With the number of smartphones that were launched in 2013 and the camera modules getting better with each new device generation picking our favorites is not an easy task, but we'll try anyway. Please note that our picks are not necessarily based on the scores in our reviews but also on more subjective factors. Essentially, these are the mobile devices we most enjoyed taking pictures with in 2013, for the reasons we explain below. In no particular order:

Nokia Lumia 1020

If your number one priority on a mobile device is image quality there is no way you should pass up the Nokia Lumia 1020. With its large 1/1.5-inch sensor, innovative digital zoom and Xenon flash it takes better pictures than any other current phone in the market by nearly every metric. We also liked the well-designed camera app with its full manual control and two-way physical shutter button.

In combination with the optional camera grip the Lumia 1020 provides as much "real camera feel" as you could possibly want and a firmware update has just added RAW capability too. It should make the Lumia even more attractive to enthusiast users. 

The Lumia 1020 captures never before seen levels of detail (for a smartphone) in its 41MP mode ...
... although the 5MP files are more manageable for social sharing and other kinds of web use.
100% crop
100% crop

Of course nothing comes for free in life and you have to pay for the Nokia's large image files and great detail with a generally slightly sluggish performance and slower shot-to-shot and start-up times than most of the competition.  Whether you find this negligible or nauseating depends on your personal style of photography.

The 1020 delivers nice skin tones and even lighting in this typical low-light people shot.

Availability of apps for both imaging and general use is another point to consider. The 1020’s Windows Phone OS is slick and snappy, but its app support, especially in the imaging area, is not quite on the same level as Android and iOS yet. 

Sony Xperia Z1

Compared to other ecosystems the Android world arguably offers the largest choice of devices which makes picking a favorite even harder. That said, after some contemplation we settled on the Sony Xperia Z1 as our favorite Android smartphone camera of the year for a number of reasons. Image quality is not necessarily the most important one though.

Despite its larger than usual 1/2.3-inch sensor the Z1 does not produce better pixel-level image quality than some of the competition with smaller sensors but exposure, contrast and color are usually excellent and the Sony was arguably one of the smartphones we most enjoyed shooting with over the course of the year.

The Xperia Z1 comes with a two-way shutter button.
All connectors and card slots are hidden under water-and dustproof flaps.

This has got a lot to do with Z1's very angular shapes which, in combination with the excellent two-way shutter button, giving it more of a camera-like feel when shooting pictures or video than other devices. The shutter button also provides very quick access to the camera app which means you're more likely to capture that decisive moment.

With its 20.2MP sensor the Xperia Z1 is capable of capturing very good detail in good light.
100% crop

Add the superb build quality with glass front and back, the very good battery life and snappy performance to the mix and you've got yourself a device that is an excellent companion in any situation, not just for taking pictures. The Z1's water- and dustproof seals mean you can keep snapping, even when hanging out on the beach or snorkeling (though Sony only recommends fresh water use).

Apple iPhone 5s 

The original iPhone was the device that put mobile photography on the map and although the competition is putting Apple under pressure in many ways, the latest generation iPhone is still an excellent choice for smartphone photographers, especially if you're already invested in the iOS ecosystem. 

With its new iOS 7 operating system the iPhone 5s is an excellent phone with a very good camera. Image quality under most conditions is among the top of the class of “conventional” smartphone camera units: you have to look to the Nokia Lumia 1020 to find something that’s hands-down better across the board. In addition, the 5s offers a very good flash that, thanks to its innovative two-LED technology, produces notably accurate color, and the phone also offers an excellent panorama mode.

The Apple iPhone 5s captures excellent detail in good light.
100% crop
Detail suffers in lower light but exposure, contrast and tonality are still good up to high ISOs.
100% crop

The 5s’ powerful processing makes for class-leading burst speed and excellent responsiveness. The camera app is very easy to use, for some photographers maybe even too easy as there is very little potential for manual interference. If this works for you will very much depend on your shooting style and personal preference.

Looking forward to 2014

Two or three years ago, when I spotted a photo opportunity and did not carry a camera, I would not even bother to get my phone out of the pocket, simply because I preferred no photo at all over one with the image quality my phone could provide.

Looking at the devices we've had the chance to use this year it's obvious that the industry has come a long way. The 2013 class of top-end smartphones might not replace your DSLR or enthusiast compact, but the latest models have already forced the consumer compact camera market on its knees and are a more than viable solution for those days when you've left your camera at home. To many users image quality is not even necessarily the number one priority. They are more than happy to compromise a little for the ability to edit and share images on the go.

But there's no doubt the 2014 smartphone generation will offer something for everyone. Pixel-peepers and image quality perfectionists should be looking forward to larger sensors and the ability to record and edit RAW files. Gadget enthusiasts will be able to enjoy new features and apps that we can't even imagine right now, curved screens, more processing power and better battery life among other innovations. 

For now we can only speculate what 2014 will offer to smartphone photographers but we can't wait to get our hands on the first new devices at the CES and MWC trade shows and test them thoroughly, as always with photographers in mind. Let us know in the comments what features you would like to see on your next smartphone.