Updated: Best camera phone: which should you buy?

Updated: Best camera phone: which should you buy?

Introduction

Smartphones have revolutionised photography. More people than ever before are taking pictures, and as phone camera capability increases, the entry level budget camera has more or less been killed off.

That means that the camera on your phone is no longer a bonus feature for taking quick, shareable snaps. Instead, it could well be your sole means of taking pictures – and if you’re trusting your phone with your fondest memories, you really need it to be up to the job.

On paper, the specifications of many smartphones still don’t compete with the standalone camera, although we’re beginning to see some phones with sensors as large as those in compact cameras. Lenses with a large number of elements that are capable of shooting at wide apertures are fairly common, and some phones even allow you a good degree of control over the image you’re taking.

While it’s true that cameras are becoming ever more connected, if you don’t want the hassle and expense of buying and carrying around a separate device, then you’re going to want to know which is the best smartphone for photography.

Here we compare seven top smartphones currently on the market (many of which are targeted towards those who want to take better pictures), putting them through a range of tests to find out which is best for photography.

Each phone has its advantages, and while they have a range of specs, we’ll be comparing like-for-like in terms of how easy or intuitive it is to use the cameras, whether the design makes sense for photography, and – most importantly – the results each returns.

The following phones will be pitted against each other:

(Prices quoted are for the cheapest storage capacity.)

Before making any kind of decision about which smartphone you’re going to buy, you’ll probably take a look at how the specs stack up on paper. Here we’ll compare the different specs from a camera or photography perspective.

We’ve chosen these phones because we believe them to be the ones that best represent the needs of someone who wants a decent camera in their phone. The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is very much targeted as a cameraphone, rather than phonecamera, while the Nokia Lumia 1020 and HTC One M8 have both been very much marketed around their camera capabilities.

It’s a similar story for the iPhone, often quoted as the world’s most popular camera, and the Z3, which uses a "proper" sized sensor and a Sony G lens.

HTC One M8

The HTC One M8 only has four million pixels, but the device uses "Ultrapixels" which are larger and designed to capture more light. Unusually, the front-facing camera has more pixels (five million), but these aren’t ultrapixels.

With a home screen swipe up mechanism, the app launches pretty quickly and you’re ready to shoot. You can use the volume button to take a shot, but as these are placed in the middle of the device, it’s hard to do this comfortably without obscuring the lens and/or the rest of your hand obscuring the screen, making it difficult to compose the image in the first place.

Best Cameraphone

The One M8 offers a lot in terms of camera control. Pressing a set of three dots in the bottom left hand corner gives you access to controls for white balance, exposure compensation, ISO and so on. You can leave everything on auto, but it’s nice to have this level of control in a native camera app.

Autofocusing speeds are generally pretty quick, but there were a couple of instances during my testing when the phone suggested that the focus had been acquired when it clearly hadn’t. For macro focusing though, the HTC One M8 performs very well. In my test here it locked onto the berries first time and produced a sharp image.

Best Cameraphone

Those light capturing pixels work well in low light to produce images that more than compete with the output from sensors with more pixels. Images are relatively detailed, so could even stand up to being printed.

The digital zoom produces images that are usable at very small sharing sizes, but any serious scrutiny shows up loss of detail, some blurring and even chromatic aberration.

iPhone 6 Plus

Gone are the days when 5MP was impressive in a smartphone. Now, the lowest on this test is the iPhone 6 Plus which features an 8 million pixel iSight camera. Apple has stuck firm offering a relatively low pixel count since the days of the 4S.

To open the camera, all you need is a quick upward swipe of the camera icon from the home screen. Once you’re in, you can use either of the volume buttons to take a picture, but because it’s such a large device, it can be quite easy for your fingers to accidentally obscure the lens.

Best Cameraphone

There’s very minimal control over shooting, but with iOS 8 we have seen the introduction of control over brightness, and you can do a fair bit of editing once the shot has been taken. The overall interface is very clean and simple, and it takes just a short time to get to grips with it.

Focusing times are quick, and it’s only in very low light that the iPhone struggles and you might have to refocus a couple of times. It’s also somewhat hit-and-miss for close-ups, with a forced refocus necessary here and there. Inclusion of a macro function should be a priority for the next iPhone.

Best Cameraphone

Colours are acceptably warm and true directly from the camera, while performance in low light is also pretty good, with a minimal noise and smudging especially at normal or small printing and web sizes. The digital zoom is serviceable, especially at small sizes and in good light.

The front facing camera for selfies performs reasonably, but suffers in poor light. Video which is output at 1080p, is very smooth, with the optical image stabilisation doing a good job of keeping it shake free even when shooting handheld.

