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OnePlus 9 Pro camera face-off: Can it beat the iPhone 12 Pro and Pixel 4a 5G?

OnePlus 9 Pro camera face-off: OnePlus 9 Pro vs Pixel 4a 5G vs iPhone 12 Pro
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The OnePlus 9 Pro has debuted to rave reviews — including ours. And one of the major reasons this new flagship phone has vaulted to the top of the best Android phones list hinges on its newfound photography skills.

Past OnePlus phones have produced acceptable, though not standout images that often lagged behind those shot by the best camera phones. To remedy that, OnePlus teamed up with Hasselblad in a multiyear partnership, initially focusing on color balance while also adding some other camera improvements both in terms of hardware and software.

The cameras on the OnePlus 9 Pro are clearly better than anything OnePlus has produced before. But how good are they when stacked up against the leading camera phones?

To find out, we took a OnePlus 9 Pro out into the field, along with an iPhone 12 Pro and the Google Pixel 4a 5G. The iPhone is one of the best camera phones you can buy, and the Pixel 4a 5G boasts the same dual camera setup as the Pixel 5, another top choice. If the OnePlus 9 Pro camera improvements are real, its photos will match up well against what these two phones produce.

Our tests will put all five of the OnePlus 9 Pro's cameras through their paces, including night mode shots. We'll compare the OnePlus 9 Pro to both of our other competitors along the way to see if there's a new OnePlus-made champion, or if the twin members of the smartphone establishment are still at the top.

OnePlus 9 Pro camera face-off: Meet the competitors

PhoneOnePlus 9 ProiPhone 12 ProPixel 4a 5G
Main camera48MP (f/1.8)12MP (f/1.6)12.2MP (f/1.7)
Ultrawide camer50MP (f/2.2)12MP (f/2.4)16MP (f/2.2)
Telephoto lens8MP (f/2.4) with 3.3x optical12MP (f/2.2) with 2x opticalN/A
Other rear sensor5MP monochrome cameraLiDAR sensorN/A
Front camera16MP (f/2.4)12MP (f/2.2)8MP (f/2.0)

As noted above, the OnePlus 9 Pro offers five cameras, with four on the back of the phone. A main 48MP shooter is joined by a 50MP ultrawide angle lens and 8MP telephoto lens capable of a 3.3x optical zoom. OnePlus also includes a 5MP monochrome lens on the back of the phone, while a 16MP selfie cam greets you on the front.

The iPhone 12 Pro matches the OnePlus 9 Pro in terms of camera count. On the back, a 12MP main camera is joined by 12MP ultrawide and telephoto lenses. The iPhone 12 Pro’s telephoto lens offers a 2x optical zoom. A LiDAR sensor can help with portrait shots, while the TrueDepth camera up front features a 12MP sensor

If you’re familiar with the Pixel 5’s cameras, you know what you’re getting with the Pixel 4a 5G. There are just two lenses — a 12.2MP main shooter and a 16MP ultrawide angle camera — with no telephoto option available. For that, you’ll rely on Google’s renowned computational photography skills. An 8MP front camera handles selfies.

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Main camera

We start our OnePlus 9 camera face-off with this image of a uniquely-shaped lamp on the side of a pub. The OnePlus 9 Pro's image is lighter than the other two shots, but not in a good way. The clouds are lacking texture in the 9 Pro's image, and the colors of the metal dragon and the painted wall it's mounted on don't look quite as good as the versions seen in the iPhone and Pixel's shots.

What the OnePlus 9 Pro gets right is the detail, thanks to its much larger sensor. You can more clearly see the texture of the wall and the lamp, and better appreciate their overall shapes. This round still belongs to the iPhone however, which offers some additional brightness over the Pixel.

Main camera results: 1. iPhone 12 Pro 2. Pixel 4a 5G 3. OnePlus 9 Pro

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Night mode

To test each phones' low-light photo capabilities, I took them to Hampstead Heath early on a Sunday morning to capture the sun rising over the grassy hills of the Heath and the London skyline.

This is perhaps my favorite picture taken by the OnePlus in this batch of tests. It's the only camera that manages to capture the pink light of the sunrise refracting through the clouds too, making for a very impressive vista.

The iPhone comes in second. Apple’s phone has a tendency to saturate its images more, and that means there is plenty of color to appreciate, even if it's not quite as pretty as the OnePlus' image.

Meanwhile, the Pixel's image lacks detail and looks a little washed out compared to the spot-on photo from the OnePlus.

Night mode results: 1. OnePlus 9 Pro 2. iPhone 12 Pro 3. Pixel 4a 5G

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Ultrawide camera

This view from the bottom of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium comes across the best on the iPhone. The OnePlus 9 Pro and Pixel 4a 5G both produce detailed, attractive shots, and are in a dead heat to my eye. (Give the OnePlus phone a slight edge for a more evocative sky.)

The OnePlus doesn't have quite as attractive colors as the iPhone 12 Pro though. It's arguably not as accurate to the in-person view I had on the day, but I know the iPhone's image is the one I'd pick for Instagram.

