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Want a phone with a great camera? Here's what to look for
Smartphones have become indispensable tools in our lives, giving us a world of apps, keeping us connected, and helping organize our lives. However, many people buy phones because they want a great camera. After all, the best camera is often the one you have with you.
But how do you know whether you’ll get a phone with a great camera or a device with a disappointing shooter? We’ve got you covered with our guide to buying a phone with a great camera.
Many different camera types
Triple and quad camera phones have become standard fare today, even on $200 to $300 smartphones. But what do all of these cameras do though? Well, there are generally six types of camera available today, namely your standard/main camera, ultra-wide camera, telephoto or periscope zoom camera, macro camera, monochrome camera, and depth sensor or 3D ToF sensor.
This used to be the only camera available on smartphones, capturing images without zooming in or out. This camera usually gets used most often, as it’s a jack of all trades. You’ll never have a phone without this camera aboard.
LG was the first to implement this type of rear camera back in 2016. It takes a picture with a wider field of view/perspective compared to the main camera, making it ideal for group shots, pictures of buildings/architecture, or photos of a landscape. The introduction of an ultra-wide camera also means you don’t need to use your phone’s panorama mode as often, which can be a tedious process.
You’ll generally find ultra-wide cameras on devices as cheap as $150 to $200, but don’t expect to see it on ~$100 phones. Still, between Samsung’s Galaxy A and Galaxy M series, Xiaomi’s Redmi Note devices, and Motorola’s G series, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding devices with this camera.
Telephoto or periscope camera
These cameras deliver zoomed-in shots, with telephoto cameras generally delivering 2x to 3x optical zoom. Periscope cameras are more recent inventions, using a prism to zoom in even further (between 4x and 10x optical zoom). Either way, these lenses are handy if you want to take a photo of something far away.
Another recent type of zoom camera is the variable zoom camera seen on the Sony Xperia 1 III and Xperia 5III. It’s not completely variable though, simply switching between 3X and 4.4X zoom. Nevertheless, this reduces the need for two zoom cameras on one phone.
We’ve seen some companies harness software to deliver better zoomed-in results without using a telephoto or periscope camera. Some brands combine software and a telephoto/periscope camera to zoom in even further, in a concept known as hybrid zoom. For example, the Huawei P30 has a 3x telephoto camera, but it’s able to deliver 5x hybrid zoom shots. Hybrid zoom isn’t as good as having a camera with that particular zoom factor, but it’s better than software-only zoom.
We’ve also seen some manufacturers try to blur the line between optical/native zoom, hybrid zoom, and digital zoom in recent years. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 has a 64MP “telephoto” camera that it claims has 3X “hybrid optic” zoom. It’s simply a form of hybrid zoom, but Samsung presumably invented the “hybrid optic” term to make it sound better in marketing materials.
You can find out more about the different methods of zoom via this article over here.
This sensor is a relatively new addition to the smartphone world. It allows you to take macro shots (i.e. extreme close-up pictures) of tiny subjects, such as insects, flowers, and coins. One downside to these cameras is that they often have a low resolution (2MP) and lack autofocus, although companies like Xiaomi and Samsung are offering 5MP macro cameras too.
Some phones (like the Oppo Find X3 Pro) use the ultra-wide camera to take macro shots, foregoing a dedicated macro camera. You also get the benefit of a higher resolution macro image with this approach.
We don’t really see this type of camera on many phones, with Huawei being first to offer a phone with a secondary monochrome sensor and Realme’s Narzo 30 series and the OnePlus 9 being the latest. In any event, this camera is usually used to take true black and white photos, as opposed to a color photo turned into black and white via a filter.
Monochrome cameras can also be used to improve low-light performance, as the lack of a color filter enhances light gathering capabilities. Finally, these cameras can also be used for improved depth effects (e.g. portrait mode), as we see on the Narzo 30A and OnePlus 9.
Depth sensor and 3D ToF sensor
You can’t actually take dedicated photos with these types of camera, as they’re generally used to capture additional “depth” information when taking photos via the main camera.
Depth sensors are often used for portrait mode photos, with the sensor capturing information to ensure that the subject is in focus and the background is pleasantly out of focus. 3D ToF sensors are essentially new takes on the depth sensor, capturing more accurate depth information.
You’ll generally find depth sensors on cheaper phones, while high-end phones have previously offered 3D ToF sensors instead. In saying so, some phones lack both, using either a telephoto camera or software to capture depth information. In fact, many phones use a software-driven portrait mode for selfie cameras, as seen in the example above.
How many cameras do you need?
The cheapest phones (~$100 or so) usually offer a single main camera or a dual-camera setup featuring a main camera and a depth sensor. A few of the cheaper devices also swap out the depth sensor in favor of an ultra-wide camera. But more and more budget phones are adding triple or even quad-camera setups, featuring a main camera, ultra-wide sensor, depth sensor, and usually a macro camera as the fourth choice.
