Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

7th Oct 2013 | 10:15

Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

What's the top cameraphone on the market?

Camera phones vs compact cameras

We're dramatically overhauling our cameraphones test in the near future to help you understand which the best snapper on the market is - so stay tuned to find out what we think about the Sony Xperia Z1, iPhone 5S, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom and Nokia Lumia 1020.

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?

HTC One

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.

Nokia Lumia 925

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 Z

Best camera phone

Price: £480/US$550/AU$550
Spec: 13MP Exmor R sensor, 5-inch display, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI, microSD card slot

Unlike its direct rivals, Sony has as much expertise in producing cameras as it does the sensors that go in them, so its phones were always going to stand out from the crowd in terms of their cameras.

The Sony Xperia Z's camera gives us 13 megapixel maximum resolution shots from an Exmor R low light sensor, as found in Sony's Cyber-Shot digital compacts and DSLRs. This is up from the 12MP of the older Sony Xperia S.

As expected, the camera part of the handset has an automatic focus and offers a built-in flash. There's also a front-facing two megapixel camera for those self-portraits too, up from a previous 1.3 megapixels, but that's probably not going to offer you your finest photographic hour.

Travelling types are now also able to geotag their images via a built-in GPS facility that can be activated or deactivated as desired.

The positioning of the camera at the very top of the backplate and slightly left of centre, if the handset is held upright in your palm, means that shooting portrait orientation is easier with this one than turning it on its side to shoot in landscape format. If you do attempt the latter, fingertips can inadvertently stray in front of the lens.

Naturally, this being a phone, there is no optical zoom. Instead we get the image degrading digital zoom, here of the 16x variety, that crops the image to give the illusion that you've zoomed in. Zooming in or out is via a physical switch located next to the phone's power button, whereas taking photos or videos is now via a virtual on-screen shutter/record button.

But there are many other tricks carried over from Sony's Cyber-Shot compact cameras that are properly useful and worth having. As on the Sony Xperia S, we again get Sony's Sweep Panorama function that automatically stitches together a sequence of shots into one elongated image as you pan through any given scene - with the results pleasingly successful in terms of seamlessness.

Sony Xperia Z

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is also provided, which means that formerly tricky exposures such as a dark foreground and bright background - where you would either lose detail in the shadows or in the highlights as the camera metered on one or the other - are a thing of the past.

The HDR feature is provided for both 1080p HD video and stills, though you can sometimes be left with a rather flat or unreal-looking image as the camera tries to come up with a best of both worlds solution.

Those of us used to shooting with Sony's palm sized Cyber-Shot cameras will generally find much familiar here. As well as the above features we additionally get face detection, geo-tagging of images and built-in image stabilisation - which is handy, since a case of the shakes and resultant blurred images is always a possibility with a handset this shiny and slender.

We also get app-like picture effects, or digital filters in photographic speak. Automatic scene detection, smile detection and automatic image enhancing Superior Auto mode additionally feature, as in your camera proper.

Touch Focus, whereby you direct focus to a particular subject by tapping where it appears on the screen, which subsequently takes a shot, is another feature brought across from the camera world, and adds to the intuitive feel.

In full, the shooting modes comprise Superior Auto, Normal Auto, Front camera, picture effect (built-in digital filters), scene selection (pre-optimised settings for common subjects) and Sweep Panorama - so the sort of lineup you'll get from a regular Sony Cyber-Shot snapshot camera.

Sony Xperia Z

Add in object tracking autofocus alongside regular AF, and this is one of the most comprehensive camera options we've found on a smartphone. Sony is obviously showing off its imaging expertise.

While for low light shooting without flash we're provided with a range stretching from ISO 100 to ISO 1600 (ISO 800 and ISO 1600 being progressively noisy), the fact remains that the actual lens element of the Sony Xperia Z is tiny even compared to a cheap point and shoot digital camera, though you will pay a slight premium for one that is water-resistant and dust-proof with it.

A real bonus this time around, though, is that the camera's internal 16GB flash memory - half that of the Sony Xperia S, curiously - can be expanded with the addition of a removable microSD card of up to 32GB, the flash memory of choice for the modern smartphone.

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

Sony's expertise in this area once again shows, with results from the Xperia Z being consistent from shot to shot in terms of colour, exposure and white balance. Just what you want from a device with which you're going to be pointing and shooting.

