2018 flagship smartphone camera shoot-out

Smartphone Camera Shoot-out: (From top right clockwise) Samsung Galaxy Note9, Apple iPhone XS Max, Huawei Mate 20 Pro and Google Pixel 3 XL. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN
Smartphone Camera Shoot-out: (From top right clockwise) Samsung Galaxy Note9, Apple iPhone XS Max, Huawei Mate 20 Pro and Google Pixel 3 XL. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

The best camera is the one that is with you all the time. For many, that means the smartphone.

It has reached a point where camera quality is a major factor when buying a smartphone.

The Straits Times checks out the cameras of four latest flagship smartphones - the Apple iPhone XS Max, Google Pixel 3 XL, Huawei Mate 20 Pro and Samsung Galaxy Note9.

INTRODUCING THE CAMERAS

The Apple iPhone XS Max and Samsung Galaxy Note9 both feature a rear dual-camera system. This is becoming a norm for many smartphones these days.

The iPhone XS Max has a 12-megapixel f/1.8 wide-angle camera and a 12-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto camera, while the Note9 has a 12-megapixel f/1.7 wide-angle camera and a 12-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto camera.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro has the most impressive camera specifications in this round-up. It boasts a rear triple-camera system consisting of a 40-megapixel f/1.8 wideangle camera, a 20-megapixel f/2.2 ultra wide-angle camera and an 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto camera. And it has a whopping 24-megapixel f/2.0 front-facing camera to take selfies.

Only the Google Pixel 3 XL has a single-rear camera - a 12.2- megapixel f/1.8 wide-angle unit. But it has a front-facing dual- camera system that consists of an 8-megapixel f/1.8 wide-angle camera and an 8-megapixel f/1.8 ultra wide-angle camera.

But its most significant feature is called Night Sight, which uses computational photography and machine learning to capture bright images in low lighting.

THE TEST

The test shots comprised landscape, portrait and selfie photos taken in various scenarios.

We took a landscape photo in Botanic Gardens on a sunny day and a night scene of Singapore Polytechnic in relative darkness. If the camera has a night mode, we will use it.

We shot portraits under indoor incandescent lighting without flash and outdoor selfies with a nice view behind us to mimic what people usually do during their travels.

For a fair comparison, all photos were taken using the smartphones' native camera app. Auto mode with automatic high dynamic range was turned on for all the test shots.

For the three smartphones with multiple rear-camera systems, we tried out all the available cameras in the landscape test. We did the same for the selfie tests with the front-facing cameras.

For portrait shots, we used the portrait mode (or bokeh effect) in the native camera app if available.

All the photos were then viewed on the same colour-calibrated monitor to ensure fairness.

THE SHOOT-OUT

Landscape (Day)

 TREVOR TAN
Landscape day photo taken using Samsung Galaxy Note9. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note9

In this test, we compared photos taken at the respective standard wide-angle setting of each smartphone.

We found the Galaxy Note9 to have the best overall image quality. It has nice vibrant colours, accurate rendition of blue skies and better dynamic range compared to the rest. The darker areas show nice details without looking "fake".

In close second is the Mate 20 Pro. It nearly matched the Note9 in image detail and colour vibrancy, while just losing out in dynamic range.

The iPhone XS Max and Pixel 3 XL chose to be more flat and slightly underexposed when rendering landscape images. In other words, both went for the safe route and kept everything pretty neutral, which is great for post-processing. But out of the box, their images look dull.

However, in terms of versatility, the Mate 20 Pro shines here with its rear triple-camera system. You can go from ultra wide-angle shots (0.6x) to close-up shots (3x optical zoom), with all of the images looking sharp edge-to-edge. Great for when you are travelling.

But in terms of unprocessed image quality, the Note9 is the winner here.

Landscape (Night)

 TREVOR TAN
Night landscape photo taken using Google Pixel 3 XL's Night Sight Mode. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Winner: Google Pixel 3 XL

With little light present in our night scene, this is a challenging test. But all four smartphones did a really good job. In the past, most smartphones would have failed miserably.

As the iPhone XS Max does not have a Night mode, it renders scenes that are very close to what our eyes perceive. In other words, the images are pretty dark, but they are sharp with little image noise.

The Note9 did a pretty decent job by slightly overexposing the scene, so you can have a decent view of the darker areas. On the downside, the image noise artefacts can be easily spotted, with the darker areas losing details as a result.

Using its Night Mode, the Mate 20 Pro produced images that look like they were taken using long exposure. The clouds in the night sky are white and unlit buildings clearly visible. Unfortunately, the image noise artefacts are readily visible as well.

The Pixel 3 XL's Night Sight mode is amazing. It manages to capture the night scene without over-exposing or under-exposing the scene. Everything is spot-on in the image. We are also really impressed by how it managed to keep the image noise levels low but the sharpness and details high.

