Camera Specs: Is it All About MP?

by Dan Forster - , Last Updated on May 18, 2015, Buying Guides

We all love taking pictures with our smart phones. But if you’re serious about your photography, then you’re looking for something a little special in a camera phone. Most of us tend to look at the number of MP a camera has and say that more is better, but is that all there is to it? We’re taking a look today at camera specs, and the important info that you really need to know if you’re looking to take great shots. Clue: it’s NOT all about the MP…

The MP Myth…

Since we want to convince you that a decent phone camera isn’t all about MP, maybe megapixels are the issue that we should deal with first. In basic terms a camera with more megapixels should be able to capture more detail, giving you clearer and sharper shots. You might remember the early camera phones with their blocky looking pictures that kind of looked like they were made of lego. That’s something that obviously you want to avoid… Nobody wants pixellated pictures. But, and this is a big but, that doesn’t mean you just need to buy the camera phone with the highest number of megapixels.

Why? Well, there are two main reasons. Firstly, the quality of cameras on phones these days is a lot higher, and you’re very unlikely to experience pixellation, or that blocky look, on any decent camera phone whether it’s an 8 MP cam or a 20 MP cam. Yes, you might get better pictures from that 20 MP camera, but then again, you might not. Which brings us to the second reason: there is more to a camera phone than the number of megapixels it has. Sure, more MP means more detail, but it can also mean more “noise” or “interference” in your pictures. What you’re looking for a balance of factors including the number of MP so that you can reduce that “noise”. So what else is effecting the quality of your shots?

The Lens…

The lens is kind of the “glass” that your camera takes a picture through, and a better lens generally equals a better picture (sort of like a higher quality window is easier to see through). Carl Zeiss optics are a big selling point for Lumia phone cameras, for example. There’s a problem here though: many mobile manufacturers won’t tell you the kind of lens the camera has. You’re best bet is to take some trial pics and see how they turn out. However, there are many lens accessories that you can stick on to your phone if you don’t like the lens that the camera came with, many of which are magnetic. So lens is important, but a less than perfect lens can be remedied later if you like everything else about the phone/camera.

The Sensor…

Most picture taking experts will tell you that by far the most important part of a camera is the sensor, which captures light. No light means no picture, so the sensor is very important. See, light comes in through the lens, and travels to the camera sensor which then takes the light and changes it into an electronic signal which goes to an image processor that creates your image. The bigger your sensor is, the more light you can catch and the better the resulting image will be.

Fortunately, most detailed lists of phone specs DO include sensor size, though you might have to do a bit of digging to find this. You’re looking for the largest sensor size, rather than the highest number of MP. In fact, an 8 MP camera with a big sensor is going to take far better pictures than a 20 MP camera with a smaller sensor. All of this means that sensor specs should be the first thing that you look at if you want a great camera phone.

The Flash…

Flash is maybe the second most important spec that you need to look at in a camera phone. Why? Because most of us spend a lot of time inside, and kind of like to take decent pictures. Good pictures are all about light. You might be able to take great shots outside in natural light, but chances are that you also want to take great shots inside of people doing things. And that’s where flash comes in, since most of us probably don’t want to carry professional studio lights around with us.

Now, a whole bunch of phones have LED flash, and, frankly, that’s not going to cut it if you want great pictures. LED light is too weak, but it’s also not very good at capturing movement. You might be able to take a decent LED flash picture of a rock, but people at a party? Nope. What are you looking for then? You’re looking for a phone that comes with a xenon flash, ten thousand times more powerful than an LED flash. Xenon flashes are becoming more and more popular on cell phones, though you’re still probably looking at top end flagship phones or phones that are marketed as specifically for photography at the moment.

And the Rest…

Those are the high point specs that you should be looking at in a good camera phone, but there are also a few other considerations that you might want to keep in mind. You might want to look for back-light illuminated sensors, since these will give you better shots in bright light, and are also becoming popular on mobile cameras these days.

And then there’s the camera software. Okay, you can download third party apps to control your camera, and will probably want to do so, but still, you want some good basic software on the phone from the start. A dedicated camera button is always useful too, since it allows you to switch to camera mode faster than having to open an app. This all comes down to usability: you want to be able to take pictures quickly and easily.

Getting a great camera phone is about a whole lot more than just a camera with a high number of MP. If you’re really into your photography, then you’re going to need to be looking closely at the specs mentioned above, and getting a good balance of MP, sensor and flash to ensure that you’re getting the best pictures you can get.

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