Which smartphone has the best camera?

Top of the line smartphone cameras now boast specs that rival compacts. The difference is that you get a phone thrown in for good measure and making the decision which one to buy is a difficult, particularly for those not quite persuaded by the supposed 1080p and 8-megapixel goodness that all the top handsets claim. As such it’s about time to pick the best of the bunch with a cameraphone shootout.

We conducted the test using three separate images that push the sensor in different ways. First was something in bright light to check how well the sensor held onto detail when there was a lot of pure white flying about. It also helps to show what colour, contrast and dynamic range the camera is capable of.

The second shot was in low light and used for examining things like noise, blacks and dynamic range. Finally, we did a close up shot to look at macro capabilities and threw in a video round as well.

Each of the tests were performed at the same time under the exact same conditions and the results were cropped to 1000px on the long side. All smartphones were setup to do everything automatically and no flash was used.

Detail & Resolution

1st: Nokia Lumia 800
Best clarity in dog's fur
2nd: iPhone 4S
Crisp but a touch soft
3rd: Galaxy S II
Suffers slightly from over sharpening
4th: iPhone 4
Lack of megapixels shows
5th: Xperia Arc S
Too soft
6th: Galaxy Nexus
No clarity in fur
7th: HTC Sensation
Very soft

The amount of detail every camera managed to pick out was quite frankly staggering. For mobile phones, we couldn't believe the amount of definition being pulled out of images. Concentrating on the sharpness on the fur of the dog (Senna) around its eye, the Lumia just managed to claim the victory here. The more balanced exposure definitely helped, but we felt that Nokia's camera just did a better job at picking out each individual hair. Special mention does need to be given to the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II, both of which performed admirably.

Winner: Nokia Lumia 800

In terms of resolution, virtually every phone used came with an 8-megapixel sensor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that pictures will be clearer or more defined, just that you will have a bigger file size to play with once you take the image off your camera. The Lumia, despite being hampered by Windows Phone 7’s lack of 1080p video recording, still displayed beautiful pics in the stills department. Again the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II were both very close. What pushed the others lower down the table was the lack of clarity and quality that appeared when we started to zoom in on a computer screen. The HTC in particular appeared to misbehave quite badly, despite having just as many megapixels as the competition.

Colour & Dynamic Range

1st: iPhone 4S
Outstanding balance and tone
2nd: iPhone 4
Good balance of colour
3rd: Galaxy S II
A tad too blue
4th: HTC Sensation
Performs well in right conditions
5th: Xperia Arc S
Slightly grey
6th: Nokia Lumia
No pop at all
7th: Galaxy Nexus
Most drab of the lot

The colour and dynamic range is usually one of the best tests of a camera's worth. A top of the range SLR or medium format film camera will have a huge dynamic range and be capable of turning out diverse and colourful images with good detail in both the high and low areas of exposure.

With a mobile phone you wouldn’t expect performance even close to an SLR. Most suffer from the scourge of flat imagery and tend to turn out pictures that just don’t pop in any way, that or they are the complete opposite and saturation makes for a blown out and inaccurate shot.

A lot of this section is down to the code running behind each camera and the re-written tech for the iPhone 4S makes it a standout winner. Of all the shots we took, this was the only one we could see where one outshone the competition by a long way. Its image was so much more rich in contrast, less grey and incredibly balanced in tone compared to everything else.

Winner: iPhone 4S

Following up behind was a grey brigade of handsets, helped no doubt by the lovely winter weather we were having at the time. The iPhone 4 still retained a few skills from its bigger brother but, ultimately, it just wasn’t as good. The Galaxy S II showed real promise, particularly in the rich browns of the doors in the block of flats, but, again, it left everything looking slightly too blue for us.

The Sensation’s shot here proved that, in the right conditions, it could still perform well. While not quite as balanced as the Galaxy S II’s, there was a definite richness of colour which we liked.

The Arc S, Lumia and Nexus all fell into the trap of creating very flat images. The lack of dynamic range in each shot makes it immediately apparent that they are just mobile phone cameras. As such we ranked each according to which managed more colour from the shot.

Noise

1st: iPhone 4S
Good exposure results in low noise
2nd: Nokia Lumia
Deals very well with difficult lighting
3rd: Galaxy S II 
Holds onto a lot of detail
4th: iPhone 4
A tad noisy
5th: Xperia Arc S
Slightly softened from noise cancelling
6th: HTC Sensation
Far too soft
7th: Galaxy Nexus
Too much grain to be usable

Noise is a really important factor in a mobile phone camera as most of the time they are used in low light situations. Say, for example, you are out in a club or in a bar with friends in the evening. We know normally you would use a flash but it's simply not good enough any any mobile phone at the moment, so there's little point in testing with it on or using it at all, on the whole.

Winner: iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S’s exposure management helped it claim the win in this section. A properly exposed shot meant a lot less noise in the dark sections of the image and it also made the picture look cleaner. The Lumia was also very close. It was the only other camera to retain the correct colours of the wood floor in low light while still keeping the noise level down and not over softening the image.

The Galaxy S II definitely tried and its noise performance is very good but the shot just doesn’t hold the right colour. The iPhone 4 suffers in a similar way, as does the Xperia Arc S. It's only really the Sensation and Nexus that disappoint, both a little too smooth and noisy.

