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The best in smartphone photography 2013

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With the number of smartphones that were launched in 2013 and the camera modules getting better with each new device generation picking our favorites is not an easy task, but we'll try anyway. Please note that our picks are not necessarily based on the scores in our reviews but also on more subjective factors. Essentially, these are the mobile devices we most enjoyed taking pictures with in 2013, for the reasons we explain below. In no particular order:

Nokia Lumia 1020

If your number one priority on a mobile device is image quality there is no way you should pass up the Nokia Lumia 1020. With its large 1/1.5-inch sensor, innovative digital zoom and Xenon flash it takes better pictures than any other current phone in the market by nearly every metric. We also liked the well-designed camera app with its full manual control and two-way physical shutter button.

In combination with the optional camera grip the Lumia 1020 provides as much "real camera feel" as you could possibly want and a firmware update has just added RAW capability too. It should make the Lumia even more attractive to enthusiast users. 

The Lumia 1020 captures never before seen levels of detail (for a smartphone) in its 41MP mode ...
... although the 5MP files are more manageable for social sharing and other kinds of web use.
100% crop
100% crop

Of course nothing comes for free in life and you have to pay for the Nokia's large image files and great detail with a generally slightly sluggish performance and slower shot-to-shot and start-up times than most of the competition.  Whether you find this negligible or nauseating depends on your personal style of photography.

The 1020 delivers nice skin tones and even lighting in this typical low-light people shot.

Availability of apps for both imaging and general use is another point to consider. The 1020’s Windows Phone OS is slick and snappy, but its app support, especially in the imaging area, is not quite on the same level as Android and iOS yet. 

Sony Xperia Z1

Compared to other ecosystems the Android world arguably offers the largest choice of devices which makes picking a favorite even harder. That said, after some contemplation we settled on the Sony Xperia Z1 as our favorite Android smartphone camera of the year for a number of reasons. Image quality is not necessarily the most important one though.

Despite its larger than usual 1/2.3-inch sensor the Z1 does not produce better pixel-level image quality than some of the competition with smaller sensors but exposure, contrast and color are usually excellent and the Sony was arguably one of the smartphones we most enjoyed shooting with over the course of the year.

The Xperia Z1 comes with a two-way shutter button.
All connectors and card slots are hidden under water-and dustproof flaps.

This has got a lot to do with Z1's very angular shapes which, in combination with the excellent two-way shutter button, giving it more of a camera-like feel when shooting pictures or video than other devices. The shutter button also provides very quick access to the camera app which means you're more likely to capture that decisive moment.

With its 20.2MP sensor the Xperia Z1 is capable of capturing very good detail in good light.
100% crop

Add the superb build quality with glass front and back, the very good battery life and snappy performance to the mix and you've got yourself a device that is an excellent companion in any situation, not just for taking pictures. The Z1's water- and dustproof seals mean you can keep snapping, even when hanging out on the beach or snorkeling (though Sony only recommends fresh water use).

Apple iPhone 5s 

The original iPhone was the device that put mobile photography on the map and although the competition is putting Apple under pressure in many ways, the latest generation iPhone is still an excellent choice for smartphone photographers, especially if you're already invested in the iOS ecosystem. 

With its new iOS 7 operating system the iPhone 5s is an excellent phone with a very good camera. Image quality under most conditions is among the top of the class of “conventional” smartphone camera units: you have to look to the Nokia Lumia 1020 to find something that’s hands-down better across the board. In addition, the 5s offers a very good flash that, thanks to its innovative two-LED technology, produces notably accurate color, and the phone also offers an excellent panorama mode.

The Apple iPhone 5s captures excellent detail in good light.
100% crop
Detail suffers in lower light but exposure, contrast and tonality are still good up to high ISOs.
100% crop

The 5s’ powerful processing makes for class-leading burst speed and excellent responsiveness. The camera app is very easy to use, for some photographers maybe even too easy as there is very little potential for manual interference. If this works for you will very much depend on your shooting style and personal preference.

