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What makes camera phone pictures look good, and what doesn't

Posted: , by Nick T.

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What makes camera phone pictures look good, and what doesn't
When was that last time you used your point-and-shoot camera? If you are among those people who can't remember, that is probably because you now snap photos with that phone of yours instead. And we cannot blame you. After all, carrying around a dedicated camera at all times is anything but convenient, whereas everyone has a phone of some kind resting in their pocket.

However, while select camera phones are capable of producing images of quality close to that of basic dedicated digital cameras, same thing cannot be said about the rest. That is because not all camera phones are created equal, and the results tend to vary from one device to another. 

But which are the factors that the quality of your photos depends on, and which don't really matter that much? Well, read along to find out.


Megapixels

Manufacturers have done an excellent job at convincing the general public that the more megapixels a camera has, the better the photos will look. However, what the number indicates is simply how big of a print you can make without sacrificing quality. For example, a 2-megapixel photo is sufficient for making a high-quality 6" by 4" print at 300ppi. Modern high-end smartphones come with cameras of 8 megapixels and above, which is a resolution high enough for making a great 8" by 11" print at the same 300ppi. 

But if you are still not convinced, allow us to demonstrate that megapixels are not what the quality of an image depends on. Below you see an image taken with a Canon EOS 60D DSLR camera at 2.5 megapixels and then scaled up to 8 megapixels for comparison's sake. Next to it we have the same scene captured with an iPhone 4S at 8 megapixels. Both cameras shoot under the same lighting conditions and have their settings adjusted as identically as possible: f2.4, ISO125, 1/20 shutter speed for the iPhone 4S and f2.5, ISO125, 1/15 shutter speed for the DSLR. Providing light in our studio are two tungsten bulbs at 3200K.

Canon EOS 60D at 2.5 megapixels, scaled up to 8 megapixels
iPhone 4S at 8 megapixels

Canon EOS 60D at 2.5 megapixels, scaled up to 8 megapixels

iPhone 4S at 8 megapixels


As you see, the image from the camera looks superior despite its much lower megapixel count. Or in other words, megapixels do not really matter if the camera as a whole is of mediocre quality. That is why no phone or a pocket point-and-shoot camera can capture an image that looks flawless when viewed in its actual size. For that to be possible, it is of utmost importance for the camera to have a high-quality...

Camera module from a Samsung Galaxy Nexus housing an image sensor, optical system, and the necessary circuitry

Camera module from a Samsung Galaxy Nexus housing an image sensor, optical system, and the necessary circuitry


Image sensor

This is the element that is truly crucial to the overall quality of a camera. The sensor is responsible for converting light into electrical signals that the device's hardware can process and compose digital photos out of. 

Recently, we have been hearing lots about supposedly advanced sensors – ones that have backside illumination (BSI for short), or ones that are physically bigger. And theoretically, such features are great to have, yet it has to be considered that image sensors are not all the same. Therefore, neither their size nor type can speak of a camera's quality on their own. We know that a sensor that is physically bigger will be superior to a smaller one, but that is valid only in an ideal case scenario. And even if we compare two phones with sensors of the same size, there will still be a difference in the quality of their images. That is because their sensors will be of different quality, not to mention the bunch of other factors that come into play.

To sum it all up, don't judge a camera by its megapixels or by the specs of its sensor. You should care only about the quality and detail of the actual images that it takes. 


5 lenses compose the optics on the iPhone 4S' camera

5 lenses compose the optics on the iPhone 4S' camera

Optics

Some manufacturers promote devices with branded optics. However, the association with a popular brand name can be misleading as it is not a guarantee that the camera's images will be good. What really matters is the actual quality of the lenses. The optical system, which they together compose, is what guides the light towards the sensor. The better the optics, the fewer optical imperfections will be present on the final image. Unfortunately, such details are rarely, if ever, provided by the manufacturers.



Aperture

Aperture used to be a term that you would hear only when professional photography is concerned, yet it can now be seen on the specs sheets of some camera phones as well. What the f-number represents is the width of the opening, through which light travels towards the sensor. The lower the number, the wider the aperture is, thus letting more light to get through. That should provide better low-light performance while keeping the exposure time short and ISO speed low. 

But do you know how aperture really affects an image? Below you see the same scene as above taken with the same Canon DSLR camera at f2.0 aperture, and then taken again at f4.0 aperture. The iPhone 4S photo at f2.4 aperture is also there for reference. As it becomes obvious, the narrow aperture does not result in an inferior photo. In fact, it widens the depth of field and reduces distortion around the image's edges. 

Canon EOS 60D, f2.0
Canon EOS 60D f4.0
iPhone 4S f2.4

Canon EOS 60D, f2.0

Canon EOS 60D f4.0

iPhone 4S f2.4


Of course, the DSLR camera compensates for the more narrow aperture by increasing the ISO, yet the quality of its photos is still high. And that is what we want to explain – a camera's performance depends on all its elements, not only on the ones that the manufacturer touts. That is why we will stress it once more that you should not care about a single camera specification, but your eyes need to do all the judging on the final photo.


