Smartphone cameras are getting better all the time. Optical zoom lenses aside, it's not uncommon for a high-end smartphone camera to match or even beat the quality from a small pocket digital camera.
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This rapid improvement in quality has dovetailed with a broader trend of sharing digital photography online -- whether it's through Facebook, Instagram, 500px or one of the many other photo sharing sites.
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So how do they compare? To find out, Nina Frazier -- Mashable's excellent photo editor -- and I spent a lot of time doing a good old-fashioned camera shootout. For good measure, we also included the 8-megapixel camera from Apple's iPhone 4S, to see how the newer phones compare with the older model.
Our goal with this camera comparison was to capture as many real-world situations and opportunities as we could.
A couple of notes about our tests:
- We used the default camera app for the Samsung Galaxy SIII, the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5.
- Photos were taken directly from the camera. Aside from crops for this gallery, the photos were untouched and there was no post-processing of the images.
- We took the images in the late afternoon in New York City. There was plenty of light, but because this is New York, not a lot of direct sun light.
Some iPhone 5 owners -- including our own Charlie White -- have been able to capture a purple haze with the iPhone 5's camera -- most likely do to chromatic aberration -- an issue not uncommon to digital cameras.
Nothing in our tests indicated that the issue was any more pronounced in the iPhone 5 than in any other digital camera, but keep this in mind when composing shots. If you see purple fringing, readjust before tapping the shutter button.
Take a look at our test shots and then read on for more information on each camera.
Blowing Bubbles in the Park
The iPhone 5's camera captures extremely vivid colors. You can see the entire spectrum inside the bubbles much more than with the Galaxy SIII or the iPhone 4S.
The iPhone 4S remains a great smartphone camera. In fact, under the right lighting and in the hands of a skilled photographer, images produced with the 4S can rival images from some point-and-shoot cameras.
That said, the 4S is significantly slower than the Galaxy SIII or the iPhone 5. That doesn't matter so much for posed shots or landscapes, but it can mean the difference between catching that fleeting moment or just missing it.
The iPhone 4S is also less adroit at shooting in low light. The flash on the camera is acceptable for some situations, but be aware that it can often overfill the frame, washing out the image. That LED flash is bright.
Aside from low light, the biggest difference between the 4S and the iPhone 5 is color. I'll discuss this more in the iPhone 5 section, but the newer camera tends to be much more accurate in terms of color and tonal balance.
Still, it's hard to be too hard on the iPhone 4S. A year later, it remains one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.
Samsung Galaxy SIII
Samsung deserves high praise for the camera it included on its flagship Galaxy SIII. In the past, I've had mixed results with Samsung smartphone cameras, but the Galaxy SIII is a great camera.
To us, image quality and color looked similar to the iPhone 4S. The biggest difference is that the Galaxy SIII is considerably faster. Samsung has a burst mode built into its camera software, but even without it, you can take photos with nearly no shutter lag.
This means it's possible to catch every moment as it happens. We should note however, that while the shutter is essentially lag-free, the auto-focus doesn't always keep up.
This is most evident when it comes to motion images. In our test shot of a moving bus, the bus itself is in focus, but the text on the bus itself is a bit blurred. On the iPhone 4S -- and especially the iPhone 5 -- the text and bus remain in focus.
One of the nicest aspects of the Galaxy SIII is its huge 4.8" display. Seriously, using a screen that large as a viewfinder is a real joy. The camera software is also easy to target focus points and snap off quick shots.
Color accuracy on the Galaxy SIII was good -- not iPhone 5 good -- but solid.
Where the camera did tend to fall down a bit was with backlit photos. In our test, we loved that the camera software compensated to focus and correctly expose the denim in my jacket, but were disappointed when it washed out much of the background.
In low light, the camera performs well, even in candle light. For us, the low-light performance was the perfect blend of resolution and contrast, but not too noisy.
After using the Galaxy SIII for a bit, it was easy to see why companies such as Nikon and Samsung are starting to build their own Android-based cameras. Put an optical zoom and larger sensor on this thing but keep that big display and you've got a great midrange prosumer camera.
The real story of the iPhone 5 is its color accuracy. Nearly every photo we took came off the camera with accurate and bright colors. Looking at the test shots, that's where it is most visibly different from the iPhone 4S.
Colors just pop. Looking at the colors in the bubble demonstration from Madison Square Park, I was stunned to see that level of detail and clarity without editing. The white balance on the camera is also remarkable -- easily the best default white-balance I've seen on a smartphone-based camera.
The iPhone 5 is also incredibly faster than the iPhone 4S. Like the Galaxy SIII, tapping the shutter button is lag free. There is no built-in burst mode, but I found myself able to take multiple shots at a clip with negligible lag.
The other story of the iPhone 5 is its low-light performance. The iPhone 5 is capable of a much higher ISO than the iPhone 4S -- which results in much better low-light photography. Of course, the disadvantage of the high ISO is noise.
The iPhone 5 performed best in our backlit test -- perfectly compensating for the lighting differences.
As nice as the iPhone 5's screen is, the Galaxy SIII still has an advantage as a viewfinder, thanks to its sheer size.
To us, Apple took the already great iPhone 4S camera and made it even better.
Regarding off-the-camera results, we'd have to give the edge to the iPhone 5. Still, the Galaxy SIII was a joy to use and its large screen functions as a fantastic viewfinder.
The Galaxy SIII and the iPhone 5 are both big improvements over the iPhone 4S, not so much for picture quality, but for speed. It's surprising how much a faster camera can improve the smartphone photography experience.
Looking through the photos, what camera do you prefer? Let us know in the comments.
This story originally published on Mashable here.
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