Which smartphone has the best shutter speed?

Smartphone camera - these terms should definitely be known to photo fans!

By Marlene Polywka | April 03, 2020, 11:20 a.m.

Nowadays, good smartphone cameras can keep up with their big siblings, digital cameras. TECHBOOK reveals which technical details you should pay attention to with cell phone cameras and which terms you should know.

Our cell phones are our constant companions in everyday life. We communicate through them, look for suitable rail connections, keep ourselves informed about current events - and, above all, take photos. For many, a good smartphone camera has even become one of the most important criteria when buying a cell phone. But what exactly should you pay attention to? TECHBOOK explains what makes a good smartphone camera and what it should be able to do.

Table of Contents

  1. construction
  2. sensor
  3. Megapixels
  4. lens
  5. cover
  6. Image stabilizer
  7. software
  8. Conclusion

This is how a smartphone camera is constructed

A smartphone camera works like a “real” photo camera. The light first falls through the lens, which consists of several differently shaped lenses and an aperture. The lens regulates the incidence of light before it reaches the sensor. The image sensor acts as a "retina", converts the incident light into electrical charge and records both brightness and colors. The sensor ultimately converts the analog information - the light - into digital information, which can then be seen as a finished image on the smartphone. On the way the light takes, various components of the camera and, last but not least, the software are decisive for what the end result looks like. Some elements are more relevant than others.

The sensor as the centerpiece

Today's cell phones with the most powerful photos have a comparatively large sensor built into them. On the one hand, this prevents color noise (more on this in the next paragraph), and on the other hand, less electrical voltage is required for ideal image exposure. With the automatic shutter speed, unlike with a photo camera, the aperture is not mechanically closed and the light is passed on. Instead, the sensor is simply activated for a short moment, which makes extremely short exposure times possible. This saves electrical charge and thus prevents picture noise.

Not all manufacturers have so far given the sensor size of their smartphone cameras, but more and more companies are playing with open cards in this regard. If a size is indicated, a minimum of about 1 / 2.5 inch is a good guide.

Pixels aren't everything

One of the most prominent statements made by manufacturers on their smartphone cameras is the megapixel. Many interpret this to mean that a camera with a particularly high number of megapixels automatically takes better pictures. But that's not entirely true. To put it into perspective: One megapixel corresponds to 1,000,000 pixels. The pixels form the surface of the sensor and each consist of a microlens, a color filter and other conductor tracks. In addition, the number of pixels stands for the resolution, so a high number also means a high resolution.

However, this advantage only comes into play in combination with the sensor size. If the sensor is small, but the resolution is very high, image noise quickly arises. If, on the other hand, the same number of pixels are distributed over a larger sensor, the pixels themselves are automatically larger, can absorb more light and do not emit the assigned basic color (red, green or blue) to the neighboring pixels, which in turn does that prevents unsightly color noise in the photo.

More on the subject: Why more megapixels don't always mean better pictures

So it is definitely worth paying attention to the number of megapixels. However, the number is only fully meaningful if the sensor size is also known and unfortunately the manufacturers often keep a low profile in this regard. As a guideline, you can still assume a minimum of 8 to 12 megapixels. This size is sufficient to be able to print a photo in good quality and DIN A4 size.

The trend is towards multiple lenses

Of course, the lens is also an important component on the way to a good-quality mobile phone photo. Before the light can even reach the sensor, it must first pass through the lens. The current trend for smartphones is towards a multi-lens system; so more than one lens is used. On the one hand, this is practical because more diverse angles can be taken when taking photos by simply installing an ultra-wide-angle lens for extensive landscape shots as well as a telephoto lens for close-up shots.

On the other hand, the functions become more diverse without the entire housing having to grow with it. This applies to the zoom, for example, which can be used without major loss of quality due to the different focal lengths of the lenses. Of course, there are also excellent smartphone cameras with only one lens, but the advantages of a multi-lens system cannot be denied. If you like to zoom in on objects with your mobile phone and want to take comprehensive ultra-wide-angle shots in the next breath, you should pay attention to the built-in lenses of your mobile phone camera.

Aperture - more is more

Although the aperture is part of the lens, it should be treated separately at this point because of its importance. The size of the aperture determines how much light ultimately reaches the sensor. The well-known information such as "f / 1.8" defines the relationship between the focal length (= f) and the given width of the aperture. Therefore: the lower the value, the larger the aperture. A large aperture enables better shots in low light and also shortens the exposure time and thus the risk of taking a blurred photo. The so-called bokeh effect, in which the background sharpness is lower and the focused object is highlighted in the foreground, works better with a large aperture because the drawing of the blurred area is softer. The aperture size is preset on most smartphones and cannot be changed; The key figure is all the more important when buying.

Current top models such as the iPhone 11 Pro usually have an aperture of f / 1.8, with which well-exposed photos can be created even in poor light. The Xiaomi Mi Note 10, for example, has an aperture of f / 1.69, the Samsung Galaxy S10 (Plus) even f / 1.5. Especially with portraits. And a large aperture is important for night shots. If you are more likely to take snapshots and landscapes with your mobile phone, this value is less relevant for you.

Image stabilization ensures a significant leap in quality

The image stabilizer of the smartphone camera is also playing an increasingly important role. Pictures from cell phones in particular are often blurred because we usually use the camera without a tripod, but simply take photos freehand. That is why many current smartphone cameras offer an image stabilizer that compensates for the shaking to a certain extent. The optical image stabilizer, which gives the lens little room to move, is particularly effective. It is then not fixed to a rigid position and can compensate for small jolts by means of a position sensor. The optical image stabilizer is now part of the standard equipment of the flagships. In the mid-range, if quality is your priority, you should also make sure the option is there.

Software - optical vs. digital

In addition to all the built-in hardware, the software is of course also important for the smartphone camera. This can compensate for any deficiencies in the rest of the equipment. In general, solutions built into the hardware generally work more effectively than digital software solutions.

However, this also makes the camera and thus the smartphone larger and heavier, which is why in many cases the functions are transferred to the software. Examples are the zoom function and the image stabilizer just mentioned. Both can be optically implemented by installing additional (movable) lenses. In both cases, however, the software can also take corrective action. In the case of the stabilizer, the image is first zoomed in a little so that slight blurring can be compensated for by shifting the relevant photo section. However, part of the resolution is also lost in the process. The same applies to zoom: The digital software-based variant enlarges the existing image section and thus causes a lower pixel density or resolution. The optical zoom changes the optical proximity to the lens with the help of the lens.

Nevertheless, camera software offers many extensions that can be very useful for the passionate smartphone photographer. Night mode, manual white balance, various filters, panorama mode, a possibly built-in photo AI that recognizes motifs and much more. It is therefore worthwhile to find out about the possible functions of the software in advance and, if necessary, to set priorities. And in case of doubt, even the best hardware equipment is of no use if the software cannot keep up.

Conclusion

If you want to be thorough when buying a smartphone or pay special attention to camera performance, you should keep several aspects in mind. The purpose is decisive: What is the main motive? The pixel density (min. 8 megapixels) in combination with the sensor size (min. 1 / 2.5 inch) is generally important. Different built-in lenses and an optical image stabilizer are less important for the quality but decisive for a nice photography experience. It is also worthwhile to take a closer look at the camera's software: Which functions are available and where are any hardware defects dealt with? A variable aperture (several lenses) is preferable if you want to be as flexible as possible when choosing a subject. The largest possible aperture (min. F / 1.8) is a good guideline, especially for portraits or photos with little light.

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