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The James Norton Column: Camera Shoot-out


Ah, smartphone cameras. They are such a divisive topic. They are one of the most important parts of a smartphone these days as well and have become a point of differentiation in the hegemony that is smartphone specifications.

In the Android space, cameras have always been extremely disappointing. Apple have always taken photography seriously, but it was Nokia that made the biggest strides with their PureView technology, the second generation of which features here in the form of the Lumia 1020. For the last few generations of smartphone, no Android phone has been able to match up to the best of Nokia or the latest iPhone, but things have changed.

New Android phones of the last six months or so have started to catch up and perhaps even overtake Apple on the camera side. This may well be because we are reaching the physical limits of what a smartphone camera can do without taking up much more space in a device - something Apple is unwilling to do up to now - or because Android manufacturers have upped their game, it is hard to say. I am fairly sure it is a combination of factors driven by the increasing importance consumers give to the camera in their phone.

Each manufacturer has taken a very different approach to getting the best from the minuscule amount of space their optical assemblies have to work. Lets take a look at each phone I am testing here and understand why it features and the approach being taken.

Nokia Lumia 1020
This is the current king of all smartphone cameras when you prioritise quality above all else. Indeed, the 1020 can rival most lower cost point and shoot cameras. Nokia have sacrificed a slender body and all round usability of their phone in the pursuit of camera excellence. The 1020 has a massive camera hump and it gets in the way of using the phone all the time. But the payoff is that we have a 41 megapixel sensor and a xenon flash. Nokia oversample their images meaning that they take the 41 megapixels from the sensor and generate a 5 megapixel image, combining multiple pixels to improve sharpness and reduce noise levels. The xenon flash is unrivalled in lighting dark scenes when you need to use it. The cherry on the cake is a superb optical image stabilisation system which allows for longer exposure times without blur, leading to improved low light performance.

Apple iPhone 5s
The iPhone has a seemingly basic 8 megapixel sensor but Apple make the best of it with superb image processing and good quality optics. Their approach is to put the camera module above the screen meaning they can use the whole depth of the phone to fit a better unit. A dual tone flash helps provide more natural lighting to dark scenes, and relatively large pixels help to capture more of what light there is. The iPhone has been the camera to beat if you didn't want the bulk of the 1020 and is widely regarded as the best camera phone out there.

LG Google Nexus 5
Google have not been renowned for producing good quality cameras in the past but times are changing. In the Nexus 5 there is an 8 megapixel sensor with a standard LED flash but it does pack optical image stabilisation which should help especially when light is at a premium. To fit the camera module into the fairly slender Nexus 5, there is a significant camera hump but it does not get in the way too much in general.

HTC One M8
The first of this years new flagship devices to feature in this test has the most interesting and unusual camera setup. HTC have persevered with their Ultrapixels, giving us a 4 megapixel main camera that features pixels almost double the size of its competitors - even the 1020 and its massive sensor. Larger pixels should be able to capture more light giving us the benefits of faster capture times and a great potential for capturing good images in a wider range of light situations. HTC also have a secondary sensor for depth data on their M8, but that does not feature in this test. Unfortunately, unlike last years M7, there is no optical image stabilisation, so the question is, can the M8 still make use of its larger pixels to capture great pictures in dark environments. There is no camera hump on the M8 as the body has space for the camera module and just like with the iPhone, there is a dual tone flash.

Samsung Galaxy S5
Unlike last years S4, Samsung are using a genuinely high quality sensor of their own making inside the typical camera hump that you get on most Samsung phones. It is a 16 megapixel ISOCELL sensor which includes physical barriers between pixels. The problem might come in that those pixels are very small, the same size as in last years S4. There is a new phase detection focusing technique being used and Samsung say the camera focusses in 300 milliseconds which is very fast indeed. Samsung have also given us a standard LED flash to light up dark scenes, but there is no optical image stabilisation to back that up.

Sony Xperia Z2
Sony are using the same basic 20.7 megapixel sensor that they had in the Z1 and Z1 Compact. This is the second largest sensor behind the 1020 and just like Nokia, Sony are employing oversampling to combine multiple captured pixels into one. This technique helps to overcome the limitations of the small pixel sizes that we have here. Like on the iPhone, the camera module is sited above the screen in the bezel of the phone allowing Sony to make use of the full depth of the device. There is no optical image stabilisation with Sony instead relying on software stabilisation. For darker scenes, there is a single LED flash.

So we have our competitors, now lets talk about the testing methodology. For each different scene, I had someone help me swap the phones around so I could stay as still as possible and capture from the same position each time. You can examine the different fields of view in the samples below. I used the stock camera on each phone in its default settings. If the default camera mode does automatic scene detection, I did not disable that feature.

