Let’s say right away that there will not be a list of the top 10 best phones. Everyone has already formed a liking for certain brands and operating systems.
In this article, we will tell you what to pay attention to when choosing a smartphone and explain some terms that not everyone knows about.
How to choose a phone with a good camera?
If you ask an average buyer which characteristic of a smartphone he is most interested in, with a high degree of probability he will name the battery or the camera.
And when it comes to the quality of photos and videos, many of us fall for the marketing tricks of the manufacturer, who tells us about the number of megapixels, or about the presence of optical stabilization, which can not fix the situation if other aspects of the device were not paid enough attention.
Modern smartphones are already capable of competing with full-fledged cameras in terms of shooting quality (for example, we recently did a review of movies shot on smartphones). Even if you’re not planning to do full-fledged filmmaking, but are just getting started with mobile photography, it’s good to know how it all works.
This guide is the one to help you navigate the world of mobile photography and choose the perfect smartphone with a good camera.
Usually, those who love good photos take a mirrorless camera on the road because it’s easier to get good pictures. But a smartphone is also good for vacation.
Travelers in general don’t see the point of carrying cameras around these days. Gone are the days of light and cheap point-and-shoot cameras, which were always on hand – it’s easier to take a smartphone. They have been taking good pictures lately, too. Probably not good enough for professional processing, but for social media, it’s just right.
How do mobile cameras work?
For a long time, the main disadvantage of mobile cameras has been their small sensors. The bigger the sensor, the more light it can capture, and the better the final images.
Manufacturers managed to place in some models a relatively large matrix and high-aperture lenses, but before the full-fledged photographic equipment smartphones are still far away.
Now mobile equipment relies almost entirely on special algorithms and the computing power of the processor, they negate almost all of the shortcomings of small matrices.
For example, modern smartphones actually take several pictures instead of just one and then stitch them together into one. Algorithms find individual objects in the pictures – the grass, the sun, people’s faces – and additionally process them, aligning brightness and contrast.
This results in beautiful unlit images with saturated colors.
Modern smartphones do all the post-processing for the user
Raw photos from professional cameras need to be manually processed, moved sliders in photo editors, and the objects from different frames glued together. On a smartphone, all it takes is the push of a button to get a result that requires virtually no retouching.
That is why a mobile camera is, in fact, a universal solution for the mass consumer.
It will do everything right on its own, and in two minutes the picture is already hanging in Stories. You have to take your smartphone to travel anyway, and a separate camera and lens kit is an extra bag on your shoulders.
Mobile camera vs camera
If you value the ability to keep all processing under your personal control, and quality is a priority, professional cameras still win.
Pictures taken with a camera look more natural. They have better depth and volume, while smartphone shots look flat and not natural enough. A full-fledged camera is better at conveying shades and halftones.
However, all these nuances hardly matter if you are not engaged in photography professionally. Social networks ruin the quality of any photo anyway: such photos are not looked at under a magnifying glass on a good monitor, but with small mobile displays right on the go.
Mobile photos can also be edited with high quality, but the frames from the camera are better suited for it. They have better quality, especially in raw RAW format.
On a smartphone, you can quickly retouch a photo with photo editors like Snapseed or Meitu and immediately post it to social networks. But the capabilities of mobile apps are severely limited.
To process frames from the camera, you have to download them to a smartphone via Wi-Fi, or better yet, send them immediately to a laptop. However, graphics packages like Adobe Photoshop allow you to reveal the full potential of such photos.
The final result depends more on the skill of the photographer and retoucher than on the technique. You can edit photos on your smartphone for an hour and get a shot worthy of winning a contest.
Or you can take a camera shot and apply a ready-made filter from Lite Stream in ten seconds. And vice versa. Professional retouching is a separate story, sometimes it takes years to learn.
However, you might not need the retouching on your phone: the algorithms are pretty good at refining the pictures anyway.
A camera requires a lot of expenses. A good camera with all the equipment costs as much as several flagship smartphones. In addition, it requires additional maintenance costs. For example, mirrorless cameras quickly run out of batteries, so it does not hurt to buy a couple of spare ones beforehand.
