Technology Reviews

Wednesday 26 June 2019

From scenery to selfie - putting smartphone cameras in sharp focus

With July upon us, many will lean on their phones for functions other than email, calendars and productivity apps. In particular, the next eight weeks is when we will look to our phone's camera. While most new smartphones have improved lenses and sensors, there is still a difference between many of the models. Having tested most of the phones extensively, here is Adrian Weckler's guide to picking the best cameraphone for the summer

Huawei P20 Pro
Huawei P20 Pro
Apple iPhone X
Samsung S9 Plus
Nokia 7 Plus smartphone

1. Huawei P20 Pro (€749)

Without any doubt, the P20 Pro's trump card is its camera system. It is the first major flagship phone to have three camera lenses on the back of the phone, instead of the two found on the iPhone X, iPhone 8 Plus and Samsung S9 Plus.

Huawei P20.jpg
Huawei P20 Pro

These lenses boast some insane specifications. Huawei has placed a 40-megapixel (f1.6) sensor on there, meaning the amount of detail you get in each shot is going to be generally better than what you'd normally expect from a phone.

The two other lenses on the back of the device are an eight-megapixel (f2.4) telephoto camera and a 20-megapixel monochrome (black and white) lens, for zooming in and adding more detail.

That telephoto lens has a 3x optical zoom, which brings it beyond the 2x zooms of the iPhone X or the Samsung S9 Plus.

Huawei has stuck a bigger physical sensor into the device, too. Its 40-megapixel 1/1.7in sensor is around a third bigger than the 1/2.5in sensor you'll get in Samsung's S9 or Apple's iPhone X.

You might argue that it needs it, with all those megapixels. But the upshot is that this is a physically superior camera apparatus than any other smartphone out there.

The 'night' setting is most startling. You point and hold the phone at something for a few seconds in dark conditions. If there's any light source at all - a window, neon sign or street light - the camera builds on that light. It also appears to take several photos, stacking them into one shot that includes way more detail than you'd normally get from even the best phone cameras up to now.

Granted, some can look a little over-processed, depending on your sensibility.

But I think that's a trade-off that most people won't mind for the sharp detail and impressive lighting the photos bring.

There are the other expected modes too, ranging from 'panorama' to 'time lapse' to a new, beefed-up 960 frames-per-second slow-motion video standard.

And if black and white photos are your thing, one of the three rear lenses is a dedicated monochrome camera.

Lastly, the 'selfie' camera on this phone is 24 megapixels, an unheard-of level for a front-facing camera.

It's probably overkill: I can't discern an advantage to the 24 megapixels over, say, an eight-megapixel or 12-megapixel lens when shooting your own face from such a close range.

2. iPhone X (€1,179)

Where does the time go? It seems only recently that Apple launched the iPhone X and yet we're now only eight weeks away from a flagship successor model being launched. Even still, the iPhone X - and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone 8 Plus - is still a very serious contender at the top table for cameraphones.

Apple iPhone X

The iPhone X has two 12-megapixel lenses, one with a wide-angle 28mm perspective and the other with a telephoto 50mm view.

Like the iPhone 8 Plus (and 7 Plus), these combine to give you way more flexibility and quality than a single-lens phone camera.

But unlike the iPhone 8 Plus, the telephoto 50mm lens here is also stabilised, meaning clearer, better photos, especially in low light. That's a notable upgrade.

One of the iPhone X's standout camera features is its video, which is better than any other phone. The iPhone X delivers 4K at three different frame rates (up to 60 frames per second). The results are absolutely stunning. If you worry that those file sizes might be too big to share or store, you can keep it at 'full' HD (1080p at either 30 or 60 frames per second) or 720p at 30 frames per second.

The other iPhone feature that beats other systems is its panorama mode. It's easy to dismiss this as a gimmick. It's anything but. I now often don't pack a wide angle lens with whatever 'proper' camera I'm bringing on a trip because I know that if I bring an iPhone X (or iPhone 8), I'll get amazing results.

It's that good.

The only minor quibble I can find with the iPhone X's camera is that its 'portrait' mode doesn't always work. When it does, it produces beautiful results; but it feels like something that's yet to mature into something reliable.

While you don't quite the 40-megapixel detail from Huawei's P20 Pro, Apple's colour-rendering and, especially, video-recording performance means that this doesn't feel like second best at all. I have also found that the iPhone's software is marginally more consistent in judging lighting conditions than other phones, although that gap has narrowed dramatically in recent years.

A footnote: with the exception of the stabilised second lens, virtually all of what's good in the iPhone X's camera can also be found in the iPhone 8 Plus, which uses a more conventional Touch ID button instead of facial recognition.

3. Samsung S9 Plus (€959)

The Samsung S9 Plus's camera system is absolutely superb. With the exception of the Huawei P20 Pro's 'night mode', this is the best cameraphone for low light conditions.

Samsung S9 Plus

Whenever the handset detects low light conditions, it automatically reduces the aperture of the main 12-megapixel camera down to an astonishing f1.5, meaning the camera lets more light in than any rival.

A boost in processing power from the phone's upgraded chip then lets the camera really show what it can do.

One superb effect is that it takes 12 separate shots in the instant you think you've taken one photo, thanks to new oomph from the 64-bit, octacore 2.7Ghz processor. It then goes through each of the 12 shots in milliseconds, blending the clearest frames with the least 'noise' (the fuzzy effect you see when you try to take a photo in very poor light) to create one super-clear photo.

The results are fairly incredible for a smartphone. Detail on items in a dimly-lit room or tube stand out clearly and can be brightened up with relatively little noise on display.

The phone also adds super slow-motion video at 960 frames per second, which is replayed back at 720p, the junior level of high definition. This many frames per second is enough to turn 0.2sec of recording into 6sec, creating a smooth slow motion snippet.

File sizes are generally no bigger than normal video clips, either, because of compression and file management.

A higher resolution (1080p) slow-motion standard is available at 240 frames per second. Otherwise, the S9's camera shoots 4K at up to 60 frames per second, a very high-end, high-resolution standard.

Physically, the S9 Plus has two rear cameras, both of which have optical image stabilisation. The telephoto lens isn't quite as friendly to low light, with an f2.4 aperture.

It also has an eight-megapixel front-facing selfie camera.


Nokia 7 Plus (€399)

If you're looking for something a bit more wallet-friendly but will still deliver decent results, Nokia's new 7 Plus phone may be the best alternative option.

Nokia 7 Plus smartphone

The handset has two rear cameras, which are vertically stacked. The main lens fronts a 12-megapixel wide-angle sensor and there's a 13-megapixel telezoom (2x) lens beside it. The wide-angle lens's aperture, at f1.75, lets in more light than other mid-tier phone cameras, while the telezoom lens is a reasonable f2.6.

In an age of unbelievable phone cameras, this is very good for a mid-tier model. The detail and colour are excellent from it.

There are also some relatively advanced features at this price point, including slow-motion facility. Although watch out for the time-lapse, which plays back way too slowly (and creates a file far too big to be messaged or transferred).

It can also shoot video up to 4K resolution, even if the large file sizes and storage requirements make this a questionable decision for the user.

Read more: And if you're in need of a 'proper' camera...

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