Take your best shot: Four hot camera phones compared

It’s time to end the debate of who makes the best smartphone camera. Instagram addicts and selfie junkies may settle for the shooters on the Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4, but serious photographers demand more out of their hardware. Smartphone vendors try to appease this crowd by throwing around buzzwords and ever-growing megapixel counts, but a photo tells you more about a camera’s performance than spec sheets and marketing buzzwords.

In this round of our smartphone camera shootout, we pit the Nokia Lumia 1020 and the Moto X against the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S4 to see who really takes the better shot. The Windows Phone-powered Lumia 1020 packs a massive 41-megapixel camera—the largest on any smartphone—while the 10-megapixel camera on the Moto X utilizes an RGBC sensor with a fourth, clear pixel that’s supposed to help the phone perform better in low light. The results seem to match up with what we saw in the reviews for these phones, but you can take a look at the photos below to judge them for yourself.

Note : Download links to the original images are below each comparison.

For more on the Nokia Lumia 1020, Galaxy S4, and Moto X, be sure to check our full reviews.

Daytime cityscape

Clockwise (from the top left): Nokia Lumia 1020, Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-size photos: Lumia 1020 | Moto X | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S4
 

Cityscapes are excellent for testing how a camera handles a busy and dynamic scene. Megapixel count matters a lot here, as you want to capture as much of the landscape as possible without losing any fine details like shadows or close lines. Although the images produced by the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 are passable, they pale in comparison to the photo we get from the Lumia 1020. The camera’s high megapixel sensor did an excellent job at capturing the tiniest elements of the scene.

The Moto X, on the other hand, is completely outclassed in almost every way: The image we captured has a bluish cast to it that makes it look like we took the photo in the late evening, rather than the middle of the day. The photo is also littered with digital artifacts that greatly detract from the overall image quality.

Low-light portrait (without flash)

Clockwise (from the top left): Nokia Lumia 1020, Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-size photos: Lumia 1020 | Moto X | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S4
 

A low-light portrait can be very telling of how well a camera handles taking photos indoors, or any other environment with less than optimal lighting. The image from the Moto X is gray and noisy, but it also lets us see our subject most clearly thanks to the camera’s tendency to overexpose scenes. The Lumia 1020 most accurately captures what we saw with our eyes while shooting the photo, though it makes our subject look more yellow than he is in real life. Ultimately the Lumia’s problem can be fixed with some simple color correction, though we are pleased to find that the Moto X camera was somewhat capable of performing in low light and can more than hold its own against the shooters on the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4.

Low-light portrait (with flash)

Clockwise (from the top left): Nokia Lumia 1020, Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-size photos: Lumia 1020 | Moto X | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S4
 

Sometimes you can’t avoid using your camera’s flash. When used well, flash can add some much needed light to your scene, but the flash on most smartphones usually ends up leaving your subject looking like he or she is about to hurl. The Lumia 1020 features a Xenon flash that performs better than the traditional LED flash on most smartphone cameras—though it still leaves our subject with an odd-looking skin tone. The iPhone 5 does a better job at handling skin tones, but the scene isn’t lit nearly as well and our subject’s blue shirt looks more purple than blue.

The photo taken with the Moto X is more evenly lit than the one from the Galaxy S4, but our subject looks like he stepped out of an oil painting. The image also has some color distortion around the edges of the frame, and looks flat compared to what we get from the Lumia 1020. The flash on the Moto X is basically only good for use as a flashlight.

Macro (full sun, bright colors)

Clockwise (from the top left): Nokia Lumia 1020, Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-size photos: Lumia 1020 | Moto X | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S4
 

Even though the image was focused slightly to the right of our target (the flower), the Lumia 1020 once again triumphs over the competition in our macro test. You can see every little detail in the flower petals and even pick out some tiny insects that made the plant their home. While the photos produced by the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 look good, they lack the color warmth found in the photo taken by the Lumia 1020.

The macro taken by the Moto X has a bluish cast, although the image overall is quite sharp and you can zoom in a considerable amount without losing any of that sharpness. The photo is definitely in need of color correction, but the Moto X camera still performs better than expected.

Still life (color fidelity, white balance)

Clockwise (from the top left): Nokia Lumia 1020, Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Apple iPhone 5
Full-size photos: Lumia 1020 | Moto X | iPhone 5 | Galaxy S4
 

After all the bluish photos we got out of the Moto X thus far, we were surprised at how well the camera performs in our still life test. The photo, while a tad overexposed, is clear enough that we can zoom in and read some of the posted signs around the kayaks. The Moto X’s color accuracy isn’t as good as that offered by the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4, but the photo isn’t a complete eyesore like the cityscape image, and isn’t as noisy as the macro shot. Colors in the Lumia 1020 photo are oversaturated, but the image has less noise than those from the other handsets. The iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 photos are more true to life, but the photo from the Lumia 1020 is just more vivid thanks to the oversaturated colors.

Bottom line

It looks like Motorola still doesn’t know how to make a top-tier smartphone camera. Aside from the Moto X’s low-light shot, most of the images are noisy, grainy, and flat-out unpleasant. The prevalence of blue in all the photos seems to suggest serious white balance issues, something that could potentially be remedied with a software update. Comparing the phone to the Lumia 1020 just made the flaws of the Moto X camera that much more apparent, and you’d be wise to avoid it if you’re big on taking photos with your smartphone. The Lumia 1020 is hands down the best phone for taking photos and it’s unlikely to be dethroned by anything other than another Lumia anytime soon.

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