LG G3

With the LG G3, holding the volume down key opens up the camera app. It’s reasonably quick, but it took me some time to get used to the button placement as they’re on the back of the phone. The volume down key is also right next to the power on/off button.

It’s a similar story when you actually want to take the photo: a short push of the down key will take the shot, but if you miss, you end up switching the lock key instead, which quickly gets infuriating.

It’s also difficult to hold the phone as a normal camera with this kind of set up, your hand having to obscure the screen, or hold it very awkwardly, if you want to use the physical button. It’s probably best to stick with the onscreen virtual buttons.

Best Cameraphone

LG seems to have gone for an iPhone style very minimal amount of control type setup with the G3, not allowing you to change any of the camera’s key settings within the native app.

The G3 uses laser autofocusing, which makes it one of the quickest on test here, and it impressively locks onto a target, and in low light it still works well. That said, for macro focusing, it’s much more disappointing. If you’re shooting something small, or with very fine detail, it struggles to lock on at all.

Best Cameraphone

When you can get the G3 to focus, the images it produces are great with lots of detail and punchy colours… in good light. In low light, the images produced aren’t great, but certainly good enough for sharing online, there’s a little smudging to be seen when viewed at normal sizes.

The digital zoom is the most disappointing of the group here, with a big loss of detail at the zoom end of the range, so it’s best to avoid using this unless really necessary. On the plus side, the front facing camera is one of the better ones of the group, working reasonably well in low lighting conditions.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Pitched as a phone for photographers, the Nokia Lumia 1020 made headlines for its claims of a 41 million pixel sensor. That’s a slightly misleading figure, since the camera actually uses pixel binning – the grouping of pixels together – so the resulting photo is not output at 41 million pixels.

The reason for this binning is to supposedly make the camera perform better in low light.

To activate the camera, you can hold down the dedicated camera button for a couple of seconds and the native camera app will launch. It’s not quite as speedy as some of the others on this test, probably due to to having a dual-core processor, instead of a quad-core as the others have.

Best Cameraphone

For a camera so obviously pitched at photographers, it has many options from a selection of scene modes to ISO and exposure compensation.

Focusing is reasonably quick, dropping a little in low light. For macro focusing, you can activate the dedicated close-up scene mode and this helps you to get closer to the subject. You may want to spend some time making sure that the right part of the subject is in focus though.

Colours directly from the camera are great, but this is another device which struggles ever so slightly with cyan coloured skies – something to watch out for. For low light shooting the 1020 is very good, so if you’re going to be doing a lot of this it’s a good shoot.

Best Cameraphone

If you examine very closely, low light images are a little smudgy, but if you’re going to be sharing at normal web sizes it’s not going to be too much of a problem.

If the light is good, the digital zoom on the 1020 produces usable images. There’s some loss of detail, and a little bit of fringing starts to appear on contrast edges, but otherwise it’s a reasonable performer.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

As you might expect, there’s a similar opening mechanism here as with the S5 – a simple swipe up from the bottom right hand corner. But since the phone lens needs to extend as well it’s a little slower to get going than the S5, meaning you run the risk of missing certain shots every now and then.

The good news with having a large lens is that it’s pretty much impossible for your fingers to obscure it, and you can hold this phone more like a "proper" camera if you like.

As it’s so photography oriented, it’s no surprise to see that the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom has more shooting modes than the S5. Not only do you have auto, but you also have program mode which gives you some control over certain settings, along with panorama, continuous shot, night and more.

Best Cameraphone

Again, tapping the cog icon brings up a display of various different shooting parameters that you might want or need to change, and you can also alter exposure compensation if you’re shooting in program mode.

Focusing in good light is speedy, but in lower light conditions, it will take a slightly longer amount of time. A small box will flash green when focus has been acquired, and handily it will flash red if focus hasn’t been achieved, so you can quickly see if you need to force it to refocus again.

Colours in images from the phone are nice and warm, and there’s plenty of detail on offer here when you’re shooting in good light. Disappointingly, the phone struggles with very close up shooting – so macro photographs are pretty much off limits.

Best Cameraphone

In low light, the K Zoom is the worst of the bunch, which is again disappointing for something which is so photography focused. Images are a little grainy, with a loss of detail, which is probably okay if you’re only sharing on social sites, but if you want to print them out at some point, you’re probably going to be left disappointed. The front facing camera also has a similar problem.

The K Zoom is the best option of the group in terms of zoom, as it has an optical device. At the furthest reach of the lens images are well detailed and very usable. There’s also a digital zoom if you want to get even closer, but avoid that unless really necessary.

