2020 has produced a number of great smartphones, many of which boast very good camera packages too. We’ve grabbed some of our favorite camera phones released over the past 12 months and put them through their paces to figure out which comes out on top. For today’s shootout, we’re comparing the Apple iPhone 12 Pro, the Google Pixel 5, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, and the Sony Xperia 1 II.
To be clear, this isn’t a definitive list of great phones for photography that you can buy right now, nor are these the only top-tier camera phones released in 2020. For example, the excellent Oppo Find X2 Pro also ranks as one of our favorite 2020 camera phones, as do some of the higher-end but not exactly mass-market handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Instead, we’re focusing on five of the most popular leading camera phones that many consumers may still be considering buying as 2020 draws to a close.
If you want to examine the results in closer detail yourself, you can find the full-res shots in this Google Drive folder.
|Apple iPhone 12 Pro||Google Pixel 5||Huawei Mate 40 Pro||Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus||Sony Xperia 1 II|
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
|50 megapixels (12.5MP binned)|
Omnidirectional PDAF, RYYB
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
Dual Pixel PDAF
|2x telephoto zoom|
Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
|5x periscope zoom|
PDAF, OIS, RYYB
|3x hybrid zoom|
64 megapixels (16MP binned)
|3x optical zoom|
|Depth (time-of-flight 3D LiDAR)||Depth (time-of-flight)||Depth (time-of-flight)|
Color balance and exposure
We’ll start with the quintessential aspects of any good picture. Color, exposure, and white balance.
The first shot selections showcase colors and exposures with plenty of outdoor and indoor light. All five phones take perfectly good-looking pictures that are more alike than they are different. That being said, there are some subtle differences that we can pick out even from these very similar images.
Photography terms explained: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and more
Sony’s Xperia 1 II, for instance, slightly underexposes indoors and has deeper shadows than its rivals. It’s also a fraction too warm in our indoor lit shot but is much more realistic outdoors. In the same plant pic, Huawei’s Mate 40 Pro tints the entire scene a little too green based on the subject, but it does very well indoors. Samsung’s outdoor color pallet is the liveliest, but there’s a little black crush in the indoor shot.
The second batch of images tells us a little more about how each phone approaches color processing and exposure. For starters, we can clearly see that the iPhone 12 Pro leans towards a brighter exposure, at the expense of color saturation. It’s a very pleasing look, but not entirely accurate for these dynamic scenes. The church picture is better, but the purple halos around the foreground fur tree are a nasty blemish from either the lens or demosaic algorithm.
The Sony Xperia 1 II is similarly bright in the woodland picture. However, it is more realistic than the iPhone 12 in terms of shadow depth. This approach doesn’t work so well in the church picture, which is more washed out than its rivals. Samsung and Google opt for darker shadows, which is correct for the afternoon time of day. The Pixel 5’s color balance and brown tones are pretty much spot on in the woodland shot. The Galaxy S20 Plus overpumps the colors, particularly the greens, which appears very unrealistic for these winter scenes.
Huawei’s Mate 40 Pro sits between the two groups. It’s a little too saturated in the woodland picture but nails the correct exposure. It’s the best of the bunch when it comes to the church picture, with a clearly superior dynamic range.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Prefers a brighter exposure to give images added pop. Reasonably accurate overall but colors and dynamic range can be a little flat.
Google Pixel 5: Tends to produce deeper blacks than its rivals. Very accurate colors and solid white balance.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Best dynamic range and most flexible exposure. Sometimes a little too heavy on colors and white balance processing.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Oversaturated colors and shadow contrast is sometimes a tad dark. Otherwise very good white balance.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Generally accurate colors and good white point outdoors. Tends to underexpose images in darker environments.
Cropping in on details
To take a closer look at detail capture from the main sensor, I’ve 100% cropped into images in a mix of bright, overcast, and low light scenarios.
