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By Aparna Narayanan, dealnews contributor
Whether you're an Instagram obsessive, a "pro" mobile photographer, or simply enamored with kitty pics, smartphones have revolutionized the ways in which we take and share photos. In a little over a decade, these gadgets have nearly replaced the functions of point-and-shoot cameras and have come to reign as consumers' cameras of choice. The trend towards bigger and better megapixels partly explains why smartphone photography has surged in popularity, but constant web connectivity that allows for instant image sharing, as well as image-processing apps and third-party accessories, have helped to seal the deal.
Manufacturers realize that consumers consider a devices' picture-taking quality as much as its ability to make calls. Just take a look at this billboard promoting the newly launched Nokia Lumia 928. The marketing campaign highlights not the processor speed nor its screen size nor svelte design, but simply the low-light camera performance.
To get a better handle on which smartphones offer the best mobile photography features, we turned to the venerable Digital Photography Review for the top five smartphone cameras that offer the most bang for your buck. Or the most pop for your pixel. You know what we mean.
Specs: 4" 1136x640 Retina display, Apple A6 processor, 1GB RAM, 8-megapixel iSight camera, 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD camera, 1080p video capture, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Some photo enthusiasts may carp about the iPhone 5's grainy or soft images, but look no further than Flickr for proof that the iPhone 5 is the most beloved smartphone camera. As such, Digital Photography Review praised the iPhone 5 off the bat for its camera's marked improvement over that of the iPhone 4S. Although the 8MP capacity remained unchanged, the iPhone 5's redesigned camera optics, combined with a faster A6 chip, and larger screen (4" vs. 3.5") lead to improved picture quality. And though the iPhone doesn't have the best camera, it offers "satisfying image quality, some neat functions like auto panorama and HDR mode, and – crucially – it is supremely easy to use."
Specs: 5" 1080x1920 (1080p) Super AMOLED touchscreen, Snapdragon 1.9GHz quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, 13-megapixel rear camera, 2-megapixel front camera, 1080p video capture, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, Google Android 4.2 OS (Jelly Bean)
Samsung's flagship smartphone boasts a number of advanced features, yet it's the 13MP camera that stands out. It not only dwarfs the competition, but also has the ability to take shots with almost zero shutter lag and produce super sharp images. And despite its rich colors bordering on over-saturation, "the camera app's mode selection wheel, which was lifted from Samsung's own Galaxy Camera, is the most intuitive method for switching between shooting modes on any smartphone we've tested.
Some of the S4's scene modes – Eraser, Best Face, Beauty Face – did elicit snickering, and Gizmodo's Brent Rose noted the superfluity of some features: "There is also dual camera shooting, which uses both the back and front cameras at the same time, getting your face all up in the action. You can have your head in a hard rectangle, or a gaussian circle, or a heart, or you can do a split screen. Again, it feels more like Samsung is showing off what it can do, rather than giving you something you actually need."
Specs: 4.7" 1080x1920 (1080p) touchscreen LCD, Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.7GHz quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, HTC UltraPixel rear-facing camera, 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera, 1080p video recording, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, Android 4.1 OS (Jelly Bean)
While other smartphone makers swear by "bigger is better" when it comes to megapixels, HTC scaled back: the HTC One has a smaller pixel count than its predecessor. Of course, HTC quickly described these 4MP as "Ultra Pixels" rather than just plain ol' megapixels. While this is no more than marketing jargon, "the Taiwanese manufacturer has to be applauded for aiming to improve the camera's low-light capability by using fewer but larger photosites on a sensor that has been developed in-house." What's more, the HTC One is one of the first smartphones to offer HDR video in full HD, 1080p resolution. Vine, here we come!
Specs: 4.5" 1280x768 OLED touchscreen display with Gorilla Glass 2, Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB RAM, up to 32GB internal memory, 8.7-megapixel rear camera, 1.2-megapixel front camera, 1080p video recording, optical image stabilization, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 3.0, and Windows Phone 8 OS
Cousin to the Nokia Lumia 920 sold by AT&T, the Nokia Lumina 928 Windows Phone (sold via Verizon Wireless) has been hailed for its clarity of images, especially in low-lit conditions. The Lumina 928 produces sharp, high-quality images, with true and detailed colors thanks in part to its xenon flash. Combined with its LED light, the 9MP camera focuses easily and produces higher quality low-light video recordings. Though the aforementioned xenon flash makes for photos that are "warm, sharp, and represent color accurately," even in situations with little to no-light, it "has a tendency to do strange things to white balance." Therefore, apart from action shots at night, it's better left disabled.
Specs: 5.5" 1080x1920 (1080p) IPS touchscreen, Snapdragon 600 1.7GHz quad-core processor, 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera with dual recording, 802.11n wireless, and Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)
LG's behemoth 13MP camera has won accolades for producing crisp, clean, and noise-free images even in low-light and action situations, thanks to the camera's fast shutter speed and agile autofocus. The Optimus G Pro has also been praised as "the best camera LG has ever made," standing in opposition to HTC's argument of "less is more." Yet there is a downside to the pixel load: massive image sizes "chew through" internal storage. And despite its "beautiful screen," and being "packed with pixels," the Optimus G Pro's camera performance was "subpar" and fuzzy even under normal shooting conditions.
From the 2007, original Apple iPhone's 2MP camera, to the super-sized sensors of current smartphones, mobile photography continues to play a role in smartphone usage. No matter which OS you swear allegiance to – iOS, Android, or Windows – there's a smartphone/camera combo out there to suit your calling and photography needs.