Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

9th Oct 2014 | 17:23

Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

What's the top cameraphone on the market?

Introduction

This article is currently undergoing a huge overhaul with all the best cameraphones from 2014 - while we put the top snappers through their paces, here's the run down of what we'll be including:

  • iPhone 6 Plus
  • Sony Xperia Z3
  • HTC One M8
  • Samsung Note 4
  • Nokia Lumia 1020
  • Samsung Galaxy K Zoom
  • LG G3

The new and fancy update will be published as soon as we've added the Note 4 into our testing process - stay tuned!

Smartphone cameras have transformed photography. Almost everyone has a camera with them all the time now, which means that there's little need to buy a separate digital camera: smartphones have effectively killed off the market for low-range standalone digital cameras, and for an increasing number of people, their smartphone is their only camera.

But is your smartphone camera really up to the job? While the resolution and performance of smartphone cameras has steadily improved, the specifications show that smartphones are still inferior to dedicated image capture devices.

Smartphones offer much smaller sensors (in terms of resolution), and have smaller lenses. If you're sharing images electronically, these differences may be negligible on-screen, but when you're preserving the permanent archive of your most treasured moments, it could be a different matter.

Meanwhile, cameras and phones have become more connected. Most cameras now feature Wi-Fi and camera manufacturers increasingly offer a free downloadable app that lets you use your camera with your phone. These apps let you use your phone to store photos or as a remote control for the camera, pairing your screen with the camera's viewfinder.

Best smartphone cameras

If you're a one-device photographer, though, you'll want to know which is the best smartphone to buy. TechRadar compares six of the newest - and by implication, best - handsets to decide which is the best for taking pictures. Each has its advantages, while technology in terms of sensor and lens can vary widely, so your choice must take into account not only how well the phone handles as a camera, but also the results it returns.

The six in contention

Our candidates are as acclaimed as they are diverse: the HTC One, Sony Xperia Z1, Apple iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, Nokia Lumia 1020, and LG G2. With one exception - the HTC - all feature higher pixel counts than phones of previous generations.

We've looked at the HTC One Android handset before, at the start of the summer, but are re-examining it here by way of comparison.

HTC One - key specs:
CPU: 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 quad-core
Camera: 4MP Ultrapixel
Display: 4.7-inch Super LCD, 1080 x 1920 resolution
Capacity: 16/32GB internal, no microSD
Dimensions: 137.4 x 68.2 x 9.3mm
Weight: 143g
Extras: HDMI out, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, NFC

Best smartphone cameras

Next up is our second Android OS (4.2 Jelly Bean) machine in the Sony Xperia Z1, a more obvious monoblock design.

Sony Xperia Z1 - key specs:
CPU: 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 quad-core
Camera: 21MP Exmor-R
Display: 5-inch LCD, 1080 x 1920 resolution
Capacity: 16GB internal, plus microSD
Dimensions: 144 x 74 x 8.5 mm
Weight: 170g
Extras: HDMI out, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, NFC

Our third contender is the iPhone 5S, powered by Apple's refreshed iOS 7 and new A7 chip.

Best smartphone cameras

iPhone 5S - key specs:
CPU: A7 64-bit chip
Camera: 8MP iSight
Display: 4-inch Retina display, 1136x640 resolution
Capacity: 16/32/64GB internal, no microSD
Dimensions: 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm
Weight: 112g
Extras: Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac,

The fourth phone up for a look-see is the Android powered Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, a more deliberately camera-like version of the plain S4 with a proper optical zoom lens (other smartphones use digital trickery to give the appearance of zoom).

The back of the handset exactly resembles the front of a camera, making this one of the closest examples of tech convergence yet.

Galaxy S4 zoom

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom - key specs:
CPU: 1.5GHz dual-core
Camera: 16MP, 10x optical zoom, Xenon flash
Display: 4.3-inch Super AMOLED, 540 x 960 resolution
Capacity: 8GB internal, microSD slot
Dimensions: 125.5 x 63.5 x 15.4 mm
Weight: 208g
Extras: HDMI out, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, NFC

Our last but one option is the Nokia Lumia 1020, which for our purposes came with a matching camera grip-come-body shell which slots onto the handset via its charging port.

A second port is provided within the grip itself, so you don't lose out on any functionality. A clever if hardly high tech add-on, it feels like another step towards making phone photographers feel like real photographers.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020 - key specs:
CPU: 1.5GHz Snapdragon MSM8960 dual-core
Camera: 41MP PureView
Display: 4.5-inch AMOLED PureMotion+, 768 x 1280 resolution
Capacity: 32/64GB internal, no microSD
Dimensions: 130.4 x 71.4 x 10.4 mm
Weight: 158g
Extras: Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11n, NFC

Finally, the LG G2 - another recently released high-end Android 4.2 Jelly Bean smartphone.

LG G2

LG G2 - key specs:
CPU: 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 quad-core
Camera: 13MP
Display: 5.2-inch True HD-IPS LCD, 1080 x 1920 resolution
Capacity: 16/32GB internal, no microSD
Dimensions: 138.5 x 70.9 x 8.9 mm
Weight: 143g
Extras: HDMI out, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, NFC

The comparison will go into the above features in detail, focusing on how well the phone can be used as a camera in terms of its user interface, handling and, of course, photographic performance.

