Best phone camera of 2015: The 9 smartphones we chose

We’ve gathered together as many of the latest flagships as we could lay our hands on, including the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, Huawei P8 and both of the current iPhones so you can see how their cameras perform in good light outdoors, poor light indoors, in close-ups, for video and also for selfies using the front camera.

Around half of the phones can shoot video at 4K, but you’ll need a 4K monitor to view the video clips at their full detail. However, you'll still benefit from the extra resolution even on a 1080p screen, but beware that you need a fairly powerful laptop or PC to play back 4K video smoothly.

Below is a brief comparison table showing the main specs of each phone’s cameras:

 

Main camera resolution

Front camera resolution

Video (max. resolution)

Optical stabilisation (OIS)

Flash

Dedicated camera button

iPhone 6

8Mp

1.2Mp

[email protected]

No

Dual-tone LED

No

iPhone 6 Plus

8Mp

1.2Mp

[email protected]

Yes

Dual-tone LED

No

Google Nexus 6

13Mp

2Mp

[email protected]

Yes

Dual-LED ring

No

HTC One M9

20Mp

4Mp

[email protected]

No

Dual-tone LED

No

Huawei P8

13Mp

8Mp

[email protected]

No

Dual-LED

No

LG G4

16Mp

8Mp

[email protected]

Yes

LED

No

Nokia Lumia 930

20Mp

1.2Mp

[email protected]

Yes

Dual-LED

Yes

Samsung Galaxy S6

16Mp

5Mp

[email protected]

Yes

LED

No

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

20.7Mp

2.2Mp

[email protected]

No

LED

Yes

 

Note that the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact share the same front and rear cameras, so you can use the photo examples below to judge both phones.

Best phone camera of 2015: How we tested

To make this comparison as fair as possible, we set up each phone to the highest resolution available for photos and videos. We also took each shot within a minute or so of each other to ensure lighting conditions were as similar as possible.

Best phone camera 2015

All photos and videos were taken handheld, rather than on a tripod because that’s how you’ll use the phone in real life. It also allowed stabilisation systems to prove their worth, and we ensured they were all turned on where present.

We selected automatic modes and didn’t tap the screen to choose focus or exposure since none of our test shots was designed to trick the cameras: they should all perform well with automatic exposure. Again, most people will rely on auto mode to capture the moment.

As you’ll see in our shot of St Pancras, the field of view varies between phones. These were all taken from precisely the same spot, so it’s easy to see which have 16:9 and which have 4:3 sensors. In each case, we made sure we used the highest resolution available – many Android phones default to 16:9 which chops the top and bottom off the photo for phones with 4:3 sensors. (Note, we made a mistake with the HTC One M9, shooting at 16:9 instead of 10:7 because it isn't obvious which is the highest resolution. Rather than re-shooting later in different light conditions, we decided to use the cropped images instead)

One of the most interesting observations during the test was how much the experience of taking photos and videos differed with each phone. For example, the Galaxy S6’s bright AMOLED screen made it easy to frame photos in sunny conditions.

The LG G4’s screen wasn’t as easy to see, but the extra resolution meant it was easy to see whether a macro photo would be blurry or not before taking the shot. By contrast, the Z3 Compact’s 720p screen made it impossible as the detail simply wasn’t there.

All the photos you see below were resized to 1200 pixels wide from their original dimensions, but are otherwise untouched. We will add some 100 percent crops shortly.

Best phone camera of 2015: Outdoor photo – St Pancras

iPhone 6

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6

Most phone cameras excel in bright conditions and low contrast, so it's no surprise to see the iPhone 6 performing well here. We also like the aspect ratio and wide-angle lens which lets you get a lot into the photo compared to some camera phones.

iPhone 6 Plus

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6 Plus

There's very little to choose between the two iPhones in these conditions - you have to look in front of the red bus to be sure they are different photos!

Google Nexus 6

Best camera phone 2015 Nexus 6

The Nexus 6's white balance is a bit off, leading to a cooler-looking photo compared to the warm iPhones. Where it shines is the high-resolution sensor which captures lots of sharp detail, and the lens is sharp to the edges.

