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The best smartphone cameras of all time

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Nokia Lumia

First of all, I want to make it clear –  this is not “Top Five Best Camera Phones to Buy Right Now.” No, here I will highlight the top five smartphone cameras of all time. I will include some newer phones, but there are some older ones worth mentioning too. While numbered, these phones are NOT ranked. I will just showcase a few of the best cameras ever put on a smartphone. Since the rear cameras of the device usually has the best quality, I’ll be focusing on those – and simply just providing specs for the “selfie” camera.

No. 5: Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Best for:

  • Point and shoot
  • Low light

A different approach to smartphone camera low-light performance.

When people think of good phone cameras, they tend to leave out Samsung way too often. The Galaxy Note 9 features some new technology, never-before-seen. Upon taking photos in daytime conditions, you will find that many smartphones do very well. It’s only when you move into lower light conditions that you start to see some cameras struggle. Samsung has worked very hard on making the Note 9 a fantastic low light performer. While every other smartphone features a camera with a fixed aperture, the Note 9 has a dual aperture camera. What this means is that in well-lit conditions, the camera mechanically narrows the aperture to F2.4 to provide an extremely sharp daytime image. In lower light conditions, the Note 9’s camera mechanically widens the aperture to F1.5, which allows the maximum amount of light to reach the camera sensor, giving you a bright, sharp, grain-free night time shot. F-stop (Focal-Stop) is simply a way to measure how wide, or how narrow, an aperture on a camera is. The lower the F-stop, the more light is allowed in, versus a higher F-stop, which doesn’t allow as much light to reach the sensor. Having a lower F-stop means the camera can use a fast shutter speed and still take in enough light, avoiding blur from your hands shaking when you take a photo at night. On the other hand, a higher F-stop is better in daylight conditions, because too much light reaching the sensor can cause a blurry effect near the edges of your photo. Another thing this phone camera boasts is intelligent image processing. The phone can tell what you’re taking a picture of, and develop the image accordingly. If one took a photo of a flower, the phone could tell that its a flower, and will increase the saturation for a more desirable photo. One last thing I thought I should mention is that this phone features a dual-camera setup. This simply allows for portrait mode. Since phones cannot physically house a camera lens with a shallow depth of field (blurred background), adding a second sensor allows the phone to replicate similar results while keeping the phone thin and light. So upon putting the phone in portrait mode, the main camera sensor takes a photo of the subject, while the secondary camera sensor takes a blurred image. Then software stitches the two together to create a portrait of someone or something with a blurred background. So once again, while most phones do just that, the Note 9 takes it to a new level, and allows you to adjust how much or how little background blur you want before taking the photo. So the next time you think about the best smartphone camera, make sure you don’t forget about Samsung!

Camera Specs:

  • Dual rear cameras
    • Main sensor: 12 megapixel variable aperture F2.4-F1.5, 26mm wide angle lens, 1/2.55” pixel size, with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
    • Secondary sensor: 12 megapixel F2.4 aperture, 52mm telephoto lens, 1/3.4”  pixel size, with OIS
  • Features: Auto HDR (High Dynamic Range), Panorama
  • Flash: LED Flash
  • Video
    • Can take 3840 x 2160 resolution video at a max of 60FPS (Frames Per Second), 1920 x 1080 resolution video at a max of 240FPS, or 1280 x 720 resolution video at a max of 960FPS
    • Can take HDR Video
  • Front Camera
    • 8 megapixel F1.7 aperture, 25mm wide angle lens
  • Features: Auto HDR, Can record 2560 x 1440 resolution video at 30FPS

Extra Phone Specs

  • Operating System – Android 8.1 upgradable to 9.0
  • Storage Options – 128GB or 512GB internal, expandable via Micro SD card up to 512GB
  • Release Date – August 24, 2018
  • MSRP – Starts at $999

No.4: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Best for:

  • Point and shoot
  • Low light
  • High resolution output

A triple camera, high-resolution, extremely advanced beast.

