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Gadget Bag: The Photographer’s Smartphone

We look at the latest smartphones, and how their cameras and other features can benefit you
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Apple iPhone 6

The digital age has brought photo and video technology to the masses. With media moving toward web and photo-focused apps like Instagram, the ease of sharing has become crucial. Embracing the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you, smartphone manufacturers have been working to increase the quality of their integrated cameras. Because of this, many people are now using their smartphones as a point-and-shoot replacement, and professional photographers are relying on the devices as go-to second cameras, particularly useful for photojournalism.

Just like choosing a new camera, photographers of all levels should be familiar with the pros and cons of each smartphone’s camera before committing to a new system. Here, we break apart a few of these specs and take a look at high-quality camera options built in to current smartphones on the market.

Of course, one of the big factors in determining photo quality comes from the sensor. Smartphone sensors have a small size range around 1/1.5″ to 1/3″. This means that a Micro Four Thirds sensor is 13 times the size of a smartphone sensor, an APS-C sensor is 21 times the size and a full-frame sensor is 50 times larger. The physical anatomy of a large sensor provides barriers between pixels to prevent light spillage, but small sensors don’t have the space for this, so often there’s increased flare and reduced contrast.

As with any camera, megapixels are influential in photo quality. More pixels mean smaller pixels. This equates to more detail, which is useful when employing zoom. Fewer pixels increase pixel size. Larger pixels will provide less detail, but will increase the amount of light gathered, reducing noise. A full-frame sensor with 16 megapixels will have an individual pixel size of just over 7 microns. Individual pixels used in smartphones range from 1 to 2 microns. A 1.4-micron pixel captures one full stop of light more than a 1-micron pixel.

Aperture is another factor to consider when looking at the smartphone camera. Typically, smartphones provide apertures in the ƒ/2 -ƒ/2.4 range. An ƒ/2.4 aperture will provide a wider depth of field for a sharper photo with less chromatic aberration. But an ƒ/2 aperture provides 50% more light than the ƒ/2.4. The ƒ/2 aperture has more technical components, making it more expensive to produce, and this can be seen in the overall price of the phone.

Stabilization is increasingly being integrated into smartphones to ensure sharp still photos and stable videos. Most phones use electronic image stabilization, which creates sharp photos by increasing shutter speed and provides the opportunity to create merged burst shots to reduce blur. When shooting video, electronic image stabilization zooms in slightly, creating a buffer of pixels along the outside of the sensor to compensate for camera shake. Smartphones with optical image stabilization rely on the physical structure to steady the lens. Because it doesn’t rely on reduced shutter speed, there’s typically an increase of 1 to 2 stops, producing less noise. But creating the optical image stabilization is more costly than electronic image stabilization.

As you increase your usage of a smartphone for photo and video capture, it’s important to look at the memory capacity and other forms of file storage that comes with a smartphone. Some phones offer only internal storage, while others offer a microSD slot for expansion or additional cloud storage.

Apple iPhone 6 And 6 Plus
The iPhone 6 is 138.1x67x6.9mm, with a 4.7-inch display with 1334×750 pixel resolution. The 1/3″ sensor contains 8 megapixels with a 1.5-micron pixel size. The camera has an ƒ/2.2 aperture and uses auto electronic image stabilization. The iPhone 6 also provides phase detection AF, face detection and increased personalized exposure control. Video is shot at 1080p30 and 1080p60, or in Slo-Mo mode using 120 fps or 240 fps. The iPhone 6 Plus is a bit larger at 158.1×77.8×7.1mm with a 5.5-inch full HD resolution display. The camera specs are the same as the iPhone 6, but the iPhone 6 Plus uses optical image stabilization. Both are offered in 16 GB, 64 GB and 128 GB memory capacities.

HTC One M8
Measuring 146.36×70.6×9.35mm, the HTC One M8 features a 1080p full HD 5-inch display. Using a BSI 1/3″ sensor, the dual 4-megapixel sensors have a 2-micron pixel size (5 megapixels front, 4 megapixels rear). An additional chip is paired with the sensors to greater distinguish foreground and background depth. The 28mm wide-angle lens has an ƒ/2 aperture. While the One camera previously utilized optical image stabilization, the addition of the chip necessitated the switch to Smart Stabilization software. Video is shot at 1080p30 or 720p120 for slow-motion capability. It’s available in a 32 GB capacity with a microSD slot for up to a 128 GB microSD card.

HTC One M8

LG’s G3 is 146.3×74.6×8.9mm, with a 5.5-inch screen that displays Quad HD 2560×1440 pixel resolution. The Sony IMX 135 1/3.06″ sensor has 13 megapixels at a 1.2-micron size per pixel. The ƒ/2.4 aperture still camera utilizes optical image stabilization, as well as laser AF and ISO control. Video mode allows for 3840×2160 4K 30 fps and 1080p30 shooting with digital image stabilization. The G3 has a 32 GB storage capacity with up to 128 GB microSD expansion.

Nokia Lumia 1020 And 1520
Nokia offers two high-quality smartphone cameras. The Lumia 1020 is 130.4×10.4×71.4mm with a 4.5-inch, 1280×768 resolution display. The 41-megapixel PureView sensor is 1/1.5″ with a 1.1-micron pixel size. The camera uses an ƒ/2.2 aperture with a max ISO of 3200 and a high-resolution 3x zoom. Video mode shoots 1080p30 and utilizes optical image stabilization. The Lumia 1020 is available in a 32 GB capacity and comes with 7 GB of free cloud storage. The Lumia 1520 is slightly larger at 162.8×85.4×8.7mm with a 6-inch, 1080×1920 resolution display screen. The 20-megapixel PureView sensor is 1/2.5″ in size with 1.1-micron-sized pixels. The ƒ/2.4 aperture lens has a max ISO of 4000 and utilizes optical image stabilization. Video can be shot at 1080p and 720p at 30 fps, 25 fps or 24 fps. The Lumia 1520 is available in 16 GB and 32 GB capacities with a microSD slot for up to 64 GB additional memory and 7 GB of free cloud storage.

Samsung Galaxy S5
The Samsung Galaxy S5 measures 142×72.5×8.1mm with a 5.1-inch, 1920×1080 resolution display screen. The 16-megapixel sensor is 1/2.6″ with each pixel measuring 1.12 microns. The camera utilizes an ƒ/2.2 aperture with phase detection AF, electronic image stabilization, and simultaneous video and still recording. Video can be shot at 2160p30, 1080p60 and 720p120. The Galaxy S5 is available in 16 GB and 32 GB capacities with up to 128 GB microSD expansion.

Samsung Galaxy S5

Sony Xperia Z3
The Sony Xperia Z3 measures 146.05×71.88×7.11mm with a 5.2-inch, 1080×920 full HD display screen. The 20.1-megapixel, 1/2.3″ Exmor RS sensor has a max ISO of 12,800 and offers an 8x zoom. The Xperia Z3 provides face detection, HDR and SteadyShot digital image stabilization. Video can be shot at 2160p30, 1080p60 and 720p120. Available in 12 GB and 32 GB internal memory, the smartphone has a microSD slot for up to 128 GB of expanded memory.

Sony Xperia Z3