Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

5th Mar 2013 | 12:54

Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

What's the top cameraphone on the market?

Camera phones vs compact cameras

A decade ago, new fangled gizmos called 'camera phones' started emerging. Pretty soon there became too many to rate alongside 'proper' cameras, and in any event back then the grainy, smudged 640 x 480 pixels shots from phones were pretty dire. You might as well have photocopied your backside.

Now, the quality of cameras (or rather sensors) in phones has massively improved, to the extent that the average non-photo enthusiast is now asking whether these may replace their dedicated compact camera. And if so, which phone should they buy, in terms of which is best for photography?

But while your handset might be OK for daily snaps, is it good enough to act as your one and only device with which to record those key moments in life?

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Often, what you gain in convenience by using a smartphone for taking pictures, you subsequently lose in image quality. One obvious difference between today's compact cameras and smartphones is that even the most basic pocket camera has an optical zoom lens that projects from and retracts into the body. But smartphones still make do with just digital zooms.

Digital zooms effectively just crop the picture, progressively losing pixels the further you 'zoom' in - and certainly this is an Achilles' heel that camera manufacturers are looking to exploit in their favour.

But at the same time, camera brands have been increasingly adopting smartphone-like app menus and internet connectivity to bring the two devices closer together, with Samsung's Galaxy Camera being one of the first and most fully realised examples of this convergence of technology to hit the street.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

So compact cameras are seeking to be more like phones, and many smartphones are trying to be more camera-like in their advancing shooting capabilities.

Let's take a look at the best camera phones available now (a group test we'll be constantly updating), to help you decide which one is best for you and your photographic needs. Here we compare our favourite phones for taking photos, arranged by current market price, with sample images to show the sorts of photos they're capable of producing.

Can any of these top camera phones convince you to ditch your compact camera?

Sony Xperia S

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Price: £260/US$380/AU$500
Spec: 12.1MP Exmor R sensor, 4.3-inch display, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HDMI, USB

The Sony Xperia S is set to be replaced in this camera phones test with the newly-announced Sony Xperia Z, so stay tuned for our updated group test.

Unlike the others here, Sony has as much expertise in producing cameras as it does the sensors that go in them. The Sony Xperia S is a handset that, like the Nokia 808, sports a distinctly monoblock-like design, enlivened by a 4.3-inch scratch-resistant capacitive touchscreen with 1280 x 720 pixels resolution.

The camera component is of the 12.1 megapixel variety - bettering the 8 megapixel smartphone average - its resolution derived from an Exmor R low light sensor, as found in Sony's Cyber-Shot digital compacts and DSLRs.

Also carried over from 'proper' cameras is Sony's Sweep Panorama feature that automatically stitches together a series of shots into one elongated image as you pan through any given scene - with the results pleasingly successful in terms of seamlessness.

Alternatively there's a forward-facing camera of a lowly 1.3 megapixels for those self-portraits or 720p video calling.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Theoretically aiding low light photography is a bright lens aperture of f/2.4 (the smaller the f number, the more light is let in). There is a built-in flash too, and this time around we get a red eye reduction setting for portraits alongside flash on, flash off or auto flash.

Exposure compensation is helpfully given its own operational icon - with the ability to slide between +/- 2EV - while, as on a traditional compact digital camera, a selection of pre-optimised scene modes are offered. These comprise the usual landscape and portrait selections, and for both shooting by day and by night.

Furthermore there are six shooting modes including 'normal' single shot capture, auto scene recognition, the ability to activate the front-facing camera for self portraits, while those Sweep Panorama options include 3D as well as 2D varieties.

This Android smartphone further offers snapshot photographers the use of a 16x digital zoom in lieu of any optical alternative for the framing of JPEG format stills.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

The positioning of the camera at the very top of the backplate, if the handset is held upright in your palm, means that shooting portrait fashion is easier with this one than turning it on its side to shoot in landscape format - as fingertips can otherwise stray in front of the lens.

