Smartphone Camera Buying Guide

November 3, 2015

two girls taking selfie using smartphone camera

Many people buy smartphones for different reasons. Some people pay a great deal of attention to the built-in camera or cameras. The camera is no doubt the most important and useful hardware part for the average phone owner.  We all like to take photos and videos to keep our memories alive for years to come and share it with our friends

So you might ask yourself, what makes a camera better than the other and how you can be sure that you are peaking a smartphone that has a camera that answer your specific needs? In this article I’ll try my best to answer this question and help you understand what to look for when buying a new smartphone and when you focus on the camera capabilities. I’ll also try my best to keep things short and simple.

The Sensor – You want those big pixels

sensor iconLarger pixels are better — The sensor is the recording device that captures the light photons and translate it to a digital color data.  When I choose a smartphone camera, I always pay a great deal of attention to the pixel size. Larger pixels lead to better low light performance, better color accuracy, higher dynamic range and better color reproduction. It’s not a 100% formula though, and other variables kick in, but if you want a good high ISO performance, large pixels can really help out. So what are large pixels? Well, 1.5 micron is considered as very large pixels for a mobile phone camera, while 1.1 is considered low.

Stacked Sensor are preferred  — Stacked sensor are a variant of the back-illuminated sensor. Those type of sensors are developed by Sony. They have around 30% better light capturing capability compared to the conventional BSI sensor. BSI sensors are also known for their improved low-light performance, but as for now, Stacked sensors are the way to go. Sony stacked sensors also referred to as ‘Exmor RS’.

Higher image resolution isn’t always better  — A higher image resolution isn’t always better. In many cases it comes at the cost of image quality in some degree or another. Having said that, some of the current gen sensors are performing very well even with high megapixel count. If you intend to do large prints or do lot of editing and cropping in photo editing software, you’ll certainly enjoy that extra resolution. If you care about the low-light performance, make sure that you check out some high ISO samples and read some reviews to make sure that the camera’s low-light performance meets your expectations.

The Lens – Don’t skip the focal length info

lens iconFind the focal length of the lens — Many people don’t pay a great deal of attention to the focal length. You need to find the equivalent focal length in 35mm to make sure that the focal length is accounted for the sensor size, and as you know, different sensors come in different sizes. Some manufacturers only tell you the actual focal length of the lens.  That info is usually found on the official product page, but sometimes that info is not displayed.

You can find the equivalent focal length by multiplying the actual focal length by the crop factor of the sensor if you know it’s size (you can find the crop factor for popular sensor sizes in this page on wikipedia).

If you don’t have the crop factor, you should just Google it. For example, ‘Samsung Galaxy S6 + “focal length” + equivalent’ and see if you can find that info, or search one of the big websites like phonearena.com or gsmarena.com’s spec page for that particular phone, maybe it’s listed there.

Now, the higher the focal length number (e.g. 30mm is higher than 21mm), the narrower the field of view. So if you want a lens that can capture more area of the scene in front of you (wider angle of view / field of view), you want a wide(r) angle lens. The focal length become even more important when shooting selfies with the front camera.  Some phones have dual camera setup to cover a wider angle of view with minimum distortions.

It’s also important to know what selfie features are offered by the camera app, on the software side. And that’s something you can find on the official site and on any preview or review.

Small aperture for better low-light performance —the aperture f-number measured the size of hole of the lens from which the light passes through. The larger that hole, the more light that can pass through it. You want a phone camera with the largest aperture. Now listen carefully: the smaller the f-number, the larger that hole is. So you if you have two phones, one with a f/1.8 aperture and the second with f/2.2 aperture, you want that one with the f/1.8 aperture, because it can capture more light. Also for a given same sensor size, the lens with the smaller f-number will also give you a more pronounced depth of field effect (more blurry background effect).

The different between two aperture numbers is measured in stops. One stop equals two times the among of light. You can use this online exposure different calculator on imaginatorium.org, to find out the exposure ratio. Just put the same shutter speed and different aperture numbers and check out the exposure ratio.

AF Performance is very important

Some people tend to ignore the AF performance, but it’s a very important factor when choosing a camera. In the past, most phone cameras used contrast-detection AF system, although good for general use, the performance isn’t enough when shooting fast moving subjects. This is why you see many videos with miss-focus on YouTube. at least those who were captures with mobile phones.

A new technology called phase-detection AF boosts the autofocus performance by a large margin, especially when shooting fast-moving subjects like kids running at the garden, a dog running towards you, a car passing through the frame, etc. Some companies might call this technology differently. For example, Apple calls it “Focus Pixels” on their iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s.

