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In a pinch, these smartphones could be better than most digital cameras

by Marty Gabel

As many photographers will tell you, the best camera you own is the one you have with you at the right time to capture that special moment. While camera technology continues to improve for both smartphones and single-use devices, most of us are not joined at the hip with our cameras wherever we travel.

Further, the quality of the cameras found within a few select smartphones today rivals that of many digital compact cameras, particularly older models. When you factor in smartphone apps that make it easy to edit photos and share them with friends right when they are taken, you might ask yourself whether you need a digital camera at all.

Here are the best smartphones for photography that may inspire you to ditch your digital camera.

iPhone 4S

With all due respect to the other manufacturers, the latest iPhone sets the standard for smartphone photography. With its f/2.4 lens (for good depth of field and capable low-light performance) and 8-megapixel backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor, the latest iPhone 4S camera boasts better color accuracy and face detection, HDR capabilities, fast performance and 1080p HD video capture than previous iPhone models which themselves were state-of-the-art.

And Apple isn’t standing still when it comes to camera technology. A report from Patently Apple describes how the company has invented a “killer 3D imaging camera for iOS devices.” When and if 3D imaging will appear in Apple’s future smartphones and tablets is still unknown. But the momentum and pace of innovation is clearly on Apple’s side these days.

But more than just the camera, Apple’s ever-growing app library continues to enhance the device. The recently-launched Camera Awesome, for example, makes the iPhone’s camera capabilities better by allowing the photographer to set both exposure and focus readings from different areas. It also offers a nice selection of filters and easy sharing. Talking of which, you’ve probably heard of Instagram. This celebrated photo-sharing app is a huge hit and continues to grow in popularity. If you’ve seen aged-looking photographs on the web with quirky colors and sloppy borders, it is likely to have been the product of Instagram.

Samsung Galaxy S II

But iPhone users aren’t the only ones with great cameras. Android smartphone owners can also get in on the photographic fun, thanks to the Samsung Galaxy S II. This top-notch device is available on a number of U.S. carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint (as the Epic 4G). Like the iPhone 4S, the camera boasts a backside-illuminated 8-megapixel sensor with an auto-focus lens and LED flash. Its f/2.7 aperture means plenty of light hits the sensor and there is a wide range of shutter speeds to capture the action. On some S II devices, the ‘two-stage’ shutter release resembles a regular camera and makes shooting photos more intuitive. Plus there is panorama capabilities and 1080p video capture. Imaging Resource, a popular camera review website, took a thorough look at the S II’s camera and the results were fairly positive.

HTC Rezound, Vivid, One X and One S

Current HTC devices like the Rezound on Verizon or the Vivid on AT&T offer excellent quality 8-megapixel shooters with a f/2.2, 28mm wide-angle lens. With dual LED flash and the ability to shoot 1080p HD video, both these devices are capable of capturing decent quality images. Many reviews point out that the results from the camera were certainly respectable, with only a loss of quality when using digital zoom. Professional and consumer reviewers also praise its good color balance and multiple scene modes, but thought the video capture was a little washed out. The Rezound uses the exact same camera, so the results should be comparable.

But if you’re willing to wait a few weeks, exciting things are in store with the upcoming HTC One range of smartphones. These will boast an 8-megapixel backside illuminated sensor too, but this time with a brighter f/2.0 aperture for capturing images in low light. But it’s the dedicated imaging chip and rapid-fire capabilities that are interesting, as well as a super-fast 0.7 second start-up time. Now, whether the final image quality can match the iPhone 4S is hard to predict. CNET Asia took a look at the two side-by-side and it’s clear the iPhone still wins out quality-wise in certain circumstances. But the One X’s images are not terrible by any means, and its wide-angle lens and HDR capabilities have their advantages in certain conditions.

T-Mobile myTouch 4G Slide

Though it’s been on the market almost a year, the myTouch 4G Slide offers very capable picture-taking abilities which could entice consumers to give it a shot. The 8-megapixel BSI sensor on the myTouch 4G Slide allows users to take take HDR photos, panoramic pictures, burst shots, and all of this is achieved with zero shutter lag. In addition, 1080p full HD video and easy sharing make it a smartphone worth considering for shutterbugs everywhere.

Nokia 808 PureView

Alas, this one’s only for our European friends, but it marks some exciting advances in smartphone camera technology. Unveiled earlier this year at the Mobile World Congress, and winner of the “Best New Mobile Device, Handset or Tablet” award there, the Nokia 808 PureView is expected to see a UK release towards the end of April. Although the phone itself, which runs the archaic Symbian operating system, is not overly exciting, the camera technology it is packing most definitely is. With a 41-megapixel sensor and high-quality Carl Zeiss optics, the 808 PureView doesn’t use digital zoom (which can degrade quality), or optical zoom (which adds too much bulk), but instead a special kind of sensor which oversamples the image then reduces it significantly without any loss in quality. It’s not coming to North America unfortunately, but we’re still intrigued by its technology and potential.

There are definitely apps for that

Image by Marty Gabel using Vignette for AndroidWe already mentioned Camera Awesome and Instagram above as being great accompanying apps for your iPhone 4S, but the iTunes App Store is full of additional offerings to help shutterbugs get the best out of their images. Apple’s recently-unveiled iPhoto, for example, offers some great photo-editing features and easy sharing of your images. Meanwhile, Adobe’s flagship Photoshop software, while scaled down somewhat in the Adobe Photoshop Touch iPad app, still offers a lot of powerful features for those who like to tweak images on their tablets.

While Android users are still eagerly anticipating the release of Instagram, there are still a huge amount of excellent photo-sharing and photo-editing apps available on Google’s platform. Apps like Lightbox Photos offer a snazzy interface, great filters and easy sharing capabilities, while Adobe Photoshop Touch is also available on Android for advanced-level digital editors. An app like Vignette can turn your Android smartphone into a much better shooter with its customized camera interface. Once you have snapped your images, it offers a wealth of filters, borders and film effects to truly make your images pop, plus some very active developers who continually roll-out updates and improvements to the app.