What should I look for in a Phone Camera? A Complete Buyers Guide
Welcome to the jungle of digital devices! It might be daunting to choose a new camera phone nowadays. But we are here to help. First of all, we have put together a list of the 16 most important features to look for in a new camera phone.
We have asked several smartphone photographers around the world what they consider to be important. Thereby added information from numerous digital research hours (more than 30 hours ) and personal experiences and preferences as a smartphone photographer.
The result is this complete buyer’s guide that is suitable for professional smartphone photographers as well as beginners. You can use this overview to buy yourself a good quality smartphone with an excellent camera system.
Smartphones are becoming increasingly important for professional photographers. That was already apparent from a poll among our followers on Instagram and LinkedIn in 2020. More than 86% of the respondents (54) use a smartphone at any time to take professional photos. I redid this poll last week and it came to a whopping 94% this time (even 100% of Instagram followers).
So now you know what to look for in a smartphone camera. You can find a clear explanation of every feature in the paragraphs below. Use the links in the list to navigate through the article quickly. You can find a ‘buying tip’ in every section, so you will know what to look for in a new cell phone.
I have compiled a unique and free checklist with smartphone cameras’ most essential features.
You can use it to quickly and easily pick your new favorite camera phone in an (online) store.
Download the checklist for free!
Of course, I have put the buyer’s guide to the test and filled out the form for more than thirty smartphones available in store now or announced by their manufacturers. You can find the top camera phones of my analysis in a free downloadable PDF file.
1. RAW image format
RAW images contain a lot more information than JPEG files, making them ain easier and better to adjust in post-processing in editing apps like Lightroom, VSCO, and Snapseed. Photos shot in RAW are uncompressed and contain loads of information about the scene with no quality loss. The result is an unprocessed, undeveloped, and uncompressed data file, significantly bigger than JPEG files. Although both formats are useful, we recommend using RAW formats for high-quality image files, better brightness levels, more color options, and unlimited processing options.
Buying tip: your smartphone must be Camera2 API ready to take and process RAW images. It is pretty standard in smartphones nowadays, but you might want to check it nonetheless.
Not every smartphone lets you take RAW photographs even though the camera is Camera2 API ready. Do not worry about that; several useful third-party apps on the market allow you to take RAW shots anyway. We recommend Open Camera or Camera FV-5 Lite for Android users and Camera+ 2 for iOS smartphones.
You can find more on how you can shoot RAW images with your phone in this article.
Aperture controls the light that enters the camera and can reach the sensor. The bigger the opening, the more light will come in. More light means better images, especially in low-light situations. Almost all smartphones have a fixed aperture size; you cannot adjust it in smartphones as you can with a DSLR camera. If smartphones do allow aperture control, it is usually achieved with software manipulation.
Smartphone cameras typically have an aperture between f/2.0 and f/2.4, which are considered pretty wide in the world of photography. Although the difference does not sound significant, it is quite a big gap. There is a half stop difference between f/2.4 and f/2.0, which means an f/2.4 lens transmits 50% less light to the sensor.
That’s not the only difference between these two f-numbers. A lens with a higher f-number typically has a wider depth of filed, sharper images, and less chromatic aberration.
Buying tip: So what kind of aperture should you choose for your new camera phone? It all depends on what kind of images you prefer to take. Do you spend most of your time taking pictures at night or in other low-light conditions? Go for a lower f-number. And vice versa.
3. Megapixel quality
How many megapixels does your smartphone camera need? Are more pixels better in this case? Or should you pay attention to other variables? In this case, more is not better.
The megapixels’ quality combined with sensor size says more about the images’ possible outcome than a high amount of megapixels.
Data collected in a pixel contains good and bad information (noise). To make a high amount of pixels work, you need a large and good quality sensor. When manufacturers use the same size sensor for higher megapixels, the pixels need to be smaller to fit. They will be affected by noise, and the quality of the image won’t be better.
Buying tip: When you are looking for a new smartphone, you don’t have to go for the highest amount of pixels. Around 12MP is good enough with a high-quality sensor (a small number like 1/1.7″ or lower) and large pixel size (above 2 µm). Although the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 1.7µm pixel size, it still creates incredible images, including low-light situations.
