Larry Magid: New phones have amazing cameras

Even lower-end models can still take good pictures

Larry Magid: New phones have amazing cameras
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If you’ve ever seen me in a Zoom call or on TV from my home office, you may have noticed that my backdrop includes a shelf full of old cameras, ranging from the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye I had as a child to the Sony RX-100 that I paid $1,000 for a few years ago.

Larry's cameras over the years ranging from a 50s era Brownie to a modern high-end digital camera
Larry’s cameras over the years ranging from a 1950s-era Brownie to a modern high-end digital camera 

That Sony is a great camera and, unlike those large DSRL (digital single lens reflex) cameras, it fits in my pocket so it’s easy to carry. For years, I would try to remember to take it or a previous generation small digital camera with me for important events and travel. I always carried it during trade shows to take pictures of products. But, for the past few years, that camera has been sitting on that shelf because even it is too big to bother putting in my pocket now that modern smart phones have such great cameras.

Before I go on, there is still a market for high-end digital cameras among professional and serious amateur photographers. High-end digital cameras have better lenses, the ability to handle a large and excellent zoom lens and larger sensors that let in more light. They’re also easier to aim at your subject, especially if they have a view finder you can hold up to your eye and there is something about the feel of a good DSLR camera that just makes them more satisfying to use.

Charlie Kaye, a New York-based professional photographer (charliekayphoto.myportfolio.com) and retired CBS News executive producer, uses high-end cameras and lenses in his work because of the larger sensors, the higher-quality lenses and “differences like the ability to shoot in raw,” which makes it possible to fine-tune your image in a photo-editing program as well as the ability to manually control many of the camera’s functions. He said that higher-end cameras are essential if you’re making large prints but agrees that modern smartphones are more than good enough for typical snapshots, including family events or anything you plan to post on social media.

And even Kaye uses his cell phone camera from time to time because it’s always at arm’s reach. As the saying goes, “the best camera is the one you have with you.”

I rarely print photos these days — most of mine are for social media or to email or text to friends and family — but even reasonably sized prints of pictures I take with my phone look quite good.

Lots of phones have good cameras

Apple, Samsung and Google are among the smartphone makers that brag about their cameras. If you watched this fall’s phone announcements, a big portion of the time was spent on the virtues of their cameras.

iPhone 14 Pro

I’m very impressed with the photo quality I’ve been able to get from my iPhone 13, but with its new iPhone 14 and 14 Plus, Apple has upped the ante, especially the 14 Pro,  which adds a physically larger 48-megapixel sensor that gives you more detail and better compensates for low-light. There is also Apple’s new “Photonic Engine” image processing technology that Apple claims will “dramatically improves low-light photos.”

I’m not an expert when it comes to the fine details of digital photography but CNET’s Lexy Savvides, who wrote a post titled “iPhone 14 Pro vs.13 Pro: 4 Significant Ways the Cameras Are Different,” found that with photonic engine, “combined with the larger sensor, I can see the difference compared to the iPhone 13 Pro in all the photos I shot at dusk.”

There are lots of other details for those who care about the finer points of smartphone cameras, but — as you would expect — the newer iPhone takes better pictures than the older model, but based on what I’ve seen, the differences are relatively subtle and perhaps not even noticeable in the majority of pictures you’re likely to take with your phone.

New Google Pixel 7 Pro

The same can be said with Google’s new Pixel 7 Pro that I’ve been testing for the past week.

Google says that its Tensor G2’s advanced image processors “and Google’s cutting-edge computational photography … can instantly fuse images to make features like Super Res Zoom even better.” The most obvious difference between the Pixel 7 Pro and its predecessor is that the new Pixel has a 5x optical zoom and the ability to take wider-angle shots at .5 zoom, meaning that it zooms out to give you a wider shot.

If you view this column online, (bayareane.ws/3DRHJiC) you can see a picture I took with the 5X optical zoom. You’ll notice there are no license plates on the cars in the photo because I used the Pixel’s Magic Eraser feature to erase them without erasing the paint behind the license plates. This can be done with photo editing software, but it’s extremely easy to do it right on the phone.

5 X zoom
5 X zoom from Pixel 7 Pro. License plates erased using Pixel’s “Magic Eraser” 

Less expensive phones also have good cameras

I’ve written about two high-end phones. The iPhone 14 Pro starts at $1,000 and the Pixel 7 Pro at $900, though AT&T and Verizon have very generous trade-in options that could reduce the price by up to $800. But if you’re in the market for a new phone, there is a good and very understandable chance you’ll opt for a less expensive phone that may not have the latest and greatest features, or maybe you’re sticking with whatever phone you already have. Don’t despair. I’ve tested phones at nearly every price point and have phones that are several years old that still take great pictures. To prove this to myself, I reached into a drawer and grabbed a five year old iPhone 8 and a 4 year old Pixel 3 XL and took some pictures. On close examination they weren’t quite as good as what you can get with two high-end phones I covered in this column, but, as snapshots go, they were still impressive. Unless you’re shooting in low light, plan to blow-up your photo or want some of the special features in very new model phones, you’ll be hard pressed to notice the differences.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.