Which smartphone takes the best photos?

While smartphones still seem to innovate little and the price of a top device sometimes even exceeds a thousand euros, smartphone manufacturers (and their marketing departments) are focusing all the more on the camera. If the camera is a decisive factor in the purchase of your smartphone, you would like to know what the best device is. We're going to test that!

It's a common misconception that you have to pick an iPhone if you want the best smartphone camera. This is evident from an annually recurring test, which has repeatedly shown that Samsung invariably comes out as the test winner. However, Apple is catching up and creeps closer and closer, the other smartphones follow at an appropriate distance.

In the meantime, we are another year further and many new models have appeared on the market, after which the question arises again: which smartphone now has the best camera? After we discussed the devices individually in a review, we were able to reduce the answer to this question to two devices: the iPhone X or the Galaxy S9+. This test was therefore initially planned as iPhone X versus Galaxy S9+. Until recently the Huawei P20 Pro appeared and the three(!) sensors plus lenses on the back proved more than just hollow marketing during testing. Does the iPhone X shoot the best pictures, is it again Samsung that is now winning with the S9+ ... or is it the 'dark horse' this time, Huawei's P20 Pro?

Test method

During the test, we went out with the smartphones to take photos under different (light) conditions. The photos are taken with the own camera app. The same focus point is always used in the automatic mode and the (also automatic) HDR is used at the same times. The cameras were tested in various ways. In dark indoor environments, or indoors with backlight, outdoors against the sun, or with the sunlight. There is also diversity in terms of objects: for example portrait, landscape and macro photography. What about moving objects under different lighting conditions? We stick to the cameras on the back of the device here. The iPhone X and Galaxy S9+ have a dual camera, while the P20 Pro has three and looks the best on paper.

Apple iPhone X - Easy to operate iPhone

The iPhone X's camera app (pronounced ten) takes care of everything for you automatically. A professional camera mode where you manually set all or part of it is still not present. Things like shutter speed and ISO value are therefore inaccessible unless you install a third-party app.

At most, you can influence the behavior of exposure and focus by tactically tapping and swiping the screen. Thanks to the dual camera, you can switch between a (true optical) magnification of 1x and 2x with the tap of an icon. In portrait mode, they are even used simultaneously to simulate a photo with a shallow depth of field. It is a pity that you cannot activate the camera directly from lock mode via a physical button.

iPhone photos (left) consistently have the most natural colors. Center Samsung, right Huawei.

Image quality iPhone X

The iPhone X gives the most natural colors. The photos therefore look a bit cooler than those of the other devices. For example, skies are realistically blue and grass is, of course, green. A hint of noise can be found here and there and artefacts are created due to noise reduction. In addition, dark photo parts in particular are somewhat grubby and the contrasts around details are rather hard, making it look messy. In decreasing light, a photo can unexpectedly become somewhat out of focus, because the app seems to prefer a slightly slower shutter speed than a higher ISO value.

When there is very little light, the iPhone X sees almost nothing.

In low light, the iPhone X still handles white balance quite well. As a result, the colors remain easily recognizable in less well-lit places. Depending on the mix of artificial light, a little color cast can be seen here and there. Especially with even surfaces, it is easy to see from the artefacts that the noise has been polished away considerably. The photo also looks a bit flat and objects therefore stand out less well. Some noise can still be seen and edges along objects are sloppy here and there. When there is very little light, such as in a dimly lit garden, the iPhone X sees almost nothing.

Apple iPhone X

General judgment 3.5 out of 5 stars

Price € 1039,-

Camera lenses Wide angle, telephoto lens

Focus Phase Detection

Stabilization OIS

Primary camera12 megapixel, 1/1.3 sensor, 1.22µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture

Secondary camera12 megapixel, 1/3.6 sensor, 1µm pixel size, f/2.4 aperture

Website www.apple.com 7 Score 70

Samsung Galaxy S9+ - Fickle Samsung

Traditionally, this Samsung Galaxy S9+ has an extensive professional stand. You are allowed to adjust aperture value, shutter speed, ISO value and much more yourself, which gives you a lot of influence on (specific) photo situations. This device also has two cameras on the back, making 2x optical magnification possible. With photos with a software blurred background, you can set the strength yourself – before and even afterwards. You can start the camera very quickly by pressing the on/off button twice.