In excellent lighting conditions, there’s not a lot to tell between any of these camera phones. A very close examination of these 100% crops reveals very little discernable difference between the Huawei Mate 40 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro, and the Galaxy S20 Plus. All three are very detailed. The Xperia 1 II is also very good but just a little less clean.
The Google Pixel 5 is definitely the noisiest of the five, even in bright light. There’s detail smudging on the woodwork and hints of noise cleanup along the brickwork too. Nevertheless, it’s still a very good picture. You can only notice these blemishes on very close inspection.
Moving to the overcast scenario sees some more noticeable differences in detail and noise. The Sony Xperia 1 II clearly struggles a little in this scene, with noticeable smudging of fine details on the leaves. Still, Sony refrains from heavy processing at least, and the full-frame image is more than passable.
Google’s Pixel 5 again suffers from more grain than the others, such as along the stone paving and the plant pot. The presentation is a bit rough, but the smaller image sensor still punches above its weight.
So it’s down to Apple, Huawei, and Samsung in this shot. It’s a bit of a toss-up that boils down to your preferences for processing.
Samsung relies on a heavy processing pass here. There is notable oversharpening on the tree branches. However, the overall foreground detail holds up very well. Apple’s iPhone also shows some signs of sharpening with harsh highlights, but the black crush is worse. It masks the details in the shadows. This leaves the Huawei Mate 40 Pro, which is softer, relying less on sharpening, and still offering up good dynamic range. I think Huawei comes out on top, but only just.
The last shot is in much lower light to really test the light capture limits of these image sensors. Although long exposures and night modes kicked in to help out some handsets. Sony slips into the last place here, with a soft and rather unfocused image that’s light on detail. Google’s handset also struggles, with a darker exposure and large amounts of noise.
Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro is quite noisy in low light too, but it retains sharper details than the Mate 40 Pro. Huawei’s flagship is a little too reliant on denoise here, but a few may prefer it to Apple’s grainier look. I personally prefer Apple’s more hands-off approach.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus is a little heavy on the sharpening. However, it provides the best balance of noise and detail in this difficult low light shot. This night mode kicked in to capture all the little scratches and dents on this coaster, making it my top pick for detail here. Overall though, the phones from Apple, Huawei, and Samsung take quite detailed pictures even in low light scenarios.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Good to great detail in bright light with reasonable processing. Much noisier in low light but retains good detail.
Google Pixel 5: The older, smaller image sensor is noisy even in bright light and only becomes worse in the dark.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Excellent detail in moderate to good lighting, with minimal processing. Denoise is heavier in low light, reducing detail capture.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Great details in daylight, but with higher amounts of processing with decreasing light levels. Night mode helps out a lot.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Decent details in bright light, which worsens in overcast scenarios. Detail capture really struggles in low light, owing to long exposures.
HDR is a true test of any camera’s processing capabilities, so we’ve picked out a few shots with strong backlights to put these phones through their paces.
These outdoor HDR images are mostly a continuation of themes we’ve seen before. Google’s algorithm obtains the deepest blacks — a generally realistic approach to color and white balance. Nevertheless, the Pixel 5’s results above are too dark and dull for my tastes. Sony’s first HDR image is quite realistic for a crisp winter’s afternoon. The handset does a very good job of reducing the sun bloom and extracting details from the foreground and background shadows. A pinch more color and this could be an excellent photo. The same can’t be said for the second example, which is overexposed and struggles to reign in the bright background.
The iPhone is familiarly bright, with an extra splash of color that helps the images pop. However, the HDR effect isn’t the most powerful. The shadows are a tad too dark in the first and highlights are heavily clipped in the second sample. Huawei pushes colors similar to the iPhone but prefers red hues over pumping up the greens. The dynamic range is even more impressive, with a better balance of shadow details and less clipping in the highlights. However, Huawei’s lens suffers from a bit more flare than Apple’s. So again, pros and cons.
Samsung pumps the color even further but its samples are too heavily saturated for my tastes. Even so, the Galaxy S20 Plus offers a very strong HDR effect that almost rivals Huawei’s shadow depth and limited highlight clipping. Yet, there is some noticeable lens flare here too.
