With a Sony-sourced 8MP backlit sensor and improved optics, Apple says the new camera on its latest iPhone offers performance that rivals most dedicated point-and-shoot cameras, but is this claim founded?

Naturally, we’re curious to find out ourselves if the camera on the iPhone 4S is as good as Apple claims it to be, and so we’ve assemble some of the best 8MP smartphone shooters we could get our hands on along with the 12MP Nokia N8 for good measure and went out on a photowalk; taking pictures and videos using these devices in various situations to find out which smartphone available in the market right now has the best camera overall.

We compare the iPhone 4S with the Samsung Galaxy Note, Galaxy S II, Motorola RAZR, Sony Ericsson Xperia ray and Nokia N8. Follow us to after the jump to see the sample shots and videos as well as our verdict on which smartphone has the best camera right now.

Note: In all tests, we left the cameras in “auto” mode.

Macro Shots

We first test the macro performance of our devices to see how well the lens and the sensor work together to capture the best details possible. Out of the bat, it is clear that we are in very special company. The iPhone 4S, Galaxy Note and Galaxy S II impresses when it comes to capturing details even when compared to the 12MP Nokia N8. Leading the pack in this scenario is the Galaxy Note followed by the iPhone 4S with the Galaxy S II bring up the top three.

We’ve mentioned before that 8MP sensor on the stylish Motorola RAZR is a disappointment, and in this comparison the deficit is painfully evident. While the lens on the Motorola RAZR is capable of producing wonderful bokehs allowing us to go up really close to the subject for a nice macro shot, the sensor fails to impress producing very poor details amongst the very accomplished 8MP sensors in this comparison. In fact, even the 3.2MP sensor on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 outperforms the 8MP Motorola RAZR in virtually every aspect.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia ray, didn’t particularly stand out in this test producing mediocre shots at best. Pictures from the ray are also the most inaccurate in terms of colour reproduction.

Curiously, the Nokia N8 had tremendous difficulty getting a focus lock on the macro subject. This is consistent across a few other subjects we tried. In this test, the once leading Nokia N8 looks to be outclassed by the 8MP sensors from our top three devices. This proves that pixel count is just one aspect that makes a great camera, what is even more critical is sensor efficiency – that is, the sensor’s ability to make the most out of the light captured to produce the best picture. The iPhone 4S, Galaxy Note and Galaxy S II are fine examples how much of a difference an efficient sensor can make.

Natural Light

Next, we move on to take pictures in natural light outdoors. Any good camera can take a decent picture with enough light, and so this test serves as a baseline for our sextuplet of smartphones. In theory, all these devices should perform well in this condition. On the flipside, if a device performs poorly here, chances are it will perform poorly in all the other tests as well.

The iPhone 4S is a clear leader in this instance. Whether its detail, colour reproduction or contrast management, the iPhone 4S impresses in every aspect. We can’t fault it and yes, its performance in this respect is comparable if not better than some dedicated cameras we’ve used.

The one device that can rival the iPhone 4S is the Galaxy Note but even the Note is not able to match the meticulous level of detail captured by the iPhone 4S, neither can the Note match the iPhone in colour reproduction and contrast management. Having said that, the Note is the best Android shooter in this test.

In the mid-pack we have the Galaxy S II and the Xperia ray. The S II wins in terms of detail but the Xperia ray produced a brighter, more vibrant picture that’s more pleasing to the eye. On the other hand, we see the Xperia ray over-saturating pictures as well. This results in inaccurate colour reproduction and contrast.

The Motorola RAZR is once again a disappointment, producing a picture with no likeable traits. While it captured details slightly better than the Xperia ray, overall the RAZR produced a picture that looks dull and washed out. Another pain-point we have with the Motorola RAZR is the lens angle. As can be seen, the lens on the RAZR has a much narrower angle compared to the rest, this presents it with another disadvantage on top of the numerous that the device already has.

High Contrast

In this test we present the cameras a challenging condition where the right metering is required to produce a decent picture. The built-in HDR feature on the iPhone 4S is designed to handle such situations but we left this disabled because we have left all the other devices in “auto” mode.

