Smartphone camera shoot-out

The smartphones tested were (from top right, clockwise) Apple iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy Note8, LG V30+, Nokia 8, Google Pixel 2 XL, Sony Xperia Premium XZ and Huawei Mate 10 Pro.
The smartphones tested were (from top right, clockwise) Apple iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy Note8, LG V30+, Nokia 8, Google Pixel 2 XL, Sony Xperia Premium XZ and Huawei Mate 10 Pro.ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

7 models, 5 scenarios - which camera performed the best?

For many people, their smartphone is also their camera. And camera quality is one of the major considerations when it comes to purchasing a smartphone. The Straits Times checks out the cameras of seven flagship smartphones in the market.

SMARTPHONES TESTED

•Apple iPhone X

•Google Pixel 2 XL

•Huawei Mate 10 Pro

•LG V30+

•Nokia 8

•Samsung Galaxy Note8

•Sony Xperia XZ Premium

INTRODUCING THE CAMERAS

Apart from the Pixel 2 XL and Xperia XZ Premium, the rest of the smartphones in this round-up feature a rear dual-camera system.

However, not all rear dual-camera systems are the same.

Both iPhone X and Note8 use the combination of a wide-angle camera and a telephoto camera, while the V30+ uses an ultra wide-angle camera with a wide-angle camera.

The Mate 10 Pro and Nokia 8, on the other hand, use the combination of a colour camera and monochrome camera.

The reason: A monochrome image sensor does not use a colour filter array, which means more light can hit the image sensor for more details. By combining the information collected by the two image sensors, the resulting image is said to have higher resolution and more details.

HOW WE TEST

Our test shots comprised landscape, portrait and selfie photos taken in various real-life scenarios. For instance, we took a landscape photo at the beach on a sunny day, a Christmas tree installation at dusk, and a night scene of Sentosa.

We also shot portraits under indoor incandescent lighting without flash, and took outdoor selfies in good lighting with a building behind us to mimic what people do during their travels.

For a fair comparison, all the photos were taken using the native camera app of each smartphone.

Auto mode with automatic high dynamic range was turned on for all the shots.

If there was a portrait mode (or bokeh effect) available in the native camera app, we used it.


Landscape (day)

WINNER: Apple iPhone X

This type of photo is the bread and butter of any smartphone camera. If a smartphone fails this test, it is hard to fathom how it can do well in other tests.

And all the smartphones here did a great job in photographing Siloso Beach on a bright, sunny day.

In fact, at first glance, all the photos look almost the same. Only the ones taken by the Sony look slightly underexposed. It's not a huge problem, as it can be rectified by post-processing pretty quickly.

Otherwise, colour reproduction is generally spot on across the board. But the Note8 and XZ Premium tend to render colours slightly more vividly than the rest.

Images taken with the iPhone X, Pixel 2 XL, V30+, Mate 10 Pro and Note8 exhibit better dynamic range than the rest, with details clearly visible even in the darker areas of the images.

The XZ Premium lost many of the details in these darker regions, while the Nokia 8 offered slightly better details than the Sony.

Overall, it was a close contest between the iPhone X and Note8... Both produced photos that look sharp and natural, with great dynamic range. The only difference? The iPhone X was able to capture more tones in the highlights than Note8.

Upon closer scrutiny, the images taken by the Pixel 2 XL and Nokia 8 appear a tad softer than the rest in the darker areas. The problem is especially pronounced for the Nokia 8. But you will not really see it unless you are pixel-peeping.

Overall, it was a close contest between the iPhone X and Note8 for the best daytime landscape shooter. Both produced photos that look sharp and natural, with great dynamic range.

The only difference? The iPhone X was able to capture more tones in the highlights than Note8. Thus, it just edges out the latter to be the winner here.


Landscape (dusk)

WINNER: Samsung Galaxy Note8

Both the V30+ and Note8 were able to provide an accurate reproduction of the scene, preserving the blue sky and the purple hue of the clouds while preventing the Christmas tree lights from being overexposed. But the Note8 was just slightly better in managing the different colour tones for a more true-to-life picture. 

Our dusk scene was a tricky one to shoot. The setting sun gave the clouds a purple hue, while a Christmas tree installation in the foreground emitted plenty of artificial lighting.

Smartphones of the past would have delivered quite abysmal results in this kind of lighting situation. But all the smartphones did surprisingly well here.

