Showdown of the smartphone cameras

The best camera is the one which you carry all the time. It is no wonder that the five most popular cameras used by people who post photos on photo-sharing website Flickr are the ones on smartphones.

Smartphone makers often tout their "superior" cameras as a major selling point. Smartphone cameras are getting better. Most high-end smartphones now come with backside-illuminated image (BSI) sensors, which increase the amount of light captured.

BSI sensors use a method of arranging the components in the sensors to improve low-light performance. The sensor is the most important component in a camera which determines how much light it can receive.

Phone makers have stopped focusing on the megapixel war. Apple, LG and Sony did not increase the megapixel count of their latest smartphones' image sensor from the previous models.

For the image sensor in the iPhone 6, Apple stuck to the same 8-megapixel count found in the iPhone 5s.

For the G3, LG retained its 13-megapixel image sensor found in the G2, while Sony's Xperia Z3 shares the same 20.7-megapixel image sensor found in the Z1 and the Z2.

This is because the size of the sensor is more important than megapixel count when it comes to image quality. A larger sensor allows more light to be captured, thereby reducing image noise. For example, the iPhone 6's camera, with a pixel size of 1.5 microns, captures 88 per cent more light per pixel than a smartphone camera with a sensor pixel size of 1.12 microns.

Another camera feature being highlighted by many smartphone makers is faster and more accurate autofocusing (AF).

LG introduced Laser AF technology, which uses infrared light to gauge distance for AF, in its flagship G3, while Apple added Focus Pixels - or phase-detection AF found in DSLRs - in its iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Last year, Apple introduced a two-tone LED flash in the iPhone 5s to improve lighting of subjects under artificial light. This has since become a feature for some smartphones too. You can find dual-LED flash in the LG G3 and the Oppo N3.

Camera features, such as high dynamic range (HDR), which increases details in dark areas, optical image stabilisers to minimise the effects of camera shake and panoramic mode for super wide-angled shots, are now standard features in modern smartphones.

Digital Life tested the cameras of six latest smartphones:

In bright sunlight to check for sharpness; In panoramic mode with good lighting; In low lighting conditions with and without flash; At night and; Selfie in good lighting. We also looked at how each smartphone camera handles and its functions.

To level the playing field as much as possible, all the pictures and videos were taken using the native camera app in Auto mode with Auto HDR.

trevtan@sph.com.sg

Apple iPhone 6 Plus

This is designed for users who prefer not to fiddle with camera settings - you cannot change the shutter speed, aperture, white balance or ISO settings in this phone.

The only choices you need to make is of which type of photo or video you want to take, such as slow-motion video or panorama photos.

However, with the iOS 8 camera, you can control focus and exposure on a particular area within the frame.

Tap the screen to bring up a sun icon. Slide it up or down to control the exposure and watch the effect on the rest of the photo.

You can activate the camera from the lock screen by swiping upwards on the bottom right-hand corner.

To take a photo, simply use either of the volume buttons, both of which act as the shutter release.

I found the iPhone 6 Plus tended to use very low ISO for all its shots.

The highest ISO it used during this test was ISO 125 - for night scenes.

In bright sunlight, the photos were sharp with crisp details, even in the shadows. Colours were accurate and more controlled, rather than being oversaturated.

The panoramic mode here was the easiest to use among the smartphones in this round-up. Just turn and follow the virtual line to complete taking the panorama.

The resulting panoramic pictures were well-stitched and correctly exposed in different areas of the image.

It lags behind only the Oppo N3, which takes superb panoramas.

In artificial low lighting and night scenes, the images tended to be underexposed due to low ISO.

However, colours were quite accurate. I could make out the details and a little post-processing in increasing the brightness did the trick.

When taken with the flash, the skin tones in the photos looked natural and there was no red-eye effect.

Even though the front-facing camera is only 1.2 megapixels, it takes sharp and correctly exposed selfies.

The iPhone 6 Plus' camera is an idiot-proof but solid all-rounder, capable in all lighting conditions.

LG G3

LG's trademark "volume buttons at the back of the phone" lets you get a firm grip on the phone to reduce camera shake when you use your index finger to take a photo. You can also launch the camera by holding the "volume down" button and use the same button to shoot.

One interesting feature of the front-facing camera is that you can wave to activate the three-second timer to take a selfie. Not needing to hit any shutter release button means added stability.

The camera is basic. Other than Auto mode, it has only Panorama, Magic Focus (lets you choose focus after the photo is taken) and Dual Camera (combines the pictures taken with the front and the rear cameras into one photo) modes.

In bright sunlight, the colours were accurately reproduced. However, the shadowy areas tended to lose a lot of details.

The panorama function is a big improvement from its predecessor. Exposures for different parts of the image were spot-on. Slight misalignments appear only if you stare long enough.

Under artificial dim lighting, the images tended to be grainy, with a slight yellow hue. With flash, images looked slightly underexposed, but there was no red-eye effect and skin tones looked natural.

On the other hand, the G3 excelled in night scenes. It was able to show the clouds while not overexposing the buildings, unlike many smartphone cameras in this round-up.

In addition, the selfies taken with this phone were the best, with the right skin tone, accurate colours and excellent sharpness.

If you are comfortable with rear buttons, the LG G3 excels in taking night shots and selfies.

Nokia Lumia 830

The Lumia 830 is confusing. To begin with, you have to select whether you want to use the Microsoft Camera or the default Nokia Camera app to take your photos.

The nice thing is that it has a dedicated shutter release button, which you can press to launch the camera and to take photos.