However for our money the automatic results from the HTC One hold detail better from shot to shot, while those from the Samsung Galaxy S4 offer more contrast, making even the Sony Xperia Z's images, while fine when viewed in isolation, look a tad washed out when re-examined alongside.

Sample images

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Pros: 13 megapixel resolution, Sweep Panorama function is both fun and effective, consistent performance in terms of colour and exposure from shot to shot, images noticeably hold detail apart from at highest ISOs, water resistant and dust-proof (unlike the majority of dedicated digital cameras).

Cons: Lens element is tiny even compared to a cheap point and shoot digital camera, display screen is cropped by operational toolbars to the left and right - or top and bottom - plus lens positioning means that stray fingertips can find their way into shot, less comfortable to hold for longer periods when composing shots because of flat edges.

Read our full Sony Xperia Z review

HTC One

Best camera phone

Price: £450/US$600/AU$690
Spec: 4MP 'ultra pixel', 4.7-inch display, HDMI, Bluetooth 4.0, USB, Wi-Fi, NFC

The HTC One's main camera element is located at the top edge of the handset, when held upright, and ranged dead centre, giving it a pleasingly symmetrical look. But by being as far away from either edge of the Android smartphone, it is also less likely that fingertips may stray in front of the lens in the process of gripping it.

Once you've set the phone up from scratch the camera icon is immediately visible bottom-right of screen. Give this a tap and you're immediately presented with the scene before your lens, the camera's AF automatically and visibly adjusting focus and exposure as you pan with the handset around the room or scene.

Like the HTC One X, the HTC 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.

This is the same sort of performance as its predecessor, although that model offered the standard 8 megapixels overall. Fudging the issue of pixel count, HTC refers to the One's main camera resolution in terms of 'ultra pixels' - a term that sounds zeitgeist-y but is basically meaningless and seems like an attempt to cover up an otherwise modest-sounding 4 megapixel camera.

As in the world of dedicated cameras, pixel count isn't everything, of course. Sensor size has a role to play too, and here it's a larger than most 1/3-inch. There's also a front-facing camera, offering a lower 2.1 megapixel resolution, as opposed to the previous HTC One X'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 still images, plus optical image stabilisation to avoid hand wobble resulting in blurred shots. It betters the Sony Xperia Z in offering twice the internal memory, at 32GB, as well as NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity.

Best camera phone

A new gimmick is something that on compact cameras is often referred to as 'motion snapshot', but here is given the less immediately obvious moniker of HTC Zoe. Press the shutter and the HTC One automatically captures up to 20 photos and a 3-second video (with Full HD 1080p resolution offered as standard here). The manufacturer claims that this produces a picture that's 'alive', or at least one that tells the story more fully by mixing media.

Flash operation is included too, or rather 'smart flash', as HTC likes to refer to it. Zooming in or out, again of the video variety, is a case of swiping your finger over a zoom bar on the screen, which is very responsive to the touch and the zoom action smoothly fluid.

An icon for immediately summoning up a comprehensive toolbar of built-in app-like digital filter effects is provided either at the bottom-right or bottom-left of the screen, depending on whether you're holding the handset to shoot in portrait or landscape orientation. We also get camera or video icons, with a tap of the former immediately taking the shot, rather than just selecting the relevant mode.

It's worth adding here that the HTC's screen is much brighter and clearer than many dedicated digital cameras we've had the pleasure of using, and really picks up fine detail, which is a bonus. Also a bonus is the fact that the image before the lens fills the whole of the screen in widescreen format, meaning it feels best suited to group portraits or landscape shots.

Specific image adjustments can also be made in-camera to the likes of exposure, contrast, saturation and sharpness. There are also dedicated scene, night, HDR and panorama options, selected via a toolbar located top or bottom-left of the screen, again depending on the manner in which you're holding the phone.

Manually selectable ISO runs up to the standard ISO 1600, up from the so-so maximum ISO 800 of its predecessor. Perhaps HTC is thinking it could justify upping the sensitivity as there are fewer pixels on the actual sensor.

The handset does, however, get quite warm over the course of using the camera. Also the shutter release is so sensitive on the HTC it's possible to fire off two shots instead of one.

Best camera phone

Rather more interestingly, after capturing an image there's the facility to remove unwanted passers by from a photo in the style of Photoshop via an Object Removal function.

