Best smartphone cameras

More photographs are now taken on the Apple iPhone than any other image capture device, standalone digital cameras included.

This ubiquity helps steamroller any criticism or niggles - such as the fact that unlike the other handsets reviewed here, the iPhone 5S (closest to the Samsung S4 Zoom, minus that whopping lens, in terms of dimensions) requires a SIM card, and a Nano SIM at that, to be inserted before it will do anything at all, including take photos.

The 5S ships with iOS 7 and is powered by Apple's new A7 chip, said to deliver twice the performance of its forebears.

In terms of the knock-on as regards the camera performance, it offers autofocus that's twice as quick to lock onto target and faster picture processing overall, while dynamic range - picking up detail in both shadows and highlights - is also said to have been improved.

Feeling reasonably light and comfortable in the the palm when composing pictures, the 5S - like the iPhone 5 before it - has an 8-megapixel iSight camera, described as all-new thanks to its larger f2.2 aperture.

Best smartphone cameras

Along with a new burst-shooting mode, another new feature trumpeted by Apple is True Tone flash, which purportedly adjusts sensitivity to deliver more natural looking results. In our tests, we found this to be very much true, offering a nice balance between the more cumbersome Xenon flash and the standard LED option found on most other devices.

Like other handsets tested here, the sensor on the iPhone 5S is back-illuminated to provide a clearer light path, and the lens itself is comprised of five elements.

Default camera operation relies on autofocus, but there's the ability to tap a subject on screen to direct focus onto them, and there's a face detection function built in for human subjects. Holding the subject will lock the exposure and focus, allowing greater framing options for your snaps.

As with the iPhone 5 there is also a useful panorama mode for holiday snaps and, with travel in mind, you can geotag your images.

Like its predecessor, the iPhone 5S can deploy a high dynamic range (HDR) setting if you're presented with a trickier scenario that has, for example, both bags of shadow detail and highlights and you want to capture both.

Three shots are taken in quick succession and then automatically blended. In panorama shooting mode, meanwhile, you watch the image gradually build as you pan with the handset until a single elongated shot is automatically created and saved.

Once again flash options here are limited to either auto/on/off - so we miss out on red-eye reduction (though it can be removed via one of the provided image editing options) or slow synchro options found on digital cameras proper.

Plus, as with the previous generation iPhone, smartphone photographers can't control ISO light sensitivity settings manually - the phone simply chooses automatically.

That was a slight frustration for us, given that manual ISO selection is a feature of all its rivals. A second slight frustration was that beaming photos to our desktop computer via Bluetooth (possible with all the smartphones tested) isn't given as an option.

Best smartphone cameras

The easiest route was to open iPhoto on our Mac and connect the iPhone 5S via its charging lead/USB cable, the photos automatically importing once this had been achieved. Another potential annoyance is that the positioning of the iPhone's lens - in the corner of the handset - means it is easy for fingertips to stray in front of it.

Interface

The user interface for capturing a photo on the iPhone 5S appears to have been refined. Yes, the camera icon still appears in app-like fashion when powering up the phone. But select it and you're provided with a very clean looking interface.

At the top left of the screen are the flash options, in the middle sits an option for turning HDR capture on or off with a finger tap, while top right there is a camera-like icon, a tap of which will alternate between front and rear facing cameras.

At the bottom of the screen is the business end of the camera, a centrally located photo button. Tap it and the iPhone 5S takes a snap accompanied by the sampled sound of a shutter firing. As on previous generations of iPhone, the down volume button on the phone's side can also be used to release the shutter in camera mode.

iPhone 5S

A finger-swipe to the left of the touchscreen shutter release reveals a video capture button and a further slow-motion video mode, while a swipe to the right uncovers the ability to capture images in 1:1 square format, or shoot a panorama as previously mentioned.

Images previously captured are shown as a thumbnail to the left of the shutter button, while to the right is access to a range of in-camera digital effects filters. We get no fewer than three mono options here, along with the vivid, color boosting chrome option, a cross-processed film option and a faded Polaroid-like 'instant' option.

Editing functions are limited to being able to crop, rotate, auto enhance or remove red-eye as mentioned, and we also get access to the same digital filter effects available prior to capturing a photo. Of course, there's also a plethora of downloadable camera apps for the iPhone 5S if you want to go further.

Verdict

With manual options limited on this handset in comparison with its direct rivals, it's easy to get the impression that the iPhone is only the most popular tool for taking photos because of its ubiquity.

That said, images appear sharp when viewed in isolation, with a pleasing degree of detail captured. If anything tones are a little on the warm side, even when effects are not being applied.

HDR doesn't seem to add much to an image in general scenes (which, in a way, is testament to the standard image quality), though Panoramas are largely successful - very simple to take and free of visible joins or overlaps.

Pros: Fun digital filter effects accessible when capturing a shot or when editing it. Intuitive point-and-shoot operation. As a camera the iPhone is highly customizable via apps. Side-mounted volume buttons double up as a shutter release when shooting.

Cons: No ability to manually select ISO settings or pretty much anything else. Operation is pretty much just point and click all the way. Narrower screen than others here.

Read our full iPhone 5S review

Sample images

Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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ISO samples

Best smartphone cameras

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