mobile photography technology, culture and community
www.dpreview.com

HTC One camera first look: Imaging features

15

With its beautiful full-metal body and impressive spec-sheet the HTC One has been one of the highest-profile smartphone launches of 2013. The low-resolution 4 "ultrapixel sensor," fast F2.0 lens and optical image stabilization also make the new HTC flagship a very interesting option for mobile photographers.

We are currently working on our review of the One and have already had a close look at its image quality in our recent Smartphone Super Shootout and our comparison to the iPhone 4S. To shorten the wait for the full review we thought we should give you a preview of the HTC's most interesting camera features. To top things off we have also added a comprehensive sample gallery containing 45 images. We are planning another article looking at the One's new Zoe movie feature within the next few days, so watch this space.

Exposure and HDR

On the HTC One's default camera app offers "traditional" exposure buried deep in the menu but by default exposure is linked to the focus point, very much like on Apple's iPhone. If you tap and focus on a bright part of your scene you'll get a darker exposure and the other way around. The samples below illustrate how this works, the green square indicates the focus/exposure point. For comparison purposes we have also included a shot taken in HDR mode.

For this shot we focused on the brightly lit white tarpaulin on the left boat. This gives you some detail on the fabric but overall the image is heavily underexposed.
Focusing on a shadow area such as the hull of the boat on the right gives you an overexposed image with large clipped highlight areas.
Tapping on a mid-tone area of the scene gets you the most balanced exposure. However, in this high-contrast situation we still end up with clipped highlights on the green boat's cover.
The HDR shot shows a bit more of both shadow and highlight detail than the shot above, but overall the effect is so subtle that we think the HDR mode on our review sample might be broken. HTC has issued a software update addressing this issue. We will re-shoot this test as soon as it is available for the U.S. version.

Sometimes you might have to tap a few different areas before you get the desired exposure but mostly this system works quite decently and makes sure your focus area is well exposed. However, the tap-exposure works best in scenes with balanced lighting. Capturing a high-key or low-key scene is next to impossible as you won't find a dark or bright enough area in those scenes to achieve your desired exposure. The only way around this is either using the exposure compensation function that is hidden in the "Image Adjustment" section of the menu or a third-party camera app that offers exposure compensation, such as Camera FV-5 or ProCapture.

This forest scene makes it difficult to find a focus/exposure point that is bright enough to trigger a dark enough exposure to convey the atmosphere of the scene. 
The only way to capture the dark mood of the scene and getting some highlight detail in the flowing water of the stream is by tapping on the small area of bright sky in the top left corner, even if that's not really where you want to put the focus. You'll have to dive deep into the menu to add negative exposure compensation.

Backlight mode

Like many compact cameras the HTC One offers a range of scene modes which can be accessed through the menu. On top of the usual landscape and portrait modes, which are largely contrast and saturation variations, you also get the more interesting Backlight mode. In high contrast scenes this mode lifts the shadow areas to create an image with less harsh contrast.

In the sample below you can see how in this contre-jour scene the dark shadows have been lifted. The effect is quite strong which results in a slightly unnatural look. When examining the 100% crops you can see that the Backlight mode also introduces shadow noise and a lot of noise reduction smearing which close up doesn't look pretty at all.

Standard mode
Backlight scene mode
 100% crop
 100% crop

When the luminance difference between highlight and shadow areas in a scene is too large the Backlight mode comes to its limits. We took the portrait below indoors in front of a window. Focusing on the subject's face in standard mode gets you a very dark subject and and an overexposed background. It appears the One's metering system is reluctant to totally blow out the background, even when the main subject is very dark.

Taking the same shot in Backlight mode slightly lifts the shadow while the background exposure is roughly the same as before. That said, this is still not exactly a great exposure and like in the sample above, the image is blighted by shadow noise and noise reduction artifacts.

