iPhone 4S, Nokia N8, Lumia 900, N9, and HTC One X camera phone shootout

The cameras on phones just keep getting better and better and the great thing is that most of the higher end models compare well with each other too.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

I took a basic look at the cameras on four smartphones last October and my results were pretty close. I have several smartphones in my possession at this time so I decided to compare the Apple iPhone 4S, Nokia N8, Nokia Lumia 900, Nokia N9, and HTC One X in a few typical scenarios. It was very tough to judge the differences in a couple shots and in the end it turns out four of the five were about the same with only one clear loser in the bunch.

As you can see in my image gallery I captured the following photos to compare the camera on each smartphone:

  • Potted flowers in sun
  • Typical shot of the yard
  • Outside day shot of my truck and trailer
  • Macro shot of flowers
  • Macro shot in complete darkness

Image Gallery: Check out several sample photos taken with these five smartphones in various situations.
Image Gallery: 5 candidate smartphones
Image Gallery: Close up with the Nokia Lumia 900

Some phones have a ton of settings and some have hardly any (look at the Apple iPhone 4S), but to conduct a comparison of a typical smartphone user I left everything in auto mode, except for the two macro shots. Most people never mess with the ISO, white balance, and other settings available, but if you take the time you can improve your shots on most phones. The photos were unaltered, except to be resized to fit our ZDNet gallery dimensions.

I ranked each photo from 1 to 5 in a direct comparison to each other and present the totals of my rankings in the table below with 1 being the 1st place phone so that the lowest total score is the winner in my comparison. Some were very tough to decide and I gave out a tie. As you can see in the end the winner could have been any of the phones, but the Nokia N9. I went into this shootout thinking the HTC One X would blow out the competition and the Nokia Lumia 900 would lag behind most others. Keep in mind though that this was a limited test of some real world situations and the judging was up to my personal ability to discern differences in the photos. We also have different inherent bias in what we thing a good photo is. For example, some prefer more detail while others prefer more vibrant colors, so your judgement of the photos is likely different than mine. Also some devices excel in certain areas while others do a fair job overall. Read on below to find out how my ratings shook out and take a look at the photos yourself to see if you agree.

The Competitors

Apple iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S has the best camera that Apple has ever had in an iPhone with an upgrade to 8 megapixels, f/2.4 aperture, face detection, and pinch to zoom. The iPhone 4S is very responsive in going from capturing a picture to being ready for the next one, but others are even faster today as you can see on the HTC One X. You can open the camera right from the lock screen by simply pressing the Home button twice and then sliding the camera icon up.

You will notice that the iPhone 4S camera software is the most basic of all of these device with very few options for you to change. The thing is, the majority of people don't want to mess with settings and just want to be able to point and shoot. Apple's camera software still takes decent macro shots or low light shots without any manual change in settings. It doesn't do that well at focusing in dark conditions though. You can toggle the flash on and off (no red eye mode), toggle the grid, and toggle HDR mode. That's it for any settings in the software.

To zoom you pinch and zoom on the display. To focus on something other than what the software picks up you can tap on the display to do so. You can also perform editing of your photos on the iPhone 4S.

You can capture video in 1080p high resolution on the iPhone 4S, but I didn't compare video in this article.

Nokia N8 Symbian device

The Nokia N8 has been out for more than a year and has served in the role as the leader of all camera phones with its 12 megapixel camera, Carl Zeiss lens, f/2.8 aperture, and Xenon lens. There are a LOT of things you can do with the Nokia N8, in terms of manual settings and taking advantage of the hardware in the camera and if you search online you will find many fantastic photos taken with the device. When I travel I still take along the N8 as my point and shoot and have been very happy with it.

The camera software in the N8 has been improved over the last year and even though things such as panorama and HDR are not in the default software, that's all I am using for this comparison, you can find 3rd party apps to enable these functions. There is full 12 megapixel mode and 9 megapixel wide screen 16:9 mode.

There are several settings in the N8 software so take some time scrolling through the menus. Modes include the following:

  • Automatic
  • Custom
  • Close-up
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Sport
  • Night
  • Night portrait

You will also find red-eye flash mode on the N8 and the Xenon flash really cannot be beat by any LED flash camera phone, just check the pitch black shot in my image gallery. Video is also captured 720p high resolution.

Like the Nokia Lumia 900 there is a physical capture button on the Nokia N8. You cannot launch it from a locked device though.

Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone device

The Nokia Lumia 900 just launched a few weeks ago on AT&T and as I stated in my recent article I purchased a white one for myself. Windows Phone is setup to help you take photos quickly and easily with a requirement for a physical capture button and ability to take photos without having to unlock the phone.

The camera on the Lumia 900 has a f/2.2 aperture and Carl Zeiss optics and it actually works quite well. I have seen much better on other Nokia devices in the past and wonder if the Microsoft software is limiting what Nokia can do on the Lumia 900.

There are several settings in the Nokia Lumia 800's software so take some time scrolling through the menus. Scenes include the following:

  • Beach
  • Candlelight
  • Macro
  • Landscape
  • Night
  • Portrait
  • Snow
  • Sports
  • Sunset

You will also find settings for white balance, exposure value, ISO, metering mode, effects, contrast, saturation, focus mode, resolution, and flicker reduction. Video is captured in 720p high resolution.

I highly recommend you check out this article regarding how to optimize your camera usage on the Lumia 900. I tried setting the Focus Mode to Macro for all shots and am seeing better camera performance too.

Nokia N9 MeeGo device

The Nokia N9 is the second, the N950 launched in limited quantities for developers, MeeGo powered device coming from Nokia. It launched in a few select countries and unfortunately we won't see it here in the U.S. from Nokia directly. I included it here since it is one of the newest devices to hit the streets and given that Nokia excels in camera phones I thought it worthy of a look. Make sure to check out this article where Damian Dinning discusses the N9 camera he helped create.

The Nokia N9 comes with an 8 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, f/2.2 aperture (matches that of the latest devices), and some amazing features detailed in the Nokia Conversations article.

I recommend you use auto for taking macro shots as the macro mode doesn't bring objects into focus very well. Settings and modes on the N9 include the following:

  • Automatic
  • Macro
  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Night
  • Sports

You will also find a red-eye flash, different aspect ratios, face detection and much more in the settings. Nokia includes editing software on both the N9 and the N8.

HTC One X Android device

It's great to see HTC improving the optics on their devices and the HTC One X on AT&T is a fantastic device with a ton of camera enhancements and options. I chose it as the first place contender in my typical shots, but had it scoring in the middle of the pack for macro shots. It is a very good camera phone and with all of the different modes, you can really optimize it for your shooting needs.

You will find the following scene modes on the HTC One X, along with dedicated camera and video recording buttons, a flash button, advanced settings button, and an Instagram-like filter button,:

  • Auto mode
  • HDR
  • Panorama
  • Portrait
  • Group portrait
  • Landscape
  • Whiteboard
  • Close up
  • Low light

The HTC One X, and the One S, integrate HTC's new camera technology that allows you to take photos in rapid succession. In addition, you can even capture still images while recording video at the same time. Other settings include choosing the camera (you can take stills with the front facing camera if you like), setting the time, selection resolution, making image adjustments in regards to exposure, contrast and saturation, white balance, continuous shooting toggle, face detection toggle, auto smile, widescreen, geo-tag, and upload frequency.

You can also shoot slow motion video with the HTC One X. Video is capable of being recored at 1080p.

Summary table and my pick for best camera phone »

Comparison Table

Here you can see my selection of first through fifth place in each of the five situations that I took photos. The lower the score the higher the ranking as it was simply a 1 through 5 rating scale between all five phones.
Apple iPhone 4S Nokia N8 Nokia Lumia 900 Nokia N9 HTC One X
Outside flower pot 2 1 2 3 3
Typical yard shot 2 3 4 5 1
Truck and trailer shot 1 3 2 4 1
Macro of flowers 2 4 1 5 3
Pitch black macro mode 4 1 2 5 3
Total 11 12 11 22 11

Is there a clear winner?

As you can see the results were very close with three devices tied at 11 points, one at 12 points, and the Nokia N9 at 23 points. You should be able to take fine photos with any of them so I don't think the camera is really the major differentiator when selecting from one of these. The Nokia Lumia 900 did much better than I thought it would while the N9 really didn't show up as well in this particular comparison. The Nokia N8 easily beats others when used with the Xenon flash, but other cameras are catching up to it and even beating it in everyday usage scenarios.

Look through the photos in my image gallery and let me know what phone you think is the best at taking photos.

[poll id="42"]

Back to the beginning »

Editorial standards