While there is 32GB of flash memory provided, unlike others here - namely the Samsung S3 and HTC One X - there's not the ability to expand this via removable media card, as with a conventional camera.

More noticeably than the other screens, this one visibly filled with fingerprints too, so we were constantly wiping it clean. The layout of the toolbars also means that black bands crop the left and right hand sides of the screen - or the top and bottom, depending on which way around you're holding the phone - so we don't get a full screen view.

A funky feature of the Sony's camera operation, however, is the touch shutter function. Drag the AF point around the screen with your finger to direct focus and the camera will automatically take a shot when you've alighted upon your chosen subject.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Alternatively we get a proper shutter release button on the side of the handset, the positioning of which - ironically given the lens position - encourages you to hold and use the camera in landscape fashion. Like the iPhone and the Galaxy S3, a switch at the bottom right of the screen enables you to flick between stills capture mode and video recording at will.

As with most of the others here, white balance can be adjusted manually, as can resolution and ISO light sensitivity setting (the iPhone 5 is the only one without the latter feature), with options running from a modest ISO 100 to ISO 800.

More unusually perhaps for a smartphone, camera metering can also be chopped and changed, with a choice of standard centre weighted, average or spot metering. A maximum resolution shot will generate a file size of around 2.7MB - and interestingly file naming is the same as that of Sony's compacts and DSLRs, beginning with 'DSC' (digital still camera).

Sony's expertise in this area shows, with results from the Xperia S being not only some of the sharpest and most detailed on test, but also the most consistent from shot to shot in terms of colour and exposure.

We'd rather have been using one of Sony's actual cameras such as the RX100 for a much better all-round performance, but if you're stuck with just your handset, the Xperia is one of the better fallbacks when it comes to imaging.

Sample images

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO samples

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 100 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Pros: 12 megapixel resolution, consistent performance in terms of colour and exposure from shot to shot, images noticeably more detailed than others here (save for the Nokia 808), Sweep Panorama function is fun and effective.

Cons: Display screen is cropped by operational toolbars, plus lens positioning means that stray fingertips can find their way into shots.

Read our full Sony Xperia S review

HTC One X

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Price: £380/US$430/AU$720
Spec: 8MP camera, f/2 aperture lens, HDMI, Bluetooth, USB, NFC

The HTC One X will be replaced in this group test by the nHTC One, which features an new take on the cameraphone to use UltraPixels on a 4MP sensor - we'll update the test as soon as we've finished our full review.

Of roughly the exact same proportions as the Nokia 808 and Samsung Galaxy S3 - which while being much narrower in depth means it's both wider and taller than most comparative compact cameras - this Android 4.0-operated 1.5GHz quad-core powered HTC handset offers an 8 megapixel camera ring at the back.

The HTC One X's internal sensor is once again a back-side illuminated variety (BSI) for better low light capture, a feat supported by the bright f/2 aperture 28mm wide-angle lens on the back. The user friendly and approachable HTC has the further benefit of compatibility with a removable microSD card for storing and transferring all those photos and videos.

There's the ability to take a snap mid-video recording too, with shots composed and reviewed via a whopping 4.7-inch scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass display boasting the standard issue 1280 x 720 HD resolution.

With 32GB total storage, and a camera start-up time of less than a second promised, plus a rapid-fire continuous shooting option - with the ability to select a 'best shot' from a machine gun like burst - plus LED auto flash, the HTC One X proves itself as no slouch.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Like the Sony Xperia S, there's also a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera offering 720p quality video too.

Tap the HTC's on-screen camera icon and here whatever's in front of the lens fills the display. Buttons and controls are overlaid, rather than provided as bars cropping or framing a central portion, as on the Samsung Galaxy S3.

There is also a much more comprehensive array of shooting controls built into the phone than on the much revered iPhone. Sure, we get the usual panorama, High Dynamic Range (HDR) and auto shooting options found on others, but also a wide array of effects filters too.

