What's the best smartphone for photographers?

Question: Do you want a smartphone or a camera for Christmas?

Answer: Yes.

That’s about where it stands in the smartphone market today. No longer are we satisfied with just getting a call through, and maybe checking email or chatting. No, these days our phones also have to be packing an awesome camera that’s comparable to a Canon, Nikon, or Sony model. 

Is such a thing even possible? The answer to that question—yes, for the record—is now regarded as almost gospel by smartphone manufacturers, which are doggedly applying themselves to the task of making each of their mobile telecommunications devices the best camera to carry in your pocket. 

So the question now is not whether smartphone vendors can succeed in building a camera, but how well. To answer that query, Macworld Lab director James Galbraith and editorial assistant Albert Filice strolled around downtown San Francisco—and ducked into the basement of our office building—with an Apple iPhone 5s, an HTC One, an LG G2, a Nokia Lumia 1020, and a Samsung Galaxy S4 in their overstuffed pockets. And because this is San Francisco, they fit right in.

Different strokes

Each smartphone vendor takes a unique approach to camera construction and operation, and offers those things as marquee features.

With the Android-based HTC One, it’s all about the company’s “UltraPixel” sensor technology. HTC got the memo about the megapixel myth and took its lessons to heart: Instead of piling useless resolution onto its camera, it took the opposite approach and packed its sensor with fewer—but larger—pixels aimed at more-efficient light capture and less noise. The result is basically a 4-megapixel camera that can perform interesting tricks such as zoetrope-style motion graphics and image stabilization. When you enable Zoe mode for action, the phone captures up to 20 photos and records about 3 seconds’ worth of 1080p video, from which you can pull additional stills. HTC’s ImageChip 2 technology provides continuous autofocus, real-time video HDR, lens color shading compensation, and de-noise processing.

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HTC One

Nokia proved with the Windows 8–based Lumia 1020—in case there was any doubt—that it is determined to offer the best smartphone camera ever. It started on that quest by piling an astounding 41 megapixels onto the camera’s formidable sensor. In addition to a Xenon flash and Carl Zeiss optics, the camera comes with six lenses and an aperture of f/2.2. A large backside-illumination sensor boosts the amount of light the camera captures. The biggest innovation, however, is the dual-capture mode, which simultaneously takes a 38-megapixel image while creating a 5-megapixel version of the same image for social media, though you can access both only when the phone is connected to your computer. Nokia Smart Cam, similar to the Zoe shooting mode on the HTC One, takes multiple photos in rapid succession and also gives you options to remove unwanted objects from the scene.

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Nokia Lumia 1020

The iPhone 5s may not have changed the spec of its camera from the previous iPhone—it’s still 8 megapixels—but the new handset’s 64-bit A7 processor, the first in a smartphone, boosts the camera performance significantly, allowing it to focus and to capture photos faster than any older iPhone. Couple that with the camera’s new True Tone Flash, which features two separate LEDs, each with a distinct color temperature: one bluish-white, the other, yellowish. The iPhone’s software analyzes the color temperature of your shot and then adjusts the intensity of the two LED flashes to match the ambient light. Finally, adhering to Apple’s approach of layering on additional software features, the 5s camera also has new slow-motion video and burst modes.

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Apple iPhone 5s

The LG G2 Android “super phone” camera focuses on, well, focus—in the form of multipoint autofocus, which can employ up to nine autofocus points while capturing a still image. Along with the phone’s optical image stabilizer—which LG says is the first OIS for a 13-megapixel camera—the camera promises to capture crisp, clear images no matter how much you or your subjects squirm. Then there’s the tracking zoom: This video functionality autotracks your subject to keep it in focus within the frame, no matter how the phone or subject moves.

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LG G2

The Samsung Galaxy S4’s 13-megapixel camera features a single LED flash and a wide array of shooting modes. Night mode lets you shoot in dark environments. Then there's Macro, Panorama, and Sound, which lets you record audio while shooting photos. Yet another mode lets you remove unwanted objects from your shots. Dual Camera mode turns on the front-facing camera while the main camera is running so that you can insert yourself into photos. Drama mode takes multiple exposures and stitches them into a single photo. 

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Samsung Galaxy S4

While our reviewers went wild with the special effects and video features, our lab guys stuck to the basics in evaluating and comparing the quality of these cameras for taking basic shots in common circumstances.

The winner is...

If you’re a photography nut and you’re eager to see a hands-down recommendation of which smartphone to buy, you’ll be disappointed to learn that no single model emerged as the overwhelming favorite in every test we conducted. But we did see a couple of front-runners and numerous close calls.

The iPhone 5s bested the competition in two of our five shooting tests; the LG G2 also topped the field in two of five tests. Interestingly, each model won in two different flash categories—the most challenging shooting conditions—with the iPhone having the best flash performance and the LG having the best nonflash performance in low light. As for the other contenders, the Samsung Galaxy G4 took the top score in one category, while the Nokia Lumia and the HTC One scored at or near the bottom in most of the test shots. 

We tested the cameras’ still-shot capabilities in a few typical venues to get an idea of how the cameras handled exposure, focus, color, white balance, flash, and low light—situations we thought most users would be involved in the most. We designed this set of tests not as a scientific survey, but rather as an informal comparison (or as informal as you can get with the lab manager directing the action). Below are the test shots we took, and our judgment of how each smartphone camera performed in shooting them.