HTC One M9

Best camera phone 2015 HTC One M9

Worse than the Nexus 6's auto white balance is the One M9's. It has also blown out the highlights in the clouds. Aside from this, though, it's a nice sharp image with lots of detail. 

Huawei P8

Best camera phone 2015 Huawei P8

The P8 excels outdoors in good light. This is a well-exposed image with reasonably accurate colours. The wide field of view means it captures more than most phones, too. Plus, there's very little evidence of compression artefacts with plenty of detail in the brickwork of St Pancras hotel. The downsides are that focus is soft when viewed at 100 percent and, as you can plainly see, the camera's location right in the corner of the case means that - in conjunction with that wide-angle lens - it's very easy to end up with your finger in the shot when gripping the phone at the corners.

LG G4

Best camera phone 2015 LG G4

A great shot by the G4. Exposure and white balance are good, and we marveled at the level of detail in the 16Mp image when zooming to 100 per cent. We'd prefer something other than a 16:9 sensor, but there's enough resolution to crop off the sides and still end up with plenty of detail. The only niggle is a soft area in the bottom middle of the image which is likely to be the lens, rather than the f/1.8 aperture. 

Nokia Lumia 930

Best camera phone 2015 Lumia 930

As with the 930's other photos, this one exhibits slight underexposure and a bit too much contrast - made obvious when you compare it to the Galaxy S6 below. The white balance isn't quite right either.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Best camera phone 2015 Galaxy S6

If we had to pick a winner for the St Pancras photo, this would be it. Despite having a 16:9 sensor, the wide-angle lens means more of the scene is captured than the LG G4, and there's more sharp detail throughout the photo - right to the edges. White balance is also spot on.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Best camera phone 2015 Xperia Z3 Compact

A slightly cool white balance, but the Z3 does a good job in bright light. The image is well exposed and nice and sharp. At 100 percent there's evidence of compression, but most poeple will be happy with the Z3's performance.

Best phone camera of 2015: Outdoor photo – Brunswick Square Gardens

iPhone 6

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6

One of the iPhone's strengths (not just the 6, but right back to the iPhone 4) is that colour accuracy is always excellent. In both the photos above and below you can see Apple has ensured that both iPhones perform excellently where colours are concerned. There's an inevitable lack of detail when you zoom in due to the low-resolution sensor, but as long as you don't want to crop too much, they're fine for displaying on a large TV, printing out or sharing online.

iPhone 6 Plus

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6 Plus

Google Nexus 6

Best camera phone 2015 Nexus 6

It doesn't quite have the bright greens of the iPhone photos, but the Nexus 6 does a decent job here. Highlights are clipped, but it's far from the worst photo in this group.

HTC One M9

Best camera phone 2015 HTC One M9

On its own, you'd be hard pushed to criticise the One M9's park photo. It's well exposed and only when you zoom in do you notice the slightly soft focus. But again, there's a colour cast which turns the path here almost beige when it should be grey.

Huawei P8

Best camera phone 2015 Huawei P8

In attempting to avoid losing detail in darker areas, the P8 has over exposed this photo and the clouds are blown out and lack detail. White balance and detail are both good though.

LG G4

Best camera phone 2015 LG G4

The G4 has also blown out the clouds, but as with the P8, it's still a pleasing photo with accurate colours. At 100 percent details are a little sharper than the P8's too.

Nokia Lumia 930

Best camera phone 2015 Lumia 930

The 930 appears to have a limited dynamic range given that the sky is blown out yet the trees are too dark and appear almost as if the photo was taken when the sun went in. But as you can see from the shadows on the path, conditions were the same as for the other cameras.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Best camera phone 2015 Galaxy S6

Once again, the S6 flexes its photographic muscles and delivers a stunning photo with great colours, lots of sharp detail and good dynamic range. Yes, the clouds are blown out, but no phone camera here can do better without using its HDR mode.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

 Best camera phone 2015 Xperia Z3 Compact

The Z3 again shows that it can't quite keep up with the best here. The photo is fractionally overexposed and white balance is on the cool side. Detail levels and sharpness are impressive, though.