Looking forward to 2014

Two or three years ago, when I spotted a photo opportunity and did not carry a camera, I would not even bother to get my phone out of the pocket, simply because I preferred no photo at all over one with the image quality my phone could provide.

Looking at the devices we've had the chance to use this year it's obvious that the industry has come a long way. The 2013 class of top-end smartphones might not replace your DSLR or enthusiast compact, but the latest models have already forced the consumer compact camera market on its knees and are a more than viable solution for those days when you've left your camera at home. To many users image quality is not even necessarily the number one priority. They are more than happy to compromise a little for the ability to edit and share images on the go.

But there's no doubt the 2014 smartphone generation will offer something for everyone. Pixel-peepers and image quality perfectionists should be looking forward to larger sensors and the ability to record and edit RAW files. Gadget enthusiasts will be able to enjoy new features and apps that we can't even imagine right now, curved screens, more processing power and better battery life among other innovations. 

For now we can only speculate what 2014 will offer to smartphone photographers but we can't wait to get our hands on the first new devices at the CES and MWC trade shows and test them thoroughly, as always with photographers in mind. Let us know in the comments what features you would like to see on your next smartphone.


Comments

Total comments: 54
baldricP
By baldricP (3 months ago)

It may be that I'm in a minority, but I find large screen phones too big for my trouser pocket. A 3.5 screen is perfectly adequate for checking a shot. What I would like to find is a good quality camera, the size of the Galaxy Ace, that can do texts, calls and a few apps, play music and fm radio, but with emphasis on the camera quality. Maybe Nikon could fit some phone extras into a small compact VR camera, i.e. think camera-phone not phone-camera

0 upvotes
jmanzar
By jmanzar (3 months ago)

I am really looking forward to shooting raw on my phone, it will make post-editing much more flexible.

0 upvotes
Udayk
By Udayk (3 months ago)

Hi
Is there any app that can bypass the compression and save raw video files. I am working on a project to enable consumer generated videos to be processed via the cloud.

0 upvotes
Paul Callahan
By Paul Callahan (4 months ago)

wow, this article left me wanting...

no discussion of the different cameras' aperture sizes, iso, low light noise, etc.

0 upvotes
vv50
By vv50 (4 months ago)

what's wrong with going to the articles dedicated to each camera?

2 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

well, in this article I've focused on the new trends in 2013. We already had apertures and ISO in 2012 :) But seriously, go to the individual reviews that are linked in the article and you'll find more info on low light and noise than you would ever want to read :)

0 upvotes
confusedSlrOrSltOrMilc
By confusedSlrOrSltOrMilc (4 months ago)

First bigger sensor phone is not definetely 808. I had a nokia N8 which had a 1/1.8" sensor. I am sure even before Nokia N8, there were other phone which had bigger sensors (N86??)

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

You are right, the N8 had a 1/1.83-inch sensor. In the article I've focused on models that were released in more recent history :)

1 upvote
Lee Jay
By Lee Jay (4 months ago)

The S4 zoom is the only modestly interesting development in phones with cameras and it didn't even get a mention that I saw. A fixed lens with a fixed focal length makes a cell phone a nearly useless device for photography for me and, in fact, I don't use my S3 for photography at all. I'd like to see a pureview style approach with a short fast zoom like the one in the S120. Then cell phones might begin to be useful for photography. Until then, I'll continue to carry a small but vastly superior compact camera.

2 upvotes
lecoupdejarnac
By lecoupdejarnac (4 months ago)

I'm also disappointed it didn't get a mention. Even though it's a bit chunky (not much more than the 808 though) and the sensor is underwhelming.