The P20 Pro (right) and iPhone X (left) show the most details. Samsung makes up strange patterns that shouldn't be there.

Image quality Samsung Galaxy S9+

Samsung is known for its often highly saturated colors, and that is also the case now. Think intense blue skies and very fresh green trees and shrubs. The photos sometimes look very light and a bit flat, especially when HDR is used. As a result, you can still see details in both light and dark photo parts. They kind of coincide with the background. Noise is thoroughly polished away and that is at the expense of detail here and there. Sometimes strange patterns appear that should not be there, or surfaces are smeared too much. In decreasing light, the app can still decide to use the smallest aperture opening (the main camera has two aperture settings). The ISO value is then increased unnecessarily, so that a photo just has more noise.

In low light, photos of the Samsung Galaxy S9+ are again too warm and especially very orange. The noise has been polished away more firmly than with the iPhone X, which is at the expense of detail and also produces faded surfaces. Despite this, the photo looks pretty clean and tidy. Edges along objects also look sleeker. You have to look closely to discover another hint of noise. Objects stand out well and have more depth than with the iPhone X. Even in extremely low light, the Samsung still manages to take a very decent photo.

Samsung Galaxy S9+

General judgment 3.5 out of 5 stars

Price € 949,-

Camera lenses Wide angle, telephoto lens

Focus Phase Detection

Stabilization OIS

Primary camera12 megapixel, 1/2.55 sensor, 1.4µm pixel size, f/1.5 or f/2.4 aperture

Secondary camera12 megapixel, 1/3.6 sensor, 1µm pixel size, f/2.4 aperture

Website www.samsung.com 9 Score 90

Huawei P20 Pro - Huawei makes shooting extra fun

With the Huawei P20 Pro, pressing the volume down button twice takes you directly to the camera app. If necessary, he will immediately take a picture for you. The camera app is largely copied from the iPhone, only Huawei does have a professional mode for manual operation. By default, AI ('artificial intelligence') is activated. This means that the software tries to recognize what you are photographing and chooses the best settings. Recognizing this is fine, but in practice it mainly results in highly oversaturated photos. Fortunately, you can also turn it off.

The special camera modes that Huawei has been providing on its phones for years are very fun to play with. This way you can easily take photos with slow shutter speeds during the day, without the need for ND filters. Capturing star trails also works great. The star points are automatically merged into star trails, so you just have to put the phone down somewhere stable for a while. New is the very useful night mode, but more about that later.

As mentioned, the P20 Pro has no fewer than three cameras on the back. A regular, a monochrome variant and one with 3x optical magnification, which can be digitally increased to 5x. You can take portrait photos with software blurred background and there is a mode in which you can set a simulated aperture value before or after. Depending on the situation and entirely at the discretion of the software, the cameras are used separately or in combination.

Image quality Huawei P20 Pro

The Huawei P20 Pro also likes saturated colors. Occasionally there is even a big outlier. A clear sky is then an even more intense blue and leaves dangerously turn towards a poisonous green. This mainly happens when AI is on, but you can turn it off or tap the notification away. Noise and detailing vary a bit. Sometimes there is a lot of detail to see, more than with the other devices. Other times, the detailing is a bit disappointing.

This device has three cameras on the back and a lot is happening under the hood. Every now and then, for example, the message appears that you have to keep the device stable for a while because the photo is being sharpened. Sometimes it is clearly an HDR scene, but it also occurs in what seems to be an average situation. For unknown reasons, the app then decides to merge photos, perhaps from multiple cameras. So it's not so much about sharpening, but about aligning (pieces of) the image.

The photos of the Huawei P20 Pro are also too orange if you photograph in artificial light. However, the noise reduction is more effective than with the iPhone X; more noise has disappeared and yet more details are preserved than with the Samsung Galaxy S9+. The photo also looks cleaner and objects are clearly outlined and appear lifelike. If you switch on AI, the result will change. You can also get an overly polished photo with a strong plastic look. In very low light, the Huawei performs remarkably well, just like the Samsung, which makes it more noticeable how much the iPhone X fails here.

