More so than ever before, the quality of your smartphone camera has become a real sticking point for many buyers. A few years ago people were willing to put up with slow focus time and muddy images purely because their phone having a camera was a convenience rather than an expected necessity. Today, the situation is rather different; phones have cameras which are rivalling the kind of quality you’d normally associate with a DSLR, and thanks to rapidly-improving AI tricks they can produce stunning ‘bokeh’ effects which look just like the real thing.
iPhone XR vs. Google Pixel 3 vs. Samsung Galaxy S9+ Camera Test Comparison
But which phone is best if you want to get the finest possible shots from a smartphone? We decided to test three of 2018’s flagship devices to see which comes out on top: the recently-released iPhone XR, the Google Pixel 3 and the Samsung Galaxy S9+. We took a series of shots using all three phones (auto mode with no tinkering) to see how each one performs. The results are below.
This bookshelf was our first subject. Both the Pixel 3 and iPhone XR took really colourful snaps – check out the brightness of the yellows – while the Galaxy S9+ looked ever-so-slightly washed-out in comparison. The red colours in the XR shot look a little muted, however.
Next up was a pair of trees. Interestingly, both the S9+ and XR produced brighter images in this shot, with the Pixel 3 making the tree on the left appear a lot darker. The sky is also a lighter hue in the photos taken by Apple and Samsung’s devices, while we detect a little more detail on the leaves of the right-hand tree in the Pixel 3 shot. We’d also argue that the sky has more range in terms of colour on Google’s phone.
There’s no a massive amount of difference between the three phones with this close-up shot of a flower. If pushed, we’d have to say that the XR produces the best snap – check out the more pronounced colour gradiant between the pink and the white on the petals.
This dark, indoor shot shows how much effort Samsung and Google have put into improving low-light photography on their phones. The S9+’s variable aperture means that more light enters the sensor and we get a brighter snap – albeit one which loses a bit of fine detail. The Pixel 3 isn’t quite as bright but boasts sharp detail – impressive stuff when you consider this was taken in very dark conditions. The XR comes in last place here; the image is fuzzy and very dark.
Now for a portrait-mode selfie. All three phones cope well as far as edge detection is concerned; remember, the S9+ is the only device in this shoot-out which comes with a secondary snapper for depth information – both the Pixel 3 and XR are using software to create the same effect. The Pixel 3 and S9+ snaps are of similar quality, while the iPhone snap appears to feature the controversial ‘beauty’ effect – notice how the skin is smoothed and the cheeks are ever-so-slightly rosy? You may prefer this; to be honest, it does result in a more appealing image. We also like the way in which the XR shot gradually fades out of focus over the hairline.
This close shot of some flowers comes out well on all three phones. The Pixel 3 ‘sees’ the blue flowers in a slightly darker shade, but that’s about it.
This long-shot is interesting. The Pixel 3 image is darker, but arguably has a lot more detail. Both the S9+ and XR images are ‘softer’ with lighter colours. Compare the trunk of the tree on the left in the Samsung and Apple shots with the Pixel 3 one – it looks a lot darker in Google’s image.
As expected, it’s a close call. All three of these phones are engineered to take amazing shots, but the way in which they go about that is slightly different in each case. Google uses AI to improve its images and boost low-light snaps, whereas Samsung has come up with a mechanical solution – a variable aperture – to achieve better images in darkened environments. Based on our findings, Google’s approach is the superior one.
However, there were points during our test where it became clear that the Pixel 3 was producing much darker and less colourful images than its rivals – not in every situation, it should be noted, but it was apparent. This was, in all honesty, a more accurate representation of the real-world environment (all of these outdoor snaps were taken on a rather dull and overcast day) but the fact that both the iPhone and Galaxy S9+ could pick out more colour suggests that they’re the ones to go for if you like punchy images with plenty of ‘zing’.
It’s important to point out that the Galaxy S9+ has a second telephoto camera which we didn’t test here – largely because the Pixel 3 and XR lack this feature. This is helpful for close-up shots, and it’s worth noting that the XR’s bigger brother, the XS, has one of these also. Google opts for a digital zoom solution which is impressive, but not quite as good.
So which should you go for? To be brutally honest, it’s hard to really say; we wouldn’t want to recommend a single one of these phones purely based on its camera, as there are a lot more things to consider.
They’re all excellent and all have strengths and weaknesses; the Pixel 3 is amazing in low light (and will get even better once Google turns on its enhanced night mode shooting feature) but occasionally took rather dull images during our test. The XR struggles in low light but is capable of producing some really colourful shots. The S9+ is somewhere in the middle; it likes to make each image bright and breezy and can take good images in the dark, but those pictures are often subject to poor detail.
Our advice? Have a read of our reviews of each phone and see what you make of the full package, and if you can’t choose between them, have a look at the images above and pick the phone which produces the ones you like the most.