A larger image sensor provides a sharper photo with many small details. The lower the number after 1, the larger the image sensor is. For example, pictures taken with a 1/4″ image sensor are a lot less sharp than photos taken with a 1/1.7″ image sensor.
Larger pixel sizes contribute to better quality images. For example, a mobile camera sensor with a pixel size of 2.5µm is far superior to a small pixel size of just 0.7µm
Huawei P40 Pro+ has a 1/1.28″ sensor with 2.44µm pixel size and a 50-megapixel camera.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 1/1.33″ sensor with a 2.4µm pixel size (after pixel binning*) and a 108-megapixel camera.
iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 1/2.55″ sensor with a 1.7µm pixel size and a 12-megapixel camera.
*Pixel binning is the process that combines multiple pixels (next to each other) to one superpixel. Manufacturers use it to increase the signal-to-noise ratio.
Question: What kind of work do photographers use a smartphone camera?
For my own business = 62%
Behind the scenes = 25%
Professional photography = 16%
Another interesting question is what kind of device photographers prefer. You can find the answer here.
4. Camera lenses
More and more smartphone manufacturers create cameras with more than one lens. But do you need more than one lens on your smartphone to create stunning images?
Most new smartphones come with more than one camera lens on the back of the device. It helps to create the best quality images. Each lens has a different focal length, which can be used as a single output or combined with software to produce specific effects.
Here is an overview of the most common lenses in smartphones:
- time of flight sensor
What are these individual lenses responsible for?
One of the most useful lenses on a smartphone camera is a wide-angle lens. This lens has a wider field of view than our vision and fits more into one shot.
Ultra-wide angle lens
What is the difference between a wide-angle and an ultra-wide-angle lens in smartphone photography? An ultra-wide variation of this lens offers an angle of view greater than 90 degrees. Simply put, you can capture more of your surroundings. A smartphone lens with a focal length of less than 24 mm is considered to be ultra-wide. You can use it to exaggerate the perspective in your images.
You can use the telephoto lens to create different effects, like optical zoom and Bokeh.
A telephoto lens uses optical zoom to get closer to the subject of your choosing. It will not reduce the quality of the image, unlike digital zoom does.
These lens types are also used to create an aesthetically pleasing blurred background, also called Bokeh. By combining the data from multiple lenses, your smartphone can blur the background and bring the foreground into focus.
Of course, you can take black and white photographs, but it is not its most important function. A monochrome lens or sensor contributes to the sharpness and contrast of images as well. The monochrome sensor is not widely accepted by all manufacturers yet, but it probably will be in the coming years.
There are more lenses and sensors on the market, like the macro lens, but nothing will unforgettably enhance your smartphone images.
Buying tip: Smartphones with an (ultra) wide-angle, telephoto, and ToF sensor can improve your images. But a single-camera phone, like the Google Pixel 4a or iPhone SE, takes good quality images as well.
5. Depth sensor
A depth sensor or Time of Flight (ToF) sensor uses infrared light to determine depth information. It uses lasers, invisible to the human eye, to measure depth, and create a depth map. It can measure distance and volume and is commonly used for 3D photography, augmented reality, and, first and foremost, portrait mode with a shallow depth-of-field.
This sensor usually has a lower resolution than the other cameras and lenses on a smartphone. It does not need a high resolution to suit its purpose of creating depth maps.
Buying tip: If you are into portraits and shallow depth of field images, we recommend at least a ToF sensor combined with a primary lens.
6. Optical Zoom
You might think: “Inge, your smartphone photography mantra has always been zoom with your feet.” So why is optical zoom still an important factor while searching for a new camera phone?”
First of all, it is essential to know the difference between optical zoom and digital zoom. Digital zoom uses software to let the subject appear closer. It does not get physically closer; it just uses a crop to recreate the effect. The result is a loss of image quality.
Simply put, optical zoom lenses do get physically closer to the subject. It uses actual lens adjustments to zoom in and does not require software manipulations like cropping to create the zooming effect.
Sometimes it is not possible to get closer to your subject (zoom with your feet). Think about a bird in the sky, a mountain goat, or your favorite baseball player on the field. Optical zoom will allow you to zoom in and preserve the quality of the image.