If you want to squeeze the most out of every shot, want to print photos, or view them on a big screen – it is better to buy a good mirrorless camera and one or two lenses.
If you want good pictures on the go, but you are not ready to get into retouching and buy additional equipment, then a smartphone is a right choice for travel.
How do I choose a smartphone with a great camera for vacation?
It is easy to get lost in the parameters of mobile cameras. No one has looked at megapixels for a long time, and descriptions from manufacturers are full of meaningless marketing terms. Two phones with similar specifications can take two completely different pictures. So I have tried to highlight a number of parameters that are worth paying attention to when choosing.
You will have to check these characteristics on your own. It is desirable to take a few pictures of the smartphone you like in the store. You can also study reviews and tests on the Internet – and then make a decision about the purchase.
The main characteristics of camera phones
A camera phone is a camera that can make calls. Therefore, the sensor is the main parameter. The quality of pictures primarily depends on it. The main parameter which determines the quality of the sensor is its size. A large sensor is able to hold larger pixels (we will talk about pixel size below). Matrix size is measured in fractions of an inch and is indicated by a single quotation mark. For example, 1/3″.
Now to the pixels, their number, and size. Let’s start with an example: the camera of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone (let’s just say that the phone has a good camera) has 108 megapixels. A full-fledged top-of-the-line Sony Alpha A7R III camera has 42,4 of them. Does this mean that the smartphone will easily beat the Japanese camera? Obviously not – the matrices of smartphone cameras are about 50 times smaller than those of cameras. And it is the size of the sensor that determines the quality of the image.
We can say those megapixels are physically located on the sensor. These are the light-sensitive elements. For clarity, let’s think of them as reservoirs filled with light. The deeper the reservoir, the more light it will hold, right? It follows that if there are many megapixels and the sensor is tiny, each individual pixel will be small. This affects the quality of the final photos. There will be a lot of noise when you zoom in on them.
And if the sensors are the same size, but one of them has fewer pixels, but they are large, and the other has a lot of small ones? Let’s get to the bottom of this.
Choose a camera phone based on the size of the pixels on the sensor.
The number of megapixels
Let’s assume an average of 4 photons of light falls on each pixel of the sensor. We can calculate the noise of the entire sensor using the Poisson distribution. According to it noise is the square root of the total number of photons. In our case, noise will be 2 photons.
That is, the brightness of points in the photo will differ on average by as much as 50%! If we increase the pixel size by 4 times (while reducing their total number by the same amount of times), then now one of our pixels can hold 16 photons. Applying Poisson distribution again, we get that the average noise is now 4 photons or 25%. The picture is now twice as clean. Therefore, large pixels are preferable to small ones.
Another problem with small pixels is crosstalk, i.e., when light from one pixel hits another pixel. Manufacturers combat this by selecting more reflective materials for the partitions between the pixels.
Modern smartphones use pixel binning (merging). In such sensors, the pixels are arranged in groups of 4. During a shoot, one pair will collect light longer than the other. If all pixels collected light for the same amount of time, there would be a risk of them overflowing with light from bright areas of the scene. Because of this, these pixels would be replaced by white dots in the final image. With binning, this risk disappears, because the pair that collected less light did not have time to overflow. Combining the information obtained from these two-pixel pairs, we get an image in which there are no black and white dots, that is, a higher dynamic range.
The main advice that can be given here is not to chase the number of megapixels. Pixel size is more important.
For example, the recognized camera phone Google Pixel 6 has a wide-angle camera with a large sensor and the size of each pixel is 1.2 microns. For comparison, the base model iPhone 13 has a wide-angle camera with a pixel size of 1.7 microns. If we compare the quality of images, we find that the Pixel is expected, but not fatally inferior. Google’s algorithms sometimes brighten shadows, as well as smooth out raised textures, making the picture look flatter.
With an external lens, it’s possible to achieve a stronger zoom than the built-in lens allows.
It’s not just the sensor that determines the quality of the picture. Camera phones in 2022 are no different from their older camera brethren: smartphone photos are strongly influenced by the quality of the lens.
If a bad lens is installed in front of a good sensor, no matter how many megapixels and how big they are, the pictures will be fuzzy and with chromatic aberrations.
