By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
As smartphones approach the camera quality of standalone point-and-shoots, we’re seeing an exponential increase in megapixel values but does more really mean better?
What makes a good camera? Most might say that megapixels are worth paying for and that larger megapixel capacities can yield better pictures. While this is true for most DSLR and Full Frame cameras, we need to acknowledge that these dedicated cameras have larger sensors and large sensors trump more megapixels.
Smartphone makers have been getting better at incorporating the most features per inch on their cameras. Some boast bigger sensors than other, many tout higher megapixel plus other features (OIS Optical Image Stabilization), HD video record, 4K video recording as well as smart flash features that compensate for low-lighting conditions.
Let’s look at what some of the best smartphones are offering. The iPhone 6S has a new 12 megapixel camera which, while conservative in terms of megapixel size, does yield consistently great photos and videos mostly because the software is so intelligent and fast. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16 megapixel camera, the LG G4 (considered best in class in terms of camera and lens aperture) also has a 16 megapixel camera while the new Moto X Play sports a 21 megapixel camera. Google’s new Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P sport matching 12 megapixel sensors.
Smartphones matching point-and-shoot cameras
We’re actually at a point where smartphones now match, and in some cases surpass, the megapixel count on point-and-shoot cameras as well as many mirrorless cameras that accept interchangeable lenses. We should not confuse the same megapixel count between standalone cameras and smartphones to mean that there’s parity in quality, because there isn’t.
The sensor sizes used in larger point and shoot and mirrorless cameras are usually bigger, which means that they can capture more data but also have more sensor real estate. The limitation of smartphones is the small sensor size which means while you can take 12, 16 or 21 megapixel photos (which are great if you print out your photos or blow them up to focus on details), the trouble is getting noise and poor photo quality.
Software in these smartphones compensates for the limitations of the sensor size, which means each manufacturer pushes their own image processing agenda. This means that each and every photo you take on a smartphone undergoes various in-camera edits and tweaks before you even lay eyes on it.
A Personal Choice
The benefits of having larger megapixel photos is that you have more options to crop, resize, edit and filter. Since you’ve captured a 12 million pixels in one frame, you can zoom in and easily focus on specific parts while still maintaining relative quality.
The downside of larger megapixel sensors is that photos now take up more space on your smartphone. This is a problem if, like with Apple’s iPhone, you have no way to dictate what photo size you want to take, this means every photo you take is at full 12 megapixel resolution and if you’re just sharing photos via email or social media, you’re not really maximizing the larger size of that image.
It becomes up to users to decide which photos to save on their phone and which ones to delete. Sure, there are a lot of cloud services out there that will be happy to back up your phones for access on any device.
More than megapixel capacities, what makes pictures look even better is the quality of the lenses, the depth of field offered by the aperture, the ability to tweak and alter manual controls for specific shooting situations and the software.
Some smartphones excel in in some of these aspects and others don’t, most users either learn to work with their smartphones camera software or they will download apps that they feel can do the job better. It really is a matter of personal choice.
As someone who takes a lot of photos on phones, some of my best shots were taken years ago on 5 megapixel smartphone cameras because the timing, lighting and framing was right. The newer smartphones do take great photos too and have a lot of practical features so that any level of photographer can capture some memorable and print-ready photos.