For the Lumia 1020, I am using the 5 megapixel oversampled image in each case. With the Xperia Z2, I used Superior Auto mode which oversamples the 20.7 megapixels available into an 8 megapixel shot.

For each photo sample, I took three pictures on each camera and picked my favourite from the three to use here. All pictures across the five test devices were taken within about five minutes of each other to try and keep conditions as similar as possible between them.

Right, lets dive straight into the first set of samples then shall we? One final note - click on image to see the full size unmodified version, those shown here are downsized to fit on the screen.

Bright daylight


In these conditions, the Galaxy S5 shines with a very detailed image and it has captured the scene faithfully with lots of contrast between the light and dark areas of the shot despite not using its HDR mode. The iPhone and 1020 have produced very natural looking images that actually wash out some of the real world contrast that existed, but both are still great results. With the Z2, Sony are still guilty of over-processing these types of images and despite a good end result, it cannot match the S5, 1020 and the iPhone.

I was very surprised at how dark the Nexus 5 image came out but it has some of the best detailing. The relative brightness of the different parts of the scene seem about right, if only it had held the shutter open just a tad longer - it has by far the fastest exposure of all these shots for some reason.

The M8 produces a very nice picture but in this company is let down by its simple lack of pixels. The details are lacking. Good exposure and nice colours make up for this a bit though.

Bright daylight HDR mode


The 1020 is not represented here as it does not have an HDR mode out of the box.

These conditions are what the Galaxy S5 was made for. It produces easily the best shot here and it does so incredibly quickly. The real time HDR preview you get when HDR mode is engaged means that in good light, I would just leave HDR on - there is no sacrifice on the S5. It does a wonderful job - it's hard to praise it enough.

The iPhone and the Z2 have produced the most natural looking images here but they lack the punch of the Samsung. I think the Z2 has done a better job overall, but it is slower to capture and process the image than the iPhone.

The M8 has a weak HDR mode but it has still managed to brighten the foreground enough. It struggles to get the balance right and is too slow to get there as well. The Nexus 5 on the other hand deals with the background better in these conditions, but I like the overall image even if it saw the scene quite differently to the other cameras here. What is up with the pink hue though? Very strange.

Medium light levels indoors


These shots were taken in typical late afternoon indoor light conditions with the blinds in the room closed. Enough light not to need artificial illumination but still fairly low light levels.

In this level of light, optical image stabilisation should win the day pretty comprehensively, putting the 1020 and Nexus 5 on the front foot. Whilst the Nexus 5 puts in a decent showing, the 1020 is streets ahead of anything else. Its fantastic OIS allows for a long exposure time and all those pixels, combined with oversampling produces a stunning result. To give you an idea of how much better the 1020's OIS is than the Nexus 5, it kept the shutter open almost three times longer, that is why the picture is so good.

The iPhone does a decent job but without OIS, it has to use a fairly rapid exposure and Apple trade noise for detail. Colour reproduction is decent at least.

The M8 shows what a difference large pixels make. It keeps the shutter open only slightly longer than the iPhone, but manages to capture much more light and produce a much cleaner image without any real loss of detail. Colours are excellent as well, in fact the M8 produces one of the best images in these conditions. HTC are definitely right to use larger pixels as it really helps in these lower light environments.

The Galaxy S5 does a passable job in these conditions, but it simply will not keep its shutter open long enough to capture the scene with any real accuracy, The image it produces needs a bit more sharpness but really, the setup on the S5 is crying out for OIS or larger pixel sizes or both!

Sony have taken a slightly different approach to producing their high quality image in these conditions. Oversampling works. The shutter speed of the Z2 was very slightly slower than on the S5, but there was not much in it. Instead, combining pixels has brought a lot more brightness into the final image and also manages to control the noise levels commendably. The Z2 has no OIS, instead relying on stabilisation in the software. The fast shutter speed - second fastest in this test - suggests that the software is not doing much, but actually the Sony approach of combining pixels together has yielded great results.

Low light levels indoors


These shots were taken at night, indoors, with a small amount of artificial overhead lighting. The lighting level was similar to that observed on a typical evening in my garden with just the ambient lighting of the town where I live.

The first thing to notice in this comparison is how poorly both the Nexus 5 and the Galasy S5 perform. The problem for the Nexus 5 was that it would not give a long enough exposure time, rendering its OIS almost pointless. It is very strange that Google wouldn't use the OIS to their benefit in these circumstances, but they haven't. The Samsung camera is simply not capable of taking low light pictures as it stands. I doubt a software update can fix this, but the output is simply appalling and unusable.

These conditions are almost tailor made for the 1020 and it shines in this company. It does not have a weakness in low light conditions. Equally amazing is the Z2 which manages to capture enormous amounts of light considering its lack of OIS. The exposure time on the Z2 is fairy fast considering the low light, but it manages to do a great job nonetheless.

