For years, smartphone makers have been caught up in a megapixel spec race to prove that their camera is better than the next guy’s.
But we’ve finally come to a point where even the lower-end camera phones are packing more megapixels than they need, so it’s getting harder to differentiate camera hardware.
Without that megapixel crutch to fall back on, how are we supposed to know which smartphone has the best camera?
Well thankfully, there are several other important specs to look for in a camera, and it’s just a matter of learning which ones matter the most to you.
Why Megapixels Don’t Matter Anymore
The term “megapixel” actually means “one million pixels,” so a 12-megapixel camera captures images that are comprised of 12,000,000 tiny little dots.
A larger number of dots (pixels) in an image means that the image has more definition and clarity, which is also referred to as having a higher resolution.
This might lead you to believe that a camera with more megapixels will take better pictures than a camera with fewer megapixels, but that’s not always the case.
The trouble is, we’ve reached a point where all smartphone cameras have more than enough megapixels.
For instance, a 1080p HD TV has a resolution of 2.1 megapixels, and even the highest-end 4K displays top out at 8.3 megapixels.
Considering that nearly every smartphone camera has a double-digit megapixel rating these days, your photos will be in a higher resolution than most screens can even display.
Simply put, you won’t be able to see any difference in resolution between pictures taken by two different smartphone cameras, because most screens you’ll be viewing them on aren’t capable of displaying that many megapixels.
Really, anything greater than 8.3 megapixels is only helpful for cropping. In other words, if your phone takes 12-megapixel photos, you can crop them by roughly 50%, and the resolution will still be just as high as a 4K TV.
Pixel Size Is the Real Difference Maker
The hot new number to judge your phone’s camera by is the pixel size. You’ll see this spec listed as a micron value, which is a number followed by the symbol “µm.”
A phone with a 1.4µm pixel size will almost always capture better pictures than one with a 1.0µm pixel size, thanks to physics.
If you zoomed in far enough on one of your photos, you could see the individual pixels, right? Well, each of those tiny little dots was captured by microscopic light sensors inside your smartphone’s camera.
These light sensors are referred to as “pixels” because, well, they each capture a pixel’s worth of light. So if you have a 12-megapixel camera, the actual camera sensor has twelve million of these light-sensing pixels.
Each of these pixels measures light particles called photons to determine the color and brightness of the corresponding pixel in your finished photo.
When a bright blue photon hits one of your camera’s light sensors, it tells your phone to make a dot with bright blue coloring.
Put twelve million of these dots together in their various brightness and colors, then you’ll end up with a picture.
A Little Aperture Goes a Long Way
The next key spec to look for is the camera’s aperture, which is represented as f divided by a number (f/2.0, for example).
Because of the “f divided by” setup, this is one of those rare specs where a smaller number is always better than a larger one.
To help you understand aperture, let’s go back to pixel size for a second.
If larger pixels mean your camera can collect more light particles to create more accurate photos, then imagine pixels as a bucket, and photons as falling rain.
The bigger the opening of the bucket (pixel), the more rain (photons) you can collect, right?
Well aperture is like a funnel for that bucket. The bottom of this imaginary funnel has the same diameter as the pixel bucket, but the top is wider—which means you can collect even more photons.
In this analogy, a wider aperture gives the photon bucket a wider opening, so it focuses more light onto your camera’s light-sensing pixels.
Image Stabilization: EIS vs. OIS
With most spec sheets, you’ll see a camera’s image stabilization technology listed as either EIS or OIS. These stand for Electronic Image Stabilization and Optical Image Stabilization, respectively.
OIS is easier to explain, so let’s start with that one. Simply put, this technology makes it to where your camera sensor physically moves to compensate for any shaking while you’re holding your phone.
If you’re walking while you’re recording a video, for instance, each of your steps would normally shake the camera—but OIS ensures that the camera sensor remains relatively steady even while the rest of your phone shakes around it.
In general, though, it’s always better to have a camera with OIS.
For one, the cropping and stretching can reduce quality and create a “Jello effect” in videos, but in addition to that, EIS has little to no effect on reducing blur in still photos.
Now that you’ve got a better understanding about camera specs, have you decided which smartphone you’re going to buy next?
If you’re still undecided, you can use our smartphone-buyer’s flowchart at the following link, and if you have any further questions, just fire away in the comment section below.
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