If the best camera is the one you always have on you, for a lot of us it will be the phone. Indeed, camera performance and image processing have become a major selling point for phone makers, with the bigger ones vying to put Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and the rest out of business. That’s an exaggeration but there is no doubt smartphones are getting better and better for taking quality images, rather than just snaps. With this mind, here’s a round-up of some of the leading contenders.
At a glance
Unlike previous years, Apple’s top-tier iPhone models (iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max) have slightly different camera set-ups. Most people are arguably more likely to go for the iPhone 12 Pro, since its smaller size makes it easier to use and fit in your pocket.
With either device you get a triple-lens set-up, featuring a super-wideangle, wideangle and a ‘telephoto’ lens. For the iPhone 12 Pro, that equates to a 13mm f/2.4, 26mm f/1.6 and 52mm f/2 equivalent trio; compared to a 13mm f/2.4, 26mm f/1.6 and 65mm f/2.2 on the Pro Max.
The sensor behind the 26mm lens is also slightly larger for the Pro Max version and benefits from sensor-shift optical image stabilisation. As we’ve experienced previously, Apple keeps things simple with its native camera app, not affording a huge amount of control to the end user.
However, it has introduced Apple’s ProRAW format allowing you to record DNG files directly from the native app for the first time. A useful feature of the native camera app is the ability to see what’s happening outside of the frame by utilising the ultra wide and wide cameras. Also carried over from the iPhone 11 Pro series is Night mode, which continues to put in an impressive performance, now adding the ability to blend together Portrait and Night mode.
There will be plenty for whom Apple is the only logical choice if they are already tied into the overall Apple ecosystem, but it has to be said that the phones do the job extremely well. Although you don’t get a huge amount of control over your shots, it does such an excellent job you may not feel particularly aggrieved by that.
Image quality is fantastic, and despite the technical differences between the two Pro models, the differences are extremely difficult to spot in real-world shooting – so essentially it comes down to your preference regarding size.
At a glance
The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra ticks a lot of the right boxes, if you can get over just how enormous it is. It’s another model with a triple-lens/camera set-up, with the wideangle lens boasting an 108-million-pixel sensor behind it. The ultra-wide and 5x telephoto lenses both have a 12-million-pixel sensor behind them.
The standard sensor will output shots at a more sensible 12MP resolution unless shooting in a special mode. Samsung phones have well-featured and in-depth native camera apps. You can choose to shoot in a straightforward point-and-shoot mode if you wish, but there’s also an extensive Pro mode which gives you control over settings such as ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation.
Aperture is fixed on all three lenses. It’s also in Pro mode that you can shoot in raw (DNG) format, giving you better scope to adjust your images later down the line. Disappointingly however, you can’t use anything but the standard lens – nor can you shoot in 108MP – when using Pro mode, which takes away some of its flexibility.
The Note range gets its moniker owing to the included Stylus, that’s tucked away into the base of the phone. It can be used as a remote control, which is helpful for selfies and group shots. Good images are produced by all three lenses of the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra, but it’s worth sticking to the optical constraints of the telephoto lens.
The 10x digital zoom can be relied upon if the 5x optical isn’t quite enough. The maximum 50x zoom really is best avoided, however. Otherwise, there’s a good Live Focus option for creating shallow-depth-of-field effects, while Night does a decent job when light levels drop too.
At a glance
It took a while for Google to add a second camera to its Pixel range, and now we find ourselves waiting for it to add a third. This time around however, Google has swapped the telephoto lens of the Pixel 4 for an ultra-wide one, a compromise which is perhaps not surprising considering this is the cheapest model of the group.
That means you get a 12.2MP main camera with an 27mm f/1.7 (equivalent) lens, and a 16MP secondary camera with an ultra-wide, 16.5mm f/2.2 (equivalent) lens. If you need to get closer to the subject, digital zooming is available. Despite its photographic name, and its intention to appeal directly to photographers, the Pixel remains frustratingly simple to operate.
The fully automatic Camera option works as a basic point and shoot, and although it does what it does very well, with no option to adjust settings it’s hard to truly see it as an advanced tool. On the plus side, raw format shooting is available so you can make some tweaks after the fact, rather than before, if necessary.
Aside from the standard Camera mode, you also get a Portrait mode for shallow-depth-of-field effects, plus a Night Sight mode which, like the Pixel 4 before it, delivers fantastic results. If you’re just looking for something which is pocket-friendly and does a good job at a reasonable price without fuss, then the Pixel 5 is a solid option.
Its images contain plenty of detail and good colours, while the Portrait mode continues to impress, even with non-human subjects. Both of the lenses put in a good performance, but it’s the standard lens which produces the best results. Digital zooming is best avoided, as the results lack detail. It’s worth noting that this year, there is no ‘XL’ version of the Pixel, so those who like their phones to be on the larger side may be a little disappointed.
At a glance
* From £799
* Triple-lens set-up
* Uses Android with Oxygen OS ‘skin’
* Good value
* Range of colours
OnePlus built its reputation on mid-priced mid-range smartphones. With the 8 Pro, it has steered itself more towards the premium end, and while it’s still cheaper than the likes of the iPhone and the Samsung, this puts it in the ‘luxury’ market.
Again, you get a triple-lens set-up which gives you a 14mm f/2.2 ultra-wide camera, a standard 25mm f/1.8 lens and a 75mm f/2.2 lens. The wide and ultra-wide are backed by 48-million-pixel sensors, while the zoom offers 8 million pixels. There’s also a fourth ‘colour filter’ camera, but it’s not one you can actually select to use.
The native OnePlus camera app is similar to the Samsung’s, in that it has a good selection of modes. By default, it will shoot in the standard and straightforward Photo mode, while you also have the option to use modes such as Nightscape and Portrait. There is also a Pro mode which gives you access to settings such as ISO, white balance, shutter speed, exposure compensation and more.
With this, you can also shoot in the raw DNG format, as well as elect to record 48-million-pixel JPEGs – rather than them being output at 12 million pixels as standard. Settings such as switching on a histogram to use while in Pro mode can be accessed via a deeper settings menu, and emphasise the type of audience that OnePlus is trying to reach with this model. Images captured by the OnePlus Pro 8 are good, with lots of detail and bright colours.
It copes well with a variety of different shooting settings. The Nightscape model also copes well with low light, while the Portrait mode does a good job with shallow-depth-of-field effects. All three lenses put in a decent performance, but it’s definitely the telephoto which is the weakest of the three. So if you can stick to the standard or ultra-wide lenses, you’ll be rewarded with the best shots.
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