Sadly there's no microSD slot on the HTC One to expand the storage. Whereas that feature has been added to the Sony Xperia Z, HTC has once again jettisoned microSD use on the HTC One. This is a pity for us snap-happy users, even though it could be argued that a 32GB internal cache, the same as the predecessor HTC One X, is plenty.

We're all for paring down on unnecessary features and bulk, but this move feels a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Coupled with the lower pixel resolution, which admittedly can have one benefit - in that fewer pixels on a smaller sensor equals less noisy images - the HTC One wouldn't be our first choice for the camera aspect alone.

This is disappointing, because we love the handling, look and feel of the HTC One handset. Where it could have been a champion, it's merely a (very good) option if you don't mind widescreen ratio still imagery.

Shots taken at higher ISOs such as ISO 800 and ISO 1600 are noticeably less noisy on the HTC One than either the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the Sony Xperia Z, however, so if retaining detail in low light is a priority then the HTC One is the phone to go for.

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ISO samples

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Pros: The shape and design of the phone means it feels comfortable in the palm, it's very easy to access the camera and its features, plus the handset screen resolution is razor sharp, so images displayed on screen look fantastic.

Cons: A four megapixel or 'Ultrapixel' camera is looking distinctly underpowered in today's multi megapixel handset market, plus the lack of removable storage (no microSD slot) particularly disappoints.

Read our full HTC One 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.

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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

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ISO samples

Can smartphones replace compact cameras? Best camera phones explored

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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 S4

Best camera phone

Price: £520/US$630/AU$650
Spec: 13 megapixel, 5-inch AMOLED screen, USB 2.0, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microSD card slot

The Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean-powered Samsung Galaxy S4 fields a large 5-inch Super AMOLED display for deeper blacks and all-round better contrast, as opposed to its predecessor's already sizeable 4.8-inches, so bettering Samsung's own dedicated Galaxy Camera in that respect.

It also comes with a 13 megapixel autofocus main camera - up from the respectable 8 megapixels of its predecessor, to now match Sony's Xperia Z in that respect - plus a secondary front-facing camera of the now seemingly regulation two megapixels.

Full HD 1080p video can also be shot at a 30fps frame rate, while our handset came with 16GB of built-in memory out of the box, with a microSD slot to expand this further if required. To insert the card you do actually have to un-clip the backplate, however, since there's no less intrusive side port.

The handset feels comfortable in the palm due in part to the rounded edges of its backplate, albeit not as comfortable as the HTC One. But like the One the image in front of the handset's lens commendably fills the whole of the screen, with operational icons floating over it.

Best camera phone

However, if you want the highest 13MP resolution photos you have to choose the 4:3 aspect ratio option, which means black bands crop either end of the image to give you a more squared view.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 also offers up an impressively broad range of shooting modes - including options that might otherwise get filed under a 'scene settings' option on other handsets. These rotate before you with a finger swipe, ever so subtly aping the effect of adjusting a conventional shooting mode dial on a digital camera.

We get the standard default Auto option, but also dedicated settings for Night or Action/Sports shooting, Panorama (shots either in a vertical or horizontal direction), Eraser (which takes five sequential shots to be able to 'erase' any moving subject from the background) and Rich Tone, which is HDR by another name.

There are also no fewer than three motion snapshot-style options in Animated Photo, one of which records a mood-enhancing audio clip alongside your still image. And then there's Best Face and Best Photo (consecutive shooting to end up with the most flattering portrait), and finally Beauty Face, which automatically smoothes out facial blemishes.

These are all illustrated with an icon displaying the type of image you might take when using one of the shooting modes, plus a brief text bubble by way of further explanation. So there's plenty of handholding available here for those of us who want to take better photos without actively being experts in photography.

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The Samsung Galaxy S4 gives us icons for camera (stills shooting) and camcorder on the screen. Tapping the camera icon immediately takes a shot, so there's no second delay as we switch into camera mode.

Because we mainly use our phones for those spur-of-the-moment shots rather than the more considered ones we might opt to use a proper camera for, this time-saving shortcut makes sense.

The camera part here again uses continuous autofocus. Like HTC's One we're also spoilt with a range of fun and effective in-camera effects filters. However, these are applied after capturing images, with the altered image saved alongside the original.

These include the regulars of negative, sepia, black and white and the ilk, and are saved as PNG files rather than JPEGs, with the unadulterated originals remaining as JPEGs.

