After putting the leading smartphones through in-depth testing and photo comparisons, we have a new favorite when it comes to capturing photos. The Pixel 3 offers the best camera on a smartphone, improving on the outstanding Pixel 2 XL with software-driven enhancements.
But it's a close battle for camera phone supremacy. The iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS offer enhancements of their own over the iPhone X that produce better low-light photos. The latest iPhones definitely offer the best cameras of any Apple device and beat out Samsung's Note 9 in our recent camera face-off.
Still, we're impressed by the AI-driven smarts Samsung introduced in the Note 9. That's a feature you'll find in other well-regarded camera phones like LG's G7 ThinQ, but the Note 9 includes flaw detection features alongside its ability to detect images. And it sports the same low-light shooting features that have made the Galaxy S9+ one of our top-rated camera phones.
News and Updates (Updated Oct. 29)
- Red Hydrogen One Reviewed: Red, which makes high-end cameras for cinematography, has finally released its long-anticipated Hydrogen One phone, and we've got a review of the device. The 3D screen effect is impressive, though the cameras themselves are fairly ordinary in light of the Hydrogen One's $1,295 asking price.
- OnePlus 6T Reviewed: The latest phone from OnePlus is out now, too, and the OnePlus 6T does have some camera improvements, mostly in the form of updated software. The 6T takes slightly better photos in low light, thanks to a new Night mode, while OnePlus says it's also improved Portrait mode on the new phone. OnePlus 6 owners should see these improvements too by way of a software update to their phones.
Last year’s Pixel 2 had one of the best cameras on a smartphone, and the Pixel 3 ups the stakes not with hardware improvements but by leveraging Google’s expertise with AI and computational photography. A new Top Shot tool suggests a better photo from the many exposures the Pixel 3 has captured when an unwanted blink or blur mars your shot. Super Res Zoom makes up for the Pixel’s lack of optical zoom by combining multiple frames to fill in the details when you zoom in on a shot.
Up front, dual lenses help you squeeze more people and background details into your selfie shot. And a software update will soon bring improved low-light photos with Google’s promised Night Sight feature. Based on our comparisons, the Pixel 3 is now the camera phone to beat.
Lots of cameras have turned to artificial intelligence to help optimize camera settings, and the Note 9 is no different. Its Scene Optimizer feature can recognize 20 different scenarios and adjust camera settings on the fly so that your image comes out with the proper contrast, brightness and saturation. Scene Optimizer worked well in our tests, particularly in low light. But where the AI-powered Note 9 really stands out is with a Flaw Detection feature, which notices when you’ve taken a picture that may not be up to snuff. If someone blinks or if there’s too much blur, the Note 9 will suggest you take the photo again; it can also preemptively warn about backlighting.
Apple improved the cameras in its latest iPhones by adding a sensor with bigger and deeper pixels to let in up to 50 percent more light than the iPhone X's camera did. The result is you get improved photos in low-light settings, putting the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max on more equal footing with the Pixel 2 XL. A new Smart HDR mode in the latest iPhones combine a new ISP, faster sensors and better algorithms to bring out the highlights and details of a photo, even one with shadows. And a new Depth Control feature lets you adjust the depth of field after you take a shot.
Samsung focused on improving the cameras on the flagship phones it released in 2018. The Galaxy S9+ was among the first to reap the benefits for that decision. The most obvious change is a second rear lens, which lets the S9+ capture Live Focus shots with blurred backgrounds just like the Galaxy Note 8 and Note 9. But the real star of the show is the variable aperture on the S9+’s main rear camera. In low light settings, it can switch to a wide f/1.5 aperture, which means your photos look sharper, even when you capture them in the dark. The S9 camera also has dedicated memory aimed at reducing noise in your finished photos.
With dual 12-megapixel rear cameras capable of up to a 2.3x optical zoom, the Asus ZenFone 3 Zoom offers one of the best photography experiences you get on a phone for less than $400. In addition to its long reach, the ZenFone 3 Zoom also sports a full-featured pro mode, a dedicated color correction sensor and 4-axis optical image stabilization to ensure your shots stay shake-free. Up front, the ZenFone 3 Zoom features a sharp 13-MP selfie cam, complete with all the beauty mode settings you ever need. And with a battery that lasts more than 16 hours on charge, it's safe to say the ZenFone 3 Zoom should have enough juice to capture your favorite moments.
Huawei's P20 Pro is awfully hard to come by in the U.S., and it may not fully work with your carrier if you do manage to get your hands on one. Nevertheless, photo fans will appreciate this phone’s three rear lenses, which produce outstanding photos in low-light. The main camera — a 40-megapixel lens — has a large image sensor for capturing crisp details, and it’s aided by a 20-MP monochrome lens with an f/1.6 aperture and an 8-MP telephoto lens depending on the scenario. Some good news: Huawei has added three lenses to both the just-announced Mate 20 Pro and Mate 20 smartphones; we're waiting to see when and where those two phones are released.
How We Test Smartphone Cameras
We put the market's leading handsets through a variety of common shooting situations, such as landscapes, portraits and selfies in daylight and at night. Then, we analyze each set of images on a color-calibrated monitor to see which smartphone had the best combination of color accuracy, clarity and contrast. We also perform in-depth camera comparisons between the top phones, using each handset in their auto mode to take a wide range of photos in different conditions. After declaring a winner in each round, we name an overall winner of that face-off.
In each of our smartphone reviews, we also factor in any special features, such as dual lenses and what they enable, Portrait Modes, and other special modes, before we come to a conclusion.
5 Quick Tips for Buying a Camera Phone
The megapixels don’t matter as much as aperture. Cameras with a wider aperture (lower f-stop numbers mean wider lenses) let in more light, which can help produce better shots in the dark.
Not all dual lenses are created equal. While more smartphones are featuring dual rear cameras, those cameras don’t necessarily perform the same. Some phones like the Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS use their dual lenses to allow for depth-of-field effects; others, like the LG V30, just let you switch between wide-angle and standard lenses. Other flagship phones are adding a third lens, which generally helps improve low-light photography while also adding depth-of-field effects.
Do you need Portrait mode? It goes by different names — Portrait mode on the iPhone, Live Focus on Samsung's phones — but more phones let you play around with bokeh effects. That’s where the subject of the photo is in sharp focus, while the background features an artistic blur. While that’s mostly a feature on dual-camera phones, the single-lens Pixel uses software to produce a bokeh effect. Some phones also let you adjust the effect before and after you take a shot.
The front camera specs are just as important. In a world where we’re taking more selfies, you shouldn’t overlook a phone’s front camera. Besides the megapixels, check out the aperture to get a sense of how the camera will perform in low-light. And some front cameras, like the ones on the iPhone XS and Pixel 3, can perform the same Portrait mode effects that dual rear cameras pull off. The Pixel 3 is one of a handful of phones to add dual lenses up front, letting you fit more people or include more background in your shots.
Don’t forget about video. Your cameras shoot more than just still images. Consider what resolution the camera captures video at along with the frame rate. (The LG V30, for example, can record 4K video at 30 frames per second, while the iPhone XS and XS Max double the frame rate to 60 fps for 4K video.) Also look at the camera offers slow-motion features and video filters.
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