I'd love an S4-zoom style phone with a better sensor.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

I've limited this article to actual phones rather than hybrid devices such as the S4 Zoom. We've used it in a shootout though this year: http://connect.dpreview.com/post/4485507296/shootout-sonyxperiaz1-vs-nokia1020-vs-lgg2-vs-samsunggalaxys4zoom

1 upvote
randalusa
By randalusa (4 months ago)

#Lars, The S4 is an actual phone by any measure known to me at this time, but then goes a step further by adding a really cool amazingly long zoom of 10x. I can see no reason why it should be forbidden from competing in the group on this page dedicated to smartphone photography and informing readers of the choices.

If there is a reason, I guess including that verbiage in the article would sort of make up for the oversight, a little anyway. For example: "While a 10x zoom creates a category of its own, this piece will examine phones continuing to rely on the traditional non-zoom camera design.

Still a useful piece, though slightly misleading by neglecting to provide the full shelf of items available. Well, one can always count on the comments area for missing stuff. And by the way, I realize no feature can cover every possible contingency. Leaving out the king of phone cameras though, not the road I would have taken.

0 upvotes
Lee Jay
By Lee Jay (4 months ago)

How is the S4 an actual phone and the S4 zoom, which is basically identical except for the lens, not an actual phone? You can place calls, with it. I would argue they're all hybrid devices - phones, computers, cameras, though all the ones mentioned in the article are really weak cameras since they are permanently stuck at one focal length.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

well, I think the definition of a phone is not quite as clear to me as it is to you. For starters the S4 Zoom is much thicker than any phone that I've used in recent years. It's the only one I've ever used with a zoom lens and it's got a smaller screen than any other recent high-end phone. All those are reasons for me to put it in its own category. The question really is where you draw the line, is it the S4 zoom, the Galaxy Camera or the Galaxy NX?

In any case, this article is not meant to be for mobile devices to "compete". We simply presented the devices we liked most this year and the S4 Zoom wasn't one of them, otherwise it would have had an appearance :)

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

@leejay the S4 and S4 Zoom are not identical at all I am afraid, have a look at the specs and you'll see what I mean :) The only thing that s that are almost identical are the model names, a slightly confusing move by Samsung, no doubt.

0 upvotes
Lee Jay
By Lee Jay (4 months ago)

" it's got a smaller screen than any other recent high-end phone."

The iPhone 5S has a 4" screen, while the S4 zoom has a 4.3" screen.

Of course, I agree that an iPhone isn't a high-end phone, but some people seem to think so.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

ok, you got me! You do realize that the 5s is an absolute exception though? Any Android phone out there has a much bigger screen. Basically any phone other than the iPhone.

0 upvotes
Lee Jay
By Lee Jay (4 months ago)

Well, I'll tell you this. For me to use a cell phone for photography, it's camera is going to have to be no worse than my pocket compact which is a Canon Elph 500 HS. With a zoom range of 24-105mm, f/2 at the wide end, a great BSI sensor, great processing, and features (like 120 and 240 fps video modes) and a tripod mount, no cell phone even comes close, but the S4 zoom is the closest since it's at least not stuck at one focal length. I keep my Elph in the same pocket as my S3. If someone releases a phone that has as good a camera as my little Elph, I could combine them and probably be happy carrying it even if it were as thick as my Elph and as large as my wife's Note 2. Until then, cell phone cameras area non-starter. They're useless to me and I didn't buy my S3 for its camera.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

well, yeah, people have different requirements. Some people never use their cellphone camera, other use it a lot. I use mine all the time but I make sure I carry my cameras when I want the best possible image quality.

0 upvotes
Michael Ma
By Michael Ma (4 months ago)

I want bigger sensors, more dynamic range, raw for photo. higher bitrate, color gradability with more dynamic range for video. Manual controls, optical stabilization would be next. More megapixels is not even in my top 10, or even top 100. In fact, I'm willing to trade my 13 megapixels and go sub 10megapixels for better noise performance. Am I in the minority? I own a Galaxy Note 3, and every time I attempt to use it for even semi professional work, it just is not good enough. It's always, "what was I thinking, I should have brought my Canon", or "I should have brought the GH3". There must be not one honest professional photographer/videographer in the world of smartphone engineering. But plenty of engineers who understand the engineering of image capture, but have no sense of what the real world requires.

