Which Smartphone Has the Best Camera?

Which Smartphone Has the Best Camera? We Pitted Them All Against Each Other to Find Out


December 18, 2017 Reviews By Photo by Hunter Kelley

You’re a smart consumer. Instead of buying the latest and greatest smartphone at the beginning of the summer, you waited. You waited to see what all the big boys — Samsung, Google and Apple — had to offer. And then you waited to see what all of the reviews had to say. If you’re on the pulse of the industry, however, you also know that despite all the hype, smartphones were anything but perfect in 2017.

Samsung’s new Galaxy smartphones have a dedicated button on their side for Bixby, its inept virtual assistant (The Verge‘s Vlad Savov called the button “structural bloatware”). The Google Pixel 2 XL had significant issues with “burn in” on its OLED display. The Essential Phone’s camera was so subpar that it forced the company to reduce the price by $200. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus were both sort of boring, looking identical to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. And the iPhone X was really expensive — and had issues with Face ID security, unresponsive screens in cold weather and a green line down the side-edge of its display. Smartly, after knowing all this, you continued to wait.

For you, and a lot of other people, picking a smartphone isn’t about those issues. It isn’t about the edge-to-edge display, size or processing power, either. It might not even be about the operating system, whether that’s Android or iOS. For you, whether or not you purchase a camera hinges entirely on the camera. The smartphone, after all, is the device that’s going capture your Instagram and Snapchat stories, take your next LinkedIn profile pics, and be your own Pensieve (for all you Harry Potter fans out there), portal of memories. And yes, it’s going to let you make and answer calls.

Smartphones haven’t antiquated the DSLR or mirrorless camera yet, but they’ve gotten good enough that many people forgo purchasing a separate device with a shutter button — you can take photos with your smartphone and be proud to show them off. That said, not all smartphone cameras are the same. It’s easy to have a spec-off and say “this smartphone” has a better camera than “that one” — but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. More megapixels doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality, for example, and different smartphone cameras have unique strengths and weaknesses.

We took the four flagship smartphones with the highest-rated cameras by DxOMark, the industry standard for camera ratings, and put them in the hands of Gear Patrol’s own Design team. Hunter Kelly, Gear Patrol’s Photography Apprentice, took the four phones — iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy Note8 and Google Pixel 2 — around Manhattan to see how they shot different types of photos: portrait, low light, direct sunlight, motion, color vibrancy and dynamic range. After uploading and comparing all the photos, Kelly and Gear Patrol’s Deputy Photography Editor Henry Phillips discussed which smartphone performs best for a given situation. And maybe unsurprisingly, they don’t always agree.

The Contenders

iPhone X

What You Need to Know: The iPhone X, is the only iPhone to have optical image stabilizers on both its lenses to guard against camera shake; the iPhone 8 Plus and 7 Plus only have optical image stabilizers built into their wide-angle lens, not telephoto. Like the 8 Plus, the iPhone X has an upgraded camera sensor to capture “deeper” pixels. This enables both to utilize the new Portrait Lighting feature, as well as capture images with slightly more clarity and accuracy. The telephoto lens on the iPhone X is a little bit faster: f/2.8 versus the 8 Plus’s f/2.4. This is also the first iPhone to have its rear cameras oriented vertically.

Rear Camera: dual lens
Wide-angle: 12MP, f/1.8 aperture
Telephoto: 12MP, f/2.4 aperture
Zoom: Optical zoom; digital zoom up to 10x
Video: 4K video at up to 60 fps, slow motion at 240 fps in HD
Noteworthy features: Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, optical image stabilization in both lenses

DxOMark Score: 97

iPhone 8 Plus

What You Need to Know: In truth, the iPhone X and the iPhone 8 Plus (and even the iPhone 7 Plus) have fairly similar rear-facing camera systems. The iPhone 8 Plus and X both have the same sensor, which gets the most out of portrait mode (Portrait Lighting). The telephoto lens isn’t quite as fast on the iPhone 8 Plus, but other than the that the specs are nearly identical. When comparing photos of both, it’s important to remember that because the iPhone X’s OLED screen produces darker blacks and brighter colors, photos will likely look better on that display. For the most accurate comparison, view photos on a neutral device.

Rear Camera: dual lens
Wide-angle: 12MP, f/1.8 aperture
Telephoto: 12MP, f/2.4 aperture
Zoom: Optical zoom; digital zoom up to 10x
Video: 4K video at up to 60 fps, slow motion at 240 fps in HD
Noteworthy features: Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, optical image stabilization in wide-angle only

DxOMark Score: 94

Samsung Galaxy Note8

What You Need to Know: The Note8 is the first Galaxy device to have a dual-camera system. It has a 12MP telephoto and 12MP wide-angle lens, both of which have built-in optical image stabilizers. The camera has a Live Focus mode that allows you to customize the amount of background blur each portrait photo has. The camera also has a Dual Capture feature that enables both lenses to take photos at the same time, giving you two different perspectives of the same shot. It also has 10x digital zoom.