We acknowledge that judging images can be subjective. We linked to each original image underneath each composite photo, so you can view them for yourself. 

Bridge

We shot on a clear day on the San Francisco waterfront with the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge as a dramatic backdrop. The Galaxy S4 delivered the most accurate rendition of the scene. This kind of tourist shot is typical of what smartphones are often used for—it’s a nice scene that tells where you are, taken on a bright, sunny day. The Lumia 1020 did a creditable job, comparable to the Galaxy S4, with this shot; though the image came out a tad darker and more saturated, it was still very pleasing and Kodachrome worthy.

The other cameras fared less well. The iPhone 5s photo was overexposed and the LG G2 image was underexposed, but both flaws are quite fixable in software, if you’re so inclined. The HTC One did poorly on this shot, delivering a dark, pixelated, oversharpened, noisy image.

bridge

HTC One | LG G2 | iPhone 5s | Lumia 1020 | Galaxy S4

Flower

Another typical shooting subject is flowers, and such images offer a good way to judge color fidelity and focus. In this test, the LG G2 took the top position for its pinpoint-accurate rendering of the flower’s complex midsection as well as the petal color and detail. The accurate color and focus on the surrounding leaves also impressed. Nearly as good as the LG were the HTC One and the iPhone 5s, both of which captured commendable color and detail in the petals and leaves.

The flaws exhibited by the Galaxy S4 and the Lumia 1020 could be fixed easily in an image-editing program, as the former overexposed the image and the latter oversaturated it. Even so, the Lumia 1020’s underexposed shot also exaggerated the foliage colors, creating an unacceptable, otherworldly green hue.

flower

HTC One | LG G2 | iPhone 5s | Lumia 1020 | Galaxy S4

Kayak

There’s pleasing and then there’s realistic. Most photography enthusiasts like to start with an image grounded in memory, on which improvements can be made. In our kayak series, the iPhone 5s produced the most realistic, well-exposed, and naturally colored rendition of the scene. The Galaxy S4 came in second, but just barely, as its image was very close in quality to the iPhone’s.

The LG G2 produced good color and accurate focus, though its photo was marred by a blown-out sky. That contrasts with the Lumia 1020’s underexposed shot, which removed most of the shadow detail to the left of the main kayak. The HTC One shot, looking oversharpened and noisy, wound up in last place.

kayak

HTC One | LG G2 | iPhone 5s | Lumia 1020 | Galaxy S4

Flash

The new True-Tone flash technology in the iPhone 5s proved its value on our flash photos, producing natural skin tones and realistic colors in a highly unnatural and dark environment. The natural by-product of flash is red-eye. The iPhone shot had a hint of red-eye, but so little that you could leave it unfixed without the result being offensive.

Getting such a yellow jacket to look right is tricky, and the Lumia 1020, while handling skin tone admirably, simply could not hack the jacket. In both flash and nonflash situations, the LG G2 displayed a tendency to fix its people portraits excessively, and that was the most obvious flaw in this shot. The smooth skin tone was flattering to the face right out of the camera—despite some softness around the rest of the face, including the beard and the eyes—but such posterized effects are very hard to change or improve, and are thus not optimal. Though the Galaxy S4 photo made our subject look like a zombie, that kind of problem is easier to fix than the LG’s special effect. Nevertheless, the LG’s photo was more pleasing, and took the higher spot. The HTC One, despite its flash, produced a photo so dark that observers could be forgiven for wondering whether the flash had fired at all. 

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HTC One | LG G2 | iPhone 5s | Lumia 1020 | Galaxy S4

No flash

For this test the guys went into the basement of our office building, aimed, and peeled off some shots to see what they would get with natural light—that is, very little or no light. In this, the most challenging of our tests, the LG G2 came out on top because of its aforementioned propensity to beautify and posterize faces so that the portraits look flattering right out of the camera. We gave it the top spot, with the caveat that the original image would be very hard to improve with editing.

Next came the Galaxy S4, whose photo also exhibited posterization but was dark and underexposed. The HTC One wasn’t the worst, but it was nothing to write home about either. The iPhone 5s image suffered from excessive noise, and the photo from the Lumia 1020 had a pronounced green color cast. Such a cast would be easily corrected with editing for white balance, however.

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HTC One | LG G2 | iPhone 5s | Lumia 1020 | Galaxy S4

Which camera should you choose?

All of these smartphones offer exotic still and video-related camera features. For example, you might like the Slo-Mo video (or fast shooting) feature of the iPhone 5s, or you may prefer the Samsung Galaxy S4’s Dual Camera mode, which employs the front-facing camera simultaneously. The LG G2’s tracking zoom feature autotracks your subject to keep it in focus within the frame, the Nokia Lumia 1020 stands out for its dual-capture mode, and the HTC One’s Zoe feature lets you create video with special effects.

But the essence and value of a camera comes down to how well it shoots, how easy it is to use, how automatic its features are, and whether it captures pictures you’ll want to share with family and friends to enjoy for years to come. From that standpoint, the best smartphone cameras for shooting—which provides the basis for special effects and video—are those of the Apple iPhone 5s, the LG G2, and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Michael Homnick prepared the image composites for this story.

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