Comment edited 3 times, last edit 7 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
siejones
By siejones (4 months ago)

Well of coarse you want what you mentioned. We all would like the features you mentioned in a super small package but as you should know physics doesn't allow it and MP sell. The bigger the sensor gets the bigger the lens gets and starts to defeat the object of a camera phone as it become the size of a decent camera. Given your apparent knowledge in the technical aspect of photography this is something you should already know.

2 upvotes
12345ccr
By 12345ccr (4 months ago)

and a Canon EOS mount too!

3 upvotes
CyberAngel
By CyberAngel (4 months ago)

Buy the Lumia 1020

0 upvotes
mcshan
By mcshan (4 months ago)

Don't forget an external flash-mount for the Canon Speedlite.

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
4 upvotes
Marty4650
By Marty4650 (4 months ago)

There is a real problem when you try to treat cell phones like cameras.

You can always replace a camera with a better one, but you can't upgrade your cell phone unless your contract is up or you are willing to pay a huge penalty.

At least, that's the way it works in the USA, We are pretty much locked into a phone for two years.

6 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

Well, you choose to be locked in. Of course you can always opt to buy an off-contract phone. You don't pay a penalty in that case, you pay the market-price. On the up-side you have lower monthly bills and the freedom to change provider and upgrade your phone anytime you want. I used T-Mobile's monthly plans when I was still in the US and found them ideal for my needs.

7 upvotes
Vladik
By Vladik (4 months ago)

I have a perfect solution. Get a 3rd line, with Share everything plan :)

Now I can upgrade every 12 months. Got my Lumia 1520 and next October I can get whatever gem will be out at that time :). Also, this extra line doesn't have to go to waste, you can put your child or a parent on it. Someone who doesn't need a fancy phone. Get them a flip phone or a cheap smart phone like $50 dollar Lumia 520

0 upvotes
hydrospanner
By hydrospanner (4 months ago)

Dismissing the contract system with a comment like "You choose to be locked in." seems more like a head-in-the-sand view than a true response to a valid concern. In many areas coverage and performance dictate provider choices (in my area, Verizon is the only game in town that offers complete coverage over the entire area with acceptably consistent performance), and it's important to keep in mind that, regardless of this site's focus, people use their phones for far more than just photography.

It's often a matter of finding the phone that fits one's needs overall better than another model, and for the vast majority, a big part of that concern is when their contract expires, what sort of incentives they get in terms of upgrades through their provider, as well as what phones their provider offers.

2 upvotes
Joe Ogiba
By Joe Ogiba (4 months ago)

I bet most photographers keep their main camera longer than smartphones (2 years). Do you upgrade your main camera more often than every two years ?

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
T3
By T3 (4 months ago)

I think the upgrade cycle for most people's stand-alone camera is two years too (but it's probably even longer than that), so I don't think it's a big deal. In other words, it's not a "real problem" at all.

2 upvotes
CyberAngel
By CyberAngel (4 months ago)

then pay the penalty!
I have got to myself one cheap Android and a top model in 2013 alone with a then (early summer) current top model Lumia and a cheap Lumia just now.
I did sell the Lumia away (no FullHD), but kept the rest.
Oh, and I also bought an Android TV-"tablet" and a remote mouse for it and a dozen 32GB uSD and other phone related stuff.
I could get a new phone whenever an interesting model comes up either getting them off-contract, paying an penalties involved or having multiple contracts. NO PROBLEMS !!