Image quality isn't at all bad on the Samsung Galaxy S4, though white balance did appear to wander slightly during a course of sequential shots, with the results being most closely comparable in our eyes to that of the Sony Xperia Z in terms of well-saturated colour and detail.

However, the end results still fall short of the sharpness achievable with a dedicated camera, and the HTC One's shots are clearer and cleaner at higher ISO settings.

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Pros: One of the larger screens out there - along with Sony's Xperia Z - for shot composition and review, ability to expand memory for photos and video via microSD card slot, easy to use camera features and overall functionality, in camera effects filters are fun and effective, warm colours and consistency from shot to shot.

Cons: One of the larger handsets out there makes it slightly unwieldy; image quality also still falls short of what a dedicated digital camera could achieve with 13 megapixels.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S4 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

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

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 925

Best camera phone

Price: £470/US$650/AU$750
Spec: 8.7MP sensor, 4.5-inch display, wireless charging, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, micro USB, NFC

Like the Nokia 808 PureView and Nokia Lumia 920 before it, the Nokia Lumia 925 comes in either 16GB or 32GB memory capacities complete with the brand's optical image stabilised PureView technology, wrapped in a body that shows off the aluminium construction to a degree that looks increasingly iPhone-like, while retaining a monoblock handset design.

Stylish appearance aside, first impressions of the phone's camera are good, in that the porthole housing the camera lens on the back is large and prominent, even though the lens at its centre remains physically tiny. The sensor is Carl Zeiss branded - this being one of the names most closely associated with optical excellence in the camera world, and more usually paired with Sony.

Maximum aperture is a bright f/2.0, which is respectable, as is a wide fixed focal length of 26mm with an 8cm minimum focus range. Should you have to use extra illumination, then dual LED flash is provided with an operating range of 3 metres.

The autofocus JPEG-only camera resolution hasn't altered between successive handset generations. The Nokia 925 again incorporates an 8.7 megapixel, 1/3-inch backside illuminated sensor.

Of course, more pixels on the same sized chip can lead to image noise - visible as grain-like speckles - appearing in shadow details, so with the Nokia 925 being sold partly on its low light claims, this has a degree of inherent logic. Naturally the bright f/2.0 aperture lens and the fact that the sensor is back illuminated also helps with its light gathering abilities (the lower the 'f' number the more light gets in).

Best camera phone

The display size used for framing and reviewing images - and navigating all the rest of the phone's non-camera-related features - stays at 4.5 inches. The tile-based Windows layout is once again navigated via an AMOLED touchscreen, and very clear and bright it looks too, thanks in part to a 1280 x 768 pixel display.

As with most latest generation smartphones there is a front-facing camera for self-portraits, which here offers 1280 x 960 pixels (or 1.2 megapixels) - so HD rather than Full HD - and boasts an almost as bright (but not quite) aperture of f/2.4.

This screen has been retained from the Lumia 920 while Nokia has made the overall handset shorter, narrower and thinner, if only by a millimetre or two, as well as lighter.

Despite a narrower screen bezel, again 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.

On the Nokia Lumia 925, as with so many camera manufacturers currently, Nokia is referring to its built-in camera as being 'smart'. In our experience this is more a fancy marketing term than any tangible change up of gear, but the claim here partly refers to the ability to shoot a sequence of shots to end up with one you might actually want to keep.

By doing so, you then have the ability to excise moving objects from your frame that are ruining the shot - there's always someone walking by as you're trying to photograph that eighth wonder, after all - as is likewise offered by the HTC One's Object Removal function. Just tap the screen to prompt this in-camera Photoshop-like piece of magic.

Alternatively you can combine the sequential frames into one shot, zoetrope-style. Cool, but not a valid reason for adopting the Nokia 925 alone, and it is slightly irritating that this is the camera's default setting upon power up, when you might not always want a burst of images.

Best camera phone

Fortunately if you don't want the camera to rattle off a sequence you can select regular single shot capture mode with a couple of further screen taps. Here you can switch between 16:9 aspect ratio images that fill the handset screen or 4:3 ratio ones, which is the most common default setting for a standalone digital camera.

Unsurprisingly - and unlike the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom - there's no optical zoom onboard the Nokia 925 - just a 4x digital variety. Video remains the industry standard Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30fps - the frame rate also unaltered from the Nokia 920.

