Don’t buy the phone with the ‘best camera,’ buy the phone you like as a phone
If your job entails giving people on the internet buying advice about photo gear, you field a lot of questions from friends who want to make a camera purchase. It sounds corny, but we at DPR actually love these questions – it's a chance to put an otherwise somewhat useless store of knowledge to work. We get something out of the transaction too: a data point about the needs and wants of people who are actually buying cameras. It's like a pop quiz we spend 40 hours a week studying for.
Lately, it's not just cameras we're asked about. Friends have seen plenty of advertising declaring this or that smartphone as having the 'best camera.' More and more, we see people treating their smartphone purchase as a camera purchase too, so it makes plenty of sense that these claims hold a lot of sway. People who seek our advice are now debating between a couple of flagship devices, sometimes within the same operating system, and sometimes not. But the question is the same – "'Such and such phone' has the best camera, should I buy it?"
Here's the short answer: Not necessarily.
The flagship phones from the major manufacturers all have pretty darn good cameras at this point. Sure, there are slight advantages in image quality in different scenarios, but overall, any minor shortcomings are going to be easier to live with than an operating system you don't like. This is especially true if you're upgrading from a phone that's several generations old. Manufacturers have been leaning hard into camera tech innovation for the past few years, so you'll probably see plenty of improvement even upgrading from a device several years old to last year's flagship.
You'll probably see plenty of improvement even upgrading from a device several years old to last year's flagship
There's a slight caveat here: while quality from most smartphone cameras is good, a few of them do offer unique hardware-based camera features. The LG V30's super-wide-angle lens is a good example – if a wider lens is something you really want, it's worth checking the V30 out because it's basically one-of-a-kind right now.
It's also worth remembering that the demands on image quality in smartphones are, in most cases, much lower than on dedicated cameras. Photos taken with phones will likely only ever be viewed at lower resolution on another device screen or in smaller printed formats, like Chatbooks. In many situations, even the image quality benefits of a dedicated camera will be negligible when images are downsized for viewing on a 5" screen.
So why even test phone cameras if they're all good enough at this point? The same reason why we test cameras: so you can make an informed buying decision. We also fully expect them to eventually challenge more traditional cameras, but that's another story for another day. Even if we could declare one traditional camera as the objective 'best camera,' that would be a pretty meaningless award. Size and cost, for example, are two huge factors to consider when buying a camera. It doesn't matter if you bought the 'best' camera of all time; if it's too heavy and you leave it at home most of the time then it wasn't the best camera for you.
How you get along with your smartphone is an important consideration since many of us spend an embarrassing amount of our waking hours using them
How you get along with your smartphone is an important consideration since many of us spend an embarrassing amount of our waking hours using them. It has taken the place of a dedicated camera for lots of folks, but it's not just our camera – it's also our communication hub, media player, notepad, grocery list, bank, travel agent, the list goes on. How you like using it and how it feels in your hand should be given as much, if not more consideration than whether the camera scored three points higher than another.
We'll keep testing smartphone cameras so we can help inform your decision and point out where there's still room for improvement. In the meantime, if you're debating upgrading to a new phone and you've got an eye on the one with the 'best camera,' consider heading to a wireless retail store and see if that's the one you like best as a phone. You'll be glad that you did.