That is if we're ignoring the skew at the side of the iPhone's image. While it's harder to spot on the other phones, the presence of the compressed passers-by shows the major limitation of using ultrawide lenses. This is something the OnePlus 9 Pro claims to fix with its "Freeform" ultrawide lens, and while it's hard to tell without the people in the image, it seems to have worked here.

Ultrawide results: 1. iPhone 12 Pro 2. OnePlus 9 Pro 3. Pixel 4a 5G

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Telephoto/zoom

The OnePlus 9 Pro has a major hardware advantage for this test. Not only does it possess a dedicated telephoto lens — something Google’s latest Pixel phones lack — it has a higher optical zoom of 3.3x magnification, compared to the iPhone 12 Pro's 2x optical zoom. To work around the different zoom levels, I took two sets of photos of this statue of famous Arsenal player Thierry Henry to see how each phone managed with purely optical zoom and with digital zoom.

At 2x zoom, the OnePlus produces a less saturated image than the iPhone, but not one lacking in quality thanks to the size of the 48MP main sensor.

At 3.3x, the comparison favors the OnePlus, because the 8MP sensor is in its element while the iPhone casts a strange blue color on the image resulting from a switch to digital zoom

Sadly, the Pixel 4a 5G doesn't get a look in here. Having to rely on exclusively digital zoom with only a small 12.2MP main camera, there's a notable lack of detail in the image. At least the colors still look good at both zoom levels thanks to the Super Res Zoom software feature built into Pixel phones. That’s something the iPhone couldn’t manage.

Telephoto results: 1. OnePlus 9 Pro 2. iPhone 12 Pro 3. Pixel 4a 5G

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Monochrome camera

The final sensor on the OnePlus 9 Pro is a monochrome camera, but it doesn't take pictures by itself. Instead it assists you when you enable the monochrome filter on the main camera, theoretically turning the flat black-and-white image into something with a more interesting texture.

Comparing this to the equivalent black-and-white filter built into the iPhone 12 Pro's camera app, I have to admit I don't see what difference this dedicated camera has made. There’s some difference in the brightness of each respective image, but it's not something that makes me care for one over the other. To be honest, OnePlus should have just saved time and money and left the monochrome sensor off its phones. (The less expensive OnePlus 9 has a monochrome camera as well.)

There isn't an equivalent mode to be found on the Pixel 4a 5G. But this effect is something you could easily add in a photo editor or in your social media app of choice, so this doesn't feel like much of a disadvantage.

Monochrome results: There's no real winner in this category; we're including the comparison just to make this face-off complete.

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Selfie

The OnePlus 9 Pro has produced a brighter, less saturated self-portrait of me in my garden compared to the iPhone, and the portrait blur in the background is less severe. Looking at the Pixel's image, the OnePlus is again less saturated and has a milder bokeh effect.

I would say that once more the OnePlus provided the most accurate shot of the three phones, since it was an incredibly bright day when I took these images. However it remains a toss-up for me between the 9 Pro and the Pixel when trying to pick my favorite. While the Pixel's image is less true-to-life than the OnePlus', it has done a better job of tweaking the colors towards a more rounded image compared to the iPhone.

Selfie result: 1. Pixel 4a 5G 2. OnePlus 9 Pro 3. iPhone 12 Pro

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Night mode selfie

Back on Hampstead Heath at dawn, the OnePlus captures a coldly-lit image the best of the three phones. The Pixel 4a offers a more saturated skin tone for my face, but not the background, which makes for an odd combination.

The iPhone does the opposite, making me look paler but the sky more blue than what the OnePlus produced.

I like both the OnePlus' image and the iPhone's image (sorry Pixel), but the OnePlus I think takes this round.

Night mode selfie winner: 1. OnePlus 9 Pro 2. iPhone 12 Pro 3. Pixel 4a 5G

OnePlus 9 camera face-off: Verdict

This OnePlus 9 camera face-off against the iPhone 12 Pro and Pixel 4a 5G was based on only a small number of images, and all the judgments are informed by my own taste in photos. But it seems safe to say after adding up the scores that OnePlus and Hasselblad have succeeded in taking on the existing champs of smartphone photography.

OnePlus 9 ProiPhone 12 ProPixel 4a 5G
Main camera132
Night mode321
Ultrawide231
Telephoto321
Selfie212
Night mode selfie321
Total14138

Using a scoring system where we award three points for a first place finish, two for second and one for third, the OnePlus 9 edges the iPhone 12 Pro by a single point and outperforms the Pixel 4a 5G by a wide margin. On another day, the iPhone 12 Pro might have produced the better shots. (Indeed, in our overall OnePlus 9 vs. iPhone 12 Pro face-off, Apple's cameras were judged to have the better results.) 

The more important point is the gap that used to exist between the cameras on OnePlus' top phones and other flagships no longer exists. The OnePlus 9 Pro can more than hold its own against the top camera phone competition.