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Can today’s camera phones replace your compact?

Find out how the latest smartphone’s cameras perform in our photography lab tests

Smartphone camera technology is advancing at a phenomenal rate, so does that mean compact cameras are redundant? We put some of the latest flagship smartphones through our cameras lab test to see how they compared. 

Traditionally, smartphone cameras have been seen as worlds apart from a dedicated compact, limited by both the size of their lens and their sensors. However, with technological advancements, smartphone cameras now benefit from artificial intelligence and post-processing which expand the possibilities you can achieve, even with a small sensor.

We’ve taken some everyday shots using automatic mode on two of the most popular smartphones, the Apple iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy S10, and compared them to shots taken on a premium compact camera, to see whether the gap has closed. 

Still a dedicated camera fan? Jump straight to our digital camera reviews.

General picture quality

Good lighting is one of the  must-haves for top-notch picture quality. So in our testing, we put the smartphones through our variety of camera tests in different lighting scenarios, to see how well they cope.

One of the main struggles we saw with smartphones is the hit-and-miss AI technology. In some ways this technology is a benefit; it can predict what the average person wants from its camera and uses blurring, smoothing and sharpening techniques to create the best possible image. However, often this can be slightly off – resulting in photos that have an artificial look, or parts of the image that have either lost too much detail or are over-sharpened. With a compact camera, you won’t have to worry about these processing problems.

Shooting in well-lit environments means that the camera won’t have to post-process the image as much, which helps to avoid these issues. Overall, as we often see with compact cameras, smartphones performed best in bright lighting – well enough to rival some of the best dedicated point and shoot cameras on the market.

See how photos taken with the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Apple iPhone XS compare with those from the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II:

Low-light photography

Smartphone cameras have a small sensor. In photography, a sensor is rated by both the megapixels (Mp) it can capture and it’s size, and it’s more so the sensor size which determines good picture quality. The bigger the sensor size, the more light it can let in, and you’ll get better quality photos even in low lighting.

In our testing, we found that today’s smartphones can shoot brilliant photos in low light, despite being limited by their sensor size. Compared with compacts, even some of the most expensive models don’t cope well with poor lighting conditions, so smartphones are more than fine to use instead when you’re out and about in the evening, or inside a restaurant or bar.

We took photos without the flash on the Canon premium compact camera, which gets a fantastic score for low-light photography, and on the Apple iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy S10:

Which one gets your vote?


 

How else do phone cameras and compacts compare?

Speed

Another area where smartphones excel is with speed. In our testing we measure the shutter delay – this is the amount of time between when you press the shutter release button and when the picture is actually taken.

Advanced smartphone technology allows a ‘pre-buffer’. The smartphone cameras with this function have effectively taken the picture before you’ve even pressed the shutter release, resulting in literally zero shutter delay. Although the very best of compact cameras are quick, in this area, smartphones can’t be beaten.

Ease of use

The area where smartphones just can’t rival a dedicated compact is ease of use. In terms of photography, compact cameras have easy-access buttons and dials, and specialist grips, which means you can shoot quickly and easily at whatever angle you fancy.

Although smartphones are undeniably convenient – you can upload to social media, edit in-camera or with apps and share with friends and family with just a couple of swipes – they can be difficult to hold and rotate without covering the camera, have few to no buttons and switches, and often important settings are hidden in menus.

Dedicated cameras also offer the opportunity to improve your photography skills. Premium compact cameras, often a step below a DSLR or mirrorless camera, have manual controls which allow you to manipulate and adjust the camera settings to suit lighting, scenery and settings. With a smartphone, the device will post-process the images for you, acting as a middle-man between pressing the shutter and the final image. This is great if you’re just interested in quick and easy shots, but with a compact you’ll have much more creative control.

Want to see how all the latest smartphones perform when it comes to photography? See our expert reviews

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