Folding displays are a disaster, 5G is a work in progress and phone makers still haven’t found the next stage of design to make glass seem out of date. The camera is still the biggest area of competition among top-end phones.
Studying spec sheets and even sensor models only tells you part of the story. We gathered five of the best smartphones around – most with ‘pro’ in the names – to test and see which is best.
We also worked with, Rebecca Scheinberg, a still-life and portraiture photographer, who helped us decide on a winner with a focus on picture quality across various environments. Her day-to-day experience of cameras is very different to our own, which boils down to snapping anything that looks interesting as we go about our day.
“I tend to work in relatively controlled environments with still life, so I can adjust based on the image, the aesthetic, colour and texture,” says Scheinberg. “I tend to use a digital back that I put on to either a large format or medium format camera. It’s a big shift to walk around with it in my hand and change angles easily.”
How we tested
Our approach to testing these cameras was designed to mirror these two styles of photography. We started off in a white-walled photography studio. Scheinberg set up the kind of still life she might shoot for a style magazine or high-end advert. After experimenting with a few different setups we settled on a few sticks of rhubarb tied together with rope, sat on a gold occasional table.
What may seem arbitrary is actually exacting in still-life photography. This arrangement also let us see how the phones would deal with the colour of the rhubarb and the texture of the rope. We then closed the blinds in the studio to test their night modes. “This is really challenging their cameras because it’s dealing with complicated textures and interesting colours,” says Scheinberg.
After several hours in that controlled environment, we went outside to one of London’s green squares with one of the most difficult subjects of all: a dog. Dogs rarely stop moving and our dog’s dark fur is a particularly tough challenge for any processing-led camera. Should it expose a shot to bring out the texture detail, or to make the fur appear as dark as it does to the eye?
What is the best phone camera in 2019?
To cut to our quick conclusions, we found the Google Pixel 4 (from £669) to be our recommended all-rounder of the five phones, our pick for low-light photography and thus the best phone camera, according to our pro photographer. None of these phones came out top in all areas, but Google’s latest does reach some impressive heights.
However, our iPhone 11 Pro (from £1,049) testing was the most striking. It was arguably the weakest in controlled conditions, but tends to produce consistently eyeball-pleasing results out on the street. It’s the best phone camera for street photography.
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Google Pixel 4
WIRED Recommends: Photo purity and low-light performance
Main camera: 16MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: Yes | FOV: 52°
Telephoto: 12.2MP | Aperture: f/1.7 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 2x optical
The Pixel 4 (from £669) is quicker than its phone camera rivals, and produced the best results in our low-light studio test. Here we focused on the piece of rope, which could easily look soft or “stressed”.
The iPhone’s rope is relatively noisy, heavy on contrast but not on detail. Samsung’s and Huawei’s look clean but soft. OnePlus’s looks painted, the least realistic of the bunch, and turns the rhubarb stack neon. But the Pixel’s low-light image is almost perfect.
“The Pixel really maintains its image when you zoom in, in low light. The others are not even a patch on it,” says Scheinberg. Its ability to identify and retain fine texture detail, where others struggle to differentiate it from signal noise, is remarkable.
We didn’t even touch on the Pixel 4’s new Astrophotography mode in this test either. The mode engages automatically in extreme low light, and can be used to take ‘starry sky’ images when the phone is kept perfectly still. It is proof of quite how advanced Google’s computational photography algorithms are, able to pick out details our eyes can’t see with a 7.06mm sensor.
Outdoors, the Pixel 4 produced natural images with scope for further editing and no weird colour casts. The Pixel 4’s dog photos were not quite as punchy as the iPhone’s, but were not remotely as willowy as the Huawei’s either. “I reckon with a bit of editing you could make that a better image than, say, the iPhone that’s already pre-processed,” Scheinberg says about one of the shots.
The Pixel 4 has a few other benefits, too. Like the Pixel 3 it has “zero shutter lag” shooting, because it starts capturing frames before you press the shutter button. Start challenging the camera and you realise this is a bit of a trick: the actual frame of our dog portraits was that of a moment significantly after the press. But for casual everyday shooting it offers an instant feel.
Google also has the most intuitive subject tracking going. Simply select your focus point and the phone holds the lock as you move the Pixel 4.
