Camera Phones: How much do you REALLY need to spend?


WhistleOut
15 May 2017

If you're after a smartphone with a great camera, the most popular advice is just to buy the latest and greatest iPhone or Samsung. On one hand, that's true - iPhones and the Galaxy S family have had fantastic cameras, and they just keep getting better. On the other hand, those devices will set you back more than $1,000.

Fortunately, more affordable smartphones actually have good cameras these days too. While the old adage of "you get what you pay for" is true to a certain extent, in some cases you'll get more than you expect. As such, we've decided to throw five smartphones into our testing coliseum of doom to work out how much you really need to spend to get a good smartphone camera.

The devices we've taken a look at are as follows:

Optus X Smart
$129

Alcatel A3 XL
$199

Moto G5 Plus
$399

OPPO R9s
$598

Samsung Galaxy S8
$1,199

We've put these phones through the same three tests: taking a portrait indoors, a landscape shot at night, and a macro of flower. For the same of this comparison, we're more so looking at image quality, rather than ease of use, capture time, or how fast the camera opens. All images were taken on auto, with flash set to off.

In the below comparisons, we'll be using the Galaxy S8 as our benchmark.

Portrait


In the indoor portrait test, we're mostly looking at how the five cameras represent skin tone. It's worth noting that the Galaxy S8 dials up saturation dramatically compared to a lot of other cameras, so images taken by it appear more vivid. The other four cameras are slightly more natural in terms of how they represent colour.

Optus X Smart ($129) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Alcatel A3 XL ($199) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Moto G5 Plus ($399) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

OPPO R9s ($598) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Flower Macro


In the flower macro test, we're looking at how the five cameras deal when shooting close-up photos of small objects. We're mostly interested in the level of detail and depth of field.

Optus X Smart ($129) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Alcatel A3 XL ($199) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Moto G5 Plus ($399) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

OPPO R9s ($598) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Flower Macro (100% crop)


The below images are a 100% crop of the previous test. We're using this to compare the amount of detail capture by the cameras.

Optus X Smart ($129) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Alcatel A3 XL ($199) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Moto G5 Plus ($399) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

OPPO R9s ($598) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Lowlight Landscape


In the lowlight landscape test, we're looking for how the five cameras work at night. We're especially interested in brightness, sharpness, and whether or not the image looks grainy.

Optus X Smart ($129) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Alcatel A3 XL ($199) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Moto G5 Plus ($399) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

OPPO R9s ($598) vs Galaxy S8 ($1,199)

Findings


Our first big surprise was just how capable the $129 Optus X Smart's camera was. It's far from what we'd call "amazing", but it actually did better than expected. We were especially impressed when it came to indoor portraits, where the Optus X Smart managed to hold its own against far pricier devices (although we did need to take two or three shots to get a sharp photo). Outdoors, the phone was quite prone to lensflare, which can give images a softer look. Unsurprisingly, the Optus X Smart's biggest weakness was lowlight photography.

Interestingly, as soon as you spend a little bit more, the camera gets much better. Even the step up from the $129 Optus X Smart to the $199 Alcatel A3 XL is significant in terms of quality. Spending $70 more addresses the aforementioned lens flare issues, results in sharper images, and much better lowlight photography.

When you move to the $399 Moto G5 Plus, you'll start to get softer backgrounds with DSLR-like bokeh. While bokeh is an aesthetic preference, it helps in making smartphone photos not look like they were shot on a phone.

The $598 OPPO R9s really impressed us when it came to lowlight. When we sent the R9s vs. Galaxy S8 comparison around the office, the team couldn't believe the OPPO is half the price of the Samsung. Some even preferred the image taken by the OPPO R9s.

So if spending half as much gets you a good chunk of a flagship's camera quality, what does the rest of the money get you in terms of photography? A lot of the time, the extra dosh gets you quality of life improvements like Optical Image Stabilisation, which makes it easier to take sharp photos when shooting in lowlight. Faster processors also mean that your camera is faster to open and faster to shoot, which can also help dealing with motion blur. This does all depend on the device though.

Other high-end camera features include lower apertures (for more prominent bokeh and brighter images without increasing grain) and dual lens setups that simulate optical zoom.

Essentially, spending more might not take dramatically better photos, but it can make it easier to take great photos and make your camera more versatile. But if you just want to take good photos, you've now got plenty of options that won't break the bank.


Camera lens close-up image from ShutterStock.


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