Moving to indoor, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro clearly comes into its own. It’s the only phone that captures any blue sky through the bright window while also retaining the Switch logo in the foreground shadow. The Xperia 1 II earns second place, limiting the bloom from the window and exposing a few branches. Samsung isn’t far behind in third.
Meanwhile the iPhone 12 Pro and Pixel 5 make little attempt to correct for the bright background. Both offer good colors, as we’d expect in such a bright scene, and the iPhone 12 offers up the brighter exposure. Overall it’s a bit of a bad outing for Google, who pioneered advanced HDR technologies with the original Pixel.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Pumps up the colors and brightness for vivid HDR shots. Solid HDR technology but not the best balance of shadows and highlights.
Google Pixel 5: Decent HDR, but has minor issues with underexposure and dull colors compared with its competitors.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Provides the best HDR balance for highlights and shadows out of the five. Colors are also nice and vibrant without going overboard.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Powerful HDR technology to reign in clipping. Oversaturated colors and very heavy contrast.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Hit and miss HDR that can be great but equally struggles with exposure. Colors err on the side of realism but could use a little more pump.
Bokeh and portraits
Before diving into some actual portraits, let’s take a quick look at the accuracy and quality of the bokeh blur offered by these five flagships. What we’re looking for is solid edge detection and a naturally rolling blur from the foreground into the background.
Starting with the iPhone 12 Pro, it’s solid. The first shot targets a very wide aperture, with some blur creeping into the foreground and a strong background effect. The Huawei Mate 40 Pro and Xperia 1 II target a narrower aperture for a weaker blur but offer more natural-looking roll-offs into the background as a result. Although Huawei’s phone struggles a bit with the top of the skull.
Samsung has a slightly more noticeable start-stop to its blur, which can be spotted on the right of the chessboard. The quality of its blur is also not quite as nice as the others, but edge detection is very good. The Pixel 5 has a similar issue with a very jarring line where blur is applied. Nevertheless, the Pixel 5’s bokeh looks a little nicer than Samsung’s.
Edge detection is more hit and miss once we throw untamed hair into the mix. The Pixel 5 and Xperia 1 II struggle the most here, but all five have their blemishes. I’m not quite happy with the Mate 40 Pro’s blur to the right of my face either. So, we’ll give the iPhone and Galaxy handsets a couple of early points.
Turning to skin color and texture, all phones hand in a decent-looking result. Although the Mate 40 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro, and Galaxy S20 Plus look the best and most natural. Samsung is a little cooler than the other two, but that’s not a bad fit for this cold day. The Pixel 5’s skin tone is a little dark, but it’s the level of noise and roughness to the skin and hair textures looks much less natural. Sony’s skin tone is good, but texture details are lacking in the hair and eyebrows. This is likely because the phone is stuck with a wider field of view for portraits.
Moving to an indoor portrait with less natural lighting reveals bigger differences. The Galaxy S20 Plus handles this scene pretty poorly, underexposing the face to balance out the background. The cool tint also remains under this warm light, and there’s a distinct lack of detail. The Pixel 5 also fairs less well indoors, with an underwhelming dark portrait and too much noise. It’s a shame because the shot is otherwise well balanced. Sony’s exposure is much brighter, which is fine for portraits, but it also struggles to capture much meaningful detail in this more harshly lit scenario.
The iPhone 12 Pro fairs much better, with solid bokeh blur, reasonable details, and nice colors. The background highlights are a little bright and the face texture too orange even for the warm scene lights, but it’s a solid effort. Yet, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro is by far the winner in this last shot. It’s the only phone with sufficient HDR prowess to tackle the backlight and foreground exposure. Bokeh is nice and soft with only minor errors, while details and skin tone remain spot on.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Very good edge detection and nice-looking bokeh blur. Solid details and skin tones both indoor and outdoor.