The Mate 20 Pro is arguably the best smartphone camera released in 2018. In a series of tests done online, the Mate 20 Pro was the overall winner in both photo processing and overall photo quality. When making a good smartphone camera, sometimes you cannot beat pure power. The Mate 20 Pro houses an insane 40 megapixel sensor. Even its secondary camera is bigger than most competing smartphones, coming in at 20 megapixels. Something else that sets this phone out from the crowd is that it is one of the few phones to feature a triple camera setup. The Mate 20 Pro includes a primary wide angle lens that does most of the work, but also houses an ultra wide angle lens that will allow you to capture more of the scene without taking a panorama. This comes in handy mostly when you want to take a photo of a large group of people, or when you want to capture more of a large scene in your photo. The third sensor is an 8 megapixel telephoto lens, that will come in handy when using portrait mode to blur out the background behind a subject. Now, let’s talk more about that 40 megapixel camera sensor. Many will say that more megapixels, doesn’t always mean better photo quality. While in some cases this can be true, it certainly isn’t when talking about the Mate 20 Pro. The Mate 20 Pro uses its 40 megapixel sensor for a number of things:

  • Pixel Oversampling
  • Zoom capabilities
  • Taking high resolution images

When you snap a photo, the default resolution setting is 10 megapixels. The Mate 20 Pro uses a processing technology known as pixel oversampling. The 10 megapixel photo contains all the data of the original 40 megapixel one. By combining 40 megapixels worth of image data into a 10 megapixel photo, the results are truly stunning. By using pixel oversampling, the final image comes out very clean and more detailed than any other sharpening algorithm featured on rivaling smartphones. Another thing the 40 megapixel sensor is good for is zoom capabilities. Since phones cannot physically house the required components for a 30x optical zoom in their thin bodies like real cameras can, the Mate 20 Pro handles zoom a little differently than others. It not only has a 3x optical zoom, but allows up to 5x zoom when using its 40 megapixel sensor. While most smartphones simply upscale the image to replicate zoom resulting in an overall blurrier image, the Mate 20 Pro uses all the sensor data provided by its 40 megapixel sensor, combined with its 3x optical zoom, to create an extra sharp zoomed-in image. The last and final thing the 40 megapixel sensor is good for, is taking high resolution images. While the default setting on the Mate 20 Pro is to take 10 megapixel images, there is an option to capture 40 megapixel images as well. Since most DSLR cameras that professionals use rarely even reach 40 megapixel, it’s nice to have the option to shoot in 40 megapixels. The final thing I want to talk about is Huawei’s extremely advanced Intelligent image processing. While most smartphones can detect around 50 scenes/objects that you are shooting, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro can detect up to 1,500 scenes. All of these things add up to a pretty impressive feat of smartphone camera engineering that can only be found on the Mate 20 Pro.

Camera Specs:

  • Triple rear cameras
    • Main sensor: 40 megapixel F1.8 aperture, 27mm wide angle lens, 1/1.7″ pixel size, with Software image stabilization
    • Secondary sensor: 20 megapixel F2.2 aperture, 16mm ultra wide lens, 1/2.7″ pixel size, with Software image stabilization
    • Third sensor: 8 megapixel F2.4 aperture, 80mm telephoto lens, ¼” pixel size, With OIS
  • Features: HDR, Panorama, Leica branded lens
  • Flash: Dual LED Flash
  • Video
    • Can take 3840 x 2160 resolution video at a max of 30FPS, 1920 x 1080 resolution video at a max of 60FPS, or 1280 x 720 resolution video at a max of 960FPS
  • Front Camera
    • 24 megapixel F2.0 aperture, 26mm wide angle lens
  • Features: HDR, Can record 1920 x 1080 resolution video at 30FPS

Extra Phone Specs

  • Operating System – Android 9.0
  • Storage Options – 128GB or 256GB internal, expandable via Nano Memory card up to 256GB
  • Release Date – October 16, 2018
  • MSRP – Starts at $1,150

No. 3: Apple iPhone 6s Plus

iPhone 6s Plus

Best for:

  • Point and shoot
  • Real to life photos

An oldie, but a goodie.