Samsung Galaxy S5

Like the iPhone, to activate the Samsung Galaxy S5‘s camera, you can swipe up from the corner of the lock screen, and use the volume button to take a shot. Again, because of the positioning of this button, it’s relatively easy to obscure the lens with your finger when holding the phone horizontally.

There’s a few more icons and choices to get your head round with the S5, with a mode button being available on the right hand side of the screen to allow you to choose from auto, panorama and so on. You’ll likely stick with auto for 99% of your shots.

Best Cameraphone

In the top right you’ll see a cog that you can press to bring up some different options, such as turning picture stabilisation on, effects, metering modes and more. You can leave everything to auto, or take a little more control over things yourself if you prefer.

The S5 is very quick to focus, and even in low light it does a good job of locking onto a target acceptably quickly. You’ll see a circle appear and turn into a green outline when AF is acquired.

Although on occasions, the S5 struggles a little with cyan colours in skies, generally colours are nice and vivid. For macro, the camera coped pretty well, allowing you to get quite close to the subject without too much trouble.

Best Cameraphone

In low light, the S5 copes very well, producing images which appear smudge free and well detailed at reasonable sizes – if you’re only ever going to be sharing on social media sites, you should be more than well served by the S5.

The front facing camera doesn’t perform quite so well, but again if you’re only sharing at small sizes, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

The digital zoom is half decent, if a little smudgy if you look at an image under any kind of close scrutiny, but if the light is good and you really do want to get closer to the subject, it’s not a bad shout.

Sony Xperia Z3

The Sony Xperia Z3 has a 20.2 million pixel, 1/2.3 inch sensor, which is the same kind of setup you’d find in one of Sony’s Cybershot compact cameras, so again, it’s pitched as a phone with photographers in mind.

There’s a dedicated camera button, which you can hold down for a second or two when the screen is locked to very quickly launch the native camera app.

It’s one of the speediest on the test. Happily, the lens is on the other end of the phone to where the camera button is so you can actually hold it like a proper camera without your fingers obscuring the lens.

Best Cameraphone

You can change the mode you’re shooting in with the Z3 from superior auto, to manual, which isn’t quite as manual as the name suggests, but interestingly it is the only place where you can actually use the advertised 20 million pixel shooting resolution as auto maxes out at 8 million pixels.

It’s possible to change ISO and metering, white balance and exposure compensation, which is a pretty decent offering for a smartphone.

The Z3 is one of the most impressive in terms of the colours output directly from it, while shots are lovely and detailed. It’s also good at autofocusing, locking on to the subject quickly and easily most of the time.

For macro it copes fairly well, allowing you to photograph small and/or detailed things pretty easily. Again, you might want to check that the part of the subject in focus is the part you intended to be.

Best Cameraphone

For low light shooting, the Z3 should be supreme as it has the capability of reaching ISO 12800 – unfortunately you can’t set that sensitivity setting yourself, only activating itself in high sensitivity mode – such images taken at those high figures are really only for extremely dark conditions where you can’t activate the flash.

Otherwise, in more usual low light conditions, the Z3 copes pretty well, keeping a reasonable amount of detail.

General test

HTC One M8

Best cameraphones

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Best Camera

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphones

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LG G3

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphones

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Samsung Galaxy S5: The colour in the sky is a little cyan here, so that's something to watch out for

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Best Cameraphone

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphone

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Low light test

HTC One M8

Best Cameraphone

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best cameraphones

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LG G3

Best cameraphones

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Best cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best Cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Best cameraphones

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best cameraphones

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Macro test 1

HTC One M8

Best cameraphones

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best cameraphones

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LG G3

Best cameraphones

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Best cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Best cameraphones

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best cameraphones

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Macro test 2

HTC One M8

Best Cameraphone

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best Cameraphones

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LG G3

Best Cameraphones

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best Cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Best Cameraphone

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best Cameraphones

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Macro test 3

HTC One M8

Best Cameraphones

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best Cameraphones

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LG G3

Best Cameraphone

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Best Cameraphone

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best Cameraphone

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Best Cameraphone

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best Cameraphones

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Selfie test

HTC One M8

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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LG G3

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best cameraphones

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Best cameraphones

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Wide zoom test

The wide-angle shots are included for comparison with the zoom shots

HTC One M8

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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iPhone 6 Plus

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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LG G3

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Nokia Lumia 1020

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Samsung Galaxy S5

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Sony Xperia Z3

Best cameraphones

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Best Cameraphone

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Video test

HTC One M8

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n98HywEi_Lk&feature=youtu.be

iPhone 6 Plus

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYosCAKGpQE&feature=youtu.be

Nokia Lumia 1020

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXlcSCwmYq4&feature=youtu.be

Samsung K Zoom

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muBrEPk0ioY&feature=youtu.be

Samsung Galaxy S5

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LAbxlZ1ozE&feature=youtu.beYouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jr8I_dd74vE

Sony Xperia Z3

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me55VZ7w1RYYouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghHi82wqGZY&feature=youtu.be

Verdict

The good news is that none of the phones in the test produce particularly bad images. If other aspects of the phone appeal to you then you shouldn’t be left disappointed with any one of these handsets.