Of the other two cameras here, I much prefer the noisy but detailed output of the iPhone to the bright but very soft output of the M8. I suspect that the M8 camera with OIS would offer a much better result here.

It seems that OIS is the answer to these conditions, but oversampling can go some of the way too.

Low light levels indoors with flash


These shots were taken in the exact same conditions as those above but with the flash forced on.

It is generally best to avoid using your flash unless you really need to and in this light level, it can make a big difference. A xenon flash is always best, casting the most natural and even light across a scene, so the 1020 is going to be ahead.

The iPhone has a nice dual tone flash that does work well, but in general all the LED flashes in use here produce poor results. The Z2 and Nexus 5 are particularly bad though.

Speed

Each of these cameras operates in a slightly different way, but one of the most important things is how quick and easy they are to use and capture images. A faster opening camera and a faster capture speed can make the difference between capturing a shot and missing one.

I would rather have a lower quality camera that is fast enough to actually capture a moment than a great camera that is slow. So this part of the shootout is entirely objective but also very important.

To that end, the 1020 is the worst of those under test here. The camera app is slow to load and the time from screen off to first image capture is at least four seconds in general. Shot to shot time is very poor as well - in the order of six seconds or more.

The overall fastest camera on test here is the iPhone 5s. The camera will load up in around one second or less and it is very fast to focus and capture in almost all conditions. Most of the time, pressing the capture button means you immediately capture what is on the screen.

Only HTC with the M8 can come close to what the iPhone can do in terms of capture speed in all conditions. In good light, the M8 is as fast as the iPhone, but it loses out as light levels drop. The camera app is very fast to open - possibly even faster than the iPhone. HTC are doing great things in terms of the usability of their camera.

Samsung's camera has proven to be quite bi-modal in its quality - great output in good light and shocking output in poor light. Using the camera exhibits the same problems. The camera app opens very quickly, but not quite in the order of the iPhone or M8, and in excellent conditions, it is the fastest to focus and capture. It also has the fastest HDR processing of the lot. As soon as light levels drop, the S5 struggles to focus quickly and refuses to capture instantly. Also, out of the box, it has a stability mode enabled meaning it wont capture any images unless you hold the phone totally still which negates its fast capture times.

The Z2's camera app is very fast to fire up and having a camera button makes that even easier - long press the button to open the camera app even when the phone is locked. Capture speed is an issue though. When the camera app opens, it focusses, and when you capture an image using either the on-screen button or the physical button it will re-focus before capturing. This makes the overall capture time slow. It does not really deteriorate much in lower light conditions, so it regains some ground there, but it is a strange decision from Sony to force this refocus step. Using a third party camera app can solve this problem, and the basic camera hardware is capable of very rapid capture.

Interestingly, Google have got a decent compromise with the new camera app for the Nexus 5. It is fast to open and very fast to capture but it can be a bit slow to focus. Overall, it sits in the middle of all these phones in terms of its performance and usability. It is a good job from Google and something for which they are getting no credit weirdly.

Conclusion

So which is best? The answer as always depends on what you are looking for. If you take static shots with lots of time, the 1020 is the standout option. If you want to capture moving objects - say a small and fast moving child - the iPhone or the M8 is probably the best overall option.

The 1020 also has the best ultimate quality, but it is too slow and clunky to use. I own a 1020 and only use it when I want to frame a shot and when time is plentiful. So that counts the 1020 out as the absolute best in my view.

In my opinion, there are only two camera phones here that I would want to use every day, the iPhone 5s and the Sony Xperia Z2. Neither is perfect and they are quite different from each other, but they are both great.

The iPhone has very reliable, super fast capture times with a decent flash and it is capable of producing great images with almost no effort. It also has by far the best burst mode and is incredibly simple to use. Auto flash and auto HDR make shooting a variety of scenes easier as well.

The Z2 has the best overall quality after the 1020 and is just about quick enough, but can still frustrate when trying to capture moving objects. It can also take reasonable images of scenes with very low light without having to resort to its flash. It also has very good software for just pointing, shooting and hoping! In its Superior Auto mode, the Z2 detects the type of scene being captured quickly and accurately. A good job from Sony.

I want to love the Galaxy S5 camera and its output in good light is astounding. It has by far the best HDR mode and a relatively easy to use camera app once you have it set up how you would like it - there are too many options as you would expect from a Samsung app. However, the low light performance is very poor and it becomes extremely slow to capture in low light.

The M8 would be my choice if I took most of my pictures indoors in the sort of medium light levels seen above. It does a great job in those conditions and is very fast and easy to use. Its capture times are overall second only to the iPhone as well. But its performance in very good and very low light is not quite there compared to its compatriots here.

