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Thread: Our Nexus 5/LG G2/iPhone 5s/Lumia 1020/HTC One/GS4/Sony Z1/BB Z30 camera shootout

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    Our Nexus 5/LG G2/iPhone 5s/Lumia 1020/HTC One/GS4/Sony Z1/BB Z30 camera shootout

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    The other day Steve Punter (site) and I decided to do a camera shoot out. Right now I have almost all the flagship devices sitting on my desk including the new Nexus 5 so we figured why not?

    I remember back in the day when most phones came with VGA or megapixel cameras. The megapixel phones were much better than the VGA ones but either way, they took pretty lousy pictures.

    Back then, a built-in camera was a nice thing to have but if you wanted to capture an important memory, you’d be wise to bring a proper camera along with you be it a point-and-shoot or even something with a large sensor and removable lens.

    In the past couple of years a funny thing has happened. While point-and-shoots have improved during that time, they passed this invisible line where they took pictures that were ‘good enough’ for most people.

    Yeah, a SLR with a fast lens will take better pictures in a variety of conditions but then again, there’s that saying that that the best camera is the one that’s with you. A SLR will run circles around a camera phone in terms of handling, performance, speed, and quality but then again, a camera phone fits in your pocket - It’s always with me. So which one really is best?

    I own a complete Canon SLR set with a body, a bunch of fancy lenses, a couple of flashes, tripods plus some other misc accessories. I also own a Panasonic mirror-less camera with a few compact lenses and a flash. I also have a bunch of camera phones with me most of which are able to take some pretty good pictures.

    I have no plans on getting rid of either my SLR or my mirror-less. There are times when a camera phone just won’t do. The thing is, as camera phones improve, I find myself using my real cameras less and less.

    The other day I went to a birthday party (a kid’s one). There was a time when I would never think of going without a real camera. This time I packed a couple of camera phones and was perfectly happy with the results.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that when I use my SLR, a much greater percentage of my shots are keepers whereas with a camera phone sometimes I have to take a much greater volume of shots.

    The tests:

    Let’s get this out of the way. We’re not a camera review website. We don’t have resolution or macbeth charts. I normally characterize camera performance in a few paragraphs (is the camera good or not?). Does this make us poor candidates to compare cameras? Not really, we both shoot a lot of photos and have tried many cameras and know a good camera when we use it.

    In the end we decided on 3 scenes. An indoor shot of my tools, a picture of clock at a mall and me sitting in a car.

    We actually shot more scenes but to be honest, it was too time consuming to go through all of them.

    In all cases we disabled the flash. I don’t normally like to use a flash unless I have to because no matter how good the flash is, it’s usually a few millimeters from the lens and just gives photos a ‘camera flash’ look. That includes the Nokia Lumia 1020 which has a ‘real’ bulb flash and the iPhone 5s’ variable colour temperature flash.

    If you’re looking for us to assign all the phones here a number and then crown an outright winner you’ll probably be disappointed, things are never that simple. Instead we’re going to list our observations on each camera.

    Before I continue I just want to give some thoughts on how we shot. We tried to leave the camera software as it would be if you just turned it on. We didn’t mess around with settings

    We compared the pictures on my PC with my calibrated monitor.

    Here are the contenders:

    Sony Xperia Z1:

    Sony’s flagship phone sports a 20 megapixel camera with a ½.33 sized sensor which is actually the same size you’ll find in many entry level point and shoots.

    With an aperture of f/2.0 it also sports the fastest lens here (tied with a few others).

    A good camera requires good software so Sony’s includes a Superior Auto mode which is able to choose the most appropriate shooting mode based on what’s happening in your scene/subject.

    HTC One:

    Bucking the industry trend of increasing the megapixel count, HTC put a 4 megapixel in their HTC One. Marketing a 4 megapixel camera isn’t an easy thing to do so HTC invented a new term. The HTC One has an ‘Ultrapixel’ sensor. Lowering the pixel count while maintaining (or possibly shrinking by a smaller percentage) the same sensor size allows for bigger pixels. A bigger pixel means it’s able to capture more light which should mean better low-light performance and possibly greater dynamic range.

    The story doesn’t end with the Ultrapixel sensor. The HTC One also has a stabilized lens which should help low light and video. At f/2.0 it’s also a fast lens with a fairly wide field of view.

    The HTC One has been sitting in my pocket for the better part of 6 months so I’m very familiar with it.