Manufacturers are unfortunately not yet able to create optical zoom with different focal lengths. If you buy a smartphone with 5x optical zoom, it is just a 5x optical zoom. Lower or higher magnifications like 4x or 6x are not possible.
And then there is something called hybrid zoom. It might be our hope for the future in smartphone photography. Manufacturers try to combine optical, digital zoom, and software to create the best zooming experience and results.
Buying tip: If you need to zoom with your smartphone camera, try looking for a cellphone with optical or (and) hybrid zoom capabilities.
Here are a few camera phones with optical zoom options:
- Samsung Galaxy S20 series
- Samsung Galaxy S21 series
- Apple iPhone 12 series
- Apple iPhone 13 series
- Huawei P50 Pro
- Huawei P40 Pro
- Huawei P30 Pro
- Google Pixel 6 series
- Google Pixel 5 series
- Google Pixel 4 series
- OnePlus 9 Pro
- OnePlus 8 Pro
- Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro
- Xiaomi Mi 11 Pro
7. Image stabilization
There are three forms of image stabilization in smartphone cameras; optical, electronic, and hybrid. Optical Image Stabilization or OIS is a hardware solution that uses a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) gyroscope to detect movement and adjust the outcome of your photographs accordingly. Because it is a hardware solution, it doesn’t require any cropping or altering the image with software.
The other form of image stabilization is an electronic variation (EIS). It uses the accelerometer to detect small movements. The software will interpret those movements and align image frames together. A significant drawback of this method is the crop that needs to be made to process stabilization.
As the name suggests, Hybrid Image Stabilization, or HIS, combines OIS and EIS to create stable video and images. It is useful while shooting photos with HDR or night mode selected, but not necessary if your smartphone features Optical Image Stabilization.
Buying tip: If you have a choice, pick a smartphone with optical image stabilization (IOS). The overall image quality is better than EIS or HIS because there is no loss due to cropping.
8. Manual focus
Although autofocus on your smartphone works excellent most of the time, you might want to use manual focus occasionally. It is beneficial in low contrast scenes, more than one subject, fast-moving objects, or low contrast subjects. For example, while taking images of:
There are three standard manual focus modes in the manual mode on your smartphone camera; AF-S, AF-C, and MF.
- AF-S = autofocus single for non-moving objects
- AF-C = auto focus continuous for moving objects
- MF = manual focus
Most native camera apps come with a manual mode, pro mode, or professional mode, s which allows manually focussing your camera. If not, you can download a third-party app like Open Camera or Camera FV-5 Lite for Android users and Camera+ 2 for iOS smartphones.
Buying tip: your smartphone must be Camera2 API ready to use manual focus from a third-party app.
9. Manual Mode
As a smartphone photographer, you will want to use manual mode to create the best possible images. Your smartphone camera app can have a manual mode (or professional mode) in which you can change ISO, shutter speed, or choose night mode, portrait mode, or HDR. If not, make sure the phone is Camera2Api ready, as we explained in the above paragraph about manual focus.
A smartphone’s processor is probably one of a mobile device’s most essential features, also known as SoC (system-on-chip). The processor’s performance directly impacts the smartphone’s speed, camera performance, user experience, and battery efficiency. If the processor works lighting fast, it will open multiple apps in a blink of an eye, and you can take and edit images with heavy apps like lightroom without latency.
There are countless smartphone processors on the market. Even for me, it is quite a challenge to read and learn about all of them. But I managed to put together a list of the top 10 processors of this moment.
Which processor is best for smartphone photographers?
Here is the top 3 according to Tech Centurion*:
1. Apple A14 Bionic Processor
Currently, the Apple A14 Bionic six-core processor with a next-generation neural engine is considered the best mobile processor. Apple’s first chip is based on 5-nanometer technology, which means that the chip’s critical parts (such as the transistors) are very compact and take up less space. More pieces fit in an equally large space.
You can find the A14 Bionic processor in the Apple iPhone 12 lineup.
- iPhone 12 Mini
- iPhone 12
- iPhone 12 Pro
- iPhone 12 Pro Max
2. Snapdragon 888
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 is said to power this year’s new Android flagship devices. This Snapdragon processor is manufactured using Samsung’s 5-nanometer technology. It comes with advanced 5G connectivity, a wholly re-designed 6th generation AI engine, and a new Qualcomm Spectra 580 ISP.
