While certain segments of the camera market are struggling to keep their heads above water (single lens reflex, hybrids) and others have almost ceased to exist (compacts), there is one segment which has continued to grow to the point of reaching omnipresence: smartphones. If having a smartphone was considered being at the forefront of technology just a few years ago, these products have since been popularized to the point where even entry-level models already offer all the indispensable features.
This mass popularization has had a striking effect on the world of photography: the device which you always have on you, the one you take out of your pocket in all circumstances, is no longer a compact camera, but rather your telephone. Its always there, turned on, ready and connected. Nevertheless, all smartphones are not created equal where photographic capability is concerned, and the cheapest models are to be avoided if you are looking for a high-quality camera.
This is the reason why we have created this buyer’s guide to help you find your way through the smartphone jungle, and to choose the best model, especially if you are someone who takes lots of photos. To wrap up our guide, we will present to you some very pertinent applications as well as some well thought-out accessories to beef up your smartphones camera.
High-End Smartphones, Always More Complete
At the end of 2014, we already had a winning trio in mind. And this year, two of those models remain on the podium. This is not to say that there have been no newcomers. But, none of these new models seem to us to be as complete or as flexible.
Before going to the heart of the matter, we would like to make a few small clarifications:
· Are more pixels always better? Yes and no. We have been saying for a long time that the blind race towards more pixels hasn’t really added anything of substance, and the best devices are not those which have the most pixels. However, in certain cases, too low of a definition also poses problems: we have avoided selecting certain smartphones because, despite their equal performance in terms of color rendition, the slightest cropping or blowing-up produces disastrous results.
· Maximum aperture: the lower the f/, the better. A smartphone’s lens is characterized by a maximum focal length (28 mm for the most part) and aperture (f/1.8 for example). This number is important, especially for low-light photography. The lower the f/ value, the more light enters the lens, making it capable of taking photos under low-light conditions.
· Optical or digital stabilization? On currently available smartphones, we will find two types of stabilization which are designed to prevent motion-blur: digital stabilization and optical stabilization. The first of these is the result of algorithms designed to predict motion patterns, while optical stabilization is a more effective solution since the lens “moves” in the opposite direction to the movement, compensating for any shakiness, and providing a clear and stable photo.
· 4K or not 4K for video? The lack of a 4K video mode is not a real hindrance, although it is a technological evolution which has proven very practical for obtaining perfectly stable 1080p video sequences. The additional pixels serve to enhance the fluidity of the video by suppressing Hyperlapse movements (we will talk more about this later).
· Camera-phone or camera with connectivity? Nikon and Samsung have introduced cameras with connectivity, but they didn’t leave a lasting impression: the idea of a compact, connected camera, allowing for telephone calls was promising, but turned out to be a dead end. If you have successfully made use of this type of camera, please share your comments about it in the comments section.
iPhone 7 (and 7 Plus)
The iPhone remains the king of the smartphones with its premium finish and simple but complete functionality. The iPhone already had a place on our podium in 2015 with its 6s model, and the iPhone 7 continues to be an excellent camera-phone. The latest model is equipped with a 12 Mpx sensor and a stabilized f/1.8 lens with a focal length equal to 28 mm. This lens allows users to take very detailed and smooth pictures. The capabilities of the autofocus are also impressive (fast and precise with almost perfect facial recognition) and the color exposure is also quite accurate. The improvements in the ability to take photos in low light with the iPhone 7 are also noteworthy, even if the iPhone 6s had already made great strides towards this goal. Some photos still end up with a small amount of digital noise, but in most contexts, this device performs well. Moreover, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus allow the user to record video in 4K, to take “Live Photos”, and to take selfies thanks to the 7 Mpx front-facing camera.
