We showed you 16 sets of photos taken by four unspecified cameras, with all identifying data stripped away and presented in a randomized-on-load order for each block, all in an effort to ensure that you would be able to judge based on the quality of the photo and nothing more. And so, based on this wide range of photos, it's time to see just who makes the best smartphone camera today.
According to more than 13,000 of your votes, the best smartphone camera is the Samsung Galaxy S7.
Why these phones?
Simply put: they're the best smartphone cameras you'll find. We went with what we expected would be the top four — it's been several months since we last did this and we wanted to both revisit some "older" excellent phones (Galaxy S7 and Lumia 950) that have received new software in the interim and pit them against the newer smartphone camera beasts on the block (V20, iPhone 7).
Including the Samsung Galaxy S7 was a natural choice — it won our last smartphone camera comparison, and with software updates the already great camera has only improved. The camera in the Galaxy S7 is also the same as you'll find in the Galaxy S7 edge and Galaxy Note 7, so you can easily extrapolate these results to those phones. It was a great camera earlier in 2016 and it's still a great camera today.
The other carry over was the Microsoft Lumia 950 — it's also the oldest phone here, nearly a year old at this point. Including it wasn't to throw a bone to the Windows phone crowd, no, the Lumia 950 had a great camera in late 2015 and with the recent update to Windows 10 Anniversary Update it received a whole new app and camera features (panorama!) worth testing again. But could it measure up to a raft of newer phones? There was only one way to find out.
And then there are the new phones. LG's V20 was announced in early September, but has started shipping in some locales (but not yet the United States). The version that we used for testing here was a pre-production Korean unit, but one that should be representative of the final product. LG has made serious strides in its camera performance over the past few years and has often led the way when it comes to new technical features. We should note that the LG V20 sports an extra-wide-angle 135º secondary camera, and while we do love the option, it wasn't used in this comparison.
The other new phone that was the impetus for doing this comparison again won't surprise anybody: the iPhone 7. Apple's made a big deal about their smartphone cameras in the past few years, and the previous iPhone 6s performed well in good lighting conditions in our previous showdown, but floundered as soon as the lights went out. With a widened aperture of f/1.8 and (finally) stabilization in the smaller iPhone, it looks like the device might be on even technical footing with the others. And while the iPhone 7 Plus has a secondary camera that's essentially a 2x zoom, like the V20's wide-angle camera it wouldn't make for an apples-to-apples comparison.
We also carried the Honor 8 to take photos. Despite the dual-camera hype around the phone, it was immediately obvious that it was the worst of the bunch by a noticeable degree, especially in low-light shots and anything with motion, so we dropped it from the comparison.
How we shot
Over the course of a few days I carried these four phones to various locations to put them to the test in a variety of settings and conditions. Every photo was shot in Auto mode with settings matching what you get out of the box from the manufacturer — down to automatic exposure and even auto HDR when the camera felt it was appropriate. The only modifications we made to any photos were stripping identifying data before uploading.
Yes, every one of these phones can shoot in RAW with manual controls (iPhone requires a manual app, of which there are many) and we know and embrace that these files would be better for editing to create a better image than the full-auto JPGs. But that's not how "normal" people use these phones. There are hundreds of millions of these smartphones out there, and the overwhelming majority of people taking photos with them aren't bothering with manual modes or with editing RAW files. That requires technical knowledge that most people don't have, and that's okay.
And to be perfectly frank, if you really care about fiddling with your white balance, ISO, shutter speed, and everything else, then you already know what you want in a camera — and you don't want the tiny lens and sensor you get in a phone. You want a real camera with real controls and a big sensor and beautiful lenses.
But, as they say, the best camera is the one you've got on you. Messing around with manual controls means you're going to miss the shot. Smartphones these days produce some really amazing photos on auto. We're not professional photographers, and odds are neither are you, so Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and LG have all designed their camera apps to be accessible to the populace at large.
No modifications were made to the photos before comparison, although for display here they were automatically shrunk to a more manageable size.
There's one last thing before we dive into the photos: specs.
|Category||Apple iPhone 7||LG V20||Microsoft Lumia 950||Samsung Galaxy S7|
Alright, that's a lot of numbers. But what do they mean?
Megapixels is a count of the total number of pixels you'll find on a camera sensor, arranged in a grid. The "mega" in megapixel means one million, so a "12 megapixel" sensor will have 12 million pixels on it. More pixels mean a more detailed image. We're only now getting into the era of 2K smartphone displays and 4K TVs and compute monitors, and 4K only equals 8.8MP, so every one of these cameras will produce images "bigger" than your screens. More megapixels mean, though, that you can crop in closer without losing detail or that you can print a larger image — even poster-sized at 12MP — and not start seeing the pixels.
Resolution is the size of the pixel grid, width and height. Multiply the two and you'll get the pixel count, and thus the megapixels.
Sensor size is the literal physical size of the sensor. More megapixels mean the camera will produce a bigger image, but it doesn't mean that the camera itself is actually bigger. A bigger sensor can collect more light for a brighter photo, or fit more pixels for a bigger one. Sensor size is measured as a fraction — the larger the number, the larger the sensor (remember, in fractions a smaller denominator results in a bigger number). Of these four phones, the Lumia 950 has the biggest sensor — but it also packs in the most pixels, which leads to our next measurement…
Pixel size is a measurement of the physical size of an individual pixel on the sensor. This is where megapixels and sensor size collide and where the rubber meets the road. A bigger pixel can collect more light, which in daylight use you won't notice, but as soon as it goes dark the bigger pixels can produce brighter and less noisy images. It's worth noting that these are still microscopically tiny pixels we're talking about here — 12 million on a plate the size of a pinky nail. So they're measured in micrometers (μm). The biggest pixels here are on the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 at 1.4μm, and that's 1/70th the thickness of a human hair. These things are tiny.
Aperture is the size of the hole the light is passing through, and it works exactly the way you think: the bigger the opening, the more light gets to the sensor. The more light on the sensor, the better an image it can produce. Aperture is expressed as a fraction (the "ƒ" stands for "1"), and so the smaller the number in that fraction, the bigger the opening. We could get technical with it, but it's worth noting that the difference between ƒ/2.0 and ƒ/1.4 is double the light.
Take it again!
One more thing — just for giggles and your own edification: we've created a copy of the blind survey from before. It's still blind to start, but when you select your favorite photo this time it'll tell you which phone you picked. This is just for fun, we won't be tallying these into the 13,557 that informed the results below, we just want you to know what your own eye picked.
See which photos you picked as the best
So we've said that the Galaxy S7 won, but how did it win? Let's go through each photo comparison.
On the artificially lit interior shot, the Galaxy S7 pulled way ahead, besting the next-best iPhone 7 by a solid 45% to 28%, largely due to its more pleasing saturation. Truth be told, the V20's image was more accurate than both of them, best capturing the yellowish hue of the lighting inside Findlay Market without squashing the red of the metal beams. But Samsung's win here is a trend you'll see repeated over and over: hyper-saturated colors are more pleasing to the eye.
When the lights went down inside, both the LG V20 and Lumia 950 performed well. Actually, all four phones performed admirably, but the Lumia and V20 both struck a balance between the iPhone's muted color palate and the Galaxy's too-saturated look.