If the camera isn’t the most important thing we consider before buying a smartphone, it’s certainly one of them. We live in a world dominated by “likes” and “comments,” but moreso than just that, most people just generally want to take better photos and videos. And to do that they need, other than a creative eye, a better camera. Of course, anybody can go out and buy a really nice compact shooter, a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, but none those cameras are exactly easy. 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.

That said, telling the differences between a great smartphone camera and just a good one comes 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. There’s also the fact that these specs can often be misleading. Having a high-megapixel sensor doesn’t necessarily mean the camera is going to take higher-resolution photos, for one, as the size of those specific pixels matters a lot; the larger the pixels the more light they can capture. This is why a 20-megapixel camera isn’t necessarily better than a 12-megapixel camera.

Diving a little deeper, if you were to compare the hardware over the last few generations of smartphones, you’d probably find that not that much has changed in regards to the cameras. The iPhone XS, iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus all have a 12-megapixel dual-camera system, for example, and the iPhone XS and the iPhone X actually have the same wide-angle (ƒ/1.8) and telephoto (ƒ/2.4) lenses. But the 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. And a lot of these things are improved by what goes under the hood, on the software side, where the technology has improved by leaps and bounds.

The most obvious example of smartphone photography improving thanks to software is the Google Pixel 3; with its single lens, it’s able to achieve as good (or better) photos and videos than most dual camera systems. But as software advancements relate to all the latest flagship smartphones, there’s high dynamic range (HDR). Each of the latest flagship smartphones utilizes this image processing technique to make their photos look unique, by adjusting things like contrast, lighting, color, temperature, sharpness and, ultimately, the detail of the photograph. The thing is that every smartphone camera’s HDR looks a little different, mainly because Apple’s, Google’s and Samsung’s ideas of what a “good photo” should look like are different. The latest iPhones generally make everything uniformly lit, while Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones generally look more saturated, while the Pixel 3’s photos generally have more true-to-life contrast.

Ultimately, all the latest smartphones take very good but noticeably different photos. So a lot of it comes down to preference. Which photos do you like better?

We’ve taken the latest flagships by Google, Samsung and Apple – meaning the Pixel 3, the Galaxy Note 9, and the iPhone XS – and took a lot of the same photos which each. We also added the iPhone XR to the mix because its camera system is not exactly the same as the iPhone XS. As everyone takes different types of photos, we set out to the four different smartphone cameras in a number of different categories: portraits, low-light, color, HDR, zoom, landscapes and selfies.

The Contenders

With the below photo comparisons, we tried to be as accurate to the competition as possible. This means that 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 focus, or zoomed-in in some cases, 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 XS

What You Need to Know: Even though the iPhone XS’s camera is identical to the iPhone X’s camera, spec-wise, it’s actually been improved by quite a bit. It has a much better image processing system, enabling Smart HDR, which helps the iPhone XS to simultaneously capture multiple photos at different exposures, and then combine them into one high-quality image. The iPhone XS has a 32-percent larger sensor for its wide-angle camera, meaning it can take in more light and capture detail and more contrast. Portrait mode is also better on the iPhone XS, as it now allows you to adjust background blur or bokeh after the photo is taken.

Rear Camera System: dual 12-megapixel wide-angle and telephoto cameras
Wide-angle: ƒ/1.8 aperture
Telephoto: ƒ/2.4 aperture
Zoom: 2x optical zoom; digital zoom up to 10x
Video: 4K video recording at 24 fps, 30 fps or 60 fps
Noteworthy Features: enhanced Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, Smart HDR

Front Camera System: 7-megapixel camera, ƒ/2.2 aperture
Noteworthy Features: Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, Animoji and Memoji

DxOMark Score: 105

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Google Pixel 3

What You Need to Know: The Pixel 3 has an even better camera system than last year’s Pixel 2, which was already most people’s pick for “best smartphone camera.” The new model has an upgraded sensor, a front dual-camera system (a first for a Pixel smartphone), and a heap of really cool features that leverage Google’s AI and machine learning skills, enabling the Pixel 3 to capture different types of high-quality photos and videos that other flagship smartphones can’t. In my experience, the most useful of these features are ‘Motion Auto Focus,’ which allows the camera to lock on to and keeps the subject in focus as they move around; ‘Fused Video Stabilization,’ which allows you to shoot super-smooth videos in up to 4K resolution, without needing a gimbal or tripod to eliminate handshake; and ‘Top Shot,’ which allows the camera to capture a burst of photos right before and after you click the shutter button, and and then lets you pick which one looks best. The other big feature is ‘Night Sight,’ which just rolled out to Pixel 3 owners via a software update and allows them to take really great low-light photos even if it’s practically pitch black.

