If you’re serious about photography, you probably still own at least one standalone camera. But if you’re not working as a pro or really obsessive, you are probably also taking an increasing number of photos with your smartphone. It’s the one camera we always have with us. Conveniently, images come out geotagged and are also instantly shareable. This poses the question of which smartphone camera is the right one for you. We’ve been using a few of the top models, and they all have different strengths, weaknesses, and unique features. So here are some of our favorites and the reasons you might want to use one of them or another.
Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
The rear fingerprint sensor means you can unlock it faster than you can pick it up to compose your image. The 2 is also a bit smaller than some of the other flagship phones, which means it is easier to maneuver quickly. Of course, it also means a smaller display for reviewing or editing your images. If you want a larger screen, then the Pixel 2 XL might be a better alternative.
Since the Pixel 2 family only features a single camera, they struggle a bit compared with dual-camera phones when it comes to zooming in and portrait effects. Uniquely, they use their dual-pixel sensors to estimate depth (other brands only use them for autofocus), so they can provide depth effects, but with some limitations. Another thing that differentiates the Pixel 2 family from most other current flagship phones is that Google has so much faith in HDR+ that its default camera app doesn’t even allow you to capture RAW (.DNG) images. That’s a drawback for anyone who wants to do their own post-processing. Of course you can easily load one of a number of third party camera apps that have that capability
Huawei Mate 10 Pro
The monochrome sensor also means you get a true black and white shooting mode, which those used to black and white film photography will enjoy. The only unfortunate limitation is that for some reason you can’t capture RAW images in monochrome mode, which will limit your throwback darkroom options for post processing.
More importantly, for most of us who primarily shoot in color, is that Huawei uses the monochrome image to enhance the output of the primary color sensor in a couple interesting ways. First, the cameras work together to provide increased resolution for zoomed images. That means that even though the phone doesn’t include a dedicated telephoto lens, it has excellent zoom performance up to 2x, and reasonable performance up to 4x. Second, the dual cameras make for a very good Portrait capability at both 1x and 2x.
Finally, Huawei uses the two cameras to offer a unique Wide-Aperture mode. For those who remember the Lytro re-focusing cameras, this mode essentially puts a knock-off of that feature in a smartphone. I’m always really skeptical about trick features like that, as I was about the original Lytro camera, but I’ve been having a lot of fun using the wide-aperture mode on the Mate 10 Pro. It doesn’t record a true light field, the way Lytro’s cameras do. Instead it records the RGB image alongside a lower-resolution depth map that it generates using the dual cameras. Since it doesn’t require any additional captures, it doesn’t slow down the camera.
Huawei’s Gallery app then allows you to simulate varying depth of focus (DOF) by letting you pick a focus point and then simulating the optical blur of a synthetic lens aperture based on the depth map. The app allows you to specify apertures from .95 to 16, but in reality you are confined to the original image, so f/16 is actually the same as the camera’s native f/1.6. Similarly, while you can nominally refocus anywhere in the image simply by touching it, anything that wasn’t sharp in the initial capture isn’t going to spring into focus. Not surprisingly, the Wide-Aperture feature only works from 1x to 2x zoom, but that is enough for most situations. Like the other specialty modes, this one is limited to JPEGs. It’d be very cool if there was a way to shoot RAW plus a depth map and then edit it later on a computer.
If you’re not in a hurry, Huawei will be introducing a new flagship phone, apparently called the P20, fairly soon. According to leaks it will push its camera design even further, with a 3-camera rear camera system.
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus
Specialty Add-on Camera Options
Just because you’re shooting with a smartphone doesn’t mean you can’t beef it up with an auxiliary camera. We’ve looked at a few that provide unique capabilities.
The DxO ONE allows you to add a 1-inch format sensor camera to your smartphone. It’s been out for a couple years for iOS, but DxO has an Android version in the works through an early-access program. The larger sensor and a unique multi-frame RAW capture capability mean you get better image quality at the expense of carrying another device and working with a new UI. Hasselblad’s True Zoom Moto Mod brings a true 10x optical zoom capability to Motorola Z-family smartphones. It doesn’t get amazing reviews, as the sensor is small and the lens isn’t very fast, but if you really want extended zoom on a smartphone it is just about your only option.
Finally, one of my personal favorites is the FLIR ONE. It captures thermal infrared for an entirely different look at the world:
Which Phone Camera is Right For You
If you’re already carrying another camera, and simply need a smartphone for quick shots to show a scene to a client, share with family, or because it’s easy, then the Google Pixel 2 (or Pixel 2 XL) may be right for you. They provide the best “point-and-shoot” experience. But if you’re more serious about using your phone for shots where you’re going to take some type getting the settings right, or are willing to post-process a RAW image, you should definitely consider either the Mate 10 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus. The Mate 10 Pro gives you a little more artistic control, with its monochrome second camera and wide-aperture mode, while the S9 Plus provides a unique true multi-aperture lens, and more effective zooming thanks to its second, telephoto, lens.
Just as importantly, you’ll want to match the particular strengths of a smartphone’s camera to the type of photography you value most. For starters, you can look at the DxOMark photo category sub-scores we show alongside each phone in this article as a way to compare their specific performance in correct Exposure, Color, Autofocus, and more.
[Image credit: David Cardinal]
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