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Battle of the phone cameras: Galaxy Note II vs. iPhone 5 vs. Lumia 920

Okay, I fully understand that only a nerd would bring three smartphones to a rock and roll gig to test how well they take pictures and videos, but I've never been one to miss an opportunity.

At the end of last week, I attended a wonderful concert by The Gaslight Anthem, one of my favourite young bands. (Openers Matthew Ryan and Cheap Girls were lots of fun as well). I happened to be carrying a Samsung Galaxy Note II running Android and a Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone. In addition, I also had an iPhone 5 with me. So, I took photos and videos with all three and the results are interesting.

Taking photos of a band during a concert poses an interesting challenge. Using a camera phone, you shouldn't expect (and you won't get) professional-looking photos. If you want to document the experience and share shots on your favourite social networking sites, though, these three phones will work reasonably well. But the band keeps moving, the lighting changes constantly, and the crowd can be rather active. This is all very far removed from shooting a simple portrait shoot.

Note that the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy Note II both have 8-megapixel main cameras, while the Lumia 920 has an 8.7-megapixel one; all claim to take 1080p, 30fps video.

There are a few other things to note. The 5.5in screen on the Galaxy Note II is clearly the largest of the group, so it is the best to review the photos and video on. I think the Lumia actually felt best in my hand for taking the pictures, however. Also, when writing this article, I really appreciated how I can just plug in the Android and Windows Phone devices and drag the photos to a folder; with the iPhone, I ended up emailing the photos to myself because I am writing this piece on a PC that doesn't have my iTunes set up.

Here are the results I got, first focusing on photos:

Apple iPhone 5

In general, the iPhone 5 does a decent but unspectacular job. I got a few photos that were good enough to post.

A lot of the pictures I took, however, ended up looking overexposed and a bit fuzzy.

During a quieter moment, I took the above picture of opener Matthew Ryan with Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon. The iPhone version is a little grainy, but the background seems clearer and the lighting looks crisper than in the photos of the other phones. For the most part, the iPhone 5 photos are much better than those from the smartphone cameras of a few years ago, but they still aren't great.

Samsung Galaxy Note II

In general, I am happier with the Galaxy Note II, which takes better photos than the other phones do. The photo above may have been the best of the night.

However, several of the photos had just too much blur, though you'd expect that at a concert with a lot of movement. Generally, it captures the lighting quite well.

The above photo is similar. It's a little fuzzy, but you expect some of that given the distance, lighting, and the general movement of the band and the crowd.

Nokia Lumia 920

Given all the hype around the Nokia phone, I was anticipating this to be better than the others, but I was a bit disappointed. The picture above is a pretty clear shot and it captures the colour and lighting reasonably well. Still, I think that in general, the camera isn't quite as good as the others.

Too many of the photos appear overexposed and grainy. Often you can't make out facial features well at all.

Even the more static pictures look fuzzy and blurry under the bright lights, and I came away feeling rather unimpressed with Nokia here.

The video results were different. The iPhone 5 video gave me a fuzzy image, and the sound quality was mediocre; the high tones drowned out the singer sometimes, although it wasn't too bad in this respect.

With the Galaxy Note II, the results were mixed. Sometimes the sound was a bit better than the iPhone, sometimes it was notably worse, although the image seemed clearer. This is where the Lumia 920 really shines, however, and it gave me the clearest image and sound of all three.

You can check out the videos in a compilation I made in PowerDirector 11:

Overall, I'm impressed by the quality of the photos considering they were taken with a smartphone camera. While there is obvious room for improvement, they are much better than they were a few years ago.

In my opinion, the Galaxy Note II takes the best pictures, slightly beating out the iPhone 5, but when you really compare them, none of the cameras took really great photos. On the video side, the Lumia 920 was the clear winner. All of the devices are fine for capturing a quick souvenir of an evening – something you'd be happy to post on your Facebook wall, but not something you'd consider good enough to blow up and hang on your living room wall.

For more comparative camera phone testing, see our examination of the "purple flare" issue here.

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.