To end our discussion on the iPhone: we would like to mention that two models are available, one is the 4.7”model (iPhone 7) and the other is the 5.5”model (iPhone 7 Plus). Their camera sensors are identical, and there is stabilization on both models. The iPhone 7 Plus, however, has a secondary sensor (telephoto) which allows for zooming without loss of quality or for the simulation of a short field of vision for portrait taking. We were previously recommending the iPhone 6s Plus because of its real optical stabilization, but now we feel that the iPhone 7 is quite sufficient. The 7 Plus does, however, allow for a greater autonomy when using the device as a smartphone AND a digital camera, as well as a larger display which makes cropping and adjusting photos that much easier. The 4.7”version is, naturally, easier to transport, as well as being more discrete.
Samsung Galaxy S7 / S7 Edge
We have often recommended the Galaxy line of Samsung products, and this year again the Korean manufacturer’s smartphones excel at photography. The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have wagered on a risky strategy: to go from a 16 Mpx sensor to a sensor with “only” 12.2 Mpx, called Dual-Pixel. Why reduce the number of pixels? In order to be able to use larger photosites, capable of better light capture – resulting in a better quality image reproduction. As with their previous version, the sensor on the S7 offers a very nice image resolution, especially under good light conditions and shows improved performance under low light conditions. As far as video is concerned, the Galaxy S7 is, of course, capable of filming in 4K as well as other video resolution modes.
LG has had great success with their G2, G3, G4 models and the newest version does not disappoint either. It should be mentioned that this Korean manufacturer did not cut any corners when designing its coherent and efficient LG G5 model. This new version has two camera sensors: one 16 Mpx sensor coupled with an f/1.8 lens and one 8 Mpx sensor with a wider angle lens. The LG G5 also has a modular design which allows the user to add a handle containing a larger battery. The smartphone can record video in 4K resolution, has a laser autofocus, optical stabilization, and a 2560×1440… display. The G5 is one of the most technically capable smartphones around.
And in real life conditions, the performance does not disappoint: the image quality is good, with a lot of detail and luminosity, with enough pixels to allow for any necessary cropping. Focusing is lightning fast and all that is necessary is to lift your finger from the focusing area in order to release the shutter. Its digital noise management is more than adequate; it has slightly more digital noise than other models under the same low light conditions but focusing and image luminosity remain just as good in low light. As with the iPhone 7 and the Samsung S7 line, optical stabilization comes to the rescue of what would otherwise be blurry photos and video sequences. This G5 models is an overall success, complete and homogeneous – and retailing for a very interesting price.
Before concluding this high-end smartphone buyer’s guide, we would like to discuss one element which caught our attention after we had made our selection of the best compact camera replacements: display size. All the best models have a very large display size: if we put aside for a minute the iPhone 7, our Top 3 models have a display size larger than 5.5”! The larger models seem to benefit, most of the time, from image stabilization, magnificent displays, greater autonomy… It is, however, a shame that the very large number of people with smartphones in the 4.7”range can’t also benefit from these advantages.
Huawei and Honor, the Outsider that Excels at Photography
For some years now, Huawei and its digital brand Honor have been making their way up the ladder towards providing among the best smartphones available. Their designs are well thought out and full of hardware and software innovations which make them excellent options for taking photos.
Huawei, with its Huawei P9, created in partnership with the lens manufacturer Leica, offers a very enjoyable photographic experience. This smartphone uses a Leica Summariot 27 mm f/2.2 aspherical lens as well as 12 Mpx sensors (one color and one monochrome) in order to improve image contrast as well as the amount of light absorbed. Image color-quality is very good, at par with the G5 and S7, but it is the monochrome mode which really surprised us. Unfortunately, this smartphone is not completely free from downsides, it is sometimes slow, lacks optical stabilization, and it also has an inferior video recording quality.
Another brand, another positioning. Honour, with the honour 8, proposes an android smartphone accessible and focused on photography. Indeed, as the Huawei P9, the Honour 8 uses two photo sensors of 12 Mpx, one for the colour, the other for the monochrome. This allows to have an image with a great quality and, same as the Huawei P9, to play with the depth of field even when the picture has been taken. Photo menu of the Honour 8 are very complete and offer the possibility of realizing unprecedented things on a smartphone: exposure mode, light painting, without any problem or noticeable limitation, if not the size of the sensor. With the help of a fingerprint reader located at the back of the smartphone, it’s possible to launch photo mode and start in a matter of seconds, even when the phone is locked.