These include the hall of mirrors-like distortion filter, the corner shading, pin-hole camera-like vignette filter, the interesting ability to go for a DSLR-aping shallow depth of field effect, by choosing which portion of your image you want sharp and blurring the rest. You can also render your image as a series of halftone-like dots, desaturate the colours with the aid of a sliding colour bar, go for various warm or cold vintage effects, or apply negative and solarising effects.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

In all, it's quite a fun selection that offers a point of difference between HTC and (most of) the rest.

Like a 'real' camera, the HTC One X also provides a built-in self-timer, and the ability to chose from a range of image resolutions rather than automatically defaulting to maximum 8MP resolution. We can also manually adjust ISO light sensitivity, which runs from ISO 100 to a so-so ISO 800, as well as white balance. Flash options are once again restricted to flash on/off/auto flash.

The bright f/2 lens serves the HTC One X well when shooting indoors using natural light as our ISO test shots testified, but twinned with the HDR feature when shooting outdoors under strong light it can conversely lead to some occasionally washed out results and weird colours.

Switch HDR off, however, and colours are vivid without being crazily so, which gives the HTC's shots a degree of added punch missing from many of its rivals here that would conversely benefit from an adjustment of brightness and contrast in Photoshop.

Sample images

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO samples

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 100 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 160 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Auto ISO (125) (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Pros: Funky in-camera effects filters plus manual control over white balance and ISO makes the camera on the HTC One X feel a bit more like the real deal. Well saturated colours are the norm, as is shot to shot consistency if avoiding the HDR mode.

Cons: One of the physically larger handsets - but the trade off is a larger screen too.

Read our full HTC One X review

Nokia 808 PureView

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Price: £400/US$530 (around AU$600)
Spec: 41MP sensor (max 38MP photos), 4-inch AMOLED screen, HDMI, USB, DLNA, Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi

The Nokia 808 PureView is most notable for cramming what Nokia calls the 'game changer' of a 41-megapixel sensor at its heart. This provides 38 or 34 megapixel photos at maximum resolution (generating a file size of 9MB+) depending on whether you've chosen 4:3 or 16:9 image aspect ratios, respectively.

That's a larger resolution than any sensor currently provided by a consumer-level digital camera, and likewise knocks other typically 8 and 12 megapixel smartphones out of the park.

In fact you'd have to be a professional commercial photographer working in advertising to justify spending around £20K on a digital medium format camera to achieve that level of specification from a dedicated device. Given that, a current price of £400/US$530 (around AU$600) for the Nokia 808 appears almost reasonable.

While the pixel count may be through the roof, naturally it doesn't automatically follow that the camera components of the Nokia 808 PureView are as good as a dedicated camera costing many times its outlay.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

That's because not only physical sensor size but also lens quality and construction plays an equally large part in the capture and 'photo realistic' quality of any image.

Also, we're only offered standard JPEG format images here (as we are with its rivals on test too), not the top quality unprocessed raw files provided by premium compact cameras, compact system cameras (CSCs) and DSLRs.

But first impressions are good. The Nokia's lens bears the branding of photo enthusiasts' favourite Carl Zeiss, most widely deployed by Sony's consumer digital camera range.

We also get a lens aperture of a reasonably bright f/2.4, which should serve it better in dim conditions - and going by our ISO results which are notably cleaner and clearer than competitors', this would seem to have been proved correct.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

A built-in Xenon flash with a 4metre range is housed along with the lens in a raised bump on the rear of the handset, with a slightly roughened feel to the surface making for a tighter grip than most phones.

Despite the fairly high price tag, camera operation really is autofocus all the way, with only a meagre 4x digital zoom accessible. Added to that, in operation an on-screen message alerts us to the fact that the zoom function is disabled at full 38 megapixels.

Like all the other camera phones here, there is the ability to effortlessly flick between shooting still images and Full HD 1920 x 1080p video at 30 frames per second, which is on a par with any consumer level pocket camera.

Further features we might likewise find on a regular pocket camera include exposure compensation, auto/manual white balance, and face recognition.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

However, with that obvious statement of intent heralded by the largest resolution on offer, plus no fewer than three creative modes alongside regulation-issue auto and pre-optimised scene shooting options, the Nokia would seem to place a greater deliberate emphasis than others here on image capture.

