Flagship phones have got to the point where raw performance doesn't really need to get much better, and so they are differentiated by their design, battery life, unique features and photography capabilities. We're focusing on the latter here, given that for many people a smartphone now replaces a physical camera. Our aim: to discover what is the very best phone camera money can buy, for photos, videos and even selfies.
We’ve tested and compared four phones with the best cameras currently available: iPhone X, Galaxy S9 Plus, Google Pixel 2 XL and the Huawei P20 Pro. Over time we'll add to this round-up with every new flagship phone that comes on to the market.
How we test phone cameras
Rather than using controlled conditions and attempting to compare the cameras scientifically, we took photos and videos just as anyone would. That means using the default settings out of the box and taking pictures hand-held, not with a tripod.
We’ve kept the comparisons to the core functions: photos with the main camera (including portrait modes with blurred backgrounds), selfies and videos. Although you won’t find side-by-side comparisons, we also tested out other modes offered including slo-mo and took photos using each phone’s second camera, where possible.
The experience of taking photos is almost as important as the results, so the stock camera app is a key factor in our reviews as this can make the difference between a phone that’s a joy or a pain to use as a camera.
Our main aim is to give you a very good idea of how each phone performs in the real world, let you see examples of the photos and videos it takes and be able to decide for yourself – bearing in mind your own priorities – which phone you should buy.
It’s worth noting that not everyone agrees on the definition of ‘best’. Some prefer processed images which are sharpened and have saturated colours, while others prefer a more natural look. Plus, the screen on which you view the photos and videos has an influence too.
We judged everything not on each phone’s own screen but on a calibrated Philips Brilliance 272P. This is a 27in 4K display which allowed us to see all the detail in UHD video. Remember that your own display may have a lower resolution, and may not produce accurate colours.
Phone camera specifications
Apple iPhone X
12Mp + 12Mp (2x zoom)
4K at 60fps, stabilised
Google Pixel 2 XL
4K at 30fps, stabilised
Huawei P20 Pro
40Mp, 20Mp (mono), 8Mp (3x zoom)
4K at 30fps, not stabilised
Six-second long exposure, light painting, 960fps slo-mo
Samsung Galaxy S9+
12Mp + 12Mp (2x zoom)
4K at 60fps, stabilised
What is the best camera phone?
Best overall camera phone: Huawei P20 Pro
Although we've picked the P20 Pro as our winner, the truth is there are no bad cameras in this group test. In our opinion the Huawei P20 Pro is the best all-rounder.
This is despite its overzealous processing and crazy greens, which you can turn off if you don’t like the effects. Ultimately, the P20 Pro has the best zoom of any phone you can currently buy and also does a brilliant job with its night mode that produces noticeably better photos than its rivals.
Its other main weakness is that only 1080p video at 30 frames per second is stabilised. That makes the other modes – including 4K - essentially useless. If you prefer to record at 60 frames per second, the iPhone X or Galaxy S9 Plus are better choices.
It’s hard to separate the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus: both offer very good photos and videos. The S9 Plus just edges the iPhone thanks to marginally better photos from the 2x telephoto camera and its performance in low light. However, if you must have an iPhone, then it has the best cameras from Apple so far.
The Google Pixel 2, including the XL, is still an excellent choice if you want sharp photos with natural-looking colours, but the lack of a telephoto camera could be a deal-breaker for some.
Best Camera Phone Reviews
1. Huawei P20 Pro
Huawei has quickly built a reputation for great phones, but thus far its Leica-branded cameras haven’t been too impressive. That all changes with the P20 Pro. There’s still too much emphasis on photos – video quality lags behind rivals – but if your priority is taking great photos day and night, the P20 Pro is the phone to buy.
It’s the first phone to have three rear cameras, a 40Mp main camera, an 8Mp telephoto camera (3x zoom) and a 20Mp monochrome camera. Along with what Huawei calls the NPU – a Neural Processing Unit – and the camera app itself, you can point and shoot and get remarkable images from the P20 Pro.
That’s because it chooses the mode automatically, then adjusts settings within that mode to best suit the scene in front of the camera. For example, point it at a person and if you’re close enough, it’ll switch to Portrait mode and blur the background.
The same sort of thing happens with scenery, food, pets and on the beach. There are even presets for ‘blue skies’, ‘greenery’ and ‘flowers’. If you dislike that the greenery mode makes grass and trees look too bright and unnatural (which it does), just tap the ‘x’ when the scene tag pops up: do it enough and the phone will learn you don’t want to use that mode.
