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Your smartphone is the camera that you always have with you, so next time you upgrade make sure you get one with a decent camera. Let’s take a look at the main contenders…

TESTED BY • NIGEL ATHERTON

Much has been written about the demise of the camera at the hands of the smartphone. Of course this is very wide of the mark — as every photographer knows, a good camera offers superior image quality, variable lens focal lengths, faster operation and more creative control, to name but a few benefits.

Nevertheless, smartphone cameras are getting better and better, and long ago passed the point where they were good enough for casual snaps to post on Facebook and the like. Some of the latest models offer innovative features that most cameras can only dream of, and the image quality has now reached the stage where in good light conditions only a skilled eye can spot the difference between the images from a phone and a basic compact. For proof, look no further than the respected US newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, which has just laid off all its staff photographers and given its journalists iPhones to use instead. We’ve gathered the current five best phones available to discover which has the best camera. Read on to find out.

APPLE IPHONE 5 £499

The iPhone has been the most popular camera on Flickr for years, but is now out-gunned by rivals. The smallest phone of this group, with the smallest screen, the iPhone 5 houses the same 8MP sensor as the 4s. Built-in camera features are fairly sparse. There’s a Panorama mode enabling 240° views to be captured in a single sweep, and an HDR mode which boosts shadow and highlight detail. Video is full HD and you can now shoot a 1920 x 1080-pixel still image during video recording. That’s about it. There’s no built-in control over ISO, White Balance or other parameters. Where the iPhone scores, however, is in the huge range and diversity of photo apps available that add additional functionality. The iPhone can also be used for many other functions, such as triggering cameras and off-camera flashguns remotely.

PERFORMANCE

Although it’s the least impressive camera of the group on paper the iPhone camera performs well. It starts up and focuses quickly and gets the right exposure and colour more often than most of its rivals. The letdown is the screen, which lacks the brightness and resolution of its rivals and is harder to see in bright sunlight.

HTC ONE £499

I nstead of cramming ever more pixels onto I a tiny chip the HTC One has gone for only I four million but they’re a similar size to those on high-end enthusiast compacts (2 J microns). Images may not resolve as much ! detail but should have less noise in low light. : As few people make big prints of phone images this is arguably more useful. Uniquely the HTCs sensor has a 16:9 aspect ratio — the same as HD video — so stills utilise the entire screen rather than just a portion. The app offers HDR and Panoramic shooting, 8.8fps bursts, scene modes and built-in filter effects, as well as manual control over ISO and White Balance, but its centrepiece is called Zoe. With Zoe activated, pressing the shutter records a three-second video clip plus up to 20 still images. You then have a range of options: Object Removal erases unwanted moving objects; Always Smile swaps faces in a group shot; Sequence Shot combines several images of a moving subject.

PERFORMANCE

The HTC is an impressive performer. The camera boots up quickly and there’s little perceptible shutter lag when taking a picture. The screen is second only to the Nokia 925 for visibility in strong light, and pictures look great filling the screen

NOKIA LUMIA 925 £469

Nokia’s Lumia 925 is the only phone with a dedicated shutter button (though with some others it can be assigned to the volume button). The f/2.0 Zeiss lens combined with optical image stabilisation makes it potentially better in low light. The phone has dual LED lights and offers a good range of manual control (ISO, White Balance etc), though confusingly Nokia calls its camera apps «lenses». Nokia’s Smart Cam is a little like HTCs Zoe. It takes a burst of about a dozen 5MP images in quick succession, then enables you to do one of several things: you can let it select the best shot; create a composite group photo made up from different faces; create a multi exposure composite of a moving subject; or remove unwanted moving background elements. Other «lenses» that come installed include Panorama and Cinematograph, which creates animated GIF style images.

PERFORMANCE

The 925’s dedicated shutter button takes you straight to the camera from the home screen, though not from the lock screen. Start-up is quick, and the Nokia’s screen is by far the easiest to see clearly in strong sunlight. The menus are clearly laid out. Focusing and shooting are quick and decisive.

SAMSUNG GALAXY S4 £559

The S4 uses the same high-res 13MP Sony chip used in the Experia Z — the pixels on these phones are just 1.1 microns. For its size the S4 is the lightest of the lot, due in part to its use of plastic rather than metal. It has a great screen — huge, rich and insanely high 441ppi resolution (the same as the Sony, though the S4 uses AMOLED rather than TFT technology). The S4 offers the clever multi-exposure shooting modes of the Nokia and HTC, though they’re mixed in with the other modes. Dual-Shot is unique though. It takes a picture with front and rear cameras simultaneously, dropping your face into a postage-stamp picture-in-picture which you can position anywhere within the main image — perfect for «me in front of Big Ben» composites. Ladies will like the Beauty mode, which selectively softens skin tones, while photographers will like the manual control of ISO and White Balance.

PERFORMANCE

The S4 performed well, with few niggles. The screen is great, but is behind HTC and Nokia for ease of viewing in bright sun. The AF is occasionally indecisive. The digital zoom rocker is too easily pressed, though with so much resolution it’s at least usable; otherwise it can be assigned as a shutter button.

SONY EXPERIA Z £499

While superficially similar in spec to the S4, at least in its camera and screen, the Experia Z has an ace up its sleeve in that it’s waterproof to a depth of 1.5 metres. This is great news for the 10% of people who have confessed to dropping their phone down the loo, as well as those who enjoy beach holidays, watersports or perhaps Skyping in the bath.

