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Best Smartphone Cameras 2011

Introduction

From time to time Mobile-Review.com makes comparative tests of different mobile cameras but recently phone cameras have become very similar to each other making the job of calling a winner very hard. Nonetheless, once again we compare most relevant camera solutions mainly from 2011 flagship phones with real camera quality.

This is going to be an unusual review as we will not be describing quality of separate photos leaving it up to you. But, of course, there is a number of objective criteria like sharpness, white balance etc. but in most cases the quality is in the eye of the beholder. Below you will find sample photos with very few comments of ours. We tried to make pictures on sunny day but we were not very lucky so we have pictures indoors, portraits, macro pictures. We also had a pro photographer assisting us with image quality assessment.

Contenders

The participants of this test are:

  • Apple iPhone 4
  • Apple iPhone 4S
  • HTC Sensation
  • HTC Titan
  • Nokia N8
  • Nokia N9
  • Samsung Galaxy Note
  • Samsung Galaxy S II
  • Sony Ericsson Ray
  • Ricoh GR III Digital
  • Sony Alpha NEX-5

I need to make a few notes concerning our selection of cameras. The HTC Sensation we initially used turned out to have a faulty camera and all the images it produced were slightly blurred at the bottom. Later we used a proper HTC Sensation for making pictures in studio and portraits but this phone is unfortunately is out of the contest for this reason. Also, we could only get out hands on Sony Ericsson Ray by the end of the test so we can only partially assess its photographic performance. But lets now get to our photo samples.

Cloudy

We were not picky about objects to take pictures so here are pictures of a tree, some pile, a tyre and a block of flats against cloudy sky.

Daylight

We actually planned to make a series of pictures on a sunny day but the weather decided otherwise. So we took pictures in semi cloudy conditions.

The samples with the red lock illustrate how differently the cameras set the white balance. We took five to six pictures of every object with every camera and selected the best ones. But as you can see from the examples below even a five shot series was not enough for some cameras to set the white balance properly.

On this next example I wanted to see how much the cameras blur the background and how sharply they focus on the object. I think in Nokia N8, Samsung galaxy Note and Samsung Galaxy SII did the best.

Indoors

Indoor conditions are still a very big challenge for phone cameras. We made a number of pictures with different indoor scenes: macro, multiple objects and light sources so there are many aspects to compare.

Text

People often take pictures of text to later recognize it on their PCs. Practically all average quality cameras are capable of providing sufficient quality for that. However, if there isnt enough light the resulting text quality is crucial and the winners of this round are Apple iPhone 4S, SGS II, Note, SE Ray and Titan.

Faces

We often take pictures of our friends and family and often those pictures are portraits so we took a bunch of photos of this girl named Lera under lamplight to assess how well the contenders are at portrait shooting.

In my opinion, only Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Note did any good while the other cameras were very mediocre (we did not include actual cameras in this test).

Studio

This part was reviewed by Georgy Politsarnov, head of camera testing on www.prophotos.ru. We also asked him to assess the quality of all the other pictures we made and return a verdict.

Apple iPhone 4:

Apple iPhone 4S:

Nokia N8:

Nokia N9:

Samsung Galaxy Note:

Ricoh GR III Digital:

HTC Sensation:

Samsung Galaxy S II:

Sony Alpha NEX-5:

HTC Titan:

Sony Ericsson Ray:

Georgy Politsarnovs comments on the photo quality of each of the contenders:

Apple iPhone 4. Very sharp pictures for a phone comparable with point and shoot cameras pictures have a lot of details. And even when there is little light you can still get decent pictures. However, the white balance auto settings are awful and even under natural light in cloudy conditions all pictures are bluish and indoors it makes all pictures yellowish.

Apple iPhone 4s. It is a lot better under lamplight when its predecessor: fluorescent or incandescent, cloudy conditions nothing embarrasses it. And if there is enough light it provides a rather high level of details. Low light condition photos dont suffer from too much noise thanks to its noise reduction system but it loses the smallest details as a result. All in all, its a very decent camera.

HTC Sensation. Very sharp pictures regardless of lighting levels for a phone. Amount of noise in low light conditions is minimal and barely visible. It does well when it comes to colors too, naturally, it is not nearly as good as regular point and shoot cameras but for a phone its quality is impressive. There is an issue of uneven sharpness on the edges of photos but it is probably a defect of this specific unit.

HTC Titan. Pictures are very sharp in the center but edges are a lot more blurred this is a frequent flaw of compact lenses. White balance is set correctly most of the times even under lamplight. Color rendition is accurate and natural. However, in cloudy conditions pictures it makes are too cold. in low light conditions noise reduction works correctly there is very little noise and pictures remain sharp.

Nokia N8. Sharpness of pictures is on a par with regular cameras. It preserves small details in the center and on the edges equally even in low light and its the strongest side of this camera. But color rendition is not that good it demonstrates one of the poorest white balance stability. It often sets white balance incorrectly in lamplight thus altering hues in the picture. However, it does well in sunlight.

Nokia N9. It is better than N8 in terms of sharpness and white balance auto settings (it still makes mistakes but not very often). However, it makes all pictures slightly colder but it is almost an upside as there is no yellow hue on indoor pictures. But outdoor pictures might sometimes be too cold.