The Snapdragon 888 will turn mobile devices more and more into professional-quality cameras. The triple image signal processor will capture from three camera lenses simultaneously at a lightning-fast speed.
We will have to wait and see which 2021 Android flagships will use the new Snapdragon 888 in the upcoming months.
3. A13 Bionic
Although there is a new Apple processor on the market, the A13 Bionic chip is still an excellent choice. It was the fastest processor on the market before Apple launched it’s A14 Bionic and Qualcomm its Snapdragon 888 chips.
You can find the A13 Bionic processor in the iPhone 11 lineup.
- iPhone 11
- iPhone 11 Pro
- iPhone 11 Pro Max
Does this mean that other processors won’t make for an excellent camera phone? No! But the better the processor, the smoother and lag-free the experience with all tasks.
4. Kirin 9000
5. Exynos 1080
6. Kirin 9000E
7. Snapdragon 865+
8. Snapdragon 865
9. Dimensity 1000+
10. Apple A12 Bionic
You can find a complete overview here.
*The data we used for this overview is from Tech Centurion. They have developed Centurion Mark, which evaluates the performance of smartphone processors. Tech Centurion looks at benchmarks as well as real-life experience. In our opinion, this makes the results highly accurate and trustworthy. You can find the full report here.
11. Display quality
Another essential feature of a good camera phone is the quality and measurement of the screen. You will want to see what kind of image you are shooting while being outside or in the dark. And editing a photograph is much easier with excellent brightness and color rendering.
But what makes for a great phone display?
The resolution, pixel density, brightness, and contrast are a few of the important features to look at while choosing a new smartphone camera. There are quite a lot of display types used in mobile phones.
Pro: low production costs and increased contrast.
Con: poor viewing angles, higher energy demands, and speed.
TFT technology is not commonly used in smartphones anymore.
Pro: faster and wider viewing angles, sharper images, and better color reproduction than TFT LCD, more subdued and accurate colors, better viewing angle, and overall picture than (AM)OLED.
Con: thicker screen than AMOLED.
Pro: better contrast ratio, true blacks, higher response time, wider viewing angle, energy-efficient, slimmer screen, and flexible (usable in curvy displays).
Con: less visible in direct sunlight as backlit LCDs, pricey, less durable, and pixel can get ‘stuck’ showing a specific color (tip: move your icons around every once in a while).
Pro: does not require LED backlighting; it has positive OLED characteristics (minus the drawbacks) and is entirely synthetic, making the lifespan longer.
Con: production costs
We did not mention the Apple Retina displays because it is a brand name or marketing technology, not an actual display technology. Super Retina is comparable with AMOLED screens and Liquid Retina with IPS LCD technology.
12. Battery life
When it comes to battery life, you will have to make a smart choice. Do you have photoshoots that last hours on end? You will have to pick a very energy-efficient smartphone with a large battery. Or are you happy with a couple of hours and fast charging so you can fully charge your camera phone within the hour? Both options have their advantages. Of course, you can bring a battery pack, so you never go without power.
There are many variables affecting battery life:
- battery size
- display size and settings (brightness, resolution, refresh rate)
- processor (chipset)
- active apps
- passive apps running in the background
- operating system
It is safe to say; the battery life depends on hardware, software, and personal use and preferences. That’s why it is impossible to predict how long a particular battery will work in your situation. We can, however, give you some general recommendations.
There are two widely used battery types on the market:
- Lithium Polymer
They both have advantages and disadvantages; here is a short overview:
|Aging||Loses actual charging capacity over time||Retains charging capacity better|
|Safety||More volatile compared to lithium polymer||Safer. Lower chance of leaking|
|Cost||Cheaper||Slightly more expensive|
Motorola has a great battery, hardware, software combination that gives them an excellent battery life expectancy. Especially the Moto G generations perform well with 5000 mAh batteries.
Samsung made some significant improvements in battery life with the Galaxy S20 and its 5000 mAh battery. With a refresh rate of 60 fps, it will last for almost 12 hours. That’s a better result than Apple’s iPhones. With the refresh rate turned to 120 fps, the time dropped by merely 3 hours. The Galaxy S20 charges from zero to around 65% in 30 minutes. Pretty good results!
Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max has the best battery life of the iPhone lineup. It performs better than the newer iPhone 12 Pro range. You will benefit from a larger battery as well as a more efficient A13 Bionic processor. With the 18-watt charger, you can get around 50% battery life after charging for 30 minutes.
Buying tip: look at the battery’s size, but consider charging time (fast charge) as well. We recommend looking for camera phones with at least 4000 mAh battery and fast charging capabilities.
13. Water and dust resistance
Depending on what kind of smartphone photographer you are, or want to become, consider buying a waterproof and dustproof smartphone with an IP rating of 68. These camera phones are fully waterproof and tested in a maximum of 3 meters of fresh water. IP67 means a smartphone is waterproof up to 1 meter in depth for 30 minutes. You can read all about it in this article.
When you use your smartphone as a camera, you would want it to be durable. An IP rating of 67 and 68 can help with the life expectancy of your device. It won’t break while using in the rain or falling in a puddle of water. You can even take underwater images while canoeing on a freshwater lake. The IP67 and IP68 ratings are not tested in saltwater! There are other options to use your phone underwater in the ocean.
Buying tip: look for smartphones with an IP67 or IP68 rating.
Images, especially RAW files, take up a lot of space in the cell phone’s memory. It can take up to three times the JPEF file size, between 10 to 20 MB per image. It means you will need more space on the phone’s memory card.
Some smartphones can increase the amount of storage by adding a micro SD memory card. iPhones do not come with that option, so check the built-in memory space before purchasing a new Apple smartphone.
Buying tip: We recommend having at least 256 GB memory capacity (built-in or with a memory card). And use a cloud service so you can easily save your images and delete them from your phone.
15. Video quality
You might want to check the video quality of the new camera phone as well. Even though you wish not to use it for videography, you can still use it with some operating systems to take bulb images.
Buying tip: Choose full HD (1080 pixels), ultra HD, or even 4K for the best quality video files.
Question: What kind of smartphone do photographers prefer?
Apple iPhone = 84%
Samsung Galaxy = 11%
Other = 5%
Despite the amazing progress Samsung has made with their camera lenses, professional photographers still prefer an iPhone (84%) over a Samsung (11%) device. Only 5% of photographers use another make and model. I personally use Android devices for my smartphone photography.
16. Mobile Operating System
Choosing a mobile operating system is something very personal. Andoird and iOS are the most commonly used smartphones nowadays. But you can also pick a Windows phone.
Google owns Android, but Linux powers it. It is an open-source operating system that allows developers to unlock the hardware to develop their programs. Motorola uses the Android system as is. It is the cleanest and fast variation on the market. With millions of applications in the Google Play Store, there is something for everybody. Including these top photography apps:
Apple developed its operating system for mobile devices like iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watch. Third parties are not allowed to use the system, so it only works on products made by Apple. You can download millions of applications in the iOS store, including outstanding photography apps like:
Buying tip: It is complicated to say which smartphone operating system is better. Android and iOS are both very mature platforms with over a decade of experience. Apple devices tend to get more frequent updates but are generally more expensive than their Android equivalents. Android is more customizable than iOS, like home screen launchers and dynamic widgets, and you can find smartphones with expandable storage and universal USB-C charging ports.
Which smartphone is best for photographers?
I used my Smartphone Camera Buying Guide Checklist to go through many smartphones and came up with these top camera phones divided into top range and mid-range cell phones.
You can download the PDF file for free. Or check the list below.
Recommended smartphones for beginner and professional photographers
- Apple iPhone 13 series
- Apple iPhone 12 series
- Apple iPhone 11 series
- Samsung Galaxy S21 series
- Samsung Galaxy S20 series
- Google Pixel 6 series
Mid-range camera phones
- Apple iPhone SE 2020
- Google Pixel 5
- Google Pixel 4a
- OnePlus 9 Pro
- OnePlus 8 Pro
- Huawei P50 Pro
- Huawei P40 Pro
I hope your search for a new camera phone has become easier with this blog post.
Download this Free and Unique Smartphone Photography Buyers Guide (List of Camera Phones) made from dozens of completed checklists.