Understand these Photography Terms to Buy a Better Smartphone Camera

smartphone camera

Resolution, FPS, sensor, bokeh—do you understand these terms usually seen in marketing material for smartphones? Such specifications determine how good the quality of the smartphone camera is.

But to look for the right specs, you need to first get through the techno-jargon tech companies use. See below for some of the most common terms you will come across with brief explanations:


Smartphone brands love using megapixels, or MPs, as a measure of how good a camera is. In reality, the MP count doesn’t indicate how great a smartphone camera is at all.

The megapixel count refers to how many pixels a photograph is made out of. Digital images are made of many, many pixels. A megapixel is a million pixels. More pixels may seem like better quality, but not necessarily.

In smartphones, the megapixel count simply indicates how big a picture you can reproduce. The higher the MP count, the larger the printed image will be without being blurry. A big MP count doesn’t mean you get a richer and detailed picture.

That’s mainly because the picture quality in smartphones is largely determined by the image processing features. Therefore, when buying a camera, look at its sensor or software. These parts are more important than megapixels to determine quality.

This example will better illustrate this point: The iPhone 6S has a 12MP camera. The Sony Xperia X has a 23MP camera. Which of the two takes great photographs? The iPhone 6S by a long shot, because the smartphone has a much better sensor and image processing software.


The sensor is the part of the camera that forms the image. The lens captures the light and the photographs are formed on the sensor. The bigger the sensor, the better the quality of this formed image would be. A large sensor reduces the graininess of photographs.

There are many different types of sensors inside smartphones. These don’t really advertise the size per se. You would have to refer to the specific models. Smartphone brands often include better sensors with each new release.


In smartphones, the resolution is determined by the number of pixels in an image. As mentioned above, a higher MP count doesn’t necessarily lead to higher quality.

Rather, look for the size of each individual pixel in detailed specifications for a smartphone. Bigger individual pixels usually mean better photo quality.

Dual Cameras

More and more recent flagship smartphones are marketed as “dual,” or in some cases “triple,” products. This means the smartphone has two or three rear cameras.

The extra cameras may have their own features. For example, iPhones with dual cameras have a secondary camera with telephoto lenses. It allows the camera to zoom better. You may see wide-angle lenses in these extra cameras as well.

A dual camera smartphone can be very useful if each extra camera has its own sensor, combined into a single unit. An extra sensor can remarkably improve the quality of a photograph.

Digital and Optical Zoom

There are major differences between digital and optical zoom. Optical zoom is the real deal that allows you to physically zoom in on an object. It allows the lenses to adjust and capture an image at a zoom level specified.

Digital zoom doesn’t work this way. Digital zoom uses software to zoom in on the pixels of an image, so it appears bigger. No actual zooming gets done. As a result, digitally zoomed pictures lack good quality in general.

You may find high-end smartphones with optical zoom. Be aware that the digital zoom is far more common for smartphones.


Think of a traditional DSLR. The moment a photo is shot on a classic DLSR, the shutter blades close. Aperture refers to how wide or narrow these blades can open.

The size of the aperture is measured in something called f-stops. The higher the f-stop is, the narrower the opening would be. If the f-stop number is low, then the opening is larger.

A wide aperture allows in more light, making pictures brighter. But it can also make photos blurry and unfocused.

A narrow aperture lets in less light so pictures are not necessarily vivid. However, a narrow aperture will make the focus sharper.

Aspect Ratio

Photographs, even digital, have a height and a width. The aspect ratio is simply the ratio between these two dimensions.

You will see the two most common aspect ratios: 16:9 or 4:3. The former has more width than height, and the latter has more height than width.

The aspect ratio gives a general understanding of how big the images would be once printed. It also indicates whether a video can fit in a widescreen TV.

Focal Length

Traditionally, the focal length refers to the distance between the lens and the film the image gets printed on. Focal length is still used in DLSRs to indicate how “zoomed in” a photograph appears.

You will see smartphone cameras advertising the focal length in millimeters. For example, the 35mm focal length is quite common.

The higher the focal length, the more zoomed in the picture would look. The focal length affects how large a distant object appears in your photos.


Get ready to hear this term a lot around high-end smartphones. Bokeh is a Japanese word, as you might have already guessed. It refers to how good the out-of-focus parts of a photograph are.

Now, why would anyone care about unfocused parts of a picture? Bokeh can make the background surrounding portrait photographs blurry or soft. It can help amateur photographs take very stylistic shots.

Bokeh nowadays appears as a special effect in digital photography. In smartphones, you can use Bokeh to create altered and cool effects in personal pictures.

The intensity of this effect will vary among smartphone brands. Also, usually only really expensive smartphones with dual cameras offer this effect. Bokeh has several alternative names such as “selective focus” or “live focus.”

Depth of Field

In photographs, which are two-dimensional in reality, we can still “see” the third dimension of depth. It’s determined by how much of an image gets captured by the focus. This is depth of field.

If the focus captures most of what’s in the photograph, then the smartphone has a large depth of field. Whenever the smartphone focuses on an object, leaving the background softly unfocused, this is considered shallow depth of field.

You need a big depth of field for landscape and similar photographs. Shallow depths of field are used for portraits mainly.


One of the newest features in modern smartphones is HDR. It’s an abbreviation for high dynamic range. HDR is a measurement of how much color the camera captures depending on the amount of light present.

When a camera has HDR, the well-lit part of a photograph is awash in color. The parts with less light appear shadowy. It creates a great artistic effect that looks great on photo sharing sites like Instagram.


ISO is a hot term that most non-photographers have a hard time comprehending. In simple terms, ISO is essentially a measure that indicates how sensitive the camera is to light.

At high sensitivity levels, the smartphone can capture images well in low light. Under bright light, ISO is kept to a minimum to prevent color inaccuracy.

Modern smartphones come with automatic ISO for each shot. However, most also have features that allow you to manually adjust the ISO setting between shots.

The smartphone camera specs would usually provide the range of ISO possible. A higher ISO rating doesn’t necessarily mean the smartphone is good at taking pictures in the night. Photographs tend to look very grainy with too much ISO, so it’s not always a good thing.

Image Stabilization

Traditional DSLRs have a very useful feature called optical image stabilization. A DLSR’s parts can move about when the photographer doesn’t have steady hands. Most of us obviously don’t. This natural shakiness creates blurry images.

Optical image stabilization allows the smartphone lens to move with the parts to reduce shakiness. So optical image stabilization allows photographers to take fewer blurry photographs.

In much smaller smartphone models, optical image stabilization isn’t physically possible. In its place, some smartphones have what’s called Electronic Image Stabilization. It reduced blurriness in photographs using software. Not as good as the optical version, but still a useful feature to have.


FPS refers to frames per second. This specification is common for video camcorders. If the smartphone is capable of 60 fps, that means the camera can capture 60 frames per second.

The standard fps for movies and videos is 24 fps. Having 60 fps can make videos seem faster and run smoother. That’s why most smartphone enthusiasts seek products with 60 fps.

While FPS can get as high as 120, 60 is a great benchmark for smartphones. The higher the FPS is, the better the smartphone would be when capturing images that move a lot, like pets.

White Balance

This refers to how well a camera can reproduce colors and white. The right white balance is important for color accuracy in photos. When white balance is off, photos appear yellowish or with a pink tinge.

White balance is present in all smartphones. It’s not a feature you need to pay more money for. White balance is automatic but has manual adjustment features too.

Next time you buy a smartphone camera, refer to the above list for explanations. Know the spec before spending money on it. Some new specs may not be as interesting as advertised. Knowledge is key to choosing the right smartphone for you.