Samsung Galaxy Note. Pictures are very sharp even with insufficient light. This camera is very close to low range point and shoot cameras in terms of quality. There are some issues with color rendition: in lamplight it often adds yellow and pink hues to your pictures. White balance is not always accurate but outdoors this camera is good.

Samsung Galaxy S II. The picture pattern is very similar to Samsung Galaxy Note and it has got same white balance issues in lamplight and it also makes near perfect images outdoors. But as well as HTC Titan images are less sharp at the edges as a result of cheap lenses.

Sony Ericsson Ray. Very stable auto white balance even in difficult lamplight conditions. There are not that many details. Image sharpness is a bit lower than point and shoot cameras provide but it is very good for mobile cameras and it is even across the picture.

Ricoh GR III Digital. This one is a real camera and a good one with expensive lenses and you can see it on the pictures as it captures every tiny detail. Images are very and evenly sharp. Images are good even if there is little light. There is very little noise and the noise reduction goes easy on details. Color rendition is good and there is almost no superfluous hues on pictures.

Sony Alpha NEX-5. It did not do as well as we expected. Even in studio conditions it got white balance wrong and made all pictures yellowish. Details and nose levels are very good the big matrix is an undisputable advantage of NEX-5 and even with little light images are good with no visible noise and remain very sharp. We had some issues with auto white balance but I must note that NEX-5 is a serious camera and manually adjusted it can do a lot better than that but we made all pictures in auto mode. This proves the fact that if you are only going to use auto mode you dont really need an expensive camera as simple point and shoot and even mobile cameras can often give you sufficient quality while serious cameras require a set of skills to fully use their potential.

Video

We leave video sample without any comments. You can download them and make our own opinion about video shooting quality of the contenders.

Speed

We have not measured speed of the cameras but after several days with them I can tell how fast each of the cameras feels. I think the fastest one is Sony Ericsson Ray, the second fastest is Apple iPhone 4S and Nokia N9, then Samsung smartphones and the slowest ones are Apple iPhone 4 and HTC smartphones. Once again we dont consider actual cameras here.

The next part of the test was done by Sergey Kuzmin.

An Unusual Test

One of my latest hobbies is the Instagram app for iPhone (the developers dont say anything about porting it to other devices so far). It is basically a social network where you can view pictures of other users and see who likes your pictures. Most importantly, you dont need a good camera to make brilliant pictures with Instagram thanks to all the effects available even a blurred overexposed image can be easily turned into a masterpiece. I almost always shoot with Instagram and very rarely use the standard iPhone camera.

This test shows that iPhone 4S can hardly compete with Galaxy SII or Nokia N8 and some HTC phones in terms of photo quality. But iPhones camera interface is extremely easy to use and the video quality is sufficient for YouTube which is a lot of help sometimes for a journalist. You dont need to worry about ISO settings, scenes etc. just press the button. While Artyom and I were making sample pictures we never could get the right weather to have proper light so I think that comparison of numbers is only important for die hard geeks while photo quality depends mostly on the photographer and not on the megapixels or lenses. Many of the people I know often use iPhone camera in cases when they dont have a proper camera at hand or when they need to take pictures inconspicuously. Nokia N8 might have the best camera here but it is not really a speedy every day solution.

Not so long ago Eldar could review a couple of the top cameras and that would be it. But today review regular smartphones not camera phones because the market has changed and the camera quality as well as sound quality can no longer be a strong marketing factor. Phones of today have got to have it all and I think it is a good thing. I suppose this photo test will be relevant for about a year then there will be iPhone 5 and other top notch phones.

There is another matter: most people take pictures in auto mode and very few devices can adjust all the settings properly depending on the light and other factors. So the manufacturer might install a good matrix but if the software is not up to it the quality will suffer. Also the hard camera button is essential and Apple has finally got that and made the up button of the volume rocker serve as the shutter button (in any orientation).

I will leave the conclusion to an expert. As for me I will keep using Instagram which proves that emotion is more important than sharpness. All the specs are nothing when you take a picture of a smile or a baby after all it is all about the feelings we want to save.

Bottom Line

After having reviewed all the test pictures I want to say that all of them can mess up in certain circumstances regardless of their matrix, megapixels or software. Of course, so far mobile cameras are not yet there on a par with point and shoot cameras not to mention pro cameras but in some aspects like sharpness, white balance and color rendition they are very close to them. iPhone 4S, Nokia N8 and Samsung smartphones offer very decent sharpness. Nokia N8 makes all the colors very natural and Sony Ericsson Ray is extremely speedy. I concur with Sergey and also think that mobile cameras have become so mundane that manufacturers no longer make camera flagships and most mobile cameras are very much the same. I suppose this will change if some manufacturer decides one day to revive the concept of a camera phone and put a big matrix and decent lenses into a phone supplemented with proper software. But as Nokia N8 proves such a phone must also be good in all the other respects. I invite you to take part in the discussion of this test and comment on the quality of our samples and methods on our forum.

We thank www.prophotos.ru and Georgy Politsarnov personally for their assistance in this test, Nixon Store for assistance of the shoot and the iCases.ru store for providing iPhone 4S for the test.

Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion be known to the author and everybody else.

Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
Twitter    Livejournal
Translated by Robert Mugattarov (mugattarov@gmail.com)

Published — 11 December 2011

Have something to add?! Write us... eldar@mobile-review.com

 

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