Zoom cameras are generally restricted to high-end phones, as these sensors and components are usually pricier than an ultra-wide camera or macro sensor. More expensive phones usually also have an ultra-wide camera in addition to the main and zoom cameras, giving you a variety of perspectives and unparalleled flexibility. We’ve also seen companies like Xiaomi, Samsung, and Huawei offer two zoom-focused cameras at different zoom factors on their most expensive phones.
Still not sure how many cameras you need? Well, then ask yourself what kind of photos you plan to take. Love the outdoors or traveling to various cities? Then maybe you should get a phone with an ultra-wide camera to capture those wonderful vistas and towering skyscrapers. Going on safari or frequently watching your children’s sports games? Then a zoom camera can help get you closer to the action without physically needing to be closer.
Want an ultra-wide perspective but also like the idea of having good zoom? Then get a phone with both ultra-wide and zoom lenses, although devices with both options are quite expensive. Some of the more prominent examples in this regard include the OnePlus 9 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro, Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, and Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
The brand matters (to an extent)
One of the most important factors when looking at a smartphone for its camera is the manufacturer. That’s because each brand’s picture quality differs in subtle ways from one another, such as color reproduction, low-light performance, and overall quality.
Here’s what you can expect from some of the bigger manufacturers in terms of picture differences and extra modes. Do note that the below might not hold true for every phone by a given brand. It’s also worth noting that the gap in quality is pretty tiny among most brands when it comes to pictures taken during the day.
Thinking about getting a Pixel phone? Then you’ll be taking photos with punchy hues that don’t generally go overboard like some other brands.
The Pixel series is also renowned for its dynamic range — how well it retains detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the same photo. So expect this phone to cope well when taking bright outdoor pictures, preventing the sky from being blown out while ensuring that you can still make out what’s in the shade.
More Pixel photography: Camera shootout — Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra versus Google Pixel 5
Pixel phones are also among the best for low-light snaps, offering a Night Sight mode that reveals details in the dark. It’s not quite as great as Huawei’s high-end phones in complete darkness, but it’s definitely competitive otherwise. Other notable Pixel modes include an astrophotography mode to take pictures of the night sky (tripod required), low-light portraits, and a Photobooth mode for hands-free selfies.
The Chinese brand arguably became the best for smartphone photography in recent years — at least when it comes to high-end devices. Nevertheless, Huawei’s phones are generally great during the day, delivering plenty of detail and great dynamic range.
The brand’s phones used to have a reputation for over-sharpening pictures rather than offering a more natural photo, but that has changed with recent devices. Its phones also used to have a reputation for crushing blacks (i.e. making black color shades completely black with no detail in them). Thankfully, this changed with newer phones too. Huawei also offers a few color profiles to choose from, in case the default tone isn’t to your liking.
It was also the first brand to offer an effective night mode on its phones, with competitors following suit shortly thereafter. You’ll find this mode on budget and top-end Huawei devices alike. The firm also offers a Light Painting mode on some phones, allowing you to take fancy photos with light streaks (be it from car lights or star trails). It’s since followed up with features like object erasing and the ability to remove reflections (e.g. when shooting from behind a window).
You can usually get good daytime pictures with an LG phone, featuring more realistic colors than the likes of Samsung, but poor dynamic range seems to be a common complaint among its flagship devices.
LG devices generally aren’t as adept as Apple, Google, Huawei, and Samsung phones when it comes to night-time and low-light snaps. So if you plan to take shots at the pub or around the campfire, you might want another brand’s device. That’s not to say it offers bad images in low-light, but other companies tend to be a step ahead.
Related coverage: LG V60 one year later — Is it still worth buying?
The company’s higher-end phones offer a few extra features, like a cinemagraph mode (allowing you to create a GIF with selected elements moving in it) and 360 panoramas.
Unfortunately, LG pulled out of the smartphone business earlier in 2021. So that means we won’t be seeing any more phones from the company. But devices like the V60 still deliver a good camera experience.
Buy a Samsung phone and you can traditionally expect to get pictures with oversaturated colors. Much like Google, the Korean brand’s phones also tend to deliver fantastic dynamic range.
Samsung lagged behind Google and Huawei when it came to offering a quality night mode, but the brand has since delivered in a big way with its S20 series and S21 range. So you should be able to get some great snaps once the sun goes down.
Samsung’s recent flagships also offer a handy Single Take mode. Enter this mode and the phone will automatically take pictures and videos for you. The S21 family also offers a Director’s View feature, essentially showing you the view from each camera without having to switch between them. We hope to see more companies offer this function.
