I used to cringe when I'd see people capturing precious memories with their smartphones. Although most smartphones have megapixel counts similar to what stand-alone cameras offer, they have been inferior in lens quality and manual controls. Images have never been as good... until now.
Over the past two months, I've shot more than 3,000 test photos in four states using nine camera phones, a point-and-shoot camera and a high-end, single-lens reflex camera (also known as an SLR). None of the smartphone cameras are good enough to replace a $1,000-plus SLR, but I'm surprised how well some of the phones did, particularly in low-light settings that challenge even the best cameras.
Three phones stand out: Nokia Corp.'s Lumia 1020, Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy S4 Zoom and the new Apple iPhone 5S, which comes out Friday.
The Lumia 1020 squeezes a lot of camera innovations into a small device. It can take photos as large as 38 megapixels, which means you can crop the image to a quarter its size and still have enough detail for large poster-size prints. With smaller files, you're limited to smaller prints when you crop.
The 38 megapixels is about three times the 13 megapixels on Samsung's regular Galaxy S4 and nearly five times the 8 megapixels on the iPhone 5S and 5C. It's also more than what many SLR and point-and-shoot cameras offer. The downside: The Lumia runs Microsoft's Windows system, which has relatively few apps from outside parties.
The Galaxy S4 Zoom works much like other Android phones from Samsung, except that it has a real zoom lens, offering up to 10 times magnification. Other camera phones have digital zoom features, or magnification using software, but all that does is blow up shots without boosting clarity. With the optical zoom found in the Zoom and stand-alone cameras, you retain the sharpness as you zoom in. The Zoom's 16 megapixels is better than most phones. The downside: It's not available in the U.S. yet.
The iPhone 5S, meanwhile, has a better camera than last year's iPhone 5. The resolution remains at 8 megapixels, but the camera is able to sense light better because individual pixels are larger and the shutter can open wider. The downside: It's behind in megapixels.
Many of the differences in images are subtle, but every bit helps when making prints or viewing on bigger screens.
The Lumia is the most consistent of the three at getting good night and