Strangely enough, one of the main aspects of a smartphone camera that companies like Samsung and Apple promote is how many megapixels their cameras have.
But the truth is that megapixel count isn’t a good way to gauge how good the camera is on its own.
Just take NASA’s New Horizons space probe that flew to Pluto earlier this year. It has a one-megapixel camera compared to the 12+ megapixels that many premium smartphones don these days. And yet, New Horizons took some stunning pictures of Pluto and its moons that even the best smartphone camera couldn’t even think about competing with.
How is it done? And what should you be looking for when trying to take the best photo with your phone? Here are the three most important things to consider.
1.) Natural versus processed
Most of us, including me, aren’t photography pros. We’d rather not play around with the manual levels for white balance, ISO, aperture, or exposure that you’ll find in most “pro” modes in smartphone camera apps. Unless you’re a seasoned pro, adjusting levels takes too much time, especially when you just want to take a quick shot. So, it’s natural to use the automatic settings.
Different smartphones automatically adjust those levels differently, and it can result in vastly different pictures that are better for different people.
For example, those who prefer to “shoot n’ show” without editing or adding filters will like cameras with aggressive auto-settings like the Nexus 6P, which make pictures “pop” with more intense, saturated colours and over-exposed brightness. Even if brighter parts, like the clouds, are robbed of detail, they will prefer the Nexus 6P’s photos because it’s more aesthetically pleasing in general.
Someone who prefers to add filters on apps like Instagram or editing later on a computer will prefer the iPhone picture below. It keeps more conservative levels that results in more accurate colours and natural brightness. It also keeps details in brighter areas.
If you master the manual settings to the point that you can get whatever effect you want, sharpness is the other thing you should look out for.
For the most part, smartphone cameras are sharp enough. The iPhone looks like the sharper shot here.
But the opposite is true. After zooming in to the photos full-size, it’s clear that the Galaxy Note 5 takes far sharper pictures than the iPhone 6S Plus, which looks relatively soft.
3.) Dark versus light
This gets a little tougher.
Most phones do well in nice, bright sunlight or well-lit indoor environments or during overcast days when light is flat.
For darker indoor and outdoor shots, your smartphone will generally do a good job of adjusting the camera’s levels for the best indoor or outdoor low-light shot with the auto-settings turned on. But there are two things that make the difference.
The aperture: On a product page or technical specifications, the aperture looks like “f/X.X.” The lower the number, the wider the aperture and the more light it can let in to the sensors.
The sensors: The bigger they are, the bigger the pixels can be, and the more light they can absorb. Not all companies list these in the technical specifications, but you can do some internet searching to find out.
The pictures below clearly shows how the Nexus 6P’s larger aperture, sensor, and pixels make a difference beyond the scope of automatic settings.
The new iPhones have f/2.2 apertures and the sensors are 1/3-inch with 12 million pixels (hence 12-megapixels) that measure 1.22 microns. It compensates well for the dark room, but it’s grainy compared to the Nexus.
The Nexus 6P has a wider f/2.0 aperture that lets in more light, as well as a bigger 1/2.3-inch sensor with 12.3 million (12.3-megapixel) pixels that measure a larger 1.55 microns. The picture isn’t grainy at all and looks much better than the iPhone’s.
How to check all these things quickly
The best way short of trying out every smartphone is to check out camera comparisons. It just happens we at Tech Insider do that for you!
So far, we’ve compared:
- The iPhone 6S Plus camera against the Nexus 6P camera.
- The iPhone 6s Plus against the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.
- The Galaxy Note 5 against the OnePlus 2.
- The iPhone 6 against the Galaxy Note 5.
And many more are on their way.
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