For those who like to fiddle with manual settings, there are plenty here, including white balance, ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation.

However, if you want to use additional features, such as panorama shots, you have to jump through hoops to download additional software, including logging into a portal.

Some may say this offers customisability, but I feel it makes it harder for the average user.

For photos taken in bright sunlight, there was a slight yellowish cast and the blue sky lacked the punch exhibited in photos taken with the Apple iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Photos here did not appear to be as sharp too.

Like the Lumia 1020, the results of the Lumia Panorama app showed disjointed stitching and clear misalignments.

Under fluorescent lighting and other artificial low lighting, the camera tended to use a very high sensitivity setting of up to ISO 1,250.

As a result, while the colours and exposure were spot-on, the high amount of image noise made the photos look grainy and soft.

When used with the flash, the eyes of my subject were red (red-eye effect) and the illumination was clearly lacking. The selfie taken was sharp but looked underexposed with a slight greenish tinge.

However, in the night scene, the colours were vibrant and comparable with those taken by the iPhone 6 Plus. However, it lacked the sharpness of the competition.

The Lumia 830 may not be the flagship Windows smartphone, but I had expected more from one of the last Nokia phones.

Oppo N3

Of all the smartphones in this round-up, the Oppo N3 is the one with the camera at the heart of its design.

It features a 16-megapixel motorised rotatable camera which can turn up to 206 degrees. So, there is no need for a front-facing camera.

There is no short-cut button - physical or virtual - to access the camera. The native camera app has many modes, including Auto Panorama and Double Exposure.

You need to install some of these modes separately. However, these installed modes are built into the camera app instead of being separate apps.

The best thing about the camera app is that you can control the rotatable camera by swiping up and down on the display.

In addition, the selfies taken are crisp with details, natural skin tones and accurate colour reproductions.

Using the Auto Panorama mode, the camera will automatically turn to take the picture. All you need to do is to hold the camera still.

The Oppo is the king of panaromas - there are no misalignments or stitching mishaps with spot-on exposure in different parts of the image.

In bright sunlight, while the pictures taken are as sharp as other flagship smartphones here, the sky looks more cyan with details lacking in the shadowy areas.

Under artificial low lighting, the images were spot-on in terms of colour reproduction and exposure.

However, the high sensitivity used - ISO 1,000 - meant the high quantity of image noise degrades the sharpness and details. When taken with the flash, the images had a sepia-tone finish.

In night scenes, the exposure of multiple light sources was spot-on with nice colour rendition and clear visible clouds.

It lost out only to the Sony Xperia Z3.

The Oppo N3 is the master of panoramas and the superb rotating camera makes it great for taking selfies.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The Note 4's camera is an exception in this round-up, as it is an upgrade from its predecessor in terms of megapixel count. It has a 16-megapixel image sensor, up from the Note 3's 13-megapixel one.

To access the camera, you can swipe up from the bottom-right corner - where the camera icon is - in the lock screen. You can use either of the volume buttons as the shutter-release button. The native camera app lets you change ISO, white balance and metering modes.

If you do not like to tweak settings, you can change the shooting mode to Auto by tapping on Mode, which is located near the virtual shutter-release button. Here, you can also change to other modes, such as Panorama and Dual Camera. You can download and add more modes if you want.

In bright sunlight, the images taken were vivid and saturated with sharp rendition of pixels. There was no loss of details, even in the darker areas of the images.

The panorama mode was as easy to use as the one on the Apple iPhone 6 Plus. It also yielded fantastic results with only slight misalignments which I could hardly pick out.

Under low artificial lighting, the images shot had the correct exposure with only slight white-balance issues. Skin tones looked natural and details were crisp.

When taken with the flash, there was not much difference in the images except that they were better illuminated. However, the skin tones looked more red.

In the night scenes, images were correctly exposed with nice colours. However, the photos were grainier in the darker areas.

The selfie shots taken by the Note 4 had the widest coverage in this round-up. It is ideal for those who like to squeeze in plenty of people into a single frame. Auto white balance and colour reproduction were also accurate with sharp details.

Another great all-rounder with a wide-selfie mode which lets you squeeze more people into the picture.

Sony Xperia Z3

The major advantage of the Sony Xperia Z3 is its ruggedness. You never have to worry about rain or sand getting in when using it. You can even take photos underwater (down to depths of 1.5m for up to 30 minutes).

You can tap and drag the camera icon located at the bottom of the lock screen to access the camera app. There is also a dedicated shutter-release button on the right side of the Z3, which doubles as a short-cut button for the camera.

The camera app has plenty of modes to choose from, including Augmented Reality, Dual Camera and Manual mode.

In the Manual mode, you can change white balance, ISO, metering type and autofocusing mode.

In bright sunlight, images taken looked sharp but a bit oversaturated. Also, the darker areas of the images seemed to lose some detail.

Panoramic images looked great with the right exposure for the different areas. However, there were more misalignments compared with panoramic photos taken with the Apple iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Under dim artificial lighting, the images showed the right ambient colours with correct exposure and skin tones. However, image noise caused some degradation in details and sharpness. When taken with the flash, images looked sharper with more details. However, the colours became colder.

Selfies taken were surprisingly soft - lacking in sharpness - even though the skin tones and colours were accurate.

However, in night scenes, the Z3 fared the best. The images were sharp with good lighting of buildings, as well as visible clouds in the dark sky.

With the Z3, you are always ready for great shots - rain, shine or underwater.

This article was first published on Nov 19, 2014. Get a copy of Digital Life, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.