Best phone camera of 2015: Macro photo

iPhone 6

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6

It doesn't have the best macro capabilities of our group of phones here, but the iPhone 6 can easily hold its own. Details are sharp and - just as importantly - colours are wonderful.

iPhone 6 Plus

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6 Plus

Once more, it's virtually a cabon copy of the iPhone 6, and we're more than happy with the iPhone 6's macro photo.

Google Nexus 6

Best camera phone 2015 Nexus 6

The Nexus 6's macro photo shows poor white balance, but it's able to focus slightly closer than the iPhones. 

HTC One M9

Best camera phone 2015 HTC One M9

Not a bad photo at all from the HTC, although it isn't the sharpest photo in the group.

Huawei P8

Best camera phone 2015 Huawei P8

The P8 almost managed to focus as close as the LG G4, but it's hard to tell when it's in focus using the stock camera app. Highlights on the petals are clipped, too.

LG G4

Best camera phone 2015 LG G4

The G4 impressed us with its macro abilities: focus is crisp and the delicate pink petals are perfectly exposed. 

Nokia Lumia 930

Best camera phone 2015 Lumia 930

The 930 can't focus as close as the rest of the group, but its macro photo is sharp and well exposed.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Best camera phone 2015 Galaxy S6

It can't quite match the LG here, but the Galaxy S6 yet again proves it can capture sharp detail and sumptuous colours.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

 Best camera phone 2015 Xperia Z3 Compact

White balance is a problem for the Z3, and it can't focus particularly close either. Detail levels aren't as good as the Samsung or LG either.

Best phone camera of 2015: low-light photo

iPhone 6

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6

Low light is one of the areas where you can clearly see the difference in the capabilities of the two iPhones' cameras. It isn't as obvious unless you zoom in and look at the images at 100 percent, but suffice to say that the 6 simply isn't as good as the 6 Plus. There's more noise, and the photo isn't as sharp.

iPhone 6 Plus

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6 Plus

Aside from the muted colours, this is a good result for the 6 Plus. There's very little noise - way less than the LG G4 - but the photo isn't as sharp.

Google Nexus 6

Best camera phone 2015 Nexus 6

You might think we haven't tried hard enough with the Nexus 6, but no matter what we did, we couldn't get a sharp photo in these lighting conditions. The blur is most noticeable on the wooden robot. If you do manage to get a sharp photo in dim lighting the Nexus 6 does a good job of suppressing noise.

HTC One M9

Best camera phone 2015 HTC One M9

The One M9 doesn't embarrass itself too much in low light thanks to great colour reproduction. However, zoom in and you'll see details are very smeary which appears to be due to over-enthusiastic noise reduction.

Huawei P8

Best camera phone 2015 Huawei P8

Not a great show from the P8 again. Colours are undersaturated and there's evidence of heavy-handed noise reduction when you zoom in, meaning detail levels are reduced.

LG G4

Best camera phone 2015 LG G4

The G4 almost aces this test, delivering a sharp photo with amazing colours. The only niggle is noise which is evident when you zoom in, but it's much harder to see when looking at the overall photo. A fantastic effort here.

Nokia Lumia 930

Best camera phone 2015 Lumia 930

Once again a little underexposed, but the 930 is eminently capable in low light. Details are sharp and there's hardly any noise.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Best camera phone 2015 Galaxy S6

A little soft, but overall a respectable result from the Samsung. Colours are good and there's very little noise. 

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

 Best camera phone 2015 Xperia Z3 Compact

The Z3 Compact isn't great in low light. Colours are a bit undersaturated but the biggest issue that focus is very soft and therefore a distinct lack of sharp detail.