Samsung and Huawei (center and right) also show a lot of details in decreasing light. The iPhone already underperforms here; many details are lost.

Object and Scene Recognition P20 Pro

The P20 Pro with (left) and without filter. The camera recognized sunset and was able to polish it up quite a bit.

night mode

As mentioned before: the Huawei has a special night mode. You hold the device still for about four seconds while the cameras shoot a series of photos and automatically merge. That photo looks remarkably clear and beautiful. Little noise, some artefacts here and there, but also less sharp and detailed than a normal night shot. There must be a hint of light present (although you often don't even see it yourself), but that makes sense. You can make really nice night shots with this. For a smartphone then. And that without a tripod.

Huawei P20 Pro

General judgment 3 out of 5 stars

Price € 899,-

Camera lenses RGB, Monochrome, Telephoto

Focus Phase Detection

Stabilization OIS

Primary camera40 megapixel, 1/1.78 sensor, 2µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture

Secondary camera20 megapixel, 1/2.27 sensor, 1.55µm pixel size, f/1.6 aperture

Tertiary camera8 megapixel, 1/4.4 sensor, 1.55µm pixel size, f/1.6 aperture

Website www.huawei.com 8 Score 80

End result

Overall, the photos from all three devices are of excellent quality during the day. You have to zoom in really strongly to discover the shortcomings we found. During normal use (viewing, printing, sharing) you hardly notice it. Even in the photos that were taken in decreasing light, the differences only become apparent when you zoom in considerably. It is only visible to a trained eye when there is a lot of artificial or backlight or a lack of light. Photographing in low light is simply the Achilles heel of smartphones because of the very small sensors.

During the day, all smartphones take beautiful pictures. At most, the colors appeal to you more or less. You only see differences in sharpness, noise and detail when zooming in.

In any case, the iPhone X performs best in terms of color. Colors look natural, but therefore also a bit cool. In terms of sharpness, noise and detail, the iPhone quickly loses to the other two phones. Especially in low light, dark areas become very grubby and you can see artifacts, strongly blurred areas and remnants of noise. In the dark, the device barely sees anything. This device is especially a good choice if color fidelity is important, or the accessible camera app.

The Samsung Galaxy S9+ makes the photos much too warm and they are often a bit on the flat side. Noise reduction causes smeared areas, especially in low light, and sometimes strange patterns arise in places with fine details during the day. The phone does perform remarkably well in very low light. You can still shoot where an iPhone X barely sees anything. Overall, this smartphone offers the best and most consistent image quality. At least as long as you can live with the too warm colors, or correct this afterwards by working in RAW.

The Huawei P20 Pro also likes oversaturated colors, especially when image and object recognition is on. Photos can be very detailed during the day, but sometimes suddenly they are not. This phone also does very well in low light. The noise reduction is slightly less aggressive, objects stand out well and retain their depth. At the same time, most of the noise is gone and surfaces look clean. If you switch on AI, an exaggerated plastic look can arise. The special photo modes are fun to experiment with, and the new night mode in particular is a welcome addition. The end results are therefore variable, but from a photography point of view this is a very interesting phone. It can be a good alternative to the test winner Samsung Galaxy S9+.

Conclusion

The differences between the smartphone cameras mainly depend on personal taste. The iPhone X camera is the most realistic, but has trouble with little or difficult (back) light. The Huawei P20 Pro has the most interesting extra functions, such as the night mode, but sometimes makes photos look a bit plastic. The Galaxy S9+ generally takes the best photos; especially when there is little (or hardly any) light, this device makes the difference. Sometimes photos are just a little too lively.

Dual camera

The tested smartphones all have multiple cameras. You can use this for optical zoom, but also for a depth of field effect in portrait photos. Software recognizes the subject and blurs the background.

The portrait photo on the right was shot with the Galaxy S9+, with the background blur maximized in the settings.

Text and photos are made in collaboration with Kees Krick.

Recent Posts