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Perfect photos with your smartphone: what’s the price?

The best full-frame DSLR is useless if it is at home while you have just found a great photo opportunity. With advances in technology, such expensive professional cameras are no longer necessary, because comparatively cheap digital cameras have been replacing them for most casual photographers for years. This has long been the case for smartphone cameras, which, depending on the price range of the cell phone, have long since replaced expensive digital cameras. Because in addition to the ever better quality of smartphone cameras, they offer another advantage: You are always with you and therefore quickly at hand.

In this guide we concentrate on the technology of smartphones – more precisely: on camera technology. If you want more information or tips and tricks on taking photos with your smartphone, you should take a look at our photography guide: How to take great pictures with your smartphone. Our prices in the article refer to the street price of current devices from 2021, the RRP is usually more or less significantly higher. This information also applies to Android smartphones – iPhones are usually well above the price ranges we have selected.

If you are looking for a cheap smartphone, we have bad news: In addition to the amount of memory, chipset and various other technical areas, manufacturers in the segment up to 200 euros save primarily on the camera. Good models in this price range come with two useful lenses for wide-angle (“normal” main camera) and ultra-wide-angle, which are often extended by superfluous macro or depth sensors. The main camera should have 48 or 64 megapixels and an aperture of f / 1.8 or better.

The high number of megapixels usually indicates pixel binning, in which the information from several pixels (usually 4 in this price range) is combined to form an improved pixel in order to improve the general image quality in terms of sharpness, color reproduction, image dynamics and image noise. Accordingly, a corresponding smartphone snaps pictures with 12 or 16 megapixels in the default setting despite the high megapixel numbers, which deliver better results than without pixel binning, especially under difficult lighting conditions. In most cases, such devices also offer the option of taking photos with full resolution. This is only worthwhile in bright daylight and can then reveal a higher image sharpness and more details.

The lower the f-number, the better the camera can cope with low light. You shouldn’t expect too much, especially with cheap smartphones, because cheap models often save on other components such as image signal processors, software and lenses. The ultra wide angle (colloquially also simply called wide angle) has up to 8 megapixels in good smartphones from the price range up to 200 euros and has a poorer (i.e. higher) f-number due to the design. Normally, the quality of the wide angle is significantly worse compared to the main camera, which is mainly noticeable through less sharpness and correspondingly less richness of detail and more image noise even in good lighting conditions. In addition, colors and contrasts are visibly captured differently compared to the main camera – that shouldn’t actually be.

In the price range from 200 euros, two main things change compared to cheaper smartphones. On the one hand, the quality of the individual components increases, which leads to better image quality on average. There is also an important new hardware feature: the Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS).

In terms of components, it is primarily the performance of the chipsets and, associated with this, the performance of the image signal processors that increase. It allows more extensive software revisions, which leads to increased image quality. Since software is more important than hardware for a digital camera, this is much more decisive than the accompanying improvement in the quality of optics and lenses. This is also described by the term computational photography, i.e. computer-controlled photography. With their help, things become possible for which high-quality mechanics and optics were previously responsible. Bokeh is an example here. The intentional blurring (mostly) of the background in a picture artistically highlights the actual, sharp motif. This used to be done through optical effects, which is physically impossible in a smartphone digital camera due to lack of space. This is why such effects are now calculated using software – and this is now also very good in the middle class. In addition, this increases the overall image quality, since image errors can be better calculated.

The second important point: optical image stabilizers. They compensate for unwanted hand movements such as tremors and thus enable longer exposure times without unwanted motion blur. More light means better image quality through more sharpness, more adequate color rendering and less image noise. We have summarized the cheapest smartphones with OIS in a guide. Using professional or expert modes, middle-class users can determine many processes when taking photos, such as exposure time, white balance and focus level – this is more of an exception with inexpensive models.

Of course, the individual components continue to improve above the € 400 mark for a smartphone. Image processing processors are becoming even more powerful and can calculate an even larger amount of data in a shorter time, which can further increase the scope of the software used. This enables, for example, better factors for pixel binning than 4: 1. For example, Samsung and Xiaomi developed 108 megapixel cameras with pixel binning expanded to 12: 1. The cameras can be found in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (test report) and Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra (test report).

There are also additional functions and new or improved technology. Thanks to additional technology such as lasers, the focus works more precisely, and the image sensors become larger. The combination of sensor, optics and diaphragm copes with less light, flash LEDs become brighter and cast more natural light that is adapted to the subject, there are additional software effects and much more. In our opinion, in addition to the better quality of night photography, the greatest advance in the price range from 400 euros is the addition of optical telephoto lenses. Nowadays these are mostly available in the magnification levels 3x to 10x, but the latter is only available with the increasingly higher price of smartphones. Corresponding smartphones enlarge distant motifs without loss and significantly expand the photographer’s room for maneuver.

Using hybrid zoom, i.e. a mixture of optical and digital zoom, corresponding high-end cell phones can bring objects even closer and still reproduce them in very high image quality. In 2021, some manufacturers such as Oneplus also addressed the quality of wide-angle lenses. For the first time, these secondary lenses achieved megapixel numbers that, at around 50 megapixels, were roughly as high as those of the main lens. Together with other revisions, the quality of the wide-angle is roughly on par with the main lens.

A smartphone for little money with a correspondingly simple camera is better than no camera. But you shouldn’t expect much from cell phone cameras up to 200 euros. Although good models take passable pictures in daylight, photography is no longer fun in poor light. This generally applies to the wide angle, the other lenses (macro, depth sensor) are superfluous here anyway.

In the middle class up to 400 euros that looks better. In addition to the previous pluses, there are more and more optical image stabilizers, which at least allow recordings with the main camera to be successful even in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. The wide angle is also better here, if not really good yet.

Smartphones start with good cameras from 400 euros. Here the individual components are getting better and better and optical telephoto lenses are being added more and more frequently. In addition, the ability to take decent night shots increases and the wide angle finally offers reasonable quality on average. So if you want good cameras whose pictures still look great when enlarged, you cannot avoid a higher investment.

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