However, if photography is your main concern, there are some careful considerations to be made here. If you’re likely to be photographing a lot, then the operation of the camera is probably one of the biggest aspects to consider.

When it comes to image quality, probably the most important thing to consider here, there are some phones that stand out particularly well in one area, and others that are decent all-rounders.

Best Camera phone

HTC One M8

Despite its relatively low pixel count, the HTC One M8 produces some very nice images, and as you might hope, in low light, the Ultrapixels work well to produce clear, bright and detailed images.

Focusing is quick and for general snaps it also produces some nice images. Some elements of the handling are poor, using the volume button to shoot means obscuring half the screen with your hand, so you’re better off sticking to the touchscreen buttons.

On the other hand, it affords the most control over settings here of any camera on test, so if you’re the sort who likes to change every single setting on a "proper" camera, then the HTC One M8 is a good shout.

Best Cameraphone

iPhone 6 Plus

With its slightly unwieldy shape, the iPhone 6 Plus takes a little getting used to, but once again Apple’s engineers have produced an excellent camera that copes well in a range of conditions, including low light, macro and the selfie camera.

On the downside, you can’t do much in the way of taking control of settings, and while it’s nice to see Apple introducing exposure control with iOS 8, it would be nice if even more could be afforded, it is the world’s most popular camera after all.

There’s a good range of editing options though, which helps to make up for some of those problems. If you want a lot of the same power in something which is easier to hold, then the iPhone 6 is almost identical, but lacks the optical image stabilisation.

Best Cameraphone

LG G3

This is perhaps the worst of the bunch, it’s sad to say, and although it impresses with the speed of autofocusing, in other areas it’s a let down.

If other aspects of the phone appeal and you’re mainly going to be photographing in good light it’s worth considering though.

I found it difficult to get used to the button arrangement being on the back of the camera, especially being so close together, but that does make it quite useful for selfie. If that’s your thing, maybe consider the LG G3.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

With its "41 million pixel" sensor, the 1020 was expected to be a good performer, and it is. Although there’s a little evidence of image smoothing if you examine images very closely, the likelihood of you (or anyone else) doing that is pretty minimal.

It’s gives you more control over settings in the native app, plus a few scene modes, allowing you to change things like exposure and white balance.

Best Cameraphone

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

If you’re going to the trouble of buying something that is so specifically a camera first, you should expect great things from it and sadly the K Zoom just doesn’t really deliver in that arena.

Although images are decent in good light, in low light it really struggles, and it’s really only the zoom which it excels at, of course, being an optical device.

For those who really, really, don’t want to carry around an extra camera but insist on zooming in on things, great, but for most people, you’d be better off sticking with something with a sleeker design.

Best Cameraphone

Samsung Galaxy S5

A decent all-rounder, the S5 copes well with quite a range of different things which are thrown at it, albeit struggling a little on occasion with producing skies which are little too cyan.

Macro focusing is good, while general autofocus and low light photographs come out well.

It’s a shame then that the design couldn’t be a little more thought out so that’s easier to hold without obscuring the lens. You do eventually get used to holding it in such a way to prevent this, but placing the button on the opposite end from the lens would have quickly stopped this problem altogether.

Sony Xperia Z3

Sony Xperia Z3

The Z3 impresses in a few different areas, making it a good all-rounder. Images are bright and punchy directly from the camera, while it copes admirably well in low light.

There’s also a decent button arrangement, which means you can actually hold it like a proper camera and not get your fingers in the way of the lens.

There’s also a range of modes on offer, although it’s disappointing to see that the top spec 20 million pixel shooting is hidden away under manual mode – as the main advertised feature, you expect it to be able to be used at all times.

Overall verdict

Picking a winner of this test is not an easy task since all perform well in some areas, but have large faults in others.

If you are strongly in the iOS camp you’ll be pleased to know that the iPhone 6 Plus delivers extremely good images in a range of different conditions including low light. It’s a little large and unwieldy to use though, so a standard iPhone 6 is also a good option for those who want to stick with Apple.

However, if you’re in the Android camp, or you don’t mind either way, then the best pick of the bunch is the Sony Xperia Z3. Here we have a camera that is capable of delivering great images in a good range of different conditions, and what’s more, it’s actually nice to hold and use and there’s a good range of shooting modes to use. Even better, there’s

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