Most modern smartphones have several cameras, which are distinguished by their lenses: the standard module, which is included by default, the ultra-wide-angle lens, and the telephoto lens. But the super-wide angle lens is probably not as wide as in full-frame cameras (after all, smartphones have small matrices, which implies a large cropped factor). And telephoto lenses can allow for distortion.
This can be corrected by using external lenses. A selection of lenses for smartphones can be found here.
The more light that reaches the sensor, the easier it is to get a quality shot. This is especially important when shooting in dark rooms or at dusk.
Pay attention to the letter F and the value after it in the specifications. The smaller it is, the wider the aperture is. Simply put, a smartphone with an f/1.6 camera is better suited for photography in difficult conditions than one with an f/2.4.
On average, the aperture number in smartphone lenses ranges from f/1.7 to f/2.2.
The size of the aperture determines how much the lens can open, and how much light it is able to let into the sensor. For example, different apertures are used even within the same lineup of iPhone 13 (read more about it in our analysis). For comparison, here’s how aperture numbers differ in smartphones of different price categories:
- The budget Samsung Galaxy A12 with f/2.0;
- The mid-priced Samsung Galaxy A52 with f/1.8;
- The flagship Huawei P40 Pro with f/1.28.
Also, the aperture determines whether or not you get bokeh. But since bokeh is also affected by the size of the sensor, smartphones will only blur the background when taking macro shots of small objects.
To compensate for this, smartphones implement portrait modes – creating bokeh with software. This approach has its own problems. Sometimes the algorithms blur hair or glasses temples, for example, along with the background. The algorithms get better from model to model. For example, they work better on the iPhone 14 than on the 11 models.
Separate telephoto zoom lens
Manufacturers often skimp on the camera set and forget about high-quality zoom, and without good zoom it is difficult to shoot distant objects. There are models with “true” optical zoom, as well as hybrid variants. For example, the camera takes a large 108MP shot instead of zoom, and then crops it to the right area. But it’s better when there’s a separate lens for zooming rather than half-measures.
It’s ideal if the optional camera also has stabilization, it compensates for hand shake when taking zoom shots.
Another useful zoom option is cropping. On smartphones, the main camera usually has a large angle of view. Because of this, a lot of unnecessary things can get into the frame, and the proportions of objects are slightly distorted.
To take a good smartphone picture in the middle of a busy street, it’s worth switching to a telephoto zoom lens regularly. Below you can see how much better some scenes look if you just zoom in on them.
Wide Angle Lens
If you want to cover an entire landscape or a beautiful street in its entirety, you will need a separate ultra-wide-angle camera. The wider the angle of view, the more spectacular the shots will be. But there is a nuance: distortions become more intense, straight lines in the picture become curved.
Also, a wide-angle camera has an unpleasant feature – there is usually a noticeable decrease in sharpness around the edges. Use it for expressive photos, but use it with caution.
The angle of view and zoom
Among smartphones, there are models with cameras capable of providing a wide angle. Usually, it is an additional camera in addition to the main one (more about this below).
As for the zoom – in most smartphones it is implemented in digital form, that is, the picture is simply cropped and scaled. This method will only work well on a cool matrix. A full-fledged zoom that allows you to shoot a larger object without loss of quality is rare and does not give more than two or three times the magnification. But there are also external lenses.
For motion shots to be sharp and beautiful scenery to not become muddy, you need quality autofocus. Manufacturers often use laser, phase, and contrast autofocus methods in smartphones – all have their advantages and disadvantages. I will not dwell on the subtleties of these technologies, the main thing is a high-quality implementation, which can be checked only in camera tests.
In different smartphones there may be different technologies for automatic focusing:
- The most common option – is contrast autofocus, it is in most smartphones. Its working principle is the following: the camera searches for contrast zones, then moves the lenses, comparing the contrast at their different positions. Such focusing is slow, works better when shooting static objects, and may not work at all in low light, which means poor contrast.
- Laser autofocus works by emitting a beam next to the camera. The emitter emits a beam, it is reflected from the objects in the frame, and the smartphone calculates the distance to them. This type of focusing only works if you are shooting something close up. When focusing on distant objects, the camera will switch to contrast or phase focusing.