Something that has changed in the Nokia 925, however, is that light sensitivity settings now go higher than a modest ISO 800 - up to a maximum ISO 3200 in fact, which is approaching dedicated compact camera territory for specification, and again, is another weapon in the camera phone's arsenal for effective low light snapping.

Though it reads like weak praise, 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 a tendency for auto white balance to wander between shots, with daylight providing a blueish colour cast, for example.

Where the Nokia 925 again came off slightly better than rivals was when shooting in lower light without flash, as our ISO sample shots testify - due in part once again to the twinning of a bright aperture f/2 lens with a back illuminated sensor.

Best camera phone

If we've a gripe it's that the Nokia 925 could be a little more user friendly. 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. There is again a limited degree of image editing accessible, such as the ability to rotate, crop and auto enhance your shots.

There's also a Creative Studio feature that enables you to turn pre-captured images to black and white (here referred to as 'Silver' - a nod perhaps to silver halide) or give them toy camera-like colour filter effects such as 'Jade' and 'Amber'. Again this is a fun feature, if non-essential.

Auto and manual white balance settings are also accessible, this time pre-capture, as is exposure compensation of +/- 2EV. You can use a focus assist light if desired, while flash settings are restricted to functional rather than elaborate: we get just auto, on or off.

While the USB/charger port is now at the top of the handset rather than the bottom, and the speaker has moved from the very base to the bottom edge of the backplate, there's a lot about the Nokia 925 that has stayed the same in terms of camera specification and performance when compared with the earlier Nokia 920 handset. Thus the pros and cons of the Nokia 925 as a photographic tool largely mirror those of the Nokia 920.

If you're coming to the Nokia 925 cold, though, you won't be disappointed - particularly for shots in lower light. Unless you're comparing it to a dedicated digital camera that is, with a physically larger lens, sensor and a greater number of pixels.

But that's to be expected, and the all-in-one convenience of the Nokia undoubtedly has its draw if you're only going to have the one device to hand for snapshots.

Sample images

Best camera phone

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Best camera phone

Click here to see the full resolution image

Best camera phone

Click here to see the full resolution image

Best camera phone

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Best camera phone

Click here to see the full resolution image

Best camera phone

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Best camera phone

Click here to see the full resolution image

Best camera phone

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ISO samples

Best camera phone

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

Best camera phone

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

Best camera phone

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

Best camera phone

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

Best camera phone

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

Best camera phone

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

Best camera phone

ISO 3200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Best camera phone

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

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

Cons: No media card slot, naturally pricier on launch than the largely identical Nokia 920, making that earlier phone currently the better buy, fun 'smart camera' functions come across as gimmicky rather than essential extras.

Read our full Nokia Lumia 925 review

Verdict: best camera phone

Best camera phone

Part of the reason for undertaking this article was that it might prove to be an education. And in a sense it was. What we really missed when using these smartphones principally as cameras was a nicely moulded or subtly curved handgrip, like those you see on compact cameras.

Smartphones are just too narrow and slippery to get as good and firm a hold on 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 smartphone cameras 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 shooting tool.

And like the cheapest compact cameras, we're only really getting results comparable to the kind of shots we'd get 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 grip to smartphones.

Best camera phone

Viewed small on the individual handsets' screens, almost all of our pictures immediately looked fantastic. But once transferred to our desktop, all too often there was the twinge of disappointment at their softness when viewed full size, so looks can initially be deceiving.

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 - with the Nokia 808 pumping out shots between 12MB and 17.5MB during our test, compared to an average of 2MB to 3MB for the others. So longer times are required to share shots.

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

Ease of use as well as picture quality has us selecting the Samsung Galaxy S4 for third place, followed by the water-resistant Sony Xperia Z, which gives a very similar performance in terms of image quality.

Best camera phone

That just leaves the iPhone 5 and the Nokia Lumia 925, the latter of which appears to be edging closer to the former in terms of design and styling. If Apple's claims that more photos are taken on an iPhone 5 than any other image capture device are true - and the handset's public ubiquity suggests a grain of truth - then there is a case for 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em'.

None of the latest generation of smartphones are outright duds in terms of being judged as photographic tools, but it would be hard to justify buying any for the camera alone, when even the very best performance is still no better than a budget compact camera that anyone with a passing interest in photography will own.

While we won't be swapping our compact system cameras or DSLRs for any of the above 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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