#153. Reviewing the HTC One camera

By pascaljappy | Review

Aug 29

A couple of years ago, I bought my daughter a compact camera from a very famous brand that cost so much and was so bad that I’ve since kept recommending people interested in that point and shoot range stick to smartphone cameras instead.

A gentleman reading the papers in the shade in Arles. Picture part of a review of the HTC One camera

Reading the papers in the shade – HTC One

If you do not own a photo printer and mainly publish online or share pics on social networks, it seems to me you are better off with a phone than a compact camera. To prove my point, here’s a review of the camera on board the HTC One. Granted, this is a high-end phone costing a bit more than entry compact cameras but, according to the wisdom of the Internet, it’s camera is actually quite representative of what modern smartphones will do, irrespective of cost.

Two ladies having coffee under the shade of plane trees in Arles. Review of the HTC One camera.

Cafe in the shade in Arles – HTC One camera


Pictures made in Arles and around. As always, be sure to click for larger versions !

What’s to like ?

A lot actually !

First, it’s always with you ! Which can be said of any smartphone, but not any camera …

Then, there’s that wonderful 16:9 aspect ratio that is so so much more beautiful than what unimaginative manufacturers have forced us to live with for a half century : that’s Leica, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Canon, you name it. Only 4/3 cameras made by Panasonic, Olympus and a few other geniuses let us escape that miserable state of 3:2 affairs. Long live them 🙂

A poster of a fisherman on an old door in Arles. Part of a review of the HTC One camera

The door-fisherman

Rant over. The elongated aspect ratio on this camera is really a joy to use. It will not suit all subjects and has been cropped on a couple of occasions on this page (in the shady cafe picture above, for instance), but not anywhere near as often as I find myself cropping the artistic misery out of the 35mm format ! Pesky 35 mm ! Boooh Nikon and the others for choosing the worst possible middle ground. Rant really over, now. I think. Probably not, though.

A red Porsche Cayman in Toulon - HTC One

A Porsche Cayman in Toulon – HTC One

The autofocus is snappy and, combined with the best screen I have yet to see on any device (it makes the screen on a D800 feel like a slow-witted poststamp), provides a very pleasant shooting experience.

The widest angle is very wide. Some specs on the Internet my contradict my estimation, but I’d say at least 24mm equivalent wide, probably a bit wider. So veeery nice indeed.

A colourful detail of an ornate rusty metal door in Arles. Made with an HTC One smartphone.

Detail of a rusty door – HTC One

Then, there’s the actual image quality. Given a sensor size smaller than a flee’s scrotum, it’s actually very good. Colours are bold and pleasant, impression of resolution is high. Remember I’m talking Internet usage here. The point is not to compare this to Nokia or Samsung’s best, even less to a Phase One back but simply to ascertain the usability of a smartphone as an everyday camera for good quality shots. In good light, the HTC One passes the test with flying colours. At its max resolution (1500×2500 roughly), 100% screen viewing gives the impression of a beautifully executed watercolour. But at the export resolution I use for this blog (1400 pixel), it’s almost perfect.

So, what’s not to like ?

Things begin to look a little less convincing in waning light. Enlarge the red Porsche Cayman picture above and look at the dashboard a bottom right. You’ll see what small sensor noise means. It’s an inescapable part of physics and in spite of technology evolutions, this illustrates one of the rules that cannot be undone : all things being equal, bigger pixels are better pixels. That’s why a 20Mpix medium format back will always trounce any UberPhone’s 20Mpix lilliputian equivalent.

A rusty door in Arles, Provence. HTC One Smartphone camera picture

Rusty door au naturel – HTC One

On top of growing noise, there’s also declining saturation to worry about. The rusty door detail was actually quite drab in the evening shade, compared to the actual scene. But it’s not all bad as the picture doesn’t break up under post processing, even when you go overboard, as I did with the saturation / vibrance sliders in LightRoom 😉 See above.

Slightly more bothersome is a tendency to blur pictures on occasion. It only happened twice in my roughly 100 test pictures and I couldn’t tell what is happening. But some swirling blurr occasionally happens. Possibly because of movement on my part during the exposure, possibly because of some loose part in the lens. See below (click to enlarge).

Swirly rusty door - HTC One

Swirly rusty door – HTC One

So, it’s not perfect. But it’s still really nice and I’ll take it over 99% of compact cameras any day.

HTC One camera fun features

It took me over a week to realize this, but the HTC One’s camera comes with a zoom lens. Given how ergonomically simple it is to operate, this indicates worrying brain shortcoming on my part, doesn’t it ?

Still, now I know. Does it work … Eh … It’s obviously largely a digital zoom, so expect no miracles, but yes, it works.

Consider the two shots below. One is at wide angle, the other on full zoom. My shooting position changed between and the zoomed picture was made at slightly closer range. But still, you get an idea. Wide :

A man climbing a tree pictured with a HTC One camera

Wide angle adventure – HTC One

Now fully zoomed in :

Zoomed-in adventure - HTC One

Zoomed-in adventure – HTC One

As you can tell, the digital zoom is stretching things a little too far. The second picture reminds me of (too many) photographs in paper publications printed from too small a file. It is not sharp and clearly digital. But still, it got the shot and for a memory picture, it does its job.

