After putting the leading smartphones through in-depth testing and photo comparisons, the Pixel 3 continues to offer the best camera on a smartphone, improving on the outstanding Pixel 2 XL with software-driven enhancements. That's even more true now that the impressive Night Sight feature is arriving on Google's phones.
Still, it's a close battle for camera phone supremacy. The Pixel 3 beat the just-released Galaxy S10 Plus in a photo face-off, but only just barely, as Samsung has made numerous improvements to that phone's camera, including new software features and a triple-lens setup on the back 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 another camera face-off.
That said, the AI-driven smarts Samsung introduced in the Note 9 and enhanced for the S10 Plus really impress. The Note 9 includes flaw detection features alongside its ability to detect images, and does a good job of handling low-light settings (though Pixel's still the champ when the lights are low).
Meanwhile, if you still want a good camera but don't want to spend more than $400 on your next phone, the Nokia 7.1 is a midrange model that doesn't sacrifice camera quality in exchange for a lower price. It's our pick for best budget camera phone.
News and Updates (Updated March 16)
- Samsung Galaxy S10 Reviewed: In addition to the S10 Plus, we've reviewed the other members of the S10 family. Our most recent review is of the Galaxy S10, which is nearly as good as its larger sibling, though the S10's single front camera doesn't perform as well as the dual front shooters on the S10 Plus.
- S10 Camera Improvements: Want to see just how Samusng has improved the cameras in its latest smartphones? We compared shots taken by the Galaxy S10 with those from the Galaxy S8 in a Samsung camera phone face-off.
- Nokia 9 PureView Reviewed: Find out how the five rear cameras on the back of Nokia's new flagship phone perform in our Nokia 9 PureView review.
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 has brought improved low-light photos with Google’s Night Sight feature. Based on our comparisons, the Pixel 3 is now the camera phone to beat.
More doesn't always mean merrier, but the addition of a third camera to the back of Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus is definitely produces better shots than this phone's predecessors. We're particularly impressed with how the ultra-wide 16-MP camera on the back of the S10 Plus can pull back to offer more captivating, detailed views. The other two lenses — a 12-MP dual-pixel main camera and 12-MP telephoto shooter — yield solid results, too, aided by a dedicated neural processing unit that can fine-tune the camera's settings. Samsung improved portrait shots, too, with Live Focus effects that let you easily blur and change colors of the shot's background.
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.
Lots of cameras have turned to artificial intelligence to help optimize camera settings, and the Note 9 is no different. The more recently Galaxy S10 Plus may recognize more scenes with its version of Samsung's Scene Optimize feature, but the Note 9 is no slouch with its ability to recognize 20 different scenarios and adjust camera settings on the fly. The result is an image that comes out with the proper contrast, brightness and saturation. Scene Optimizer worked well in our tests, particularly in low light. Where the AI-powered Note 9 really stands out, though, 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.
The Nokia 7.1 puts the lie to the notion that you have to pay top dollar for a good camera phone. This $350 smartphone may have a midrange price, especially when compared to what Apple and Samsung charge for top-of-the-line devices, but it didn't skimp on the 12-megapixel and 5-MP rear cameras. When we compared the cameras to the Nokia 7.1 to similarly priced phones, we were rewarded with shots that offered less blur and more accurate white balance. Add in a great display and surprisingly strong performance, and you've got a phone that's more than worth its low-asking price.
Long before the Galaxy S10 featured three rear cameras, Huawei was cranking out phones with a triple lens setup like the Mate 20 Pro. The 40-MP main (f/1.8), 8-MP telephoto (f/2.4) and 20-MP ultra-wide (f/2.2) lenses can match just about any other smartphone's photos, but one of the big benefits from this approach is a 3x optical zoom. The ultrawide lens in particular produces a nice zoom effect that produced nice, detailed shots in our testing. Our biggest disappointment with the Mate 20 Pro is that it's not officially available in the U.S., though you can find international versions at some retailers.
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 Pixel 3, 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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