Almost all smartphones these days have integrated cameras. In fact, most have two. One for shameless selfies and video chatting, and the other for taking pictures of stuff like landscapes, unsuspecting strangers, your lunch, and almost anything else we think would make other envious of our lives. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many smartphone OEMs highlight improvements to their cameras components to differentiate their products from the competition.

“…one might think that the days of traditional cameras are numbered.”

You can also imagine that the majority of photos taken in the world today come from smartphones. Considering this, one might think that the days of traditional cameras are numbered since there are many awesome photos taken with just smartphone cameras.

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No doubt, not all cameras are created equal.  But what makes a good camera? And how good is your smartphone camera compared to that of another smartphone, your point-and-shoot or even a pro DSLR? There’s a lot of talk about camera quality, but in my opinion, very little of it helps explain what it takes to be a good camera.

The answer is a little complicated, but I’m hoping that I can help explain the smartphone camera hardware and specifications that really matter to you so we can see when a smartphone camera can keep up with (or fail miserably when compared with) a DSLR. In order to demonstrate this, we push the BlackBerry Z30 camera to the limits by comparing it to a Nikon D610 in all its full-frame glory.

The Contenders

BlackBerry Z30

“…arguably the most mediocre camera assembly ever placed into a modern smartphone.”

 

z30-back

In the first corner, we have the BlackBerry Z30. Armed with arguably the most mediocre camera assembly ever placed into a modern smartphone, the Z30 is expected to return images that correspond to the average smartphone owned today. It’s packing a backside-illuminated 8MP sensor at F/2.2. The sensor size and pixel pitch for the Z30’s camera are not known exactly, so values from the iPhone 5 were used. Honestly, the numbers can’t be that far off.

 

Nikon D610

“Large 35 mm full-frame sensor. Three times the megapixels. A f/1.8 55 mm prime lens. Beast.”

nikon-610

In the other corner, we have a Nikon D610. Large 35mm full-frame sensor. Three times the megapixels. A f/1.8 55mm prime lens. Beast.

The Parts

We will first run through the main specifications that matter when it comes to image quality.

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Sensor Size

The sensor is the heart of the camera. It’s the part of the camera that takes light and turns it into the data that form pixels of your image. With a larger sensor, you can either add more pixels, or increase their size. While increasing pixel size is always good, increasing the number of pixels is usually awesome too. This is the primary reason why pro DSLRs have large 35 mm sensors (Nikon D4, Canon 5D Mark III).  In my opinion, sensor size is the most important hardware spec to consider for a camera.

“…sensor size is the most important hardware spec to consider for a camera.”

In low light, the sensor size completely dominates how your picture is going to look. That larger sensor is likely going to have larger pixels, which collect more light. This improves how much signal they produce and removes all the noise that makes cropping night shots essentially impossible on most smartphone cameras.

You can see below the difference between a camera sensor from a full-frame Nikon DSLR, a BlackBerry Z30 rear camera below.

Sensor size

sensor-size2

Yes, ridiculous is the word you’re thinking of. The D610’s sensor is over 50X larger than the Z30’s. The difference in sensor size is why you have to use a flash when taking a picture with a smartphone at night.

But the Nikon D610 has three times as many pixels, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t the size of the pixels matter more?

Here is the difference the pixel size between a BlackBerry Z30, Nikon D610, and the pro-level Nikon D4S.

Pixel Size

pixel-size

Despite rocking a whopping 24MP, the Nikon D610 has pixels that dwarf the pixels found on the BlackBerry Z30. The larger the pixels, the more light they can take in, and this lowers the noise in the image from insufficient light and lets you take faster pictures (less blur).

“…smartphone cameras LOVE light. In fact, they are usually starved for it.”

But what if you already have enough light coming into the camera? What if you even have too much light? Pro cameras like the D4S will reduce the pixel sensitivity, take the picture really fast, and even close the aperture to avoid getting flooded with light. On the other end of the spectrum, smartphone cameras LOVE light.  In fact, they are usually starved for it.

Actually, when you’ve got lots of light, it usually doesn’t matter if you have a DSLR or a smartphone camera for taking typical pictures. This is when the lens quality and megapixel count becomes important.

Sensor Quality

These days, smartphone cameras have pretty damn good CMOS sensors. They are made by companies like Sony who have gotten very good at making quality sensors.  Though there are advances that you should be aware of. Sensor technology has steadily improved through various variations of the chip processing like “backside illuminated” sensors which allow more light to actually get to the sensor and improve its sensitivity. Smartphones like the BlackBerry Z30, Samsung S5 and the iPhone 6 all have backside illuminated sensors to make the most out of the limited sensor size.