For tighter budgets: LG G4, Moto X second edition and Asus Zenfone 2 Selfie
We will be able to reach the photo capacity of this selection but it’s important to note that certain devices more accessible (around 300 dolars without contract) can get by in many cases, without blushing in face of the best.
Here are three examples:
▪ The LG G4 was present in our guide and its price has gone down with the arrival of the G5, which makes it really interesting, with a 16 Mpx sensor, and an effective optical stabilisation. It’s available starting at 250 dollars without a contract.
▪ The LG G3 is still interesting, especially considering its price since it’s at 195$.
▪ The Google Nexus 5X, which offers the same picture performances of the Nexus 6p, is a great surprise. It has a 12.3 Mpx sensor, and an HDR mode made by google which is very successful. It’s available from 300$.
Applications to utilise even more from your smartphone.
On top of the constant connectivity, the unique ecosystem application is the major force of smartphones. Whether it be to take pictures or videos, to edit them or to share them. It’s all doable without letting go of your device. So we tried to present you our selection to give you ideas in order to exploit more efficiently the photo functions of smartphones: your own experiences are most welcome in comments.
Essential shooting applications
The most simple is to often use the native photo application provided by your system. Simple and fast, it always to photograph without wasting time. That is all the more true that it’s often enabled from the lock screen of your smartphone: we can clearly see that the interest of the device always on hand and turned on, whether a swipe or a tap to take very satisfying pictures.
But if the photo applications of your smartphones are generally sufficient in the majority of cases, the competition allows to pull even more possibilities.
Camera+ is one of the veterans of the App Store (iOS), released in June 2010. The app has always allowed to enhance the functions of the iPhone camera, very simple for the photographers wanting to modify themselves certain settings. Now days it offers a great flexibility, with access to a set of manual settings of the smartphone (Exposure, ISO, focus, shutter speed), whereas the iOS photo application is content with the correction of the exposure.
Manual is an interesting competitive application for its great simplicity of shooting, but while always allowing to manage numerous manual settings.
On Android, since the 4.4 Kit Kat version, Google proposes Google Camera (Now is only supported on Nexus Devices. ). A quality camera and very complete, allowing to realise photospheres, panoramas or photos with selective focus (to reduce the depth of field) but at the time it doesn’t manage the manual settings like on the iOS 8.
Essential image sharing applications
After a photo has been taken, most amateur or passionate photographers want to adjust their images, whether it’s for small corrections, for creative filters or for a thorough editing. Whilst the computer is still the best tool for the job, portable devices are becoming better at meeting the pressing need of fast and simple on-the-go editing.
In this area, VSCO, one of the world leaders of photo editing on the computer, has made itself a name on mobile with the application VSCO Cam (available on iOS and Android). More than just offering advanced editing options, such as filters which is what VSCO is known for, this application is also a social network of “premium” (some would say hipster) photos.
Of course, we all know Instagram, the social network of photos bought by Facebook. This application is now available on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone (in version Beta) and allows you to share photos from your phone. In the latest versions, the editing tool has greatly improved, now allowing in-depth photo editing, whilst before only predefined filters were available.
Essential image editing applications
There are quite a number of photo editing alternatives that allow editing directly on portable devices that exist, which makes it difficult to list all the details here. To help you find what you are looking for, here is a selection of the essential applications that we find very efficient.
Snapseed, the app that joined Google in 2012 after the purchase of Nik Software, is a well-known editing application with a lot of functions. Voted the best mobile photo application in 2012, it works on iOS and Android and allows the enhancement of photos in just a few clicks. Without a doubt, Google is looking to integrate Snapseed’s technology into their other applications, such as Google Plus, Google Photos and Google Camera.
