If you have an Android phone right now, and it isn't the Galaxy S6, it probably has a bummer of a camera. Let's set the scene: you're at the bar and your friends are doing something super cute. You pull out your phone at the same time as your friend with an iPhone. A moment later, you'll see the gorgeous picture your friend took and you'll be left to live with your grainy crime against photography. This is probably not a moment of triumph for you.
The quality of your smartphone's camera has always been one of its selling points, but, back in March, Apple kicked off an imaging arms race with its "Shot on iPhone 6" campaign. Just as companies were announcing their new phones at Mobile World Congress, Apple served up a cruel reminder of its camera dominance by featuring images shot on the iPhone 6 in subways, poster ads, and on a micro site.
Since then, smartphone cameras have received even more attention than normal. During the announcement of the One M9, HTC brought up the phone's camera at the beginning, middle, and end of its keynote. LG is focusing almost all of its marketing on the G4's camera and its "color spectrum sensor." The Galaxy S6 just hit the shelves and tech journalists cannot stop posting shoot-outs between it and the iPhone.
Given all these supposed improvements you might have expected Android cameras to have caught up to Apple's. Surely this year's non-iPhone won't embarrass me in low-light social settings, you think. Well, it's complicated.
Let's talk about sensors, the most influential part of a phone's camera hardware. Sony is currently the go-to sensor supplier for the iPhone, G4, Galaxy S6, Nexus 6, and many, many others. The odd one out is HTC, which uses a 20 megapixel Toshiba module that's closely related the sensor in the Lumia 930, a Windows Phone that takes fantastic pictures. And while the Galaxy S6 rakes in praise for its camera, HTC has been slammed by the press and users alike for its muddy, inconsistent images despite its quality sensor.
The sensor your phone uses is only half the story. When you take a picture, your phone automatically compresses raw image data into a JPEG, effectively finalizing the image. In this split second, settings chosen by the phone manufacturer will adjust brightness, sharpness, and tone, and the rest of the data is thrown away. HTC royally boned itself with its image processing software, which overexposes shadows and murders detail with aggressive noise reduction and sharpening.
To illustrate this phenomenon, I shot a few photos with an M9 using HTC's recently released RAW Camera—an app that dumps all the image data right off the sensor into a RAW file. Because none of HTC's processing has taken place, the images captured in RAW have far more detail. In this mode, the M9 will simultaneously create a JPEG as it normally would as well as a humongous RAW file, which is perfect for one-to-one comparisons.
You have to zoom in a bit, but HTC's image processing software has a nasty habit of giving people gooey vampire skin. Right out of the camera, JPEG photos just look gross. So what do images look like from the nearly-identical sensor of the Lumia 930?
These look significantly better, even in JPEG. Microsoft's image processing algorithm reduces noise without smearing details, and the color simply looks better. Like Apple, Microsoft (and Nokia) take photography seriously in a way that Android manufacturers just don't. Google is trying to encourage companies to hand over image processing to apps with its new Camera2 API, but adoption has been almost non-existent outside of the Nexus program. Ultimately this means that no matter which app you use, the poor image processing is hard wired.
So why not shoot RAW and take the photo processing into your own hands? There are plenty of good reasons: the files are huge, so they take a long time to write, they take up a ton of space, and you need special software to even view them. As we see with the iPhone and the Galaxy S6, it's fine to shoot JPEGs exclusively, you just have to trust your phone maker to invest in good software.
But the landscape is about to change. Companies are beginning to realize that people care a lot about taking great pictures. Samsung purchased Sony's best sensor in the Galaxy S6 (the IMX240), and the LG G4's camera is getting stellar reviews ahead of its release. Plus, with this mounting competition, it's hard to imagine Apple sticking with its current 8MP sensor.
Android phones do have good cameras, but what we need is better software. RAW support allows us to see what these cameras are technically capable of, but until we can trust phone makers to invest in quality processing algorithms, Android cameras will continue to lag behind Apple and Microsoft's.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Sony Xperia Z3 Plus includes a new sensor, but it appears to be a derivative of the same 20.7MP part used in previous generations.