This isn't a test on how easy the phone is to use as a camera, it's a combination of all the above points - adding price, handling, simplicity and end result to work out the best camera attached to a phone.

LG G2

Best smartphone cameras

Korean giant LG's not unattractive 13 megapixel G2 smartphone, with its gently curved backplate (recalling HTC's One), hit the market on a wave of hype, and has the features to justify those expectations.

Ease of use seems to have been the ethos all the way: there's the ability to double-tap the handset's display to turn it on or off, for instance, and power and volume buttons sit below the camera on the backplate rather than at the edges.

The Full HD edge-to-edge screen display, here at a generous 5.2 inches, seems to have been developed as much for streaming visual media as for using as a camera viewfinder. As with its rivals, the camera functionality is presented as one app among many on the home screen, with a neat icon-led Android OS appearance.

Tap the camera icon and the phone immediately goes into viewfinder mode. The image relayed from camera to screen is refreshingly lifelike and displays no ghosting or lag as you pan around a scene with it, even in lower interior lighting conditions.

You can also access the camera quickly through physical or soft keys - hold the down volume key in sleep mode and you'll be taken straight there, or swipe right from the lock screen to instantly fire up the camera, with the phone ready to snap in just under three seconds, which is pretty impressive.

Best smartphone cameras

However, as LG in its wisdom has located the camera near the topmost edge of the handset it's easy for fingertips to stray in front of the lens if you're holding the handset in both hands, landscape fashion, for a group shot. Hold the camera in portrait position with one hand for the inevitable selfie and it's not such an issue.

With the handset held in this way, the shutter release button is located dead centre at the bottom of the touch screen, with a slider for alternating between stills and video capture immediately to its right. The previously captured image - or video - is then presented as a thumbnail to the left of the shutter release.

Interface

It's a simple and straightforward user interface, and as with most touchscreen digital cameras the LG G2 enables the user to specify the focus point on a given subject by tapping the screen.

Operation is intuitive: a sweep of the finger will drag this around the screen. Otherwise focus adjusts automatically and visibly as you move the handset closer to or further away from your subject. It's reasonably quick to do this, even if you can't get closer than 10-15cm before the screen blurs.

For photography in trickier conditions, the LG G2 offers a flash option - though here it's limited to auto flash, forced flash or flash off, the latter the default option. By contrast there are 12 shooting mode options, with Normal being the standard setting.

Other modes include Shot & Clear mode (which enables the removal of distracting background elements), the increasingly inevitable multiple exposure capturing and combining Dynamic Tone/HDR mode, panoramas up to the full 360 degress and burst shooting options of up to 20 sequential shots.

There's also skin and blemish softening Beauty mode, Sports, Night and Intelligent Auto functions. You additionally get a Time Catch option that shoots a sequence of images to avoid missing that crucial moment, plus a Dual Camera option whereby the person taking the picture can add themselves into the corner of the image being snapped by the main camera, using the lower resolution screen side camera - which is distinctly useless.

Like the other models here, when you use the full width of the 16:9 ratio screen as a viewfinder you don't get the camera's full resolution, but a cropped version. So on the LG G2 this results in a 10-megapixel image rather than the full 13 megapixels.

To get 13 megapixel images, you must select the 4:3 ratio option from the settings menu (represented by the cog icon at the top left of the screen if holding the handset upright, in portrait fashion).

The handset is big and wide enough to prevent hand wobble when lining up a shot, even though the glossy black surface of the review sample was slightly slippery.

The clarity of the camera settings menu is admirable, with almost postage stamp-sized icons to select from. Here you can activate the voice command "cheese shutter" option, so you don't even have to tap the screen to fire a shot - useful (and accurate) if trying to squeeze yourself into an image with no one else around to take it.

You can also adjust camera settings such as exposure, with brightness options of +/- 2EV.

Focus options can also be swapped between auto and manual, with face tracking the third available option; focus locking onto your 'target' wherever they wander about the frame.

In terms of shooting in natural light without flash, a fairly basic range of ISO100-800 is manually selectable with full auto the fallback option. White balance settings range from the artificial tungsten to sunny, cloudy or of course 'auto'.

Another inevitability is a few built-in colour effects. LG has resisted going crazy, so these are restricted to mono, sepia or colour negative: adequate for a touch of variety to shots if not overly inspiring.

The LG G2's clear capture options and user interface seem geared to keep picture taking and reviewing simple. This is fine: you are using a phone not a DSLR, and inevitably you can download various third-party apps if you want to go creative in camera.

Best smartphone cameras

Images look crisp and clean on-screen thanks to the Full HD display. The fact that light sensitivity tops out at a modest maximum setting of ISO 800 at least means you're spared the spectre of image noise/grain.

While detail starts to break up when images are viewed full-size on our desktop, to our eyes the LG G2 handles the subtleties of changing light and colour tones well under daylight conditions. Skin tones - shaving rashes and all - are one of the most realistically rendered on test.

