Over the past decade, smartphone cameras have grown to become a vital aspect on every buyers’ list. In fact, we have reached a time when smartphone cameras are seen as worthy replacements for professional DSLR and mirror-less cameras.
For a very long time, the notion has been that more megapixels’ count leads to better photos. This has on many occasions been used by smartphone OEMs in marketing their devices, but lately, this aspect has started fading away. There was a time a smartphone camera only managed a 0.3MP lens, but this went all the way to a massive 41MP lens. So, what happened such that OEMs started doing away with the huge megapixel count on smartphone cameras?
For starters, you need to know that having more megapixel count in a smartphone camera lens doesn’t translate to better image quality. While it might have some bearing on the overall quality of the image, there are other more important aspects – hardware and software – that you need to check out when deciding on which is the best smartphone camera for you.
In case you didn’t know, camera sensors are the most important things in any smartphone camera. This is the unit of the camera that is used to convert natural light into electrical signals. In picking which sensor is the best, take note of the megapixel count and more importantly, the size of each pixel.
Smartphone cameras with a higher megapixel count will deliver images that have more details. As for the size of individual pixels, largest means more light is able to enter the lens, even when the external lighting conditions are not the best. The number of megapixels and size of each pixel in a camera sensor depend on the size of the sensor.
Typically, you’ll come across combinations such as 12MP sensor with 1.4 microns as the pixel size or a 22MP lens with a pixel size of 1.1 microns. For the 12MP sensor, the size of individual pixels is larger than what you get in the 22MP. This means that the amount of light the former is able to let in is more compared to what the latter can manage. The result of this will be better quality images on the 12MP sensor, including in low-light conditions, as opposed to the 22MP sensor. On the contrary, the latter sensor will deliver shots with more details than the former.
In short, smartphone cameras with a bigger (1/2”) sensor are much ahead of those with smaller sensor sizes (1/4”).
In order to deliver great shots in the dark or in poor lighting conditions, smartphone cameras ship with LED flashlight. This is a feature that will up the overall image quality, but it’s also good to avoid using it when there’s sufficient light as it makes the images look overexposed.
After the sensor size, the next thing you need to look at when choosing the best smartphone camera is the aperture. This is basically the opening that lets in light to the sensor – and it’s fixed. The larger the size, the more light the camera lets in and thus better performance in low-light conditions.
Do keep in mind that like the pixel size sensor, smaller numbers translate to larger aperture sizes, for instance, f/1.7 is better than f/1.8 or f/1.9 and so on.
When you try to capture an object on your phone, you’ll notice a circular shape appearing on your screen trying to pick out the object in question. Autofocus is the system that adjusts the camera lens in order to keep focus on the subject, thus ending up with a clear shot that has no blurs. It gets even better when this autofocus technology is upgraded to something like phase detection autofocus (PDAF), hybrid autofocus, laser autofocus or even the latest dual pixel autofocus powering Samsung Galaxy S8 devices.
The presence of these technologies doesn’t guarantee you quality images, rather, it has a lot to do with how well the smartphone manufacturer is able to optimize it in order to get the best out of the device and other features it offers.
Today, high-end smartphone cameras come with optical image stabilization (OIS) and/or electronic image stabilization (EIS). Where the former is hardware-based, the latter is software-based. All of these are aimed at eliminating any blurs caused by shaky hands. With shaky hands, autofocus might not perform well, however, when a smartphone camera adds OIS or EIS to AF, the results are more than perfect.
Almost every smartphone vendor has a camera app to accompany the camera installed on the phone. This is where you get the image processing and final results from raw images captured by the device. Here, things vary drastically, with some apps favoring warmer colors, others prefer brighter images and others go further to crank up ISO – but others prefer to keep things cool and low.
Despite how good smartphone cameras get, the end product will be determined by the image processing software and in fact, this is where many OEMs are investing heavily. Even with great hardware features, the quality of an image might be affected by poorly written software. In short, having the best hardware specs on smartphone cameras will not guarantee you the best photos. At the end of the day, it is how good the software is at handling post-image processing.