Which smartphone flagship from 2015 (and continuing into 2016) has the best camera? We’ve rounded up the usual suspects to pit their cameras against each other.
Photography by Zaphs Zhang + Darren Chang
AT A GLANCE
Megapixels 12MP, Sensor Size 1/3”, Focal Length 29mm, Aperture f/2.2, O.I.S. Yes
Has the best camera UI for most people.
There are no advanced controls.
APPLE IPHONE 6S PLUS
The iPhone 6s Plus has the best camera UI for most people. It’s easy to use, makes sense, is fast and its auto-focus is spot on most of the time. You can control exposure easily by tapping the screen for focus, and sliding the brightness slider that appears; though that slider is a bit of a small target. You don’t need to go into any secondary menus to do things like shoot panoramas and slow-mo.
But the iPhone 6s Plus pays for that simplicity at the expense of sophistication. There are no advanced controls, and even third-party apps can’t do much with the iPhone 6s Plus’ camera except control the shutter speed. Settings for video resolution are hidden away in the iPhone’s Settings app, which I doubt most people would go into.
AT A GLANCE
Megapixels 12.3MP, Sensor Size 1/2.3”, Focal Length 26mm, Aperture f/2.0, O.I.S. N.A
The app is as bare as you can get. Download a third-party camera app immediately.
HUAWEI NEXUS 6P
The Huawei Nexus 6P’s camera UI is as bare bones as you can get. While you can tap to focus, you can’t change brightness levels. It does have one clever detail, when the camera is shooting at slower shutter speeds, a circular animation cues you to hold the camera steady until the shot is finished.
The 6P’s camera can slow down if you take multiple shots, but other than that, there’s really nothing much to say about it. If you get the Nexus 6P, our first recommendation would be to download a third-party camera app to get more features for shooting and editing.
AT A GLANCE
Megapixels 16MP, Sensor Size 1/2.6”, Focal Length 28mm, Aperture f/1.8, O.I.S. Yes
Best manual UI for video and (almost) stills.
No Auto ISO feature in Manual mode.
While fast, the LG V10’s autofocus tends to hunt even after acquiring focus. While the V10 lets you tap to focus in both the ‘Simple’ and ‘Auto’ modes, it omits the crucial ability to adjust brightness settings. You’ll have to be in ‘Manual’ mode to do that.
Both the LG V10 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 open up advanced camera controls to the user. However, the V10’s Manual mode is fully manual, which is more difficult to use. You can’t set Auto ISO in Manual, so when you change shutter speed, you’ll also need to shift ISO to compensate, and vice versa.
That’s too bad, because otherwise the V10’s manual UI is actually better than the Note 5’s in all ways. The V10 also has the most advanced manual video mode among all the five smartphones.
AT A GLANCE
Megapixels 16MP, Sensor Size 1/2.6”, Focal Length 28mm, Aperture f/1.9, O.I.S. Yes
User-friendliest UI for both basic and advanced shooting.
No quick settings reset in Manual mode. No quick way to save in raw.
SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 5
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has the user-friendliest UI for both basic and advanced shooting. In ‘Auto’ mode, I like how the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 lets you easily change exposure levels, with an exposure slider which appears to the side of the screen when you tap to focus.
While both the LG V10 and the Note 5’s camera apps come with advanced controls, the Note 5 does it better in one critical way. In ‘Manual’ mode, you can enable Auto ISO, which lets you fully focus on adjusting shutter speed. If not for this one critical missing option, the LG V10 actually has a better UI for shooting stills and videos manually. What the Note 5 lacks is a way to quickly reset all manual settings, and a fast way to save in raw (you have to go into the camera app’s settings to enable it).
AT A GLANCE
Megapixels 12MP, Sensor Size 1/2.3”, Focal Length 24mm, Aperture f/2.0, O.I.S. N.A
The camera UI is sparse, and it’s impossible to set 4K video as the default.