0 upvotes
noirdesir
By noirdesir (4 months ago)

I have another idea: Take out a two-year $400 consumer loan and buy the phone outright. You'll have lower monthly charges even after adding the monthly rates on the loan. If you want to get a new phone but don't want to increase your monthly rates, you have to re-pay the loan at once (with some extra fees). All-in-all, this is still cheaper than the early termination fees.
Now, if the carrier that covers your region (well enough) doesn't offer cheaper rates if you don't get a subsidised phone, there might a MVNO using the same network that does and if not just account the subsidy as a loan in your personal accounting and treat the early termination fee as an early loan repayment.
You don't have to change anything, you just have to give the various elements different names. The notion of being locked in is just a psychological one, not a real one.
The only problem is the lack of a resale value because nobody needs a used phone because they are forced to get one with their contract.

0 upvotes
Peiasdf
By Peiasdf (4 months ago)

Cannot wait to see which company will add the "useful" feature of 4K resolution on a 4.7" screen. Might be the same month 64-core 1024-bit processor is out.

1 upvote
Joe Ogiba
By Joe Ogiba (4 months ago)

I want a Sony Xperia Z Ultra LTE with 4K UHD video and lens with OSS from Verizon.

Comment edited 31 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

this sounds quite achievable, not sure about Verizon though. If we throw carriers into the mix, it probably gets too complicated :)

1 upvote
Juraj Lacko
By Juraj Lacko (4 months ago)

I would like to have in my next android smartphone bigger 20mpx sensor (like in sony rx100), the bright and sharp f2 35mm eqv. lens and Raw file recording. I also wouldnt mind phone to be thicker and heavier in exchange for longer battery life. I wouldn't mind to pay extra money for such device.

3 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

Sounds like a dream combo but also quite a design challenge to get all the necessary components into a case that resembles a smartphone. I am currently using something similar to this by using the WiFi-connectivity of my RX100II with my Android Phone, it gives you the best of both worlds :)

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 12 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
Juraj Lacko
By Juraj Lacko (4 months ago)

Lars Rehm for such a device i would give up my phone and CSC camera.
I know it would be a chalenge but it is possible. Sony has made small cameras even with ff sensor this year. I wouldn't mind if the phone would be as thick as 1" or so while the other things would be there. Even sony rx100 is around 36mm thick but that has got a zoom lens and lots of manual controls. The fixed prime lens would be smaller and lighter and cheaper to make. The cherry on a cake would be zeiss lens :) Dream on me! :)

0 upvotes
lecoupdejarnac
By lecoupdejarnac (4 months ago)

I wonder if part of the hesitation is that manufacturers are afraid to cannibalize their CSC sales. Now that the compact camera market has been decimated, with much better camera phones the cameras higher up in the market would be threatened.

Nokia doesn't make cameras, so that's why they are free to push the camera-phone industry.

Although the market for phones is much bigger than for cameras, so maybe I've got this wrong...

0 upvotes
Ivan Lietaert
By Ivan Lietaert (4 months ago)

I think the Lumina 1020 crop images have been swapped by mistake. Right?

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

mhh, no. Why do you think?

2 upvotes
GML57
By GML57 (4 months ago)

I thought the same thing... Somehow the larger file is showing much less detail. We've looked at it on several different monitors here.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

The 5MP has a lot of sharpening applied which makes it look crisper than the crop from the 41MP file. But you need to keep in mind that the latter shows a much smaller portion of the original image.

0 upvotes
iudex
By iudex (4 months ago)

After drowning my last smartfone I chose the Xperia Z1 because of the sensor size (and because it is waterproof). However I was a bit dissappointed by the outcome. It´s better than my wife´s iPhone 4s, but not that better as I expected from 1/2,3" sensor and f2 lens. I blame Sony for putting 20 MPx and for aggressive noise reduction. Maybe future possibility to shoot RAW may change things a little, we will see.

0 upvotes
Peter Lacus
By Peter Lacus (4 months ago)

about the only thing Apple really needs to do, is to enable RAW, everything else is first class already...

