My Next Phone – What Do I Want From A Smartphone Camera?

If there’s anything that’s changed the most in my opinion, it’s my knowledge of photography. I’ve always loved taking photos, way back to when I got my first camera some time in the mid-90’s (it was a film camera). It was my love for photography that was probably the reason my parents got me a digital camera for my 15th birthday back in 2006 – I’m guessing because I went through a film roll too quickly!

Since getting that camera, a Canon A610 Photosmart compact, I’ve been able to click that shutter button to my heart’s content, managing at least 4000 fine-quality photos on an astronomically-small-by-today’s-standards 512MB SD card.

My recent usage of it has gone down though, probably since 2012 when it was easier just to take photos with my smartphone, as I could slide my phone in and out of my pocket without needing a separate carry case. I bet my A610 takes way better photos than any smartphone could, even with its inferior specs on paper – 5MP sensor and 4x Optical Zoom – but it’s just not convenient anymore. It’s bulky, the screen is small, and it doesn’t connect to the internet so I can share my shots on VSCO, Flickr or Instagram.

I guess I’m like just any other person – I use my phone’s camera way more times than I use my dedicated camera. But now comes the hard part. Having had two smartphones, one sort-of flagship (Lumia 820) and the other a mid-ranger (Desire Eye), I yearn for better quality images. I want better quality photos from a smartphone camera. Surely, in the year 2016/17, that’s possible? 

While the quality of photos taken on my Desire Eye are okay for general uploads to Facebook or Instagram, I still find myself using photo editing apps to improve the quality and overall look, if nothing else. But if the built-in cameras were any good, I wouldn’t have to resort so much to VSCO, Eye-Em, Pixlr, Snapseed or Photoshop Express to improve the sharpness and visual flair of my creations.

What I want are sharper images – crisper, higher resolution photos with clearly defined details, no noise, and no blur (unless it’s deliberate, like a Bokeh effect).

I used to be fooled by impressive numbers like a high MegaPixel count, and ignore (or worse, not even know about) the finer details like individual pixel size or Optical Image Stabilisation – “Two 13MP cameras, one on the front and one on the rear? Wow! How is the HTC Desire Eye only a mid-range device, if its cameras are better than the HTC flagship?

Well, no more. I’m now aware that it’s not about how many megapixels the camera has, but often how it uses the combination of software and hardware to produce a great looking image. I’d rather have a device with an 8MP camera if it gives me really sharp, clear and defined images, than a smartphone with a 13MP camera (like my HTC Desire Eye) which can, on occasion, take photos that are very noisy and where there is a blurring/softening of details, especially in night-time or low-light conditions.

What I’m looking for, therefore, is a camera that can deliver resolution rather than a useless, high-megapixel count.

Main Considerations:

If I’m not sticking to my Desire Eye, which in my opinion has a very good HDR mode (especially useful for low-light photos taken just after a sunset), then I want my next device to have a camera with a similarly high-quality HDR feature, using dynamic range to its advantage to give me a reasonable-looking image that absolutely does not look cartoonish.

Also on my list of considerations for smartphone cameras, but not absolutely essential, is a dedicated camera button. While I used to use the dedicated button on my Nokia Lumia 820, I have never really used it on my Desire Eye as it’s too flush with the body of the phone and needs a really hard press to get it to take a photo – a hard press which often shakes the phone during capturing, leading to a messy and blurry shot. Therefore, unless the camera button is easy to press-in, it is not a necessary requirement of my next phone.

To be honest, even though the thought of having one impressed me when looking at the Desire Eye’s specs sheet, I wasn’t actively searching only for devices which had a dedicated camera shutter button, and as I’ve rarely used it, I doubt I will miss having one.

Another feature which is not essential is a front-facing flash. While I do find the idea of it useful, for instance taking a group selfie on a night out, the times when I’ve actually been able to use it are limited, mainly due to the fact that not many apps support the use of a front-flash as not many devices have one. Often, apps like Snapchat will ‘brighten’ the screen (like the iPhone’s ‘flash’ feature) and completely ignore the front-facing Dual LED flash sitting atop the phone. The only apps I’ve found that make use of the flash are dedicated camera apps, like the default HTC Camera, Cameringo+, and High Speed Camera Plus (to name but a few).

Even when I have been able to use it, sometimes it will take a great shot, but other times it won’t. Take the photograph below, for example, which is a group photo of my mates and I on a night out in New Malden in London.

The front-facing flash works brilliantly at lighting up the scene, but it over-exposed the faces on the outer edges of the frame, and under-exposed the centre. This wasn’t ideal, and left me searching for my mates in the centre-background behind me, when trying to tag them on Facebook.

It’s also not great when taking selfies. As the flash is right next to the lens (see above image), I often find myself blinded by its sheer brightness as I’m basically staring right into the light of the flash, which is both painful and temporarily blinding. In these situations, the front-facing flash lights up my face but fails to dedicate any lighting to the rest of the frame – even when HDR is turned on – meaning a bright white face in an overly dark image.

It would be better if the cameras, both front and rear, were more sensitive to light in low light conditions – so larger pixels, a bigger sensor and larger aperture f-stop would help me greatly!

At this point it’s worth looking into what makes a smartphone camera click, so check out the next post where I talk about camera technologies. After that post, I shall then compare what I think are some of the best smartphone cameras available right now in the UK.

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