Dual LED vs Xenon flash

When shooting at night or in dark environments, having the proper illumination is essential for taking the best shot possible. That is why every self-respecting camera phone has a flash of some sort, and the LED kind can be found on 99% of all handsets. However, a Xenon flash provides superior brightness, thus illuminating the scene better and allowing for the exposure time to be kept shorter. Unfortunately, Xenon flashes are more expensive to produce and are known to be quite power hungry, which is why we don't see them quite often on camera phones nowadays.


Camera settings

Taking the perfect shot also depends on having your camera phone settings adjusted accordingly. That includes focus, color balance, exposure, and ISO speed. Luckily, camera phones are smart enough to determine the right settings on their own, so users should not worry about these too much. However, in some cases it is good to tweak these yourself, should the camera's interface allow you to. For example, some camera phones have a “sports mode”, which basically keeps exposure times short in order to reduce motion blur. Unfortunately, the ISO speed goes up, meaning that the amount of digital noise does so too. If you want to make an impressive night shot, see if there is a “night mode” available. That increases the exposure time so that more light can be captured by the sensor. However, in that case, keeping the camera as still as possible is of critical importance. If one wants to make the most out of their camera phone, it is advisable that they experiment with all the settings and modes that the interface has in stock.


Was this the world's first camera phone?

Was this the world's first camera phone?

Hardware and software processing

Last but not least, we cannot neglect the hardware and software that take care of all the dirty work, namely processing the image information from the sensor and turning it into a digital photo. That is where the device's image processor and processing algorithms come to play. Their performance affects not only the image's quality, but also the entire camera experience that the phone delivers. For example, a number of modern camera phones have virtually no shutter lag because of the capable hardware that controls the camera. Furthermore, it is what determines how long the delay between each frame will be.


Final words

In conclusion, a camera phone's performance depends on a whole bunch of factors, and none of them should be used individually to estimate a device's quality. Do not be fooled by marketing tricks, such as optics carrying a given brand name, or the fancy titles that some companies use to market their sensors with. It is you and only you that can tell how good a camera phone is, and to find that out, just take it for a spin and have a good look at the photos that it takes.


29 Comments
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posted on 30 Jan 2012, 09:41 3

1. InternetsTroll (Posts: 38; Member since: 26 Jan 2012)


This.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 10:01 8

2. meetmadzky (Posts: 11; Member since: 24 Jan 2012)


Yes. This is so true and I totally agree on this article.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 10:05 7

3. clevername (Posts: 1429; Member since: 11 Jul 2008)


Wonderful piece. Enjoyed reading it.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 10:15 11

4. Paden (Posts: 262; Member since: 07 Jul 2011)


I hear so many customers say, "But this one has an 8MP camera and that only has a 5MP camera." Then I have to explain that a lot more goes into the camera than just megapixels.

Great info. I'll definitely be e-mailing this article to our sales staff for them to look at.

posted on 31 Jan 2012, 08:08 1

22. Zephyron (Posts: 7; Member since: 27 Jan 2012)


Same scenario here.

Good on you on explaining the differences, unlike so many of the retailers on my end here who merely push on the megapixel count of the cellphone's camera.

Cheers! =)

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 11:11 4

5. jcoberg10 (Posts: 110; Member since: 30 Oct 2009)


Would have been better if there wasn't 10 iphone references.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 11:43 14

7. Nick_T (Posts: 145; Member since: 27 May 2011)


Does it really matter?

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 12:25 5

10. Paden (Posts: 262; Member since: 07 Jul 2011)


No it doesn't Nick. No it does not.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 15:19

16. thephoneguy92 (Posts: 191; Member since: 29 Dec 2011)


You sir, are an idiot.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 11:15 5

6. PaulNotFromSweden (Posts: 52; Member since: 16 Sep 2011)


Well-written article. Thanks for writing it.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 11:46 2

8. bluechrism (Posts: 99; Member since: 09 Sep 2011)


So the unanswered question here is which comapnies or phones get these things more right than wrong.
One place where we see some of these things at play is the Lumia 800 camera is worse than the N9 but has exactly the same hardware - it's the processing software that isn't optimized so welk on the Lumia.
The N8 has a 12MP camera, but it's clear they got more right than just haveing 12MP when they made it. HTC better have more than just 16MP for it's camera else people will be disapointed with it's performance, despite it's high resolution, especially if a Samsung Galaxy S2 or iPhone 4S or Nokia N9 or even Nokia N82 (5MP with Xenon) takes better pictures.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 12:48 3

12. redbirdie (Posts: 3; Member since: 30 Jan 2012)


Yes, agreed. Does anyone have a resource to recent model camera comparisons? In addition to iPhone 4s?

posted on 31 Jan 2012, 18:29 1

24. Snoobab (Posts: 174; Member since: 07 Dec 2011)


Techradar just ran an interesting article named "Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested". Guess which handset came out tops? (Hint: _not_ the iPhone 4S)

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 12:13 7

9. vishu9 (Posts: 251; Member since: 03 Mar 2011)


Nice article..and I can see the best of all the components are there in my N8, and it makes me re-assert that its still the best phone-cam coz of its Carl Zeiss optics,sensor and Xenon flash. :)
Next would be my SGS2! :D

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 12:43 1

11. redbirdie (Posts: 3; Member since: 30 Jan 2012)


It is a good article. Has anyone seen a similar direct comparison of specific phone cameras? I really want the Nexus, but the I depend on the really teriffic camera (8mp) in my older Evo4G.

