The HTC One (m8) is probably the best smartphone I have ever used. It feels amazing in the hand. It is scary fast and extremely responsive. The HTC Sense skin atop Android is fairly out of the way and actually adds some useful features. All in all it is my favorite smartphone with one exception: the camera.
HTC claims that megapixels don’t matter. They say that there is a lot more to a camera than just how many pixels you can cram in to a picture. This is very true. HTC says that UltraPixels are the answer: larger pixels at a lower resolution that can grab more light in a scene. Unfortunately, while great idea on paper, it is a pretty crappy camera in real life.
There are many factors that go in to a great picture: dynamic range, resolution, saturation, white balance, depth of field and of course the scene itself. One of the more important factors is actually the dynamic range. This is how bright and how dark the image can be with detail still present. If you have a great dynamic range, then you could have a very bright day with a very dark subject and see be able to get details in both the bright and dark parts of the scene. Dynamic range is an oft overlooked spec on a camera.
Take a look at the below image. This was taken with the HTC One (m8) on a bright and sunny day. Camera was in full auto mode.
While not a bad picture, it isn’t a good one either. Notice how the sky is all blown out, the top of the train which should be red is blown out and details are just lost. This is due in no small part to a very low dynamic range on the camera. It is also due to the camera want to over-expose everything. Now check out the same picture taken from an iPhone 5s also in full auto mode:
To be fair, this isn’t 100% the same shot. The camera is vertical (meh) and the top of the train can’t be seen. But notice how much more detail there is in the shot. You can see the sky. Nothing looks blown out. The image just looks good. Below is another shot from the HTC One (m8) that closer matches the iPhone 5s shot. Notice now the sky looks blown out and some detail is just lost:
It is possible to get better shots by putting the HTC One (m8) in to manual mode. I can fine tune the white balance, exposure, ISO, shutter and focus. This helps but doesn’t fully correct the issue. Since the dynamic range on the HTC One (m8) is so low, I can never get the camera in to a mode where the bright parts of the scene look good along with the dark parts. I can expose for dark or light, but not both. HDR mode to the rescue? Sadly, no. HDR also wants to over-expose the scene and images almost always look *worse* here.
There are some cool things you can do with the HTC One (m8) camera though. Above the camera is a distance meter. By using this it is able to determine how close or far away each pixel is, and in post production I can tweak things like focus. Check out the exact same image i posted above, but with me forcing the focus to the foreground. This edit was done after the picture was taken, so it is pretty cool.
It is possible that the hardware can do more, but the software has not yet unlocked the true potential of the camera. I’m hoping that with a few tweaks we can get the exposure set correctly and maybe stretch out the range of the image? It is part software, part hardware. We shall see what they are able to do.
If the camera on the HTC One (m8) took pictures at least as nice as the iPhone *and* has the range sensor that allowed me to move my focus around in post production, this would be the smartphone that I suggest everyone buy! Without that though, it is still a bit of a tough sell. It is a low resolution sensor, bad dynamic range that produces crappy pictures in both full auto and manual mode.
The rest of the smartphone? Amazing.