Rear Camera: dual lens
Wide-angle: 12MP, f/1.7 aperture
Telephoto: 12MP, f/2.4 aperture
Zoom: Optical zoom at 2X; digital zoom up to 10X
Video: 4K video at 30 fps, slow motion for 720p at 240 fps
Noteworthy features: Live Focus mode (for portraits), optical image stabilization in both lenses, Dual Capture (enables both lenses to take photos at the same time)

DxOMark Score: 94

Google Pixel 2

What You Need to Know: The Google Pixel 2 has the exact same camera system as the Pixel 2 XL, so you don’t need to worry about bigger being better like with the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. It’s the only single-lens camera system on this list, but it’s able to maybe be the best camera of them all by using dual-pixel technology. Essentially, this divides standard pixels into two, which Google says makes autofocus faster, and, with the aid of machine learning algorithms that sense depth, helps the camera blur background and shoot accurate portraits. This lack of an additional lens means the Pixel can only digitally zoom. However, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL have the highest rating that DxO has given to a smartphone: 98.

Rear Camera: single lens
Lens: 12.2MP, f/1.8 aperture
Zoom: 2x digital zoom
Video: 4K video at 30fps, 720p video at up to 240fps
Noteworthy features: dual-pixel system, optical image stabilization

DxOMark Score: 98

The Test

Portraits

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

Hunter Kelley, Photography Apprentice (HK): My vision here was to have a standard portrait taken against a busy New York background, and then see which phone was able to render an image as close to what a DSLR and a fast lens would. I was really intrigued by the bokeh generated by the lights behind Tucker, notably in the Note8 and both iPhones. But for me, I think the Pixel 2 has the cleanest blur, with a clean cut that isolates him well.

Henry Phillips, Deputy Photography Editor (HP): The Pixel 2 presents really beautiful, even tones and avoids an overly blurred background. The blurring around Tucker’s hair and shoulders looks a bit artificial at times, but overall it’s really impressive from a single-lens camera system. Of all the cameras, the Note 8’s blur is the prettiest. Big, circular out-of-focus highlights and colorful details. Unfortunately, the cutout of Tucker is really sloppy, with jagged edges all over the place. The iPhone X got kind of a raw deal with that passing taxi, but (unsurprisingly) otherwise it is about the same as the 8 Plus — though strangely the Plus seems to have isolated Tucker better. Overall, for general clarity and really impressive subject isolation, the Pixel 2 gets my vote. Not what I was expecting.

Winner: Pixel 2

Motion Photos

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

HK: When I normally take motion photos, I’m equipped with a fast DSLR and telephoto lens, and I’m shooting high-end sports cars on a race track. But not this time. This shot, of bikes, was pretty simple — and I found it interesting how all these cameras were able to capture good shadows and preserve highlights at fast enough of a shutter speed to capture the motion of the bicycles. If I had to pick the best image it would be from the iPhone X, but all were very similar.

HP: Not too much to say here, most of the cameras seemed to catch the cyclist pretty well and burst rates are definitely not low in any of these. As the non-shooter, the only thing that catches my eye is some weird artifacts in the cyclist’s face on the Pixel. If only for general sharpness, I’m giving my vote to the iPhone X.

Winner: iPhone X

Color Vibrancy

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

HK: I used this location as a test for vibrancy, mainly because of the nice backlighting from the sun near the Flatiron building. I was hoping that these phones would be able to capture the lighting filling the yellow leaves, yet be exposed well enough to preserve the saturation of all the stunning colors. I’m going to have to go with one of the Apple phones as reigning champ here — probably the iPhone X again. I love the colors it produced.

HP: Vibrancy is definitely not the Pixel’s strong suit, though if you’re a post-processing maniac that’s not too big of a deal. The Note8 seems to take slightly brighter photos than the iPhones and I think that contributes to a greater sense of vibrancy on smaller screens. The iPhone X and 8 Plus both produced lovely looking photos, but looking at them in a smaller format (Instagram, etc.), the Samsung edges this one out.

Winner: Galaxy Note8 and iPhone X (tie)

Low Light Photos

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

HK: I would’ve preferred to shoot in something like a nightclub or at a candle-lit dinner, but what better way to test low light shooting during midday than underground? I exposed for the light on the opposite platform so that the camera wouldn’t just silhouette the pillars in front of me. Surprisingly, most phones kept a fair amount of shadow detail and managed to even pick up the glimmer of the metal rails. I’m a fan of the Pixel 2’s white balance here, being a bit bluer and truer than the other phones. It also preserved highlights in the lobby and little shop to the right. The Samsung has better shadow detail but at the expense of an odd flare. I want to say I like the image from the Pixel 2 most. Maybe if I tweaked more of the settings it would have had better results.

HP: This was a cool test. The dynamic range (the range of dark to light tones they can produce) of all these cameras is really impressive and there isn’t really any camera noise to speak of. Of course, this is due in large part to a ton of software noise reduction, but in previous generation cameras that would produce these awful smudgy, blurry messes that made subject’s faces look like that Jesus repaint.