The phase-detection is VERY important when shooting videos as well, where the AF is active all the time trying to focus on the subject. If you love shooting videos, it’s even more important that you pick up a cell phone with a camera that has phase-detection AF system.

Note: some phones have a two-phase focus button. The same mechanism that conventional digital cameras have. So when you press it half-way, it focuses on the subject, and you press it full way to capture the shot.

The Flash is important when shooting in low-light

flash iconThe flash is a component that omits light and can be directed on the subject to lit it up when shooting in dark situations, but also to feel up shadow areas as well. It is definitely useful when you shoot in low-light and needs that extra light to get a well exposed shot.

Some of the latest technologies include what is referred to as True-tone flash, where the flash includes one or more LED lights. The camera combines those light in different intensities to make sure that the photo will look as natural as possible, like it was shot without a flash. It helps correct white balance issues and give the subject (especially when shooting portraits), a natural look.

Also check out that the front camera has a flash if you want to be able to capture a good selfie photo when shooting indoors or in dark situations. Some cameras have a rotating lens, so this means that if the flash is on the rear, it works in the front because the camera can be rotates forward, just so you know.

Optical Image Stabilization

ois iconThis is one of the most important features in my opinion if you search for a good low-light performance and if you love shooting videos. In general terms, the optical image stabilization (OIS in short), will help you get a well exposed shot when you shoot at slow shutter speeds.

The camera will use a slow shutter speed to compensate for the lack of light when shooting under restricted lighting conditions. When this happens, the camera is more sensitive to motion blur because the shutter is open for a longer perioed of time. So when you hand moves slightly, so does the sensor and the light is smeared onto several pixels which created a blurry image.

The optical stabilization solves this by moving the sensor on the opposite direction of your hand movement, so the light will reach those same pixels, instead of being recorded on neighboured pixels as well.

It’s also very important for videos, when most people walk and shoot instead of standing still.

Manual Controls

PASM dial iconSome cameras give you full or partial control over the camera settings like settings the ISO, shutter speed,  aperture (if it’s a non fixed-aperture lens = zoom lens, in case of mobile phone cameras), white balance, etc. By having more control over the camera settings, you’ll be able to come up with more creative shots and have more control over the final output.

In fully automatic cameras, the camera uses the built-in scene recognition to find out what the best settings to use, and you have know control over those.  Make sure you check out the phone’s manual or ask the retailer if that phone offer manual control over the exposure.

Large Screen Equals Better Viewing Experience

A larger screen will definitely make it more fun viewing your photos and videos. I personally prefer a 5-inch screen or above for the ultimate viewing experience.   It’s also easier to compose the shot with a larger screen and accurately tap on the subject to focus if you have large hands or using it with gloves.

Battery Life

The battery life is obviously important if you want to be able to capture as much photos and videos as possible on a single charge. Some smartphones allow you to change the battery, so you can carry a second battery with you on-the-go, some phones don’t. Usually the largest phones have the best battery life because they employ a large battery.

4K Videos – Oh, those fine details!

4K resolution is the highest resolution you can get on the latest mid-range and high-end phone and tablet devices. If you already own a 4K display or intend to buy one, you’ll certainly enjoy the crisp and highly-detailed videos you’ll get when shooting 4K videos with your smartphone or tablet device.

Just keep in mind that 4K videos weigh more than HD or Full HD, so make sure you have a large memory card or built-in storage to store more of those videos on your phone, before transferring them to another device or uploading them online.

Bath-certified Phones 🙂

water dropletSome smartphone are waterproof and can operate underwater. This means that you can shoot with them under heavy rain and even underwater in the pool. It’s important to check the IP Code to know the water-resistant degree of the phone. It’s a numerical value that tells you if you can use it underwater or not and to what depth.

Usually the water-resistant protection is used to give the phone an extra protection in case you spill coffee on it, get stuck in the rain, when it accidently fall into the toilet, etc. You can check out YouTube and see that there are many people shooting with some of Sony Xperia phones underwater. So again, make sure you check out the official site before even thinking taking your phone to a swim.

Read the Reviews and check out Sample Image Comparisons!

My last tip for you is not to forget to read phone reviews and check out the sample comparisons. They’ll reveal much more info that you might miss if you need to check the phone yourself at the store. They do all the heavy lifting and checking the camera performance under different situations and give you a very detailed info of the camera capabilities.

You can also check out DxOMark website. Those guys check the image quality using a unique software and rate the camera’s performance for both stills and video recording.

That’s all for now. Obviously there are many other features that can be covered, but those are, in my opinion, the most important one to look for.  If you enjoy this article, please don’t forget to LIKE and share it with your friends – thanks!



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