The Experia Z is the most masculine-looking phone of the group, all square and angular, with all its ports hidden behind rubber-sealed flaps. A camera icon on the home screen provides quick access or, if you select Quick Launch the camera can be set to come on automatically (and even start shooting) at start-up, in either stills or video mode. A selection of features such as Smile Shutter and Sweep Panorama are available, though there’s nothing quite like HTC’s Zoe or Nokia’s Smart Camera.

PERFORMANCE

Given Sony’s pedigree in making great cameras the Experia Z’s camera failed to live up to our high expectations. The screen lacks contrast and saturation compared with most of the others here, and exposures were the most inconsistent. But it’s quick to start up and focus and there’s little shutter lag.

CHOOSING A PHONE

A have five phones in this test have better cameras than you’d/have got a couple of years ago, but there’s a diversity of solutions offered to the fundamental problem with cameraphones of having only a tiny sensor and a fixed lens. The 13MP chip featured in the Sony and Samsung phones offers enough resolution to enable using some digital zoom to crop the images, especially if they’re only going online. But in order to cram that many pixels onto the sensor they need to be very small, which inhibits their light-gathering abilities. As a result, they will struggle more in low light, and produce more noise. Built-in noise reduction attempts to fix this, but results in some loss of detail. It’s a fine balancing act.

HTC’s approach, on the other hand, is a bold one, because the public are still fixated by pixel counts. By keeping to just four million, the pixels can be as big as those from an enthusiast compact, which should deliver greater dynamic range, and much lower noise in low light. The fact that its images won’t show as much detail when enlarged can be countered by the fact that the vast majority of cameraphone images just end up on social media sites, where this isn’t an issue. Apple and Nokia’s 8MP sensors offer a happy medium between the two extremes.

The features on offer vary between each handset. The Nokia, Samsung and HTC all offer a set of high speed effects based on making composites from multiple lower resolution images. These can be fun and in some cases genuinely useful, such as the ability to swap heads in a group shot to make sure everyone has their eyes open. Some phones also offer limited control over shooting parameters such as ISO, white balance and exposure.

The other factor to consider is the range of apps available. There are thousands on the Apple and Android app stores that perform a vast range of functions, but the Windows Phone OS, used by Nokia, is newer so there’s only a limited number of photo apps to choose from, though this may change in time.

While there’s a lot of hype about the other phones’ cameras, the iPhone quietly gets on with producing consistently good images. The S4’s shots may appear sharper in good light and the Nokia less noisy in low light, but the iPhone 5 produced the most natural-looking shots with the fewest duds: focus, colour, exposure and processing were invariably on the money.

The HTC One’s lower resolution becomes apparent with finely detailed images such as this one

HTC has been brave to go against the grain with its Ultrapixels, but the results are not an unqualified success. Images look very crisp and punchy, but this is partly down to high contrast and aggressive sharpening. When enlarged the detail is just not there. The high contrast also creates issues with lost shadow and highlight details. That said, the images look great when viewed at small sizes.

The Nokia Lumia 925 took the best images in low light, with the least noise and good shadow detail

The Nokia put in a fairly good performance whatever we threw at it, though the only situation where it led the pack was in low light, where the noticeably lower noise levels shown by our lab tests were most apparent. The wide aperture and image stabilisation obviously helped here too. Images are not as sharp and detailed as the iPhone and Samsung, however, and contrast is lower.

The Galaxy S4 turned in the sharpest, most saturated images, with bags of detail and the best dynamic range of the pack, though images were also among the noisiest, in part due to additional sharpening in processing. In low light, though, those tiny pixels struggle. Aggressive noise reduction results in slightly waxy details. Camera shake was also the most frequent on the S4.

The Sony Experia Z was the only phone to suffer from flare in this contre-jour beach party image

The Sony Experia Z was the most unreliable of the bunch — it was most likely to be tricked into a wrong exposure, or to suffer from flare and purple fringing. On close examination, even images taken in good light can look overprocessed, like looking through a rippled window, with the result that fine details can be lost. But images taken in low light held more fine detail than those from the S4.

VERDICT

T here are several factors that determine what makes a good cameraphone but to WDC the image quality is most important. That’s why, in addition to extensive real-world tests we also put them through a series of lab tests (using IQ Analyser) measuring resolution, noise, dynamic range and colour. All five of these handsets are capable of good images in the right conditions, but their strengths and weaknesses vary.

When viewed on the handset, the HTC One’s images look great filling that lovely big, bright screen. But on a monitor the lower resolution becomes apparent. Although more than adequate for Facebook, big enlargements and significant cropping are inadvisable. Our sample also had some issues with exposure and lost highlight details. The Sony Experia Z was disappointing. Over-exposure, low contrast, poor saturation, over-sharpening and purple fringing all made regular appearances.

The Samsung S4 uses the same Sony sensor but generally manages to get more out of it, and has a better screen. Images taken in good light are very colourful and detailed, if a little over-processed — especially in low light, where they become smudgy. Conversely the Nokia Lumia 925 takes great low-light shots with lower noise, though its images don’t have the same in-your-face impact in good sunlight.

The iPhone won last year’s test. This time we expected it to be overtaken by its rivals, so we were surprised to find that it’s still the best overall, all things considered. The camera just works flawlessly: focus, exposure and white balance rarely put a foot wrong, and images are natural and consist¬ently good, though the S4 has more resolution and the Nokia less noise.

Of course image quality isn’t the only consideration — the iPhone has the worst screen and a measly feature set — and if you factor in the features and user experience, the Nokia and Samsung offer a better overall package, but by the narrowest margin. The choice will depend on your priorities, though app lovers will be better off with the Samsung or iPhone.

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