Given the next-level smarts put into this camera, the one big failing is a surprise. The Pixel 4’s subject cut-out is bad, the worst here by some margin. This is used in the background blur portrait mode, which can deliver some of the most striking images from a phone. Feed the Pixel 4’s mode a complicated subject and the Pixel separates it with all the finesse of a bored 4-year-old given crayons and a colouring-in book at Pizza Hut.
The iPhone 11 Pro’s subject separation blur is poor, too. Parts of the image that should be blurred aren’t, and too often there’s a clear border around the blurring perimeter. It looks a bit naff, as pretty as the actual blurring may be.
Pros: Quick shooting; superb low-light results; subject tracking
Cons: Background blur portrait mode is disappointing
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Apple’s eye view is stylised and works on the street
Main camera: 12MP | Aperture: f/1.8 | OIS: Yes (dual)
Telephoto: 12MP | Aperture: f/2.0 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 2x optical
Ultra-wide: 12MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: No | FOV: 120°
iPhones are usually considered to be less processing-heavy than other phones, in part because they don’t tend to use egregious over-sharpening, the simplest kind of processing to identify. However, the iPhone 11 Pro (from £1,049) guides the contrast and colour of its images with a heavier hand than any of the other Androids.
“They’ve upped the contrast to give the illusion of sharpness.” Scheinberg says of the iPhone’s studio shoot image as we looked over the photos on a colorimeter-calibrated MacBook. “This is quite intense, there’s so much processing.”
This isn’t the kind of processing that leaves objects with a white crust of sharpening, or textures with a wholly unrealistic watercolour-like effect, though. iPhone 11 Pro images look stylised, punchy and “ready to post”. But Apple makes certain choices for you, and it blocks off others, if you’re the kind of photographer who edits images after taking them. Our iPhone studio shots also had an unwanted greenish wash to them.
Many people don’t want to edit their shots, though, and even more won’t realise the extent to which an image can be salvaged or improved by editing, using phone apps let alone Photoshop. And an iPhone avoids you trashing photos because they don’t look good at first glance.
Shooting our dog model against a brick wall demonstrated this most clearly. The Androids’ images all look slightly anaemic next to the iPhone’s. It brought out the orange-auburn patches of the little chap’s markings, and kept the dark areas looking dark more successfully than any other. The result is a much richer looking image that appears to have greater depth, warmth and clarity.
You can bring this back to the other phones’ images in the edit, but with an iPhone you don’t have to. And that’s important. “It’s like it just does the work for you,” says Scheinberg.
Pros: Perfect for ready-to-post pics; punchy shots
Cons: Not the best if you like editing; some unrealistic effects
Huawei Mate 30 Pro
Our pick for telephoto and travel
Main camera: 40MP | Aperture: f/1.6 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 8MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 3x optical
Ultra-wide: 40MP | Aperture: f/1.8 | OIS: No | FOV: 120°
The highly regarded Huawei Mate 30 Pro (from £775) suffered from this anaemia effect the most. Several of our doggie images look severely undersaturated. The phone seems to favour bringing out fur texture rather than prioritising the wider appearance of the image.
Huawei even has a “dog” scene mode, which activates when the Mate 30 Pro’s Master AI mode is turned on, but some of the choices made here seem short sighted when you review the results.
The phone did perform well in other areas. Huawei has been accused of over processing images countless times over the years, but it handles skin tones well. “There’s something very honest about it,” says Scheinberg, a sentiment you wouldn’t have attached to a Huawei phone camera a few years ago.
It also performed well in the studio test, particularly with standard lighting (rather than low light). We deliberately used natural light rather than the kind of flood and flash stand mounts a professional shoot might use, to bring the context closer to real-world conditions.
The Huawei Mate 30 Pro was among the best at bringing out the detail in our subject, an artfully stacked pile of rhubarb sticks. “If you look at the detail in the rhubarb, it’s more crisp, there’s more detail in the colours here,” says Scheinberg. “It retains information on the highlights and lowlights so if you want to then edit with the Huawei, you could do more. This is a really great image to edit yourself.”
Results from the phone’s zoom were also peerless. Many phones with zooms and ultra-wides use relatively remedial hardware in their secondary cameras, but all three of the Huawei Mate 30’s main rear cameras (the fourth ToF one is not a standard photography camera) are great.
This is what makes the Huawei Mate 30 Pro such a fun travel camera. A longer zoom and quality wide open up your composition options, even if there is often a slight difference in tone between the fields of view. And that typifies what Huawei hasn’t quite nailed yet: consistency.
