The Beginner’s Guide to Smartphone Camera

Smartphone cameras are probably the most sophisticated little devices out there. For their size, it’s very difficult not to stare in amazement at the intricate ingenuity that goes into some phones. While your regular mid-range phones may have a simple 1080p camera, there are so many other camera features on different high-end phones that can make the pictures brilliant. If you plan to use your phone to take pictures and video, you’ll need a phone from a manufacturer that prioritizes the camera. Unless you get this, you’ll be missing out completely on features that can make your pictures look professional.

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The whole “smartphone vs. camera” debate has been raging ever since high-end back-lit CMOS cameras started appearing on regular phones. So, what’s better?

The answer is: It really doesn’t matter. All of it depends on the reasons you might want to get a phone with a good camera as opposed to a piece of hardware completely dedicated to taking photographs. People who are serious about photography might get a decent DSLR camera, but still might want to dump some cash on a smartphone with good optics simply because it’s less bulky. You might not be carrying your bulky rig with all its attachable lens around when a great photo opportunity presents itself. In those cases, it’s very useful to have a powerful camera in your pocket.

You just can’t drag all of this around every time you walk out of your house:

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One of the biggest disadvantage to phones is the fact that there’s still no way to use attachable lens and you’re pretty much stuck with whatever the hardware can provide. Still, I cannot stress enough the convenience of having a little backup camera in those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

If a phone doesn’t give you any information about its aperture or focal length, you have no way of telling whether it has a camera that meets your liking. Usually, phones that don’t show any indication in their specs other than the resolution are not putting any priority on their cameras.

Since you’re limited to whatever optical specifications the manufacturer provides for your lens, it’s not a bad idea to try to find something that suits your liking and provides the optical experience you are accustomed to taking pictures with.

For people who are not experienced with cameras, here are a few pointers:

  • A bigger focal length means that you’ll cover less area in the picture. The simplest way to describe focal length is by comparing it to zoom. The higher the focal length, the more “zoomed” the camera is. Smaller focal lengths mean you’ll have wider angles. Nikon has a decent guide on this if you’d like to know more in-depth information. Focal lengths are measured in millimeters. The typical optics on a phone have somewhere between 20 and 30 mm of focal length.
  • The aperture (focal ratio) determines how much light enters the camera. This ratio is notated with a fancy-looking italic lowercase “F”, known as an “f-number”. A higher f-number represents a smaller aperture, which captures more light. This is important for special shots that put objects in focus. For example, compare the two images below:

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The top image is taken using a small aperture, and the bottom image is taken using a large one. On some phone cameras, the shutter will take care of this by moving ever so slightly just before taking a picture to modify the aperture. Similarly, focal length is also adjusted through optical zoom.

Ultimately, a good smartphone camera will have all these things. It will have the ability to zoom by moving the optics (adjusting the focal length) and change the aperture with a mechanical shutter. Since the cameras are digital, there has to be a decent on-board backlit CMOS sensor to construct these images with great accuracy. After all that, you can worry about resolution. But, anyway, a good camera will also have a decent resolution, althoug you shouldn’t make a big fuss about anything more than 5 megapixels.

The first thing that comes to mind as far as cameras are concerned is the Nokia Lumia 1020, with its brilliant 41-megapixel camera, its special software, and its spectacular CMOS and optics. There’s also the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom (a phone with an integrated full-blown PAS – point-and-shoot – camera), and the regular S4. The HTC One and iPhone 5S are close runners up.

Whether you’ve got a thought to add to this or a question about cameras, everything is welcome in the comments section below!