Use of the flash produces a vignetting effect (corner shadowing) suggesting it would benefit from a more even spread of light. But other than shooting in the default Normal mode, the dynamic tone mode - increased dynamic range - is one of the most successful options here for adding visual drama to a shot, maintaining detail both in the sky and foreground for a best of both worlds result.

Yes, the positioning of the camera at the back means that we had to watch for stray fingertips in shot, but overall the LG G2 acquits itself well.

Verdict

The LG comes across as one of the more intuitive handsets on test in terms of camera functionality if all you do want to do is point and shoot.

You don't have to wade through tile-based Windows menus to get straight to the camera option either, and there aren't hidden menus that only a few confused screen prods will gradually unearth, which comes as a relief. Recommended.

Pros: A 13-megapixel resolution is more than adequate for everyday snapping, and pictures look great on the Full HD display, with plenty of contrast. By sticking to the essentials in terms of camera options, this device is really easy to use for photo/video capture.

Cons: The location of the camera means fingertips can stray into shot if holding the handset landscape fashion for a shot. There's a fairly basic array of built-in picture effects, and the flash is a little underpowered.

Read our full LG G2 review

Sample images

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Daylight: click here for the full resolution image

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Lowlight flash: click here for the full resolution image

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Black and white: click here for the full resolution image

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Negative effect: click here for the full resolution image

Sepia effect: click here for the full resolution image

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Wide angle HDR: click here for the full resolution image

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Wide angle landscape: click here for the full resolution image

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Panorama: click here for the full resolution image

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Wraparound: click here for the full resolution image

ISO samples

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Auto image ISO: click here for the full resolution image

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HTC One

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We've reviewed the 4 megapixel - or UltraPixel - HTC One as a standalone camera previously - or thought we had.

Somewhat confusingly for the non-smartphone specialist it transpires there are different versions of the device doing the rounds, including a Google Play edition - so there's more than one, um, One.

It's the standard retail edition we're taking a look at here. While all the core camera specifications (pixel count, lens aperture and so on) are shared between the One's various incarnations, the user interface (which we'll come to in a couple of paragraphs), differs.

Like the LG G2, the HTC One has a gently curved backplate rather than a completely flat design, the metal finish to our review sample more obviously iPhone-like than the LG. The screen is marginally shorter at its longer edge - 4.7-inches - while the handset is narrower.

Its main camera element is also located dead-center near the top of the handset, when held vertically, giving it a pleasingly symmetrical look. But by being further away from the edge of the phone than its LG rival, we found it easier to avoid fingertips straying in front of the lens in the process of gripping the One.

Best smartphone cameras

Once you've set the phone up the familiar camera icon is immediately visible bottom right of screen as part of a clean looking toolbar running along the bottom.

Drag this icon upwards to select it and the camera mode bursts into life, displaying the image before our lens in full screen width - there's only the ability to capture shots in widescreen ratio on the HTC One, no alternative 4:3, 3:2 or 1:1 ratio options - the camera's AF automatically and visibly adjusting focus and exposure as you pan with the handset around the room or scene.

HTC One

The user interface here appears pretty simplistic and operation is all the better for that fact. You get camera mode and video mode icons side by side, bottom center of screen.

Pre-captured images are displayed as stacked thumbnails to the right of these two 'buttons', while a comprehensive, 16-strong array of built-in digital filters can be selected to the left.

Included here are the usual vivid colour or black and white or sepia options, along with a fish eye effect, film negative and toy camera looks. Rather than a virtual shutter release button being provided, you simply tap the camera icon to take a shot or the video one to begin recording. It's that intuitive.

Just above this quartet of virtual buttons is an on-screen slider for controlling the digital zoom. Run a finger across to enable the smartphone to ape 'zooming' in or out, the response to your finger swipe pretty much in real time.

At the top of the screen if holding the HTC One upright in portrait fashion, or on the left if turning it on its side to shoot landscape ratio, are a means of selecting flash modes - either auto flash, flash off or flash on - activate HTC's 'Zoe' mode - plus, to the far left (or very bottom) a welcome shooting menu.

Here you get a series of straightforward still image capture choices: normal scene recognising auto mode (the default setting), a night shooting mode plus HDR and sweep panorama mode. Video capture options enable us to select from slow motion, fast HD at 60 frames per second or Video HDR mode at Full HD (1920x1080 pixels) resolution.

Impressively, further image adjustments can be made using a row of +/- 2EV sliders for exposure, contrast, colour saturation and sharpness, which is more than most handsets offer.

Face detection, smile capture and the ability to geotag images with location data can also be activated at will from the same menu.

Best smartphone cameras

User-selectable ISO settings for low-light photography run from a standard ISO100 to ISO1600. Like its predecessor in the HTC One X the One features a bright/fast aperture lens at f/2, with the lens itself offering a 28mm wide focal length. The bright f/2 lens serves the HTC One well when shooting indoors using natural light.

