Can your smartphone really replace your point-and-shoot camera?

When I see something that I'd like to capture and save for posterity, or share with friends and family, I reach into my pocket for my ever-present iPhone. I don't leave my desk, much less my house, without my iPhone, but the days of habitually grabbing my stand-alone camera before going on an outing are over.

For me, it's about convenience. With my keys, wallet, and phone already filling my pockets, I don't have room for another device, and I'm not one to carry a bag.

But, what, if anything, do I give up in image quality for the convenience of leaving my camera at home? Do the photos that a dedicated point-and-shoot camera captures justify the hassle of packing yet another device?

Smartphone photography has come a long way since the original iPhone with its 2-megapixel camera, but to find out how phones today compare to a popular point-and-shoot camera, I gathered four popular smartphones—an Apple iPhone 5, a BlackBerry Z10, an HTC Droid DNA Android phone, and a Nokia Lumia 920 Windows Phone 8—and a Canon PowerShot Elph 520 HS, and started snapping.

A note on the photo illustrations: Each slideshow was created on Flickr and embedded in the story. Click anywhere in the slideshow to see thumbnails of the five photo variations shot on the test devices. Each set appears in this order: Canon, Apple, Nokia, HTC, BlackBerry. You can view the photos at full-screen size; to see a photo labeled with the name of the device that took it, click the Show Info link at upper right. The slideshow on the page, unfortunately, does not show the device name on each image. Left on its own, the slideshow will automatically cycle through each image that it contains.

Hardware

Each of the smartphones I used has an 8-megapixel camera, while the Canon model has a 10-megapixel camera.

One of the biggest advantages of the Canon PowerShot Elph 520 HS is its 12X optical zoom. Though the smartphones let you zoom in, they do so digitally, which decreases the resolution of the image as you make it larger. In addition, whereas each of the smartphones has a fixed aperture (f/2 for the Lumia 920 and the Droid DNA, f/2.2 for the BlackBerry Z10, and f/2.4 for the iPhone), the Elph can range from f/3.4 to f/5.6. Because its aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are adjustable, the Canon has more tools for automatically evaluating a scene and selecting the best settings to capture it.

Controls

Of the four cameras I tested, the iPhone 5 has the fewest user settings (third-party apps permit more settings, but for this comparison I used only the cameras' native apps). You can enable the flash, disable it, or let the iPhone decide when to use it. You can turn on a grid setting to help compose a scene, turn on HDR (High Dynamic Range), or capture a panoramic photo—and that's about it.

The BlackBerry Z10 offers a few more settings, with four scene modes: action, whiteboard, night, and beach or snow.

The Nokia Windows 8 phone has lots of settings to mess around with. It gives you five scene modes, and it lets you manually select the ISO up to 800, change the exposure value up or down, and select the white balance from a list of five presets (automatic, cloudy, daylight, fluorescent, and incandescent).

The HTC Droid DNA doesn't have scene modes, but it does have a self-timer and a continuous shooting mode; and it lets you select ISO, white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness settings.

All of the phones lag far behind the Elph in available settings. The Canon camera boasts red-eye detection, ISO settings up to 3200, white balance settings, and scene modes that include snow, fireworks, portrait, skin smoothing, smile detection, and blink detection.

Image quality

To test the cameras, I set them all to auto mode at their highest quality settings and took an aray of shots—dimly lit indoor shots and backlit daylight shots of our intern Jeff, close-ups of flowers, a couple of landscape pictures, and more.

In the indoor flash shot, all of the cameras except the Elph gave Jeff a nasty case of red eye. The Elph images looked a little soft overall, but its portrait was the best, by far. Images from the Droid and the BlackBerry had a slightly greenish cast, and those from the Nokia were just a touch pink.

With the flash turned off, the Elph still beat the rest. It automatically selected 1600 ISO, but didn't suffer from nearly as much noise as the iPhone 5, which chose the same ISO setting. On the other hand, the higher ISO helped the iPhone produce a brighter picture than the BlackBerry Z10 and the Droid DNA did: Their images were dark. The Lumia 920's photo was brighter than those two images, but looked distinctly green.

I also took a backlit picture of Jeff outside with flash turned on. The Canon again produced the best shot. The HTC had trouble capturing the subtle color gradations in the sky, going from white to aqua to blue in distinct steps, while the others handled the change from very light to darker blue more smoothly. None of the smartphones did a great job of lighting Jeff's face.

In the up close-up picture of some daisies, the Lumia and the Droid blew out the whites in the petals, losing some detail there. All did a good job of capturing the detail in the center disc of the flower.

A scene of some sailboats docked on San Francisco Bay showed some differences, but there were no clear winners. The Lumia's image was overly blue, very saturated, and a little too contrasty—as though someone had applied an Instagram filter to the original photo. The images captured by the Droid and the iPhone were warmer yet sharp, though the Droid's picture lost some detail in the highlights.

In pictures taken near the San Francisco Bay Bridge, The BlackBerry's effort was again a little too blue, while the Droid's seemed slightly underexposed and the iPhone's a little overexposed. The Nokia had the most trouble with this shot. The structure of the bridge under the deck showed some jaggies and the people and buildings in the frame had a strange watercolor look.

Camera or smartphone?

The smartphones held their own against the point-and-shoot in my photos of flowers and landscapes, producing no clear winners. For taking pictures of people, however, the Canon PowerShot Elph 520HS was unquestionably the most capable. If I were going to an event, especially indoors where I'd be taking pictures of people in less-than-ideal lighting situations, I would definitely prefer a dedicated point-and-shoot camera over any of the four smartphones I looked at. However, for casual shots outdoors that are destined for sharing online, where image sizes are small enough to render minor image flaws unnoticeable, the smartphones' picture quality should be perfectly acceptable.

Tony Leung and Jeff Sandstoe assisted with photography for this story.

Gallery image composite by Robert Cardin.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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