Now let me make it clear that I’m not saying that new iPhone cameras are not as good as the iPhone 6s Plus, but I am going to make a point about why it was one of the best. Almost every iPhone camera after the 6s Plus adopted a dual camera setup, which greatly modernized the phone from the previous model. The dual cameras allowed for portrait mode, and featured overall better hardware (such as improved OIS). Also, the sensors were upgraded from the previous model, making the newer iPhone cameras capable of producing impressive shots. However, since the 6s Plus, Apple’s camera priorities have changed significantly. Instead of the priorities being a more realistic image, the photos are processed to be more appealing to the human eye on the newer iPhones. When Apple designed the 6s Plus camera, they designed a camera that could capture a scene extremely accurately and very sharply. Newer iPhones feature the same great image sharpening that the 6s Plus had, but process the image in a different way. Look up any comparison between the 6s Plus and a modern iPhone and you will find that the 6s Plus photo tends to look darker. The whole reason that the 6s Plus image tends to appear darker, is because its capturing the image as close as it is to real life, while the newer iPhone tends to lighten up the photo because it looks more appealing. Since the iPhone 6s Plus camera’s main weapon is Apple’s image processing (for sharpening, color processing) there is not really much to say about the 6s Plus camera sensor itself, but rather just how it performs. If a nice sharp image that is accurate in color and brightness is something you’re looking for, the iPhone 6s is a phone that did that incredibly well.

Camera Specs:

  • Single rear camera
    • 12 megapixel F2.2 aperture, 29mm standard lens, 1/3″ pixel size, with OIS
  • Features: HDR
  • Flash: Dual LED Flash
  • Video
    • Can take 3840 x 2160 resolution video at a max of 30FPS, 1920 x 1080 resolution video at a max of 120FPS, or 1280 x 720 resolution video at a max of 240FPS
  • Front Camera
    • 5 megapixel F2.2 aperture, 31mm standard lens
  • Features: HDR, Panorama, Can record 1920 x 1080 resolution video at 30FPS

Extra Phone Specs

  • Operating System – iOS 9 upgradable to iOS 12
  • Storage Options – 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB internal
  • Release Date – September 25, 2015
  • MSRP – Starts at $649

No. 2: Google Pixel 2 XL

Google Pixel 2 XL

Best for:

  • Point and shoot
  • Real to life photos

One of the best point and shoot phones of all time.

In a world where every smartphone features dual camera setups, Google has decided to stick with a traditional single lens setup. While other phones mostly use their dual camera setups for portrait mode, the Google Pixel 2 XL has managed to acquire this feature as well, with just a single lens. That being said, some newer iPhones such as the iPhone XR uses a single lens setup that also features portrait mode, but Google has managed to perfect their software in this department so well, that many people actually prefer the Pixel’s portrait mode over smartphones with dual camera setups. The software is the only thing that makes the Pixel 2 XL’s camera so great. For portrait mode, the Pixel’s camera software simply detects the background of the subject, and applies a lens blur effect behind it, rather than using data from a secondary sensor to do so. Though in portrait mode, the software is what blurs the background, in macro shots the Pixel’s camera naturally gives a bokeh effect to the background of your photos. Besides portrait mode, the main weapon the Pixel 2 XL’s camera uses is something Google calls Auto-HDR +function. While most smartphones have HDR capabilities, not many can top Google in this department. What makes the Auto-HDR +function so powerful is how well it handles even the most harsh lighting conditions. When you go to take a photo, the phone actually takes several shots at different exposures and combines them together after the fact, creating a truly stunning final image. Though this is how HDR on many phones works, the Pixel 2 XL is particularly good when it comes to using HDR.  The main advantage of using HDR, is to level the exposure in the final image, as well as keep the colors as accurate as possible. Keeping the colors accurate is a key part to why the Pixel’s camera is so great, because on most smartphones, some colors in the image may appear oversaturated in some areas, and washed out in others. The sharpening algorithms that Google use are so good, that you will never be disappointed with the sharpness of your photos. The beauty of Google’s sharpening, is that it isn’t too much, but it also isn’t too little. So before you begin to think that single lens camera equipped phones are outdated and no good, remember the Google Pixel 2 XL.