Megapixel Count

The megapixel count is what manufacturers decide to market to consumers when it comes to smartphone cameras. You may have heard the phrase that “megapixels don’t matter”.  I’m here to tell you that this is misleading. After all, a higher megapixel sensor can give you more detail. In the end, it all hinges of if the conditions are right to use all those megapixels.

“You may have heard the phrase that ‘megapixels don’t matter’. I’m here to tell you that this is misleading.”

I love pixels. When there is enough light, and you’ve got a quality lens on that smartphone, the amount of image detail you can get from a high-resolution smartphone photo is amazing. You can also get away with cropping the image without revealing much noise.  This obviously matters!

The Lens

Obviously, the lens is the part that focuses the light through an aperture and onto the sensor. The more accurately you can focus all the colours of the incoming light, the better your image will be. The lens quality isn’t just about the glass either. Coatings on the lens are designed to reduce reflections and optimize the colour spectrum that lands on the sensor.

“A larger aperture, which corresponds to a smaller f-number, means more light is coming through the lens.”

An important spec for the lens is the “f-number”, which is related to the size of the aperture inside the lens. Often you’ll see lens specifications as “f/2.2” or so. A larger aperture, which corresponds to a smaller f-number, means more light is coming through the lens. And more light is always good. This also means that you get a stronger “out-of-focus background” effect when you take photos of something close.

So having a smaller f-number is great, but most lenses will be sharpest at moderate aperature openings (~f/5.6). In the case of smartphones like the BlackBerry Z30, there is usually not enough light or megapixels to have the lens as the limiting component anyway.

Companies like Carl Zeiss have decades of experience making cameras lenses and will make smartphones camera lenses that are likely not used to their full potential. With sensors now supporting a crazy number of pixels, the lens quality is becoming even more important to squeeze every last bit of performance out of cameras, but it’s definitely not an issue at 8MP.

The BlackBerry Z30 has a respectable f/2.2 aperture, while I’ve got lenses than open up to f/1.2 for the Nikon for maximizing the amount of light that can be collected by the sensor.

The Software

Camera sensor sizes are limited on smartphones due to nature of the devices. This puts extreme pressure on the software to produce desirable images in any conditions. This means that the intelligence of the software is crucial in smartphones. On your smartphone, you’d be surprised how much pre-processing each image goes through before you see it. This makes the image pre-processing the most variable, and possibly the most important factor determining the image quality in a smartphone camera.

On large camera sensors like those found in full-frame DSLRs, the image pre-processing is less important since desktop applications like Adobe Photoshop can provide very powerful image post-processing. The post-processing of raw data from a camera is by far the way to get the best image since you’re not relying on the camera to make the editing decisions for you before it compresses the image.

“But let’s face it, all we want to do is press a button and get a perfect “.jpg” file right from our phone.”

But let’s face it, all we want to do is press a button and get a perfect “.jpg” file right from our phone. This means your camera takes the raw data, makes a compressed photo for you, and throws away the rest. And this compressed photo doesn’t lend itself well to editing later on if the software was a little off in its calculations.

 

The Proof

What better way to show you what I mean than by comparing images taken from a professional-level camera and the BlackBerry Z30? The images taken on the Nikon DSLR were taken with 24MP with a f/1.8 50 mm prime lens and saved in aRAW format before being simply converted to the .jpg format. Images taken on the Z30 were just…ummm…taken.

Keep in mind that the Nikon’s photos are all untouched RAW files that have been converted to jpeg/png images. The BlackBerry Z30’s photos are most definitely processed by the phone and saved as .jpg file.

The first image is of dimly lit glass blocks.

BlackBerry Z30

glass-cubes-z30

Nikon D610

glass-cubes-nikon-raw

Of course, the amount of detail is obviously higher on the Nikon’s image. The differences become very apparent at 100% magnification though.

BlackBerry Z30

glass-cubes-z30-100

Nikon D610

glass-cubes-nikon-raw

The Z30’s software is forced to aggressively reduce the noise, washing out all the detail in the mortar regardless of how many megapixels it has. In this case, cramming more megapixels on the Z30’s image sensor would not help. The Nikon is nearing the limit of its 24MP resolution, but is still limited by amount of light hitting each pixel.