If there's a USP to the HTC One, it's that it fudges the issue of pixel count, defying the usual convention that suggests more is… well, more when it comes to image quality. HTC refers to the resolution of the HTC's core/main camera in accompanying literature as UltraPixel - a term that sounds zeitgeist-y but is basically meaningless.

At first then this seems like an attempt to cover up an otherwise modest-sounding four megapixel camera. But in the world of dedicated cameras, pixel count isn't everything of course: sensor size also has a role to play, and here it's a larger-than-most 1/3-inch which results in improved low-light snaps.

There's a front-facing camera too, offering a 2.1 megapixel resolution, as opposed to the previous X model's 1.3MP. Other features that will flick on a lightbulb in the head of photo enthusiasts are a back side illuminated sensor, HDR facility for video as well as stills, plus optical image stabilisation to avoid hand wobble resulting in blurred shots.

A newish gimmick on this model is what's often, on digital compact cameras at least, referred to as "motion snapshot." Here it's given the less immediately obvious moniker of HTC Zoe.

Press the shutter and the HTC One automatically captures up to 20 photos plus three-second duration video, leading its manufacturer to claim to produce a picture that's "alive," or at least one that tells the story more fully by mixing media.

These video highlights are a neat addition, although not strictly part of a photography test - if you're more interested in capturing memories than beautiful scenes, the highlights option is an excellent choice.

A further plus is that the HTC's screen is much brighter and clearer than many dedicated digital cameras on the market. It really picks up fine detail, which is a bonus, as is the fact that the image before the lens fills the whole screen in widescreen format, meaning it feels best suited to group portraits or landscape shots.

Fun factor

Aside from offering 16 digital effects that are automatically applied to shots at the point of capture, there's an almost as comprehensive 13-strong array that can be applied when playing back images, including the no-brainer "auto enhance" option.

Upping the fun factor further, there's a range of frames that can be added to the image, such as a distressed edge grunge effect, or a montage of Polaroid style snaps. A certain amount of editing (such as cropping, straightening or rotating) can also be performed within the handset itself.

More impressively still there is a wide array of image retouching options offered, such as the ability to smooth skin or enhance the eyes in portraits; the sort of effects that once required a dedicated software package to achieve.

Again when viewed at 100% on a desktop, subject outlines begin to appear pixellated, and colors are a little less saturated than they appear to the naked eye at the point of capture.

Daylight images would benefit from a tad more brightness and contrast, and an interior still life shot could use an application of one of the HTC's built-in filters.

Verdict

An application of the HDR option helps to pull detail from what would otherwise be blown out highlights in an image, while maintaining details in shadow areas, so is a feature worth having.

A slightly de-saturated look to images straight out of the phone does mean that skin tones look a little more subtle too.

While low light performance is enhanced through the addition the additional Ultrapixel technology, in short it is a fairly mixed bag in terms of the HTC's image quality when used across an expanded range of subjects.

Pros: The coolly curved shape and design of the phone means it feels comfortable in the palm, and screen resolution is razor sharp, so images displayed look fantastic. Larger pixels also mean better low light performance and improved dynamic range.

Cons: Despite the sensor surface area and UltraPixel claims, a four megapixel camera feels distinctly underpowered in today's multi-megapixel handset market. Limited to 16:9 ratio shots at full resolution, and the mainstream version lacks a microSD card slot.

Read our full HTC One review

Sample images

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Samsung S4 Zoom

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We've looked at the 'standard' Samsung Galaxy S4 before - this is the 16-megapixel, back-illuminated CMOS sensor, zoom-powered S4 Zoom version.

More readily than any other handset here, it resembles a digital camera from the front (or back, depending on how you look at it), though the ever so shiny high gloss finish may put off more serious photographers who are seeking a winning camera/phone combo.

That said, a physically far larger lens than found on any competing handset has got to be a draw. As what we get here is a very useful 10x optical zoom, rather than the digital variety that merely crops into an image, the handset is necessarily bulkier in width, though Samsung has done a fair job of keeping projections minimal.

S4 Zoom

A nice touch is that a manual zoom ring encircling the lens is provided for zoom control, rather than just a toggle switch elsewhere on the handset as one might find on a digital compact camera.

The zoom reach is supported by optical image stabilisation here to prevent blur resulting from hand wobble, as would be typical for this type of focal range.

The shiny glossy white finish immediately reminds us of the physically bulkier and larger touchscreen Samsung Galaxy camera - one that for all its phone-like attributes can't actually make calls. Obviously the S4 Zoom can. So is this the "best of both worlds" solution we've been waiting for?

Best smartphone cameras

The (by smartphone standards) whopper of a lens isn't the only way in which the S4 Zoom differs from the non-zoom S4. On the S4 Zoom we again get an AMOLED display for deeper blacks and all-round better contrast, but at 4.3-inches it's smaller than its non-optical zoom rivals here.

Full HD 1080p video can also be shot at a 30fps frame rate, with a microSD slot to expand the 8GB of available storage further if required - which is needed, as only 5GB of that is addressable.

Unlike on the original S4, you fortunately don't need to unclip the backplate to insert a microSD card - a covered slot is provided, as on a dedicated compact camera.