If you’re used to an iPhone, the Apple-like camera app will be very familiar. It even offers moving photos and attempts to emulate Apple’s Portrait Lighting without success.
One of two highlights is the night mode. Other phones claim to have night modes, but Huawei’s is the first that’s able to keep the shutter open for six seconds and deliver a sharp photo. Usually you’d need a rock-solid tripod for that, but some clever processing makes it possible to do this even if you have shaky hands.
The other stand-out feature is the 5x hybrid zoom. The 3x zoom lens is used in tandem with the 40Mp camera to produce sharp telephoto shots with good detail levels: far better than you could gain from digital zoom on other phones.
What about quality? By default, photos have a very processed look. This divides opinion: some people really like the intense sharpening and eye-popping colours. Others hate it and think it ruins the pictures.
We think that, for the majority of the time, the P20 Pro’s photos are excellent. They offer great detail, biting sharpness and great dynamic range. They’re also instantly ready to share on social media without editing.
By default photos are 10Mp, not 40Mp. The reason for this is because three-quarters of the pixels are thrown away. This ‘pixel-binning’ isn’t a new technique but it has the benefit of creating a sharper photo. If you force the P20 Pro to capture at 40Mp, you’ll notice the image is much softer, even if there’s more detail when you zoom right in.
Colours are also much more natural and contrast is set to a more sensible level, too.
Video is very good, as long as you’re happy to use the default mode – 1080p at 30fps. It offers nicely stabilised footage with good focus, very little noise and good stereo sound. Naturally, you get much more detail in the 4K mode, but all the stabilisation is disabled which makes it very shaky, even if you stand still. It’s also disappointing that there’s no stabilisation for 60fps video, and no option to record at 60 frames per second in 4K at all.
Unlike the Galaxy S9+’s super slo-mo, Huawei’s is all manual, so it’s down to you to tap the record button at exactly the right moment, and it’s easy to miss the fraction of a second you wanted.
Still, there’s a lot to like: several focusing systems are used to ensure fast and accurate focus in all light conditions, and there’s even predictive focus using “AI” that’s helpful if you’re trying to photograph a flower that’s being blown around by the wind.
Also, the P20 Pro’s Portrait mode delivers some of the best blurred backgrounds of any phone camera, accurately determining what is the subject and what isn’t.
Selfie lovers will be drawn in by the 24Mp front camera. However, although it does take good photos, the Pixel 2 XL’s 8Mp camera takes much better-looking selfies. But in dim light, the P20 Pro again comes into its own, delivering surprisingly sharp selfies. As you can see below, it applies some processing in the portrait mode (right) which makes skin tones look unnatural.
The P20 Pro is – in our opinion – the best choice for most people. It’s versatile thanks to its 3x and 5x zoom modes, and lets you take sharp photos even in the dimmest conditions.
Read our full P20 Pro review
2. Apple iPhone X
The iPhone X is a great phone, but the rear cameras aren’t the centre of attention. The dual-camera setup is little changed from the iPhone 7 Plus: you get two 12Mp sensors and a 2x zoom lens on one of them.
A significant upgrade is that both cameras now have optical stabilisation, and video can be recorded at 4K at 60 frames per second – with stabilisation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the iPhone 8 Plus has the same setup: it doesn’t. The telephoto lens on the X has a wider f/2.4 aperture and OIS.
Another new feature is Portrait Lighting which offers different modes to simulate studio lighting. It’s fun to play with and you can decide which style you want after taking the photo.
Slo-mo is recorded at up to 240fps in 1080p, but there’s no 960fps option as you get with some rivals.
Around the front is a 7Mp selfie camera but although this seems the same as on previous iPhones, the TrueDepth camera which is used for unlocking is also used to enable portrait mode, and Portrait Lighting, for selfies.
So although the iPhone X doesn’t win any top trumps battle, it is still an excellent choice if you want great photos and video.
In typical Apple fashion, settings are kept to a minimum which makes the camera app very easy to use. There are seven modes and only Portrait offers any additional options: the five Portrait Lighting styles.
The lack of settings only backfires in low light when it is awkward to change from a 60 frames per second video mode to 30 frames per second: it’s bewildering that this doesn’t switch automatically.