SONY XPERIA Z5 PREMIUM
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium’s camera UI is sparse. If you shoot in ‘Superior Auto’ mode, you can tap to focus, but you can’t change brightness settings. There’s a ‘Manual’ mode, but this only lets you change white balance and exposure.
On the other camera apps, you can set the video resolution to 4K as default, but you can’t do that on the Z5. Instead, you’ll need to go into its ‘Modes’ screen, and tap ‘4K’ video every time you want to take 4K video, which is an inexplicable hassle.
SMARTPHONE CAMERAS ARE GREAT, BUT…
I love my smartphone’s camera. I’ve loved it ever since I got one, years ago, and it’s helped me capture years of random memories that would have otherwise been lost. Snapshots of my life when I didn’t have a ‘proper’ camera with me. Those little moments when unexpected, happy things happened, when I never expected them.
And I love how today’s smartphone cameras are so much better than they used to be. From more megapixels to optical image stabilization to 4K video. Wow. Good times.
But, the truth is, they’re still not great, when compared with a modern digital camera with a large sensor. These ‘proper’ cameras produce image quality that still runs circles around what smartphones can do.
It breaks my heart when I see people using their smartphones to take photos of ‘important’ events, like a big family dinner or an overseas vacation. It’s judgmental I know. But speaking from personal experience, I have hundreds of grainy, dark, low-resolution smartphone camera photos where I wish I’d brought my camera and used that instead.
The saying, “The best camera is the one that’s with you,” is so true. But I think we can do better for the important moments in our lives. I think we can expand that to, “The best camera is the one that you bring.”
'Important’ events beg for ‘proper’ cameras, if only because these moments are captured in better quality to keep through the years. If you treasure these moments as much as I do, and you love photographs, then my advice is to get a ‘proper’ camera of your own.
IMAGE QUALITY & PERFORMANCE - APPLE IPHONE 6S PLUST
The Apple iPhone 6s Plus’ colors are quite pleasing in good light, however, its white balance tends to veer warmer, with some images looking more yellow than usual. The lens is mostly sharp, with the right upper and lower corners slightly soft. There is no barrel distortion. When viewed up close, the images lack fine detail, especially when compared against the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.
The iPhone 6s Plus does manage to preserve whatever details it captures while shooting in low light. That would be a given since its images are shot at low ISOs, even in dark situations. To get such low ISO settings, the iPhone 6s Plus has an alarming habit of shooting at dangerously low shutter speeds. And yet, the images are still stable and sharp, which I chalk up to its excellent optical image stabilization. Even at the higher setting of ISO 640, the iPhone 6s Plus strikes a good balance between noise reduction and detail retention.
HDR images tend to be underexposed, but the iPhone 6s Plus consistently gets the best panoramas out of all five smartphones.The iPhone 6s Plus’s 4K videos are fine in good light, has some noise in low light, and has hardly any rolling shutter. Its optical image stabilization is surprisingly good, the difference is obvious when you compare it against the non-stabilized shot taken by Huawei’s Nexus 6P. This makes it the best 4K video camera, out of all the five flagships.
The iPhone 6s Plus’ colors are quite pleasing, but the images lack fine detail.
The iPhone 6s Plus manages to nail sharp and steady shots in low light, thanks to its excellent optical image stabilization.
IMAGE QUALITY & PERFORMANCE - HUAWEI NEXUS 6P
Huawei’s Nexus 6P reproduces colors well in good light. The lens is sharp from corner to corner, and there’s very slight barrel distortion. Slight crosshatching can be seen on our resolution chart, and while it’s not as apparent as on the Sony Xperia Z5, it still results in some jitteriness on subject edges.
Huawei’s Nexus 6P has decent performance in low light. There’s more of the jittery noise that plagues the Sony Z5, but it manages to balance overall image noise with detail retention quite well.The Nexus 6P has the distinction of shooting the best HDR images, with a good amount of detail in both the brightest and darkest parts of the image. Its panoramas don’t fare as well; they suffer from odd skewing.