Photo Editor by Aviary
Recently bought by Adobe (the editor of Creative Cloud Suite), Photo Editor by Aviary (iOS, Android and Windows Phone) is a mobile application full of functions for editing your images (exposition, contrast, clarity, crop, etc.) but also allows you to apply photo filters, or even frames, stickers, text etc. This application is free, but you normally have to pay for the effects packs. However, until the end of the year, Adobe offers all of the application’s effects (160 Euro value) to its users with an Adobe ID (Adobe account).
Adobe also offers different applications like Photoshop, (Photoshop Mix, PS Express, or even Phooshop Touch (paid application)) but none of them really caught our attention.
To conclude, here are some extra applications that are worth having a look at: Metapho (iOS), which allows you to hide the EXIF data of your photos before sharing them, Dipic (iOS and Android) for producing photo montages from several images and Frontback (iOS and Android) (for taking photos simultaneously with the camera at the front and back of your phone).
Essential video applications
We won’t discuss video applications in as much depth here, but it’s a function that we have seen being used more and more, notably thanks to the increase in the quality of the sensors: generally 1080p, up to 4k, a frame rate that’s taking off (120 up to 240 images per second for excellent slow motion). Smartphones make great little cameras!
Amongst the best, it is hard not to note Hyperlapse (only on iOS at the moment), the app created by Instagram that allows you to capture timelapse videos of high quality, even whilst moving. The application has a very powerful stabilisation software that allows you to stabilise your videos, therefore allowing you to move at the same time that you capture your timelapse, delivering a very fluid finished video.
According to us, this not as essential but is the fun part of the app is the possibility accelerate the video x2 to x12 before sharing: along with stabilisation, this function allows you to quickly create short videos with surprising effects. A little bonus tip: tap 4 times on your screen (sometimes you have to try several times), to access hidden functions like recording in 1080p, 40x acceleration etc.
Quik (iOS and Android) is the second post-production application we would like to recommend to you. Chosen by Apple as “App of the year”, it is a little gem which is not as widely known as it should be and which allows you to create videos quickly and easily. This app is now available for Android.
The indispensable applications for transforming you smartphone into your camera’s companion or your workflow assistant
Smartphones, for most people, are not replacements for their dedicated cameras, but rather something extra. But, they can also become very useful companions to your camera, enhancing and completing your hybrid’s or your single lens reflex’s functionality.(touching up and sharing photos mainly).
For cameras with WiFi capability, you will be able to very easily send your photos to your smartphone thanks to the manufacturer’s dedicated application. This is a good way to share photos on the go without the need to take out your portable computer. You will also be able to edit your pictures by using one of the applications mentioned previously. Can can also transfer you pictures to your smartphone or tablet by using an SD card. However, the RAW format is very seldom supported and you will need to work with JPEG images.
Smartphones also allow you to touch up your photos, or at least to perform a cursory selection. For this purpose, we recommend the indispensable Adobe Lightroom with a mobile version Lightroom Mobile available for iOS and Android. A virtual extension of the desktop version of the software, this application allows you to see your Lightroom collections – hosted on the cloud – on your iPhone or iPad, and also to be able to edit them remotely. Do you find it too difficult to work on a small display? You can still easily perform a selection in your photo catalog, marking the photos you would like to keep or discard. These modifications are also synchronized with the desktop version of Lightroom and will appear the next time you launch the software. It is therefore a very convenient companion and no longer requires a paid membership to Creative Cloud. Now, all the features of the application are free, except for the synchronization of photos with your Lightroom library which still requires a Creative Cloud Photography membership.
Accessories to Complete your Smartphone
Smartphones are becoming more and more powerful photographic devices, and more and more accessories are being developed in order to complete and enrich their functionality, sometimes transforming smartphones into formidable devices for capturing still images and video.