This comparatively impressive internal spec is twinned on the Nokia with a 4-inch AMOLED screen for shot composition and review. A tap of your subject at the position they appear on the screen biases focus toward them and subsequently fires the shutter; though there's also a 'hard' shutter release button on the bottom right-hand edge for more conventional use.

While the screen is clear and the captured images immediately look amazing when viewed on it, the pixel dimensions in play here are a modest 640 x 360 pixels. So it's only really once we've downloaded a 38 megapixel shot to our desktop that we begin to see the benefit over 8 and 12 megapixel pretenders.

Incidentally there is also the option to shoot at lower resolutions on the Nokia PureView 808, so if you don't need huge file sizes, you can dial it down.

Otherwise, at its best it produces natural colours, even consistent exposures and bags of detail into the corners of the frame.

A 16 megapixel mid-range compact camera would deliver very similar results - and you'd get a greater degree of true photographic control. That being said, for now this is probably the apex of the smartphone as a photographic device.

Sample images

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO samples

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Full ISO 50 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 50 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 100 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 1600 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Auto ISO (125) (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Pros: A huge pixel count knocks mere 8 or 12 megapixel camera phone rivals out of the park, and three creative mode settings provide access to the top resolution. These feature alongside regular auto and scene modes, a roughened surface to the backplate to aid grip, and a Carl Zeiss lens.

Cons: Larger files take longer to send and share, plus it's not the easiest phone on which to navigate and implement features and is sluggish to power up and get going from cold.

Read our full Nokia 808 PureView review

Samsung Galaxy S3

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Price: £400/US$570/AU$650
Spec: 8MP camera, 4.8-inch AMOLED screen, USB 2.0, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Pleasant to use and to hold (both plaudits equally applicable to HTC's One X), thanks to a smooth subtly curved design, this Android 4.0 phone offers a standard issue 8 megapixel camera and CMOS sensor accessed via a dedicated camera app.

In this mode, the comparatively gargantuan 4.8-inch 1280 x 720 AMOLED HD screen - the same size as that found on Samsung's own Galaxy Camera - apes a regular 4:3 digital camera image ratio, which means black bands crop it left and right if turning the camera on its side to shoot landscape fashion.

Like certain consumer-targeted dedicated digital compact cameras, the Samsung Galaxy S3's fully auto camera app features a best shot function whereby it takes eight pictures and automatically selects the one it considers the best, based on onboard parameters.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

For those interested in sharing as well as taking snaps, the Samsung Galaxy S3 can also recognise faces in images taken by comparing those from your contacts list. Compatible removable media includes microSD, as used by a handful of its maker's digital snappers.

Like the others here, Full HD video capture is offered as standard, and at a smooth 30fps frame rate, with the processor being of the 1.4GHz quad-core variety.

The camera here uses continuous autofocus, so point it at a particular subject - not necessarily a face - and it will zero in, a formerly blurred subject visibly and rapidly snapping into sharpness.

Screen visibility isn't quite as crystal clear as on the iPhone 5 - particularly under artificial light - and resulting JPEG snaps of around 2MB each in size are distinctly soft under artificial light. Again, quality is worse than a dedicated pocket camera would deliver if shooting handheld without flash.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Turn the screen on its side to shoot portrait fashion and on-screen icons and controls will niftily rotate so they are displayed the correct way up. Down at the base of the screen is the shutter release button, with a sliding switch to its right enabling you to swipe between stills and video capture, with the previous captured image visible as a thumbnail.

A tap of an icon to the top-right of the screen swaps back and forth between front-facing and rear-facing cameras, while to the left of this is a rather more comprehensive set of onboard photo tools than Apple provides its users with.