    Nokia Lumia 1020:

    Here’s what you need to know about the Lumia 1020. It has a 41 megapixel sensor. That’s more than most SLR’s and mirror-less cameras.

    I’m not sure what sized sensor every camera here has but I’m pretty sure the Lumia 1020 has the biggest one here aside from my mirror-less camera.

    It has a f/2.2 lens with a wide field of view.

    On the software side the 1020 is able to use Nokia’s Pro Camera app which allows to changes to ISO, aperture, shutter speed and even manual focus.

    Samsung Galaxy S4:

    The GS4 belongs to Steve. When you talk specs, the GS4’s camera can get lost in the discussion but Steve knows the GS4’s camera inside and out and there’s a lot to say about it. You might be surprised how it does here.

    LG G2:

    I like the G2’s camera a lot for 2 reasons: First off, it has a field of view of around 35mm which I much prefer over wider angles like on the HTC One/Nokia Lumia 1020. A wider angle gives you more versatility but I generally find it results in less interesting images.

    It also has a stabilized lens which is great if you shoot a lot of video.

    Nexus 5:

    The LG G2 and Nexus 5 are both from LG. The 5 is sort of a G2 lite or as I like to think of it, a LG G1.9. It has similar specs but LG has kept some things from the 5 like the G2’s camera sensor. The 5 only has a 8 megapixel sensor while the G2’s has 13 megapixels. Still, more is not necessarily better right?

    Apple iPhone 5s:

    A lot of people have been saying how great the iPhone 5s camera is. Indeed, I own one and am familiar with what it’s capable of. Let’s just leave it at that.

    Blackberry Z30:

    You’re probably wondering why I threw a Blackberry Z30 in this test. There are 2 reasons neither of which is very good. First off, I happen to have it around. Ray finished up his great video review and I’m playing around with it. Secondly, we already have an iOS device and a Windows Phone so we might as well throw in a BB10 device in to round things out.

    Anyways, the Z30’s camera specs are competitive with the other phones here. It has a 8 megapixel sensor (same as the iPhone 5s and Nexus 5) and a fast f/2.2 lens which is competitive with the other phones here.

    Panasonic DMC-G5:

    I thought I’d throw in a ‘real’ camera into the mix. After all, while camera phones can take pretty good picture it should be interesting to see the gap between them and the Panasonic.

    The Panasonic is a mid-range mirrorless camera which may or may not be discontinued now. I would have thrown a point and shoot in but I no longer own one.

    Compared to the camera phones here, it has a much larger sensor than any of them. I’m using it with the kit zoom lens which honestly, isn’t that great. At f/3.5 at wide angle it’s not very fast though it is stabilized. We left it at wide angle for all the tests.

    Low light:

    For the low light test we went to my basement where I have my tools. We used a Milwaukee miter saw and stand as a base. The Milwaukee red is difficult to capture correctly in this light and many cameras will try to over-saturate it. The saw blade has writing on it which can be difficult to capture in low-light. There’s a yellow organizer full of screws, marettes and other misc items. They provide some fine detail which can be lost if there is aggressive sharpening. The yellow Dewalt drill is another difficult colour to capture. Finally, the insulation in the background is actually more of a peach colour - it’s another colour which is difficult to capture properly.

    Since we shot the photo only a few feet from subject we used a tripod with a phone attachment. This helps take any camera shake out of the equation since most cameras will use a slower shutter speed to try to capture this image. It also allows us to be somewhat consistent with our framing. The original files are here.

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    The Z1 doesn’t do so well here. There isn’t much detail, noise levels are very high and the white balance is on the cool side. The picture looks very processed because the Z1 uses very aggressive noise reduction followed by strong sharpening so noise ends up looking splotchy. Not all is bad though, the Z1 seems to have good dynamic range here - if you stick the photo in an editor and raise the shadow levels it actually managed to capture the area below the tool box which is holding up the yellow organizer. Another nice thing is that it used a shutter speed of ⅛ of a second which should be hand-holdable if you try taking the shot a couple of times.