Google Pixel 5: Noisy and harsh details detract from otherwise good skin tones. Bokeh blur edge detection is so-so and lacks a natural roll-off. Portraits are a little dark.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Good edge detection and very natural looking bokeh. Top of the class for skin tones, exposure, and details with indoor lighting.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Very good edge detection and but a lower quality blur. Good portraits outdoors but much poorer results with indoor lighting and tough backlighting.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Wide field of view means portrait details aren’t the best. Bokeh blur looks great but can struggle with complex edges. Prefers a brighter exposure and offers good skin tone outdoors.
All of our test handsets today feature dedicated wide-angle lenses. The iPhone 12 Pro and Galaxy S20 Plus offer the widest field of view, followed by the Xperia 1 II, Google Pixel 5, and the Huawei Mate 40 Pro. The latter also takes pictures in a 16:9 aspect ratio, unlike the familiar 4:3.
We’re going to kickstart our look at wide-angle lenses with a new type of shot. It will help us easily pick out lens and perspective distortion. Keep an eye on those straight lines as they approach the corners.
For example, the very wide lenses on the iPhone and Galaxy handset warp and lengthen the appearance of the chess pieces. These handsets do a reasonable job at correcting for lens distortion but we spot noticeable curvature at the lens edges. It’s less of an issue for the Galaxy model. Either way, these are fair and expected trade-offs for such a wide field of view.
The Pixel 5 and Xperia 1 II have slightly narrower lenses and less obvious distortion as a result. The Pixel 5 has some odd perspective changes on the bottom left side, which looks like an over-correction error. Likewise for the Mate 40 Pro, as straight lines warp and wobble a little too much as we approach the corners. Sony’s lens correction looks a little cleaner, but there’s still some expected curvature, particularly in the bottom left corner.
When it comes to complex scenes, this distortion is a little harder to notice. It remains most obvious on the wider lenses used by Apple and to a lesser extent Samsung. The Huawei Mate 40 Pro is definitely the best wide-angle lens for detail. Comparatively, the other phones look more heavily processed when cropping in. Nevertheless, this is less important for wide-angle shots unless you’re planning to blow these images up.
Wide-angle exposure is good across all five phones and colors closely follow the same processing as their main sensors. The Pixel 5 again aims for deeper shadows and a more conservative realistic color pallet, much like the Sony Xperia 1 II. Yet, the former suffers from some chromatic aberration (purple halos in the highlights) in our shots. So does Huawei’s lens but to a lesser extent. The iPhone 12 Pro is again brighter than its rivals, but with limited dynamic range and a cooler white balance. The mud should look brown not blue. Samsung and Huawei offer the widest saturation and most vivid HDR with their wide-angle lenses.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Noticeable quality deterioration at the lens edges, but it’s acceptable given the very wide field of view. Has a cool color pallet, just like the main sensor.
Google Pixel 5: Notable lens distortion and haloing against bright backlights. Quite a noisy sensor, but realistic colors and good HDR capabilities.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Best in class detail. More saturated colors than the main sensor. Narrowest field of view out of the group.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Very wide field of view with very good distortion correction. Good dynamic range but overly saturated colors.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Very close exposure and color mapping with the main sensor. Minimal lens distortion with realistic colors, but again exposure isn’t perfect.
With each camera boasting different optical zoom points and technologies, these handsets have a sweet spot for taking long-range pictures. To avoid any preference, our first couple of shots were pre-picked at 2x for a reasonably common shot range zoom and 5x as a typical longer-range requirement.
Camera zoom explained: How optical, digital, and hybrid zoom work
At full-frame, there’s not a lot in it between any of these five phones at 2x in good lighting. Details, color, and exposure are all good and follow the themes we’ve discussed earlier for each phone. Even software zooms are quite good at this short crop-in. There are more noticeable differences at 5x, where the Apple iPhone 12 Pro and particularly the Google Pixel 5 take on a much more processed look. It’s quite clear that the lack of a telephoto camera hinders the Pixel 5 the most at longer range.