A camera settings mode apes a conventional Samsung stills camera by offering a choice of single shot or continuous bursts of images, for example, as well as switching on face detection, panorama and HDR options.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Like HTC's One X, we're also spoilt with a range of fun and effective in-camera effects filters which once selected are applied at the point of capture. These include negative, sepia, black and white, washed out colour, red-yellow point, blue point, green point, solarise, posterise, warm vintage and cold vintage. Flash settings are once again limited to auto, on or off.

It's also worth mentioning that the camera's wide screen is also extremely sensitive to the touch, so we found ourselves inadvertently activating features we didn't want from the edges of the screen just in the process of handling the device and trying to line up a shot.

Image quality isn't at all bad on the Samsung Galaxy S3, being most closely comparable in our eyes to that of the Sony Xperia S in terms of well saturated colour, detail and consistency from shot to shot.

Sample images

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO samples

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 100 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 125 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Auto ISO (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Pros: The Samsung Galaxy S3 features one of the largest screens out there for shot composition and review, and easy to use camera features and overall functionality. In-camera effects filters are fun and effective, and it produces warm colours and consistency from shot to shot.

Cons: One of the larger handsets on test, plus it's easy to inadvertently select settings at the edges of the large screen when you didn't mean to merely in the process of handling the handset.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S3 review

Apple iPhone 5

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Price: £530/US$650/AU$799
Spec: 8MP iSight camera, 4-inch Retina display, Bluetooth 4.0 Wi-Fi

The ubiquity of the iPhone tends to transcend any criticisms - for example the fact that with its flattened (rather than sloping) edges it's not the most comfortable handset to hold in the palm - while also enabling Apple to modestly claim the device houses 'the world's most popular camera.'

This latest aluminium iteration with ceramic glass inlays also claims to be the thinnest and lightest version to date. The iPhone 5 comes with an 8 megapixel iSight camera located towards a top edge at the back (which is exactly where fingertips tend to stray), which is supposedly protected against scratches by what Apple claims is sapphire crystal.

The wow factor lies in a visibly bright 4-inch Retina screen at the front, offering a 1136 x 640 pixel display, though it is in fact narrower than all but the Nokia 808 among its rivals here.

Powered by Apple's iOS 6, camera features such as a dynamic low light mode plus a really quite successful 240-degree panorama option, which creates a single elongated image comprised of up to 28 megapixels in total, are onboard.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Speed of photo capture - often sluggish on handsets when compared to dedicated cameras, which is why indoor stills are often blurred - is said to have been improved by 40% over the iPhone 4S.

Also borrowed from compact snapshot cameras is face detection for up to 10 frozen smiles in a single frame, 'tap screen to focus' functionality, plus 1920 x 1080p video clips at up to 30fps.

A photo can be captured in the middle of shooting a video sequence, and a 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera is onboard for video conferencing (720p at up to 30fps). An LED flash is provided for scenarios for when it's too dark to take a shot without.

Seeming to tick the proverbial boxes then, on the iPhone 5, as with others here, the camera function is presented as an app instantly accessed via a finger tap.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

We enjoyed the fact that this provides you with digital camera-type options, such as overlaying the screen with a nine zone grid effect to practice your rule of thirds.

Or deploying HDR mode to ensure more even exposures if you are presented with a trickier scenario that has both bags of shadow detail and highlights that you want to capture. To achieve this, the standard three shots are taken in quick succession and then automatically blended.

As we already mentioned, we also get the popular panorama shooting mode also found on most current compact cameras, with the ability to pan either left to right or vice versa through your scene. You watch the image gradually build as you pan until a single elongated shot (inevitably a bigger file size - around 4MB - than a standard 2MB snap) is produced and saved.

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 synch options found on digital cameras proper.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

We did enjoy the fact that a simple tap of the camera icon at the top-right of the screen alternates between the front-facing camera and the higher resolution one at the rear, making self-portraits a cinch - as seen on other cameras here.

Similarly, a slider switch at the bottom-right of the screen enables you to swap effortlessly between stills or video capture - a familiar red record button appearing centre stage in the latter mode, as with the others here. So use is intuitive - something at which Apple has always excelled.