Here it's located a few centimeters from the main power button, on what, if we were looking at a camera rather than a handset, would be the base - next to a screw thread for attaching it to a tripod, hidden under a little cap to keep the dirt out.

Despite the inevitable width stemming from the internally stacked zoom lens, commendably the S4 Zoom doesn't feel like a lump.

In fact, owing in part to the rounded edges of its backplate and the curved bulge to one end for the handgrip, it's comfortable to hold.

On power up and in the camera's default setting - the camera again presents here as an app - the image in front of the handset's lens fills the whole of the screen, operational icons floating over it.

Best smartphone cameras

In terms of user interface, if you choose one of the 'Expert' shooting modes (carried over from the Android-powered Galaxy Camera) then the S4 Zoom - like the non-zoom S4 - offers up an impressively broad range of shooting modes, including options other handsets might file under a 'scene settings' option.

This selection rotates before you with a finger swipe, subtly aping the effect of adjusting a conventional shooting mode dial on a digital camera.

Select one such shooting mode - Program or Manual for example - and we're given the ability to spin a virtual lens ring to adjust exposure, ISO, white balance, metering and drive mode, while a further creative mode option facilitates adjusting color tones plus sharpness, contrast and overall color saturation.

In short, we get a more expansive range of manual photographic functions than on the majority of phone handsets.

Form vs function

We hoped that a handset looking more like a dedicated camera than any other to date would deliver results comparable to one… yet it's a case here of close, but no cigar.

There's sufficient detail displayed to make the images keepers, but again they could benefit from a little more brightness and contrast straight out of the camera in our daylight examples.

Having a 10x zoom lens at our fingertips proves a boon, as it should, for dragging the faraway closer - and the Samsung is able to deliver sharp handheld results even at full zoom.

The built-in flash is powerful to the point of bleaching out detail, though the colour is more faithful than that delivered by the HTC One thanks to the Xenon flash included. In terms of skin tones, again we get subtlety and realism.

Verdict

Auto ISO and high ISO test shots differ in that we begin to lose saturation at the highest setting, while a subtly gritty look intrudes across the whole image on close inspection.

But at least ISO 3200 here is actually usable rather than just something to put on the spec sheet. In conclusion then, not a bad showing - though you'll probably be buying this for the zoom reach first and foremost.

Pros: The only smartphone with a true zoom lens built in so far. Ability to expand memory for photos and video via microSD card slot. More expansive range of manual photographic functions than the majority of handsets.

Cons: Thanks to the zoom lens, one of the larger handsets out there - yet the screen size (though large compared to an actual digital camera) is smaller overall than most of the other top-end smartphones examined here.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review

Sample images

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Selfie: click here to see the full resolution image

ISO samples

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Auto ISO: click here to see the full resolution image

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Maximum ISO: click here to see the full resolution image

Sony Xperia Z1

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Taller than the handsets surveyed so far, the Android-powered Xperia Z1 is as sleek (at 8.5mm thin) and as monolithic in black as its waterproofed Z predecessor. Like its forebear, though, it feels good in the hand despite the thin-edged design.

The USP this time around, claims Sony, is that its stylish smartphone is delivers the best image quality of all leading handsets. Whip up hype like that, and you'd better have something to back it up.

Fortunately, as mentioned above, the Xperia Z1 incorporates a back-illuminated 20.7 megapixel 1/2.3-inch Exmor R sensor - the same kind and size of chip found in the brand's standalone Cyber-shot digital cameras - making for a considerable hike upwards from the 13MP Xperia Z.

Xperia Z1

Of course, the worry here is that overloading a still reasonably small sensor with pixels can result in visible noise/grain in low light images and shadow detail (even if Sony says it has noise reduction software on board).

There's also a G series lens, a signifier on digital cameras of premium quality, despite the fact that the optic here is a typically tiny smartphone pin-prick. Still it does offer 27mm equivalent wide-angle capability, plus a bright/fast f/2.0 aperture that should in theory aid low-light photography, as does a light sensitivity range topping out at a respectable ISO 3200.

While the Z1 relies on a 2.2 GHZ quad-core CPU and provides up to a 16GB memory, the camera side of things is powered by a Bionz processor - also found in Sony's digicam range.

There's Optical SteadyShot to avoid wobble, plus scene/subject enhancing Superior Auto operation, which helps deliver optimal results even when you're literally just pointing and shooting.

Best smartphone cameras

The 5-inch Full HD 1920 x 1080 display acts as the camera's viewfinder, falling roughly into line with the others here in terms of size and resolution. If you want access to the full 20MP resolution, it's necessary to opt for the narrower 4:3 image ratio: if you shoot in the default 16:9 ratio you end up with cropped 8-megapixel images.

Interestingly it's only if you're shooting in 8 megapixel mode that you can manually select the ISO 3200 setting. If shooting in 20MP mode you're limited to ISO 800, no doubt the result of Sony taking a view to limiting the appearance of image noise/grain.