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    You’d expect the HTC One to do well here and it does. There’s a fair amount of detail. Colour accuracy is fair - it’s slightly warm. Noise levels aren’t too high though the noise itself doesn’t look that nice because it’s been processed away. Surprisingly, the dynamic range isn’t as good as I thought it would be - it’s not bad but you have to raise the shadow levels much more than the other photos in order to bring out the details under the box. The shutter speed is 1/7 which is very usable since the One has built-in image stabilization

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    I was pretty surprised at how well the Lumia 1020 did here. Detail is very high, and while there is some noise it just looks like film grain. White balance is slightly cool. It used a shutter speed of ¼ second which is a tad on the long side - even when you consider that the 1020 has a wide-angle lens and image stabilization. I wonder if the Lumia 1020 is able to use its sensors to tell when it’s on a tripod and use a longer shutters speed. Here the 1020 is the clear winner among the phones.

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    Here’s something funny, when you have a dark scene, the Samsung Galaxy S4 automatically switches to low light mode. That’s cool right? Sort of - the thing is, night mode appears to shoot multiple exposures and then flattens them into one photo with the light detail from multiple shots. I think it’s sort of cheating. If you disable the GS4’s night mode it takes a really dark photo which isn’t usable unless you turn the flash on. Interestly, Steve noticed that the GS4 actually takes better low light photos if you turn HDR mode on instead of using the night mode. We included the picture taken with low-light mode because the regular shot is basically all black.

    Anyways, as it turns out, even with the cheater mode, the GS4 captures very little detail in low-light mode. Colour accuracy is off - the drill is is orange instead of yellow. There is a lot of noise and the shutter speed is pointless since it shoots multiple exposures.

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    I can’t say conclusively but I think the LG G2 also has a low-light cheater mode. I say this because the G2 didn’t record the shutter speed in the JPEG EXIF information. The LG G2 captures an average amount of detail. White balance is quite good here. While there isn’t a ton of noise it’s due to the fact that there is a lot of noise reduction and then sharpening so a lot of the noise turns into splotches. The dynamic range isn’t bad. There is a decent amount of detail captured.

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    The Nexus 5 is too warm here. The insulation is pink (it’s more of a pale peach colour) and the piece of wood is reddish. Detail is not bad - you could say that the writing isn’t as sharp as some of the other phones here but that’s more of a function of sharpening than detail. Noise levels are bordering on obnoxious. It used a shutter speed of ⅙ which is a little on the slow side but probably acceptable since it has optical image stabilization

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    The iPhone 5s does a good job with detail here. There is a lot noise but when you zoom out it looks natural and not over-sharpened - just look at the Stanley logo on the toolbox. The noise reduction algorithm on most phones will reduce it to a blur. White balance is almost spot-on, it even beats the real camera in this regard. Dynamic range is good and the shutter speed is actually 1/15 which is very usable.

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    For some reason the Blackberry Z30 takes a really dark photo. It would benefit from some post-processing here. There’s a fair amount of detail and the noise is also fair. The Z30 doesn’t do a ton of post-processing so the noise looks nice. Dynamic range is actually pretty good if you raise the shadow levels. White balance is slightly cool. The shutter speed is ⅕ is a little on the slow side for a non-stabilized lens so you’d probably want the z30 to shoot multiple shots if there isn’t much light in case some of them have shake.

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    Finally we have the real camera, the Panasonic DMC-G5. No surprises here. It captures the most detail, and has the lowest noise levels. Dynamic range is really high. The shutter speed is ¼ second which is slow but acceptable since I was using a stabilized lens. White balance but compared to the iPhone 5s it’s slightly cool so that’s a bit of a shock.

    We shot the clock at the center of Oakville Place Mall. To be honest it’s not a very difficult scene to shoot. We expect all phones to do well here. You can download the original image files here.

    While the windows at the top may cause some issues with dynamic range, it wasn’t very sunny the day we shot this scene. Inside it’s well lit with limited shadows.

    The only difficult spots we could find are on the ground to the right of the escalator that goes up. That area is prone to noise so the noise reduction algorithms on some cameras may remove the grout lines. The other trouble area is the eatery sign to the left of the up escalator and the Timothy’s sign to the right of the down escalator. Many phones over-saturate the eatery sign to the point that it glows. Ditto for the writing in the Timothy’s logo - the writing on the lettering should be white but many phones turn it red.

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    The Sony does well here. There’s a lot of detail. Colour accuracy looks good and while there is some noise there isn’t that much though it does look processed. Dynamic range looks good and the shutter speed of 1/250 is excellent.

