Smartphone cameras are not all the same and the story far extends past simply the megapixels tied to the duo of cameras. Here is that complex story which is split into three parts.

Part one looks at the camera hardware and concludes with how to choose the right camera phone for you. Part two looks at the camera settings and how to use them to achieve the best possible results and finally, part three looks at post production enhancements.

So if you’re looking to find out how to improve your photo snapping quality, then you’re in the right place.

Part one: Camera hardware

Sensor size

The sensor size could be considered as the most important element of the camera. This is because a large sensor will collect the most amount of light. However its close companion, aperture, muddies the waters slightly.

Aperture

The aperture on a smartphone camera is the size of the hole within the lens. It is expressed in f-numbers, also known as f-stops.

Big apertures have a large f-number and let in more light. This makes them great for low light photography. Small apertures have low f-numbers and focus the incoming light better. This makes them better for day time photography as the smaller apertures bring out the fine detail with the whole image in sharp focus.

Pixel size

Pixel size is a secondary factor that can be used to determine what the smartphone camera has been designed to do best.

A camera with a large pixel size, measured in µm, means that it allows more particles of light to hit it. This is important in low light photography as there are fewer light particles available to overcome the background electrical interference, which is always present in the environment.

A larger pixel is hit by more light particles and so background noise is statistically less of a factor and the camera can accurately determine the correct colour for that individual pixel. A small pixel size on the other hand indicates that the smartphone camera is focused on getting the highest fine detail possible under daylight conditions.

Focal length

The focal length or lens size is the final camera element to consider. Measured in mm, a small focal length delivers a wide angle result making it good for taking images in small rooms or for capturing groups of people close to the camera.

A small focal length will also capture a wider landscape image. This is however at the cost of detail. A smartphone camera with a large focal length will capture a narrow field of view and hence that view is sharply in focus.

Conclusion

In smartphone photography, the camera hardware is a complex story to understand. High and low values for each attribute can be good or bad depending upon the conditions under which the photograph is taken.

So what does the mean for our leading camera smartphones?

The Sony Xperia Z3+ offers a large sensor and highest resolution making it ideal for daytime shooting of landscape scenes or shooting within small spaces.

The HTC One M9 and Apple iPhone 6 have large apertures for low light photography. The One M9 gives more resolution but the iPhone 6 experiences less background interference.

The LG G4 has a smaller aperture suggesting it will be great for detail when landscape isn’t desired. The Samsung Galaxy S6 plays almost everything right down the middle.

It could be argued that Samsung’s tactic makes the camera exceptional in no particular area, but it could just as easily be argued that it performs reasonably well across all conditions!

Part two: Camera settings

HDR

HDR (High Dynamic Range) is one of the most important settings that can be turned on or off. HDR was created to tackle scenes with both light and dark elements within them.

Without HDR a smartphone camera can only bring out the detail in either the light or dark element, depending upon which dominates most of the shot. HDR overcomes this limitation by taking two shots, just fractions of a second apart.

One shot captures the detail in the light areas while the other captures the detail in the dark areas. The camera software then merges the two images into one photo, selecting the light detail from one and the dark detail from the other.

White Balance

The white balance can be used to adjust colours so that they look more natural. This is needed because light sources, such as light bulbs, flash lights and the sun don’t purely emit white light. They have what is known as a colour temperature.

The human brain automatically adjusts this so that when we see a white piece of paper it looks white, both indoors and out. A camera however cannot perform such a magical trick, so when white paper, for example, is seen under a yellow / warm light the paper also appears yellow.

ISO

The ISO sets the cameras level of sensitivity to light. Using a low ISO number makes the camera less sensitive to light and can be used to when plenty of light is available to get the most amount of detail.

Using a high ISO number increase the camera’s sensitivity to light. This allows the shutter to close quicker making it a good setting to adjust when capturing items in motion. It can also be used to capture low light photographs without using the flash, although the higher the ISO is set the more prone it is to background electrical noise.

Exposure Value

The exposure value can be manually adjusted and is useful when scenes have all light or all dark elements in them. The exposure value is determined by the camera by setting the mid-point between white and black where white is considered to be the lightest element in a scene and black is considered to be the darkest elements of the scene.

A good example of the problem of this is most evident when taking a photograph of snow. As the lightest is white and the darkest is also white the camera deems everything n the scene to be grey as it is the mid-point between white and black. To tackle this simply set a higher exposure value.

Part three: Post production enhancements

Saturation

Saturation controls the amount of grey in the reproduced colours of a photograph and this can be adjusted either on the smartphone if the option exists or on a computer using free software such as Paint.net.

Adding more grey into the image darkens its tone, while reducing the amount of grey in the image makes colours look more vivid. Natural images and portraits can have their vibrancy increased by reducing the amount of grey in them, but take care not to go too far, else the result will look unnatural.

Contrast

Contrast sets the amount of difference between light and dark in an image. This is automatically done by controlling colour, texture and tone. Increased contrast gives a bolder look while decrease contrast gives a more monotone result.

Noise

When discussing camera pixel size in part one, we touched on the problem of electrical background noise which hinders low light photography.

The can be tackled in post production by adjusting the noise filter, which essentially smooths out the result. This is achieved by looking at the colour of the neighbouring pixels to help decide which of the light particles captured is the best colour match. There is a loss of detail though when noise is reduced in this way so those big pixel sizes come back into play.

The future of smartphone cameras

Camera hardware and software will continue to develop, making it even easier to get great photographic results. One of the most exciting developments just around the corner is that Google’s Android M OS will have RAW image support.

A RAW image is one that contains all of the data from the camera without any adjustments. Because each attribute is kept in its original form it allows every aspect to be adjusted after the shot has taken place.

For smartphone photographers, this means that post production control will be on the same level as available for professional photographers.

Looking for a superb smartphone camera in your pocket? Head over to Mobiles.co.uk to find the perfect snapper.