Once again, the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note are clear winners. In this instance, both devices produce comparable detail, perhaps the Note edges the iPhone 4S slightly. In this challenging situation, the iPhone 4S attempts to produce a balanced picture to the exposures in both the dark and bright areas. It does this rather well but the trade-off of this is a slight loss in detail and this is where the Galaxy Note outshines the iPhone 4S.

The Galaxy S II and the Xperia ray once again make the mid-pack with both devices matching each other closely in every aspect with the ray producing a richer more vibrant colour compared to the S II. The ray manages contrast in this challenging situation much better than the S II as well but we note that there are fringing in the detail from the pictures taken using the ray but we’re probably nit-picking here.

At this point we can see that the Motorola RAZR has established a pattern. Its camera performance is sub-par against the rest of the 8MP sensors here and this is consistent throughout this whole shootout.

This test also makes the Nokia N8 irrelevant. Despite having the highest pixel count in the test, the N8 is unable to compete with the of 8MP sensor in this test.


This scenario differs from the earlier natural lighting test as we present the devices with a backlit landscape to see how each would handle another challenging situation.

As with the previous tests, the results are similar. The iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note are exemplary in almost every situation, including this one. However in this instance, the Note edges the iPhone 4S in colour reproduction resulting in a more vibrant and pleasing picture with brighter whites and more defined blues as can be in the background.

The Galaxy S II fared well here as well producing an image that is just as good as its bigger stable mate – the Galaxy Note. The Xperia ray takes fourth spot with its backlit Exmor R sensor over-compensating for the dark foreground resulting in a washed-out and less than desirable picture.

At the tail-end, the Motorola RAZR continues its streak of disappointment with another dismal performance.


Finally, we take the devices indoors to see how the set performs in optimal indoor lighting, low indoor lighting and very poor indoor lighting conditions. First up we look at samples taken under optimal indoor lighting.

In this instance the Samsung Galaxy Note emerges as the clear winner maintaining the same level of detail seen in previous pictures and also an accurate white balance to ensure pleasing colour reproduction – aspects where the, usually stellar, iPhones 4S struggles to match.

The Galaxy Note’s strong traits are evident in the Galaxy S II as well which results in the S II outperforming the Xperia ray in all aspects.

With the Motorola RAZR, things remain the same, pictures still come out below average when compared with the rest of the devices here, the Nokia N8 on the other hand put-up a good effort producing a picture with an acceptable degree of detail that’s noticeably higher than the iPhone 4S.

Indoor Low Light

In this situation, the iPhone 4S comes back to the top by some margin. Once again we see the iPhone competing and even outperforming dedicated point-and-shoot cameras and it is in this situation where being exceptional really matters for a camera, and the iPhone 4S is simply unbeatable here. Thanks to the back-lit image sensor, the relatively low noise level is astounding as well. Even the Galaxy Note has a hard time in matching the level of detail produced by the iPhone 4S. Side by side, you can see how much more refined the image taken from the iPhone 4S is. We are truly impressed by this.

Interestingly, the one device that does come close to the iPhone 4S in this situation is the Sony Ericsson Xperia ray. We attribute this partly to the common image sensor that the two devices share but as you can see the superior optics and image processing software on the iPhone 4S makes all the difference.

The Nokia N8 performed well in this situation with good noise management and decent level of detail but again, next to the iPhone 4S, everything else just looks second rate.

Indoor Very Low Light

And we’ve come to the final set of sample shots. This is also the most challenging of all situations in which we tested the six devices where incandescent lighting offers less than ideal illumination – a situation that is guaranteed to challenge any image sensor no matter how good.

Once again, the iPhone 4S triumphs.

While the white balance is slightly off, the iPhone 4S manages the challenging low-light condition very well, maintaining a good degree of brightness and clarity. The depth in detail is pretty good as too.

But that is not to say that the others did not do well. The Galaxy Note, Nokia N8 and Galaxy S II held their own in this situation. Although we concede that the pictures from this trio can’t quite match what the iPhone 4S can muster, they are by all means still acceptable considering the poor lighting.

The Xperia ray’s Exmor R sensor failed to impress in this situation resulting in inaccurate colour reproduction that proves to be a consistent issue with the device. The level of detail is not as good as well, so too is the noise that’s evident in the picture taken using the Xperia ray.


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