With the Nexus 5, Google have offered a better camera than many would believe, but it has limitations. As we have seen, very low light is a problem for the Nexus 5 and even worse, it can struggle in good light to expose a scene properly. It is certainly not a bad camera and is fast enough to capture, but there are better options on the market.

And so, the MoDaCo camera phone picks are the Apple iPhone 5s and the Sony Xperia Z2.

What do you think? Is there another camera phone that is even better, and why? Will you be basing your phone choice on the camera quality?

About the author

James Norton's Photo
An aspiring tech journalist and a complete phone geek with a passion for all mobile technology. Vast experience of all mobile platforms and an evangelist for quality design no matter where it comes from.

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6 Comments

I've done some searching, and not found a good answer (probably down to searching for the wrong terms)...

 

I have a Galaxy S4 with a 13MP camera.  To get the best final result, is it better to take full resolution pictures on the phone and then adjust on the PC to a lower resolution OR can the software on the phone utilise features of the focus, aperture, etc. that results in a better lower resolution picture?

 

I am guessing that the camera is fairly dumb, but I imagine that it is possible that the phone could do something like take a longer exposure picture at a lower resolution and then reduce any blur by averaging out between pixels.

 

Personally I'd much rather have a better looking 5MP image, than a so-so 13MP image.  I tend to view most pictures on a computer or tablet, and print a few out on nothing larger than A5.

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Fantastic review James. The picture viewer in particular makes it nice and easy to compare. 

 

As an android user, I've been a bit frustrated that each iteration of the iphone that comes along seems to trounce the android flagships. The gap now is smaller than ever, but..... well there's another iphone coming in the next few months, so who knows how that'll change the game.

 

I'm currently rocking a Z2. I use the dedicated shutter button all the time and make sure to half press to focus, wait til I get the shot I want, and then do a full shutter press to get the shot. I find it works will (esp. for kids!).

 

I had a G2 up until not too long ago and for me it was a good example of how OIS could ruin shots instead of help them. The shutter would open for far too long (I guess it was thinking "Waaahey OIS!!") and any pics of the kids taken in less than perfectly light would come out as a blurry mess. 

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James Norton
May 20 2014 07:21 PM

I had a G2 up until not too long ago and for me it was a good example of how OIS could ruin shots instead of help them. The shutter would open for far too long (I guess it was thinking "Waaahey OIS!!") and any pics of the kids taken in less than perfectly light would come out as a blurry mess.


That is definitely a potential issue, but it can be fixed in software. The 1020 doesn't have that problem, neither does the Nexus 5 or the HTC One M7 all of which have OIS. Hopefully LG can improve that.

Glad you enjoyed the reviews :)
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The Soup Thief
May 21 2014 12:26 AM

I really enjoyed this - a great read and as le_lutin says, the picture viewer made it very easy to compare

I was really struck by the huge variability in shots of the same scenes. Do you have any views on clip on lenses? I was going to get one to mess about with on my nexus 5.

You have a lot of telephones, by the way!

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I know it must be extremely difficult to compare between different phones, as shooting from the exactly same place must be all but impossible (especially as each has different lenses and different fields of view), but the HDR images look to be pretty worthless to me.

The framing of each shot differs way too much to be a good comparison - as an example, over 50% of the iPhone 5s image is taken up by the fence whereas in many of the other image, the fence takes up a third of an image or less!

Not sure how you could get around the difference in framing - perhaps some kind of jerry-built tripod might have been helpful here?

There is also some small difference with framing of the internal shots though not as much of an issue and these provide a better comparison for me. I'm sort of hoping that manufacturers will be able to increase the size of their sensors so we can get closer to the Lumia 1020!

Thanks for the comparison.
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James Norton
May 21 2014 01:11 PM

I know it must be extremely difficult to compare between different phones, as shooting from the exactly same place must be all but impossible (especially as each has different lenses and different fields of view), but the HDR images look to be pretty worthless to me.

The framing of each shot differs way too much to be a good comparison - as an example, over 50% of the iPhone 5s image is taken up by the fence whereas in many of the other image, the fence takes up a third of an image or less!

Not sure how you could get around the difference in framing - perhaps some kind of jerry-built tripod might have been helpful here?

There is also some small difference with framing of the internal shots though not as much of an issue and these provide a better comparison for me. I'm sort of hoping that manufacturers will be able to increase the size of their sensors so we can get closer to the Lumia 1020!

Thanks for the comparison.


The framing was really hard to get right. The HDR shot was tough as I wanted to pick a scene with a vast difference in contrast between the foreground and the background. Each camera has a wildly different field of view though which is really interesting as well.

If we do another one of these, some sort of tripod mounting is the only acceptable answer IMO.
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