- Phase AF works based on sensors that analyze a bifurcated image of the subject, adjusting the focus so that they match. This focus is faster than the contrast focus and will be able to focus on fast-moving objects in daylight. But it doesn’t work well in nightlight.
Different manufacturers may have their own implementation of phase AF. For example, Apple has one called Focus Pixels, and Samsung has one called Dual Pixel. These implementations differ in that special sensors are built right into the pixels on the sensor. The Dual Pixel has them built into literally all of the pixels.
Dual Pixel provides much faster focusing and the ability to hold focus more accurately on fast-moving subjects. This is especially true when you need to quickly take your smartphone out of your pocket and shoot something.
It’s what allows you to take sharp pictures even on the move and record video without shaking. Most smartphones use digital stabilization – EIS. It’s a simple way to even out the picture thanks to algorithms. A more expensive option is optical stabilization, OIS, with a gyroscope. The best solution is when the smartphone combines both types of stabilization. It is easier to get quality results in all conditions.
Smartphones have three main types of stabilization:
- Digital stabilization in most smartphones is used when shooting video. Since video recording uses only the central part of the camera sensor, the rest of it is designed to compensate for shaking, shifting the image in one direction or another beyond its original limits.
- Optical stabilization works by a special mechanism that shifts the lenses in the opposite direction to the shake, allowing you to maintain sharpness.
- Hybrid stabilization is implemented, for example, in the Google Pixel 4 smartphone. It is a combination of optical and digital stabilization, controlled by special algorithms that analyze what is happening in the frame.
Useful shooting modes. Find out what features are in your smartphone’s camera app. The option “Night” or a set of effect filters will be useful if you like experiments with photography.
For example, Samsung has a function “Multicamera”, to choose the most successful from a variety of shots or create clips with effects. And smartphones Vivo got a set of unusual filters for night shooting: a picture in the dark can be stylized as a noir movie or a computer game. Many smartphones can shoot on the front and rear cameras at the same time – you can record an unusual still image or take a spectacular shot. Choose which features might be of interest to you.
For mobile shooters, manual mode is especially important. By independently setting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you can take incredible shots of the night sky, catch the falling drops of rain, or shoot the highway with the lights of passing cars. These are still images you see in photo shops, but you can get them even without professional equipment.
What else is important to consider when traveling?
Good battery life. Even if there is no outlet nearby, you will still be in touch with your family, hotel, or embassy of your country. Every smartphone uses a different amount of power, depending on the type of screen, the processor, and the power efficiency.
If you are looking for an Android smartphone, look for gadgets with a battery capacity of 4500 mAh or higher. You can also buy a “long-liver” with 10,000 mAh, but these are usually heavy gadgets with mediocre cameras. Apple’s Pro and Pro Max models have good battery life. Before you buy, check out the reviews for battery tests.
Support for fast charging. Comes in handy to significantly recharge your battery in 10-15 minutes somewhere in the local cafe. But one supports fast charging enough, you also need a power adapter.
Many Chinese brands come with it in the kit, but Apple and Samsung offer to buy it separately.
Support for a second SIM card or eSIM. You can use local communication services without giving up notifications and authorization in applications on your normal number. And the eSIM can even be arranged remotely, without buying a physical one.
When on vacation, there are situations when you need to stay in touch. I had the following situation: the booked hotel simply closed without notifying future guests. When I arrived in Athens in the evening, I found myself with my suitcase in front of a locked door. My smartphone and a local SIM card helped me out: I was able to talk to the technical support team at Bookings, get a refund, and get the address of another hotel.
A large selection of protective covers and glasses. It is difficult to find a good accessory for an unpopular model. And durable and high quality case is necessary, so as not to break or scratch your smartphone during vacations. Before you buy, it is worth looking at how many offers for the model can be found on Amazon, Walmart, or other marketplaces.
Water and Moisture Protection. IP68 certification will keep your smartphone from dying if you accidentally drop it in the pool. It will also protect your gadget from sea spray or raindrops.