Standard mode
Backlight mode

Panorama mode

Like many smartphones and digital cameras the HTC One offers a sweeping panorama mode. In landscape mode you can capture a full 360-degree panorama but unusually there is no option to capture panoramas in portrait orientation. On the plus side the stitching is very good, with very few visible stitching errors in our tests. The resulting panoramas are approximately 9500 pixels wide and just over 1000 pixels high.

Exposure is locked when the first frame is captured. So you need to make sure exposure on that first frame is roughly in line with the rest of the scene, otherwise you might end up with an over- or underexposed image.

Sweep Panorama mode allows you to capture a full 360 degree view.  Stitching quality is very decent.
In high contrast scenes exposure can become a little tricky but we managed to preserve some shadow detail in the building and kept highlight clipping within acceptable limits by initially setting the focus point on a medium-bright part of the scene.
It took us a few attempts to achieve a decent exposure in this darkish overcast scene, but again the stitching is very good.
This is the same location as above but we initiated the panorama in a dark part of the scene which resulted in overexposure of the remaining frames.

HDR video

The HTC One is one of the first smartphones to offer HDR video in Full-HD 1080p resolution (the Sony Xperia Z is the other device we are currently aware of to offer this feature). The One does the same thing in video mode as it does in stills HDR mode and combines various exposures for each video frame into one. We have also noticed that the image is cropped compared to the standard video footage. This is presumably to counteract any camera movement during HDR capture. We will confirm the exact mode of operation with HTC for our full review.

Below you can see a sample video of a high-contrast scene that was captured in the woods with the HTC One on a tripod. The trees in the shadow are very dark and at the same time highlights have clipped in the top left corner of the frame and, to a degree, also on the flowing water.

This is the same scene captured in HDR mode. As you can see the the shadow areas have been lifted and the highlight clipping signficantly reduced, with better detail on the flowing water. However, if you watch these videos at full-screen resolution the downsides to the HDR treatment become obvious. Despite the shadow areas being brighter they show visibly less detail than the standard version. Noise reduction is much heavier than in standard mode and blurs away most fine detail in the low-contrast foliage areas of the scene.

The frame is quite heavily cropped and then resampled to 1080p size which arguably contributes to the reduction in image detail. The illustration below shows the difference in framing. The large image shows the area captured in standard video mode. The green rectangular marks the framing of the HDR mode.

Slow motion video

Like some other recent smartphones the HTC One is capable of recording slow motion video. Footage is captured at approximately 4x speed which means 10 seconds of real-life action, when played back at the standard 30 frames per second, will turn into a 40 sec slow motion video. The video size is reduced to 768 x 432 pixels and no sound is recorded. When playing slow motion videos back in the phone's gallery app you can adjust the playback speed between original and 1/4 speed.

Summary

With the One's ultrapixel concept HTC is putting a lot of focus on smartphone image quality but the new flagship device also comes with a comprehensive imaging feature set. That said, most of the functions and modes we've had a closer look at in this article appear a little half-baked at this early stage in the product life-cycle. HTC has already released an update to address the HDR function, but unfortunately this patch is not available yet for our U.S. version of the One. We would expect more updates to be released in the nearer future.

The Backlight mode doesn't work particularly well in a contre-jour portrait situation which arguably is the most useful application for this type of feature and the shadow-lifting also introduces a multitude of nasty artifacts to the image. The panorama mode works well but it's unusual to not offer an option for capturing panoramas in portrait orientation. On most other recent phones we have tested this can be done to generate a less wide but taller panorama than in landscape orientation. HDR video is impressive in so far that it's a brand new feature not many competitors can offer. However, you pay for the increased dynamic range in your footage with a heavily cropped frame and visibly reduced image quality.

The exposure system is to a a degree a love-it-or-hate-it affair. It's very simple (which presumably is why Apple has been using a similar system on the iPhone for a long time) and works well in most situations but doesn't give you the flexibility to capture low- or high-key scenes unless you are happy to dive deep into the camera menu. If you want real control over your exposure you're much better off with a third-party camera app. As we mentioned above we'll cover the new Zoe movies feature in a separate article and we will continue testing all these features for our full review. If you would like to get a better idea of the HTC One's image quality please check our Smartphone Super Shootout in the meantime.