As expected, the camera part of the handset offers autofocus and a built-in flash, and as on the previous Z model there's a front-facing two-megapixel camera. Travelling types can also now geotag their images via a built-in GPS facility, which can be activated or deactivated as desired.

Positioning

The positioning of the camera on the Z1 has shifted from just off-center on the Z to being fully into one corner: fine if you're shooting in portrait fashion with the camera held upright. But if you want a landscape shot there's a real danger of the forefinger of your left hand obscuring the lens.

Instead of the Samsung's optical zoom, we get the usual image-degrading digital illusion, here of the 8x variety. Zooming in or out is via a physical switch located next to the phone's power button as it was on the Z (taking photos or videos is via a virtual on-screen shutter/record button).

Best smartphone cameras

Fortunately, though, there are many elements carried over from Sony's Cyber-shot compact cameras that are properly useful and worth having.

As on the Xperia Z, we get Sony's Sweep Panorama function that automatically stitches together a sequential shots into one elongated image as the user pans through any given scene. The results are pleasingly successful in terms of seamlessness.

As for other features, as a further point of difference between this and the original Z, Sony has gone a tad gimmicky with the in-camera picture effects here: we have partial color and tinted "nostalgia" options along with fisheye, miniature, sketch and vivid digital effects.

Perhaps the most interesting is the Harris Shutter mode, which takes a sequence of images and overlaps them for an end result that, if viewed through good old green and red 3D specs, almost comes to life.

While for low-light, non-flash shooting it offers a manually selectable range from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 (bettering the Xperia Z's top ISO 1600 setting), the fact remains that the actual lens element of the Xperia Z1 is tiny even compared to a cheap point and shoot digital camera.

Once again, as with the Samsung S4 Zoom, there's a slot for a removable microSD card - always helpful in terms of memory expansion.

Verdict

Curiously we found ourselves taking more pictures with the Xperia Z1 than any of our other handsets examined here - partly because of that fun array of filters to choose from.

Sony makes the majority of the sensors that go into digital cameras and other capture devices, along with the lenses, and it's no surprise therefore that its shots hold detail well across a wide variety of subjects.

While grain is present at ISO 3200, its appearance is subtle enough that one wouldn't notice unless inspecting closely.

Pros: Improved 20 megapixel resolution. Some of the most consistent and detailed images on test. Plentiful and fun digital filter options.

Cons: The lens positioning means stray fingertips can easily find their way into shot. Less comfortable to hold for longer periods when composing shots because of flat edges.

Read our full Sony Xperia Z1 review

Sample images

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Nokia 1020

Best smartphone cameras

Like the old Nokia 808 PureView - which we previously described as the 'apex' of the smartphone as a photographic device - this tile-based Windows 8 phone 1020 successor is most notable for cramming a new-generation, class-leading 41-megapixel sensor at its heart. That's double that of closest competitor here for pixel count, the Sony Xperia Z1.

As we noted when we looked at the 808, you'd have to be a professional commercial photographer with £20K to spend on a digital medium format camera to achieve that level of specification from a dedicated device.

Indeed, Nokia is referring to this device as its "Nokia Pro Camera" though, while you can adjust the likes shutter speed and white balance, of course it's not offering like-for-like.

For starters the 1020 is autofocus by default - though there is a cool manual option that allows a focus slider to be adjusted by a fingertip. And, as with all the devices reviewed here there's only the ability to capture JPEGs rather than higher-quality unprocessed Raw files available on higher-end cameras - although this is changing in the near future.

Lumia 1020

To make the handset's look and handling more camera-like, there's a slip-on accessory camera grip with its own connection port and screw thread for attachment to a tripod.

This should please true photographers who gravitate to this phone, as should a mechanical shutter and the six-lens-element Carl Zeiss Tessar optic, plus a bright aperture of f/2.2 (the lower the number the brighter).

Lumia 1020

The handset's sensor is back-illuminated to improve performance, and optically image stabilised too to counter any hand wobble and prevent blur in lower light, with a light sensitivity range stretching from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 provided. For getting closer to the action there's a 3x digital zoom.

To ensure sure operation zips along there's a 1.5 GHZ dual-core Snapdragon 54 processor on board. Meanwhile the camera's viewfinder is provided by a 4.5-inch, 1280x768 pixel resolution touchscreen offering a 15:9 aspect ratio.

It's an AMOLED display, which typically means deeper blacks and better contrast than a standard issue LCD screen, though you're only really going to see the benefit of the larger files on your desktop or even in print.

It also has enthusiast-pleasing Xenon flash with a four-meter range (although this is the same as the older 808 and again we're limited to a flash on/off or auto option).

Though the canary yellow colored edging on our review model (white and black is also available) makes it look larger than it actually is, the handset dimensions of 130.4x71.4x10.4mm make it shorter in profile than the Sony Xperia Z1, and it boasts a weight of 158g, wireless charging option, and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, micro USB, NFC connectivity.

New this time around is dual capture, whereby the monoblock handset captures a hi-res 38-megapixel shot plus a simultaneous email/social media-friendly five-megapixel version. The front/user facing camera weighs in at a comparatively underpowered 1.2MP, with an f/2.4 aperture.

