What is the best phone camera in 2019?
To cut to our quick conclusions, we found the Google Pixel 4 to be our recommended all-rounder of the five phones, our pick for low-light photography and thus the best phone camera, according to our pro photographer. None of these phones came out top in all areas, but Google’s latest does reach some impressive heights.
However, our iPhone 11 Pro testing was the most striking. It was arguably the weakest in controlled conditions, but tends to produce consistently eyeball-pleasing results out on the street. It’s the best phone camera for street photography.
Google Pixel 4
The Pixel 4 is quicker than its phone camera rivals, and produced the best results in our low-light studio test. Here we focused on the piece of rope, which could easily look soft or “stressed”.
The iPhone’s rope is relatively noisy, heavy on contrast but not on detail. Samsung’s and Huawei’s look clean but soft. OnePlus’s looks painted, the least realistic of the bunch, and turns the rhubarb stack neon. But the Pixel’s low-light image is almost perfect.
We didn’t even touch on the Pixel 4’s new Astrophotography mode in this test either. The mode engages automatically in extreme low light, and can be used to take ‘starry sky’ images when the phone is kept perfectly still. It is proof of quite how advanced Google’s computational photography algorithms are, able to pick out details our eyes can’t see with a 7.06mm sensor.
Outdoors, the Pixel 4 produced natural images with scope for further editing and no weird colour casts. The Pixel 4’s dog photos were not quite as punchy as the iPhone’s, but were not remotely as willowy as the Huawei’s either.
The Pixel 4 has a few other benefits, too. Like the Pixel 3 it has “zero shutter lag” shooting, because it starts capturing frames before you press the shutter button. Start challenging the camera and you realise this is a bit of a trick: the actual frame of our dog portraits was that of a moment significantly after the press. But for casual everyday shooting it offers an instant feel.
Google also has the most intuitive subject tracking going. Simply select your focus point and the phone holds the lock as you move the Pixel 4.
Given the next-level smarts put into this camera, the one big failing is a surprise. The Pixel 4’s subject cut-out is bad, the worst here by some margin. This is used in the background blur portrait mode, which can deliver some of the most striking images from a phone. Feed the Pixel 4’s mode a complicated subject and the Pixel separates it with all the finesse of a bored 4-year-old given crayons and a colouring-in book at Pizza Hut.
The iPhone 11 Pro’s subject separation blur is poor, too. Parts of the image that should be blurred aren’t, and too often there’s a clear border around the blurring perimeter. It looks a bit naff, as pretty as the actual blurring may be.
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
iPhones are usually considered to be less processing-heavy than other phones, in part because they don’t tend to use egregious over-sharpening, the simplest kind of processing to identify. However, the iPhone 11 Pro guides the contrast and colour of its images with a heavier hand than any of the other Androids.
This isn’t the kind of processing that leaves objects with a white crust of sharpening, or textures with a wholly unrealistic watercolour-like effect, though. iPhone 11 Pro images look stylised, punchy and “ready to post”. But Apple makes certain choices for you, and it blocks off others, if you’re the kind of photographer who edits images after taking them. Our iPhone studio shots also had an unwanted greenish wash to them.
Many people don’t want to edit their shots, though, and even more won’t realise the extent to which an image can be salvaged or improved by editing, using phone apps let alone Photoshop. And an iPhone avoids you trashing photos because they don’t look good at first glance.
Shooting our dog model against a brick wall demonstrated this most clearly. The Androids’ images all look slightly anaemic next to the iPhone’s. It brought out the orange-auburn patches of the little chap’s markings, and kept the dark areas looking dark more successfully than any other. The result is a much richer looking image that appears to have greater depth, warmth and clarity.
You can bring this back to the other phones’ images in the edit, but with an iPhone you don’t have to. And that’s important.
Huawei Mate 30 Pro
The highly regarded Huawei Mate 30 Pro suffered from this anaemia effect the most. Several of our doggie images look severely undersaturated. The phone seems to favour bringing out fur texture rather than prioritising the wider appearance of the image.
Huawei even has a “dog” scene mode, which activates when the Mate 30 Pro’s Master AI mode is turned on, but some of the choices made here seem short sighted when you review the results.
The phone did perform well in other areas. Huawei has been accused of over processing images countless times over the years, but it handles skin tones well.
It also performed well in the studio test, particularly with standard lighting (rather than low light). We deliberately used natural light rather than the kind of flood and flash stand mounts a professional shoot might use, to bring the context closer to real-world conditions.
The Huawei Mate 30 Pro was among the best at bringing out the detail in our subject, an artfully stacked pile of rhubarb sticks. “If you look at the detail in the rhubarb, it’s more crisp, there’s more detail in the colours here,” says Scheinberg. “It retains information on the highlights and lowlights so if you want to then edit with the Huawei, you could do more. This is a really great image to edit yourself.”
Results from the phone’s zoom were also peerless. Many phones with zooms and ultra-wides use relatively remedial hardware in their secondary cameras, but all three of the Huawei Mate 30’s main rear cameras (the fourth ToF one is not a standard photography camera) are great.
This is what makes the Huawei Mate 30 Pro such a fun travel camera. A longer zoom and quality wide open up your composition options, even if there is often a slight difference in tone between the fields of view. And that typifies what Huawei hasn’t quite nailed yet: consistency.
2019 also sees Huawei lose the lead that made it our top choice last year, in low-light performance. Huawei established the current standard for night-time phone photography in early 2018 with the P20 Pro. This phone introduced a mode that mimics long exposure photography using clever processing and multiple exposures. The final image is a composite of many frames.
The Mate 30 Pro is still among the best in the field, but the Pixel 4 is better.
Samsung Galaxy S10
This is where our two also-rans, the OnePlus 7T Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10, gain back some cred. That’s right, even the Galaxy S10 didn’t stand out hugely in this crowd.
We found the same last year when, again, we travelled around London with a pro photographer and a not-so-small fortune’s worth of phones. Samsung’s top phones have excellent cameras that do not perform badly in any situation, but they don’t push for progress at the extremes in the same way as Huawei’s or Google’s.
The Samsung Galaxy S10’s background blur subject isolation was among the most convincing, but our studio shots revealed a few weaknesses. There’s the tell-tale object outlining that comes with sharpening, and a push for punchy contrast and brightness left the rope with small areas of overexposure.
Its low-light image was very good with, bizarrely enough, a less processed look than its better-lit counterpart. The Samsung Galaxy S10 probably deserves a podium place in this test, but it’s the best we’re looking for today.
OnePlus 7T Pro
You might expect a little more from Samsung, widely considered the number one name in Android phones, but it’s much easier to spin a positive story out of the OnePlus 7T Pro’s performance.
This is the most affordable large-screen phone here, from the smallest company by quite some margin. And OnePlus gets the “most improved” award, having made major improvements to its camera performance in the last 18 months.
Yes, it slightly overexposed its main studio shot, and its low-light image was painterly and neon-tinged. But its images out in the real world were charming.
The OnePlus 7T Pro dog images have a pleasant warmth and plenty of detail without the on-rails sense of the iPhone 11 Pro.
OnePlus also has just about the most realistic-looking background blur going. The feature was revised in the 7-series phones for that very purpose. We disturbed a young Londoner’s lunch to shoot a portrait of him against a tree, and the progressive blur of its portraits could convince you the shot was taken with a true DSLR-style wide-aperture lens.