3 upvotes
JadedGamer
By JadedGamer (4 months ago)

Problem is, the sensor is Sony's, I doubt they would like to license the raw format for a competitor's product... a compromise where you got DNG out, though...

0 upvotes
RFC1925
By RFC1925 (4 months ago)

Don't think the sensor dictates the raw file format.

1 upvote
noirdesir
By noirdesir (4 months ago)

Nikon uses Sony sensors in several of its DSLRs which are direct competitors of Sony DSLRs. Same sensor but different raw formats for each brand.

0 upvotes
undergrounddigga
By undergrounddigga (4 months ago)

Will be interesting to see how will Apple cope with the competition. The others are much more open to collaboration (e.g. Sony-Zeiss, Nokia-Nikon?). Apple has a huge ego, and probably would be time to put that aside and build some lenses with Leica or Olympus.
At the moment, they are kind of falling in the same mistake Nokia has, when they didn't realise the power of smartphones. Lots of people will buy certain phones, just because of their better photo capabilities.
Not that I really care, I buy phones every 8 years, and I really hope I won't have to change mine for another 6 years.. :) From a business perspective however, will be interesting to see where is Apple going to be in 5-10 years time. I do use apple products, such as their personal computers.. absolutely love them. Maybe they have built such a strong computer and music (iTunes, iPod) market that until someone major challenged those, they will always be ok

1 upvote
SLove
By SLove (4 months ago)

"didn't realise the power of smartphones" about Nokia... That's like saying that Ford didn't realize the power of mass production. Where Nokia failed at was to produce an adequate response to the user interface revolution that the iPhone brought. The first iPhone wasn't even a proper smartphone feature-wise, since it couldn't run third party apps AT ALL with the original version of the iOS that came installed with it.

3 upvotes
tompabes2
By tompabes2 (4 months ago)

Apple knows their target audience very well. They don't need the *best* camera, they just need a *very good* camera, and they have it. Camera is just one part of the phone, here in this site we tend to overestimate it, but most users do not buy a phone for the camera alone. Otherwise, the 1020 would be the top-seller around the world, but most people just want a "good enough" camera. That's why the GS4 is the best selling Android smartphone even if it doesn't have the best camera. It has a "good enough" camera.
Users that value the camera more than the other functions of the smartphone are a niche. Nokia has been luring those users, but we're taliking about small numbers. What people want is an overall balanced and high quality phone.
That's why the Z1 is probably the only one that can compete with the iphone: it has exceptional build quality, top specs, very good camera, good design, and that's why it will sell much more than the 1020.
So Apple just has to keep a good balance!

Comment edited 31 seconds after posting
7 upvotes
T3
By T3 (4 months ago)

I don't use an iPhone, I use an Android phone. But I still think iPhones produce the best, most pleasing photos, regardless of what the specs might say. I think it's in how their chips process the images. I'll stick to my Android for now, but I'll likely switch over to the iPhone 6 when it comes out. I want the iPhone's camera, but I want a bigger screen than the current 4". Going from a larger Android phone's screen to an iPhone 4" screen is no good for me. I'll wait for iPhone 6.

1 upvote
tompabes2
By tompabes2 (4 months ago)

Well, with Android 5 Google will probably open the entire image processing pipeline to OEMs and developers, so I guess that camera apps will be able to implement their own algorithms. I don't understand why it took so long for Google to realize that this step is absolutely necessary, anyway if they really do it Android will offer someting that the even the iphone or WP do not offer, that is, every camera app will be really different and won't just be a different interface like it is now. Then, Android users will have an incredible choice.
And if you have a Nexus 4, Nexus 5 or another high-end smartphone that will be updated to Android 5, you might be able to use those new features, though of course it's simple speculation at this stage (we don't even know if Google will really open the camera API yet).

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 7 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Lewis Romane
By Lewis Romane (4 months ago)

i dont think us photographers have to worry just yet about losing business to mobie snappers, http://www.lewisromane.com

Comment edited 27 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Total comments: 54
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