The Huawei Nexus 6P’s 4K videos do fine in good light, but there’s a lot of noise in low light. There is some rolling shutter. The lack of optical image stabilization really hurts it, once you see how smooth videos can look with good OIS, you realize how dizzy non-stabilized video can look.
The Nexus 6P does well in good light, with pleasant colors and good details.
Low-light performance is decent, it manages to balance overall image noise with detail retention quite well.
IMAGE QUALITY & PERFORMANCE - LG V10
Image details tend to smear in low light, with apparent color noise in the shadows.The LG V10’s colors are consistently subdued. There’s a lack of saturation, which make photos look flat. The odd thing is its zeroed DNG (raw) files appear more vibrant than its JPEGs. If you increase saturation in post, the V10 actually shoots good images in good light, with fine detail. The lens is sharp from corner to corner, with only slight barrel distortion.
Image details tend to smear in low light, and there tends to be chroma noise in the shadows, especially in the raw DNG files. The LG V10 does excellent HDR images, with lots of detail captured across the frame. However, ghosting can appear when shooting moving subjects. The LG V10’s panorama’s seams can be oddly joined together, with some softness or different exposure levels between captured images.
LG’s V10’s 4K videos look fine in good light, but videos in low light are noisy. The autofocus tends to hunt, which means you’ll see a jerking in and out effect as the camera tries to lock focus. Optical image stabilization isn’t available for 4K video, but on Full-HD resolution it’s not as smooth as on the iPhone 6s Plus. Rolling shutter is obvious when moving the camera.
The LG V10’s colors are consistenly subdued, with a lack of saturation.
Image details tend to smear in low light, with apparent color noise in the shadows.
IMAGE QUALITY & PERFORMANCE - SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 5
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 manages the best balance between pleasing color and detail capture in good light. The lens is mostly sharp, with some softness in the left upper and lower corners. There is hardly any barrel distortion.
But the Note 5 suffers from heavy-handed noise reduction in low light, which smooth out details, giving subjects an overly smooth and muddy appearance.
The Note 5 does well with HDR, and there’s no ghosting to be seen. While the Note 5’s HDR seems to render more even tones, the Nexus 6P retains highlights better. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5’s panoramas have some odd seams, and it has problems achieving an even, overall exposure.
The Note 5’s 4K videos are fine in both good and low light, and its optical image stabilization does quite well, neck to neck with the iPhone 6s Plus. The problem is that OIS isn’t available at the highest 4K resolution, it only works at Full-HD resolution and below. Besides that, the Note 5 has one major weakness; rolling shutter is quite obvious when you move the camera.
The Note 5 performs best in good light, with vibrant colors and rich details.
The Note 5 tends to be overly aggressively with noise reduction in low light, resulting in lost details.
IMAGE QUALITY & PERFORMANCE - SONY XPERIA Z5 PREMIUM
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium does well with accurate and pleasing color reproduction. It also has the best Auto White Balance among the five smartphones, while the others tend to grade their images a bit warmly, the Z5 Premium usually gets the light looking the way it did in real light. There is slight barrel distortion, and the left upper corner of the image is soft.
The Z5 Premium’s highest 22MP count should give us the most detailed images, but the odd crosshatching artifacts that plagued the Z1 still lives on in the Z5, albeit in a reduced fashion. The result is that subject edges tend to take on a ‘jittery’ look; when viewing the whole photograph, the jitteriness in the details make the image look noisy and inorganic.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium’s HDR mode doesn’t capture as wide a range of detail as the rest of the cameras, especially in the highlights. The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium’s panoramas are terrible for one vital reason: It doesn’t save panoramas in high-resolution like the other smartphones, but compresses them into low quality 3MP images instead.
The Xperia Z5 Premium’s saving grace is its video camera, which actually does quite well. Rolling shutter is kept to a minimum, and there’s little noise in low light. Even though it lacks optical image stabilization, its digital image stabilization works to smooth the shot.
The Z5 Premium delivers the best white balance, but it suffers from artificial-looking image noise, even in good light.
The crosshatching artifacts are more apparent in low light, and it gives subject edges a harsh, artificial look.