2019 also sees Huawei lose the lead that made it our top choice last year, in low-light performance. Huawei established the current standard for night-time phone photography in early 2018 with the P20 Pro. This phone introduced a mode that mimics long exposure photography using clever processing and multiple exposures. The final image is a composite of many frames.
The Mate 30 Pro is still among the best in the field, but the Pixel 4 is better.
Pros: Versatile; lots of detail; peerless zoom; natural skin tones
Cons: Low-light has been bested; some undersaturation
Samsung Galaxy S10
Consider the S10 for portraits
Main camera: 12MP | Aperture: f/1.5-2.4 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 12MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 2x optical
Ultra-wide: 16MP | Aperture: f/2.2 | OIS: No | FOV: 123°
This is where our two also-rans, the OnePlus 7T Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10, gain back some cred. That’s right, even the Galaxy S10 (from £580) didn’t stand out hugely in this crowd.
We found the same last year when, again, we travelled around London with a pro photographer and a not-so-small fortune’s worth of phones. Samsung’s top phones have excellent cameras that do not perform badly in any situation, but they don’t push for progress at the extremes in the same way as Huawei’s or Google’s.
The Samsung Galaxy S10’s background blur subject isolation was among the most convincing, but our studio shots revealed a few weaknesses. There’s the tell-tale object outlining that comes with sharpening, and a push for punchy contrast and brightness left the rope with small areas of overexposure.
Its low-light image was very good with, bizarrely enough, a less processed look than its better-lit counterpart. The Samsung Galaxy S10 probably deserves a podium place in this test, but it’s the best we’re looking for today.
Pros: Convincing subject isolation; performs well in low light
Cons: Some object outlining and overexposure
OnePlus 7T Pro
Progress from the affordable Android
Main camera: 48MP | Aperture: f/1.6 | OIS: Yes
Telephoto: 8MP | Aperture: f/2.4 | OIS: Yes | Zoom: 3x optical
Ultra-wide: 16MP | Aperture: f/2.2 | OIS: No | FOV: 117°
You might expect a little more from Samsung, widely considered the number one name in Android phones, but it’s much easier to spin a positive story out of the OnePlus 7T Pro’s performance.
This is the most affordable large-screen phone here, from the smallest company by quite some margin. And OnePlus gets the “most improved” award, having made major improvements to its camera performance in the last 18 months.
Yes, it slightly overexposed its main studio shot, and its low-light image was painterly and neon-tinged. But its images out in the real world were charming.
The OnePlus 7T Pro (£699) dog images have a pleasant warmth and plenty of detail without the on-rails sense of the iPhone 11 Pro. “It’s got the information in the image to push it whatever direction you want it to go,” says Scheinberg.
OnePlus also has just about the most realistic-looking background blur going. The feature was revised in the 7-series phones for that very purpose. We disturbed a young Londoner’s lunch to shoot a portrait of him against a tree, and the progressive blur of its portraits could convince you the shot was taken with a true DSLR-style wide-aperture lens. “It’s done quite a good job in this situation, where he’s against something and you’ve got a more gentle fade out,” says Scheinberg.
Pros: Detail and pleasing colours; decent portraits
Cons: Improved low-light but not the best
Which phone should you buy?
Well, the Pixel 4 wins this particular test, in large part thanks to the amazing fidelity of its low-light images.
Yes, if you buy the smaller Pixel 4 rather than the Pixel 4 XL you can’t rely on it to last through the day. Yes, its portrait mode can’t handle complicated subjects and the Huawei Mate 30 Pro has a more impressive zoom. However, we asked a professional photographer to contribute for a reason, to help us cut through the fluff and get to what really matters.
The iPhone 11 Pro is the obvious choice for lazy shooting. Its processing spits out images served the way most people like them, although its low-light images are slightly noisier than some and the approach is prescriptive and slightly stylised.
Huawei earns points for the Mate 30 Pro’s excellent zoom and surprisingly neutral skin tone handling, but on occasion its image handling drops a clanger.
Samsung’s position hasn’t changed much since we last undertook a test like this. The Galaxy S10 takes great photos, but there’s some more work to be done if it wants camera performance to match its no. 1 position for Android sales.
And OnePlus? Its low-light images could look more natural but there’s plenty of editing scope in daylight shots and, contrary to what you might expect, its portrait mode cut-out algorithms are more tasteful and advanced than Google’s. The OnePlus 7T Pro is also comfortably the most affordable option here.
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