Best smartphone cameras

As with all the smartphones here, there's the facility to effortlessly flick between stills and Full HD 1920x1080 pixels video at 30 frames per second (fps), which is on a par with any consumer level pocket camera.

A neat extra is that we get digital camera-like picture info provided alongside images in playback mode - such as when the shot was taken along with the settings used. As the Nokia's lens is set further from the handset edge than others here, there's less likelihood of fingertips straying into shot - though it can (and did) still happen.

Settings

Shooting settings are displayed in a thin band down the right-hand side of the screen, or placed at the top in landscape orientation.

Choose one, and its available functions show in an arch that sits over the camera icon/shutter release button on screen - recalling the shape of a lens so that running a fingertip over the screen simulates the feel of making real photographic decisions and manual adjustments.

Lumia 1020

The collected options here are flash, white balance, ISO (a broader than most ISO 100-4000), shutter speed (from 4 seconds to 1/16000), plus manually adjustable exposure compensation running from -3EV to +3EV.

Tapping of your subject where they appear on the (full) screen biases focus toward them and subsequently fires the shutter (though we found the response to this slightly sluggish).

We liked that there's also a "hard" shutter release button on the bottom right-hand edge (in portrait orientation; it's conveniently top right if used landscape fashion) for more conventional use.

All this aside, for actual images the Nokia 1020 gives Sony's Xperia Z1 a run for its money. The pictures from the Sony are a little better saturated to our eyes, and also less noisy at the top ISO setting (of course on the Sony's chip there are less pixels too). But the Nokia displays a subtlety that the other devices reviewed here can't compete with.

Its bright/fast aperture lens also enabled us to achieve shots with a shallow depth of field - sharp foreground, blurred background - that was more noticeable here than on competing handsets similarly offering an aperture of f/2 or thereabouts.

Verdict

Pictures from the Nokia feel more rounded and realistic - which, if you're buying a smartphone principally for the camera, will be music to your ears (or balm to your eyes).

Pros: New generation 41-megapixel sensor. Bright f/2.2 lens aperture. Carl Zeiss lens. Xenon flash. Higher resolution and larger display than its predecessor.

Cons: Tap focus response is a little sluggish, shutter lag and shot-to-shot times can take up to several seconds. It's easy to miss a moment due to this slow performance.

Read our full Nokia 1020 review

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Apple iPhone 5S

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More photographs are now taken on the Apple iPhone than any other image capture device, standalone digital cameras included.

This ubiquity helps steamroller any criticism or niggles - such as the fact that unlike the other handsets reviewed here, the iPhone 5S (closest to the Samsung S4 Zoom, minus that whopping lens, in terms of dimensions) requires a SIM card, and a Nano SIM at that, to be inserted before it will do anything at all, including take photos.

The 5S ships with iOS 7 and is powered by Apple's new A7 chip, said to deliver twice the performance of its forebears.

In terms of the knock-on as regards the camera performance, it offers autofocus that's twice as quick to lock onto target and faster picture processing overall, while dynamic range - picking up detail in both shadows and highlights - is also said to have been improved.

Feeling reasonably light and comfortable in the the palm when composing pictures, the 5S - like the iPhone 5 before it - has an 8-megapixel iSight camera, described as all-new thanks to its larger f2.2 aperture.

Best smartphone cameras

Along with a new burst-shooting mode, another new feature trumpeted by Apple is True Tone flash, which purportedly adjusts sensitivity to deliver more natural looking results. In our tests, we found this to be very much true, offering a nice balance between the more cumbersome Xenon flash and the standard LED option found on most other devices.

Like other handsets tested here, the sensor on the iPhone 5S is back-illuminated to provide a clearer light path, and the lens itself is comprised of five elements.

Default camera operation relies on autofocus, but there's the ability to tap a subject on screen to direct focus onto them, and there's a face detection function built in for human subjects. Holding the subject will lock the exposure and focus, allowing greater framing options for your snaps.

As with the iPhone 5 there is also a useful panorama mode for holiday snaps and, with travel in mind, you can geotag your images.

Like its predecessor, the iPhone 5S can deploy a high dynamic range (HDR) setting if you're presented with a trickier scenario that has, for example, both bags of shadow detail and highlights and you want to capture both.

Three shots are taken in quick succession and then automatically blended. In panorama shooting mode, meanwhile, you watch the image gradually build as you pan with the handset until a single elongated shot is automatically created and saved.

Once again flash options here are limited to either auto/on/off - so we miss out on red-eye reduction (though it can be removed via one of the provided image editing options) or slow synchro options found on digital cameras proper.

Plus, as with the previous generation iPhone, smartphone photographers can't control ISO light sensitivity settings manually - the phone simply chooses automatically.

That was a slight frustration for us, given that manual ISO selection is a feature of all its rivals. A second slight frustration was that beaming photos to our desktop computer via Bluetooth (possible with all the smartphones tested) isn't given as an option.