Rear Camera System: 12.2-megapixel dual-pixel single lens, f/1.8 aperture
Zoom: Super Res Zoom (equivalent to 2x optical zoom)
Video: 4K video recording at 30fps
Noteworthy Features: Group Selfies, Photobooth

Front Camera System: dual 8-megapixel wide-angle and normal cameras
Wide-angle: f/2.2 aperture, 97° FoV
Normal: f/1.8 aperture, 75° FoV
Noteworthy Features: Top Shot, Night Sight, Super Res Zoom, Motion Auto Focus

DxOMark Score: N/A

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Samsung Galaxy Note 9

What You Need to Know: The Galaxy Note 9 is Samsung’s super-large smartphone and all-around productivity beast. On the camera side, it essentially has the same exact front and rear camera systems as the company’s flagship Galaxy S9, which is the best camera system that Samsung has ever put in a smartphone. It should be noted that the Galaxy Note 9 was released several months before the iPhone XS and Pixel 3 smartphones, but its camera systems are nearly identical specs-wise. It also comes with some Google-esque AI features, like flaw detection if the photo is blurry, poorly lit, or if somebody in the photo is blinking. If a flaw is detected, the Note 9 will ask you if you want to retake the photo.

Rear Camera System: dual 12-megapixel wide-angle and telephoto cameras
Wide-angle: ƒ/1.5 and ƒ/2.4 dual aperatures
Telephoto: ƒ/2.4
Zoom: optical zoom at 2x, digital zoom up to 10x
Video: 4K video recording at 30fps or 60fps
Noteworthy Features: Live Focus, Flaw Detection, Super Slow-mo, Dual capture, Hyperlapse

Front Camera System: 8-megapixel AF sensor
Normal: f/2.2 aperture
Noteworthy Features: selfie focus, wide selfie

DxOMark Score: 103

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iPhone XR

What You Need to Know: The iPhone XR is the cheaper alternative to Apple’s flagship iPhone XS, and the interesting thing about the iPhone XR is that its camera systems are nearly identical to the iPhone XS. In fact the front camera system is identical, so you can take selfies in Portrait mode and with Portrait Lighting, and you can create Animojis, Memojis, and unlock your phone with Face ID. The rear camera system is where it gets a bit tricky, as the iPhone XR has the same 12-megapixel wide-angle camera as the iPhone XS, but lacks a 12-megapixel telephoto lens. The result is that the iPhone XR has no optical zoom, and its digital zoom isn’t as powerful. It can still do Portrait Mode without the telephoto lens, thanks to its wide-angle camera and some software jiggery-pokery, and the results are almost identical.

Rear Camera System: 12-megapixel wide-angle camera
Wide-angle: ƒ/1.8 aperture
Zoom: digital zoom up to 5x
Video: 4K video recording at 24 fps, 30 fps or 60 fps
Noteworthy Features: enhanced Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, Smart HDR

Front Camera System: 7-megapixel camera, ƒ/2.2 aperture
Noteworthy Features: Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, Animoji and Memoji

DxOMark Score: N/A

Photo Comparisons

Portraits

Google Pixel
iPhone XR
iPhone XS
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: The Pixel 3’s Portrait mode did an excellent job capturing facial details, like my freckles and the light wrinkles beneath my eyes, as well as the details on my shirt. Where I think the Pixel 3’s photo really stands out is with its contrast. The lighting and the shadows behind me, as well as in my hair, look sharp and the difference is drastic.

iPhone XR: The details on my face and hair look softer and smoother than on the Pixel 3 and Galaxy Note 9, which I like, but the lighting and detail in my hair gets a little blurred.

iPhone XS: The Portrait Mode on the iPhone XS is essentially the same as the iPhone XR. The photo looks warm and inviting, although some of the details around my eyes, jaw and hair get lost or blown out a little.

Galaxy Note 9: Similar to the two iPhones before it, this portrait on the Note 9 looks really warm and soft. However most of the facial details – wrinkles, freckles, stubble – seem to have been washed over, and it makes me look substantially younger.

Our Winner: Pixel 3

Low Light

Google Pixel
iPhone XR
iPhone XS
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: This shot was taken without Google Nightsight (which is its new low-light mode that’s optimized for shoots when it’s really dark), and yet the amount of light and detail in this photo is impressive. It doesn’t look at all blown out and it’s definitely a brighter photo than any shot by its competitors.

iPhone XR: This photo is alright, but it’s definitely darker than the others. It’s even darker than the iPhone XS’s photo, which is a little unexpected considering that the iPhone XR should be able to capture more light since its using a wide-angle lens.

iPhone XS: The iPhone XS’s photo definitely isn’t as bright as the Pixel 3’s, and you don’t get the level of details in the curtain and floor, but I actually like the dark contrast and moodiness in the pot’s shadow as well as in the leaves.

Galaxy Note 9: This photo isn’t as bright as the iPhone XS and Pixel 3, but I actually like the green coloring of the leaves and the branches better than the other photos. The detail and contrast of the light/shadow on the pot really looks good, however, but the top of the top kind of gets lost in the darkness.

