smartphones

Smartphone camera battle: The iPhone 5S faces stiff competition

Sep. 21, 2013 at 1:33 PM ET

all phones
Devin Coldewey / NBC News

When you buy a smartphone these days, part of the deal is that it's supposed to fill in for a point-and-shoot camera. But not all phone cameras are created equal — we did some real-world photo shooting with the latest high-end phones, all of which tout their cameras as a big feature. The results may surprise you.

Our test phones included the HTC One, Nokia Lumia 1020, LG G2, Google's Moto X, Samsung's Galaxy S 4, and Apple's iPhone 5S and iPhone 5. (We included both iPhones to see whether Apple's claims of improvements held up.)

Note that this is an informal, unscientific test, but it's nevertheless designed to replicate the situations that you'd actually find yourself in. The basic shooting conditions included:

  • Outdoors in good light
  • Indoors in dim light
  • Indoors with a flash
  • A macro-style close-up shot

In the pictures below, you'll see the images compared to one another, with the "winners" of the category up top and the "losers" below. If you don't see a phone's shot, it's because it fell somewhere in the middle.

Needless to say, no filters or Photoshop trickery was applied to these images, nor were any third-party camera apps used, just the default camera app from the manufacturer. That said, resizing and compressing the pictures for publication does mean we lose some fidelity from the originals, so don't take these cropped shots as absolute indicators of image quality — they represent comparable quality. 

(Tip: To see the images as large as we can show them, widen your browser window until you see the largest picture width.)

Outdoors

outdoors
Devin Coldewey / NBC News

The Nokia won the outdoor test by so much that it seemed unfair. Beyond producing superior color reproduction, detail and background blur, Nokia's Pro Camera app also saves a high-resolution file that could compete with a shot from my DSLR, quality-wise. The iPhone 5S didn't come close to the Nokia in this situation, but it was definitely better than all the other competitors.

On the bottom end, the HTC One smeared the details too much, while the G2 made them too sharp.

Macro

macro
Devin Coldewey / NBC News

Focusing super-close is something some phones can do and others can't. The Nokia Lumia 1020 just can't — the image has great color, but we couldn't get the lens to focus any closer than what's shown at bottom right. The HTC One could get a bit closer, but it and the Moto X produced washed out, smeary images. Both iPhones did better, but were far from the best.

[UPDATE: We neglected to use the 1020's "lossless zoom," which samples a different portion of the camera's generous 41 megapixels to produce a differently cropped but equally high-quality image. By using manual focus (a somewhat fiddly option) and zooming in during shooting, we were able to create a much more "macro" feel. The end result was comparable to the G2 and Galaxy S 4.]

The winners of the macro battle was the LG's G2. It truly came out of nowhere with a gorgeous shot that I took from a fraction of an inch away. The Galaxy S 4 produced almost the same image, but I liked the color and contrast in the G2's shot better.

Indoors, dim light

lowlight
Devin Coldewey / NBC News

Low-light shooting with no flash is perhaps the most unforgiving test of a smartphone camera. Despite the marketing, the iPhone 5S did not perform better than its predecessor. At first, we thought it had done a better job reducing the spotty "noise" that you get when light is in short supply, but a closer look showed that the 5S had merely applied an intense anti-noise filter that demolished much of the detail. In color and contrast, its shot was nearly identical to that of the iPhone 5, but we preferred the look created by the older phone, noise and all. LG's G2 had a bit of a warm cast, but overall it was a nice-looking picture.

The Moto X and Galaxy S 4 performed very poorly, the former adding a nasty greenish cast and the latter a pink one, with neither capturing detail well. The HTC One, with its vaunted "ultrapixels," couldn't resolve enough detail for us to read the yellow text on WALL-E's chest. The Nokia fell somewhere in between the best and worst.

Indoors, flash

flash
Devin Coldewey / NBC News

The Nokia Lumia 1020 really nailed it here, reproducing both skin tone and fine details like the shirt pattern well — it's very clear even at 100 percent zoom. The iPhone 5S, despite overcorrecting for noise, produced a solid and color-accurate image. Here's one claim about Apple's new camera that is quite noticeably true. 

(A side note: Despite the color accuracy of the iPhone 5S's flash, the flash still causes that nagging "goldeneye" look when you take pictures of people. Perhaps that's next on Apple's list of problems to solve.)

Motorola (well, Google) should be ashamed of the Moto X's performance. Not only did the flash produce that ugly green tint, but close up the details were obscured by some of the most aggressive noise reduction we've ever seen, giving the whole picture a "watercolor" filter effect. And the Samsung flagship's camera just couldn't manage a worthwhile shot.

Final thoughts and observations

phones
Devin Coldewey / NBC News
  • Nokia's Lumia 1020, which runs on the Windows Phone platform, outdistances the other phones by miles, although in "dim" light where you wouldn't use a flash, it didn't seem to excel. You really must see the quality to believe it.
  • The iPhones seem to be the next in line, but we didn't see any indication that the camera in the 5S is significantly better than that in the 5, so upgraders, beware.
  • LG's G2 and the Samsung Galaxy S 4 had so-so performance, though I enjoyed shooting pictures on their enormous, vibrant screens.
  • I really like HTC's camera app — it's clean, responsive, and full of options, but the shots we took simply didn't look very good.
  • The Moto X was a pain from start to finish. The minimal camera interface was annoying and the shots were consistently sub-par. UPDATE: Motorola is reportedly rolling out a software patch that addresses several of the image quality issues that showed up in this article. Our unit hasn't received the update, but we will note the results here when it does.

This look at the leading phone cameras was definitely cursory, but the differences in operation and quality were apparent right away. As for other aspects of the phones, we'll get back to you with a quick "cheat sheet" on the devices shown here next week, so stay tuned.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.

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