This year saw the release of some of the best and most interesting smartphone cameras to date. Dual lenses have become the norm among high-end devices and camera software is giving users more power. But which is best?
The answer is very complicated, as this is a very subjective topic, but some devices are better at some things than others. We really pushed these sensors by taking shots that test for 10 different scenarios: color, detail, landscape, bokeh, HDR, panorama, selfies, low-light detail, low-light selfies and low-light exposure. Maybe you prioritize some of these shots over others. We analyzed identical photos from each phone, as well as 100% crops.
These smartphones are entering the battle:
- BlackBerry KEYone
- Google Pixel 2
- Huawei Mate 10 Pro
- LG V30
- Moto Z2 Force
- Nokia 8
- OnePlus 5T
- Razer Phone
- Samsung Galaxy Note 8
- Sony Xperia XZ1
colThe top smartphone is best overall photo taker, but it may not be the best at everything. With that in mind, let’s jump in.
Everyone loves bright colors, deep blacks, and all that jazz. When I came across this beautiful Harley I couldn’t resist. This was a tricky shot for most cameras, as the background is very bright, and we left HDR off. This meant the camera had to jump through some hoops to get the right coloring, exposure, contrast, and ISO.
Plenty of the images turned out too dark or too washed out. The Nokia 8, Razer Phone and BlackBerry KEYone dulled out the photo. Meanwhile, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro killed the photo with very dark shadows and little detail.
The clear winners were the OnePlus 5T, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8. These offered the best balance between bright colors, leveled exposure, and a balanced background, with plenty of detail to be shown. Now, let’s move on to the next one.
Things got a little more interesting here, as the image captured was very colorful. The sky in the background, which introduced blue hues, complicated things further. The first loser was the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, as it was the furthest from getting the right color for the Statue of Liberty. Then there were the Moto Z2 Force and OnePlus 5T which didn’t get the right exposure for the sky and urned out darker than they should have.
It was really a tough fight between the Google Pixel 2 and the Nokia 8. The two handsets managed to get the most leveled exposure, details in the writing, more exact green hues for the statue and details on the colors surrounding it.
The world-famous San Francisco clam chowder sure is a good meal, but does it make for a fancy shot? It has plenty of detail if you take a look at the bread and salted crackers.
For these shots I mostly analyzed the crackers and that little area on the top, between the crackers and the outer layer of this sourdough goodness. The air bubbles are also tricky for a camera to pick up, especially when there are software modifications involved.
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro and Sony Xperia XZ1 took out all the detail from the crackers and the bread. Meanwhile, the BlackBerry KEYone and the Google Pixel 2 did a great job, with more pronounced texture, all the way down to the grains of salt. The air bubbles in the bread are super clear too.
It’s hard to get detail with a lot going on in the frame, so we thought this was a good scene for our testing. The OnePlus 5T was our favorite. The color is accurate, and the image seems more evenly lit. The shops to the right are more clearly visible and the Fisherman’s Wharf sign shows plenty of detail. You can even catch the 3D effect of the sign’s writing, as well as a better look at the ropes and everything in the vicinity.
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro did nearly as well, but things got darker in the shopping area. The Razer Phone is another outstanding contender, and it would have probably gotten second place if not for the yellow tone and blown out sky.
The worst ones were probably the LG V30 and Sony Xperia XZ1. They are simply too dark and show signs of motion blur. I don’t have the steadiest hand ever, but it is the same one that took the other pictures!
We took all 10 phones to San Francisco, near Pier 39, where we managed to get a cool view of Alcatraz, a huge ship and mountains in the distance.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 came first with accurate colors, a clear sky, detailed water ripples, and a good view of Alcatraz when zoomed in. We feel it was the most balanced image, followed by the OnePlus 5T.
The only unacceptable photo was taken with the BlackBerry KEYone. The rest are all pretty good, but not close to the top three.
The Razer Phone handled this image best. It seems the gaming handset can take a good image from afar, with many factors coming into play and plenty of variables to measure. Its colors were the closest to real life. There is plenty of detail in the woods and houses by the tower, and the colors of the buildings on the front were both clear and well-exposed.
Meanwhile, devices like the Nokia 8 and the Google Pixel 2 over-shadowed the front to get a more clear image of the tower in the back. It was a tough one, as none of the phones really did an “amazing” job. Some of them at least gave it a good shot.
HDR is a process that traditionally involved a photographer taking multiple shots of the same frame at different exposure levels, in order to catch different details at variable light levels. While phone manufacturers have done a lot to automate the process, the truth is our smartphones just don’t seem intelligent enough to really get HDR right.
This feature should level out images with contrasting illumination. It could be good for taking a picture next to a very bright window, or one with the sun in the background, like this one.
To be honest, the only one I liked was the shot taken with the OnePlus 5T. Every other phone messed up in one way or another. The Sony Xperia XZ1 blew up the background, Huawei’s handset under-exposed the subject, and BlackBerry got the coloring all kinds of wrong.
