Phone Camera Shootout: Galaxy S4 vs. HTC One vs. iPhone 5 vs. Lumia 920

Which flagship smartphone has the best inbuilt camera? We compare the photographic chops of four cutting-edge models: the Samsung Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumia 920, HTC One and iPhone 5. Check out the results for yourself to see which phone comes out on top.

The ability to take a decent photo is one of the most important strengths a smartphone can have — especially if you use it as your main camera. In the following article, we pit four of the latest high-end smartphones against each other in a handful of photography tests, ranging from low-light to macro. But first, lets take a look at the specifications of each phone's camera...

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 camera retains the same 8-megapixel shooter as previous models, but with a radically improved low light performance and enhanced video stabilisation. Other features include a Panorama tool, 1080p video recording at up to 30 frames per second, FaceTime HD camera with 1.2MP photos, tap-to-focus, face detection in video or still images, an inbuilt LED flash and photo/video geotagging.

Samsung Galaxy S4

The Samsung Galaxy S IV has been decked out with a 13-megapixel camera capable of shooting Full HD (1080p) video. It can also take 100 photos in four seconds, although we’re not sure what the practical purposes of this would be for a mainstream user. The most interesting thing about the new camera is its inbuilt editing software, which includes an auto-album creation tool, “talking” photos (via embedded audio files) and an ‘eraser’ function which lets you to auto-remove unwanted people and objects from your photos using the S IV’s touch screen. You can also simultaneously shoot with the front and rear cameras and then insert a Polaroid-style frame of yourself into the main image.

HTC One

The HTC One is equipped with a modest-sounding 4-megapixel camera with Ultrapixel technology. According to HTC, because the One's 1/3-inch sensor has bigger pixels than the sensors of other cameras, it’s able to pick up light better. (Check out the low-light comparisons below.) Other highlights include simultaneous HD video and image recording, geo-tagging, face and smile detection, optical image stabilization and an inbuilt LED flash.

Nokia Lumia 920

The Nokia Lumia 920 comes with a 8.7-MP PureView camera with a Carl Zeiss Tessar lens (this was the cause of some controversy last year when Nokia produced a video that purported to be shot using the PureView technology. The company later admitted that the footage was fake.) Camera features include touch focus, landscape orientation, face recognition, automatic motion blur reduction, geotagging, optical image stabilization a true 16:9 sensor and LED flash.

Low-Light

To test each phone camera's performance in low light, we shot a Hyosung GT-R 650 motorcycle speedometer in a darkened garage. Both the HTC One and the iPhone 5 produce solid light where there is barely any to speak of, but the Nokia Lumia 920 still produces great low-light shots with barely any noise or blur by comparison to the other three. The S4 fared a lot worse, however. [Note: We shot the low-light sample shots in full Auto mode for fairness.]

Macro

To test the macro mode of each phone, we took the cameras in to a distance of about 15- to 20-cm away from a cup of coffee (taken outdoors in high-light). As we can see from the image comparisons, the HTC One and the Galaxy S4 turn in fine performances, giving us great tones and colour in our caffeinated art. The iPhone 5 tends to overexpose the frame, somewhat, while the Lumia 920 does the opposite, and seems to be bucketing in contrast to make up for it.

We'd give this round to either the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One — it's pretty much a dead-heat.

Landscape

We took the phones into Sydney Park to shoot around the duck pond, and found these great subjects just waiting to be snapped.

The iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S4 are the star-performers here — both rendered crisp, beautiful images. The only thing that puts the S4 slightly over the top is a better result in the highlights of the image. The light looks better on the top of the sleeper when captured on the Galaxy S4, even if it's slight.

The HTC One caught glare from somewhere (each photo was taken in the same position within seconds of each other), meaning that the some of the colour and detail is washed out, but still impressive. The Lumia 920 had a few focus issues, constantly grabbing the scenery behind the subject. It's still the most vivid of the four, however.

Here are the rest of our comparisons:

Click to enlarge...

Samsung Galaxy S4


iPhone 5


Lumia 920


HTC One

So there you have it. Based on our tests, we'd probably give our highest praise to the HTC One, despite being saddled with a four-megapixel camera.

Although the Lumia 920 was best in low-light situations and the Galaxy S4 excelled when it came to well-lit landscape shots, we think the HTC One provides the best all-round experience. This goes to show that you can't always rely on pixel counts or fancy features when it comes to choosing the best camera phone.

You can read a full review of the Samsung Galaxy S4 over at Gizmodo.

Photos by Luke Hopewell


Comments

    Chris, any chance we can get a reference photo from a good DSLR to go with these phone camera comparisons for future articles? It'd give a good base for comparison to see how accurately each of the cameras are reproducing the scene, not just which ones look best.