Our Winner: Pixel 3

Zoom

Google Pixel
iPhone XR
iPhone XS
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: The Pixel 3 has a feature called ‘Super Res Zoom’ that, via software, is able to factor in handshake and still take a very stable zoomed-in photo. This is why, even though it doesn’t have a telephoto lens, it’s still able to zoom in almost as close to the Empire State Building as the Note 9 or iPhone XS, but it looks really tinted and saturated and you don’t get quite the level of detail on the windows, needle and on the building itself.

iPhone XR: It should come to nobody’s surprise that the iPhone XR performed worst in this photo experiment. Standing on 26th street and looking at the Empire State Building (which is on 34th street) – that’s a long way for a smartphone without a telephoto camera.

iPhone XS: This photo is very similar to the Note 9. It looks like the Note 9 captured just a little more detail on the front of the building, while the iPhone XS’s photo looks sharper around the needle. The big differentiator is lighting; it looks a bit flat in this photo.

Galaxy Note 9: The lighting and brightness of the sun reflecting on the building really stand out here, and the lines and other details on the front of the building look sharp. If there’s an issue, it’s where the needle and sky meet – most of the detail gets a bit murky.

Our Winner: iPhone XS or Galaxy Note 9

HDR

Google Pixel
iPhone XR
iPhone XS
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: The Google Pixel 3 is all about contrast and accurate coloring. You can see in this photo (HDR+ turned on), that the shadows on the front and base of the Flat Iron Building are darker than in the other photos. The sky has a much deeper shade of blue, too.

iPhone XR: Apple’s Smart HDR really aims to create an evenly lit photograph, and this one achieves just that. The contrast from the sky to the building, as well as from the highlights to the shadows on the building, isn’t very harsh. The result is a really warm, nice photo with a lot of detail.

iPhone XS: This is virtually identical to the iPhone XR’s photo. It’s warm, with a ton of detail, and the color doesn’t feel oversaturated or unnatural.

Galaxy Note 9: The Note is able to capture a ton of detail but the coloring is noticeably different than the other photos. It’s bolder and the colors are really really vibrant. At first I liked this photo the best, but the most I zoom in and stare at it up close, I think the colors look a little too saturated for my liking.

Our Winner: iPhone XS and iPhone XR

Landscapes

Google Pixel
iPhone XS
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: This photo was taken with the Pixel 3’s normal camera without any of its special features – and it looks terrific. The levels of contrast and the colors in the sunset are brilliant. Plus, the Pixel 3 threw in a little lens flare for good measure.

iPhone XR: (Note, unfortunately, I didn’t have the iPhone XR at the time of shooting this photo, and since you can’t create two identical sunsets, I do not have a comparative photo. However, you should expect it to perform similarly to the iPhone XS.)

iPhone XS: This is definitely a better lit photograph than the Pixel 3’s, and you get a bunch more detail of the surrounding area as well as the water. However, the colors and contrast in the sunset and sky are lost.

Galaxy Note 9: The Note 9 was the big loser in this situational competition. Although the colors are more vibrant than the iPhone XS’s photo, it just looks a little saturated and artificial.

Our Winner: Pixel 3

Color

iPhone XS
iPhone XR
Google Pixel
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: The boldness of the mustard cab, blue police cars, and red fire trucks makes the image pop more than other photos. I also really like the deep shadows in this photo, which gives a depth to the shelves that other photos in this comparison lack.

iPhone XR: Even though this photo was taken in the same place as the others, it obviously feels further away and it’s a little difficult to compare like for like color. That said, the colors do look bold, but I think the lack of contrast takes away from them a little.

iPhone XS: Compared to the Pixel 3 and Galaxy Note 9, the colors in this photo feel a bit muted. Again, I think part of it is that the flat highlights and shadows, which Smart HDR is known for, but the colors don’t feel quite as vibrant here.

Galaxy Note 9: You don’t quite as bold and saturated colors as the photo taken by Pixel 3, but I still like this photo mainly because of the depth in the shelves. This would be a pick for runner-up.

Our Winner: Pixel 3

Selfies

Google Pixel
iPhone XR
iPhone XS
Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 3: The Pixel 3 handles the transition from my hair to the background blur the best, as you can see individual strands; you don’t really get that “washed out,” or at least you don’t get it as bad as the other photos. Additionally, the skin looks like it has more texture. You can see things like stubble and my eyebrow hairs well.

iPhone XR: Some of the detail in the tips of my hair, both at the top of my head and below my ears, gets a bit washed out here. The lighting looks decent, if a bit flat.

iPhone XS: This is basically identical to the portrait shot taken on the iPhone XR – they have the same camera system – so you’re getting the same highlights and shadows, as well as the issues with blur.

Galaxy Note 9: This is probably the least flattering photo. The lighting doesn’t look great and a lot the detail is lost in the face. I’d say this is the worst of the four.

Our Winner: Pixel 3.

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