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    While the HTC One does well in low light situations I’ve noticed it’s terrible when there’s plenty of light. From shooting many frames with my HTC One I get the feeling that it’s tuned for low light ONLY. Once you have a lot of light anything bright tends to be blasted out. Since the Ultrapixel sensor only has 4 megapixels you can really see the difference between it and higher megapixel cameras here. There’s a low level of detail. The picture is too contrasty - it just looks weird. The Whites are too white and the blacks are too black. Noise levels aren’t that bad but the low resolution makes the noise more noticeable - it really struggles on the ground to the right of the up escalator. If you have a HTC One make sure you stay indoors.

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    You get a ton of detail with the Lumia 1020. The scene could be warmed up a tad. There’s very little noise. Oddly enough, the dynamic range could be a little greater here. Like the HTC One I suspect the Lumia 1020 is tuned for low light though it’s much less noticeable than the One. The 1020 does have a habit of sometimes over-saturating.

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    The GS4 captures a lot of detail here. Colour is very good. There is noise but it’s unprocessed so it looks more natural. Dynamic range is good and more importantly, the scene is lit properly. I noticed that the GS4 was able to handle the Bay logo in the back. Many of the phones here make the “B” in the logo look pixelated at 100%

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    The G2 picture looks almost exactly like the GS4’s. The G2 has slightly less noise but it managed to screw up the Bay logo at the back. It’s pixelated looking on the G2 but you have to view the file at 100% to notice it so it’s pretty minor.

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    The Nexus 5 has a tiny bit more noise than the G2 - especially to the right of the up escalator. Detail is high, as is dynamic range. It’s captured the scene slightly warmer though it’s still pretty close.

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    White balance is slightly warm on the 5s here. There’s a bit of loss of detail to the right of the up escalator.

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    I wasn’t impressed with the Blackberry Z30 here because the entire scene has a hazy look to it - and I assure you it’s not grease on the lens. If you can see past the haze, the rest of the colour looks pretty good.

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    No surprises here, the real camera does well. Noise is well controlled and colour and dynamic range look great. About the only surprise here is that the area to the right of the up escalator is screwed up pretty badly - I guess it might be an out of focus area issue. The Panasonic’s sensor is many times bigger than the other phones here so it has a shallower depth of field. Or maybe softness in the corners of the lens here. I also noticed that the RG logo has some aberrations - again it’s a function of the larger sensor which requires a larger lens.

    Howard in the car:
    The last scene is of me in a car. Inside the car it’s going to be much darker than it is outside so it’s a good test of the camera’s dynamic range - no camera phone will get both me and the outside properly. It’s also a test of meter, Steve tapped on my face (or dragged the focus box if applicable) so that the camera would light my face properly and not the outside. Otherwise, it’s a bright scene so noise shouldn’t be much of a problem. Outside it was overcast so while it was bright, it wasn’t as bright as it could be. Original files are locate here.

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    The Z1 did okay here. I'm slightly dark but outside it actually looks pretty good. The aggressive processing managed to pull the grain out from the door trim though it also managed to ruin the pattern on the headrest.

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    I hate to say this but I told Steve “I bet the HTC will totally screw this one up so you won’t be able to see anything outside”. So it kind of pains me to say that I was completely right. The picture looks like it was taken moments after an atomic bomb was dropped - even my right cheek and parts of the trim in Steve’s car are blasted out. The HTC’s 4 megapixel camera is at a huge disadvantage outdoors and again it’s true here. There isn’t that much detail compared with other phones. I already said it before but I’ll say it again, if you use a HTC One stay indoors. I actually do that myself, I use my HTC One indoors and my iPhone when I’m out of the house.

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    The Lumia 1020 captures a lot of detail. Colour on the other hand isn’t so great, it really over-saturated myself and outside. I should point out that even though Steve tapped on me to focus, it appears to have focused about 12” in front of me so my face is very soft. Sorry we didn’t catch that.

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    Unfortunately, we left the GS4 in HDR mode when we shot this so we don’t have anything to say. I did notice that the GS4 was able to pick up the leather grain pattern on the car door trim. A lot of phones didn’t pick this up. It could be a focusing issue.

    Since I mentioned HDR’s, Steve has noticed that the GS4 does a really good job with HDR’s and you know what? He’s absolutely right. I might be a tiny bit too red but otherwise colour is excellent. I didn’t include the pictures here but the GS4 beat the iPhone 5s handily here as well as a few other HDR’s we shot that aren’t included here. Of course the GS4’s picture also illustrates why HDR isn’t always appropriate- I’m slightly blurry looking because I moved a tiny amount between each HDR shot - so it’s less useful for close ups or shots where your subject is moving.