To get straight down to the business of capturing a photo, a tap of the camera icon at the bottom-right of the screen takes a snap accompanied by the sampled sound of a shutter firing. The volume buttons on the phone's side can also be used as twin shutter releases when in camera mode.

Similarly impressive is the fact that a shot is taken with very little shutter lag - meaning the time between pressing the button and the device actually taking the shot is tiny. This meant that we were more likely to achieve the image we saw in our mind's eye before taking the picture.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Editing functions are pretty limited - to being able to crop, rotate, auto enhance or remove red eye, but of course there are a plethora of downloadable camera and image editing apps if you want to do more.

While the process of taking an image is simple, getting said image off the iPhone 5 involves a number of routes, since there's no removable media card provided here. So it's either emailing it to yourself, going the social media route and posting it on Facebook, or better still automatically saving all your new images to Dropbox.

Images taken under tungsten light are disappointingly grainy, and while Apple may claim that the iPhone's little lens is the most popular camera in the world, even compared with a lower-to-mid-range point and shoot camera it's far from the best.

Another thing to mention is that the positioning of the iPhone's lens - over in one corner of the handset, again means that it is easy for finger tips to stray in front, simply in the process of handling the phone.

Coupled with this, you can't control ISO light sensitivity settings manually - so the phone simply chooses automatically (up to a maximum ISO 3200 setting). That was a slight frustration for us when manual ISO selection is a feature of all its camera phone rivals here. Again it appears Apple is favouring ease of use above all else.

Sample images

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Full Auto ISO (ISO 64) image, see the cropped (100%) version below.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Auto ISO (64) (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Pros: It has a bright screen and easy to use and intuitive point and shoot operation, and as a camera the iPhone 5 is almost infinitely customisable via apps. Plus its side-mounted volume buttons double up as a shutter release when shooting.

Cons: Taking and reviewing photos appears to rapidly consume battery power, while camera options are more basic than the most basic of digital compacts, with no manual selection of ISO (though of course there are apps that lend greater control). Also, it has a narrower screen than others here.

Read our full Apple iPhone 5 review

Nokia Lumia 920

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Price: £540/US$600/AU$700
Spec: 8.7MP sensor, 4.5-inch display, wireless charging option, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, micro USB

Like the Nokia 808 PureView, this defiantly monolithic flagship Windows Phone offers the brand's optical image stabilised PureView technology. But in comparison with the 41MP chip of the Nokia 808, the camera on the Nokia Lumia 920 appears rather underpowered at a standard-issue 8 megapixels.

While pocket cameras offer 16 megapixel sensors, and also optical zoom lenses, one of several areas in which the 4G-ready Nokia Lumia 920 outclasses most is via its larger than average 4.5-inch PureMotion HD+ capacitive tile-based touchscreen display.

This is claimed to be the fastest and brightest on a smartphone, and offers an HD equivalent resolution of 1280 x 768 pixels, although while it's certainly bright and clear we didn't notice a marked difference from the others here in terms of lining up and reviewing shots.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Outwardly signifying that this JPEG-only smartphone is less directly about the business of shooting photos and video than the Nokia Lumia 920 is a pencil prick of an autofocus lens at the back.

However, this does boast a bright f/2 maximum aperture and 8cm minimum focus for close ups, plus maximum 26metre focal length. The lens sits beneath an even tinier integral flash, offering a 3metre range.

Once again the lens is Carl Zeiss branded, and unsurprisingly there's no optical zoom onboard - just a 4x digital variety. Auto and manual white balance settings are also accessible, as is a limited degree of image editing - such as the ability to rotate, crop and auto enhance your shots. Video shooting comes in the now ubiquitous Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30fps.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

A physical shutter release button is provided to the far right of the narrow edge of the handset, helpfully falling naturally under the forefinger of your right hand when turning it on its side to shoot in landscape orientation.

Other than that, the layout of the Nokia Lumia 920's controls is all very minimalist, reminding us of one of those boutique hotels where everything is so pared back you struggle to find the light switch upon staggering back to your room.