Smartphone finder service. Being left without a means of communication away from home is a frightening prospect. If a gadget has been stolen or forgotten somewhere, the built-in search service will help solve the problem.
Before you go on vacation, I also recommend denying Internet access to applications that actively use the network. Leave only what you will be using on the trip. A good tip is to activate the limit on mobile traffic consumption in the settings. Almost all smartphones have this option. In travel sim phones, gigabytes of traffic are usually expensive.
Smartphones have a hard time at night. The optics and sensor are severely limited by the size of the phone. When I take pictures of a city at night with my Olympus, I’m sure I can get the shadows the way I want them in the graphic editor and the picture will be of high quality. But smartphones often leave a blurry or noisy picture in the dark.
In addition to the quality of the sensor and lens, the video on smartphones depends on the CPU. Video has three main parameters:
- frame rate (determines the smoothness);
- bitrate (determines the quality of the image).
In order to shoot a good video in which all these parameters will be high, you need a powerful processor. Also if the device is prone to overheating, it will shut down every 15 minutes of video recording – so much will not shoot.
This problem is solved, for example, OnePlus 9 Pro, as the smartphone is equipped with an additional cooling system.
Number of cameras
As we wrote above, different cameras can have different viewing angles, allowing you to shoot, for example, with zoom on one, and wide-angle on the other.
Also, having more cameras improves the quality of your photos. For example, a smartphone will take a series of pictures with different shutter speeds on them. Algorithms then stitch the photos together – the technology works identically to pixel binning.
The flashes in smartphones are only good at illuminating a small object at short distances. They also shine straight ahead. Therefore, strictly speaking, smartphone flashes are more suitable to be used as a flashlight.
Modern smartphones use LED flashes. Either with a single diode, or paired, where the diodes have different color temperatures to improve color rendering and reduce the chance of overshadowing.
Why physical performance isn’t always the most important thing
Most of the drawbacks in mobile photography that are purely physical in nature – small sensor size, for example – are solved by algorithms. The processing power of today’s smartphones allows neural networks to refine the photos.
Thanks to this, the smartphone is able to cope with night photography, in which professional cameras can fail. Neural network algorithms in smartphones are used for other tasks: zooming, detail enhancement, noise reduction.
The smartphone starts taking pictures when you first start the application. And in order, for example, to achieve bokeh when taking pictures of a person (and we wrote above that this requires a wide sensor and a fast lens), neural networks in the smartphone perform complex calculations.
First, they segment the image, that is, they determine what objects are in the picture. It does this to separate objects from the background. Then it builds a depth map, and only then blurs the background.
If you’re willing to spend time studying camera specifications, then look for phones with large photographic matrices and don’t forget the effect of the processor on photo and video processing. Finally, remember that a lot depends on the software, and it can vary not only from manufacturer to manufacturer but also from model to model within the same brand.
How to shoot with a smartphone Useful tips
Finally, some tips for those who like to actively take pictures on the phone.
Turn on the “grid”. Looking at a photo with a sunken horizon is usually unpleasant unless it’s a clever artistic idea. Activate the grid in your camera settings, and align the horizon or building lines with it.
Experiment with the zoom. The zoom will help to take the unnecessary out of the frame and stitch it together nicely. But do not get carried away: few smartphones are capable of high-quality zoom.
Watch the light. Try to take your pictures in a soft, diffused light. It will usually be soft in the morning or late afternoon.
Study your smartphone. Become familiar with all of its camera settings and actively apply them. For example, the Night mode is very helpful in the dark. And the storytelling option can help you create great-looking videos for your stories.
Edit your photos. Smartphones have a variety of photo editors for every taste – Snapseed, Lightroom, Meitu and others. You can either completely transform a photo or just correct minor defects.
Look for the story. Try to show a story, to convey the atmosphere in photos. Expressive pictures come out when they have a mood. It may be expressed in movement, an unusual angle, or appropriately chosen lighting.
Smartphones with a good camera
I have selected several smartphones that take good pictures and videos. Only the models that I have tested for reviews or used myself are listed. The list includes three flagship camera phones.
iPhone 14 Pro
You don’t have to take the top-of-the-line Pro Max to take good pictures. And the size, weight, and price won’t appeal to everyone. The universal choice is the iPhone 14 Pro. The set of cameras and their capabilities here are better than the basic 13th model.
