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What makes the difference when it comes to smartphone cameras?


The first smartphone camera I ever used was awful. Murky images, terrible colour, absolutely rubbish in low light. While it was exciting to see the technology, it was hard to imagine a point where smartphones would replace the average camera when it came to everyday photographs.

And yet, here we are in 2021, where it’s more unusual to see someone using an actual camera in public and family occasions are full of people jostling to get a better angle with their smartphone.

Platforms like Instagram, which were built for photosharing, have thrived, and the humble selfie has evolved to an art form. And we are all becoming experts in angles and filters, plus minor retouching to make our photos really shine.

When it comes to power and image quality, expensive digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras have traditionally had the edge over smartphones. And in many cases, they will continue to do so. But the best camera is the one you have on you, and for most people, that is going to be a smartphone. Today’s smartphones have increasingly powerful cameras, with zoom lenses, portrait modes and ultra wide angle lenses that can capture more than ever before, and in exceptionally high quality.

If you are in the market for a new smartphone and want to get the best photography possible out of it, here are the factors you should consider.

Lenses

Gone are the days when smartphones had one lens and that was it. High end smartphones come with triple and even quadruple lenses, offering users wide angle, ultra wide angle, telephoto and time-of-flight lenses that give you choices when it comes to taking photos.

Choose a phone that comes with at least two lenses, and the wider the aperture the better. That will allow your camera to capture more light, giving you better images in poor lighting or even at night.

Some phone makers have struck deals to make sure their lenses offer great quality; Huawei for example has a number of phones with Leica lenses, while Sony’s smartphone benefit from the company’s camera expertise.

If you aren’t ready to swap your phone and are finding your smartphone is falling down a little in some areas, there is a relatively inexpensive fix for it: clip on lenses.

Not only can you turn your phone camera into a powerful macrolens, but you can also add fish eye effects, or turn your phone into a super macro lens, depending on what you add to it. they are small enough to throw into your pocket, and can be swapped out in seconds when you need them.

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Olloclip is usually one of the go-to brands for extra lenses, but the company is on a Covid-induced hiatus. Still, a quick search reveals a number of other options on the market, including Moment’s series of anamorphic lenses that will give your photographs and videos a professional quality.

Zoom

One of the advantages of a point-and-shoot camera or digital SLR over most smartphones is the optical zoom. That will get you physically closer to your subject, giving you more detail in your subjects and more flexibility when it comes to editing and cropping your images.

Huawei and Samsung offer seriously powerful zoom options on their more high end phones, with the latter touting its “Space Zoom” which at one point offered up to 100x zoom.

But don’t be fooled by the most impressive numbers; take a closer look. They usually include digital zoom, and that’s not quite as good as it sounds. Digital zoom isn’t actually getting you closer to your subject, as optical zoom does; instead, it only enlarges the image that is already there. Samsung’s own marketing material warns that zooming in past 10x may cause degradation in the image, so bear that in mind when making your decision.

Resolution

The resolution of an image is usual measured in pixels, and influences what you can do with your images. The higher the megapixel count, the more flexibility you have with, say, cropping an image and still having enough left over for a decent sized print. But megapixel count alone isn’t an indicator of image quality. In fact, trying to pack too many pixels on a small sensor can actually make your images look worse.

The main argument against getting hung up on the megapixel count is that when the images are printed, it’s unlikely that we can tell the difference. For example, the new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 108 megapixel resolution on its wide-angle camera and the images are great. But the photographs delivered by the iPhone 12 Pro Max and its 12 megapixel lens are fairly flawless too. Does the iPhone lose out by not pushing the megapixel count higher? Our tests would say no.

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Image stabilisation

One of the biggest enemies of your smartphone photos is shake, especially when using a telephoto lens. Even a small shake can turn your perfect image into an out-of-focus mess. To combat this, some smartphone makers have built in optical image stabilisation to their cameras, improving both your still images and video by reducing shake.

If your pick doesn’t have this capability, a tripod will solve the problem, although it isn’t always practical.

Flash

Smartphone flashes have improved considerably in recent years. Instead of overly bright white flashes, you now have two tone LED flashes that can cast an altogether more flattering light on your subject. If it’s available, a two-tone LED flash is preferable.

Battery life

Most smartphones need to be charged once a day, with a few that will get you more than a day and even up to two if you are lucky. But that depends on how often you are using it and what you are using it for. If you are using your smartphone as a camera , you’ll notice the impact it has on battery life.

With batteries, the general rule is the bigger the better. When buying a phone, check out the battery rating, which is in milliamp hours. The higher the mAh rating, the bigger the battery inside, and in theory, the longer it should last between charges.

A caveat: what seems like a great battery life on paper may not translate as well in real world use. For example, if you have what seems like a large battery inside a phone with an equally large screen, you might not see too much of a benefit. And as time goes on, batteries degrade, and don’t perform as well, losing some of their charge as they age. Your day-long battery gradually becomes three quarters of a day, requiring a power boost and putting a limit on your activities.

Storage

Taking photos and videos can quickly eat up the storage space available on your phone. If you are using a device that has expandable storage – one that you can add a memory card into, for example – you can easily give your phone extra space for all your artistic endeavours. But some of the major flagship phones, such as Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, don’t give you that option. So you are stuck with what you get on the phone and must use it wisely.

Where else can you turn? Cloud storage.If you sign up for a cloud service, you can automatically back up your photos regularly to the cloud, making sure that you don’t lose a single photograph.

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There is a catch, however. Not all cloud services automatically store your photographs at the highest resolution, offering lower resolution in favour of squeezing in more files. Unless you are willing to pay a bit more, you could find your photos are downgraded in quality, which may not suit your needs.

For iPhone users, Apple’s iCloud offers a small amount of storage space free of charge before you get into paying for it, with up to 5GB on offer. The reality is though that most people will quickly outgrow that free plan, and likely the 50GB plan, which costs €1 a month. The top two options with Apple are 200GB for €3, and a 2TB storage plan that costs €10 a month.

If you choose to optimise phone storage, your iPhone will keep the high resolution images in the cloud, ready to be downloaded at any time. Your phone will keep smaller versions of your photos to make the most of space when you are running low.

Android users can take advantage of the 15GB of space that Google offers free to users, shared among all your Google services including photo back ups, Google Drive and Gmail, if you have it.

Google currently allows you to store an unlimited amount of high quality photos to your cloud storage account, dialing it down from the high resolution shot on your camera. You don’t lose too much, and if it is worth the trade off to get your free storage, then it is worth considering.

That is about to change, though. From June 2021, all photos will count towards your storage limit so you won’t get the same advantage. But it doesn’t cost a lot to bump up your storage. The company is charging €2 a month for its 100GB Google One plan, with prices going up to €50 a month for the 10TB plan.

If you don’t want to stick with either of those options, check out Dropbox or Box. The latter offers 10GB of free space for personal users, while Dropbox provides 2GB free of charge.


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