And of course, we had to move on to the ‘window in the background’ example. If we are going to be honest, though, none of these quite convinced us. They all have some kind of issue; either the subjects are not exposed well, the background is not exposed well or the colors are way off. Not to mention the shadows in the plant tend to be horrendous in these images.
If we must choose, I would say Razer did the best job. Nothing is too overblown and though the subjects are darker than we would prefer, they are not in complete darkness. Nokia did a pretty good job too, it just happens to blow out the curtains, but it does actually offer more detail in the plant.
Bokeh (Portrait Mode)
The “blurry background” effect is officially called bokeh, and it is usually caused by wide aperture lenses with shallow depth of field. Smartphones don’t really have lenses able to create this effect naturally, but they can recreate it using software and distance tracking technology.
Essentially, phones use sensors and secondary cameras to determine what is in the background and what is in the foreground. Then the software decides what should be blurred out.
I am actually not a huge fan of this feature, but I’m a photo snob that’s found it easy tell artificial bokeh from the real deal. It doesn’t help that I haven’t actually seen a phone get it right, but I’ll stop ranting now and get to the test shots.
The photo taken by the Huawei Mate 10 Pro here looks horrendous. The Razer Phone did better, and it doesn’t even have a Portrait Mode!
The Google Pixel 2 is probably the only phone that did this relatively right. The image is well exposed, the color is accurate, and there are no abnormalities in the blurred out areas. Nothing seems out of place. The Nokia 8 did a pretty good job as well, even if the tone is a little warm (it was a dark and warm-looking place, after all).
Other phones softened the image too much and under-exposed or totally messed up the colors. Truer results will probably show up when there is more light to read, though. Let’s fast-forward to the next morning, when I had the chance to take portraits of yummy food.
My favorite photo was taken by the Google Pixel 2, but I actually think it is a little too overdone. The reason why I chose it as the best is because it is the overall best photo. It has great colors, a fair white balance and good detail. It is just a more striking image. My main gripe is that bokeh doesn’t line up well in the bread and knife area.
The Nokia 8 and OnePlus 5T offer a more realistic and less dramatic image. Bokeh is a little bit more natural, but not perfect. Meanwhile the BlackBerry KEYone continues messing things up, and the Razer Phone still doesn’t have this feature.
Panorama shots have yet to be perfected by manufacturers. This is because phones basically stitch a bunch of images together, which is no easy feat, even for a super intelligent computer like a smartphone. Let’s take a look at the results.
Wait, where did the 10th image go? Well, it turns out this is another feature that has yet to come to the Razer Phone, so it’s out of this contest.
The first thing I did was look for stitching problems and throw those phones to the bottom of the list. This is actually pretty sad, as the Pixel 2 and OnePlus 5T offered some of the best exposure and colors in the list.
After taking a close look at the rest of the images, we decided to crown the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the LG V30. The V30 has great details and exposure, but its blue tone brought it down to second place. With color correction it would be a better image.
Samsung stitched the image pretty well and it is a very well-balanced shot, with no weird discrepancies to be found.
A fancy study from FramesDirect.com claims millennials are all about their selfies, mentioning these youngsters spend about an hour a week just on vanity shots. Are you part of that statistic? If so, let’s take a selfie and find out which phone is perfect for you!
I happen to be a good subject for selfies, so I thought I would go ahead and show myself. A hairy face, tanned skin, and piercings make for a good camera test. This one was dominated by the Nokia 8. The selfie showed the right white balance, colors, and exposure. Take a look at the detail in the beard and you will be able to see every hair strand. I am not a fan of the skin smoothing, but it is not as bad as others.
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro, on the other hand, goes nuts with the editing. The Nokia 8 over-exposed the photo. The BlackBerry KEYone and the Moto Z2 Force show light elements. The other phones did a pretty good job, though. It turns out selfies are trickier than we thought!
Everybody knows that a “good camera” must pass the low-light test. In fact, this is where a sensor is truly put to the test. This one was a harsh battle between the Nokia 8, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and the Razer Phone. Each had its merits, but we believe the Nokia 8 to be the winner here, mostly due to accurate colors, a clear look at the liquid, crispy foam, and overall good dynamic range.
My second favorite image caem from the Razer Phone, which shows outstanding saturated colors and great detail in the 21st Amendment logo, as well as the overall pint.
This shot was likely the easiest for us to rate. It was just a matter of zooming in and choosing which one better captured the fur on our little Android buddy. The winners were the BlackBerry KEYone and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
The rest of the images are pretty similar, save for slight differences in color and exposure. Most are acceptable in those terms.
Taking some party pictures? It is sure to be dark, making a phone’s ability to correctly expose an image in low light imperative. This is no easy feat for a smartphone camera, probably making this one of the most important tests.
In this section we kept a closer eye on the balance between exposure and noise. Let’s dig right in and see the results.