Also, not to be contrarian, but after zooming in on those two shots in the first comparison, I can't agree that the Canon 60D photo taken at lower mp is actually better. Look at the leaves in each of the photos. The leaves in 8mp camera phone photo are noticably more crisp...

posted on 31 Jan 2012, 17:49

23. iAndroid (Posts: 3; Member since: 31 Jan 2012)


I really haven't been too impressed with the sensor on my evo, I guess I am spoiled by the superior sensor in my Galaxy S II however I would recommend you compare the Galaxy Nexus to your HTC evo to see for yourself which sensor is superior.

posted on 01 Feb 2012, 12:31

28. blazee (Posts: 285; Member since: 02 Jan 2012)


The focus of the canon seems to be on the bear and whats in front of it rather than background. I think this gives the object the camera is point at a more crisp, detailed and more natural look to it. It might also just be a matter of adjusting the setting on the camera focus to your preferred option.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 12:51 1

13. Jyakotu (Posts: 822; Member since: 12 Dec 2008)


I'll admit, I used to be one of those consumers who thought that the higher the megapixels, the better the image quality. And who can blame me.? Many phone reviews I've seen, most phones with high megapixel cameras appeared to have great photo quality. But even an old Sony flip phone I used to use had a simple VGA camera and had great photo quality.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 13:29 2

14. redbirdie (Posts: 3; Member since: 30 Jan 2012)


Actually, I see there is a comparison between Nexus and iPhone cameras here on Phone Arena from November....

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 15:19 1

15. thephoneguy92 (Posts: 191; Member since: 29 Dec 2011)


Beautifully written article. I've always been the kind of person who just assumes MP = King, although I knew that wasn't true, I could never seem to work out the real differences. This was the perfect article for me. Thanks!

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 15:27 4

17. Arpad (Posts: 39; Member since: 05 Jan 2012)


Long live the Nokia N8....well until Bella at least.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 18:07

18. SoopaManLuv (Posts: 24; Member since: 11 Aug 2011)


I think tha biggest thing is, no 2 people view images tha same. And yeah, I use 2 think more MP's meant better photos as well. That was until I did some research. As an example, tha 8MP shooter on my DroidX is u gotta know how 2 use it 2 get a good photo. Wit that being said, it still comes down 2 tha viewer. What I think looks good someone else may say different. Well written article by tha way.

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 18:14 4

19. ChiX017 (Posts: 308; Member since: 09 Nov 2011)


SHamE!
The N8 isn't even mentioned, with it's Xenon flasH!!

posted on 30 Jan 2012, 20:26 5

20. TiCAL (Posts: 2; Member since: 30 Jan 2012)


first time commentor long time reader
I know phonearena favors yphones
i have no problem with that
but i hate hate when they subliminally take stab's
at nokia."brand name optic's" , "Power hungry Xenon flash"
oohh plz all my friends have yphones
but when they wana take a pic in a club ,bar or lounge
they looking for me.
THEY KNOW my N8 will embarass there yphone.
can't wait for the NOKIA 803

posted on 31 Jan 2012, 18:42 1

26. Snoobab (Posts: 174; Member since: 07 Dec 2011)


Exactly! Carl-Zeiss is "one of the oldest existing optics manufacturers in the world", yet we shouldn't trust them? Please PhoneArena, don't take advantage of your readers' naievity. Unbiased journalism is all we ask for.

posted on 31 Jan 2012, 00:01 1

21. sumit919 (Posts: 7; Member since: 10 Jan 2012)


What a superb article. Long live phonearena. Articles like these differentiate you from other sites i would say.
Can anyone post some links for more detailed study of optics, sensor, aperture and image processing in digital cameras.

posted on 31 Jan 2012, 18:34 1

25. Snoobab (Posts: 174; Member since: 07 Dec 2011)


The Nokia N8 ticks EVERY single box, yet no mention? Ah, perhaps that's because it uses Carl-Zeiss optics and contains an image sensor larger than that of most P&S cameras. ("Do not be fooled by marketing tricks, such as optics carrying a given brand name, or the fancy titles that some companies use to market their sensors with").

posted on 01 Feb 2012, 04:29 2

27. iseedeadpeopleinyou (Posts: 1; Member since: 01 Feb 2012)


lolol exactly phonearena hatin on Nokia . :D

posted on 04 Feb 2012, 12:03

29. just.mer (Posts: 2; Member since: 11 May 2011)


OK but when I read a review of a new phone I can only found out the megapixels and i begin to judge the quality of the picture only by it, so can sb tell me how can i know about all these specs there were written a?

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