Does anyone remember when Nokia boasted the best smartphone camera in the world? That was a mere six years ago, when the Nokia 1020 left anyone from Apple to Samsung in the dust with a 41 megapixel lens and the biggest light sensor seen on a phone.
Now, both Nokia and Sharp, which pioneered the phone camera with the J-Phone at the beginning of the century, are forgotten as leaders in the field.
Even so, the legacy of the 1020 was hard to shake off until other smartphone makers showed hardware advances and software genius readily compensated for megapixels.
This is good news and bad news: on one hand you don’t need megapixels for mega pictures; on the other, there is no specific number that tells you which phone has the better camera. However, a combination of numbers does help.
Megapixels matter, although not by themselves. Aperture, measured in “f”, matters more as it tells you how much light the lens allows in – the smaller the number, the more light. Sensor size counts as it dictates how much light is captured. The bigger the size, the more light. Finally, and this would have been an absurd suggestion six years ago, the number of lenses counts.
When dual-lens cameras were first introduced in 2011, they were designed to take 3D photos – which no one really wanted. Consumers were demanding something seemingly simpler: better photos. Today, that is exactly what multilens cameras do, with each lens contributing a different aspect to the quality of the combined image.
HTC was the first with a dual-lens camera in the One M8 four years ago, but its two average lenses didn’t necessarily add up to one great photo. LG was next in the G5 and G6.
It was only when Huawei partnered with Leica for dual lenses on the P9 and P9 Plus that the ability to combine images from two cameras came into its own. Now, all smartphone makers are on the same path. None of this guarantees perfect or even great photos.
It is notable that only two of the 10 phones listed have a single lens on the back, suggesting it is dual-lens arrays – or more – that have finally laid to rest the ghost of the 1020.
Here is a subjective choice of the best phone cameras in SA, based on general use. Specifications courtesy GSMArena.com:
1. Huawei P20 Pro
If this phone was allowed in the US, we’d hear constant references to hitting the ball out of the park. But the rest of the world is making up for it as the specs shake up the smartphone market.
In South Africa, the P20 range outsold its cheaper predecessor, the P10, in the first six weeks. Expect it to lead a trend to triple-lens devices.
The P20 Pro’s front camera is the best on the market. An artificial intelligence detects the type of scene being captured and optimises the settings for the scene. Leica optics on all three lenses and 3x optical zoom make this the camera to beat.
• Back (main camera): Triple 40 MP (f/1.8, 27mm, 1/1.7”) + 20 MP B/W (f/1.6, 27mm) + 8 MP (f/2.4, 80mm), OIS, Leica optics, 3x optical zoom, phase detection and laser autofocus, LED flash.
• Front (selfie camera): 24 MP (f/2.0, 26mm), 1080p.
2. Samsung Galaxy S9+
There is a magic to the photos taken by the Galaxy S series all the way back to the S6 Edge. Purists dislike its artificial sharpening and saturated colours but for the average user, that translates into images that often astonish.
The latest flagship’s f1.5-2.4 variable aperture makes this the best phone on the market for lowlight photography. It is the market leader in selfie features and functionality, offering dual-video recording for incorporating selfie video into the main video.
• Back: Dual 12 MP (f/1.5-2.4, 26mm, 1/2.55”, 1.4µm, Dual Pixel PDAF) + 12MP (f/2.4, 52mm, 1/3.6”, 1µm, AF), OIS, phase detection autofocus, 2x optical zoom, LED flash.
• Front: 8 MP (f/1.7, 25mm, 1/3.6”, 1.22µm), autofocus, 1440p@30fps, dual video call, Auto HDR.
3. Samsung Note 8
The Note 8 just beat Apple to market with optical zoom, but it’s still the only game in town for stylus interfaces. The selfie camera matches the S9+ for widest aperture in a front camera.
• Back: Dual 12 MP (f/1.7, 26mm, 1/2.5”, 1.4µm, Dual Pixel PDAF) + 12MP (f/2.4, 52mm, 1/3.6”, 1µm, AF), OIS, phase detection autofocus, 2x optical zoom, LED flash.
• Front: 8 MP (f/1.7, 25mm, 1/3.6”, 1.22µm), autofocus, 1440p@30fps, dual video call, Auto HDR
4. Apple iPhone X
That absurd notch has been touted as pioneering and other manufacturers have been caught up in the hype, slavishly following this gimmick for maximizing display space.
The sooner it vanishes the better, as we can then focus on what makes the X a superb phone. It has possibly the most versatile video functionality on a phone camera and closest to true natural colour.
• Back: Dual: 12 MP (f/1.8, 28mm) + 12 MP (f/2.4, 52mm), OIS, phase detection autofocus, 2x optical zoom, quad-LED dual-tone flash.
• Front: 7 MP (f/2.2, 32mm), 1080p@30fps, 720p@240fps, face detection, HDR.
5. Sony Xperia XZ2
The Xperia XZ Premium was first to market with a 960 frame per second video, allowing super slow-motion, but Samsung and Huawei have both caught up. However, it matches up to any of its competitors for video quality and advanced imaging software.
• Back: 19 MP (f/2.0, 25mm, 1/2.3”, 1.22µm), gyro EIS, predictive phase detection and laser autofocus, LED flash.
• Front: 5 MP (f/2.2, 1/5”), gyro EIS, 1080p
6. LG V30S ThinQ
The label speaks to the artificial intelligence built into the phone, similar to that in the current Huawei flagship phones. However, the spec to check is the f1.6 aperture, which puts it up there with the Samsung flagships. It also boasts superb audio software, enhancing the video experience.
• Back: Dual: 16 MP (f/1.6, 1µm, 3-axis OIS, PDAF) + 13 MP (f/1.9, no AF), phase detection & laser autofocus, LED flash.
• Front: 5 MP (f/2.2, 1/5”, 1.12µm).
7. Huawei Mate 10 Pro
Had the P20 pro not hit the market, this would have been a strong enough phone to claw out additional market share. With dual Leica lenses and artificial intelligence, it holds its own.
• Back: Dual: 12 MP (f/1.6, 27mm, 1/2.9”, 1.25µm) + 20 MP B/W (f/1.6, 27mm), OIS, 2x lossless zoom, Leica optics, phase detection & laser autofocus, dual-LED dual-tone flash.
• Front: 8 MP (f/2.0, 26mm, 1/3.2”, 1.4µm), autofocus, 1080p
The Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL are not officially available in South Africa, but can be bought from online stores like Takealot. com.
Amid all the shutter and marketing noise of these cameras, there are a few warnings. All revolve around the truth that a great camera does not make a great photographer.
When smartphone makers promise users “perfect photos every time”, they are lying. When they claim the phone camera will allow any user to take “professional photos”, they are stretching the definition of “professional” into the realms of fantasy.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee and on YouTube