Chinese brand Xiaomi is another popular pick in Europe, India, and other markets, offering cheap phones and capable hardware. A common thread among Android Authority reviewers is that Xiaomi phones offer natural to slightly saturated colors in the daytime, not quite approaching Samsung levels of saturation. However, our reviewers also tend to think that Xiaomi phones could do with improved dynamic range.
More on Xiaomi: Mi 11 review — One cool customer, but is it a Galaxy S21 killer?
When it comes to low-light shooting, Xiaomi devices tend to vary wildly from disappointing to fantastic. In fact, our own Eric Zeman felt the Mi 11 camera quality was very good but not quite Google- or Samsung-level. He also felt the top-end Mi 11 Ultra made low-light scenes unnaturally bright.
Xiaomi’s cheaper phones tend to lack optical image stabilization on the main camera, which means you need to keep the phone as still as possible when taking night-time shots to prevent blur.
TL;DR: Take two phones with identical specs from different manufacturers, and you’ll definitely see slightly different photo quality due to the way each brand processes images. This is particularly evident in color reproduction, dynamic range, and at night. You should still try to get your hands on a demo model or a friend’s device before making a decision though.
Megapixels: Is higher always better?
Megapixels have become one of the most common methods of judging perceived camera quality. This is mostly true when it comes to entry-level phones. Generally speaking, an 8MP, 12MP, or 13MP camera is almost 100% guaranteed to be better than a phone from the same manufacturer with a 5MP camera. This is because more megapixels equal more detail — although it can be a case of diminishing returns when we get to 48MP+ phones.
We’re now seeing 48MP, 64MP, and 108MP phones as well, and these high megapixel numbers aren’t just for show. Instead, phones with ultra-high resolution cameras generally default to a technique called pixel-binning to take smaller-sized pictures. Simply put, information from all those megapixels is distilled to take better photos at a lower resolution. For example, 48MP phones often take 12MP photos by default, while 108MP phones usually take 27MP or 12.5MP photos by default. You can still take full-resolution shots with your 48MP, 64MP, or 108MP phone camera though, but you’re only really going to see the benefit when taking photos in broad daylight.
But Google, Apple, and Samsung also show that 12MP cameras paired with great image processing techniques can deliver very impressive results. So don’t automatically assume that higher is better when it comes to megapixels. In fact, low-light photo quality can suffer if you cram more megapixels onto a small camera sensor. Think of it like having 12 people on a bus versus 12 people in a car.
We are however expecting more brands to offer high-resolution cameras in some capacity in the future though. This is because 8K video recording requires a 33MP+ camera at the least, much like how 4K video recording requires an 8.5MP camera.
TL;DR: Megapixels tend to matter for low-end phones, but less so for high-end devices. And companies like Apple and Google usually tend to rely on software smarts to deliver top-notch photos with their 12MP cameras. These manufacturers will need to switch to higher resolution cameras in the future if they want to support 8K though.
What else should you know?
There are a few more factors that help deliver a great smartphone camera, and one of the most important features is optical image stabilization (OIS). This is a bit of hardware, usually found on the main and zoom cameras, that helps keep your camera steady.
OIS reduces shakiness caused by hand jitter or general movement of the phone. Pictures are more likely to come out blurry without OIS, especially at night when the shutter needs to stay open a little longer to capture a brighter photo. This is also useful for videos, ensuring that your recorded clips aren’t a shaky mess.
Unfortunately, OIS is generally limited to high-end phones and upper mid-range devices, so you shouldn’t expect it on your $100 to $200 phone. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking whether your desired device has it. We’ve also seen Vivo offer a so-called “micro-gimbal” on its premium devices, delivering better stability than OIS.
More photography coverage: 10 Adobe Lightroom tips to improve your smartphone photos
Do be aware that some companies generally tout EIS (electronic image stabilization) or generic “image stabilization.” This is a software-driven approach that generally isn’t as good as OIS, but the execution tends to vary by manufacturer. So if offered the choice between a phone with EIS and one with OIS (assuming they’re near-identical otherwise), we’d recommend going with the latter.
Many phones are also coming up with AI modes for their cameras, and this simply uses scene and object recognition to automatically adjust picture settings. Huawei calls it an AI mode, while Samsung calls it a Scene Optimizer, and LG calls it AI Cam.
These AI-driven modes can detect that you’re pointing the camera at a plate of food, then crank up the color saturation for a more vivid picture. Or it might detect that you’re pointing the camera at a sun-lit cityscape, then automatically enable HDR to ensure that the bright sky and shadowy areas are kept in check. Some AI modes can even detect people in a shot and automatically enable portrait mode, giving you a pleasantly blurred background.
Fortunately, AI modes can be disabled on many phones, just in case you prefer to have complete control over the shot.
That’s it for our guide to buying a phone with a great camera! Do you have any other entry-level tips for the average consumer? Let us know in the comments!