If you’re going to rely on your smartphone’s camera to record life’s most meaningful moments, you need to understand how it works and what specifications and features are important for maximizing still image and video quality.
How can you tell if a digital camera will take good pictures? Is the camera in a $700 flagship phone really any better than one in a $200 phone? How does pixel size and focal length affect image quality, and what the heck is an f-stop? Photography has a language all its own, filled with technical jargon. Marketing hype and bold claims of DSLR-quality images only add to the confusion. Fortunately, you do not need an advanced degree in optics or be a professional photographer to select a good camera; you just need a little help from Tom’s Hardware.
This introduction to digital camera technology will define key terms and explain how camera features work. It will also help explain the image capture process, from the lens array to the sensor to software post-processing. Using this knowledge, you can choose a camera that meets your needs, take better pictures, and bore people at parties.
What To Look For
For those of you afraid of information overload or who just want a quick summary to refer back to, the table below lists the important specifications and features you should look for to improve your camera experience.
|Specs & Features||Function||Recommendation|
|resolution||determines an image’s level of detail||Higher resolution is better as long as it does not compromise pixel size.|
|pixel size||determines the dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio of the camera sensor||Sensors with larger pixels generally produce better quality images.|
|BSI or FSI||affects the light gathering capability of the sensor||BSI sensors gather more light and produce better quality images.|
|autofocus||goal is to produce sharp images with minimal focus lag in all lighting conditions||PDAF and laser AF are both superior to contrast detect AF. Look for hybrid AF systems like PDAF + laser in the future.|
|HDR||handles scenes with both bright areas and shadows||HDR is good, automatic HDR is better, automatic HDR for both stills and video is best.|
|EIS and OIS||reduces image blur caused by shaky hands||EIS is good, OIS is better.|
|lens element count||multiple lenses are required to overcome optical aberrations||More lenses can be better, but lens count is not a definitive performance parameter.|
|aperture||area of the entrance pupil limits how much light can reach the sensor||Lower f-stop values are generally better, but it’s complicated (see below).|
|focal length||Focal length is related to how much of a scene is captured in a frame. A shorter focal length provides a wider angle of view.||The full-frame 35mm focal length is a good reference, but there’s no optimal value. If you take pictures of things that are relatively close to the camera, a wider angle of view may be desirable.|
|ISP||A specialized processor that runs various algorithms for constructing and improving still images and videos.||A faster ISP improves image capture time (reducing “shutter lag”) and can run more sophisticated algorithms for improving image quality.|
You’ll also need a good camera app to accompany the hardware. Several OEMs include good camera apps with their devices, but there are numerous third-party choices too. Look for an app with an easy to use interface that places the controls used most often (flash, HDR, timer, etc.) within easy reach. The preview displayed by the electronic viewfinder should match the image captured by the camera—it should not be cropped or have a different aspect ratio. Photography buffs or people who want to express their inner artists should find a camera app that offers a full manual mode and RAW image capture.