Best smartphone cameras

The easiest route was to open iPhoto on our Mac and connect the iPhone 5S via its charging lead/USB cable, the photos automatically importing once this had been achieved. Another potential annoyance is that the positioning of the iPhone's lens - in the corner of the handset - means it is easy for fingertips to stray in front of it.

Interface

The user interface for capturing a photo on the iPhone 5S appears to have been refined. Yes, the camera icon still appears in app-like fashion when powering up the phone. But select it and you're provided with a very clean looking interface.

At the top left of the screen are the flash options, in the middle sits an option for turning HDR capture on or off with a finger tap, while top right there is a camera-like icon, a tap of which will alternate between front and rear facing cameras.

At the bottom of the screen is the business end of the camera, a centrally located photo button. Tap it and the iPhone 5S takes a snap accompanied by the sampled sound of a shutter firing. As on previous generations of iPhone, the down volume button on the phone's side can also be used to release the shutter in camera mode.

iPhone 5S

A finger-swipe to the left of the touchscreen shutter release reveals a video capture button and a further slow-motion video mode, while a swipe to the right uncovers the ability to capture images in 1:1 square format, or shoot a panorama as previously mentioned.

Images previously captured are shown as a thumbnail to the left of the shutter button, while to the right is access to a range of in-camera digital effects filters. We get no fewer than three mono options here, along with the vivid, color boosting chrome option, a cross-processed film option and a faded Polaroid-like 'instant' option.

Editing functions are limited to being able to crop, rotate, auto enhance or remove red-eye as mentioned, and we also get access to the same digital filter effects available prior to capturing a photo. Of course, there's also a plethora of downloadable camera apps for the iPhone 5S if you want to go further.

Verdict

With manual options limited on this handset in comparison with its direct rivals, it's easy to get the impression that the iPhone is only the most popular tool for taking photos because of its ubiquity.

That said, images appear sharp when viewed in isolation, with a pleasing degree of detail captured. If anything tones are a little on the warm side, even when effects are not being applied.

HDR doesn't seem to add much to an image in general scenes (which, in a way, is testament to the standard image quality), though Panoramas are largely successful - very simple to take and free of visible joins or overlaps.

Pros: Fun digital filter effects accessible when capturing a shot or when editing it. Intuitive point-and-shoot operation. As a camera the iPhone is highly customizable via apps. Side-mounted volume buttons double up as a shutter release when shooting.

Cons: No ability to manually select ISO settings or pretty much anything else. Operation is pretty much just point and click all the way. Narrower screen than others here.

Read our full iPhone 5S review

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Verdict

There's a real sense here that the latest smartphones represent evolution rather than revolution in terms of their user interfaces, ease of use as cameras, feature sets (in terms of selectable functions) - and end image quality.

Physical concerns are obvious: the narrower or glossier the phone, the trickier it is to hold steady - particularly when shooting one-handed. In this respect the Nokia accessory grip comes into its own, as does the subtle built-in grip of the Samsung S4 Zoom.

Unsurprisingly the latter feels most like shooting with a dedicated camera. Even so, if you choose one of the S4's Expert modes, the narrow size and width of the virtual on-screen lens barrel (via which adjustments such as ISO and exposure are made) makes it all too easy to select an option either side of the one you wanted.

The handsets on test's compact dimensions also means fingers often stray in front of the lens. Only the Samsung S4 Zoom avoided this issue, owing to the fact that the lens sticks out from the body, when both active and inactive.

In terms of how easily it takes pictures - and the results - we were pleasantly surprised by the LG G2, which runs out the winner here - just.

LG G2

If your key handset priority is simply the performance of its camera, the Nokia 1020 delivered some of the most well rounded and realistic output, with its bright aperture lens enabling shallow depth of field effects that ape those of a digital SLR.

Sony's Xperia Z1 joins the LG and the Nokia in our top three: again it offered strong and bold images in good lighting conditions, as well as actually being a handset and offering an array of image creating options that are fun to use.

Despite being the most camera-like, the S4 Zoom excels more for the increased framing options its optical zoom provides than the end quality of its images, perfectly adequate though they are - which leaves it in fourth place this time out.

Taken purely on its own merit, the iPhone 5S doesn't quite measure up in this company. It's fine when viewed in isolation as an image capture device, but allows little built-in user control when taking pictures (of course, the contents of the App Store can go some way to remedying this).

The HTC One meanwhile, despite being easy and straightforward in operation thanks to an intuitive user interface, proved too much of a frustratingly mixed bag to prevent it finishing in last place.

Of course, it depends on what you want to use the camera for - if you want the best point and shoot option with the best chance of getting a decent picture on the off-chance, then the last two (HTC One and iPhone 5S) are probably the best for this.

Conversely, if you're after really great shots and an array of effects, and don't mind too much about build and overall performance, then the Z1 and 1020 both stand out as well.

But we've plumped for the LG as while it's not the standout winner in any category (battery life aside) it performs very well in terms of picture quality, ease of use and functionality, as well as post processing.

So we're awarding the LG G2 our best cameraphone award - but the good news is that even down to sixth place on this list, we've got some truly great options and none of them are going to heavily displease anyone looking to just take a decent snap on their phone.

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