What Phone Specs Mean to You, Pt. 4: The Camera

iPhone 6 cameraAlright.  So now you know all about the specs for your smartphone’s CPU (its brain), screen (its face), and connectivity (its ears and mouth).  Now, we’re gonna get into the specs related to your phone’s camera, the eye (or eyes, on most modern models) that sees your world and captures it for transmission to the masses.

Many of these terms also apply to regular cameras, but with digital cameras, and especially smartphone cameras, things sometimes work a little differently.

The camera

Term

What it
refers to

What it means to you

Megapixels (MP) Picture size/ resolution Pixels are the tiny dots of color that every picture you take is made up of.  They are also the tiny dots that capture that picture.  A megapixel is a million of these dots.  The more dots in the frame, the bigger you can make a picture without it getting blurry and the deeper you can zoom in without losing details.  A 5MP resolution is high enough to print clearly on an A4 sized page.  Nevertheless, many smartphones these days offer 13-16MP cameras, and there are some camera-focused phones that offer 20 to 40MP cameras and more.
Microns (μm) Pixel size There is no uniform size for the pixels that make up the megapixels that manufacturers use to tell you about the resolution of their cameras, but most in cell phones range from 1-1.5 microns.  In proper cameras, you’re looking at 3.5 and larger.  Larger pixels are able to take in more light, which will tend to give you a better picture.  For this reason, more pixels are not always better.  If pixels are made too small in order to accommodate greater numbers, they will not have enough light to give you a good photo.
CMOS (complementary metal-oxidesemiconductor) and
CCD
(charge-coupled device)
Image sensor The image sensor is the part of your phone’s camera that captures light, which makes it very important for picture quality.  The good folks over at C|net have a great explanation for why its size matters:  “Imagine you have buckets (pixels) laid out on a blacktop (sensor). You want to collect the most water (light) in those buckets as possible…the larger the sensor you have (blacktop), the larger the pixels (buckets) you can put onto it, and the more light (water) you can collect.”  Larger sensors are why an 8MP shot from a digital SLR camera is generally better that one from a smartphone camera; typical smartphone sensors are around .3- to .5-inch, a basic DSLR will have a sensor between .8 and .9.  This isn’t a spec you are likely to see on the list at the cell phone store, but CameraImageSensor.com can be a useful resource for this spec.  Naturally, slimmer, smaller phones limit how big a sensor can be.   According to GSM Arena, CMOS sensors are generally smaller, cheaper and more energy efficient but currently deliver the same image quality as CCD sensors.
Backside illumination (BSI) Image sensor This is a type of CMOS sensor designed to make it easier for light to reach the necessary part of the image sensor.  The result is that it tends to take better low-light photographs.  On the flipside, some users have noticed that photos taken with a BSI CMOS sensor in full sunlight can look washed out or slightly overexposed.  Most major camera manufacturers have models that use BSI sensors, but only a few phones are so far making use of the technology, as it is still pretty expensive.
f-number/ f-stop (f/#.#) Aperture Aperture determines the amount of light that is able to reach the image sensor.  Oddly, the higher this number, the smaller the amount of light that is being let in.  So a camera with an f/2.2 maximum aperture will be able to collect more ambient light than a camera with a maximum f/2.8 aperture.  Aperture has two primary effects: 1) A camera using a smaller number aperture will perform somewhat better with no flash in low-light situations and 2) a camera using a higher number will have a broader range of focus (so you and your beach umbrella and the hot surfer 15 feet behind you will all be in focus, if the number is high enough).  Some smartphone cameras allow you to adjust the aperture or have settings that will adjust it automatically.
Millimeters (mm) Focal length/
lens size
The focal length on any camera (and in our eyes, for that matter) is the distance from the lens to the sensor.  Increasing focal length allows a camera to focus on objects further away.  This, however, also narrows the field of view.  A wide angle lens, then, provides a very short focal length.  Most cell phones have a fixed focal length between 25 and 35, though there are a few camera phones, like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Galaxy S4 Zoom that utilize optical zoom (see below).  This measurement should not be confused with lens size, which is also measured in mm (i.e. 35mm) but is not so relevant for camera phones.