Special effects apps. Anyone who read my long-term review of the NEX-5n knows how much I love on-camera special effects. This doesn’t mean all your pictures should look like caricatures as on cheesy Instagram, but those creative filters are really nice to explore other looks and inspire post processing ideas. I particularly love the high contrast black and white mode on the Sony NEX.

The two pictures above used a circular “gel” filter that blurs the outer regions and keeps a central circle sharp. It’s a bit too obvious on the first but works well on the second, getting rid of some of the digital grittiness and nicely blurring the branches in what would otherwise be a very cluttered picture (still is, just less so ;))

A sample of the HDR mode on the HTC One (camera review)

HDR mode on the HTC One

The HDR mode, above, is .. ahem .. adequate if you don’t push the dynamic range of the scene too far. Place the sun in the frame and you’re in for a grey doughnut treat.

Panoramas are more satisfactory. No, make that very good. The artificial horizon that displays while panning is a great help is keeping things strait and the stitching seems very accurate and glitch-free, both horizontally …

Horizontal panorama of a red house and blue pool with the HTC One

Horizontal panorama with the HTC One

… and vertically

Vertical panorama with the HTC Once

Vertical panorama with the HTC Once

Also nice is Zoe. Zoe is a picture mode that lets you shoot short bursts of animated pictures. It produces an mp4 video (which this blog sadly doesn’t support), with sound, plus a set of pictures made at short intervals. Perfect for sports or other forms or reporting.

There are loads more fun features on the phone and I am too lazy to explore them all here. I’ll end this with two final filters.

House interior picture in Monochrome mode on the HTC One camera

Monochrome mode on the HTC One camera

The monochrome mode is nice. It comes ready toned (some sort of sepia selenium odd mix, but it works). HTC should borrow a Sony NEX to check what a great monotone mode is, but this is still very pleasant and produces nice results. I particularly like the way highlights seem to roll off instead of burning abruptly. Has anyone else found this to be true ?

And on the opposite end of the hue spectrum is a crazy psychedelic mode that looks particularly amusing in video mode.

Psychedelic colour produced by one of the HTC one's creative camera modes

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – HTC One

How does it compare with a proper camera ?

So the HTC One camera is a joy to use, has plenty of interesting modes and features and fits in a shirt pocket (if health issues don’t worry you).

But my initial premise was that it is at least as good as a compact camera at everyday picture making. Let’s find out. Because I love you guys, I took a picture of a same scene with the HTC One, a recent Nikon Coolpix compact, a Sony NEX-5R with kit lens, an Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic 14mm (both for sale at a combined price of 650€, leave a comment to snatch the deal) and a Nikon D800e with Zeiss Distagon 25mm f/2 (@f/7.1). Prices range from 1 to 20. Weights also (or more). What do you loose by going cheap and mobile ?

HTC One test scene

HTC One test scene

Above is the candidate picture, made with the HTC One. It has shadows, strong highlights, tough greens to render and a colourful palet in the middle.

Below is the Nikon Coolpix’s rendition of the same scene. More resolution (pointless for Internet usage) but nowhere near as natural or pleasant. The sky is terrible, the green is dull. The picture is lifeless, compared to the smartphone.

The Nikon Coolpix

The Nikon Coolpix

Now, the Sony NEX-5R with kit 16-50 lens.

Sony NEX-5R

Sony NEX-5R

Apart from the unappealing 3:2 format (have I mentioned this before ?) this leaves the two others in the dust. Detail in the sky and shadow is simply in another league and the colour on the towel is on par with the HTC (high praise indeed for the smartphone !)

Now the mighty Olympus OM-D E-M5:

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Olympus OM-D E-M5

A bit more oomph in the contrast, but that might be my post processing as I tried to get as much as possible out of the shadows and highlights from all cameras. Very similar to the Sony, with possibly a tiny advantage for the Sony in the colour department (again, it might be the processing, don’t draw any conclusions).

And finally, the one that should thrash everyone (Nikon D800e + Zeiss ZF2 Distagon 25mm f/2 at f/7.1) …

Nikon D800e

Nikon D800e

In terms of colour, it’s remarkably close to the HTC. Miles above the compact. Dynamic range is the best here. In terms of weight, cost, resolution … apples and oranges.

So there you have it. In a tough scene, the smartphone easily beats the branded compact and logically gets beaten by dedicated cameras. There are simply too many photons beaming from the bright clouds for the HTC’s tiny pixels to cope with and there is no sky detail to speak of.

But in most everyday scenes, it’s really good enough. Where it falls down is in low light where colours are not as good, noise gets ugly and the autofocus sometimes gets lost. I rest my case, though. If you’re shooting for the Internet, ditch the compact, get a smartphone.

I leave you with 2 final pictures that sum up the situation perfectly. One in a dark room where the autofocus seemed sorry for himself. The picture is still very nice 🙂

A fuzy picture of neon sculptures made with th HTC One

Fuzzy neon sculpture – HTC One

The second made in better light, where the HTC One’s camera excelled.

A wooden doorway in Arles - HTC One

A wooden doorway in Arles – HTC One

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  • PhA says:

    Which explains why sales of entry range camera have recently plummeted. No reason any more to invest and carry a low end camera. DSLR may still be meaningful for specific applications (like artistic landscape, …) and there may be a slot for high quality compact camera (eg Ricoh GR), which are small and easy to carry, whilst delivering high quality shots (APSC format, …).

    Anyhow very interesting comparison.

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