Nexus 5 but when I plugged a 4K TV to my computer I started to feel 8MP in 4:3 format is not enough..
    Now I’m waiting for first phone with IMX230 (and OIS) because I think 4K+HDR is going to be a game changer, but on the other hand the Galaxy S6 is very tempting too, it’s just a pity it can’t do both 4K and HDR at the same time…

    Reply
    • Ashok
    • June 25, 2015

    Excellent article. Nice to learn so many things.

    Reply
    • Zeeshan Akhtar
    • August 9, 2015

    Very nice article… Thanx..

    Reply
    • Krishh
    • September 28, 2015

    This is the best article I’ve read, being both technical and easily understandable.

    Reply
    • Ednan Ayub
    • September 28, 2015

    Good info. But quality of even 8.0 cam differs a lot among oem.

    Reply
    • francesco
    • December 13, 2015

    Actually ImX214 is Exmor RS too
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exmor

    Reply
    • Tele
    • July 8, 2016

    How can you say such silly thing that a smartphone can replace a DSLR.
    A DSLR has a huuuuuge sensor compared to a smartphone’s one, and a DSLR have a changeable big lens, (actually lens-system). The difference in the sensor/pixel size makes a big difference in noise especially in low light, and the lens make a big difference in focusing and in lens-distortions and lens-abberations. Don’t mentioning many other things, like white balancing, exposition, shutter speeds, aperture settings…so on, the list is very long. People say silly things, like smartphone replaces DSLR, or tablets replace home PC. No, not true at all.
    Made for different purposes.
    Nice post anyway, sorry for being critical.

    Reply

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