Camera is one of the prime features that all smartphones boast about. Isn't the resolution of the camera one of the first few things you look for when you go through the spec sheet of a smartphone? For some, the camera is not as important as the core that drives the phone. But it’s a paramount feature for shutter bugs who want a camera that can take pristine shots—we’re talking about phone cameras that match up to digital cameras. High-end smartphones stress on this very feature, and the way they do has changed drastically with the latest-generation models. Not too long ago, the emphasis was purely on megapixels—the higher the better. Weren’t you awed when you first heard of a 12 megapixel camera in a cellphone? Less-renowned brands still try to woo their price-conscious audience with this stunt. Whereas, the big brands are firing all pistons to develop camera technologies in order to get close to, or we must say, surpass point-and-shoot digital cameras. This is quite evident from the kind of optics used in phone cameras these days. The latest high-end smartphones boast wide angle lenses and large apertures, which was never the case before. Some brands such as Nokia have plunged further and devised optical image stabilisation. Imagine a camera the size of your nail to pack all of that! Of course you pay a heavy premium. You must be ready with at least three to four bundles of 100 rupee notes to own a high-end smartphone with an incredibly good camera, such as the Nokia Lumia 920 and Apple iPhone 5.
8 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics in the Nokia Lumia 920
At the end of the day, it’s about making a smart choice. With that amount of money you can either buy just a high-end smartphone or a fairly high-end travel-zoom camera and a mid-range Android handset. If you’re to step out to splurge in a luxurious handset primarily for a great camera, you might want to reconsider by the time you reach the end of this write-up.
One device that does it all
Consider the Nokia Lumia 920—a high-end smartphone with the most advanced camera in its segment. The camera is equipped with Carl Zeiss optics and Nokia’s Floating Lens technology, which simply is optical image stabilisation. The lens has a fixed focal length of 26mm (35mm equivalent) and a large f/2.0 aperture. The wide focal length helps capture large groups of people without moving too far and wide and landscapes look almost panoramic. It’s commendable for a miniscule camera to have a large aperture. Since it allows more light to pass to the sensor, it goes a long way in getting well-exposed shots without having to use flash in low light, and that too hand-held. That’s for the camera housed on the rear.
Limited but useful controls offered by Lumia 920
It’s the user interface of the camera app that lets you take full advantage of the camera with great ease. You don’t get complete manual control over exposure, but you can tinker with the EV, white balance and ISO (100 to 800). The drawback here is that you don’t have fine control over the aperture and shutter speed. However, the scene modes determine the shutter speed—the Sports mode uses fast shutter speed to freeze action and the Night mode uses a slower shutter for longer exposures in low light. So, the Lumia 920, or for that matter any phone loses out to a digital camera when it comes to controls. Also, you can’t afford to burden the battery by using the camera when you don’t have much charge left. However, phone cameras have an upper hand over digital cameras in many respects. Firstly, you don’t need to carry two separate devices, which is one of the biggest advantages—you get a large-screen phone and quite a capable camera in a single device. Speaking of a large screen, you have a luxurious viewfinder. How about a large 4.5-inch, HD 720p display for framing subjects and shooting videos? A bonus feature of the Lumia 920 is Lenses, out of which the most useful is Smart Shoot. On pressing the shutter button in this mode, the camera captures a burst of five images. You can then choose the best shot or use the Edit mode to choose the best expression for all the detected faces in the frame. So, you can choose to replace faces if someone blinks or doesn’t look at the camera. It goes even further by allowing you to eliminate unwanted subjects who walk into the frame—great to take photos in crowded locations. None of the digital cameras have this feature yet. Last but not the least, social networking buffs would want Internet connectivity to share their photos and videos instantly.
Awesome camera and a phone
Now let’s turn the table around and consider a premium travel-zoom camera and a sub-Rs 20,000 smartphone, the combined price of which would be the same as the price of a single high-end handset. Take for instance, the Canon PowerShot SX240 HS and a smartphone priced under Rs 18,000, for example, Samsung Galaxy S Duos (Rs 15,000) or Sony Xperia Go (Rs 14,500). You can still save a few thousand rupees! If you don’t care for warranty and after-sales support, you can fit the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini or the Sony Xperia S in the budget. So, you can buy a fairly powerful dual-core handset with at least a 5MP camera and a compact travel-zoom camera to satiate the shutterbug in you.
A slew of physical controls for utmost shooting comfort
It would be unfair to compare a diminutive phone camera with a full-fledged travel-zoom digital camera, but in this case we’re talking about what you can buy in the same budget. The 12 MP PowerShot SX240 HS lets you shoot like a ninja! You get a 20x optical zoom lens that starts from 25m, super macro capability, fully-manual mode, granular controls, plenty of scene modes, effect filters, powerful xenon flash among many other things that aren’t present in the Lumia 920. Larger sensor and optics means less noise and better reproduction of details. Combined with stellar performance, the PowerShot SX240 HS makes for a great travel companion. On instances when you aren’t carrying the digital camera, you can make do with the cellphone camera—the ones on the Xperia S and Go are quite capable.
So, what do you lose out on? Firstly, you have to tote along an additional device if you want pro-quality shots. It’s not as quick as pulling out your cellphone and getting ready to shoot in a few seconds, especially if the camera is in the case. Next, you can’t instantly share the photos and videos you’ve shot on social networking websites; you need a PC to do that. These are the only big drawbacks of having separate devices unlike cellphone cameras that are too restrictive.
Comparison of photo quality (click on photos for full view)
Outdoor in shade
Good reproduction of details but you can't get up close
You have 20x optical zoom at hand and pristine quality guaranteed
Outdoor in bright sunlight
A 100 percent crop from a shot by Lumia 920: excellent for a miniscule camera
More neutral colours and better details
Dynamic range and light metering
The evaluative metering in Nokia works well but you can't meter any specific spot
Spot metering lets you meter light in specific spots. Wish Lumia 920 featured this!
The question really is – Would spending Rs 35,000 (or even more) on a phone pinch your pocket? In that case, you’d be better off with a good digital camera and an entry-level or a mid-range smartphone, especially if you like photography. The combination is any day a better value for money than a single, expensive device. Moreover you won’t fret as badly if you lose an entry-level phone. At least you’ll have the camera and your precious memories with you—unlike losing a high-end smartphone. As for instant shoots and sharing photos, you have quite a full-fledged smartphone with atleast an 8 MP camera. Don't underestimate the capabilities of cameras in mid-range handsets; they are almost as capable as entry-level point-and-shoot digital cameras. On rescaling the photos shot with these handsets to full HD or the native resolution of the phone, it's hard to tell they are shot with a cellphone. Use a good camera app such as Camera 360 or Pixlr-o-matic and you'll be able to add cool-looking effects. While a high-end handset like the Lumia 920 is nice to have, it certainly isn't a great bang for your buck as a premium digital camera and a mid-range smartphone. Well, if you already own a good digital camera, we suggest you save your money and go in for a mid-range handset and put Rs 15,000 that you save to better use.
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