If the camera isn’t the most important thing to consider before buying a smartphone, it’s certainly one of them. Anybody can go out and buy a really nice compact shooter, a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, but they all come with a learning curve, and you have to have them with you for them to be any use. A wise person once told me, “the best camera is the one that’s in your pocket,” and I think it’s true – it’s all about convenience.
The differences between a great smartphone camera and just a good one come down to way more than counting megapixels, examining its sensor, and breaking down lens size for aperture. Why? Because spec-wise each of the latest flagship smartphones by Apple, Google and Samsung are actually pretty identical. Plus, specs can only tell you so much.
Newer smartphones definitely have better camera systems thanks to a host of things: more advanced camera sensors, better optical image stabilization, wider apertures, faster focus and a ton of new features. This year, Apple, Google and Samsung all gave their smartphones new lenses, too. There have been lots of improvements under the hood, on the software side, where the technology continues to improve by leaps and bounds.
Ultimately, all the latest smartphones take very good but noticeably different photos. So a lot of it comes down to preference.
The Contenders: What You Should Know
We’ve set out to take the latest smartphones by Google, Samsung and Apple — meaning the iPhone 11 Pro, the Pixel 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S10 — to see how they performed taking some of the most popular types of photos. Specifically, this means portrait, low-light, wide-angle, zoom and selfie photos.
As mentioned before, 2019 has been the “year of the extra lens” when it comes to smartphone cameras. Apple and Samsung both gave their flagship smartphones a third, wide-angle lens while Google opted to give its new Pixel a dual-camera system (a first!) with a telephoto lens.
We took photos with each smartphone, from the same place, at basically the same time, and without using too many effects. And we wanted to be true to the average smartphone photographer, too – we’re not all Chris Burkard – so we didn’t shoot using any of these smartphone’s manual modes. We simply tapped to meter, zoomed-in when the test required it, and tapped the shutter button.
The verdicts are subjective, and you’re definitely able to determine winners and losers of your own, but we’ve added our two cents all the same.
iPhone 11 Pro: Unlike the other smartphones, the iPhone 11 Pro is able to take Portrait Mode photos with both its telephoto and normal lenses; this particular photo was taken with its telephoto lens as it better matches the depth of the other photos. The camera does a pretty good job with the background bokeh, although you can see the earring and part of the hat brim receding out of focus. The overall color of the photo makes it look more raw, untouched than the others.
Google Pixel 4: The thing that jumps immediately out with the Pixel 4’s Portrait Mode is the color. The tone of the skin is a little darker and a little more smooth. The problem is that the facial-recognition algorithm Google uses to create its portrait mode effect is also doing some funky stuff at second glance. The entire face is in a flat, uniform, somewhat uncanny focus instead of having a more natural gradient. The algorithm has also inexplicably put some of the background features (around the right ear) in focus as though they were part of the face.
Samsung Galaxy S10: The Galaxy S10 does a great job with some of the details, specifically around the jaw, neck and shoulders. The big thing that stands out to my eye, is the way the cheeks seems smoother, more uniform, resulting in some loss of detail. It just doesn’t look as crisp or detailed as the other photos.
Winner: iPhone 11 Pro.
iPhone 11 Pro: This is obviously the brightest of the three photos, but there’s more to success than just that. None of the actual objects on the shelves are super detailed (text is basically unreadable), and the brightness level is almost too extreme, like artificial daylight, rather than a more exposed nighttime photo.
Google Pixel 4: While not a particularly excellent photo, this looks like the most natural nighttime photo. It’s not overly lit and some of the details, particularly around the toy car and the other objects on that, look sharper.
Samsung Galaxy S10: This is the clearly the least effective low-light photo of the bunch. That said, the photo does do a good job showcasing how dark the room actually was!
Winner: Google Pixel 4.
None of the below photos have been focused, or tapped to meter.
iPhone 11 Pro: The level of this detail is pretty great, which you can specifically see with the many rows of windows on the building to the right, as well as in the tall tower of a building to the left (One Madison).
Google Pixel 4: The Pixel 4 is the obvious outlier in this wide-angle competition for the simple fact that it doesn’t have a dedicated wide-angle lens. While it’s a nice detailed photo, it simply can’t capture the same breadth as the other cameras.
Samsung Galaxy S10: The S10 takes a similar wide-angle photo to that of the iPhone 11 Pro. The image is close, but if we had to be supercritical, this photo just isn’t quite as sharp as the iPhone 11 Pro’s. You can look to the edges of the buildings to see the difference.
Winner: iPhone 11 Pro.
All photos were taken with max zoom, without the use of a tripod or gimbal.
iPhone 11 Pro: The iPhone 11 Pro’s 10x digital is able to get closer than the Pixel 4, but a ton of the detail is lost. It’s just not a very good photo.
Google Pixel 4: Google bet big on this on “zoom” lens this year while pretty much every other smartphone doubled down on the wide-angle lens. The Pixel 4 is the clear winner here, with the combination of its 2x optical zoom and super-res zoom technology, even if its max zoom doesn’t reach quite as close. The image is sharpest.
Samsung Galaxy S10: The Galaxy S10 has the same 10x digital zoom as the iPhone 11 Pro and, likewise, a lot of the details are lost. It’s slightly crisper than the iPhone 11 Pro’s photo, but only slightly.
Winner: Google Pixel 4.
Google Pixel 4: Of the three, the Pixel 4’s selfie looks the sharpest. The lines around our eyes and hair are fine and true, and the overall colors look natural and not smoothed over.
iPhone 11 Pro: The iPhone 11 Pro’s selfie is a close second. While the field of view is similar to the Pixel 4’s selfie, the overall images just isn’t quite as sharp.
Samsung Galaxy S10: Oddly, the Galaxy S10’s selfie was the only one that flipped the image. It also has the narrowest field of view and a lot of the coloring looks smoothed over.
Winner: Google Pixel 4.
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