There’s no “AI” scene recognition, or at least Apple doesn’t shout about it. What the iPhone X does is produce solid, dependable quality so you get great photos almost every time.
Focus, white balance and exposure are always good, with good dynamic range. HDR is used automatically when needed: three photos are blended together without you noticing. If you head to the Settings app you’ll find an option in the Camera section to disable auto HDR and opt to keep the ‘normal’ photo as well as the HDR version.
Where the iPhone X beats the iPhone 8 Plus is in zoom photos, with better detail and better portrait photos. Simply having a 2x camera means it also beats the Pixel 2. However, it can’t compete with the Huawei P20 Pro which delivers much better telephoto shots.
In low light, the iPhone is roughly on a par with the Pixel 2 and both fall behind the quality of the S9 Plus. Nothing can touch the P20 Pro, though. Just remember that it’s tough taking photos in low light when things are moving around: longer shutter speeds blur any moving object, which is why the P20 Pro’s night mode is so impressive, but it still falters if people (or animals) don’t stay still.
If you like to get creative, the iPhone X’s Portrait Lighting effects are impressive. Huawei’s equivalent effects are poor by comparison, but the iPhone X can’t match the P20 Pro’s awesome long-exposure mode for low light photo or its flash performance for that matter.
Here's a comparison of a normal and portrait photo taken with the rear cameras:
Video enthusiasts will prefer the iPhone X, though. Not only does it max out at 4K at 60fps, but it also offers ‘Cinematic Stabilisation’ in all video modes. It’s less effective at 4K, of course, because it doesn’t crop the image, just as with the Galaxy S9 Plus. But along with good stereo sound recording, the iPhone is a superb choice if you like to use your phone to shoot and edit home videos.
For selfies, the 7Mp camera doesn’t sound too impressive, but the results speak for themselves. As well as having great detail levels and natural skin tones, the option of a portrait mode which gives realistic background blur, plus the same studio lighting effects, makes the iPhone X a compelling choice for those who like to take photos of themselves.
Overall, the iPhone X has the best cameras of any iPhone. And it should given its high price. It’s a superb all-rounder, with no major weakness. It doesn’t tick every box for features, but if you’d rather have an iPhone than Android, it doesn’t disappoint.
Read our full iPhone X review
3. Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus
The Galaxy S9 is interesting because its main camera has a variable aperture. This has been done before only once or twice on a phone camera but is standard on compact cameras and DSLRs and certainly isn’t new technology.
The iris can switch between only two apertures: f/1.5 (bigger) and f/2.4 (smaller). However, that’s still useful as it can open up to let in more light at night, and close up in bright light to offer sharper photos.
In terms of specs, the S9 Plus is very similar to the iPhone X with a pair of 12Mp cameras, one with a 2x zoom and both with optical stabilisation. However, Samsung has added a 960fps slo-mo option in addition to 240fps at 1080p, something you won’t find on the iPhone.
For normal video, you get the same options as the iPhone, which means 4K video at 24, 30 or 60fps. Pick the latter and you’re limited to five minutes, but it’s unwise to even shoot for that long as the file sizes become unmanageable, despite the fact it records in the same HEVC format as the iPhone.
You’ll find advanced controls in Samsung’s camera app, much like Huawei’s. As well as being able to adjust ISO and shutter speed you can choose the aperture manually (including for video). Some will love this, but for the most part you want to point and shoot and let the phone worry about getting the settings right.
The app itself is our least favourite, but it’s easy to get used to its oddities. Overall, there are too many icons on screen and too many modes and options. The main list at the top picks out ‘FOOD’ alongside AUTO, PANORAMA and AR EMOJI. Apart from SUPER SLO-MO there’s no video mode: you have to press the button with the red dot, as opposed to the white circle, to start recording a video.
And although the motion detection window is useful when shooting at 960fps, it isn’t perfect. It will let you record several slo-mo clips within one video, but it won’t necessarily choose the moments you would. You can trigger it manually, but this is easier said than done.
Portrait mode is called ‘Live Focus’ and works on both the front and back cameras. It’s most effective on the rear, though, as the two cameras allow for much better depth detection. You can adjust the amount of blur (and, separately, beautification) to suit. Usefully, you can adjust the blurriness after the fact, and also toggle between the close-up and wide-angle versions of the shot.
