Flagship smartphone camera shootout

The night shot (above) taken by iPhone 11 Pro Max is sharp and retains more natural colours than the Pixel 4 XL's.
The night shot (above) taken by iPhone 11 Pro Max is sharp and retains more natural colours than the Pixel 4 XL's.ST PHOTOS: TREVOR TAN

CAMERA CONTESTANTS

For the flagship smartphone camera shootout this year, The Straits Times tested five large-display smartphones (with screens above 6 inches) from the major brands with prices ranging from $1,299 to $2,349.

All five have a rear multi-camera system. The Google Pixel 4 XL has a rear dual-camera system, while the others have three or more cameras in their rear camera system.

On camera specs alone, Huawei's P30 Pro has a clear advantage over the rest. It offers the most versatility with its rear camera system's wide focal range - from 0.6x ultra-wide-angle to 5x telephoto zoom - and features a 32-megapixel (MP) front-facing camera, the largest MP count in this round-up.

The Vivo Nex 3 wins the megapixel race for the rear camera, with its 64MP wide-angle camera. However, by default, it produces only 16MP images through pixel binning, though there is an option to take 64MP images.

HOW THE SHOOTOUT WAS CONDUCTED

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

Landscape photos were taken at MacRitchie Reservoir on a cloudy day and night scenes were shot of Sentosa's Merlion statue, which was not lit.

For portraits, the challenge was upped by taking shots at night without flash under outdoor incandescent lighting.

 

The selfies were taken outdoors, with a building and a bit of sky as backdrop. For these shots, we either turned off the beauty mode or all the beautify features.

To ensure fair comparison, all of the shots were taken using each smartphone's native camera app. We also used the auto mode and automatic high dynamic range were enabled for landscape shoots in the day.

All the different focal lengths of each smartphone were used in the landscape tests and these were compared.

For night shoots, the night photography mode was used.

The portrait mode (bokeh effect) was used in the native camera app for portrait shoots.

Lastly, the best shots for each smartphone camera were picked for comparison and these were viewed on the same colour-calibrated monitor to ensure fairness.


Winners of the shootout

LANDSCAPE (NIGHT): APPLE IPHONE 11 PRO MAX

In last year's shootout, the Google Pixel 3 won this category by a big margin. Will the Pixel 4 XL retain the crown this year?

To up the challenge here, shots were taken of the Merlion statue at Sentosa as it is not lit at night. The presence of surrounding trees and lights on the bridge leading to the Merlion also added to the difficulty.

As all the major brands have been making strides to up the ante on night photography, this was a close contest.

The Nex 3 was the first to be eliminated. Its shot had nice exposure throughout the frame, but there was significant loss of details, especially in the dark areas, perhaps a result of it overly aggressive image noise reduction.

Next to go was the Note10+. On first look, the shot actually seemed like the best picture with very good high dynamic range (HDR). However, while the dark areas were well "lit", we saw dark blotchy patches in the night sky where there should have been a smooth gradation of tones.

 
 

The P30 Pro's night shot was decent with great HDR, but has too much green and yellow tones, making it look a tad unnatural.

And so it was down to Apple and Google for a photo finish.

In terms of HDR quality, the iPhone 11 Pro Max was comparable to the Pixel 4 XL. But Apple's latest night mode implementation has caught up with and edged slightly ahead of Google's Night Sight function for night photography, as evidenced by the iPhone 11 Pro Max's night shot (above) looking sharper and retaining more natural colours than the Pixel 4 XL's. The winner here: iPhone 11 Pro Max.


LANDSCAPE (DAY): SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE10+

The day landscape scene was not easy to shoot, as the Pavilion Bridge at MacRitchie Reservoir and its surrounding greenery, were considerably darker than the cloudy sky. It was a real test of the high dynamic range (HDR) capability of the smartphone's camera.

In this regard, the Note10+ (above) stood out. It was able to keep the sky from being overexposed while keeping the clouds visible and retaining the colours of the sky. Also, the Pavilion Bridge and the greenery have just the right level of exposure.

Coming in a close second was the iPhone 11 Pro Max. It actually did a better job than the Note10+ in preserving the tonality and exposure of the sky, but underexposed the Pavilion Bridge and greenery by a little.

The P30 Pro managed to keep the detail level high, but did so through underexposing the entire frame.

The Nex 3's landscape shot leaned on the green side even though the sky and foreground were correctly exposed.

Surprisingly, the Google Pixel 4 XL did not fare well here. The shot turned out to be dull even though the HDR was working well. Maybe it was a case of overprocessing while trying to keep the exposure right.


SELFIE: VIVO NEX 3

This category is probably the most subjective, as different people have different expectations of selfies. When judging this category, the middle ground - between too-natural and too-vivid - was sought.

While the selfies were taken on a cloudy day, the sky was still much brighter than the building in the backdrop, as well as its surroundings and the subject's face.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max was out of contention early, because its selfie was just too accurate. It was as dull as the weather that day, even though the colours and exposure were spot-on. Some might like it this way, but it was not flattering to the subject.

It was the opposite with the selfie taken with the Note10+, which was really bright, vibrant and vivid. The contrasts looked exaggerated, though some might prefer this as they could save on post-processing time.

The selfie taken with the Pixel 4 XL was pretty spot-on in terms of exposure and dynamic range. We could see the clouds in the sky with the background nicely exposed. But upon closer examination, the image looked softer than the selfies shot with the P30 Pro and Nex 3.

The selfies shot with the P30 Pro and Nex 3 were really close to each other in terms of dynamic range and sharpness. But in the end, the Nex 3 (above) won, with the sky and clouds correctly exposed and spot-on skin tones. The P30 Pro's selfie was just a little duller.


PORTRAIT: APPLE IPHONE 11 PRO MAX

This portrait test was quite tricky, as it was shot at night with different light sources in various colours. But all of the smartphones in the test showed their mettle and did quite well.

The first to be eliminated was the portrait by Nex 3. The subject's hair details were lost and the bokeh effect was not very evident.

On the other hand, the Note10+ managed to keep the details on the subject's hair and offer a nice bokeh effect. But the overall portrait was rather flat without much contrast.

The Pixel 4 XL's portrait had a natural-looking bokeh effect, with spot-on exposure and skin tone of the subject. It was just a pity some details on the subject's hair were lost, which was why it dropped out of contention.

So, it was between P30 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. The portraits shot with both were very sharp and had nice details and a natural bokeh effect.

The P30 Pro's portrait had more contrast but its colours tended towards the yellowish side. The iPhone 11 Pro Max's portrait (above) was more accurate in terms of lighting and colours, but had more image noise.

After much deliberation, the iPhone 11 Pro Max came out the winner here with its accurate colours and lighting.


OVERALL WINNER: APPLE IPHONE 11 PRO MAX

To be fair, all five smartphones here take great pictures and you really cannot go wrong with any one of them.

The Samsung Galaxy Note10+ excels in landscape shots in the day, but its night mode can be better.

The Vivo Nex 3 is great for selfies, but does not fare so well in the other categories compared with the competition here. The Huawei P30 Pro produces great images in all our categories, but just lacks the wow factor.

The Google Pixel 4 XL is also excellent in all of our tests, especially the selfie test. But its night shot is surprisingly edged out by the one taken with Apple's new night mode.

Thus, the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max is the overall winner with its superb night mode and general versatility in most shooting conditions.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2019, with the headline 'Flagship smartphone camera shootout '. Print Edition | Subscribe