1x zoom, 6x zoom, etc. Optical zoom On cameras with adjustable lenses, optical zoom is the highest focal possible length divided by the smallest possible focal length.  1x zoom means, essentially, that the focal length is not adjustable.  Any zoom capabilities these phones have, then, result from there being more image detail available because of higher resolution or has been added by a smartphone compatible lens kit.  The Nokia Lumia 1020, while does utilize optical zoom, has 6x zoom, while the Galaxy S4 zoom has 10x.  A Nikon COOLPIX P610 come with 60x zoom.
LED
(light-emitting diode)
Flash single LED flash_smartphoneThis is sort of the standard flash for cell phone cameras.  It is just what it sounds like, a single LED lamp positioned near the camera lens that illuminates whatever is in its scope, which is usually not more than a couple of yards in each direction.
Dual LED Flash dual LED flash_smartphoneAs you might guess, this is a flash arrangement with two LED lamps instead of one.  It helps to make flash shots look more colorful and evenly-lit than shots taken with single-LED flashes and increases the area illuminated by about a third.  It also draws twice as much power, which is no big deal for photos, but is something to consider for video.  The iPhone 5s introduced “True Tone” technology, a dual LED flash with one amber and one white LED that it can adjust so that the color of the flash matches the white balance of ambient light, giving photos taken with flash a more natural appearance.
-xenon Flash Nokia xenon flash_smartphoneXenon flashes are not too common on phones, but they do show up on a few.  They emit a more powerful burst of light than LED-based flashes, which tends to create a more even look to a scene, rather than the spotlight effect phone cameras often produce.  However, xenon only creates a burst, so it cannot be used to illuminate a scene for video.  Xenon flashes also tend to be a bit bulkier.
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) Image quality OIS employs a tiny gyroscope within the camera that detects tiny movements of the lens (usually caused by unsteady hands) and directs small actuators to move the lens, in real time, to compensate.  This is especially helpful in low light situations when the camera needs a little more time to take in light and the smallest movement of your hand can result in a blurry picture.  It also makes for much smoother video.
HDR
(High Dynamic Range)
Image quality Dynamic range is basically the difference between the lightest light and darkest dark your camera can capture.   Light things outside of this range tend to show up just bright white blurs and dark things at the opposite end of the range turn into just black shapes.   The HDR setting on your phone’s camera essentially takes three photos at different exposures (shifting the dynamic range to include more of the lights and more of the darks), then combines them so that everything captured in each range shows up in one picture.  This is especially good in peculiar light settings (sun shining into a dark room or something in the shadows on a bright day).
Front-facing
camera
Selfies This is the camera that allows you to look at the screen and capture yourself on camera at the same time.  It usually will be lower resolution than your primary camera (2-5 MP) and typically will not have a flash function.  The HTC Desire Eye is a notable exception to both of these tendencies, offering a 13MP front-facing camera with a dual-LED flash on both sides.

Video

Term

What it
refers to

What it means to you

1080p (Full HD) Video resolution If your specs mention that you can shoot video in Full HD or at 1080p, it means that your frames will have a resolution of about 1920×1080pixels, HD quality video.
4K/ Ultra HD Video resolution Ultra HD is an even higher resolution video than Full HD, with something like 3,840 x 2,160 pixels per frame.  4K refers to picture with a vertical resolution of 4,000 pixels, but since 3,840 is pretty close, Ultra HD is often labeled as 4K and is the 4K standard for the television industry.  The 4K standard for the film industry, however is 4096 x 2160.  In any case, if your camera can shoot in Ultra HD, you’ve got a mighty fine instrument, but your videos will take up a lot of space in your phone’s memory.
fps
(frames per second)
Video speed This is literally how many frames your camera/ processor combo is able to capture in a second.  30 will give you a pretty quality video. Anything lower than 10 or so will appear choppy and will not be able to capture fast-moving objects properly.  Slow motion video is usually taken at at least 48 fps, but some camera phones can take 120, 240, or more.  One thing to keep in mind is that higher framerates can sometimes require a compromise in resolution, so you should look at both specs when assessing a phone’s video capabilities.

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