If you look at many smartphone camera reviews, you’d be excused for believing that all phones took terrible photographs until now. But is that actually true?
Just before the weekend, I posted a series of photos on Twitter with a statement about how far we’ve advanced with smartphone camera photography, encouraging people to suggest what phone they thought took the published photos.
Given the release of flaghip phones from the likes of Honor, Xiaomi, Apple, Samsung, and others, it wasn’t surprising that people quickly started to post their guesses – with some conducting some detailed analysis to determine what they thought was the most likely candidate.
Almost all of them were way off base – but some were along the right lines, even if they ultimately didn’t guess correctly.
Max Weinbach (9to5Google) was first to offer a guess, suggesting the colour profile was very much in the style of a Leica camera, leading to a guess that they were taken with the Xiaomi 13 Pro (Xiaomi is now working with Leica after Huawei’s long-standing association recently came to an end). This was a solid guess given the actual device.
When I replied that he was close with the Leica assumption, a second follow up guess suggested Huawei. Another good guess, even if the choice was the latest Huawei P50, or maybe the Honor Magic 5 Pro.
Then followed guesses from others that included the Samsung S23 Ultra, Apple iPhone 14 Max, and more for the Honor Magic 5 Pro. Another contributor suggested a Vivo phone, while another guessed it was a Pixel phone. Go #TeamPixel!
New and Improved!
The other part of my Tweet was that nobody ‘could imagine photos like this three or four years ago’, and that this was ‘why you need to buy a flagship if you want the best photos’.
Like washing powder commercials, as soon as a new formula is concocted, everything that existed before is rendered useless and forgettable.
Of course the industry has to do this – it’s trying to sell phones after all!
In reality, for some years, myself and countless others have commented that there are very few bad smartphone cameras, even in the mid-range, these days.
I think my little tongue-in-cheek experiment may have demonstrated this very effectively because nobody once suggested the photos could have been taken with anything but a current device.
The plot twist, for anyone who hasn’t now worked it out, is that these photos – that so many people assumed must have been taken with a current day (or very soon to be released) flagship were in fact taken in 2019, with a Huawei P30 Pro!
Kudos to Max for having detected both Leica and Huawei from the photos – that’s the eye of a very well trained and experienced reviewer.
While I am yet to review the Xiaomi 13 Pro myself, it is quite clear where Leica has led on colour tuning, meaning Xiaomi’s new flagship could well be the natural successor to the many fans of the P30 Pro. One can only wonder where Huawei would have been today if not for the US sanctions, but I digress.
Only a bit of fun
Of course this experiment was just for a bit of entertainment and it doesn’t mean I’m saying that everyone should go and buy a four year old phone – however good it was for its time.
Nor am I belittling the progress that manufacturers have made, and will continue to make, in the coming months and years.
But, what it does show is there are relatively small improvements year-on-year for the most part, and keeping your current phone a bit longer is okay. You don’t need to let FOMO force an unnecessary upgrade if you’re happy with what you have.
One thing to add is that Twitter does degrade the quality of photos and most people will have made their guesses after viewing them on a smaller, likely phone, screen.
I’ve posted the original photos below so pixel peepers can look at them more closely. Perhaps now they won’t look as good, or perhaps now you’ll just think they’re not as good because you know they’re from a four year old phone.
Realistically nobody can say they’d be unhappy with photos like these today, and probably at any time in the future.
So, should you buy a flagship or not?
If you’re in the market for a new phone and want the best possible camera experience available right now, including decent video recording (that’s one area where the P30 Pro lacked), of course you can still look at one of the new devices, whether the Oppo Find X5 Pro (noting that the Find X6 series is likely within the next couple of months), the OnePlus 11, Xiaomi 13 series, Samsung S23 series, or one of the Apple iPhone 14 models.
Even Oppo’s Find N2 Flip comes with a Hasselblad tuned camera, in case you’d like something genuinely different in look and feel.
But as manufacturers are starting to commit to longer support cycles (Android OS and security updates), you shouldn’t rule out looking at last year’s flagships either.
While you may read reviews that nitpick over the tiniest details, don’t be fooled into disregarding older phones. There can be some great deals if you shop around. That includes cheaper models from the likes of Realme, Poco, and Redmi – where you can still get great photos (often these devices use the same primary camera image sensors as more expensive models) but perhaps without the same level of versatility (such as no telephoto camera, or a weaker ultra-wide sensor).
What you will get is an extra £400 or £500 kept in your bank account.
As more manufacturers work in collaboration with companies like Leica, Hasselblad, or optic specialists like Zeiss, as well as developing custom silicon to speed up image processing (e.g. Oppo’s MariSilicon X found in the Find X5 Pro and Reno 8 Pro), there are also going to be cases where your choice of phone will be narrowed down to the style of photo you prefer most.
Some companies will default to more contrast or saturation, and others will mute colours. Of course all of this can be customised, but the out-of-the-box settings are what most people will likely stick with.
Standing out from the crowd
The latest phones may come with a specific unique feature that bumps it up your shortlist too. Honor is very proud of its new new Falcon Capture algorithm that eliminates shutter lag and automatically captures pin-sharp photos of your overactive pet or toddler.
Other devices include innovations like microscope cameras, or different focal lengths for zooming – such as two individual telephoto lenses to give a better range without degrading picture quality. Depending on the chipset, you may get 8K video recording, and some phones will have better audio capturing than others.
But remember to look at what new features were included on last year’s devices, or even the year before that! Things like 5G or Wi-Fi 6 have been around for a while too, as well as 90Hz and 120Hz refresh rate displays, so even those aren’t necessarily reasons to be put off either.
Go with the flow
If you decide to buy the latest phone (and if you’re mad into tech I can’t blame you and nor will the phone makers) then at least you might benefit from higher resale values when you choose to upgrade next time, as the longer you keep getting updates the more someone else will feel comfortable to buy an older phone.
This can only be a good thing for reducing e-waste, and maybe you can show them this post to reassure them that they don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest!
In conclusion, nobody should believe that every smartphone made before the current model being sold will take photos that look like they were taken on a potato.
Of course there are some shocking phones out there which are best avoided, and were terrible even at launch, but increasingly the majority of mid to high-end phones have been delivering the goods for years.
I’ve listed some popular flagship devices below with the current pricing if you bought today.
|Manufacturer||2023 model||2022 model||2021 model|
|Honor||Honor Magic 5 Pro|
|Honor Magic 4 Pro|
|OnePlus 10 Pro|
|OnePlus 9 Pro|
|Oppo||Oppo Find X6 Pro|
TBA (Likely Q2)
|Oppo Find X5 Pro|
|Oppo Find X3 Pro|
|Samsung||Samsung S23 Ultra|
|Samsung S22 Ultra|
|Samsung S21 Ultra|
|Xiaomi||Xiaomi 13 Pro|
|Xiaomi 12 Pro|
|Xiaomi Mi 11|