In this edition of the Friday Debate, we discuss smartphone cameras. With Android 4.4.1 rolling out to the Nexus 5 specifically to improve the camera app and image quality, everybody’s been talking about the importance of good software. Google’s working to improve Android cameras with a new API and many manufacturers are participating in a camera arms war, each trying to outdo competitors with features like OIS, larger pixels, more megapixels, oversampling, brand name optics and more.
Most customers have just a vague idea of what these camera specs and buzzwords mean. So, what really matters to you and what’s just empty talk? What do you look for in a smartphone camera?
Join us in the discussion, vote in our poll, and sound off in the comments!
It’s become increasingly hard to really pinpoint exactly what I want out of a smartphone camera. I’m a photographer by hobby, so I try not to have expectations that are too high when I put down my cameras and pick up the smartphones.
That being said, I’m glad to see that some of the onus is getting put on these manufacturers to translate the tools of the trade into our little devices. I am glad to see Sony think bigger with the camera in the Z1, making a monster of a camera and even creating whole lens units that attached to just about any phone. Oppo just put their creative minds to work and brought out the rotating camera in the N1, basically making the great rear facing optics your front facing optics. And LG has basically proven that optical image stabilization is not only a photography enhancer, it’s almost a game changer. When I look at a smartphone camera, I first notice these details – that the companies are trying to make their cameras stand out from the rest.
After all, I used to own a Sony Ericsson phone that was inspired by the Sony Cybershot point and shoot cameras of yore – pop out optics behind a really slick looking cover, if you can picture that (ha, pun). Just like any proper geek, I notice the physical differences first.
So what happens when I look at a resulting image from a phone camera? I tend to recognize when the quality ISN’T there more than when it is there. I guess I am so used to working with DSLR/MFT images that when the image looks good, I don’t really have any knee-jerk reactions. It is when the detail is immensely grained out, when the color in the picture is nowhere near what the real scene looks like, and when the dullness of a photo makes me react as negatively as I would react positively to a wonderful photo that I really notice the difference. I understand that it takes a lot of effort and processing to create a truly great picture, and when the smartphone is able to do it out of the box, that’s pretty great. But it is equally as bad and noticeable when the pictures just fall incredibly flat.
To summarize – I look for any aspects of the camera experience that set it apart from the get-go. Whether it is high megapixel count, interesting construction, or just the addition of something the game has long been needing, any little effort by the company’s part piques my interest. After that, I look for the pictures to, at the very least, be accurate to the scene. As a hobbyist photographer, I understand that a smartphone might not create absolutely incredible photos. But then again, it takes some real thought to construct even the scene you may want. With that in mind, does the camera accurately capture what the user wants? If the typical user of the phone in question would be happy with the resulting image, I call that a win.
When it comes to smartphone cameras, I tend to take a more simple approach. Does it work? Does it work fairly well (and my definition of fairly well is far below what most people would expect it to be)? As long as I can snap a quick picture every now and then of my dogs, a campfire, or of some new tech toy I’ve recently received and the picture turns out pretty good, then I’m usually a happy camper with the smartphone camera.
If pressed, I would say that I enjoy some of the software features. HDR mode, low-light mode, and optical image stabilization have started seeping through as features I enjoy (not necessarily need, but enjoy). It’s nice being able to take a picture of something and have it look really good even though I have virtually no photography skills. So I guess I value that more than I used to. In most cases, though, as long as they’re clear then I’m satisfied.
The three things to look out for in a smartphone camera are the aperture, the actual size of the sensor and last, but not least, the actual software running the camera.
Gone are the days where megapixel count meant everything, nowadays, most mid to high end smart phones have at least an 8MP camera and that’s all anyone’s ever going to likely need on a smartphone. A larger aperture (which means smaller numbers folks!) allows more light to pass through and also allows you to pull of the awesome Depth of field shots that were previously only found on SLRs and point and shoots. The second thing to look out for is the size of the sensor, again this will let more light to pass through and create better low light pictures. A word of warning though, the sensor divides the light between the pixels. So if a 20MP camera and an 8MP camera have the same sensor size, the 8MP camera has more light passing through each pixel than the 20MP camera.
Software is perhaps the biggest thing to look out for in a smartphone camera. Great software can elevate a good camera to a great camera, and bad software can make a good camera look horrible (the Nexus 5 is a prime example). While it’s hard to check out camera software you can always check out reviews to see whether the software has the features you want and whether it features a manual mode for those of us who want more control over their smartphone. Sure, you could download another camera app from the Play Store, but it’s unlikely to perform as well as an optimized camera app from the actual OEM.
When I look at the photos I take, I look at color reproduction and clarity as the biggest things for me. I also really love the physical camera button on the Z1, but in the end, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What might look nice and appealing to my eye, might look dull to another’s these are just a few guidelines I tell friends to look out for, but in no way are they the be all and end all.
What do YOU think?
Join us in the comments and vote in our poll.