The iPhone 14 Pro camera has quality optics, a large sensor, and well-designed software. This is especially revealed during video recording.
In terms of video recording, iPhones still hold the lead among smartphones. iPhone 13 Pro quite perfectly records video in 4K, effectively stabilizes shaking when walking, and neural networks analyze the picture right during the capture of the video. The camera can track your gaze, automatically change focus depending on the scene and more.
For the most experienced users, there is a professional mode of video recording: videos are recorded without compression, they can be later beautifully colored and edited on the computer. A real find for bloggers and those who monetize their content.
The iPhone takes great photos at dusk and focuses instantly. Portraits come out with a soft blur and careful beautification, people don’t turn into porcelain dolls. By default, the picture is obtained with warm and moderately saturated colors – a typical style for iPhones. In this case the smartphone supports shooting in raw RAW-format: you can then modify the frames as desired in a photo editor, while maintaining high quality. Wide-angle lens makes not only panoramas, but also spectacular macro shots: the focusing distance is only a few centimeters.
Vivo X70 Pro Plus
Chinese and international versions are available, which differ in characteristics and operating system firmware. But both are excellent cameras, one of the best on the market.
The Vivo X70 Pro+ cameras were created in partnership with Zeiss, a famous manufacturer of optics. Coatings on the lenses prevent glare, and there are special filters on the menu that simulate blur in the style of classic Zeiss Biotar lenses. It was on the Vivo X70 Pro+ that I got the best mobile portraits. The frames look like they were taken on a camera with a 50mm prime lens – amateur photographers will understand me.
The Vivo X70 Pro+ is great for experimenting with mobile photography. All lenses of the smartphone got stabilization, and two cameras are used at once for zoom. Also here is an interesting night mode: algorithms recognize the moon in the sky and finish the picture, substituting a high-quality image instead of a white and cloudy spot. And unusual filters like “Cyberpunk” or “Black and Gold” will make even a banal scene in the dark interesting.
In terms of video recording quality, the Vivo X70 Pro+ is inferior to competitors from Apple or Samsung. Stabilization is good, but the manufacturer seems to have limited some features. For example, you can not switch during recording in 4K between multiple lenses – you will have to stop shooting. And there are enough such nuances. It’s hard to criticize the Vivo X70 Pro+ cameras when it comes to photos, but there are better solutions for video.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra
Samsung’s flagship model has an impressive zoom and is great for taking pictures of distant objects – it will come in handy on vacation and in domestic situations. Compared to the last generation, the cameras have changed little, but the company has worked on the software and shooting capabilities.
The zoom capability is one of the main trump cards of the model. The 3x zoom is almost as good as the main camera, and even the 10x zoom is a joy in terms of detail. Not so long ago, at this zoom you could see only a handful of pixels on the smartphone screen, but now it’s easy to get a good picture for social networks.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra’s maximum zoom is a hundredfold. It won’t be good for taking pictures, but it will help as binoculars. You can see the menu of a coffee shop standing at the end of the line. Or catch a glimpse of what’s going on across the river.
The model also perfectly copes with mobile video recording. The optimal resolution for creating high-quality video is 4K at 30 or 60 frames per second, but there is shooting in 8K. Movies on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra delight you with excellent stabilization, fast focusing, and quality pictures. Even in the dark, you can record a successful video, especially if you use the professional mode with an abundance of manual settings.
The smartphone is equipped with a stylus S-Pen, which will be useful for those who like to create creative photos and videos. To take selfies in a large company, take a picture of yourself against a tourist attraction or remotely start recording video on your smartphone, you will not have to mess with the timer or ask for help from strangers. All you have to do is press the stylus button, like on the remote.
It’s also much easier to edit videos on the phone using the S-Pen: applying effects, cropping tracks, and selecting objects is much easier with the stylus than with a finger.
Phones are a full-fledged fighting unit of a professional photographer. The duo of cool hardware and algorithms allows taking great pictures. You just have to keep in mind their limitations and make an informed choice.