It seems that phones have become the main cameras for many people: after all, the main cameras have improved tremendously in the past few years, and hardly anyone wants to carry a big, dedicated camera around.
But there is one more camera on your phone that gets a lot of use and little consideration apart from the mention of how many megapixels it has. Truth is: it does not matter much. What matters more is what a particular phone does with those megapixels, not how many of them are there.
To find out which phone has the best front camera, I got ready for some selfies, practised my best duck face... well, maybe not, but I did take a bunch of pictures with four of the best phones around: the Apple iPhone 7 Plus
, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
, the LG V20
, and the Sony Xperia XZ
. What I will not do here is discuss specs, megapixels and pixel sizes: you can look them up easily on our phones specs page
. Instead, let's focus on the actual quality and things that matter like color, dynamic range and detail.
We have used default settings and this is why the orientation of the images is different
. By default, the iPhone and the Xperia show selfies in the correct orientation: what was on your right while you were taking the image appears on your right. The Galaxy and the LG, however, flip the image and show a weird mirror reflection, so that what was on your right when you were taking a picture appears... on your left. Luckily, you can change this in settings for both the Galaxy and LG, but it's strange that it is not the default option.
#1 The grass is greener on the other side
There is not much to be said and analyzed here: it's clear that one image stands out above all the rest. It's the first selfie, the one taken with the iPhone 7 Plus
. It has cheerful, lively colors, without going to any extremes to achieve that look. It is just very slightly overexposed, but it's also the only image of these four that we would actually want to share. What about the rest?
The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
is the complete opposite: the dull, depressing colors and blotchy skin detail ruin this image and it's not one we would be proud showing to anyone.
The LG V20 probably does best of all three Android contenders: it has smooth skin tones that liven up the image, but definitely make me look
worryingly bleak and there are noticeable dark spots around the edges of the picture. The wide perspective also reveals my extebded hands taking the selfie, which is not something that I ideally would like others to see.
The Sony Xperia XZ
does a decent job: it is the only one with face detection for the selfie camera, and this makes a world of a difference to ensure your face is in perfect focus. Unfortunately, it also has depressing colors and trouble with the white balance as colors appear way too cold. Again, resulting in an image we would not want to share around.
#2 Same person, same light: huge difference
Here is one more selfie of the same person, with equal light conditions, but hugely different results. The first image from the iPhone again stands out: it has the right perspective for a selfie, not showing any weird arm extensions, but most importantly, it has balanced exposure and sharp detail. There is a slight natural blur to the background that makes my face stand out as it should. Colors, however, are definitely on the yellow-ish side, but still this is our favorite image of this set.
The Samsung Galaxy S7
Edge disappoints again: it has problems with darker exposure again, the oversharpened look of the image looks artificial and adds blotchy artifacts to my skin, while the background appears as sharp as my face, which makes it confusing: where should the viewers' eyes be focused?
The LG V20 again does better, but far from great: it does relatively well with the overall exposure of the picture, but whitens my skin strangely and if you look closer, you will find detail lacking.
The Xperia XZ captures a decent, but not great picture here: my face is in focus, but the white balance is clearly too blueish and exposure is too dark.
#3 A difference of perspective
The front camera can be used for a variety of things, but it's hard denying that selfies are its main use. That's where perspective matters: when you want to take a selfie portrait, a wide perspective can ruin the image by showing too much. It's usually your arms stretched towards the camera in some weird position. Technically, it is possible to shoot from very up close with a wide-angle camera, but then your face start to look elongated and images get that unflattering "potato nose" look.
You can see the difference in the field of view of the cameras clearly in this set of images. The iPhone shows a much closer perspective that is perfect for selfie portrait. It focuses on the face, which is what matters.
We shot at the same distance that we consider comfortable for selfie shots and got a picture that shows more of the person taking a selfie. Yes, they also show a lot more around the image: you can see the ground, you can even see the shadow of my legs, but is that really something that you want in a selfie? You have to make up your mind and decide what's right for yourself.
#4 Group selfies
What about group pictures, though? A wider perspective is definitely nice to have in cases where you need to fit more people in the frame. It was just two of us here that fit fine on the iPhone, but if it was a larger group of people, the wider Android phones would have had an advantage.
When it comes to picture quality, though, we see some glaring issues. The Galaxy S7 Edge has harsh detail, blotchy skin detail and a bit of a trouble with darker-than-optimal shadows. It's not a terrible-looking picture, but that's not a compliment we would like to receive for our photos.
The LG V20 has softer look that is more flattering for pictures of people than the harsh and over-sharpened S7 Edge, but it goes in a yellow rage with skin tones, which destroys detail in the faces that are the focus of this picture. Again, it's not downright terrible, but not great either.
The Sony Xperia XZ uses face detection to get sharp focus on the faces and does a good job showing detail and nuance in the face, but the image is noticeably underexposed and skin color is slightly orange.
The iPhone has a bit of a faded-color look to it, but its clearly the best image of the bunch: the exposure is well balanced - both highlights and shadows are preserved - and detail is pleasingly sharp (but not oversharpened).
#5 Look ma, I have a banana head
Looking at these selfies there is only one proper reaction: "Really? Those are real pictures?" Yes, all three Android phones with their wide cameras make your head look disfigured every time you move out of the center of the frame. It's particularly worse with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, where I look like a banana head cartoon hero rather than a real person. The LG and Sony show similar crazy distortions.
Only the iPhone is able to preserve sane proportions in this selfie.
For all else, we see the trends from before: the well-balanced iPhone picture with a slightly faded look; secondly, the unnaturally sharp picture from the S7 Edge with blotchy skin tones and issues with handling of the shadows; thirdly, the bright skin color on the LG V20 with some loss of highlights; and lastly, the Xperia XZ with its perpetual exposure problems and unnatural orange-reddish skin color.
While outdoors we saw some truly shocking differences in quality, indoors the differences are less stressful.
The trends from the earlier images are preserved, but under natural lights all phones handle the less intense shadows and highlights better, and do better with exposure.
All these indoor selfies actually look good, which cannot be said about many of the outdoor shots.
Image quality is always somewhat subjective and a topic of endless debates, but when the differences are so obvious, one has to admit that some companies have to do some serious job on improving their front cameras.
Do we really need such wide angle selfie cameras in most Android phones? This is one hugely important question for phone camera makers.
But most importantly: more work has to be done on color, the single most quintessential element of photography. When you have dull and depressing colors, it does not make much sense to go and discuss any further details. In many pictures, exposure turned out completely wrong and front cameras seem much more prone to white balance errors. While many are quoting high megapixel numbers, the detail in selfie pictures from the Android phones present is blotched. Phone makers should also seriously consider adding face detection for the front camera: Sony has it and it does wonders to keep our face in focus.
For all else, one thing is clear: the iPhone currently stands clearly above all others. It delivers pleasing pictures with impressive color and sharp detail that one can proudly share. The others differ, but mostly don't live up to the expectations from a high-end phone camera.