How good is your phone camera? We put five to the test

Our challenge puts five leading phones to the test under various conditions

 

I remember the first camera phone I ever laid my hands on was the Motorola T720i. It had a camera attachment that you clipped into the bottom of the phone, and a lens that rotated 180 degrees. And the photographs were awful. Really terrible.

Thankfully – or perhaps not, depending on how you feel about smartphones and cameras being everywhere – the quality has much improved. Smartphones today have high-resolution cameras, can shoot high-definition video at the very least and have menaced the traditional compact camera to the point where it is now a bit of a novelty to see someone whip one out.

There are some things, though, that, while a camera phone may have great intentions, it is physically incapable of doing. Take optical zoom, for instance. Not one of the flagship camera phones offers it – they do, however, offer digital zoom, which is not the same thing – but it doesn’t appear that most consumers care.

There are plenty of phones boasting to have the best camera out there, but how well do they do against each other? We decided to put some of the top phones on the market to the test to see which one came out as best.

Contenders

In this test, we pitted five phones against each other. The iPhone SE’s camera is up there with the iPhone 6S. For Android, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge was flying the flag for the South Korean firm, while the Xperia Z5 Premium is still the best of the bunch for Sony – the X series has yet to be released here. The Huawei P9 comes with the weight of the Leica brand and a dual 12-megapixel camera, while HTC has been working hard to make sure its HTC 10 camera is up to scratch after the less-than-stellar reception of the M9. In fact, with the exception of the Z5, all the cameras tested have 12-megapixel rear-facing cameras.

The test

We put them through their paces on the standard out-of-the-box settings, allowing the cameras to take charge of the white balance, ISO, shutter speed and so on.

The average person doesn’t want to have to mess about with 10 different settings before they can take a photograph. So for this test, no manual settings were allowed. No post-shot editing was allowed, so what we saw immediately after we snapped the photo was exactly what the phone was judged on.

Which is where things get a bit less well-defined. Photographs and their quality can come down to very personal preferences. Some people prefer vibrant colours, others prefer something more true to life. So this test is purely our opinion.

Point & shoot

Most people use their phone to capture photos on the spur of the moment. It goes without saying then that the automatic settings on the phone should be capable of handling different conditions and still deliver decent images.

The Xperia Z5 gets points for having a dedicated camera button. It feels most like a camera of old, and the intelligent auto mode adapts to almost any setting. But the images fell short of those delivered by its competitors; it’s worth bearing in mind here that the Z5 was released last year, and the rest of the cameras are newer models. The leap in innovation in the intervening months is apparent.

The HTC 10 claims to be the fastest for opening the camera app, and it is quite speedy. The photographs – one a sunny exterior and a second indoors – were detailed and bright, and the wide-angle lens means you get more shot for your trouble. Zooming in, though, revealed a bit of softness around the edges.

Winner

The Samsung Galaxy S7 just edged it here. The colour was vibrant but not overly saturated, and there was good detail, even when zoomed in. It was a close run thing with the Huawei P9 though, and the iPhone SE would give it a run for its money with the automatic HDR switched on.

Low light

This is the Achilles’ heel of the mobile camera. Low light can mean murky shots – if any at all – and noise. This is one thing where size does matter – not the megapixel count, but the size of the pixels.

The iPhone, the P9 and the HTC have larger than average pixels, at 1.22µm, 1.25 µm and 1.55µm respectively. That allows more light to hit the sensor, giving better images in theory. Our preference rated the iPhone image better than the HTC, but only just. The Huawei P9 was a solid performer too, with the image not completely noise free but not ruined by it either. The HTC 10 performed reasonably, but looked a little muddy, and in the night shots, it found it difficult to focus.

In dusk, the Xperia Z5 Premium was the worst performer. Again, with the out-of- the-box settings, the resulting images looked flat and dull.

Winner

The Galaxy S7 shot was sharp, low on noise and had good colour reproduction.

Action shots

It might be expecting a lot from a camera phone to take crisp action shots the way a digital SLR would. But we do it anyway, if the endless blurry shots people inflict on friends and family through Facebook are anything to go by.

The P9 has object tracking, but even it couldn’t keep up with a fast-paced toddler. There were plenty of blurred faces despite the object tracking being told what to focus on. The HTC performed a little better, bringing in laser focus to the party, while the Z5 was fast to focus but still blurred a bit when it really mattered.

Winner

Despite the lack of laser focus and other technical-sounding things, the iPhone SE turned out the best shots of the bunch.

Video

All the cameras here shoot high-definition video, with 4K available in all but the Huawei P9. Despite this, the P9 shoots some good video, allowing you to choose focus and white balance points separately so you don’t end up with a dark video. There’s very little to separate the rest, although the iPhone SE video did come out impressively sharp in our tests.

Out of all the cameras though, the HTC 10 is the only one to make the leap to high-res audio to go alongside that ultra high-definition video.

Winner

HTC just edges it here. We’re not entirely convinced that high-res audio will be the game changer for the company, but it can’t hurt to have it on your 4K video tracks.

The verdict

Samsung’s S7 Edge camera was best of the bunch here. Despite being a lot bigger than the iPhone SE, for example, it was easy to get to grips with, and the performed well in both sunshine and low light. Its night shot was the best of the bunch, hands down.

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