It also does a good job for selfies:
Video quality is on a par with the iPhone X, so it’s very good. 1080p footage is nicely stabilised, but much softer than the sharp and detailed (but wobblier) 4K video. The stereo audio also sounds good.
The Hyperlapse video mode is fun to use, but any phone can shoot hyperlapse – including the iPhone. Hyperlapse is simply time-lapse video shot while moving around.
When it comes to photos, the S9 Plus does an excellent job for the most part. You won’t notice the effect of the variable aperture, as it’ll mainly stick to f/2.4 in daylight. Colours and contrast are great, but it does mess with skin tones. Be sure to put the beauty slider to its ‘0’ position to disable this effect (if you don’t like it).
Here's a cropped portion from a photo taken using the 2x telephoto lens:
In low light, the S9 Plus outperforms the iPhone X. Its photos have more detail and less noise, and it also keeps highlights under control where the iPhone suffers from flare. The P20 Pro remains the best option for shooting in low-light, however.
Read our full Galaxy S9 Plus review
4. Google Pixel 2 XL
The original Pixel had amazing cameras, and the Pixel 2 XL’s are even better. Don’t dismiss it just because it lacks dual cameras, as this phone is capable of very impressive photos and videos.
It’s even capable of blurring the background of portrait photos without the assistance of a second camera for depth sensing, and this works on the front camera too. Since the cameras are the same on the smaller Pixel 2, this review applies to both phones.
Software has always been Google’s strength and so although the hardware – the camera sensors and lenses – is nothing out of the ordinary, the Pixel 2’s photos are extraordinary. The main reason for this is the HDR+ mode which is enabled by default on the Pixel 2.
Most phones take three photos and blend them together. Not the Pixel 2. It takes 10 images, chops them up and layers pieces on top of each other to create photos with great dynamic range: lots of detail in both shadows and highlights.
What this means is that just about every photo you take on the Pixel 2 – or XL – looks stunning with lots of sharp detail, great colours and hardly any noise. Amazingly, this phone offers close to the dynamic range of a DSLR.
Google didn’t shout about its custom designed Visual Core processor at the phone’s launch, and only turned it on recently (in February 2018). It means you now get HDR+ when you take photos in other apps such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, not just in the default camera app.
Strangely enough, the stock camera app doesn’t actually use the processor as Google says it isn’t needed. And the results back this up: there’s no delay when you take back to back photos on the phone, unlike the original Pixel.
The problem with the Pixel is that it doesn’t have a telephoto lens. Again, Google attempts to get around this with software. Its RAISR system detects patterns and uses this to intelligently create new pixels to make the image larger (and therefore simulate a zoom lens).
It works well in some photos – of people, mainly – but it gets confused with some textures such as leaves on trees or bushes in the background. And, as you’d expect, results aren’t as good as you’ll get from the P20 Pro with its 3x zoom camera.
Photos taken in low light are very good, but again, the P20 Pro outclasses it with its handheld night mode and ability to get great results when there’s almost no light at all.
Video is just as impressive as still images. Optical stabilisation is used with software to deliver really smooth footage, and it looks great. You’re limited to 30 frames per second at 4K, but this won’t be problem for many people. The main let-down here is audio: it’s mono and simply not as good quality as you get from the Galaxy S9+ or iPhone X.
Slo-mo is a bit behind the times, with options of 120fps at 1080p or 240fps in 720p.
The Pixel 2 XL takes great portraits, and can blur the background despite having just one rear camera.
And selfies are also impressive:
Another feature added after the Pixel 2’s launch was AR stickers. You might consider them a gimmick, but being able to add 3D characters or text into a photo or video is a unique ability that really works well.
Better still, Google gives Pixel 2 owners unlimited cloud storage for as many original-quality photos and videos as they like until January 2021.
The experience of taking photos and videos on the Pixel 2 is good. We’ve already mentioned how fast it is, but the camera app’s layout is clean and uncluttered.
A few key controls are placed along the top, though it’s a shame that Portrait mode is hidden in the main menu. There’s no ‘pro’ mode with options such as shutter speed and white balance, but on the whole you don’t need them as the Pixel 2’s automatic modes do a fantastic job.
We’re still fans of the Pixel 2’s cameras and if you’re not too bothered about having a telephoto lens, super slo-mo or taking photos in near-darkness, then you’ll be very happy with them too.
Read our full Google Pixel 2 XL review