Shutter showdown: which smartphone has the best camera?

iPhone 6, LG G4, HTC One M9 and the Galaxy S6 - our final verdict

Just what do you think you are doing, Dave?

We want to find the best smartphone camera money can buy.

Over the last year we’ve seen a whole new array of amazing phones throw their hat into the ring, each one boasting fast innards, supercharged features and crystal clear cameras.

Five of the latest and greatest are the Apple iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, HTC One M9, Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4, and we've already asked you, the Stuff readers, to pick your favourite in our blind smartphone camera test.

We put all five handsets through their paces in and around London, to conclusively see which one offer the best camera of the lot.

Here's how they stacked up against each other:

The hardware

There’s a lot more to cameras than the numbers of its spec list, but it’s interesting to see what areas the manufacturers have tried the hardest at. As usual, Apple seems pretty effortless with its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

They both have 8MP cameras, with 1/3in sensors and f/2.2 lenses. None of these elements are all that impressive. The iPhone 6 Plus takes a step up with optical image stabilisation, something we’ve seen many times in Android and Windows phones, but never in an iPhone until this generation.

Samsung and LG pack in a lot more impressive-sounding tech. The Galaxy S6 and G4 have 16MP 1/2.6-inch sensors: significantly larger, but with loads more pixels packed in too. It’s likely these are both variants of Sony sensors, although Samsung hasn’t been totally clear about this yet.

Optical image stabilisation (OIS) in in too, and the LG G4 goes one step further by offering additional laser focus and colour sensors. These sit on the back and basically give the main camera brain more info to work with, letting it shoot better pics more quickly. The LG G4 also has a slightly faster lens, with f/1.8 aperture to the Galaxy S6’s f/1.9.

At first glance the HTC One M9 seems like it might be top of the tree. It has an even larger 1/2.3in sensor and 20MP resolution. However, it doesn’t have the extras seen in the others. There’s no OIS and lens aperture isn’t as fast as the Galaxy S6 or LG G4 at f/2.2.

Now let’s see how they are in practice.

Detail: Peeping pixels

How much detail a camera can resolve seems like a pretty simple equation. More resolution equals more detail, right?

While that’s not nonsense, there’s more to consider. First, not every single camera here uses all its resolution when shooting ‘normal’ photos. The iPhones, the G4 and Galaxy S6 do, but the HTC One M9 doesn’t.

Most people like to shoot with as aspect ratio that fills the screen (16:9), and while the HTC One M9 does this by default, it means you only use about 16 megapixels, not 20. So, yes, the M9’s megapixel advantage really is just about the numbers when you look closer.

Checking out the photos above, the HTC One M9’s shots also look a little bit softer than the LG G4 or Galaxy S6’s right down at the pixel level.

The LG G4’s photos are the sharpest overall, but they also appear sharpened. So the sharpness is down to processing, not some extra ability of the actual hardware.

Still, these two are absolutely at the top of the tree, with the HTC One M9 lagging behind just a bit.

It’s here we see the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus lose by having only half the resolution. While they make great use of the megapixels they have, when you zoom in using Photoshop or something similar, the ultra-fine detail you can get when shooting outdoors with good lighting with the LG G4 or Samsung Galaxy S6 isn’t there.


Zoom: Where resolution really matters

Does this matter? If you’re taking photos just to post to Instagram or Facbook, with no need to crop into them to make the image you really want, no.

Unless you really get in there, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus offer at least as good an impression of detail as the rest, or better. Where the extra resolution really comes in handy is when you want to use the zoom.

Digital zoom is best approached as a last resort thing, as all it really does is to crop into the image and enlarge it, tarting it up a bit with some clever software work. However, sometimes there’s no way around using it.

The LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 are leagues ahead of the iPhones when using digital zoom. Even at 4x zoom (as far as most phones go) the LG and Samsung shots pass for pretty uncompromised photos where the iPhone shots show they’re clearly made using limited information. It’s like you’re looking at them online and they haven’t loaded properly yet.

The softness we saw when looking close-up at the ‘normal’ HTC One M9 photos becomes all the more apparent in the zoomed-in shots. They’re oddly soft and milky-looking. Not ugly, just indistinct.

Colour: Popping shades

What you’ll generally notice much more often than the detail level is whether a photo has a weird, unnatural colour cast to it. As is generally the case, Apple’s iPhones absolutely nail this one.

Colour and white balance are dead on, every time. The Samsung Galaxy S6 is very similar 95 per cent of the time too, with natural-looking shots 24/7.

The LG G4 is generally excellent as well, but despite having a dedicated colour sensor on its back, it does at times tend to make its photos a little warm-looking. Now, this never trips over into making shots appear totally unrealistic, just a little warmer. We’ve seen this sort of approach in some Lumia cameras in the past, and it’s nice on the eye candy stakes. But it’s at times less accurate than the iPhones or Samsung Galaxy S6, despite having that bonus sensor.

It’s the HTC One M9 that has more significant problems with white balance and colour. Its shots generally look very warm, with a yellow and green cast common. On occasion this can really work for the shot, but shows up as an unnatural cast when you take a closer look in a photo editing app. For example, we tried bringing out the shadow details in one M9 photo only to find they were all tinted green. Weird.


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