    Sometimes it's not that three cameras are taking a washed out picture and one is taking a good one, but that three are taking an accurate picture of a washed out scene and one is over-saturated. A good reference photo would help identify what's really going on.

      That's not a bad suggestion at all: consider it duly noted. :-)

        can i also suggest using some fixed stand where you replace the device with a new phone, so the images come out with the same angle and zoom/distance and light

        also i know you are using auto mode for fairness
        but perhaps taking 2 or 3 sample shots consecutively to avoid issues like random glare for fairness

        i find that if you give the cameras a chance to focus a few times, the images can turn out better.

        Another test would be if you use auto mode for light but manually focused on subjects for non macro shots. Makes a world of difference on the GS3 i use

    Looking through the photos at the bottom and comparing the S4 with the HTC one I have no idea how you came up with the conclusion that the HTC one is better. All of the shots in any decent light look washed out and lack a lot of details that seem to be lost in noise. The S4 looks much sharper, has a lot more realistic colour representation and over all just looks a lot nicer. Even in the night time shot looking at the street lamp it performs better.

    I think Chris has a little bit of a bias towards the One.

      That photo of the beach on the HTC looks terrible, dull, flat and that very last photo looks worst on the HTC and Nokia.

      The author gave his reason at the end of the article. Did you read it? The HTC One gave the best all-around performance, which includes good photos in various situations. The S4 is sharper in broad daylight, but in low light/night shots, it fails horribly.

        Overall it gave poor grainy blurry photos all round. The S4 didn't perform well in 1 low light shot. Seemed to perform on par in the other night shot. every other shot it out classed everything bar the Lumia which seemed to be about equal or worse in some. I think it would be a tie between the Lumia and the S4. Lumia did well in low light and performed adequately in the others, S4 performed poorly in 1 low light and excellent in all others. The One shouldn't even be a contender with the shots it provided. My HTC Incredible S takes photos that look like the same quality as that.

    I can't believe the S4's poor handling of low light situations. Surely this is one area of mobile cameras that needs attention (it seems everyone else has managed). I'm a soon to be S4 owner and this is going to be an annoyance...

      Remember, this is using the auto setting. I'm sure playing with the ISO and white balance will turn up much better results than that.

        Its a camera phone. Not a DSLR.

          We're also a long way down the path of smartphone cameras, with the technology maturing. The iPhone5 camera seems to manage low light well, the S4 is a sorry sight though.

      I know how you feel Bugwan. There are so many times I'm in a club, restaurant or at a friends home and want to take a picture in low light and have to use the flash, which usually wreck the image for the sake of getting any shot at all.

      Personally, for the daylight, I found the differences to be small (at the end of the day, my critical shots will be taken with a DSLR) for quick, instant shots.

    Some of those photos seem very flawed - like the Lumia 920's photo of the logs is clearly out of focus, probably due to the half button press vs an instant shutter action. Some of the angles also slightly differ as well as the background composition (some seem to have a black saucer in the rear while others have white for example), which can affect how the white balance is measured and adjusted etc etc.

    Invest in a tripod and make sure the angle is the same at the very least <3

    Last edited 30/04/13 2:03 pm

      the samsung has voice activation which i have found to be godsend to avoid hand shake during button presses

      though you can look like an idiot yelling cheese in noisy places where the mic cant pick you up lol

        Yeah WP has some speech which they do plan to add more to in the upcoming release from what I hear, for now this is what you can do besides search the web:
        http://www.windowsphone.com/en-hk/how-to/wp7/basics/use-speech-on-my-phone

        One thing is that because its all one system - if it doesn't understand an action or it doesn't exist, it will bing search it. Another is that it doesn't even try to guess when you're done speaking, you pretty much always have to press 'go'.

    i noticed that the 920's shots are blurry.
    i have got shots of jumps on motorbikes that are crisp and in focus!

    also the beach shots, the htc one is very very blue, sand isn't blue

      Have to agree.
      Why so much trouble taking focused shots with the 920?

    I like miss HTC pictures the best. She good all around. I find that handy.

    I think this ad sums it up the best =D

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z19vR1GldRI

    Apologies in advance, my comment is about video. I just love the 'slow motion/fast motion' capability that the S4 has. Came out surprisingly well and reasonable quality. Very cool

    "Note: We shot the low-light sample shots in full Auto mode for fairness."
    Why didnt you use a night/low light mode or something similar instead, or as another test of low light capture for sake of comparison?

      I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of users stick to full auto when using their camera phones (hell, most users stick to auto on a proper camera). An awesome night mode is pretty irrelevant if next to nobody is going to use it. That said, we'll take your suggestion on board for future tests.

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