Camera Specs:

  • Single rear camera
    • 12.2 megapixel F1.8 aperture, 27mm wide angle lens, ½.55″ pixel size, with OIS
  • Features: HDR, Panorama
  • Flash: Dual LED Flash
  • Video
    • Can take 3840 x 2160 resolution video at a max of 30FPS, 1920 x 1080 resolution video at a max of 120FPS, or 1280 x 720 resolution video at a max of 240FPS
  • Front Camera
    • 8 megapixel F2.4 aperture, 25mm wide angle lens
  • Features: HDR, Can record 1920 x 1080 resolution video at 30FPS

Extra Phone Specs

  • Operating System – Android 8.0 upgradeable to 9.0
  • Storage Options – 64GB, or 128GB internal
  • Release Date – October 19, 2017
  • MSRP – Starts at $849

No. 1: Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

Best for:

  • Real photographer
  • Real to life photos
  • Low light
  • High resolution output

A camera with a phone attached.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 was released in 2013, but the camera on this device is still known as one of the best cameras ever put on a smartphone, even in 2019. Coming in at 41 megapixels, the 1020 features the largest camera sensor put on a production smartphone to date. Since the Lumia 1020 was released, many camera focused phones have come along, but none have held up as well to the competition of today’s phones, as the 1020. Back when this phone was released, the camera was compared to real DSLR’s rather than other smartphones due to its incredible performance. If you are a true photographer that uses real cameras, the Lumia 1020 is probably the closest you will get to a real camera on a smartphone. The 1020 doesn’t use Intelligent image processing or sharpening algorithms to produce great photos. Instead, it provides manual controls for the photographer themself to adjust when taking an image. These controls include:

  • White Balance
  • Manual Focus
  • ISO
  • Shutter Speed
  • Exposure

The Lumia 1020 is also capable of shooting raw image files right out of the box. This is also a very nice feature, because most photographers prefer to shoot raw rather than jpeg. Shooting in raw format is becoming available to more and more smartphones nowadays, however the quality of the file coming out of those smartphones is questionable. Shooting raw on the Nokia Lumia 1020 will never fail in providing a high quality file with a lot of flexibility when processing the image later in a program such as Adobe Lightroom. Now let’s talk more about that 41 megapixel sensor. Many will tell you that megapixels are not everything, but the 1020’s sensor has a very large pixel size of 1/1.5”, which is larger than almost every other smartphone. A larger pixel size usually favors overall sharper images, and better low-light performance. The 1020’s camera also has a shallow depth of field by design, so there is no need for dual cameras to create that blurred background effect you get on a real DSLR. If all of that is still not enough for you, the 1020 also features a real Xenon flash, along with a traditional LED focus assist light. So the next time you think that no matter what, DSLR’s are always better than smartphones in the camera department, remember the legendary Nokia Lumia 1020!

Camera Specs:

  • Single rear camera
    • 41 megapixel F2.2 aperture, 26mm wide angle lens, 1/1.5″ pixel size, with OIS
  • Features: Panorama, Carl Zeiss lens, 4x lossless digital zoom
  • Flash: Xenon flash, with LED focus assist light
  • Video
    • Can take 1920 x 1080 resolution video at a max of 30FPS
    • Up to 6x lossless digital zoom while taking video
  • Front Camera
    • 1.2 megapixel
  • Features: Can record 1280 x 720 resolution video at 30FPS

Extra Phone Specs

  • Operating System – Windows Phone 8.0 upgradable to Windows Phone 8.1
  • Storage Options – 32GB, or 64GB internal
  • Release Date – July 26, 2013
  • MSRP – Starts at $699

So there you have it: the top five smartphone cameras ever. If I had to choose a best overall camera phone on this list, it would probably be the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. The reason im picking the Huawei, is because it has a little bit of everything for everyone. If your a photographer, you’ll love it, or if you just like taking photos without changing settings, you’ll love it too.

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