Sample Gallery

There are 45 images in our HTC One samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution.

HTC One Sample Gallery
1 / 45
Image 1
Image 1
Image 2
Image 3
Image 4
Image 5
Image 6

Comments

Total comments: 15
PSPhoto
By PSPhoto (11 months ago)

According to EXIF, every picture I have taken with the HTC One was shot at f2, irrespective of the light on the scene. It compensates with high shutter speeds. Do they (and other cell phone cameras) all do this? Is there an app for manual settings? I use Shot Control, which has lots of settings, but not aperture. Would appreciate any information!

0 upvotes
Per Inge Oestmoen
By Per Inge Oestmoen (11 months ago)

The HTC One's camera is letting the whole phone down. Which is unfortunate, because its build quality and speakers as well as the screed are all first-rate. There simply is not enough information in the four megapixels to stand up to the 8-13 Mp offerings from the competitors.

0 upvotes
louisjaffe
By louisjaffe (11 months ago)

It's a gamble. A couple more megapixels, 6 rather than 4, would be good. Will the market accept it?

In fact, the images are more than sufficient for blog posts, Facebook, whatever. Hardly anyone prints a snapshot anymore, but even if they did, there's plenty of resolution to go 4x6 inches. As others have observed, there's lower noise, better dynamic range, better color.

0 upvotes
kle1
By kle1 (11 months ago)

What is the frame rate in slow motion?

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

It's 4x slow motion, so has to be around 120 fps.

0 upvotes
tompabes2
By tompabes2 (11 months ago)

Not bad, images are not bad at all... it's a smartphone, and this is a quality we could only dream of just a couple of years ago. I know that the iphone 5 or GS4 can do better in daylight, but indoors or at noon the large pixels coupled with the stabilizer can make the difference. Overall, the htc one seems a more balanced choice, since it overcomes one of the major limitations of a smartphone (reduced low light capabilities). What's more, large pixels seem to deliver a little more dynamic range even in daylight. I like it...

Comment edited 39 seconds after posting
1 upvote
danroso
By danroso (11 months ago)

Sensor size is MORE important than pixel size.

1 upvote
danroso
By danroso (11 months ago)

Would you please test the audio dynamic range in phones hd videos? Nokia 808 is the best in this moment. All high end phones should have this audio recording capability. And you if review that all manufacturers will know we want that.

1 upvote
Peiasdf
By Peiasdf (11 months ago)

The sensor simply isn't very good. Pixels are bigger but the overall sensor seems to be behind SONY's unit in Apple and Samsung.

2 upvotes
cinemascope
By cinemascope (11 months ago)

Hi.
Does it let one pick frame rates in video mode (like 25p for PAL people)?
And can one turn down saturation, set exp comp, etc in video?
Cheers!

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

You can adjust saturation from -2 to +2. There is no option to adjust frame rate (although there is a 60fps 720p mode) but there is a possibility that, like on cameras, standard frame rate varies between regions.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

exposure works the same way in video mode as it does in stills mode.

0 upvotes
cinemascope
By cinemascope (11 months ago)

Thanks!

0 upvotes
LedTee
By LedTee (11 months ago)

I don't understand this passage:

"...most of the functions and modes we've had a closer look at in this article appear a little half-baked at this early stage in the product life-cycle"

How can you say it's an early stage of the product cycle, when you know, the product has actually shipped? Everyone knows that Android phones seldom receive meaningful updates, and while I give HTC a better record here, I'm sure most if not all of these glaring imaging issues will still be present in a years time.

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

Everyone knows Android phones seldom receive meaningful updates? I don't know that. Plus, HTC has already issued an update for the international version of the device and I am sure there will be more.

5 upvotes
Total comments: 15
About us
Sitemap
Connect