DigitalCameraReview.com
Smartphone Camera Showdown: Who is the Best?
by Laura Hicks -  7/15/2013

DigitalCameraReview.com paired up with Brighthand.com to bring you the smartphone camera showdown of the year. In the first corner, we have the rising star: the Samsung Galaxy S IV. In another corner, we have the beloved iPhone 5. In the third corner, we have the rookie Nokia Lumia 928. And in the last corner, we have the BlackBerry Z10, a fighter to the end. Who's going to come out on top? You might be very surprised!

It's no secret that Smartphone cameras are quickly becoming the go-to camera for the masses. In fact, smartphone cameras are trampling over low-end point & shoot cameras in hoards--victoriously leading to their demise. No longer are people purchasing point & shoots when their smartphone camera can give them photos that are just as good...or even better.

Although I've been a professional photographer for over 10 years, I have to admit that I repeatedly depend on my iPhone to snap images on the fly, capture video my son getting an award from school or shoot an impromptu group photo with friends. But as a professional, I am very picky about the images produced from my smartphone. That's why the results of this test threw me for a bit of a loop.

Here are the four Smartphone cameras we tested:

Samsung Galaxy S IV: The Galaxy S IV is a great phone with powerful hardware, an incredible display and great battery life. However, the phone is a bit big and cumbersome. It also comes equipped with too much unnecessary software. The phone boasts a 13-megapixel camera and also offers users quite a few editing modes like "eraser mode" and some creative shooting modes. Unfortunately, the camera is subject to image blur and colors can have a tendency toward oversaturation.

Apple iPhone 5: Apple's iPhone 5 entered the smartphone arena with great hoopla and fanfare. Compared to its predecessor, the phone has a faster processor and is thinner and lighter. The iPhone 5 has a stunning retina display and a huge app store. On the flip side, the new charging adaptor makes it more challenging to switch out charging your older "i" devices. Although the camera has had few significant changes from its former model, the iPhone 4S, the camera has always been a source of good smartphone imagery. The phone offers users an 8-megapixel camera with iSight technology and improved HDR (high dynamic range). This enhancement, in theory, should lead to better color and less camera blur.

Nokia Lumia 928: Verizon's flagship Window's phone has a great looking display, has been updated from it's predecessor and boasts some pretty astounding low-light capabilities. However, the phone is big and burdensome. The battery life is only mediocre and the specs are already a step behind other flagship phones. Yet, the best part of this phone is it's camera. The phone offers users an 8.7-megapixel camera wrapped beautifully in PureView image technology, impressive image stabilization, and a Carl Zeiss lens. If that's not enough, the phone has a Xenon flash that produces a more natural look when taking flash photography.

BlackBerry Z10: The BlackBerry Z10 is a quality phone with quite a bit of processing power. It is the embodiment of the BlackBerry 10 operating system that has been long awaited. The phone comes with an 8-megapixel camera that offers good color saturation and contrast. Unfortunately, the camera is not easy to access and requires more boot time than necessary. In addition, the camera does not have a typical tap-to-focus option. Rather, the user must hold and drag a reticle (circular crosshairs meant to grab focus) to mark the point of focus.

We put the cameras through a series of four tests. Here are he results of those tests.

Outdoor-soft, filtered sunlight test

This should be an easy test for the smartphone cameras. Most smartphones can handle soft outdoor lighting with little trouble. Unfortunately, I was surprised at how "washed out" the iPhone 5 image appeared compared to the other phones. The rest of the cameras did a decent job, but I felt the Galaxy was a bit darker than I wanted. The BlackBerry Z10 and the Nokia Lumia 928 were neck and neck. I preferred the saturated colors from the Lumia 928, but the BlackBerry did a better job of retaining almost all of the details in the highlights.

Samsung Galaxy S IV                                                          Apple iPhone

Nokia Lumia 928                                                        BlackBerry Z10

Winner of the outdoor, filtered lighting test: Tie between Nokia Lumia 928 and BlackBerry Z10

Outdoor-direct sunlight test

This can pose a problem for many cameras. If the camera exposes for the highlights, the shadows can become too dark, rendering little to no detail. Or, in some cases, the camera will clip the highlights and do a better job exposing for the shadows. Below are the results of the outdoor, direct sunlight test.

Samsung Galaxy S IV                                                  Apple iPhone

Nokia Lumia 928                                                     BlackBerry Z10

Winner of the outdoor, direct sunlight test: Nokia Lumia 928


Indoor-with a flash test

Smartphones struggle quite a bit with their flash. The flashes have a tendency to fluctuate between being too dim or way too bright. This leads to images that are not well lit or completely blow out their subject. The results of this test were all over the place. Two smartphone cameras rose to the top--the Lumia 928 and the Galaxy S IV. Although the Lumia 928 sufficiently lit the subject, it clipped the highlights more than we wanted.

Samsung Galaxy S IV                                                  Apple iPhone

Nokia Lumia 928                                                   BlackBerry Z10

Winner of the indoor, flash test: Samsung Galaxy S IV


Indoor-dim lighting with no flash test

Historically, this is where Smartphones cannot compete with traditional cameras. They have a very hard time with low-light situations because they don't have an extensive ISO range that can handle the grain that occurs from high ISOs. Here are the results of the indoor, no flash test. This test had a clear and decisive winner by a landslide-the Lumia 928. The next closest phone was the iPhone 5, but the image showed a lot of grain, there was a distinct color shift, and the white feather duster was very blown out at the top.

Samsung Galaxy S IV                                                      Apple iPhone

Nokia Lumia 928                                                    BlackBerry Z10

Winner of the indoor, no flash test: Nokia Lumia 928


I have to admit that the results of this testing was shocking to me. I couldn't believe how these test images were all over the map with no decisive smartphone winner. As an avid iPhone user, I was really blown away by its weaknesses. In none of the tests did it come out on top. I was, however, really impressed by the overall results from the Nokia Lumia 928. If I was a Verizon user and mainly buying a phone for it's photographic capabilities this would be the one I would go with. 

But in the end, it all depends on what you want from your smartphone. You can't separate a smartphone from it's camera. If you don't want a Window's phone, then the Nokia Lumia 928 will not be a good option no matter how good the camera is. If you love the iOS app store, you will have to sacrifice image quality to get it. 

Of course you can get some great pictures with your smartphone. And, for the time being, smartphones beat out any traditional camera for ease-of-use in portability and connectivity. Plus, most of us carry our phones on our person almost all of the time--that's not true for traditional cameras. That being said, testing these smartphones proved that great photographic quality still comes from traditional cameras.

Looking for a great traditional camera? Make sure to check out DigitalCameraReview.com for a comprehensive list of camera's we've reviewed. Here's a few of our all-time favorites:

Best connected camera: Samsung Galaxy NX

Super fast autofocus: Olympus OM-D E-M5

Superior imagery: Canon 5D Mark III

Best rugged camera: Olympus TG-2

Awesome portraits: Nikon D800

High quality lens: Sigma 17-35mm f/1.8

Great value: Pentax K-30

Out-of-this-world compact full-frame: Sony RX1

Fantastic point-and-shoot: Canon G15