Smartphone camera shopping tips

Deb Shinder discusses which features to look for in a smartphone camera and which phones are regarded as having the best cameras.

Deb Shinder discusses which features to look for in a smartphone camera and which phones are regarded as having the best cameras.


As recently as five years ago, each of the major wireless carriers offered only a few smartphone models, usually a BlackBerry or two, a couple of Windows Mobile phones, and maybe a Palm. Today there is a plethora of different smartphones on the market.

In addition to the ever-popular iPhone, we still have BlackBerries (with many more models to choose from), WinMo (and soon, Windows Phone 7), Palm's WebOS (recently acquired by Hewlett-Packard), Symbian, Nokia's Maemo, and the newest rising star, Android. Vendors such as Apple, Google, HTC, Samsung, RIM, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, etc. are in heavy competition to keep coming up with new models that include more features and better functionality. All these choices can make it difficult to decide which combination of carrier, mobile operating system, and handset hardware is right for you.

If you'll be using the camera(s) in your smartphone frequently, you'll want to compare both the camera hardware and the software in different models before you buy. Here are some features to look for when you're shopping:

  • Camera resolution: Even though it doesn't matter as much as some people think, in general, the higher resolution cameras also include other high-end features, and if you plan to make large prints, high resolution is especially important.
  • Lens quality: This is one of the most important factors in photo quality. Look for a top brand name such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider.
  • Flash: If your camera has flash, it will make it easier to take photos in low-light situations. The iPhone (prior to v4) was often criticized for not having flash. Many of today's phones, including the Motorola Droid X, the HTC HD2, and the HTC EVO, have dual flash for better flash coverage. You should be able to set the flash to Automatic (the camera determines whether it's needed), On, or Off.
  • Settings: If you know a bit about photography, you know that cameras do fine on the Automatic setting for basic outdoor photos, but not so well in unusual lighting situations such backlit subjects or under florescent lights. A good phone camera will allow you to make adjustments to white balance, ISO (equivalent of "film speed" in film cameras), color saturation, and exposure.
  • Options: In addition to the settings discussed above, to get good photos in different situations if you aren't really "into" photography, you'll want handy features such as exposure modes that let you optimize for Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Night, Sports/action, Beach/snow, Parties/indoors, Fireworks, Candlelight, etc. It's also good to be able to choose from different shooting modes: Single or Continuous, Panorama, or Mosaic. Automatic smile detection is an option in many cameras, which you may want if you take lots of "people pictures." You should be able to turn it on or off.
  • Video: Many phone cameras are also capable of shooting in video mode. This can be very useful when you need to record a moving subject. Because camera phones don't have super high shutter speeds, still photos often blur even with moderate movement. When I need a still picture of something that won't stay still, I often shoot video and then later, in editing software, extract a frame from the video to use as a still photo.
  • Editing software: Some smartphones include rudimentary photo editing and/or video editing software that you can use to crop, resize, or change the brightness and contrast on photos right there on the scene, without waiting to get the photos back to your computer. This comes in very handy if you need to make adjustments before sending pictures via email or MMS. There are also third-party photo and video editing apps for most mobile platforms, such as the mobile app for iPhone.
  • Storage space: High-resolution photos and videos take up a lot of storage space. If you plan to use the camera frequently, it pays to use a phone that allows for removable storage (SD or micro SD card) (Figure A). That would include most popular smartphones except the iPhone.
Figure A

Removable storage such as the micro SD card (right), shown here with the Omnia II in comparison to standard CF and SD cards, allow you to take far more photos and videos because you can switch them out.

Do megapixels matter?

A popular way for the makers of digital cameras (including phone cameras) to advertise their products is by the maximum resolution of which the camera is capable, measured in megapixels. Many phone cameras today offer 5 to 8 MP resolution -- that's more than enough for most purposes. High resolution is important if you plan to make large prints of the photos. If you only intend to view the photos on your computer, a high megapixel count is less important (unless you have a really large monitor).

It's important to realize that a high-resolution camera may take less sharp photos than one with lower resolution. Other factors that determine photo quality include the quality of the camera lens and the accuracy of the camera's autofocus mechanism. In addition, the sharpness of individual photos depend on the lighting, the shutter speed, how steadily the camera is held, and whether the lens is clean.

Higher resolution means larger file sizes, which can be an issue when sending photos via email or MMS, especially if your phone's data plan is not unlimited. Most phone cameras allow you to set the resolution to a lower setting.

Best current smartphone cameras

Which current smartphones have the best cameras? That's subjective, as different users will have different opinions, but generally, these phones are recognized as having above average cameras:

  • HTC EVO 4G: 8 MP rear camera, 1.3 MP front camera, micro SD card. (Pictured at right, credit: Jason Hiner)
  • HTC Droid Incredible: 8 MP, micro SD card
  • Motorola Droid X: 8 MP, 8 GB on-board plus 16 GB microSD card (replaceable, up to 32GB)
  • HTC HD2: 5MP, 32 GB micro SD card
  • Samsung Omnia II: 5 MP, micro SD card.

What's your favorite smartphone camera? Let us know, and tell us what makes it great.

Related: The myriad business uses for smartphone cameras.

Take the TechRepublic camera phone challenge

TechRepublic recently launched its first of many camera phone challenges. The current challenge is to submit an original camera phone beach photo by Friday, August 13, 2010 at 5:00 PM EDT. The winning entry will receive TechRepublic swag. Keep your eyes open for other TechRepublic camera phone challenges in the future.

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By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...