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    I could have been a tad darker and I’m slightly over-saturated but overall, the G2 does a decent job here. There isn’t much noise and there are lots of detail. Like the GS4, the G2 was able to pick up the graining on the door trim.

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    I’m a little less saturated with the Nexus 5 but I’m also a little darker. It screwed up the white balancing on my jacket - it’s purple on my right shoulder. I also noticed that all the fine detail from the door trim is gone. It’s supposed to have a leather grained pattern on it but you can’t make it out at all on the Nexus. Initially I thought it was a focusing issue but if you look at my face both the G2 and Nexus have similar focus.

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    The 5s does a good job of lighting up my face evenly. My jacket is a little purple on my shoulders and there is slight over-saturation. It also misses out of the pattern on the door panel. Otherwise the 5s does a great job here.

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    The Z30 doesn’t do too badly here but there’s something very un-natural looking about the picture

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    Aside from being a tad warm the real camera aces the test. It also reminds us how nice out-of-focus areas can be when you have a large sensor.

    Misc Thoughts:

    There’s also how ready a phone is and how quickly it handles. The best way I like to think of it is if a UFO suddenly appeared in front of you and an alien popped up for a second and then disappeared what device would best capture the situation?

    How fast can your phone bring up the camera application? The Sony and Nokia have camera buttons on the side which works really well. WIth the G2 the volume down button on the back doubles as a camera button which you can press and hold to launch. The iPhone has a quick gesture, press power and then swipe up from the bottom right of the screen. The Z30’s is press the power button and then press and hold the on screen camera button - it’s a little slower.

    The rest of the phones also have shortcuts to quickly launch their cameras on their lockscreens.

    How quickly will it focus? How quickly does it refocus and is it able to keep up if you or your subject is moving? Here a phone with a small sensor is actually at an advantage because smaller sensors have larger depths of field so they don’t have to be as accurate when they focus.

    I find that the HTC One has extremely fast focusing. Ditto for the iPhone 5s. At the other end of the spectrum is the Lumia 1020 which is much slower than all the other phones here.

    How long does it take before the phone is ready to shoot another picture? All of the phones here can shoot multiple frames per second. All of them except the Lumia 1020 which actually takes a couple of seconds before it’s ready to shoot again.

    Is it smart enough to know which settings to use or do you need to constantly readjust settings to get the best possible picture?

    In the end it’s hard to pick a winner. While the HTC One did quite poorly (I was expecting it to) - it’s very fast focusing and performance makes it a very capable camera. Sometimes image quality takes a second seat to just getting the shot.

    You could say the same thing about the Sony Z1 though for different reasons. While it didn’t do too bad in the tests sometimes it does really poorly. You see, Sony gave the Z1 very aggressive image processing. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it will completely destroy a shot. From my experience image quality is hit and miss but most of the time it’s able to get the shot.

    I wasn’t that crazy about the Z30 mostly because I wasn’t a fan of the camera software. To shoot you tap anywhere on the screen, to focus on something you have to drag the focus box around. I guess it might be a case of me not being used to it. The focus is also a little slower than I’m used to.

    I really like how the G2’s down volume button can be used to launch the camera. It focuses quickly and the stabilization comes in handy at times. I was usually happy with the G2’s camera performance

    I’m not a fan of the Nexus 5’s camera software. I get the feeling that it’s different for the sake of being different and not because it’s more functional. Like the G2 I was usually happy with the Nexus 5’s camera performance.

    The GS4’s camera software is a good balance. It’s also a pretty good performer as long as there’s enough light. It also has one of the best HDR modes out there.

    In terms of resolution the Nokia Lumia 1020 doesn’t disappoint. The problem with it is that its focusing and shot-to-shot speeds are a lot slower than all the other phones here. Sometimes speed matters. Still, if you manage to catch your shot the 1020 doesn’t usually disappoint.


    So in the end I’m a little disappointed because there isn’t too much to say. None of the phones here did really badly. While each of them has room for improvement none of them are truly awful - well, the HTC One can be awful outdoors and the Z1 sometimes over-processed pictures but then again, both of them have their strong points too.

    It’s sort of like comparing RF performance. These days, every phone that comes across my desk is at least okay in this department.
    Last edited by howard; 11-15-2013 at 06:51 PM.

  2. #2
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    How does the HTC Rezound compare with these cameras? I currently have a Rezound and it seems to take good pictures (better than my Droid X or iphone 4) that I used to have.

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