Why do smartphone OEMs face so much adversity when making quality cameras?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: July 11, 2012

When people talk or write about smartphone cameras, you often hear them reference the popular saying: "The best camera is the one you have with you." That saying is mostly a half-truth. It's better to snag some picture over missing a shot entirely, right? But what good is a picture of something if hardly represents or recreates what you saw?

For well over a year now, I've harped on the quality – or lack thereof – of smartphone cameras. Why are they not any better? Why can't a single company get the combination of software and hardware right? If there are hundreds of smartphones every year, even some from companies that have a dedicated camera division, why is there only one phone that I can always count on to take decent pictures?

Looking back at the quality of image sensors that were fitted to smartphones just two years ago to the ones we use today, it's clear we've come a very long way. But that shouldn't be an excuse for manufacturers cutting corners and missing the mark every single time.

Take HTC, for example. Their latest crop of devices come with ImageSense technology, along with ImageChip. Couple this with the f/2.0 aperture, a 28mm lens and some fancy marketing speak and it's easy to believe that the One X and One S might be capable of producing some of the best images you will ever see come of a smartphone. I will admit, if conditions and lighting are absolutely perfect, the One X is capable of taking some beautiful shots, although they may lack a great deal of detail. But try taking a picture in a low light area (which is what HTC pointed out as a highlight of this phone's photo taking abilities) and the software got haywire – it over exposes, lacks contrast and saturation. You will get a milky, noisy shot that's admittedly pretty terrible.

And this is essentially what I have experienced from every single Android phone I have used over the last year or so: company X claims to have used new and improved image sensors in their latest flagship, I get phone and play around with it and am more or less disappointed. The more I take pictures with the phone, the more that feeling resonates.

The worst smartphone camera that I have used in recent memory is the Galaxy Nexus by Samsung. And switching back to it after the One X only amplifies how terrible it really is.

But this isn't isolated to just Android devices. The Nokia Lumia 900, which was touted for its topnotch image sensor, also turned out to be quite the letdown. Images were constantly overexposed, grainy and lacking detail. Not to mention, there was an issue with the software itself, which made the center of the picture appear either pink or greenish, depending on the overall tone and warmth of the picture. (You can see a perfect example of this here.)

In contrast, the one phone I have been consistently impressed by is the iPhone 4S. You can see in the picture above two pictures I took last night, one with the One X (left) and one with the iPhone 4S (right). (I hadn't planned on writing this at the time I took the pictures last night, so I apologize for not getting exactly the same angle or distance. But lighting was identical at the time of the pictures, and I focus/exposed on the same block with both cameras. Other than cropping, no edits were made.) Clearly, the iPhone 4S produced a much better picture here. And that's generally the case. I've been using both phones for taking pictures for over two months now – taking a picture of the same subject and comparing the outcomes – and the above representation is generally the verdict every time.

Unless I am using my Sony NEX-C3, you can rest assured that every picture I take is taken with my iPhone 4S. Admittedly, the colors don't seem to pop as much in a picture taken with the iPhone. But even with the same (or similar) sized sensor as its counterparts, the iPhone tends to produce images with more detail, balance and quality. As a testament to its quality and dependability, the iPhone 4S and its predecessor are two of the most popular cameras on the photo sharing site Flickr.

My point? If Apple can fit their phones with such fantastic cameras (that is actually manufactured by Sony), other manufacturers can, too. Unfortunately, they don't. No matter how many times they iterate that they have improved their sensors, for the most part, their cameras are still abysmal. And Apple (or Sony, rather) is making them look like novices.

Nokia's PureView technology, however, looks very, very promising. Of course, the Finnish phone maker needs to focus on shrinking the technology down quite a bit. But, if nothing else, it could spur some innovations and improvements out of their phone-making compatriots. And, although it doesn't need it, we can also hope Apple improves the camera in the upcoming iPhone for the very same reason.

As it stands, I carry an iPhone almost exclusively for taking pictures. And don't get me wrong, I enjoy iOS. But I'm hoping that within the next year at least one non-Apple manufacturer can get this right and I can consolidate to a single smartphone.