The second image was of a wicker chair taken indoors in average light conditions. The light from behind the chair should help the Z30 with contrast and noise, but will make it hard to get a decent exposure.

BlackBerry Z30

chair-z30

 

Nikon D610

 

chair-nikon-smaller

Again, not a bad job by the Z30. Both are fairly sharp. However, the Nikon D610 produces an image that looks much better than Z30’s.

The Nikon D610 just takes in so much light with that lens that its possible to take the photo at the lowest possible pixel sensitivity. The BlackBerry Z30 takes a respectable photo, but there is simply not enough light to illuminate the front of the chair properly. Taking a closer look at 100% magnification can reveal more though.

BlackBerry Z30

chair-z30-closeup

Nikon D610

chair-nikon-closeup

The greater dynamic range of the Nikon D610 preserves a lot of the colour and black levels that are simply lost with the image taken by the Z30. The Nikon’s photo reveals dust on the chair and doesn’t turn all shadows into a flat black colour. In this case, we also wouldn’t gain much from additional pixels from either camera, but pixel size again dominates the image quality.

For the last image, I’ve ensured that there was plenty of light available.

BlackBerry Z30

outside-z30-smaller

 

Nikon D610

outside-nikon-smaller

Not bad for either camera. The sky is completely washed out in the highlights for the Z30 because of smaller dynamic range, but the Z30 has got a nice exposure for the cars in the parking lot. Of course, the RAW file created by the Nikon can easily be processed to expose the cars perfectly, but that part of the sky is gone forever in the Z30’s photo. To take this photo, the Nikon had to take the picture at 1/120 seconds and the aperture had to be closed to f/5.6. In any case, the photo from the Z30 is quite good and a DSLR isn’t necessarily needed in theses conditions.

BlackBerry Z30

outside-z30-400

Nikon D610

outside-nikon-400

Zooming in to 400% magnification shows that both images are megapixel-limited. This is where the Z30 could use some more pixels. The Nikon’s image has more detail simply because it had three times as many pixels to begin with.

What it all means

To sum it all up, below is a simple flowchart that illustrates the limitations for smartphone cameras. This also applicable to any camera system, although the limitations may come in a different order.

Capture

So the next time someone tells you that megapixels don’t matter, know that they are only referring to low light situations. I’ll also add, that contrary to popular belief, you usually don’t need a huge DSLR to take good pictures.  You only need more light (maybe a lot more!).

But smartphone cameras need to be smart to find the optimal settings to make the best possible picture. With software varying so much from phone to phone, images taken with identical cameras on different smartphones can look very different. Then there’s the user interface. It all becomes subjective and not every piece of software is smart enough to know what you want (but they try very hard!). With all this software on top, it really dictates how your final pictures look. Having the ability to save RAW files for future editing would be a big step towards getting a little more out of our smartphone photos.

In conclusion, smartphones like the BlackBerry Z30 will take great photos when there is tons of light. In less-than-ideal conditions, a DSLR with a large sensor will be able to take photos with the most detail. The small pixel sizes found in smartphone camera sensors limit the dynamic range and parts of photos are more susceptible to washed out highlights or shadows.  If you want to get the most detail from shadows and highlights, larger pixels are what you should be looking for.  If you’re after the most amount of detail in the midtones and you’ve got enough light, more pixels can actually help.

“The Nokia Pureview camera has a clever way of getting the best of both worlds.”

The Nokia Pureview camera has a clever way of getting the best of both worlds. The Nokia 1020 can easily capture ultra-high resolution images if the conditions are right, or clump pixels together to reduce noise when the conditions are bad. It’s also for this reason that saying that the iPhone 6 has the best smartphone camera is wrong. Nokia has shown that adding more megapixels allows smartphone cameras to be at their best in a wide range of conditions. All of these advantages hinge on having software that is smart enough to know how to process the raw data.

In the case of the BlackBerry Z30 and almost every other smartphone out there, the software processes each images heavily in low light situations to make the best possible photo with such low levels of light per pixel. Since smartphones are designed to be ultra-portable and adaptable to any situation, the number of pixels is important to ensure that detail isn’t being wasted in bright lighting conditions. The BlackBerry Passport does rock a solid 13MP sensor that is indeed better than the Z30’s sensor. This is likely made possible from an increase of sensor size.  In the future, let’s hope that BlackBerry continues to place large, high-megapixel camera sensors in their smartphones, similar to what was done with the Nokia 1020.