But when it comes to the other three, which all incidentally boast longer range telephoto lenses, it’s tough to make out too many major differences even at 5x in good daylight, especially on small phone screens. The most noticeable differences are in color and exposure rather than detail. To really test these zoom cameras, let’s turn to 100% crops in some pretty unforgiving overcast conditions.
At short distances up to 4x, harsher conditions take their toll on phones dependent on software zoom. The Pixel 5 and Xperia 1 II struggle with fine details at 2x, although the Xperia 1 II performs much better once its 3x telephoto lens kicks in. It holds up well at 4x too. The iPhone’s 2x telephoto lens hangs in there up to 4x before taking a more notable dive in quality.
The Galaxy S20 Plus handles its exposure better than the competition at 2x and 3x in this scene. Compared with the Mate 40 Pro, the two are a very close match for detail. The Samsung ekes out a small advantage at 2x, however. This intermediate zoom range was a previous weak spot for Huawei phones, which rely on hybrid zoom to fill in the gap between the 1x and 5x lenses. The Mate 40 Pro has made major improvements here, capturing much more detail from its software solution than the P40 Pro. By the time we reach 4x, Huawei clearly pulls out in front. Sony’s camera is not far behind either. Although ensuring you’re using the best lens remains a software bugbear.
Over short distances, Huawei, Samsung, and to a lesser extent Apple and Sony, all have you pretty well covered. Especially in decent lighting. However, at 5x and beyond this truly is a one-horse race. Despite a bit of an exposure issue in this overcast scene, the Mate 40 Pro’s 5x periscope camera delivers unrivaled detail at long range. Samsung deserves a nod here too, as its camera technology holds up better than the rest at 5x and 6x in these unforgiving conditions.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Decent zoom performance in bright light but struggles in less than ideal conditions. 2x telephoto hardware can’t keep up with other solutions at longer zooms.
Google Pixel 5: OK short-range zoom in perfect conditions, but Google’s software-based zoom fails to keep pace at long ranges and in low-light environments. Worst of the bunch.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Not perfect in terms of exposure, but offers excellent detail at short ranges via hybrid zoom and unrivaled quality beyond 5x.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Very good hardware/software hybrid zoom that holds up well to 4x. Performs very well at a short range even in harsh conditions.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Software zoom at 2x falls short in low light, but the telephoto lens does well at 3x and 4x. Long-range zoom quality holds up even better in good lighting.
Low light and night mode
To kickstart our night shot scenarios, let’s return to one of our first image samples to see how limited light affects colors and dynamic range. We’ve also compared the results with night modes enabled and disabled. Or in Sony’s case, switched to pro mode to disable the long exposure.
As you’d expect, low light results in worse color capture than good lighting but multi-exposure night modes help out significantly. Interestingly, Huawei’s RYYB sensor setup takes great pictures without the need for Night Mode. In fact, Huawei’s long exposure Night Mode often lacks detail and takes on an unsightly yellow tint compared to a quick snap.
The level of software enhancement seen in the iPhone is also somewhat surprising. Its single shot dark image is very dim and washed out compared to even the much older Pixel 5. All these phones look pretty decent with night modes enabled, especially given how dark the scene is. However, Sony’s solution is the weakest in terms of exposure and colors.
Moving to a more realistic low light scene, we see similar trends from our earlier HDR comparison come back into play. The Xperia 1 II struggles with highlights and is too soft in this image. The Apple iPhone 12 handles details and highlights better, but the light source is quite heavily clipped. The Google Pixel 5 handles highlight exposure better, as you can make out the candles. You really have to crop into the details to see where the Pixel falls down here.
This leaves the Huawei Mate 40 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus as the best two shots. While Huawei’s camera collects a splash more color and a brighter exposure, the slightly purple hue in the shadows is off. The Galaxy S20 Plus does just as good of a job at balancing highlights and shadows. Additionally, it maintains a realistic color balance and excellent details. It’s a toss-up, but I think the Samsung is more true to life.