There is no doubt the Pixel 3 XL wins this category.

Portrait

 TREVOR TAN
Photo taken using Huawei Mate 20 Pro's Portrait Mode. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

This test was taken with a subject in front of a dark background. It is to see how well the smartphone cameras are able to create the bokeh effect, or blurred background, especially with the subject's black hair.

The Note9's portrait shots are disappointing, as we can clearly see some parts around the subject's head in which the blurred effect was unsuccessful.

With the Pixel 3 XL, the bokeh effect looks natural. But the subject's skin tone and texture seem to be "over-processed", with some hair "disappearing" into the skin.

The iPhone XS Max's portraits have a natural-looking bokeh effect, with the skin tone and texture looking like how they should in real life under incandescent lighting. But the bokeh effect looks like the result of the subject being shot with a very large aperture, as even the ear and temple of the subject were blurred.

The Mate 20 Pro was able to get the correct skin tone of the subject even under the incandescent lighting. The bokeh effect looks natural, with the subject's hair staying detailed and sharp. I can even make out the hair strands. Excellent work.

Selfie

 TREVOR TAN
Selfie photo taken using Google Pixel 3 XL's selfie mode. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Winner: Google Pixel 3 XL

The selfies were taken in Botanic Gardens with the famous Bandstand as the backdrop on a relatively sunny day.

We had a hard time trying to determine the best selfie, as all the smartphones in this roundup produced really pleasing results with natural skin tones.

The Mate 20 Pro was the first to be eliminated from contention though. It might have the highest pixel count but its image quality pales in comparison to the rest. The skin tones look natural but the Bandstand and blue sky were both overexposed. As a result, you can hardly see the clouds.

The Note9's selfies were not bad, but the over-application of high dynamic range does make the images look a tad fake. Not to mention, there is significant smoothening on the subject's face.

In the end, it was a close fight between the Pixel 3 XL and iPhone XS Max. Both smartphones were able to produce a natural rendition of the background and the right exposure of the subject .

The Pixel 3 XL did some skin smoothening and blemish reduction, while the iPhone XS Max left it natural. So, it is down to your preference.

For us, the tie-breaker came in the form of the sharpness of the background. Upon close examination, the iPhone XS Max's selfie background turned out softer than Pixel 3 XL. So, it was literally a photo finish.

Overall

Winner: Google Pixel 3 XL

All the smartphone cameras have their strengths and weaknesses. The Mate 20 Pro allows for plenty of flexibility with its rear triple-camera system, while the iPhone XS Max performed really well in almost all the tests apart from night shooting. The Note9 did well in the day but failed to sparkle in the portrait test.

Thus, we pick the Google Pixel 3 XL for the best overall smartphone camera. We are particularly awed by its Night Sight feature that makes capturing great night shots a cinch. Not to mention, it takes nice selfies too.

FOUR THINGS ABOUT A SMARTPHONE'S CAMERA TO CONSIDER

THE MORE MEGAPIXELS THE BETTER?

The megapixel myth was dispelled a long time ago. Higher megapixel count does not equate to better image quality. It just makes for easier understanding by consumers and better marketing .

The more important feature to consider is the aperture size of the camera. The larger the aperture size (or the lower the f-stop number) - which means more light can hit the image sensor - the better the image quality.

It also means, in theory, better shots in the dark.

THE MORE (CAMERAS) THE MERRIER?

Initially, there was only the dual-camera system. But Huawei has upped the ante with a triple-camera system - first in its P20 Pro and later in its Mate 20 Pro. Samsung introduced a quad-camera system recently with its mid-range Galaxy A9.

Not all multiple-camera systems work the same way. For example, some smartphones use two cameras with different focal lengths to create depth, while others offer an ultra wide-angle camera in addition to standard dual-camera systems.

On the other hand, there are the single-camera systems found in the Apple iPhone XR and Google Pixel 3 that have proven to be more than adequate.

So, it does not mean you have to get a smartphone with multiple cameras to get great shots.

PORTRAIT MODES ARE NOT ALL THE SAME

The often-touted Portrait mode is all about creating the bokeh effect. In other words, it allows you to take photos of a subject in sharp focus while the background is blurred. This is usually achieved by using dual- or triple-camera systems.

Google, however, uses software to produce such a bokeh effect for its Pixel 3. Many smartphones also allow you to adjust the bokeh effect before and after a shot.

Huawei goes a step further to let users adjust the shape of the bokeh.

SCRUTINISE THE FRONT-FACING CAMERA

When front-facing cameras first appeared in smartphones, they were meant to be used in video calls. But now, they have become highly capable shooters for taking selfies and pack a growing list of features. For instance, some smartphone makers' selfie modes have beautify modes that reduce skin blemishes and sharpen chins. Some love it, others loathe it.

But with more people taking selfies, a good front-facing camera is a major consideration when buying a smartphone these days.