Best phone camera of 2015: selfie

iPhone 6

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6

In selfie land, the iPhones show their weakness: the low-resolution 1.2Mp camera. Although well exposed, there's a distinct lack of detail.

iPhone 6 Plus

Best camera phone 2015 iPhone 6 Plus

As you'd expect, you get the same result with the iPhone 6 Plus as it has an identical front camera.

Google Nexus 6

Best camera phone 2015 Nexus 6

A pretty good result from the Nexus 6's front camera, with good skin tones and detail. 

HTC One M9

Best camera phone 2015 HTC One M9

The One M9's selfie is pretty good, with warm skin tones and enough sharp detail without bringing out skin textures (wrinkles, pimples, freckles)  you might rather stay hidden.

Huawei P8

Best camera phone 2015 Huawei P8

An overly sharp shot from the P8 with unflattering skin tones.

LG G4

Best camera phone 2015 LG G4

Oddly the G4 defaults to a mirrored mode which is why this photo is flipped vertically. Skin tones are excellent.

Nokia Lumia 930

Best camera phone 2015 Lumia 930

Another underexposed photo from the Lumia 930. Skin tones are good, but the 1.2Mp resolution means there's not much detail.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Best camera phone 2015 Galaxy S6

This was taken with the S6's Beauty mode at level 2 (fairly low) but it still smooths out detail too much for our liking. The S6 has a very capable front camera, however.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

 Best camera phone 2015 Xperia Z3 Compact

A dismal, ghostly effort from the Z3 here.

Best phone camera of 2015: video

iPhone 6

Considering it has no optical stabilisation and is limited to 1080p, the iPhone 6’s footage is very good. It has a good level of detail, but more importantly it doesn’t struggle to focus thanks to its magical Focus Pixels and has natural-looking colours

iPhone 6 Plus

No surprise that the 6 Plus footage is virtually identical to the 6’s. The advantage is that it has optical stabilisation which gives a more cinematic feel, just as Apple claims.

Google Nexus 6

Like all phones capable of shooting 4K video, the Nexus 6 captures a lot of detail considering how highly it compresses footage . While exposure and colour accuracy are good, it was annoying that the camera kept refocusing even though we weren’t moving the phone.

HTC One M9

This was the most disappointing 4K footage. Not only does the M9 lack stabilisation which led to shaky video which, don’t forget, is magnified on a large TV, but it also showed up poor white balance with a strange magenta cast.

Huawei P8

The P8’s video is much poorer than we’d expected. It’s limited to 1080p but even so, there’s much less detail than the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus capture.

LG G4

The best on test for video, capturing loads of sharp detail and overcoming shaky hands thanks to great stabilisation.

Nokia Lumia 930

Our 930 didn’t have the Denim update, so was limited to shooting at 1080p. It can capture 4K at 30fps with the update, though. Even so, the 1080p footage was mediocre at best. There was a surprising lack of detail and colours weren’t as natural as we’d like.

Samsung Galaxy S6

The S6 comes in a close second to the G4 here. Its 4K video looks great on a large TV with realistic, life-like colours and good stabilisation

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

The Z3’s 4K footage is also detailed but the lack of stabilisation lets it down.

Best phone camera of 2015: verdict

The short verdict is that there are two clear winners here: the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6. Both take excellent photos and videos, and are also great phones. If you want us to declare only one winner, then the G4 narrowly pips the S6 to the post by virtue of its excellent three-axis stabilisation.

There’s a lot more to consider than outright photo and video quality when picking the best camera, of course. The screen resolution and brightness play a part, as does the camera app itself, which determines the features and settings on offer.

Only two phones here have dedicated shutter buttons: the Xperia and Lumia. However, neither can challenge the best cameras here, so it isn’t a reason to choose them instead.

Naturally, you shouldn’t only consider the camera when buying a phone: the operating system, screen size, battery life and price will also be factors.

We can’t tell you which phone is best for you, but hopefully these comparisons have proved helpful in making your choice.

See also: the best phones of 2015

Thanks to Ashleigh Allsopp for helping out with this article (you can follow her on Twitter)