The iPhone X, Pixel 2 XL and XZ Premium slightly overexposed this scene, possibly swayed by the lights of the Christmas tree and in their efforts to keep the sky bright. But their images still look stunning.

On the other hand, the images from the Nokia 8 and Mate 10 Pro look a bit too warm, or yellow.

It was left to the V30+ and Note8 to grab top honours here. Both were able to provide an accurate reproduction of the scene, preserving the blue sky and the purple hue of the clouds while preventing the Christmas tree lights from being overexposed.

But the Note8 was just slightly better in managing the different colour tones for a more true-to-life picture. Thus, the Note8 wins this round.


Landscape (night)

WINNER: LG V30+

In the end, it was the V30+ that was able to shoot a sharp image with a dark night sky while accurately rendering the colourful lights. 

For this test, we shot a view of Sentosa from VivoCity mall on a rainy night. It was pitch dark, except for the lights emanating from Resorts World Sentosa and the Sentosa Gateway.

The Nokia 8 fared the worst here by underexposing everything in order to make sure the lights were not overexposed. But the images lack sharpness and details.

The Mate 10 Pro, on the other hand, overexposed the frame. The result is a similar lack ofsharpness and details. The XZ Premium kept the exposure spot on and retained accurate colours with a nice reflection on the water. But its images look kind of soft.

Both iPhone X and Note8 tried to keep it neat and tidy by slightly overexposing the sky and artificial lighting. As a result, both sets of images look a bit flat and lack punch.

The Pixel 2 XL almost got it right with nice colours, crisp details and nice sharpness. But it used too high an ISO setting, turning the night sky into a feast of chromatic noise.

In the end, it was the V30+ that was able to shoot a sharp image with a dark night sky while accurately rendering the colourful lights.


Portraits

WINNER: Samsung Galaxy Note8

The iPhone X and the Note8 were both able to deliver top-notch portraits with a natural bokeh effect. But the Note8 was able to deliver smoother and brighter skin tones and, thus, edged out the iPhone X.

My wife was my reluctant subject for this test, on the condition that the photos would never be published. So please do not ask to see the photos.

Anyway, with more smartphones having rear dual-camera systems, many of them feature a portrait mode.

This mode usually zooms into the subject and blurs the background to create a shallow depth of field, aka the bokeh effect, so the subject can stand out.

But the V30+ and XZ Premium do not have a portrait mode. The only way to achieve the bokeh effect is to manually set the aperture size to its maximum. But despite doing that for both cameras, I was not able to achieve the bokeh effect in the portrait shoot.

Portraits shot with the Mate 10 Pro and Nokia 8 exhibit clear software blurring of the background. The Mate 10 Pro even blurred my wife's hair. The Nokia 8 did a better job but the subject was also slightly blurred.

Despite having only a single rear camera, the Pixel 2 XL was able to deliver a pleasing portrait with a nice, shallow depth of field. The only issue: The angle is a bit wide, which might take the focus away from the subject.

The iPhone X and the Note8 were both able to deliver top-notch portraits with a natural bokeh effect. But the Note8 was able to deliver smoother and brighter skin tones and, thus, edged out the iPhone X.


Selfie

WINNER: Samsung Galaxy Note8

The most balanced selfie, in terms of smooth skin and accurate environment exposure, goes to the Note8. It was able to render smooth-yet-natural skin and was spot on with the exposure of the backdrop. 

All the smartphones here delivered nice selfies when used with their default selfie mode.

The V30+ gave the widest angle for selfies here. This is the smartphone to get if you want to squeeze more people into that wefie during parties or group tours.

If you want high-resolution selfies, you have to look at the 13-megapixel, front-facing cameras of the Nokia 8 and XZ Premium.

Furthermore, the XZ Premium will automatically smoothen your skin while keeping everything else in the shot untouched. Not so much with the Nokia 8. But both tend to overexpose the sky.

The Mate 10 Pro provided the smoothest skin and brightest face of all the smartphones here. It looks unnatural but I think there will be those who love this kind of result. On the other hand, the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL gave really realistic results. You can clearly see the pores and acne on your face, while the sky and buildings are all accurately exposed.

The most balanced selfie, in terms of smooth skin and accurate environment exposure, goes to the Note8. It was able to render smooth-yet-natural skin and was spot on with the exposure of the backdrop.

Trevor Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'Smartphone camera shoot-out'. Print Edition | Subscribe