Usability

1st: iPhone 4S
Super fast camera app
2nd: Galaxy Nexus
User friendly but adaptable
3rd:Nokia Lumia
Best in class ease of use
4th: Xperia Arc S
Great photo browser
5th: iPhone 4
Not quite speedy enough
6th: Galaxy S II 
Rather clunky app
7th: HTC Sensation
Unfriendly UI

A lot of this section is down to the individual and what he/she wants from a camera application. Some want nothing more than a means to simply take photos, others want all sorts of in-camera editing and image trickery. Personally we think a balance between the two is best and for that reason we gave this category to the iPhone 4S.

The speed that the 4S’s camera app booted up, coupled with the post production improvements implemented in iOS 5, made it a joy to use. The only reason the iPhone 4 isn’t so high up is simply because its camera app can’t boot as quickly.

The Galaxy Nexus implements Google’s new Ice Cream Sandwich camera app which was the best on the Android side by a long way. The speed at which photos are recorded is staggering, as is how the video is ripped onto the handset. A simple app with a bit of the Android customisation that many know and love.

Winner: iPhone 4S

The Lumia proved to be a real turn up for the books in this test. Then again everyone knows Nokia can make a good camera. Windows Phone 7’s approach to photography might be a bit bare bones but then it’s hard to argue with its quick and easy way of snapping. We also liked the way that captured images can be quickly scrolled through from within the camera app just by swiping left or right.

The lower end of this list contains mostly Android phones with their own skinned camera apps. Sony Ericsson has done a good job with the Arc S of letting you easily shoot and navigate and the app loads very quickly. Focus and image recording also seems to be lightning quick. It's also worth noting that HTC's camera app is much improved over the likes of the Sensation XL and XE thanks to the Sense 3.5 UI.

In all, the phones performed well. They all did brilliantly, it just so happens the iPhone 4S was that little bit better.

Video

1st: iPhone 4S
Some issues but ahead of competition
2nd= iPhone 4
Not as vibrant but still good
2nd= Nokia Lumia
No wobble detail not so good
4th: HTC Sensation
Good colour and detail, bit wobbly
5th: Arc S
Tad soft and wobbly but nice colour
6th: Galaxy S II
Lack of detail
7th: Galaxy Nexus
Lack of detail and nasty effect when panning

1080p is definitely the buzz word in this section. Most are looking to proper HD video when going for a flagship smartphone. Do not be fooled, however, high resolution video does not necessarily mean quality.

The majority of handsets here are marred by rather nasty image wobble when you move the camera, something the Lumia does not really suffer from. The iPhone 4S does admittedly have a bit of judder, but then so do all the others, the reason it wins is because of its exposure and colour management. Ultimately, this is what matters in a phone camera as they're typically used for quick fire capturing of moments and to get the smooth shot you either have to take a hit on the detail, as with the Lumia, or go for a dedicated device instead.

Winner: iPhone 4S

The Sensation and Arc S at least managed some decent colour rendition. Their issues were struggling to expose properly and suffering from a slight image wobble. It was only really the Samsungs that let the side down. The Galaxy S II was flat, missed lots of detail and had exposure problems, but the Galaxy Nexus was nigh on abysmal. The colour was a shade better in general, but there was a bad effect when changing directions at the end of a pan. You get both a bending and also a bubbling of the perspective too and even a change in the colour when it happens. Not nice at all.

Verdict

1st: iPhone 4S
A cut above by quite a long way
2nd= iphone 4
Bit noisy and missing MPs but otherwise good
2nd= Nokia Lumia
Disappointing colour but great elsewhere
2nd= galaxy S II
Solid if a bit flawed on the video side
5th: Xperia Arc S
Some great points but ultimately not quite there
6th: htc sensation
Video decent, the rest not
7th: galaxy nexus
Good app but the rest shocking

Picking a winner here is relatively difficult. Just about every phone did better than we thought it would. The bright light tests in particular surprised us with many of the shots able to compete with an entry-level compact.

That said, turn the conditions against them and it soon sorted the sheep from the goats. The iPhone 4S placed just a cut above everything else on the whole. Whatever we threw at it, colour and exposure would always be maintained. The video, image quality, detail and resolution was also outstanding, as is the actual camera app itself.

Below that, there was a clutch of three that was hard to separate. The iPhone 4 still held its own really well on key areas of image quality and in the video as well, but it's easy to see why and how the camera unit was redesigned for the later Apple smartphone. The Lumia was generally excellent which is great to see from Nokia. Were the colour better, it wouldn't have been far behind the iPhone 4S at all, and had the Galaxy S II performed better on the video side, it might well have seen a better placing too.

Slightly in no-man's-land was the Xperia Arc S which was basically okay. It does the job in fairly unspectacular fashion. It won't let you down but it won't excite either. The biggest disappointments of all though, were the efforts of the HTC Sensation and the Galaxy Nexus. Both continually underperformed unless given ideal lighting conditions.

Thanks to Vodafone for lending us a Nokia Lumia and Galaxy Nexus for this one. Also cheers to Sony Ericsson for the Xperia Arc S and to Three for the HTC Sensation

What do you think? Which phone sports the best camera? Let us know in the comments below... 



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