When you consider where we were with mobile imaging just five or six years ago, modern smartphone cameras are incredibly impressive – some definitely more than others. In the last two years, several new technologies have been introduced.
Optical image stabilization (OIS) has become something we all would love to see in every smartphone, at least until software stabilization is up to snuff. OIS allows the camera to keep the shutter open longer without being susceptible to the natural shakiness of your hand. This, theoretically, should improve low-light imagery on smartphones, though that isn’t always the case.
Nokia unveiled two different phases of PureView technology, one of which was an ultra high-resolution sensor in a smartphone. The other was, of course, OIS. The third PureView smartphone we saw was a combination of the two in the Lumia 1020, which came with a 41-megapixel sensor capable of up to 38-megapixel images. The true usefulness of such high-res photos wasn’t necessarily the output resolution, but rather lossless zoom and the ability to extensively crop in post.
HTC also helped us surpass the megapixel myth – that megapixels were the be-all and end-all in mobile photography. It introduced UltraPixel technology, which is essentially just a fancy word for larger pixels on the sensor. While most smartphone image sensors have 8- to 13-megapixels on a 1/3-inch sensor, the One M8 and One M7 have 4-megapixel cameras on the same sensor, meaning instead of a 1.12µm to 1.3µm pixels, HTC’s UltraPixel cameras come with 2µm pixels. This allows the image sensor to capture more light than a standard sensor in the same amount of time.
As I’ve said time and again, it isn’t about how many megapixels you have, it’s what you do with those pixels that really counts.
Several other not-so-helpful mobile imaging technologies have emerged in the same time span, as well. Case in point, the Moto X and its 10-megapixel camera promised to deliver better low-light images using Clear Pixel technology, as well as faster shutter speeds in bright lighting conditions. Motorola boasted about the Moto X’s camera … until every reviewer around the globe harped on how underwhelming it actually was.
HTC also brought the Duo Camera technology with this year’s One M8. Around the back of the One M8 is a second sensor for gathering relative depth information and using it to produce some rather unique (and often unreliable) effects after the fact. For instance, you can take a picture and refocus later – something that has been proven possible to do using software, so long as you plan ahead.
Either way and despite my love for fantastic mobile cameras, most of the phones I’ve owned over the last two to three years have had … pretty terrible cameras.
HTC boasted the One X would have a superior camera. That most definitely wasn’t the case. I also had the Galaxy Note II. Its camera was okay, but often produced mediocre images. The Moto X, well, wasn’t great. The One M8 I own now also takes milky, low-contrast, low-detail images, especially since I converted it to a Google Play edition.
Most the phones take pictures that are decent enough for Instagram and for utility purposes, like snapping an image of a model number and sending to Evernote for safekeeping. But out of all the phones I’ve owned in the last few years, only the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5 have managed to offer reliable and consistent camera experiences. And even those were often susceptible to dark or blurry images.
In other words, the “bring a real camera” argument lives on. Smartphones still aren’t – at least in my personal experience – great enough to fully replace a solid point and shoot camera. Almost every smartphone camera suffers in medium to low lighting, which is where most people end up taking pictures anyway, unless they’re out hiking, on vacation, or doing something outdoors. I spend a lot of my time indoors, behind a computer screen, and I’m typically dissatisfied with my smartphone cameras.
This is something I’ve simply come to grips with. All the phones I like seem to have the worst cameras, and all the phones with great cameras don’t do anything for me.
The question is, how do I cope?
Usually, if it’s low light, I just don’t take pictures unless I have to. For the last year and a half, I’ve coped by carrying two smartphones. I keep the iPhone 5 on hand, just in case I want to take a nicer picture. I’ll snap a photo or two with my One M8 or Moto X, grimace at how gross the photo turned out, break out the iPhone 5, and snap one more photo.
When I don’t resort to the iPhone, I usually apply heavy edits and filters to the photo using Snapseed, Photoshop Touch, and VSCO Cam.
And if I know I’m going on a trip or somewhere I know I’ll want extra nice pictures, I usually bring my primary camera, a Sony NEX-5N. Frankly, this is why I want to upgrade to a newer, NFC-equipped micro four-thirds camera – so I can snap photos on the dedicated camera and send them over to the phone or tablet for editing and sharing.
For now, I’ll just deal with my method of using an Eye-Fi card.
But I’m interested, folks. How do you deal with a subpar smartphone camera? Do you apply heavy edits to every photo? Do you resort to a point and shoot? Or do you just deal with crappy photos? Let us know by taking part in the polls below!