For example the photo (and video) settings menus are actually hidden down at the bottom of the screen and so need to be dragged up for access.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Setting options include a brief selection of scene modes, ISO light sensitivity settings - running the usual modest smartphone gamut from ISO 100 to ISO 800 - plus exposure compensation of +/- 2EV.

We also get the chance to manually tweak white balance and alter the aspect ratio between the 16:9 ratio of the screen in use and the more common 4:3 aspect ratio of digital camera images. A focus assist light can also be activated if desired, while as on the Nokia 808, flash settings are restricted to just on, off or auto flash.

Generally the photos we got out of this device weren't bad, and a pleasing level of detail is delivered when focus gets it spot on. However, we did notice some loss of focus towards the edges of the frame at standard wide-angle settings, and auto white balance varied between shots - with daylight providing a blue colour cast, for example.

Where the Nokia Lumia 920 came off slightly better was when shooting in lower light without flash - as our ISO sample shots testify - due in part no doubt to the twinning of a bright aperture f/2 lens with a back illuminated sensor.

Sample images

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO samples

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 100 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 400 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

ISO 800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Auto ISO (320) (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Pros: A bright f/2 aperture lens, Windows operating system, 8 megapixel camera, image editing tools, large and bright screen, Carl Zeiss optics and back illuminated sensor are all excellent features.

Cons: The Nokia Lumia 920's monoblock design won't be to everyone's tastes, and it's easy to inadvertently select functions at the far left and right extremities of the screen when turning the phone on its side to shoot landscape fashion.

Read our full Nokia Lumia 920 review

Verdict: best camera phone

Pond scene
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Camera phone comparison
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Scene comparison
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Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

In a sense, testing and comparing these top camera phones was an education.

What we really missed when using these smartphones principally as cameras was a nicely moulded or subtly curved handgrip. Smartphones are just too narrow and slippery to get as good and firm a hold as we'd have liked, and on several occasions they almost slipped from our grasp.

Only the Nokia 808 PureView felt particularly comfortable to grip when using it as a camera, thanks to its roughened back plate surface and thin raised back plate strip to stop fingers slipping about.

While smartphones are superb for those occasions when you don't have a proper camera to hand, but see something that would make a fun or interesting shot - or simply something you want to preserve the memory of - anyone with an interest in photography would still feel distinctly uncomfortable having any of these options as their one and only camera.

And like the cheapest compact cameras, we're only really getting results comparable to those from a dedicated camera when light conditions - meaning daylight, sunshine - are at their most favourable.

When faced with tricky exposures or less than ideal light conditions, we still ended up with blurred results more often than we'd hoped - which is an issue due, in part, to the lack of depth, weight and moreover grip to smartphones.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Viewed small on the individual handset's screens, almost all of our pictures immediately looked fantastic. But once transferred to the larger screens of our desktop computers, all too often there was the twinge of disappointment at their softness when viewed full size.

While the Nokia 808 PureView delivered the images which for us came close to a decent mid-range digital camera, you also have to take into account that high resolutions mean large file sizes.

The SYmbian-powered phone pumped out shots between 12MB and 17.5MB during our test, compared to an average of 2MB to 3MB for the other handsets on test. So it'll take a longer time to spread your shots via Bluetooth, or however you wish to share them.

While first place for image quality unsurprisingly goes to the Nokia 808 PureView from among those on test, the HTC One X comes in a strong second, and is also much more user friendly than the Nokia.

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

Ease of use as well as picture quality has us selecting the Samsung Galaxy S3 for third place, followed by the Sony Xperia S, the iPhone 5 and the Nokia 920.

None are outright duds by any means, but it would be hard to justify buying any for the camera alone, when even the best performance is no better than a mid-range digital compact camera that doesn't cost that much.

While we won't be swapping our CSCs or DSLRs for any of these top camera phones at any point soon then, as the old adage runs: your best camera is the one you have with you at the time. And, increasingly for most of us, that is likely to be a smartphone.

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