Oct. 26, 2011 at 9:48 AM ET
By John Brecher
As part of a joint product test with msnbc.com's Gadgetbox blog, I tested three cellphone cameras: iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and HTC Amaze, a phone marketed for its photographic capabilities.
For comparison, I shot the same stuffed animals in four lighting situations:
I included a Canon G10 in the mix, because while we definitely want to know what the best phone camera is, the ultimate question is whether a phone can replace a good point-and-shoot camera.
A few easy conclusions: Overall, the iPhone 4S is decidedly better than the iPhone 4. In low light, both old and new iPhones are better than the HTC Amaze.
In terms of image quality, the iPhone 4S looks almost as good as the G10 in all but very low light conditions. Some of this is subjective — you may or may not prefer the iPhone's color saturation, for example.
As someone who's ruined plenty of shots by blowing out the highlights, I can say that the iPhone's smaller sensor does hinder it in some ways. Look for the abrupt transition from detailed to blown-out highlights on the 4S and iPhone 4 shots, compared to the far smoother highlight handling of the G10.
There's more to a camera, though, than the image quality it produces. It's also a matter of handling. It's great that iPhones running iOS5 let you use the volume key as a shutter button. HTC's Amaze also has a hard button. Tapping a touchscreen interface can introduce more camera shake.
Also, If you do want to override automatic white balance and exposure, a dedicated camera is the easiest and best tool. There are apps and tweaks for iPhone and other phones, but it involves a lot of tap-dancing with your fingers. And if you're trying to shoot lots of images in rapid succession, it's faster to use a real camera.
Still, the iPhone 4S comes the closest to putting run-of-the-mill point-and-shoots out of business. Your dedicated camera had better be high performance, like the Canon PowerShot S100, or somehow qualitatively different, to make it worth carrying along.
As for the test pictures, you can see our daylight comparative results above and the rest below. There's no HDR and no use of post-processing in Photoshop other than resizing. All cameras were shot on auto for white balance, exposure and focus.
John Brecher has been a professional photographer for 15 years, and has shot for msnbc.com for the last five.