A second low light shot, this time outdoors, reveals a similar pecking order. While all five cameras handle the scene reasonably well, Sony’s low light capabilities again fall into last place. Both it and the Pixel 5 also offer a white balance that’s a little too cool for this scene. The lights should be warmer rather than white. The other four offer good colors and details at full-frame, but cropping in on the highlights again reveals the strengths of Huawei’s and Samsung’s dynamic range in the dark.
While the Pixel’s full-frame shot is very good, the crop shows that the camera doesn’t quite capture the vivid colors and details around the scene’s highlights so well. The iPhone 12 Pro does a little better, but it still clips and doesn’t capture as much detail in the dark shadows either. The Huawei Mate 40 Pro and Galaxy S20 Plus capture these small lights in full color, with minimal clipping, and still pull out details from the dark background too. Samsung’s shot is a little noisier and relies on heavier processing, but it does offer up a bit more color. Overall though, Huawei takes the gold medal for this scene.
Generally, all five cameras take better low-light shots than most, but there are two clear winners here. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus and Huawei Mate 40 Pro are the best low light shooters of the bunch.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Very good low light performance, with strong colors and detail. Comes off slightly worse than its rivals when it comes to dynamic range and noise.
Google Pixel 5: Excellent dynamic range capture in low light. However, it’s notably noisier and often darker than the other four. Still very good, but not the best.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Great low light shots that don’t rely on a slow Night mode. Top-notch colors, details, and dynamic range in the dark.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: Exceptionally powerful night mode that produces excellent colors, white balance, dynamic range, and detail in the dark.
Sony Xperia 1 II: Lacks enough exposure for vivid low light shots. Has a notably worse dynamic range than its competitors.
2020 smartphone mega shootout: The verdict
Each of these camera packages has its pros and cons, but I think that two phones are definitely weaker than the others. The Google Pixel 5 and Sony Xperia 1 II are some ways behind the competition this year.
Sony’s Xperia 1 II is just too inconsistent to make the cut. While it can produce very realistic shots, you’re forever fighting its exposure problems. It’s also not a very good camera in the dark. Patient photography enthusiasts may get a little more out of the phone’s pro software options, but I still think the phone is hamstrung by fundamental issues with light capture and the lack of multi-exposure night shooting.
Google’s Pixel 5 is a cheaper handset than the rest, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge it too harshly. It still takes some great looking pictures, after all, and is perhaps more consistent than the Xperia. Even so, the small sensor is showing its age. The lack of telephoto zoom also hinders its flexibility, and Google’s excellent software can’t close the gap. Even HDR, Night, and portrait processing, three of Google’s historical accolades, have been surpassed by its rivals.
Each of these camera packages has its pros and cons, but only one ranks consistently near the top.
Handing out medals to the other three boils down to some level of preference. All three provide excellent details, colors, and exposure when shooting in a wide variety of scenarios. They won’t disappoint most users.
Those who love wide-angle photography will want to pick between the iPhone 12 Pro and the Galaxy S20 Plus. Personally, I still can’t get on with Samsung’s oversaturated color pallet, so I lean towards the iPhone 12 Pro and its solid portraits. However, Samsung’s flagship is more flexible, with a slight edge when it comes to image quality from its wide-angle and zoom lenses. It’s also marginally better in tricky HDR backlit shots, and the two are extremely close in low light too.
If you’re looking for the most consistent shooter overall, then it’s the Huawei Mate 40 Pro that comes out on top overall. The phone doesn’t always take the best photos, but it ranks consistently near the top of the pack. It excels at quick low night snaps, portraits, unrivaled zoom quality, and has by far the most powerful HDR implementation of the five. Excellent HDR means it seldom takes a bad picture. Of course, you’d have to sacrifice Google support if you’re planning to pick up Huawei’s flagship, which is a whole other discussion, but that doesn’t stop the Huawei Mate 40 Pro from claiming the title of our 2020 mega shootout champion.
But let’s hear from you. What do you think about the pictures produced by five of the best smartphone cameras you can buy in 2020?