Specialized smartphone covers
The first accessory which sprigs to mind is the protective cover. Smartphones are rather fragile and are easy to drop which can quickly lead to a cracked display. It is difficult for us to recommend a hard cover or a silicon cover for your smartphone. If you get the opportunity, try the protective cover out before buying it in order to get an idea of its protective capabilities as well as how it will feel in your hand and pocket. There is nothing worse than buying a cover that is good at protecting your smartphone, but which makes it no longer fit in your pocket.
In addition to protecting your smartphones, a cover can also offer new functionality: a grip making it easier to move around, weather resistance for sports use or even water-tightness for divers.
An example of a very good idea is the: BitPlay Snap! 6, a cover which transforms your smartphone into a formidable camera. In addition to protecting your smartphone, this cover allows you to hold your phone more comfortably and to choose between a wide angle lens and a zoom, this is very useful since many smartphones do not have a zoom but rater a fixed focal lens. We have ordered ourselves a Snap! 6 and will be testing it soon to see if it is worthwhile.
External batteries to increase autonomy
Another additional functionality is provided by external batteries which can be useful for people who like to do everything on their phone or spend a weekend without recharging their phone. The size and capacity of the external battery will depend on your intended use for it. There is no need for a super powerful tablet battery if all you want to do is be able to get through a day of taking pictures.
For example, the Anker PowerCore+ Mini 3350mAh external battery is about the size of a lipstick tube and is capable of completely recharging a smartphone with some charge to spare. If you are looking at other models, make sure they respect the CE norms.
Additional lenses for more flexibility
Smartphones have made great progress when it comes to the camera’s sensor, but they still remain limited where lenses are concerned. Some brands such as Olloclip offer “all in one” kits with several adapters to improve your smartphone: powerful macro, wide angle, fish eye, zoom…
There are several competitors who offer products of varying quality, but in any case you should be familiar with the advantages and inconveniences of these types of lenses: they are practical for obtaining a different photo angle and are pretty fun to use, however, depending on their price, their optical quality can vary a lot and in all cases, finding that new angle comes at the cost of image quality. You are also required to bring the lenses with you in your bag or pocket, which is not always convenient.
A tripod mount to take advantage of the manual settings
Now that some smartphones allow you to turn off all the automatic settings and to set new ones manually (aperture speed, ISO, etc.), it has become a reasonable proposition to equip yourself with one of photographers’ most appreciated accessories: the tripod.
To allow you to mount your smartphone on a tripod, Studio Neat invented the Glif (starting at 30$), a very well conceived mount which allows you to attach your smartphone to any tripod (not a standard screw) and can also be used in everyday applications to allow your smartphone to stand upright on a flat surface, to make it easier to read on it for example. Manfrotto also proposes a table-top tripod, the Manfrotto Pixi 2 (39$), which might be to your liking. Joby has come up with the Joby GripTight (19$) which combines a Gorillapod type flexible tripod with a clip for holding the smartphone.
Sony QX, an external lens for your smartphone?
To go even farther, you can expand your shooting capabilities by making use of external sensors and lenses, like Sony has done with its QX10, QX30 and QX100.
The idea here is to couple these devices to the smartphone to allow it to control the lens and be able to focus. The result is a supped- up camera-phone, with a more powerful sensor and zoom than what is available on the smartphone alone; but, this new capability comes with some downsides. The added bulk translates into a loss of autonomy for the smartphone and the responsiveness of the whole set-up is somewhat limited – which does not make it the ideal choice for hardcore photography lovers. Available starting at 149$, we are hesitant to recommend this product in comparison to a classic compact camera.
To conclude this short segment on smartphones, we can say, that this year also, the photographic capabilities of smartphones have continued to improve – allowing for even better image quality than last year’s models, especially under low light conditions. Overall, the performance of high-end smartphones is now adequate enough to seriously challenge compact cameras if you are not truly passionate about photography. Most users just want a camera to take souvenir style pictures, and having a smartphone allows them to always have a camera at hand.