The Pixel is really impressive here. It maintained the most highlight detail of any of them and while the blacks are dangerously close to falling off, they’re still mostly there. That being said, the Note 8’s low light performance is bonkers. The amount of detail it was able to draw out from the near-posts without any aggressive noise reduction or highlight loss is super impressive. The iPhones —- noble statesmen that they are —- found the middle ground, producing a detail-rich, contrasty image that doesn’t venture too far toward the extremes. Honestly, the real winner here is the consumer — these are all so much better than even a couple years ago. But if I had to give one the award, it’d be the Note8.

Winner: Galaxy Note8 and Pixel 2 (tie)

Direct Sunlight

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

HK: This was a simple test. I went to the west side of Manhattan, got as close to the Hudson River as possible, and shot directly into the sun. Although the sun was facing me, the images aren’t as washed out as expected. Most of the images were a bit muddy, yes, but I was impressed at how the buildings were still relatively lit and detailed. This, however, was where I discovered how the iPhone X has worse flaring issues than its less-cared-about sibling. I’m giving this one to iPhone 8 Plus.

HP: Not too much to report here, all phones handled the big solar highlight really well. Notably though, the iPhone X has that really strong flare in the lower left, but otherwise managed the sun the most while the Pixel flared like crazy (though not necessarily in an unpleasant way). The Note8 didn’t flare too much, but there was a pretty strong color shift and desaturation effect. Since we’re talking cleanest image, iPhone 8 Plus takes this one home.

Winner: iPhone 8 Plus

Depth Effect

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

HK: These cameras have really nice depth effect for taking photos, but once you point the camera at something other than a human, that’s where it starts to fall apart — especially with glass or shiny objects. I’d say that both Apple phones failed miserably, notably in the brake lever and mirror stem. Their blur effect reminds me of a blind man’s masking job done in photoshop with the blur tool. The Note8 and Pixel 2 did very well, and for me, the Pixel 2 wins — the blur is nice and the image is way sharper than what the Note8 rendered.

HP: Similar but arguably way harder to pull off than the portrait mode, the depth effect really strains the algorithmic rendering of these cameras. It’s not too surprising that the Pixel 2 struggled with this since it’s the only phone to rely on a single-camera solution. The Pixel 2 randomly un-blurred part of the near-most brake lever and failed to blur some of the back windshields — but performed pretty admirably. The Note8 did surprisingly well in this test, blurring in just about all the right places except for a couple small misses around the rearview mirror. The most surprising result was the iPhones. Most of me wants to think that this is because they don’t actually have a general “depth effect” mode — just one optimized for portraits — but the results here are largely trash city. The blur is beautiful and creamy but the mirror and windshield are so poorly isolated that it doesn’t really matter. The X is closer than the 8 Plus and if they got a dedicated mode for non-human shooting I think they could be near the top. But for now, the Note8 has this one wrapped up.

Winner: Galaxy Note8 and Pixel 2 (tie)

Dynamic Range

Google Pixel 2
Samsung Galaxy Note8
Apple iPhone X
Apple iPhone 8 Plus

HK: This test was similar to the vibrancy test in Madison Square Park, but this time I took the photos from behind a tree. I was curious to see how well the highlights in the sky could be rendered, as well as the tree shadows casting on the boardwalk. The Pixel 2 did a great job of preserving both, but that flare is tremendous and takes away from the composition. The Note8’s image looks too blown out, especially in the sky to the right of the Freedom Tower. Both iPhones have almost identical images, albeit the signature flare from the iPhone X in the lower left corner. So, for me, it has to be the iPhone 8 Plus that’s the winner here — but only because the flare of the Pixel 2 ruined what would have otherwise been the result I was aiming for.

HP: This is where the Pixel’s lack of contrast really becomes a good thing. If you can get past that goofy sun flare, the detail in both the highlights (sky) and shadows (trees) is all there. You’ll need to to do some post-processing to make it shine, but the fact that it has all that data is pretty stunning. The Note8 looks great (part of me thinks that’s just a white balance thing), but all that contrast out of the camera means it has lost a ton of highlights. Both the iPhones fared really well, but I guess we’ve landed on a surprising revelation about the iPhone X: it has a really serious tendency to flare where the iPhone 8 Plus doesn’t. Ergo: one point for the bigger guy from Cupertino.

Winner: iPhone 8 Plus

What Have We Learned?

The reality is that all of these smartphones have excellent camera systems. And not counting their front cameras, which we didn’t test, each of these smartphones brings something a little different to the table. If you tend to take a lot of photos of people, the Google Pixel 2 is probably your best option. Its background blur was the most accurate and looked the best. Even though its the only smartphone on this list with a single-lens system, Google clearly knows what it’s doing with its algorithms.

Both iPhones performed admirably, with the iPhone X capturing excellent colors. It’s also the best at motion photos, which we could have predicted because of its dual optically stabilized lenses. The iPhone 8 Plus, slightly surprisingly, demonstrated a much greater resistance to lens flare than the X (good for most people, bad for JJ Abrams). Both iPhones, though produced bright photos that are great if you want to post directly to Instagram, no filters needed.

If there was an overall winner in this camera shootout, however, we’d hand it to the Samsung Galaxy Note8. It was the best all-around performer, excelling in low-light, color reproduction and just shooting everyday objects. Its photos were beautiful (and a bit of a surprise).

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